Thursday, December 30, 2010

BBC Sound of 2011 Long List

The BBC have just published their sound of 2011 long list some thoughts as I listen.

I'm impressed by Esben and the Witch as their name implies they sound like a dark fairytale. If their album keeps up this level of quality I can see it being on heavy rotation.
I'm a sucker for anything with a Dub Step flavour so I enjoyed Jamie Woon though his voice is a little commercial for my tastes, in the D&B/Dubstep category Nero excites me the most. It would be great to see an artist other than Pendulum getting some viscous breaks in the charts.
Daley is clearly a big talent, not the kind of thing I spend a lot of time listening to, but the world needs an alternative to Jamie T who can sing in tune. 

The Naked and Famous are perhaps a little too indebted to MGMT on the evidence of what I've heard, but there's always a place in my heart for sunny pop music. 

No clips on the BBC site but The Vaccines sound like a strange hybrid of Mumford and Sons and Interpol topped off with the fantastic baritone of Justin Young. I found a clip of them playing on Jools Holland you can check out. I'll eat my hat if these guys don't make it (Which naturally means they are doomed)

Warpaint are capable of dreamy loveliness, but Undertow sounds a little too much like a rewrite of Polly by Nirvana to my ears.

While Clare Maguire and Jessie J may well end up being huge they do nothing for me. 

I think Anna Calvi has the potential to produce a world class album. Jezebel is a curiosity, but  Moulinette is a wonderful track.

I'm not going to make any predictions of who will be the true breakthrough, but even the beeb picked Little Boots over Lady Gaga.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Humble Bundle 2 Reviews - Machinarium

The Humble Bundle 2 is available for another couple of days (Total at time of writing over $1.5!) They have recently added Steam access to the games and thrown in the games from the original bundle free of charge so there is even more reason to grab a copy if you haven't already.
The second review in the series is Machinarium which is an old skool point and click adventure in the style of Monkey Island and the like.
The game tells the tale of a little robot called Josef who has been dumped in the wilderness by gangsters who have kidnapped his girlfriend. You have to traverse across several screens full of puzzles and quests to get her back and thwart the evil robots.  
Like Braid what sets this apart from the crowd is the spectacular artistic direction and story telling.  Everything from the little touches in the animation (Like the way Josef slides down banisters, or dreams about his girlfriend when you leave him to his own devices ) to the wonderful scribbley line drawings that take the place of dialogue screams attention to detail. 
The puzzles are tricky, but satisfying when you complete them and in a genius move a full guide is always available but each page can only be accessed by playing a time consuming mini game meaning you only ever look when you really need to, 
I straight up loved this game. It's fairly short (I finished it in a couple of evenings of casual play) and has zero replay value, but both as a narrative and as a lateral thinking puzzle it has been one of my favourite games of the year.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Humble Bundle 2 Reviews - Braid

For those of you who aren't familiar The Humble Bundle is a collection of games by top indie devs which are collected together and sold for a limited time as a pay what you like bundle with a proportion of the money going to charity. I bought the first bundle and was really pleased with it. All of the games were released for Mac. Windows and Linux, were totally DRM free and could be downloaded as many times as you like. After release several of the games were made open source and also made available to download via Steam.
The Humble Bundle 2 has just been released ( and I excitedly bought it on the first day (At time of writing it is available for another 5 days) .
I thought I would give a few thoughts on each game as I played it and the first up is Braid.
Braid is probably the most famous game in the bundle as it has already been a critically acclaimed hit on the Xbox arcade and PS3 where it has a 93% Metacritic score so you know you are in for something pretty special. The game is a simple platformer in the style of Mario, but what make it stand out are the fantastic graphics which look like a water colour painting and a superb orchestral soundtrack. 
The core mechanic of the game is based around the protagonist Tim's ability to rewind time. This is used to great effect as there is no need to have any kind of menu or HUD. All bad things (monsters, spikes, fire) are instant kills and you simply rewind time and try again if you fail so the screen is kept completely free of score, lives, etc. The time rewinding mechanic is used for some mind bending puzzles and is tightly tied into the plot which explores the idea that someone with power over time could erase all their mistakes and annoyances and if you could would be the right thing to do.
Braid is an excellent game and at £7.99 on PSN you could easily purchase the bundle for that price and enjoy the rest of the games as a bonus.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Daft Punk's Tron Legacy Soundtrack is Awesome

Spotify have had a preview sampler of the Daft Punk soundtrack for the Tron Legacy movie for the last couple of weeks and since the full version has come out I have listened to very little else. It is a glorious, electro orchestral tour de force. I can't think of many more perfect pairings for a film soundtrack and I'm impressed that Disney have had the stones and the vision to hand a triple A blockbuster to a couple of French guys who think they are robots. It bodes very well for the movie which I still fully expect to be impressive nonsense, but at least now it might be stylish impressive nonsense.

Check out this trailer featuring stand out track Derezzed 

Rotoscoped Insanity 

I'm a huge fan of the Rotoscoped insanity that is the origional Tron. It's a little bit all over the place, but I think alongside War Games it really stands up as one of the greatest geek films of all time. I can watch the primitive CGI scenes over and over again, but I love the neon glow most of all (which few people even to this day realise was painstakingly rotoscoped by hand).  
A weak point of the film was probably the Wendy Carlos soundtrack. It was quite reasonable to assume that the menacing synth work of Clockwork Orange might be carried across, but to me the soundtrack sits awkwardly and is quite conventional and in places cheesy. 

Even if Tron Legacy is a stinker the soundtrack will still take it's rightful place in my heart alongside the greatest sci-fi sound track of all time the Vangelis soundtrack for Blade Runner.

Friday, December 10, 2010

By most measures The Saboteur is a terrible game - So why did I play it to the end?

I'm not too picky with games. I have a Lovefilm subscription and due to the four point scale it's pretty much impossible to trust game reviews (with the possible exception of Ars and Edge) so I just tend to rent anything that looks interesting and send it back when I get bored. Sometimes I can't stand a game that everyone raves about (Modern Warfare 2) and occasionally I rather enjoy something that's generally considered to be junk (Excite Truck).
Space Invaders with Swastikas 
Despite having read dozens of books on WWII there have been no games on the subject that I have enjoyed as they all seem to side step the reality of war and degenerate into Space Invaders with swastikas.
The last game I rented was The Saboteur; Pandemic's swan song before going belly up. It's a fantastic concept for a game. Set in occupied Paris during WWII and loosely based on the real life story of William Grover-Williams winner of the first Monaco Grand Prix turned French resistance war hero. Perhaps this would be the first true war game. Unfortunately the game is so spectacularly mishandled it's reminds me of the episode of The Simpsons where Homer rewrites Mr Smith Goes to Washington as a bloodbath shootout
For no apparent reason the protagonist has been changed into a horrific Irish stereotype (genuine sample dialogue: "OIM BLOODY OIRISH!) who's only interests are drinking, smoking and shagging. Worst of all he openly doesn't give a toss about the plight of the French under the Nazis and is only fighting to get revenge on a German solider who killed his friend after they tried to steal his car in a tit for for tat dispute over a fixed race (I'm not kidding).
Not only is the main character a misogynistic. homophobic moral vacuum who lives in a brothel (complete with premium DLC to add computer boobies) the voice acting, plot and script are risible with accents that would make the cast of Allo Allo blush. The plot is so muddled that in 1940 the war doesn't seem to have started but three months later, the Nazis seem to have invented Nuclear Weapons, have highly advanced radar systems, conquered France (and rebuilt half of it)  and the French resistance is in full swing. 
All this and more is summed up nicely in Keza MacDonald's opinion piece for Eurogamer "Why I Hate... The Saboteur" (so I'm not going to talk any more about how offensive the plot is) which really got me thinking if it's so bloody terrible, why was I half way through it and why did I complete it last night?

Game Mechanic Bingo
It certainly isn't because of the focussed game play. At various points The Saboteur continually switches between third person shooter, stealth, racing game, parkour platformer, demolition sim and Nazi themed GTA. You can imagine someone at Insomniac pitching it as Metal Gear Solid meets Gran Turismo, meets Assassins Creed, meets Gears of War, meets Red Faction.
This unfortunately results in nothing being done very well. Despite playing a racing driver you only get to take part in five races in the whole game which aren't all that much fun (Imagine a racing game based on the GTA engine). Worse still stealth games rely on the guards being much stronger than you, but the shooter parts result in our hero having huge amounts of regenerating health and vast amounts of fire power so upon discovery you can often just run down the machine gun fire for a one hit neck break for a free Gestapo uniform shaped ticket back to stealth mode. 
The stealth model its self is somewhat broken relying on what is called a zone of suspicion which shows up on your map around Nazi property and locations of explosions or gunfire. This means the following are all possible: Driving a car down a busy road into a fuel dump but jumping out before the zone of suspicion will not register as a suspicious event, when walking up to a guard tower the lookout will loose interest when you are underneath because he can't see you meaning you can always blow them up in complete safety, and after driving a tank into a base and blowing most of it sky high you can jump out and switch off the alarm and everyone will assume it was a false alarm and go about their business despite half of the base being on fire. 
The map is so vast and so filled with German hardware and troops it seems like an impossible task to defeat them, but as on death anything you destroy stays that way and you always start at the nearest gun shop you quickly realise the war of attrition is in the other direction. A fool proof technique is to stock up on rockets, drive a car straight through the front gates of fortress blow up everything in sight, die wake up at the gun shop rinse and repeat. 
There are almost too many silly things list like the fact that there are no consequences of driving a car into civilians, or a wall at 100mph, or that in Germany everyone is still French and on your side, or the controls which share the same button for detonate and shoot making it easy to execute the perfect stealth sabotage then  randomly fire into the air in a room full of Nazis if you hold the button a microsecond too long, and worst crime of all the grenade button mapped to the (hair) trigger meaning you blow yourself up if you ever put the controller down without pausing.
So what's good about it?

The Joy Of Blowing Things Up
The first and most obvious thing is that blowing stuff up is fun. Covertly planting dynamite on tanks and anti-aircraft guns then watching your handy work as bits of burning metal ascend into the sky never really gets old and there's an awful lot of stuff to blow up. Gunplay is also solid and enjoyable with a good range of weapons on hand. 

Paris J'Taime
The real star of the show in this game is Paris. The city and surrounding countryside are lovingly rendered and you are often met by breathtaking cityscapes complete with iconic Parisian landmarks (Although it does have the amusing Team America tendency to put the Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triumph right next to each other). Much has been made of the novel mechanic where the sense of hope in the populace is reflected with colour. Areas under German control are rendered in black and white with the only splashes of colour the red of blood, fire and Nazi symbols while areas in which the resistance have a foothold are in vivid colour. The game engine is solid and has some clever anti-aliasing on the PS3 which keep everything looking smooth not to mention it is one of the only action games I've played recently that hasn't crashed at the drop of a hat.
The sound track is also inspired with some excellent jazz tracks including Caravan and Feeling Good featuring extensively. 
I can't help imagining the turtle neck wearing art department despairing as the high fiving frat boys in the gameplay department filled their loving crafted city with strippers, cartoon Nazis. "Sweet Jumps" and a main character who will commit murder for a case of booze (I'm not kidding)

So Close and yet So Crass
All in all this game feels like a wasted opportunity. If the management at Pandemic had picked one or two gameplay mechanics and stuck to them the action could be much tighter and more fun. 
The second and more significant improvement would have been to send the entire script and voice teams on a day out and then move offices while they were away. It's a rare example of a game that could be remade without changing the engine, or graphics and easily be double the game with with the kind of charm and charisma displayed by the story teams at studios like Naughty Dog or Rockstar.
As it stands the best way to enjoy this game is to rent it and skip the cut scenes.  

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Slayer Christmas Lights

They are as awesome as they sound :)

Friday, November 19, 2010

Kindle - Evil or Awesome?

The Kindle

The Brave Future

I’ve been telling people excitedly about electronic paper and e-books since it was a sci-fi dream of the future, but I haven’t made the jump yet. Chris of Sonictruths excellent article about how he became the poster boy for the Kindle sparked my enthusiasm that perhaps I should buy one of these graphite marvels, but a few doubts remain in my mind.

E-Books and the minimalist life

minimal I’m the first to admit I spend way too much time staring at backlit screens (Note: My wife has since informed me that she is in fact the first to admit this) and as I have keratoconus the idea of reading from a surface that doesn’t sear my eyes and induce migraines is one that appeals. It isn’t just the reading surface I like the idea of. I moved house a few months back and experienced a damascene moment on the subject of stuff. Having moved from a single room to a one bed flat, then a two bed, then a three bedroom house I found myself downsizing for the first time ever. The cycle of filling my place with crap then getting a bigger place had to be broken. Divesting myself of my hard won junk was daunting at first, but driving back from the charity shop, or the tip felt liberating. I felt lighter without being tied down to possessions I didn’t need and didn’t use. I used to take huge pride in the hundreds of CDs and DVDs I own, or my shelves full of books. Now I just think how much more space I would have if I didn’t have book shelves, or CD racks in the living room. Music and video are already taken care of I now have a subscription to spotify and lovefilm so buying CDs and DVDs is a thing of the past. Books are the last piece of the puzzle.

The Reader

When I lived in London an spent an hour and a half on the tube every day my consumption of books way legendary. I read very quickly and with seven and a half hours of tube reading plus any free time I would consume a couple of novels a week. Since moving to the country I don’t miss the tube, but I do miss the reading. I had become reliant on my enforced sessions and without it I simply stopped reading.

Bandwagon Jumped

I think of my self as an almost but not quite early adopter. My tendency towards thrift makes it too painful for me to buy a thousand pound gizmo only to find a better one in the shops. ( I made an exception with the EEE which I bought on the day of release ) I usually set my self a set of conditions for when I want to get on board a technology bandwagon. With e-book readers it was small and light with minimal screen bezel (My only dislike with the first generation EEE PC) and have a decent contrast ratio, good page turn speed and not cost a stupid price. The third gen Kindle seems to have all these things with a vengeance, but something stays my hand

Never owned an iPod

Shiney iPod

I’m far from a Linux obsessed electronic freedom bore (Others may debate this point), but I have no desire to live in a walled garden where I’m not free to control the media I have bought. When I buy a device I have always chosen one which mounts like a USB stick and allows free transfer of files without requiring pointless DRM and software acting as a gatekeeper and as a result I have never owned an iPod, or installed iTunes and I went Android rather than Linux. The Kindle store seems like such a wonderfully integrated service that it’s starting to turn my head. The idea of giving up my freedom to escape to a different device if the Amazons tech gets left behind in the future does worry me although frankly I don’t think this is any more likely than Apple loosing their grip on the MP3 player market. The razors and blades model of selling the readers and the books allows Amazon to soundly undercut the likes of Sony who have to make a profit on the hardware without the promise of book sales in the future to look forward to. Without another credible platform like the Nook in the UK Kindle dominance is a practical certainty. The fact that the Kindle seems designed from the outset to be a standalone platform without the tedious need to tether it to iTunes that to my mind ruins the iPad is another huge plus.

Do E-Book Readers Dream of Electric Libraries?

Succumbing to the temptation of the Kindle seems inevitable, but perhaps this is no bad thing. The way publishing is run at the moment is frankly ludicrous. Publishers produce thousands of copies of big name authors only to pulp them to make roads The holy grail of the e-book world now is the full colour FMV wonder that is Mirasol, but I figure this is still at least five years away from on the market and affordable.

Damn it I think I’ve just talked my self into buying one…

Awesome band I'd never heard of - The Jezabels

I'm loving Australian indie band the Jezabels 

I'd love to grab some of their tunes but they seem to be Oz only unless you use the evil that is iTunes

Check out some tunes in this nifty player

<img style="visibility:hidden;width:0px;height:0px;" border=0 width=0 height=0 src=" " />
<embed type="application/x-shockwave-flash" src="" height="300" width="180" align="top" bgcolor="#ffffff" loop="false" wmode="opaque" quality="best" allowScriptAccess="always" allowNetworking="all" allowFullScreen="true" seamlesstabbing="false" flashvars="emailPlaylist=artist_545740&backgroundcolor=EEEEEE&font_color=000000&posted_by=artist_545740&shuffle=&autoPlay=false" /><br/>
<img style="visibility:hidden;width:0px;height:0px;" border=0 width=0 height=0 src=" "/>

<img height="1" width="1" border="0" src=",Alternative,Folk%20Rock,Indie%20Pop" />

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Red 5 Mic

The Red 5 RV8 microphone I ordered just arrived 

So far I'm very impressed. The mic seems well made and it came with a decent flight case and shock mount thrown in. 

I've been wanting to get my hands on a large diaphragm  condenser mic for ages, but I haven't had the excuse until now.
I'm planning to podcast some of my up and coming articles for so you will be able to hear the fruits of my labours very soon.

I'll share some thoughts once I try it out.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Playstation Phone

After much rumour and innuendo it looks like Engadget has scooped a photograph of the upcoming Playstation phone.

I'm hoping that it's rather less of an unmitigated disaster than the PSP Go. Sony are still more than capable of making devices that press all the correct fan boy buttons (I love my PS3), but the Xperia X10 made me want to stamp on it after a few minutes. Comparing it to the Galaxy S and the Desire (HD or otherwise) it's actually impressive how they have managed to make such an entirely dreadful phone out of almost exactly the same components.

I don't know why I am clinging on to the vain hope that the combination of a failed variant of a long in the tooth portable and a phone that I actively dislike, will be the answer to all my portable woes. My HTC Hero has been an excellent companion for the past year and it seems very likely that the Desire HD will be its replacement when my contract expires, but a device as shiney and pleasing as a PS3 could sway my decision. 

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Infamous Review

I haven’t written a review (or indeed anything) on the blog for a while as I have been concentrating my written output on Easy Ear Training, but I recently completed Infamous on the PS3 and got to thinking that it was an awesome game with a few flaws which is the most interesting kind of game to review. Couple that with the fact that it is featured in Sony’s new Playstation Plus promotion and Infamous 2 is on the way and I figured it was ripe for some comments.
I guess if you are reading this you probably have an idea of the plot, but for those of you that don’t you play the part of Cole a courier who has suffered the inconvenience of having the package he was delivering explode destroying half the city and equipping him with super powers. He awakens some time later in a city which has been quarantined by the government and taken over by violent super powered gangs. The city is roughly based on Manhattan and is split into three islands which become available as the game progresses. Playing as our hero you must kick vast amounts of ass in a third person, open world, shooter, come parkour influenced platformer where you complete story missions and optional side missions indicated by flags on the map. “Wait a darned minute” you quite rightly say. Isn’t that like just about every other game I’ve played for the last five years?
Well pretty much, but there’s a twist. Cole has power over electricity but he doesn’t generate it himself he is instead reliant on the power grid of the city for his powers. Initially armed with a peashooter lightning bolt charging yourself up from overhead power lines, generators and streetlights heals you and grants you access to all manner of additional powers such as lightning grenades and force fields. The only thing that stands in your way of a baddy zapping party time is the unfortunate fact that most of the cities grid has been knocked out in the explosion. Arriving on an island for the first time you are presented with violent gangs on every street corner and no power to juice yourself up with. Many of the main quests revolve around restoring the cities infrastructure by locating fixing substations. This is a very cool element of play as the increasing power in the grid provides a very natural way to grant the player new and awesome powers like surfing on power lines or gliding on static which are usually required from that point on to complete missions. The side quests tackle the gang side of the equation. Each mission is given to you by a needy member of the public and completing it marks that area of the map as your territory meaning enemies are less likely to appear there. This is a cool game mechanic, but has one obvious downside. When you get to a new location you are well and truly under the cosh with bullets coming from rooftops all around and few opportunities to recharge, but as you complete missions you become stronger, face less opposition and are never more than a few meters away from life giving power meaning on medium difficulty you can pretty much just stand in the open wailing on your enemies and slurping up street lights as soon as you get shot. This means that the difficulty level is somewhat uneven and even worse once you have completed the game there are so few enemies around it becomes difficult to even find enough targets to practice trophy winning “stunt” kills on. This is made up for by the fact that it is undoubtedly fun to be Cole. You feel pretty bad ass at the start, but by the end once you have unlocked all the powers and upgraded them with the XP you earn for most actions you are a one man army. Tossing people around like rag dolls and blowing up cars and petrol stations with gay abandon. Moving through the city also feels great. You need to get up high to get around without being sniped and the parkour come power line surfing mechanic makes you feel like a cross between Spiderman and Silver Surfer. Unusually for a third person game the camera is nearly always where you want it and jumping into an abyss by mistake is a rarity. The control scheme feels natural and the only real downer is that the combination of a Gears Of War-esque cover mechanic and acrobatic platforming means that often when you are racing away from a hand grenade you will inexplicably stick to a wall and meet a messy death.
The side missions should be singled out for special praise they feel like a part of the core experience rather than a tack on and encompass: Taking prisoners to jail, treasure hunts, rooftop races, protecting citizens, solving murders, deactivating surveillance devices and fixing trains. So much better than the go to place x, shoot 5 guys and collect Maguffin y, repeat until coma that many games think is acceptable.
So far I haven’t touched on the morality mechanic that gives Infamous it’s title and that’s with good reason as I feel it adds pretty much nothing to the game. Blowing up half the city has made Cole public enemy number one and you can choose to use your powers either to change the mind of the populace and become a hero or punish those who rejected you and become Infamous. This mostly manifests it’s self as nothing more than morality based quick time events where you press “X” for good or “O” for bad action, you don’t even have to work it out for your self as a handy red blue chart appears on screen. In addition to this various actions like killing or healing members of the public has a cumulative effect. It would be cool if the decisions were worth a moment of your time, but once you have taken your first good or bad step you would have to be an idiot not to take the same course with every successive action. Extremes of status grant new powers so trying to act in a “realistic” fashion and alternating means you miss out on all the optional powers. This means that far from being a complex game of morality it is simply a linear game that you can play through twice should you wish to. The net result of your morality choice is a handful of mutually exclusive good or bad side missions on each island and two optional powers one of which I didn’t ever use and the other of which is fairly similar regardless of which side you get it from. At several points the game gives the illusion that your actions are having a significant impact on the plot, but on a second play through you will discover that regardless of the decision the game contrives to provide virtually the same outcome.
The final moan is that the game crashed a couple of times and you may find your self sinking through more complex terrain due to some dodgy collision detection.
When it comes down to it Infamous is a lot of fun and I enjoyed playing it all the way to the end though it didn’t offer enough for me to want to start again with an evil play through.
If they can fix the few annoyances that stopped this from being a true world class game then Infamous 2 is going to be an absolute riot.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Windows 7 Review and Tweaking Guide

This is the third and final part in my blog series on my experiences of moving to Windows 7 from my previous set up of XP and Ubuntu Linux.

In my old set up I used my Ubuntu as my everyday machine and kept XP around to use when inconsiderate manufacturers don't provide drivers for Linux (I'm looking at you HTC and Tom Tom) when both of my machines died in quick succession I bought my laptop with an expectation that I would probably dual boot Win 7 and Linux, and once again avoid Windows except when necessary.

Once I saw the very positive reviews of Win7 I thought it would be an interesting experiment to see if an Ubuntu devote such as my self could use Win7 without being driven insane. In my previous post I explained some of the long list of tweaks I have to apply to XP to make it usable so I'll be covering some of those issues here along with a few other things that came up along the way.

I guess I should start with the headline news that after a month I'm still using Win 7 and I have to hand it to Microsoft it's pretty good. That's not to say it's all been sunshine and roses. I'll try and use the same headings as my XP article but first the setup process:

Set Up & Crapware

I've always believed that at least 25% of the reason people love Macs and tolerate PCs is the dreadful state that Windows machines are in when they get to a punter. PC manufacturers make on average an extra £50 on every PC they sell due to shipping a machine full of hard to remove trials, toolbars and useless expensive services. On my PC I had: An app launcher, a game download service, online storage, a dell support program, a music download service, MS works and the expected overpriced antivirus. Unsurprisingly crapware vendors don't like to make their applications easy to remove and the standard Add Remove Programmes dialogue isn't really up to it. I quickly found a couple of tools which made life a lot easier. Revo Uninstaller Pro is a superb tool which makes removing unwanted crap a breeze and also cleans up any leftover files and registry entries as well as featuring a number of other useful tools beyond the scope of this article. For this less technically inclined PC Decrapifier is a simple one click solution that finds crapware and removes it.

Set up was in all other respects a breeze. There are any number of nice little touches down to the comprehensive selection of well thought out system sounds and wallpapers which can be selected using a simple personalisation menu.


I'm going to have to start with a bad one I'm afraid; Internet Explorer is still a joke. Microsoft are going to have to find some way to keep all those crappy IE 6 apps while embracing open standards or Firefox and Chrome are going to eat them for breakfast. I lasted about 10 minutes with IE 8 before downloading Firefox, but to be fair I would probably do the same on a Mac as I'm no fan of Safari.

Media Playback

I use Spotify for my music needs so I can't really comment on Windows Media Player or Media Center for managing your media library, but as a minimalist media player it's very usable and has a very much improved set of codecs compared to XP. In fact I didn't really feel the need to download any other media player software for a month and then only because I needed to work on AMR format audio which is fairly obscure.

Under this heading I will also mention that the photo viewer application is also really rather good even when viewing photos on a remote server.


This is one of the obvious big changes from XP/Vista. The taskbar is a huge improvement. Quicklaunch and the main application area are merged and applications with multiple windows are neatly handled with Aero Peak which shows a thumbnail of all that apps open windows when you hover over the icon. The system tray also looks a lot cleaner and has a really nice interface for hiding icons or restricting popups. Hopefully the days of the irritating popup frenzy system tray are over.

Overall I still think the OSX doc is tidier but I didn't really feel any urge to install Rocket Dock

The Start Menu

The start menu is also a big improvement over XP (Though perhaps not Vista). The main plus is that its fully searchable so when you hit the Windows key you simply start typing the name of the app and it instantly takes a guess at the app or folder you are after as you type. It doesn't offer all the functionality of a dedicated tool such as Launchy, but again it's good enough that I don't feel I need anything else.

File Management

Explorer has a few nice tweaks like breadcrumbs and better support for zip files.

A couple of gripes would be that Explorer lacks tabs and support for ISO disk images is very limited.

Window and Desktop Management

Ok here is my first serious beef. No virtual desktops. I my opinion this is totally unacceptable. Even XP had a powertoy which gave you 4 desktops. It also makes very little sense because I have been very impressed with Win 7s ability to handle multiple screens and surely it can't be a big jump from one to the other. The only reason I can think of is that the feature was vetoed by the Office team as Office 2007 works both appallingly and inconsistently with virtual desktops.

The worst thing was I couldn't find a tool which worked well with the Win7 toolbar. This was the first issue that nearly caused me to reach for the Ubuntu disc but luckily someone pointed me in the direction of the new beta version of Virtuawin which works seamlessly. It's still a big black mark though.

In general window management is very good. The new Aero Snap features which let you maximise and split screen windows with a gesture are excellent and I find myself trying to use them on other operating systems. The window switcher is also improved with life snapshots and an optional groovy 3D window fly though feature.

Software Updating

As I mentioned in my XP article the ability to seamlessly update all of the software on my machine with one simple automatic interface is something that is only available in Ubuntu. the same is true of the Ubuntu software store which provides a great source of trustworthy free software.

Windows updates seem less obtrusive but no great improvement from XP.


My biggest tip to anyone using Windows is DON'T PAY FOR VIRUS PROTECTION!!!!

Microsoft have a free antivirus product called Security Essentials which integrates seamlessly and outperforms all of the commercial applications. It's a terrible shame that people are being screwed by charlatans like Symantec when MS would probably include it in the OS if they didn't fear a lawsuit from the EU.

I get the impression that Win 7 seems pretty secure and as a Linux user I don't mind having to give permission to allow an administrative action. My wife has been freaked out by malicious popups on websites claiming virus infection. Of course the computer was in no danger, but it's easier to laugh it off if you are using a Mac or Linux.

Media Sharing

OK here is my other big bitch. Out of the box my laptop could not access the shared folders on the Linux server on my home network. The problem is due to Windows requiring authentication which most versions of Linux don't support. Fixing this required a lot of messing about with registry settings and lots of rebooting. This would be galling enough, but moves to the realms of infuriating when you realise that if I had Win7 business I could use a built in app called Secpol to fix the issue with a single click. Mac and Linux users don't have to make do with crippled operating system versions and I don't see why I should have to either.

Now you might say I'm a geek and this is a geeks issue which I knew how to fix, but lots of people buy network drives to backup photos and these nearly all run on Linux. For these users their photo back up drive becomes a brick.

On a positive tack my Laptop automatically appears in the menu on my Playstation 3 and seamlessly streams HD video to it without a glitch. Very impressive.

Other Thoughts

Overall Win7 seems very customisable and user friendly. I've been impressed by the audio stack which allows you to change between the internal soundcard and a USB soundcard while Windows Media Player is playing and have it seamlessly switch playout without a glitch (XP would require an app restart). Lots of people think the Aero Glass window theme looks tacky but I think it looks very clean and adds some candy without getting in the way.

One omission is that seemed a little bizarre is that Win7 supports customisable log in screens but requires a reg hack to make it work.

The start up and shutdown speeds are acceptable but not amazing and of course with Windows you are limited to a DOS Window rather than the power and elegance of a Bash shell.


Overall I think Windows 7 is a huge improvement over XP and Vista. I think I still appreciate the power and flexibility of Ubuntu and if I didn't need Windows 7 for drivers and such it would be a hard decision which I would use as my main OS. With today's announcement of Windows 7 phone it seems like after a few years of getting an whipping in the technical stakes from Apple, Google and the open source community. Microsoft might finally be getting their act together.

Monday, January 25, 2010

How To Buy A Laptop

This is the second post in my planned three part epic inspired by my recent purchase of a new laptop.

Buying a laptop is a daunting thing to do. They represent a fairly hefty investment and they aren't very upgradable. If you aren't especially tech savvy then the problem is even worse.  Now I'm a geek, before purchasing anything I like to spend a vast amount of time doing research, but I know that most people don't have the time for that kind of rainman like focus. Luckily I'm also a maven, someone who must share the results of their geeky endeavours. With that in mind I thought I would share my advice from my recent
laptop purchase. I'm planning to keep it free from specific recommendations so I don't need to keep updating it all the time, but instead focus on more general advice which was true five years ago and will most likely be true in another five years. First up don't listen to people in high street shops. Without wanting to be excessively harsh if you know very much about computers you can get a much better job than working in PC World and most of the people I have spoken to have ranged from pleasant but clueless to pushy salesman and clueless with the common theme being clueless. Now I don't doubt there is the odd star but on the whole unless you can find a privately owned shop with someone who seems trustworthy then take any advice proffered with a pinch of salt. Adverts on the TV are all about confusing sounding big numbers without concern for what I consider to be more fundamental considerations.


The first category I would suggest you think about is reliability. A system failure will reduce your prize notebook into a paperweight with a hinge in the middle. The sorry fact is that on average one third of laptops don't make it to their third birthdays. Now you might wonder why you seem to to get so much more for your money if you buy a laptop from one of the giants of the industry such as HP or Acer and the simple answer is build quality Check out this survey from Squaretrade. The reason you pay a chunk more for an Asus or Sony laptop is because there is a significantly bigger chance that it will still be running a few years down the line.

Build Quality

My second consideration was build quality. My old laptop was a 7 year old Toshiba, though it was creaky and on its last legs I was loathe to get rid of it because it had the best keyboard I've ever used. Though you may know nothing about computers this is something you can easily check out in a shop. Does the keyboard have a positive clicky feel? When you rest your hands on it to type does it flex and buckle? Do the plastics seem high quality?  Try applying a gentle twisting force to the top of the screen, if it bends too easily it's not going to last. The same applies for the hinges if they aren't smooth and solid now laptop and screen may not stay attached all that long. Build quality was so fundamental to my choice that with my limited budget I chose the lowest specced model of a better built line rather than going for maximum specs in a cheap chassis.

Now on to the more usual stuff people thing about when they compare laptops.


Once upon a time the clock speed was a pretty good indicator of the performance of a processor, but with the advent of multicore processors keeping the processor fed with data is just as important as the speed it can deal with the data meaning cache size and front side bus speed is just as important. If it sounds like hard work to figure out what constitutes a decent processor then you would be right but luckily you can look at this list from notebook check to figure it out. The higher up the chart it comes the better it is. My laptop has the lowest spec that Dell will sell you in the current lineup, but it does a perfectly good job so I wouldn't worry about it too much though it is one of the components  that you can't easily upgrade.


Put simply the more RAM you have the better. Modern operating systems love to eat up RAM especially office type apps. The good news is that RAM is one of the easiest bits of a laptop to upgrade so it's not the end of the world if you need more down the line.

Hard Disk

The headline number for hard disks is always the amount of storage. Frankly unless you want to store a ton of HD video you don't really need a terabyte hard drive in a laptop, but what will make a big difference is the speed of access. Hard disks are by far the slowest components in a PC and most high street laptops come with a slow disk (5200 RPM in 2010 numbers) upping this will chop a lump off the time your lappy takes to boot up. If your budget will stretch to it a solid state disk net you a huge performance boost and give you a machine that's much less likely to die if you drop it though as with RAM it's a pretty easy home upgrade so you can wait and pick one up when they inevitably plummet in price over the next year or two.


There are two types of graphics set ups, those that share memory with the processor (called Integrated or Shared) and those which have their own memory (Called Dedicated). If you aren't interested in 3D games then don't give this a second thought, but if gaming is your bag then you are going to need something with dedicated graphics. As a rule of thumb a machine with integrated graphics will not be able to run games at all, the average machine with dedicated graphics will probably play games from a couple of years ago on decent settings and modern games on low settings. If you want top flight games performance you will need a gaming laptop. Personally I consider these a waste of time. By my calculations for the price of a gaming laptop your could pick up a desktop PC that would blow it away and still have change for a decent laptop. Worst of all they are pretty rubbish at being a laptop generally being large and heavy with terrible battery life and a tendency to overheat. As with processors, graphics cards are a mass of confusing numbers, but you can head to notebook check for a performance league table.

If you are interested in what my wranglings led me to, I ended up picking up a basic Dell Studio 15 though I was also impressed with the Sony FW series. In the end the awesome offer prices on the direct from Dell website swayed me and I'm very happy with the machine though as I suspected customer service leaves a little to be desired.

In my final article I'm going to talk about my impressions of Windows 7, what I like about it, what I think is lacking and what you can do to fix it.

Monday, January 18, 2010

How To Make Windows XP Feel Like A New OS With Some Killer Productivity Apps

With my new laptop due to finally arrive tomorrow I'm planning to blog my experiences with Dell and more importantly with Windows 7, but before I do i thought it might be worthwhile to explain why stock Windows XP doesn't really do it for me and suggest what you can do to make it a little bit more bearable if you have to use it at work, or squeeze a bit more performance out of it if you can't afford to upgrade your machine. If you are tech savvy enough I would suggest installing Ubuntu Linux, but I'm assuming if you are reading this guide that's not really an option for you.

First up a couple of fairly obvious ones:

Web Browser

The problem: There are no two ways about it Internet Explorer is an absolute dog. The German government is even recommending that people stop using it due to the pathetic level of security offered.

The Solution: Installing Firefox is pretty much the first thing I do when I get my hands on an XP box.

Media Player

The Problem: Windows Media Player 10 is also well past it. The interface is ugly and unintuitive, It can't play common formats like AAC and MPEG4, Music library management functions are virtually non existent and worst of all it once destroyed (and I mean literally destroyed) my wife's MP3 player by crashing during a sync even though it was the model featured in the Microsoft "Plays For Sure" advert.

The Solution: VLC is like the Swiss army knife of media players. It's almost impossible to find a file it won't play and it has a mass of other useful features. Media Monkey is a superb app for managing your music library and has loads of great features for ripping CDs and syncing MP3 players.

Now on to some stuff which if you have only ever used XP you might not even realize is much nicer on other platforms:

The Task Bar

The Problem: Once you have a lot of Windows open the task bar gets cluttered, The system tray quickly gets swamped with junk and the whole thing looks very tired.

The Solution: Rocket Dock is a very nifty piece of software which apes the behavior of the Mac Dock and makes managing Windows a lot easier. With this installed you can set the bar to auto-hide and forget about it

The Start Menu

The Problem: You don't have to install very many applications before the whole thing get completely clagged up and you can't find anything.

The Solution: You can put your favorite apps on Rocket Dock, but for a solution which works for the hundreds of apps you doubtless have installed you want to get Launchy. Launchy pops up when you hit a certain key combination and works out what application or file you want as you start to type its name in. I was skeptical when it was recommended to me, but now I can't imagine living without it. Mac and Linux owners have had access to these features for ages thanks to Spotlight and Do so it's time you got in on the party.

Virtual Desktops

The Problems: If you've never used a machine with virtual desktops you probably don't know why you would want them but once you get used to having three or four different desktops multitasking at home or work becomes so much easier. For example my work machine has 4 desktops split by function between e-mail, internet, software development, and documents which lets me instantly jump to a screen set up for my needs.

The Solution:Dexpot is a superb virtual desktop manager with stacks of great features like allowing different wallpaper on each desktop.

Software Updating

The Problem: I only used my old XP desktop once in a blue moon and so when I logged in it was not uncommon to discover that in addition to Windows update I could have: Virus Scanners, Adobe Acrobat, Java, Quicktime, Flash, etc pop up and demand to be updated each with a separate dialogue to click through. On Ubuntu all the applications update themselves through the same mechanism that updates the operating system.

The Solution: I've never found one, but if anyone out there can tell me they will go straight to the top of my Christmas list.