Wednesday, October 29, 2014

First Impressions: Sony Playstation 4

My brothers got me a PS4 for my birthday, so here are my first impressions. The first thing I did after unboxing the unit was to install an old Momentus XT hybrid SSD in place of the 5400rpm drive. It's not worth installing a brand new SSD onto the PS4 because that would cost as much as the console itself, but since I had a couple of the old drives around before SSDs became reliable enough to use on the laptops/desktops, I repurposed them as drives for the PS3 and PS4. This particular drive has a 7200rpm spinning platter, unlike the newer drives that utilize a 5400rpm platter. The net result is that even if the SSD cache on the drive doesn't get hit that frequently, the increased RPM should grant better performance compared with the OEM drive.

The experience of doing so was a snap. Unlike other vendors, Sony actually designed the system to make replacing drives easy. You slide back the left side of the device, exposing the drive bay, undo one screw, and slide out the caddy holding a 2.5inch drive. The OEM drive is 7.5mm thick, but Sony thoughtfully made the caddy such that it supports a 9mm drive, so the momentus fit with no problems. The OS install was painless and easy, though finding the power on button was surprisingly challenging, since there was no obvious button, just a touch sensitive pad.

Installing the device into my existing entertainment system was straightforward. One potential complication if you have an ancient analog receiver like I do, is that the PS4 doesn't support analog output, only HDMI. I redirected the audio to the analog receiver through the TV, but that adds lag, if that sort of thing bothers you.

Once the system boots up, it's clear that this is a different animal than the PS3. It boots up quickly, and you can quickly download multiple applications and games easily and quickly. Even logging onto Amazon Prime was easy as the controller felt less laggy than the PS3's. What's interesting to me is that the PS4 controller feels much more comfortable than the PS3's, so the ergonomic improvements are definitely very welcome. The controller also uses standard micro USB ports, and thankfully can be charged with any charger, unlike the PS3's which required special chargers. What is much appreciated is the headphone port on the controller: I could mute the TV and then playing using headphones attached to the controller. It'll even support a microphone headset, and the PS4 comes with one so you can chat. I eschewed the crappy PS4 default one for my Koss Portra Pros, and the sound was acceptable, though not as nice as when I plugged it into my Vita.

I stuck the Life of Pi into the PS4 and watched it with my wife. That's a gorgeous movie and the PS4 was more than capable of doing rendering the movie in gorgeous 1080p. I was very pleased, though you wouldn't buy a PS4 just to act as a Blu Ray player, knowing that it can serve the function is the major reason to go with one of the major video game consoles, as opposed to a Nintento Wii or Wii U, which can't serve as a general media player.

Vudu and Amazon Instant Video both installed nicely onto the PS4, as did YouTube (as of the 2.0 update). You're not missing anything over any of the other streaming sticks or streaming video boxes.

I've already completed one game, Resogun on the device, and it's definitely very impressive. One problem with the PS4 right now is that there aren't that many high quality titles out yet. I expect that to change over the next year, and look forward to being able to play console titles that my 5 year old desktop probably won't be able to keep up with. That's an unfair comparison, since the 5 year old desktop is driving a 1440p display, but that's how it goes.

One of the big benefits of having a PS4 and a Vita is that you can use the Vita as a remote play terminal for the PS4. The two sync up very nicely, and you can use the OLED screen to play games on the PS4 via remote play from any room in the house with decent wifi. This runs surprisingly smoothly with next to no lag, and lets you do things like play games while someone else uses the TV to watch streaming video, though you can't do that if your primary input into the TV is the PS4, so you need at least a secondary streaming device like the FireTV stick or Chromecast. Now, the problem with remote play is that in order to take advantage of it, you need to keep your PS4 in standby mode. Standby mode, however, consumes nearly half the power projected to be used by your PS4 over its lifetime, so it's not costless.

I'll maintain that right now is a bad time to buy a PS4, while it's the best time ever to buy a PS3. But if you already have a PS3 and are setting up a second room with a TV, then you might as well get a PS4. It's a sleek device, and does its job for anything except YouTube faster than the alternatives.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Review: Resogun

My brothers gave me a PS4 on my birthday, so the first thing I did was to download and fire up Resogun. I wasn't able to get into Housemarquee's previous big outing on the PS3, Super Stardust HD, because it was simply too hard. The original asteroids game just wasn't this hard.

Resogun's the spiritual successor to Defender, If you grew up in the 80s as a kid, you'll remember that Defender was amazingly, incredibly hard. The arcade box had 5 buttons and one joystick, and being an arcade game, had only one difficulty level: hard. Like Super Stardust HD, I expected to get my ass handed to me for about an hour and then I'd give up in frustration to try more modern games.

To my surprise, Resogun's easy difficulty level with unlimited continues allowed me to not only complete all 5 stages of the game, but also taught me how to get good enough to finish the game without continues a second time with a second ship. That's a first for me as far as an arcade style game is concerned, and that I continued to play despite finish the game once is a testament to how much fun the game is. Defender was never this much fun! I'm even tempted to bump u the difficulty level another time.

Like the original game, Resogun has you piloting a space ship through a horizontally wrapped world. Unlike the original, you can pilot the ship in one direction while firing in the opposite, though you cannot fire in any axis other than the horizontal. Enemies spawn and come at you almost constantly, though you can clear the board and gain a breather. As opposed to the hyperspace button, you have a "boost" button, which lets you zip around the board at speed. There's also an over-drive button, which puts the game into slow motion and turns your weapon into a solid beam that scorches enemies. Both buttons need to be recharged over time.

Finally, of course, there's the smart bomb, which clears the screen of enemies. There are enough differences from the original to knock you for a loop the first time you hit them. For instance, you can only pick up one human at a time, unlike the original. And rather than just picking it up, you can also deliver the human to an exit point to "save the human". Another interesting point of difference is that the humans rather than being free standing at start, begin by being locked into prisons, and when keepers show up, you have to destroy them to free a human for you to save.

The game is a scintillating cluster of colors, pixels, boxes, and moving pieces that are both retro and modern at the same time. The scrolling display is rendered in a 3D cylindrical view, and the music is as kinetic as you would expect. It takes you a split second at each introduction of a new enemy to figure out what it's doing and how best to attack it, and the same applies to the boss fights. After a single play through, certain events finally get a chance to filter into your consciousness and you start paying attention to them. "Keeper Detected", for instance, is an audio cue to let you know that those new enemies that are showing up have to be destroyed for you to free up a human. Once you've destroyed those, a shooting star animation takes place on the far side of the planet and you have to race there to rescue your newly freed charge. Fortunately, Housemarquee chose not to allow you to accidentally shoot your humans.

One of the best things about video games is that the good ones let you feel like a kid again. And Resogun definitely is one of the good ones. While I wouldn't get a PS4 just for Resogun, it's definitely worth picking up once you have one.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Review: Binary Domain

I started playing Binary Domain by accident. I was playing Killzone 2 and getting frustrated at one stage. That's the fault of the first person shooter experience: while you have no problem figuring out where you are, it's sometimes difficult to map where your enemies are relative to you because they're moving while you're moving, and if you're playing hide-and-seek like in that particular stage of Killzone 2, you can end up dying repeatedly because your mental map can't compensate for the AI's movements without a frustrating (to me) amount of repetition.

I ended up finishing Binary Domain first, because the third person shooter perspective is just more intuitive, and to me, more fun. The implementation in Binary Domain is also very well done. One of my favorite things about the Uncharted franchise is that you almost always have a buddy with you to help out during combat. Well, in Binary Domain, you can have up to 4-5 buddies, and sometimes the story divides you up into teams and you get to decide who to have on your team, which lends you the ability to customize your play experience. Your conversations and banter on the team will be very different depending on who you chose to take on any given mission.

What's more, there's a trust mechanic, where how you perform with each team member (buying them upgrades) as well as combat performance increases trust, and accidentally shooting them in combat lowers trust. This affects the ultimate outcome of the game and ending in various ways, which I think is pretty cool. Furthermore, at easy difficulty, the game is not frustrating, and the fact that you're shooting robots means that this is one of those games that's easy for a parent to let a child play.

What's more, the game's story is very good for a video game. It's set in a science fiction universe with global warming, robots, and even features ethical dilemmas which I thought were appropriate when we start mixing in AI along with advanced robotics. The problem here is that the game is very linear, so you're dragged along by the story and ultimately have no control over the ethics (or even your choice of love interest), but for what it's worth, this is not the usual poor story line game.

The big weakness of the game is the AI companions. They're just not very effective, even on easy mode. Now, part of it is by design: in the big boss fights, it'd be kinda lame for the player protagonist to not make the killing blow. However, it's also kinda silly to have a very long dragged out fight while your companions who seem to be competent the rest of the time suddenly be unable to hit the broad side of a barn. The other problem is that sometimes they blithely walk into your zone of fire, thereby causing you to hit them through no fault of your own. That's frustrating if you're trying to build a high trust level with the rest of the team.

But none of this was enough to keep me from playing the game all the way to the finish. It's a lot of fun, and while it doesn't beat Among Thieves, I think that it's a game that's under-rated by the standard gaming press reviews. Third person shooters are still rare as a genre, and this one is very well done. Recommended.

P.S. There's one final scene after the credits roll, so keep the game running through the end credits.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Review: The Flash Boys

Books about Wall Street have a way of being incredibly depressing. For instance, Elizabeth Warren's story about fighting Wall Street has a main theme, which is, "Bank meets consumer, Bank screws consumer, ad nauseum." I'm happy to report that The Flash Boys is an exception to this rule.

The book is about high frequency trading: the practice of front-running investor's trades electronically in order to capture the bid-ask spread. It's an obnoxious practice, but generates so much profit that the firms doing so are willing to spend hundreds of millions relocating servers to be closer to the exchanges. Obviously those folks are the villains of the book.

But the book does have a hero, IEX, co-founded by Brad Katsuyama. Lewis follows the discovery (by Katsuyama, amongst others) of the existence of HFT, the desire to build an exchange immune to predation through HFT, and the creation of IEX and its team. The story is told well, as compelling as any thriller you might have read, and I found myself turning its pages furiously. It's also a short read.

I tried to think of ways IEX was built that might make them prone to the kinds of conflicts of interests that have plagued other exchanges, but came up short, so I think Lewis has done the story justice, rather than just acted as PR agent for IEX.


Hat tip to Larry Hosken for pointing me at this book.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Review: The Inquisitor's Apprentice

I loved Chris Moriarty's Spin State, Spin Control, and Ghost Spin, so when I saw that she'd written a series of young adult books starting with The Inquisitor's Apprentice, I didn't hesitate to check them out from the library.

The Inquisitor's Apprentice is set in an alternative history turn of the century New York City. Those were heady times, and historical figures such as J.P. Morgan, Thomas Edison, Harry Houdini, and Teddy Roosevelt perform more than just cameo appearances in the novel, lending the novel a lovely "I've been there" feel.

The story's told from the view of Sacha, a 1st generation Jewish immigrant living in the tenements with his parents, who've escaped from Russia and lived through a harrowing past. Sacha discovers that he can see magic performed, and is then conscripted into being an Inquisitor's apprentice.

In this version of New York, magic is real (and everyone knows it), but is illegal, and an Inquisitor is a special department of the police force charged with policing the use of magic and the investigation thereof. Sacha's apprenticed to Inquisitor Wolf, one of the most prominent investigators of the era, and is swept up in a plot apparently intended to end the life of Thomas Edison.

This was an incredibly promising premise to the novel, and had me very excited to read it. The description of turn of century New York is awesome, and Moriarty's description of Jewish culture (especially that of Russian immigrants in New York) is authentic and feels real. The introduction of Jewish mythic elements in the form of the dybbuk, and integration into various pieces of city paraphernalia such as the rag and bone man and china town is well done and taps into your imagination.

Yet the novel falls flat. The protagonist, Sacha, is weak-willed and lily-livered. Rather than taking action, he's dragged into one event after another by his mentor, his friends, and his colleagues. He lacks common-sense, and has no self-control over his emotions. He's a thoroughly unlikeable protagonist, and unfortunately, I don't think it was intentional on Moriarty's part. I think she bent over backwards to make a heroine out of Sacha's cohort intern, Lily Astral, not realizing that she'd weakened her protagonist to the point of unlikeability.

The resolution of the novel is also incomplete, obviously setting up for the next novel in the series. I cannot recommend this novel over any of Moriarty's other novels, so I'm not sure I'd get around to reading The Watcher in The Shadows.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Review: Powerstation PSX-3 Jumpstarter/Air Compressor

My old cheapo tire inflator bit the dust, and I wanted a better unit. I figured that I might as well get one that could jump start a car as well, since that would eliminate the need for a power cable to the unit.

My preference is to buy on Amazon, but the PSX-3 is one of those items that's much cheaper at Costco, where it retails for $75 instead of the $120. My guess is that the heavy weight of the unit ensures that Amazon will never be price-competitive with Costco.

The unit charges fast and comes pretty much pre-charged. If you follow the instructions and top off the charge every month or so, it'll never take more than an hour to fully charge, even after using it to jump start a car, which I've done a few times.

The inflator has a gauge that's inaccurate (i.e., it under-reads by about 5psi), but if you're using it to top off your tires you should have an accurate gauge anyway.

The jump start is very easy to use, far easier than jump starter cables. You plug in both ends to a car battery, flip the switch on, and then start the car. No worries about sparks jumping, because you only flip the switch after using the alligator clips. It also comes with a flash light.

The unit's a little heavy, and I'm not sure you'd keep one in the car at all times (though it'd definitely be a must-have for car camping), since you'd have to charge it every month, but for what the unit does and the fact that I use it every month to top off the tires (and the occasional jump start), it's the cheapest unit I've found that does the job, and it's far more robust than the cheaper inflators I've seen.


Monday, October 20, 2014

Review: Hario Mini Mill

Lots of people raved to me about the benefits of grinding your own coffee from coffee beans rather than buying pre-ground coffee. It sounded like a good thing, but I wasn't willing to spend the big bucks that the electric burr grinders cost, nor did I really want to devote counter space to something that wouldn't necessarily get daily use, given that my experience with coffee enthusiasts seems to be that they'll rave about any minute changes in coffee, while I'm simply not that sensitive.

The Hario Mini Mill, at $25, seems worth a try. Sure, it's a hand grinder, so it'd take longer to grind, but on the other hand, the extra couple of minutes is just not a big deal, and if it doesn't work out I'm not out too much money. I bought the Major Dickason's blend, a highly rated coffee now on sale at Costco's for about $13 for a 2 pound bag. The net result is that this isn't quite an apples to apples comparison, since I was using Gaia's Organic pre-ground before.

The first thing I noticed was the aroma. The coffee beans definitely smell quite a bit more than the pre-ground. If you're into smells, this is probably the biggest difference between pre-ground and grinding your own. I'm not into smells.

The grinder's fairly easy to use. Set the grind, then pour coffee beans into it, and then grind. The grinding is very fast about a minute or so, so it's really not a big deal as far as your daily routine is. The big difference here is that grinding your coffee sets the coffee grounds much looser than using pre-ground coffee and scooping it using the Aeropress scoop. The result is you get much less coffee grounds out of 2 scoops of beans than 2 scoops of pre-ground. This makes a big difference, so while I was filling up the Aeropress to level 3 with 2 scoops of pre-ground, for a similar strength of coffee I'd only fill it up to 2 with my own grind.

The resultant coffee smells much stronger than the pre-ground stuff, and the coffee is very smooth. But the taste? I'm sorry, I just cannot tell the difference. If anything, I think the Major Dickason's doesn't taste as sweet as the Gaia pre-ground, but I cannot tell whether it's because of the difference between the coffees, or because the grinding makes the coffee worse.

I bought a can of the Kirkland Decaf (48ozs at $13), and the big difference seems to be that the pre-ground stuff is much harder to push through the Aeropress than the self-grounded coffee. And honestly, if you took away the grinder and made me drink the kirkland decaf, except for the missing caffeine, I'm not sure I'd prefer the self-ground coffee.

I'll keep the grinder, if only because a lot of variety of coffee beans don't come pre-ground, and I really don't feel like grinding it at the Costco grinders which don't ever seem to get cleaned. At $25, it doesn't seem unreasonable. But if you're a casual coffee drinker like me and aromas don't do much for you, I don't think I'd believe any of the coffee enthusiast's enthusiasm about self-grinded coffee. The smell thing is all the self-grinded coffee has going for it. It makes zero different to the taste as far as I'm concerned.

The biggest difference, I think is that the bother of grinding might make me drink less coffee, which isn't a completely bad thing (I'm at one cup a day).