Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Windows 9 will be a smashing hit!

I just spent some time with Windows 8 on a computer I purchased for a family member.  Windows 8 marks such a huge departure from Windows that you might consider either holding off a PC purchase, or just get a Mac or a Linux machine instead. Even a Mac will feel more familiar.

Some caveats before we start. I don't know all the terminology around Windows 8 (neither would any new user).  My primary Windows experience has been the Windows XP.  My primary system is Linux because I am a developer, and I use Windows really only for playing games. That said, I can claim some knowledge of computers.

My entire experience can be summed in two words: just baffling.
  1. Metro versus classic apps: this is a confusing minefield. The metro apps don't show up under Control Panel -> Programs. You can launch them only from the Metro interface, and then they take up the full screen where the UI is hilariously large. One of the applications I used was a third-party webcam application bundled with the computer. It had no close button, no menu bar, and the bottom was filled with immense Fisher-Price buttons. Luckily Alt-F4 still worked and closed the window.
    The real confusion here is that the Windows Taskbar no longer shows Metro applications. So the Task Bar doesn't show all running applications anymore. Alt-Tab moves you through Metro and classic applications, but they might as well be on two different systems. It felt like Metro apps were first-class citizens and classic was a Virtual Machine instance. In this world, why bother with the taskbar anymore?
  2. No overlapping Metro apps. Wow, and this isn't the first time that this was tried.
  3. Within minutes of using the new Start shell, I had to install Classic Start. The entire interface for launching applications is totally horrifically broken. To go into all applications, you have to press the Start button, and then click on the down arrow. Then you get an overwhelming list of every application there is, including websites like eBay.  How on earth are people supposed to navigate through this every time they start a new application?
  4. Settings -> "Search and apps" under the Metro Start shows completely different things from "Settings -> Programs" in the Control Panel in the Classic menu. Not just the names, the actual programs listed in the two is different. The Metro Settings contains programs that take 16kb: magical stuff like 'eBay' and 'Skype' which are most likely URLs. The Control Panel in the Classic menu contains the usual Windows XP items like McAfee, Windows .NET libraries. As far as I see, they have no intersection. "Search and apps" contains Metro apps, some of which are URLs and some of which are real programs. The distinction is deliciously vague, so some of them launch in Firefox, while others start an application.
  5. Screen-gestures to navigate around is retarded. There is no way I can use this on a daily basis without my right arm cramping up. Whoever came up with this probably doesn't use a PC for a living. I suspect the goal is to make it like a tablet: but a tablet use-case is so very different from a PC that they might as well be different appliances. And if you choose to use the trackpad for everything, the pointer traversal to go from one edge of the screen (charms) to the other edge of the screen (switcher) will quickly fatigue your fingers.
  6. UEFI secure boot. You can turn off secure boot to test out Knoppix or Ubuntu. But if you do, you get a prominent error message drawn on top of the bottom right of the screen. As far as I can tell, there is no way to turn off this annoyance. There is a special update to disable this watermark though.
  7. The default theme has insanely fat window borders. I looked for some sort of Classic Windows theme to make my window decorations sane again, but didn't find anything in the five minutes I spent on it. Turns our you either have to edit the registry or download a third-party application to do this.
  8. The menu bar on most Windows applications is the ribbon. Again, no way to turn this into something sane.
The entire operating system feels like a cruel joke. At many points I was amazed that this product actually shipped without someone realizing what a terrible idea this is. I suspect people used it on tablets where this works (better than Windows 7). Then they convinced themselves that PCs would be fixed in the next release and that capturing the tablet market was worth the head-shot to the PC users. The system is a Frankenstein-style collection of Chrome OS, Apple's App Store, and everyone's tablet UI bolted together on top of Windows. It feels like Windows 9 Early Preview Beta rather than Windows 8.

I predict huge adoption problems. This is Vista v2.  Microsoft has a crazy version of Intel's tick-tock cycle  where every alternate Windows is broken. The next release looks like cutting-edge engineering: Windows 95, Windows ME (dud!), XP, Vista (dud!), Windows 7, Windows 8(dud!).

Microsoft isn't alone. Canonical and Gnome tried this same story with Unity.  A team is given the mandate to do something daring, something refreshingly new and bold. They try it, and convince themselves that it works. Either external feedback is not solicited or they believe that once people spend enough time with it, they will grow to like it too. Unfortunately, the real world doesn't have an extra month to re-learn basic computer skills And the real world isn't invested in the Windows 8 outcome. If it doesn't work in the first week, it will be replaced by something that does, perhaps the previous version of the software. Perhaps the competitor's version. Forcing it down people's throat only makes them antagonistic and belligerent. I'm sure Unity is a lot better today. But Canonical's aggressive upgrade has pushed me towards XFCE and KDE.

Computers are an essential tool now.  Online discussions are filled with car-analogies, but that is not even close to reality. Most people spend an hour each day in a car, but many hours in front of a computer. Computers are as essential as your fingers.

Luckily you don't have to spend much money to get a feel for Windows 8. Just use your existing computer while wearing thick gloves.

(Broken Windows image courtesy: Wikipedia)

Monday, July 14, 2014

Game Review: Type:Rider

Want to play a fun platform game which is as enlightening as it is enjoyable? Pick up Type:Rider.

As I mentioned earlier, mainstream gaming is rehashing the same tired concepts. We don't need fifteen different World War 2 shooters made every year.  I don't have any numbers to prove it but I suspect that compared to the early days of gaming, there is less diversity in games. There are some gems, but if you look through the top titles of the past year, they are all familiar concepts.

So here is a platform game, which is a concept that has been done to death. But the main character is a set of two dots. And you move though a land of fonts, collecting alphabets and stars. For the stars that you collect, you get some information about the font that you  are currently exploring. It sounds very strange when written down like this, but it is really fun. The environments capture the mood of the time, and include the historical moment when that font was being developed. The atmosphere is brilliantly done, and the music beautifully matches the mood.

And the game mechanics change subtly. Different levels introduce new challenges. I'm past the half-way point but I haven't grown tired of anything yet. It is superb.

 Type:Rider is available for all the main platforms, including mobile. I purchased this as part of the Humble Bundle so I have tried this both on Android and PC, and I highly recommend the PC version. Games such as these require a good gamepad and touchscreen controls are not yet to the point where they are enjoyable. But that's just me, my friends have tried this on tablets and found it works great for them.

The one downside is that the game is devlishly hard towards the end, so I gave up half-way in the Pixel level. But I enjoyed the majority of the program and it was fun.

Image courtesy: The two dots.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Game Review: Need for Speed III Hot Pursuit

If you want to play a fun car racing and chasing game, get a copy of Need for Speed III: Hot Pursuit.  If you can find a 32-bit Windows XP machine, that is.

I've blogged earlier about being a patient consumer. You gain a lot when you play games that are old. By then the hype has died down, and the only games that survive are good games. So feast your eyes on the stellar reviews that Need For Speed III: Hot Pursuit gets on Amazon. Many of the reviews were written in the last few years. And used copies of this old game still sell for a good price.

I picked up this game as a bargain priced CD in 2003 with my room-mate, and we ended up racing in our college room. My room-mate had a game controller and was much better than me at games, so I usually lost. But the game was fun so I played it on and off since. I have tried other "Need For Speed" titles since, but they have all been sore disappointments compared to Need For Speed 3 (NFS3).

The game is just plain fun to play! You can race your car against the computer AI, or split-screen with a friend, or duel them on a TCP network. And you can be a cop and pull over racing cars and get points for that.  The graphics are pretty basic, so they load up super quick on most modern computers.  Since it is an old game, you never see annoying "Loading..." screens.  And if you know how to create an ISO image from a physical CD, you can store the entire disk on your hard-disk and load it up as virtual CD ROM drive, further speeding up access.  You get North American locations that look average: good enough while you are racing at breakneck speed and don't have time to smell the roses. You get to drive fun cars: Lamborghini, Corvette, ...

There are lots of things this game does right. The game starts with fun cars. There is no stupid career mode to artificially limit your options. In newer Need For Speed games, I am disappointed by the starter cars. They are worse than the decade-old car that I commute in. And if I put in the hours of mindless driving, then I'll be rewarded with a half-decent car. In NFS3, you start out with fast and exotic cars, and they all handle very well. There are a few bonus cars. I might have unlocked them in the past, but I don't any more. If memory serves well, the police Diablo was crazy good to drive. Oh wait a minute, let me unlock that. There, done.

In newer games, the night-time atmosphere feels nauseating and the depiction of women is demeaning. This game isn't about night-racing or crime. This game is about honest people racing in the daytime.

As a cop, you get points for apprehending racers.  This pursuit mode is great fun.  You turn your police siren on and drive like a madman to pull over the racers.  The non-racing traffic dutifully pulls over when your siren is on. Your goal is to pull over all the racers though it is tempting to race alongside them in your spiffy police vehicle.

This game is more fun than many Nintendo Wii and PC games I have played since. I haven't tried NFS3 in a virtual machine yet, but that is something I intend to do when my Windows XP machine finally dies.

I feel the game industry is chasing the wrong goals. Instead of making the games fun, we now have a focus on in-app purchases (which make the game mind-numbing) or spectacular graphics (which increase loading time). The only recent games I enjoyed have all been indie games. Mainstream gaming seems to be on a slow death-spiral, blissfully unaware. Luckily, we can continue playing old games till the industry gets back to its senses and starts making fun games again.

(Image courtesy: The fake cop)