Kindle Fire HD 7″ Tablet

kindlefirehdWhile waiting on my pre-ordre of the new Kindle Paperwhite e-book reader, I decided to browse the Kindle Fire HD series of tablets. In retrospect, that might have been a mistake, because I promptly cancelled my pre-order of the Paperwhite and bought a Fire HD 7″ tablet instead.

These are my impressions after using the Kindle Fire HD for less than 24 hours, having had no experience with it prior to this day. First impressions are important. My first impression of the Fire HD is that it doesn’t instantly grab me in the same way the first iPad did.

Where’s the power button, for crying out loud? You would think use testing would have revealed that the power button is impossible to find–not good. On the iPad, there’s an actual button, and actual pair of volume buttons, and a real-life Home button. On the Fire HD, none of the above.

Eventually, you’ll find that the smooth black edge of the Fire HD has a slight break that reveals a button that’s indistinguishable from the black edge without using a fingernail. Again, I have to ask, who thought this was a good idea? Anything that takes me out of the app to screw with the hardware is a VERY BAD THING.

You don’t want your users losing track of where they are in an app to find the stupid buttons that should be easy to find via touch–one sense. If I need to use to senses–touch and sight–and even then have problems, well, we have a problem with the device. In this image, you can just see the power button to the right of the similarly inconspicuous volume buttons. Some might think this is nit-picking, but I feel it’s very nearly a deal killer and am already thinking of ways to enhance the buttons. A case with button openings would solve the problem.

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Why such a stickler? Don’t misunderstand, I like this device, which is a terrific value. But what if you need to quickly power off or turn down the volume, while distracted? Navigating even the “Favorites” icon at the upper right is not an option while distracted or in a hurry.

Do the rest of the hardware specs really matter when usage is flawed from the moment you try to power up? I’m not sure because I’m already annoyed with this device. Yes, of course that’s unfair and subjective. I can forgive the button flaw in time. And, this isn’t a review so much as it’s a personal op-ed. For a real review, try Tom’s Hardware.

The apps are the usual Android fare with Amazon’s own custom dashboard and apps built in (extending the Android OS 4.1 “Ice Cream Sandwich”). It takes a little research to find good alternatives to familiar iOS apps, which was not a sales point for me. I knew this was an Amazon device that did not have full access to the Google Play store without a bit of tinkering. I purchased it specifically because it is an Amazon device. If it were merely an Android tablet, with the annoying buttons, I might have been satisfied with the Amazon apps installed–but more likely I would have returned it.

As an Amazon Kindle device, the integration with my Amazon accounts is impressive and very, very welcome. I have an Amazon Prime account which was instantly recognized when I entered my Amazon login credentials. Also seamless was integration with my Amazon Audible account for audiobook access. The content is presented extremely well. Whispersync for Voice reads a Kindle e-book to you with professional narration (via the audiobook edition), with real-time highlighting of the e-book. This is a remarkable feature and one of the three major selling points for me.

I spend about 50% of my iPad time in the evenings browsing Amazon products, reading and writing reviews, managing wishlists. I don’t spend a lot of money in online stores, I just enjoy Amazon primarily for the book listings, and secondly for the media content. I’m also a bargain hunter, usually buying from Amazon resellers rather than buying new products. For instance, the Kindle Fire HD that I’m reviewing here was purchased from a reseller at a significant discount from the full retail price of $159 (which was very reasonable already).

I like the Fire’s user interface, especially the Carousel that shows a revolving icon show of the most recently used apps, albums, movies, and even web sites visited. The carousel adds albums downloaded from the Amazon Cloud, and my first reaction was to remove them from the carousel until I learned to just leave items alone and allow the carousel to sort by usage. My most used apps and content take turns sitting in the top 10 spots for easy access. I like this sorting mechanism better than category links to get to my stuff–and infinitely more than page after page full of app icons (e.g. iOS and Android proper).

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The ultimate test for me is whether the Kindle Fire HD easily replaces one or more of my other gadgets (preferably more than one). The iPad set a very high standard. My original 1st-gen iPad is aging, so I’m looking for a new tablet to replace it. The full-size 8.9″ Fire HD would certainly do the trick. A better comparison here would be an iPad Mini, in which case the Fire HD wins hands-down due to the higher resolution. (Keeping in mind, though, that this current-gen Fire HD can only handle 720P, not full 1080P). The question depends on what apps I use on the iPad. I use it entirely for entertainment–no e-mail, no productivity apps (although I own Pages and Numbers, I rarely use them now), no music. The main apps I use are Netflix, Chrome, Amazon Shop, and about 100 games. Since all of these are possible with the Fire HD, then for my usage it can replace an iPad, although the full-size Fire HD would be a better choice there.

Secondly, can it replace my 3rd-gen iPod Touch? Besides music, I also listen to Audible audiobooks with my iPod, so that’s an easy win for the Kindle–it’s Audible integration is much better. A 4th-gen iPod would be a stronger contender since the Audible app can download content directly, while the 3rd-gen requires an iTunes sync. Portability is a fail since the Kindle is too big and heavy to stick into a pocket for a jog or hike. It does succeed, though, as an audiobook player in the car. So on this front, it’s about 50/50. Since this isn’t solely to replace the iPod, that is a bonus. I might get away with not needing a next-gen iPod as a result.

Thirdly, will it replace my two-year old Kindle Touch? Hmm, that’s a more difficult question than the previous two, oddly enough. On the one hand, the Fire HD supports Whispersync for Voice, which I like very much. But, it’s twice as heavy as the Kindle Touch. I have medium-sized hands and don’t mind the weight–I’m used to holding an iPad for hours at a time already. But, the truly great thing about the Kindle Touch is it’s light weight. It literally feels like a paperback novel. In that respect, the Fire HD does not quite succeed and I find myself still wanting a new Kindle Paperwhite. (The cancelled pre-order might have to be re-pre-ordered after all).

Again, it comes down to usage. I love to read outside in the sunlight on my porch chair or lounger. But, admittedly, I only do that about 10% of the time, spending far more time reading in my home-office, the living room, or a cafe during lunch on work days. The 80/20 rule applies. In this regard, due to the extra weight, lower battery life, and readability issue, it only replaces my Kindle Touch 50% of the time.

In conclusion, I find that I have mixed feelings about the Kindle Fire HD. I was hoping it would replace two or three other devices. It might replace an iPad most of the time, and an iPod most of the time, but a Kindle reader only part of the time. In other words, it is not an all-in-one replacement and I find myself still preferring a Paperwhite for reading. There’s just something about the ultra-light weight of the dedicated Kindle that a media powerhouse tablet can’t provide. It does everything else extremely well. It will probably get more use than my iPad and iPod once the alternatives to all of my preferred iOS apps are discovered.

 

Why I Can’t Give Up My World of Warcraft Account

wowhackedI started playing World of Warcraft (WoW) in January, 2005, shortly after it was first released, back at the time before any expansions were available and the level cap was 60. Back then, also, it took forever to get to level 60! Today, not so much; it’s possible to level a new character up to 90 in a couple weeks if you’re a mad player. Back then, no matter how many hours you put into it there was still a huge amount of grinding required to get to 60.

I don’t play WoW any more, having stopped with the Lich King expansion. A year ago, my account was hacked, necessitating an intervention to recover my characters and their supplies. Curious, I activated both of my accounts and played for a while, with the kids taking turns as well during that single month. It turns out my PC had a problem that caused the game to log off repeatedly, impossible to play. A year later, with a shiny new PC (i5 Haswell, GF 660, 8GB DDR3), I’m much more likely to be able to play successfully without issues.

But, why bring it up after so long? The last time we played regularly was in 2010 at the launch of Cataclysm. My accounts were still Lich King level, so we did not try out any of the new Cataclysm content beyond the 10-day free trial. It was fun, enjoyable. Not worth $39.95, but still a quality product.

Around this time last year, 2012, my accounts were hacked, and I reported the incident to Blizzard, like I said. This just happened again today. Someone hacked my first account, and actually paid $55 (their CC, not mine) to transfer my highest character to a new faction and server. There’s maybe 2,000 gold and misc gear, fairly good stuff but not top-tier. Hardly worth $55. So, I don’t know why someone would do that, but they did indeed, and Blizzard reversed all the damage to that and other characters (and a small, old guild bank).

Here is part of the email Blizzard sent me after restoring my accounts.

“Thank you for your patience . . . We have concluded our investigation . . . The items will be attached to an in-game mail which expire after 90 days.”

I got this notice after getting my inactive WoW accounts restored. Now, if I want my gear and gold to survive this incident, I have to log in and get the stuff out of the mailbox. Which means, I have to subscribe for $16 for one month in order to check the mail, because the mail will expire in 90 days.

Maybe that’s the only reasonable way to fix a hacked account, by sending all the stolen gear back to you via in-game mail. But I can’t check the mail without subscribing again.

Now, I have to log in again to get all the gear back where it belongs, if I ever intend to play again in the future. Realistically, Mists of Pandaria will likely be the last expansion to this aged game. I have no intention of buying it, since somewhere along the way I ended up buying Cataclysm for only one month of play.

No, there are so many better ways to spend my time and money, I have no desire to reactivate WoW. It makes me wonder if this isn’t a conspiracy by Blizzard, done to long inactive accounts, to get them to reactivate? Is that really as paranoid as it sounds? I don’t believe that, because some fool spent $55 to hack my account, probably intending to pick up gobs of gold, not realizing that our characters were rather poor from disuse.

It costs approximately $16/month per account, or $32 for both. I just purchased Skyrim Legendary for $37 from Amazon, to put that price into perspective–and Skyrim has at least a thousand hours of gameplay available if I choose to do everything again (already played it through on the Xbox 360, now looking to enjoy it again with better graphics on my PC).

I’m stuck with a dilemma, and I already know what I”m going to do, but it’s painful. Or is it? Do I really care about all of our old characters enough to want to spend $32 just to pick up their gear from the mailbox? I DO, but I’m not going through with it again this time. I found the gameplay changes in the last two years to be ruinous and I stopped playing because it just wasn’t fun any more.

Not when there’s Civilization V, and Skyrim, and Minecraft, and . . .

 

 

The Elder Scrolls Anthology Released Today for $79

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This looks like a great collection for an Elder Scrolls fan, as it includes the entire series in one package with an attractive fold-out binder (which reminds me of the Star Wars blu-ray collection). All 5 games are included: Arena, Daggerfall, Morrowind, Oblivion, and Skyrim. The first two games are dated and run in DOS emulation (with mixed results, as these types of games tend to be–personally, I don’t like DOSbox games beyond the novelty experience). All DLCs/expansions are included with each game, including the three for Skyrim released last year.

Having played Skyrim through on Xbox 360, with the expansions, I do still feel that it’s worth playing again on the PC for the improved graphics and user interface. The graphics quality on the 360 was “nice” but not that great compared to what’s possible with the PC version (especially with quality mods installed).

Divinity 2: The Dragon Knight Saga Movie Starring Jeff Bridges

Divinity 2: The Dragon Knight Saga, is a highly rated action RPG for PC and consoles that is being made into a movie starring Jeff Bridges with the title of SEVENTH SON. This announcement is not official but it’s *OBVIOUS* from the movie trailer that this is, indeed, a movie based closely on the game. Either the script writer was a fan and pulled the plot directly out of the game, or he/she was working with the lead designer. The title of the movie is Seventh Son.

As far as I can tell from Google searches, no one has put this together yet. I recognized the characters and plot instantly upon viewing the trailer as I have been playing Divinity 2 (it was recently on sale on Xbox Live for $5.00). The most significant similarity is a woman who can shape-shift into a dragon. In Divinity 2, that is also the case, but the woman is also the LAST of the Dragon Knights, and it’s the player’s task to hunt down and kill her.

Take a look and let me know what you think! Am I on track here or is there just a passing resemblance? The first 15 minutes of gameplay reveals everything you need to know, so if you haven’t played the game yet, hurry up because the movie is scheduled for release in early August!

 

Halo for Atari 2600?!

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It’s kind of hard to imagine, but someone has ported Halo to the ancient Atari 2600 (circa 1978). WOW. Here’s a review with additional photos. How does this work, you may wonder? To quote George Carlin (aka Rufus): “Modern technology, William!”

Collectors and fans have managed the impossible, and have been doing it for several years (under MY RADAR! or maybe I haven’t been paying proper attention). Yes, this is a legitimate Atari 2600 cartridge that works in an actual Atari 2600 system (including the newer models retro-fit with cartridge slots).

Now, here’s the thing. This isn’t just a fan game created by just anyone. It was created by Ed Fries. Don’t recognize the name? He was the VP of Microsoft Game Studios during the development of the original Xbox, and was instrumental in bringing Bungie (and, thus, Halo) in to Microsoft Games in 2000.

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If you want a physical copy of HALO 2600 for your Atari (I can’t believe I just wrote that!), check out the online store at AtariAge.com (here’s the link). Just don’t expect it to come cheap–manufacturing the cartridge, box, and manual costs quite a bit. I’m glad someone had the motivation and willpower to invest some money into creating new-old games like this!

And, incidentally, this is not the only retro Atari 2600 game available–there are several more produced with similar high quality materials. This almost makes me want to buy an Atari 2600 on ebay. Almost. I’ll have to stick with MAME! But I wonder if Halo 2600 is available as a ROM file?

 

Building And Restoring Classic Arcade Games

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It has been a very long time since I’ve talked about building an arcade cabinet! The last time I looked into it, I had considered building a MAME PC but did not have time to follow through with the carpentry required to either build one from scratch or buy a new one (which were quite expensive at the time).

I bought an original Asteroids cabinet last week from a local classified ad.  It is not functional. When I picked it up, the guy showed me that it would power up the marquee on top, and the self-test would produce beeps, and there was an audio hum. But by the time I got it home, it wouldn’t power up at all any more. Didn’t really expect to get the original electronics to work but it would have been sweet if it had. I actually found a troubleshooting site that described exactly what would cause it to fail the way it was running that night, with the constant hum, no CRT, etc. But now it’s completely DOA.

So, I have several options here.

  1. Try to restore the original electronics
  2. Install an aftermarket JAMMA system
  3. Turn it into a MAME cabinet with X-Arcade hardware

The cabinet itself is clean but not in “great” shape up close. I have it in a spare room where it will get completely disassembled and cleaned up. I might sell off the old boards on ebay.

Sometime in the mid-1980s, the arcade industry standardized on a circuit board design that made servicing them easier–a standard called JAMMA. Here’s a list of games with JAMMA boards in them.

There are now aftermarket multi-game JAMMA boards available that plug right into the old JAMMA-based arcade games. (In fact, if you aren’t careful when shopping, you might end up with a JAMMA aftermarket system instead of original electronics). The so-called “JAMMA” multi-game boards (such as the 60-in-1) are not original NOS boards but aftermarket boards that basically emulate the included ROMs and can interface directly with the original buttons, joysticks, and even the coin doors.

The really compelling aspect of a JAMMA system is that you can restore an original arcade cabinet with all new electronics if you don’t want to recycle the cabinet (kind of a shame, usually). The JAMMA multi-game boards (like the 60-in-1) can be set so only certain games come up in the menu–or you can disable all but one game and have it come up by default! A JAMMA board with power supply and wiring harness is only about $100. That’s all you need–you’re done at this point, just hook it all up.

Going the MAME route, you can replace all of that original stuff with X-Arcade parts, from joysticks, buttons, to even a working coin door. Going the “MAME PC” route with X-Arcade hardware is probably the easiest for a PC gamer since you’re just building a gaming PC in a cabinet. I didn’t like this approach at first because it implies a PC boot up, but in fact, most MAME cabinets use “wake on LAN/USB” to instantly wake when you hit a button so that would be cool. As for the MAME “PC”, you don’t have to install a whole PC case, just mount everything inside the cabinet which itself is a huge case.

So, I haven’t decided what to do just yet with Asteroids. My first inclination is to restore just “Asteroids” with a JAMMA board, while the remaining games are disabled, to at least bring life back to this arcade classic. It might not be *THE* Asteroids 6502 CPU, RAM chips, ROM chips, in hardware form, but the ROM binaries are the same. I do get the difference, knowing that you’re actually playing on the original hardware is compelling. But that would require a working system and this one is too far gone for my limited IEEE skills. I can handle a soldering iron–I did mod a few Xboxes after all–but this type of repair requires a digital multi-meter to test, diagnose bad chips, and replace them. Way beyond my ability!

So JAMMA is a good alternative. And apparently it’s happening a lot out there in arcade retro land. Some “original” cabinets owned by people probably have JAMMA replacements and they don’t even know it. No harm done, right? Ignorance is bliss? If the game plays the same, looks the same, sounds the same, then it’s better this way than using the cabinet for fire wood.

Meanwhile, X-Arcade has a compelling dual arcade joystick for $129 that’s hard to pass up. Just plug into your PC’s USB port and you have an instant MAME PC with authentic controls. I think it might be fun to just pick up one of those controllers. And, if you like it, the joysticks, buttons, and USB interface card can be purchased separately as parts to install in to a real cabinet!

Here’s some inspiration!

 

Diablo III Coming To Xbox 360 and PS3

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It’s true, Diablo III is coming to consoles! Having only ever played the demo version on my PC, it was always once of those games I’d intended to buy and play but never got around to since release. I’d originally played the first game way back in 1996-97 on battle.net via dialup and consider it the most memorable, intoxicating game of the decade. I even have the soundtrack.

The official release date is 09/03/2013.

Blizzard Press Release

IGN Story

 

MechWarrior Online

MechWarrior Online is out of beta and ready for play as a AAA-class browser game.

http://mwomercs.com

I am extremely impressed with the game, although my PC specs are woefully out of date, requiring a downgrade of the resolution and settings. Nevertheless, it is fun, engaging, has replay value, and, well, it’s FREE. But, I would have paid for it, which is a good sign that they did a good job with the game. Thus, I might consider supporting the team by buying some in-game items. The grind is not exactly MMORPG-caliber, as you do gain funds and experience fairly quickly. After about 8 hours of total gameplay, I’ve bought and equipped my second ‘Mech, a medium-class, which does pretty well in battle. Looking forward to buying my own Heavy next–likely a Catapult (an upgrade of the old Mad Cat).

 

 

KOTOR for iPad

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For iPad!

In a story posted HERE, yesterday, it was announced that KOTOR (Knights of the Old Republic) has been ported to iPad, to celebrate the 10th anniversary of this epic, legendary BioWare game (originally for Xbox). I played the original game for a couple months back in 2003, and it was one of the most engaging games I’d ever played (despite the popular subject matter). The story was not original, as it was based on a Dark Horse comic series entitled Tales of the Jedi, which itself spawned several follow-up comics. Then, in a twist, Dark Horse published a new series with the title Knights of the Old Republic around 2007-08 (a 50-issue run), based loosely on the video game. In more recent times, of course, there’s the BioWare MMORPG Star Wars: The Old Republic, which was based on, well, everything aforementioned.

Developed for the PC and Xbox by BioWare, the original Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic is widely considered one of the greatest role-playing games of all time and has received over 40 Game of the Year awards. Brought to iPad by leading Mac games developer Aspyr, the release also serves as a tribute to Star Wars fans around the world for their unwavering support and passion for the franchise.

“Being able to bring one of the most beloved Star Wars games to iPad for such a momentous event is an incredible honor,” said Elizabeth Howard, Aspyr’s vice president of publishing. “We have a long history at Aspyr of bringing the best games to Apple platforms, and as bona fide fans of the original release, we’ve worked to ensure that Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic for iPad lives up to its prodigious reputation.”

In Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, players are immersed in an epic saga that takes place 4,000 years before the Galactic Empire — a time when Jedi and Sith numbered in the thousands. The game features deep character customization, and branching storylines that lets players choose their alignment with the Force and change the outcome of the narrative in real time.

This first-ever mobile release brings the full Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic experience exclusively to the iPad. With hours upon hours of gameplay, the classic RPG includes user-interface enhancements for the touch-screen environment.

 

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The system requirements exclude the 1st-gen iPad, but that is to be expected for a robust 3D game.

Hardware: iPad 2 or newer
OS: iOS 6 or newer
Storage: 2GB