Antichamber for PC Might be My Next Portal

I started playing Antichamber last night with a friend. It’s quite possibly the most mind-expanding experience I’ve had since I played Portal for the first time.

Whilst infuriating and difficult at times, the game itself isn’t the challenge presented. The mind of the player is the challenge; your brain must be wired a certain way in order to complete the game.

Absolutely amazing. I can’t wait to finish it.

From its Steam Store page:

Antichamber is a mind-bending psychological exploration game where nothing can be taken for granted. Discover an Escher-like world where hallways wrap around upon each other, spaces reconfigure themselves, and accomplishing the impossible may just be the only way forward.

Several years in the making, Antichamber received over 25 awards and honors throughout its development, in major competitions including the Independent Games Festival, the PAX10, IndieCade and Make Something Unreal.

This quote from Rock, Paper, Shotgun nails it:

“Even as the developer told me what the game was doing to mess with my brain while I was playing it, it still succeeded in messing with my brain.”

Signs a New Apple Product Will Be Successful

What initial signs should we look for in a new Apple product to determine its success? Here are my thoughts.

The new product:

  • Is risky
  • Has very strong design decisions
  • Is very opinionated
  • Feels new and uncertain
  • Is “obvious in hindsight”
  • Lacks features traditionally accepted as necessary

Compare these with your initial impressions when first discovering the iPad or iPhone. Let’s not be so closed-minded. Instant dismissal of new technologies, especially those from Apple, tend to… backfire.

How to Browse Flash Free on OS X

A good way to tell if someone is a nerd is to check how many tabs are currently open on their main computer. If the number is greater than 10, there’s a good chance you’re looking at a nerd’s machine. Using this measurement, I certainly fall into this exclusive camp. Whilst being a nerd is often extremely beneficial, it comes with some drawbacks. One of these is the performance losses when more than a few tabs are open in Safari on OS X. I’ve suffered with this problem for months and have recently found a few simple steps to take to avoid it altogether. The biggest culprit is Flash.

It has become normal for me to have upwards of 20 tabs open at a time on my Mac. Doing this would very often bring the entire machine to its knees, forcing me to quit Safari and re-launch, loading each tab again. Over time, this procedure became tedious and I have been looking for a simple solution to stop my browser getting bogged down when used heavily. I’ve found an answer.

The first step is to completely uninstall Flash from the system. I performed a search for “flash” using Alfred, but I’m sure a Spotlight search in OS X would locate the uninstaller, too. Ensure Flash is completely uninstalled before proceeding with the next step.

Secondly, to avoid issues when playing YouTube videos, install the Safari extension YouTube5. This replaces Vimeo, YouTube and Facebook video players with a much nicer alternative. It also makes YouTube videos play without hitch - when Flash isn’t installed, YouTube will often refuse to play a video even though it’s technically possible. YouTube5 solves this problem for me.

The last step to enjoying a more responsive browser even whilst under heavy load is to install this Open in Chrome Safari Extension. As it sounds, this Safari extension makes it extremely simple to open pages Chrome, from Safari. Google’s browser contains Flash within it — so if you’re viewing a page which requires Flash (which you’ve uninstalled), you’re now just a button press away from viewing it with no issues. This is the “cheat” step for running a Mac without Flash installed.

I also use Open in Chrome to fix some quirky behaviour with YouTube5. Occasionally an embedded YouTube video will disappear from a page when the YouTube5 player tries to load. If this happens, all I need to do is press the button in my Safari toolbar and I’m viewing the page in Chrome straight away.


It’s worth noting that installing the Safari extension for Open in Chrome isn’t enough — there’s also a small “helper” application which must be running. Drag the included app to your Applications folder, then launch System Preferences > Users & Groups, navigate to Login Items and ensure the helper app is set to run automatically when you login. Once that’s been set, you will want to launch the app so it’s running straight away.

When you next reboot, the helper app will automatically run and you’ll be good to go.

I am yet to find a problem with this setup. The Safari extensions do not seem to impact performance of the browser and running Chrome occasionally is a small price to pay for faster browsing most of the time.

Review: 4 Unbranded Bean Bags for Writing Use

I find myself always keen to find better ways to write. Whether it’s using different apps or working in a completely different location, chances are I’ve tried it, or thought about trying it.

After recently reading Matt Gemmell’s excellent article about writing tools, I decided I should heed his advice and pick up a bean bag to help me think whilst writing. This is how Matt uses his:

I repeatedly throw it up at the ceiling and catch it, and it’s strangely therapeutic. I can often resolve a narrative, structural or inspiration issue within a few minutes, using this. It’s my first port of call when I freeze up during writing, and I use it to recharge my brain during an editing session.

I don’t write in quite the same way Matt seems to: my approach is much more “spew out as many words as possible for half an hour, then edit and refine until everything makes sense”. The bean bag comes in handy primarily whilst refining.

Unfortunately, I had to buy a set of four bean bags, rather than just one. As I’d predicted before the bags arrived, my go-to writing bean bag is the blue one. My second favourite colour bag is red. I find the green and yellow to look reasonably unpleasant: I don’t really want them sitting on my desk.

Throwing a bean bag up to just below the ceiling is an extremely fun game to play, which takes my mind off what I’m currently writing about. After a minute or so playing like this, I often find myself having “eureka!” moments, whereby I realise exactly which word I was looking for. This is why I bought them; they delivered what I was expecting. Your mileage may vary.

The bean bags fit in my hand well and have surprisingly similar proportions to an iPhone 5: if you want a size guide, the bean bags are approximately 10cm wide by 15.5cm long. The iPhone 5 is about 5.75cm wide and 12.5cm long. The smell of the bean bags wasn’t pleasant initially, but I’ve had my blue bag out in the open for less than a week so far and the smell is starting to fade. I imagine any odd, artificial smells will completely disappear within a month.

The texture of the beans is firmer than I expected. To give a rough impression of what each bean feels like, imagine a dodecahedron made from tough plastic, about a quarter the size of a pea. The beans are not round; when squeezed tightly and played with in my fingers, “clicks” can be heard as the beans pop past each other. When talking about the entire bag though, the individual texture of one bean becomes largely irrelevant. Together the bag feels about half-full of beans, giving it a pleasant weight and texture. Squeezing the bag as tightly as possible doesn’t result in an uncomfortable feeling and I’m not the slightest bit worried about the bag splitting.

My favourite, the blue bean bag.

Overall, even though I’m primarily using just one of the packaged four bean bags, I’m happy having paid £5.83 including delivery. I’m pleased about the purchase and I recommend these specific bean bags if you’re looking for writing help. They’ll also be fine for more traditional bean bag use, I’m sure.


I don’t know where to begin with this article given to us by ZDNet writer James Kendrick entitled “ThinkPad Tablet 2: Inking in Windows 8”. Armed with a Lenovo tablet PC (inspiringly named Tablet 2) and a video camera, Kendrick takes to YouTube to demonstrate the capabilities of the new tablet and, presumably, “inking”. (I have no idea what “inking” is, but surmise it’s something to do with drawing on a tablet with my fingers and a pen; à la ink on paper. I enjoy doing this already with an iPad app appropriately titled Paper.)

The article and video feel like adverts for both Lenovo and Windows 8. Starting from the point Kendrick calls the Tablet 2 “very light”, continuing past the point he exudes that the device is “very very thin” right until wrapping up with “really cool, I’m impressed with this tablet”, I don’t think Kendrick is giving readers a fair impression of what the tablet offers or how it compares to the competition.

The Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2 weighs 1.3 pounds — but Kendrick doesn’t mention the iPad Mini weighing almost exactly half that whilst discussing thickness. (The Retina iPad weighs in at 1.44 pounds.) In fact, the only time Kendrick mentions the iPad — or any other tablet — is when comparing the physical dimensions of the Tablet 2. He calls the device “very very thin” during the video. It’s 2.6mm thicker than an iPad Mini and 0.4mm thicker than a current generation iPad. Sure, it may be “very very thin” when compared to a laptop from ten years ago, but what are we comparing this device to? There is not enough context, leading the whole piece to feel skewed and lacking integrity.

Let’s get to the meat of the video. It’s clearly about “inking” — it’s in the title, after all. So, what does Kendrick think of using the included pen whilst playing with the Lenovo Tablet 2? Here are his own words, transcribed by yours truly from the video:

“A good use for this pen on Windows 8 is in the Desktop because all these controls and menus that you see are really tiny, so this makes it a very easy way to manipulate when the fingertip is just too big.”

Does it sound like Microsoft thought about people without pens? It’s worth noting here that this tablet does not ship with a pen, according to Kendrick. It’s optional. Not all Windows 8 devices will be available with pens, either. Suggesting the pen is valuable because it allows you to interact with Windows 8’s broken desktop interface is the epitome of sweeping the real issues under the carpet. Windows 8 has a lot of problems.

Kendrick finds it “odd and quite strange” that Microsoft hasn’t updated Windows Journal to support the touch UI in Windows 8. I think it’s an embarrassment to the company. Microsoft is a software giant, shipping devices without appropriate software. Kendrick sounds genuinely surprised when Windows Journal correctly recognised his handwriting. Considering the app has been around since 2002, always having been designed to be used with a pen, I’d have expected that to be a pretty nailed feature by now. Personally, I was more surprised at the ten-year-old user interface of the app: why was Journal not updated for Metro?

Windows Journal is included in Windows 8, yet Microsoft — a software company — hasn’t optimised their software to work within the UI constraints of their own operating system. Windows 8 is a clunky mismatch of touch-first elements and pointer-first elements. Styli just happen to behave more like pointers than fingers.

Microsoft is not having a great year.

The Surface Isn’t Rosy

Microsoft’s been in the news a little recently. Here’s my take.

This analyst roundup suggests sales for the Surface RT in the last quarter were somewhere between 230,000 and 1,000,000. No matter how you look at it, those numbers aren’t great. For comparison, Nokia sold 4.4 million high-end Lumia smartphones in the same time. (Apple sold 23 million iPads.)

What might be even more worrying than the-not-very-impressive numbers is that Microsoft didn’t announce any numbers themselves. Those Surface figures quoted above — between 230,000 and 1,000,000 — are pure analyst speculation. The numbers from both Nokia and Apple were reported directly from the respective companies. Officially. Not so with Microsoft. Not giving away sales figures for such an important and new product gives the impression Microsoft isn’t proud of them. Imagine if Apple released a new product then didn’t mention how many units were shipped during their next earnings call. There would be chaos.

How many times do I have to say it: The Microsoft Surface is a turd.

At least I figured out why the Surface RT exists. It’s more to protect Microsoft’s margins than to delight their customers. I still need to figure out why the Surface Pro exists.

My fear is that even if the Surface gets updated frequently and well, all customers who’ve bought one so far will be left out in the cold. Their Surfaces will be obsolete faster than they’d like.

And nobody wants that.

Unfortunately, today brings even more bad news for Microsoft: the 64GB Surface Pro will only have 23GB free storage space. Marco hits the nail on the head:

If your computer’s “1 TB” hard drive has 50 GB of preinstalled software and unusable space, you still have 95% of its space for user storage, which is hard to complain about. But advertising a “64 GB” Surface Pro that only has 35% of its space available to the user is a very different story.

Here’s a quick comparison of mobile device advertised storage space versus actual available space:

  • The 64GB Surface Pro has 23GB free space. That's 35%.
  • The 32GB Surface RT has 16GB free space. That’s 50%.
  • My 64GB iPad has 57.1GB free space. That's 89%.
  • My 16GB iPhone 5 has 13.4GB free. That's 83%.

It's worth noting that the space taken up with preinstalled software is generally fixed, so the smaller the device’s storage, the lower the average percentage of free space available will be. Even though that’s the case, compare the difference between a 16GB iPhone’s percentage — 83% — and the 64GB Surface Pro’s — 35%.

This is a problem.

So, this is what I think matters. First, Microsoft can (and hopefully will) make swift and meaningful updates to the Surface products, both hardware and software. These may very well make the devices more attractive to new customers. This is a good thing. However, the downside is that the more software improves, the higher system requirements this software will have. This will shorten the life of current Surfaces. If a customer purchases a Surface today, only to have Microsoft release huge software updates a few months from now which cause the device to run at a snail’s pace (or, worse, updates which the current device doesn’t even support), is the customer likely to stick around in Microsoft’s ecosystem?

The more optimistic take on the Surface is that Microsoft has a ton of money to blow and will keep beating the horse until it does what they want. The more pessimistic take is that the Surface-horse stumbled out of the gate and is only going to continue to fall down as time goes on.

I think what will actually happen is somewhere in between these strained metaphors. It’s just not roses.

Guide: How Not to Conduct Yourself in a Discussion

I was having a discussion with an acquaintance of mine who seems to like the Microsoft Surface RT more than most people. This is the best (and last, for a while) bit from our conversation:

Basically the Surface is a tablet designed for intelligent, capable people who will buy them, and the iPad is designed for the masses.  A basic dumbass friendly tablet for people who struggle to cook pasta.  That's okay and their business model is great and profitable.  But since i don't care about that, and since MS are still making pleanty enough money to satisfy me, i don't see their ecosystem dropping off the board any time soon and therefore, their Tablets only selling in modest numbers is fine to me.  It's cool, then it doesn't become a pleb item.

Damn, if only I could master that pasta. Maybe one day.

A Step in the Right Direction: Thoughts and Observations About BlackBerry 10

What follows are my notes taken during RIM’s BlackBerry 10 launch event. I wrote them on my iPhone whilst watching the live stream. After the event finished, I took some time to review and edit my thoughts into more concise phrases. They’re short, candid and honest. My initial takeaway, written after the event, is at the end of the following snippets.

Gestures — was never really shown these throughout the video. Profiles look interesting. I'd like that feature on my devices.

Keyboard? LOL

Port-a-thon? Wow. They're shameless.

Isn't telling other people to honk their horn whilst driving illegal?

Lil 'E. How much did RIM pay him?

Cutting some guy's hair? Wow. He has a "fanboy" shirt on. At least BB fans embrace the word.

Disco lights. Hm.

Like the blue colour scheme and huge screen behind CEO. Dare I say that even some of the typography is tasteful.


Most challenging year of CEO's life. Wow.

Innovation, really? Getting sick of this word.

I'm liking this presentation more than Microsoft's. Feels more personable.

Connected. Getting Things Done. Maybe this OS could be better for me? I fit those boxes.

First iOS reference. Had a go at home button for a poor experience. Fair enough — it's a bit clunky switching between apps, I guess.

True mobile computing? Is he suggesting iOS and Android aren't? If not, what are they?

"Personal Internet of things."

Go it alone, instead of adopting….? …Android? Didn't say Android, but implied? WP maybe? They did what Apple would have done: made their own OS. Makes sense to not be tethered, but it's certainly more risk. What if BB10 doesn't catch on?

3 "innovations" said in 5 seconds?

That unveiling of the devices rising up from the stage was cool. Reminds me of the iPhone 5.

Q10 with keyboard is dead on arrival. Ugly, looks like a phone I'd see in early 2000s.

Z10 looks more promising. Like the idea of a textured surface on the back. Maybe it'd feel cheap, though?

He says "responsive" a lot, but not that the phone is. He says it makes HIM responsive. Phone doesn't look slow, though.

People didn't really clap much when physical keyboards were mentioned. Slightly awkward. Even the keyboard faithful have realised they're a dying breed?

So far that's what he's pushed the most since the phones were unveiled - the keyboard.

Demo. This is going to be good.

Flow. How does swiping work with games / music creation apps? Reminds me of charms bar in Windows 8.

Full multitasking? That's a bad idea, right? Battery life? That isn't explained.

Flow looks neat if you get a new notification whilst video is playing — it's easy to just slide the video out of the way to view notifications, without interrupting playback. That's a feature I'd love on iOS.

Flow is designed to be used one-handed.

Saw some jitter during animation, then.

Deep integration with tons of services: Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn. That's cool. BlackBerry's "Hub" is a cross between Notification Centre and an inbox. It's possible to do a lot more in the hub that Notification Centre, though.

Gestures will save time when switching between apps. I like that, but have to wonder if it impacts individual apps to use gestures.

The Hub brings together all your notifications — but can show you upcoming events from your calendar, too. That's a neat feature: an interesting and new past/future approach. I like that.

Some of those photos pulled from Facebook and LinkedIn are warped and distorted, but pulling live info is a clever technology. Is this content stored on the phone? How does it work? Does it require 3G? No explanation.

Hub reminds me of WP8's People app. A lot of potential, but I think it needs to be explained more. How exactly does it work?

Typing on the software keyboard: flicking words as a kind of autocomplete. I'd like that on iOS. I want better keyboards on my phone. This looks advanced and more thought-through than iOS's.

Typing in other languages is pointless if you don't understand them, but it's clever that BB10 can detect which language you're typing in.

Dropping spaces and fixing errors is amazing. That should have been the demo. Imagine typing a full sentence without tapping the spacebar between words, and even making some typos. Once you're at the end of the sentence, BB10 figures out what you meant to say and autocorrects. That's very clever. I want it.

BB Balance: these are like the old Nokia profiles on phones. Work and Personal are defaults. Everything can be changed between the two: wallpapers, apps, colour schemes. Looks a bit confusing, though — apps running in one profile show up on both? Isn't that exactly what having profiles should be eliminating?

There doesn't appear to be a guide for app icons. Some are clearly taken directly from iOS. Some are square. Some are round. Some are oddly shaped. Not consistent. Doesn't look as ugly as Android can, though.

Battery life is depleting on the demo unit. Less than half battery.

All the features he's mentioned in BB Messenger are available on iOS. Their video calling UI looks just like FaceTime.

Screen-Share sounds fascinating. But why would I want that in a call environment? I have AirPlay mirroring. I suppose sharing your screen from one side of the world to another is a novel idea, but how practically useful is it? Still, it's neat.

Perhaps the Screen-Share feature is still a little buggy. It looked like the demo went out of sync near the end, with the device sending the screen lagging behind the device which was viewing the screen. No idea how that could happen. Perhaps it was the live feed — the device sending the screen was on the other side of the world. A little confusing of a demo.

This is confusing. Vacation? Voice memos? Evernote? What is Remember? A to-do list app? I don't understand.

BB10's camera is interesting. In order to take a picture, you must tap the screen in a non-specified area. Doing so will shake the entire device, making pictures blurry. Every single image taken during the demo was blurry, almost certainly because of this.

Blurry images. Time shift looks cool - when's the iOS app which does that coming out? Tomorrow? Camera+ on iOS has a similar feature: it automatically takes an image when it detects the iPhone isn't moving.

More thoughts about Flow, with regards to navigating the OS. It's more modular than iOS and Android. Instead of having a "Homescreen" upon which all your apps are displayed, with a Home button always returning the user to the Homescreen, BB10 allows and even touts the ability of launching one app directly within another. This seems to suggest the "Homescreen" is a last-resort. More of a way to delete apps than launch them. This is an interesting concept, but it is certainly more confusing. It's less structured.

"Story Maker" app. Which iOS app does this represent? iMovie? It looks simpler than iMovie. Curious as to how many different styles and themes are contained within the video editing software. It's installed by default?

Starting to feel the whole OS is a little too easy to lose yourself in. Perhaps it's a great update for existing blackberry fans, but I don't think it's much of a threat to iOS. New users will have a very steep learning curve.

Disco lights again.

70,000 apps available from day 1. That's a big number. "Not just 46 of the top 50" - is that a Windows Phone joke? Pretty sure WP8's presentation touted 46 out of the top 50.

The Economist app on BB10 is using the exact icon of their old iOS app — complete with Apple's gloss shine. The Economist on iOS is now a Newsstand app with a more beautiful icon.

Did he expect applause after saying there's no need to reboot the device after installing an app? Really? How is that a feature?

End of February? Available in US in March. UK today?

"Conversations with working moms and artists"? Global Creative Director position at BB. What does this mean? Her? This is going to be someone they paid a lot of money to.

Yep, looks like Alicia Keys will be getting a lot of dough from BlackBerry (no longer called RIM).

So, RIM is now called BlackBerry. (That's a shame.)

BB10 is finally here.

It looks to be a very different departure from iOS, Android, Window Phone and Ubuntu mobile. This is a good thing.

If I had to describe BB10 using existing smartphone operating systems, I’d call it a cross between Android and older BlackBerrys software-wise, with some of Apple’s control over hardware. The design seems to be more unified than Android, but not as beautiful as iOS.

One of the biggest differences between BB10 and other smartphones is the deviation from a “Homescreen > App” navigation UI. This is familar to any iOS user — you’re either in an app, or you’re navigating the homescreen. BB10 seems to push a “flow” idea, where the user can navigate from “App > App” as appropriate, with less time “wasted” on a homescreen. This was mentioned repeatedly throughout the presentation. I can see the appeal, but can’t help but feel this approach poses a higher learning curve for new users. It certainly risks being too complex.

The Z10 hardware (without a hardware keyboard) looks very good indeed. I’d love BlackBerry to get in touch and send me a review unit, so I can give some real impressions. I worry that the plastic back of the device may feel cheap to the touch, but it’s also more likely to provide a gripping and comfortable surface, as opposed to the iPhone 5’s metallic and angular edges, sides and back. I’d feel more comfortable resting the Z10 hardware on a smooth gradient, like the arm of a sofa, than the iPhone 5 — which would almost certainly slide right off.

One final question worth asking: is BB10 going to save -RIM- BlackBerry? This is impossible to answer. I think it shows promise. It might stabilise the company short and medium-term, but I don’t feel it’s enough to raise BlackBerry to where they once were.

Amazon Forced to Remove Text-to-Speech from Kindles for Fear Audiobook Profits Would Suffer

When Amazon first created the text-to-speech feature in their Kindle devices to read purchased books out loud, book publishers and the Authors Guild promptly claimed its use was illegal and forced Amazon to make the feature optional for every individual book. Needless to say, many publishers never allow it, even today.

The quote that Paul Aitken, executive director of the Authors Guild, gave to explain the Guild’s decision is as follows:

“They don't have the right to read a book out loud. That's an audio right, which is derivative under copyright law.”

It appears the concern raised is that reading a purchased book out loud would kill sales of audiobooks. This view seems very short sighted and greedy.

If a Kindle owner wants to listen to high quality and professionally recorded audio from a book, there are plenty of options available: the first which springs to mind is Audible, Amazon’s own audiobook service. Unfortunately, the library of audiobooks is much smaller than the library of ebooks. Many more books are available for Kindle than are available through Audible.

If a customer searches Audible for a title they’d like to listen to, then discovers it’s unavailable, it seems reasonable to assume the customer will simply do without. Text-to-speech integration in technology is not mainstream enough for most people to consider as an alternative to audiobooks.

It goes without saying that a computer reading text out loud — à la Siri — won’t sound anywhere near as good as a professionally voiced audiobook.

There is a group of users, however — larger than you may imagine — who will expect text-to-speech integration in a device like a Kindle and don’t mind its relative shortcomings: the visually impaired or disabled. Where the Authors Guild step over the line, in my opinion, is in their refusal to accept text-to-speech even in the capacity of accessibility.

The Disabled World website writes about the Kindles, back in 2009:

Many people with disabilities were happy to learn that the Kindle version 2.0 includes a text-to-speech feature, but their joy has been short-lived because the Authors Guild promptly pressured Amazon to remove the audio feature from Kindle due to concerns that it would interfere with sales of AudioBooks. Amazon’s response was to allow each publisher to decide whether the text-to-speech feature would be available for their titles.

Several publisher [sic], to include Random House, have already told Amazon to turn text-to-speech off, cutting off a resource related to people with disabilities and a channel of mainstream media access. Disability Rights Advocates (DRA) and additional members of the Reading Rights Coalition are working to get Amazon to reverse this policy. It seems that Random House prefers greed over people.

[Emphasis mine.]

It’s worth noting that blame shouldn’t be placed on Amazon for this. I hope the Authors Guild reconsider their approach to text-to-speech and allow its use for accessibility reasons.

Text-to-speech is a bread and butter accessibility feature. If a customer cannot enjoy a book visually, why penalise the customer further by not allowing them to enjoy it audibly? Audiobooks are clearly the preferred options for both average customers and the visually impaired or disabled, however the library of audiobooks is smaller. The compromise text-to-speech makes in quality is below what average customers want, but it’s a lifeline to the visually impaired, who have few options.

Amazon and the Authors Guild should be striving to improve the experience of every reader, by making more titles available as audiobooks and improving accessibility of Kindle devices.

Note: it’s worth mentioning that when VoiceOver is enabled on iOS, purchased books in iBooks will be read out loud. Books purchased through Amazon, shown in iOS’s Kindle app, will not.

Nvidia’s Project Shield and the First Steam Box…

Nvidia announced their Project Shield portable gaming device at CES on Monday, with no details on price. Or availability. Or battery life.

The Shield seems far too bulky and oddly shaped to carry around comfortably. It’s thicker and bulkier than existing portable gaming hardware and even thicker again compared to the average smartphone. Calling it portable is certainly optimistic — can you imagine this being used on public transport? It looks to be clunky and awkward in size, almost certainly too large for an average pocket. It also appears more delicate than a smartphone, with a hinged screen worth protecting. It may well be “portable”, but I can’t see this being used outside of the home to the same degree people use a Nintendo DS.

Fortunately, the Shield isn’t only trying to be a portable console. It has another trick up its sleeve.

Where the announcement gets really interesting is Nvidia’s integration with traditional PCs with Nvidia graphics cards. I’ve already pondered Valve’s interesting position in gaming and how it might create for an interesting future for consoles. Whilst the Shield isn’t a “Steam Box”, it’s possible to use the device as a controller for games on a PC and use the Shield’s screen instead of the PC to view the action. Essentially, the Shield becomes the screen and the controller for some of your PC games — in much the same way the new Wii U’s game pad acts as a screen and controller to the Wii U. Interesting.

Nvidia is presenting a device with two goals: to be a portable gaming system (running Android) and a way to play PC games in a more portable way… when at home. The Shield fails in the first goal — smartphones and existing gaming devices like the Sony PSP and Nintendo DS do far better jobs at either being mobile and ubiquitous (smartphones) or being a “good enough” compromise of mobile and quality gaming (portable consoles). The Shield isn’t mobile when compared to a smartphone and it isn’t better than existing home consoles or PCs for gaming around the house. I don’t even need to mention how short the battery life must be when streaming HD video over Wi-Fi.

If you want a portable gaming device, either use your smartphone or buy an existing console — which will come complete with a rich ecosystem of top-tier gaming titles. If you want a controller experience at home with pleasant HD graphics, either use a cheap Xbox controller with a gaming PC or simply get a full console. They’re cheaper than ever. The Shield is trying to solve problems which have already been solved.

As it stands today — before the Shield even exists — dedicated electronics hardware is in decline. Gaming hardware is dying. I don’t have much hope for existing portable gaming consoles like the DS or PSP, so announcing a brand new device with very few gaming titles in an arguably worse form factor than existing products seems to be a sure failure.

The First Steam Box?

Another related announcement to come out of CES is the “Piston”, the first Steam Box device for use with Valve’s Big Picture mode. As I said over a month ago, whilst speculating about the future for Valve and Steam’s Big Picture mode:

If Valve released moderately powerful hardware, bundled with a “Steam OS” and took away the hassles associated with PC gaming, they could be on to a winner.

I still stand by this. Valve are in a unique position: they create hugely successful games, own an extremely popular gaming distribution platform and have a huge audience: as I write this, nearly four million users are online on Steam. I believe we’ll know much more about Valve’s Big Picture mode when first party hardware is released. Until then, I remain hopeful. As I said back in December:

I wonder if existing console manufacturers even consider Valve a threat to their business today. Perhaps they should.

The 21” iMac’s Design Compromises

Andrew Cunningham writes a great review of the new 21” iMac over at Ars. To summarise, the new 21” iMac is better than the previous 21” iMac in almost every way. But it’s not all roses:

In a desktop computer, though, the pursuit of thinness at the cost of features makes less sense. The vast majority of the time, it’s going to be sitting on your desk, and users will be interacting with a separate keyboard and mouse, pausing only occasionally to plug something in or adjust the screen’s angle. Giving up desirable features like user-upgradeable RAM just to make a thinner desktop seems like the wrong move, even if it’s one that only IT people and power users will notice or care about.

Marco links to the same Ars review, and adds:

The thinness also made the speakers worse and didn’t leave enough room for a 3.5” (“desktop”-sized) hard drive in the 21.5” model. (The 27” model still uses 3.5” drives.) Even though the gap is narrowing, 3.5” drives are still significantly faster and larger-capacity than 2.5” (“laptop”) drives from the same generation. With 1 TB laptop drives standard and Fusion Drives only available at $1,749 and up, there’s even less of an advantage than usual of choosing the iMac over a MacBook.

Marco notes how the thinness of the computer negatively impacts performance compared to the previous generation: the speakers have poorer bass response (because they’re crammed in a much smaller space) and the spinning hard drives have changed from the regular, desktop-class 3.5” flavour to the slower, laptop-sized 2.5” models. Further, user-upgradeable RAM has disappeared from the 21” iMac.

Apple compromised performance in order to slim down the computer. Was this the right move?

Putting form over function in a desktop computer initially sounds nuts: why would the thinness matter if performance suffers? There’s plenty of space on a desk, and desks don’t complain about weight.

I’d argue that the move, although unfortunate for some users, was the right thing to do. This becomes clearer after examining the 21” iMac’s bigger sibling, the 27” model.

The 27” iMac received the same thinness treatment as the 21” did, but it didn’t suffer the same performance hit: the spinning hard drives in the larger iMac are still 3.5” desktop drives and RAM is user-replaceable. The only hiccups in the new 27” iMac compared to the previous 27” model are the thinner, less bass-intensive speakers. However, speakers are not vital to the actual performance of a computer: they’re merely a nice addition.

Anyone who cares enough about audio equipment to notice the poor bass response in the newer iMac speakers is likely to already have a great set of external speakers. Dedicated speakers have always been significantly better than any integrated computer speakers. This will likely remain the case.

Apple places value in unity within product lines and between product themselves. Anyone who has seen one Apple laptop will almost certainly recognise another. The same goes for all their products: from iOS devices to iMacs.

The 21” iMac and the 27” iMac are almost identical in form: one just houses a larger display. The rest of the product is scaled up or down appropriately. The 21” and 27” iMacs are two peas in a pod.

In order for both iMac sizes to look equally elegant, the space within the iMac’s chassis for components had to be proportionally scaled. The 21” iMac has much less internal component space than the 27” model.

If Apple shipped the same, larger-size hard drives in both iMacs, the 21” model would look disproportionally thick and ugly. It wouldn’t be a unified design: the 21” model would look like the 27” iMac’s ugly sister.

This is a logical reason why the 21” iMac has a laptop-sized hard drive—and quite possibly the reason it doesn’t have user-upgradeable RAM. With much less space to play with, perhaps the RAM couldn’t be positioned in such a way to allow end users to access it. With the reduction of internal fans, from three in last year’s iMac down to just one, compromises in component layout would have had to be made.

The iMac is in a weird transition stage: no Retina display and not yet fully SSD-based1. The 27” iMac is a more solid machine: faster internals and more storage and RAM options. If you’re considering an iMac, I’d recommend a 27” model, perhaps with some upgrades.

That’s what I’m ordering for myself.

1: No stock configuration iMac includes all-SSD storage.

Valve: an Outside Contender for the Future of “Console” Gaming?

In a somewhat impromptu interview with Kotaku’s Jason Schreier, Gabe Newell, the head of Valve, discussed the next steps for Steam:

Newell said Valve's current goal was to figure out how to make PCs work better in the living room. He said the reaction to Steam's TV-friendly Big Picture interface has been “stronger than expected,” and that their next step is to get Steam Linux out of beta and to get Big Picture on that operating system, which would give Valve more flexibility when developing their own hardware.

Gabe is certainly pushing Linux heavily at the moment. I imagine this must mainly be due to a combination of two things:

  1. Windows 8 is much less friendly to third party game developers and distributors like Valve. The Windows App Store is direct competition to Valve’s Steam Store.

  2. The more control any software company has over hardware, the more tightly integrated the two can become. If Valve controls the hardware and the operating system, it seems logical that the Valve gaming experience could greatly improve. Whether it actually improves is a question of execution.

It makes sense for Valve to design a “Steam OS”, built on Linux and optimised for Steam’s distribution methods and catalogue, with a focus on optimising the entire gaming experience. This seems to be what’s happening:

Newell says that he expects companies to start selling PCs designed for the living room next year — with Steam preloaded — and that Valve will create its own.

Is control over hardware and software important for Gabe? It seems so:

“Well certainly our hardware will be a very controlled environment,”

People no longer want to manage all the cruft which comes along with PC gaming: graphics cards, drivers, updating and worrying about frame rates are nothing but headaches and relics of the past. If Valve released moderately powerful hardware, bundled with a “Steam OS” and took away the hassles associated with PC gaming, they could be on to a winner. Having this level of control over hardware and software would likely give Valve the ability to create a better gaming experience, either in the living room or on a PC device.

Amazon has taken a similar approach with tablets and it seems to be doing quite well for them. Amazon took stock Android as a foundation, designed their own shell and shipped custom hardware running it. Valve will take desktop Linux, customise it as they see fit, and package the software in hardware approved by them.

Existing PC users who are unwilling to lose control of custom hardware would likely be satisfied with the third party hardware Gabe said would be available—although I find it hard to believe that third party hardware will be as well integrated as Valve’s own.

I wonder if existing console manufacturers even consider Valve a threat to their business today. Perhaps they should.