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SolaRoad Demonstrates Working Solar Roads.

After the hubbub that Solar Freakin Roadways caused last year (ranging in tone from hopeful to critical) all seemed to have gone quiet on the potentially revolutionary road surface front. I don’t think anyone expected us to be laying these things down en-masse once the Indiegogo campaign finished but I’ve been surprise that I hadn’t heard more about them in the year that’s gone by. Whilst Solar Roadways might not have been announcing their progress from the rooftops there has been some definitive movement in this space, coming to us from a Dutch company called SolaRoads. Their test track, which was installed some 6 months ago, has proven to be wildly successful which gives a lot of credibility to an idea that some saw as just an elaborate marketing campaign.

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The road was constructed alongside a bike path totalling about 70m in length. Over the last 6 months the road has generated some 3,000kWh, a considerable amount of energy given the less than ideal conditions that these panels have found themselves in. Translating this figure into an annual number gives them around 70kWh per square meter per year which might not sound like much, indeed it’s inline with my “worst case” scenario when I first blogged about this last year (putting the payback time at ~15 years or so), but that’s energy that a regular road doesn’t create to offset its own cost of installation.

Like Solar Roadways the SolaRoad’s design is essentially a thick layer of protective glass above the solar panels which are then backed by a layer of rubber and concrete. Instead of the hexagonal tile design they’ve instead gone for flat panels which would appear to be more congruent road design although I’ll be the first to admit I’m not an expert in this field. By all accounts their design has stood the test of time, at least with the light load of cycling (although they claim it could handle a fire truck). The next stage for them would be to do a full scale replica on a road that sees a decent amount of traffic as whilst a cycleway is a good indication of how it will perform there’s nothing better than throwing the challenges of daily traffic volumes at it.

Unfortunately SolaRoad isn’t yet ready to release a potential price per kilometer installed however the entire program, including the research to design the coatings and the road itself, has come up to some $3.7 million euros. Considering that my original estimates pegged a competitive cost at around $1 million per kilometer I’d say that the trial has been a pretty good investment (unless you’d really want 4km worth of road somewhere instead…). That will ultimately be what determines if something like this can become a feasible alternative to our current asphalt road surfaces as the idea won’t get any traction if it’s noticeably more expensive than its traditional counterpart.

It’s good to see progress like this as it shows that the idea has some merit and definitely warrants further investigation. Whilst the power generation numbers might not be revolutionary there’s something to be said for a road that pays itself off over time, especially when that comes in the form of renewable energy. With further advances in grid technology and energy storage these roadways, in conjunction with other renewables, could form the basis of a fossil fuel free future. There’s a long way to go between today and that idyllic future but projects like this ensure that we keep making progress towards it.

Car Mechanic Simulator 2015 Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

Car Mechanic Simulator 2015: Well There’s Your Problem.

You might not guess it from the usual content that I put up on this blog but I’m something of a gearhead, owing to my rural roots where I was set free with all sorts of cars and motorbikes to terrorize my ample backyard. This also meant that any damage or broken parts were my responsibility so I developed something of an affinity and appreciation for the world’s most popular form of transport. Whilst this didn’t translate into a love for racing games (although I did lose a lot of time to the original Grand Turismo when it came out) I do fondly remember playing Street Rod, a game that allowed you to do up cars and race for pink slips. Car Mechanic Simulator 2015 looked to capture some of the essence of what made that game great and whilst it’s not the exact same thing it does live up to its namesake.

Car Mechanic Simulator 2015 Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

You’re a budding car mechanic who’s just set up shop, having all the tools you’d come to expect from a modern car servicing center. People call you up with their car troubles and then leave their vehicles in your care. It’s then up to you to diagnose the issue, find the faulty parts and then repair them to the customer’s satisfaction. The money and experience you get from each job helps you to improve your workshop and, in turn, allow you to start working on your own cars. If you’d ever wondered what working on car would be like Car Mechanic Simulator 2015 is a pretty good simulacrum for it, minus all the downsides of getting covered in oil or cutting yourself on old car parts.

Car Mechanic Simulator 2015 does a pretty good job of prettying up the Unity engine, giving the usual 100 coats of wax to the car models that is typical of most modern car-related games. The main area you’ll be working in is a bright workshop that’s honestly far too clean to have been used as a garage for any length of time but it emulates that kind of sims-esque feeling that many of these simulator games seem to strive for. There’s a surprising amount of detail put into what’s under the hood as well with most of the cars having almost fully fleshed out engines, exhausts and suspension systems, many of them being unique to that particular car. It might not be Crysis levels of graphics but it’s more than enough to get the job done, so to speak.

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In terms of core gameplay Car Mechanic Simulator 2015 plays pretty much how you’d expect it to: you get jobs to fix cars and then you do said jobs and get paid upon completion. Taking a car apart can require you to do several different things like putting it up on the lifts to get to the underside of the car or removing certain parts before you can get to others. Everything works on a condition system whereby parts deteriorate as their condition worsens which is how you’re able to pick them out. Later on you’ll have to diagnose which parts need repairing by using various tools in your shop or by driving the car around a test track. Doing jobs earns you experience as well which gives you an upgrade point every 1000 XP to spend on things in your workshop. After a while you’ll unlock new modes so you can work on your own cars and even sell them at auction.

As a simulator for car repair Car Mechanic Simulator 2015 does pretty much what it says on the box, giving you the experience of what it’s like to repair cars day in and day out. Whilst I’d say it’s somewhat welcoming to beginners, given the fact it does things like highlight parts you need to remove and provides full part lists for the early jobs, you’ll definitely benefit from having a modicum of understanding of what various parts of the car do and where they’re typically located. This can lead you astray sometimes as I spent a rather long time looking for the fuel filter in the fuel tank (it’s in the front for most cars in this game) however I don’t even someone trying to figure out where the crankshaft is if they’ve never worked on an engine before.

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Probably the biggest flaw with Car Mechanic Simulator 2015 is the levelling system which, to be frank, takes far too to get anywhere. You see no matter how big or small the job is you’ll always get the same amount of XP, requiring you to do about 10 jobs per level. Sure you also get 1 XP for every part removed and mounted but that accounts for maybe 10% of your total XP meaning you’ll still need to do about 10 jobs per level. Considering that the thing that really attracted me to this game unlocks at 9000 XP this means I’d need to play for about 9 hours before I got to the point where I wanted to be and, honestly, with the lack of variety in jobs early on I just couldn’t stomach that much grind to get to the point I wanted to get to. It’s a shame since reading through the forums there does seem to be a lot of variety there it just takes far too long, in my opinion, for that variety to be available to you.

I probably went into this thinking it’d be a lot more like Street Rod than it actually would be as whilst you can drive your cars around a test track it’s extremely limited, both in terms of where you can go and how the different cars feel in relation to each other. Indeed when I’ve said this to friends the general reaction is “what did you expect” as the name is pretty much spot on for the experience you’ll  be getting. For some this will be enough however for me I felt like the payoff was just too far away and I just couldn’t sustain my interest long enough through the grind.

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Car Mechanic Simulator 2015 does exactly what it says on the box, giving you the experience of being a car mechanic. As a simulator it’s exceptionally well done, capturing many of the aspects of car repair whilst not being as unforgiving as its real world counterpart is. However some of the more interesting parts of the game are hidden behind the levelling system which is too basic and takes far too long to get anywhere meaningful making it very easy to put the game down and forget about it. I enjoyed my time with Car Mechanic Simulator 2015 however if you don’t have an interest in cars or simulator type games then you probably wouldn’t find much more to love in it.

Rating: 7.5/10

Car Mechanic Simulator 2015 is available on PC right now for $19.99. Total play time was approximately 2 hours.

Anodized Titanium’s Rainbow.

I am always amazed when something that I think I understand completely turns out to be far more complicated than I first thought. The anodizing process was one of these things as, back in the day, I had investigated anodizing some of my PC components as a way of avoiding having to go through the laborious process of painting them. Of course I stopped short after finding out the investments I’d need to make in order to do it properly (something my student budget could not afford) but the amount of time I poured into researching it left me with a good working knowledge of how it worked. What I didn’t know was what it could achieve when titanium was used for anodizing as it’s able to produce an entire rainbow’s worth of colours.

The wave of colours you see the metal rapidly transition through aren’t some kind of trick it’s one of the interesting properties of how the thickness of a deposited titanium layer interferes with light passing through it. As the thickness of the layer increases the interference increases, starting off with a kind of blue colour and then shifting through many different wavelengths before finally settling on the regular metallic colour that we’re all familiar with. This process can be accurately controlled by varying the voltages applied during the anodizing process as that determines the resulting thickness of the layer that’s deposited onto the host material. In the above example they’re going for a full coating, hence why the bar rapidly flashes through different colours before settling down.

These kinds of reactions always fascinate me as it shows how things can behave in extraordinarily different ways if we just vary a small few parameters in one way or the other. It’s one of those principles that drove us to discover things like graphene which, at its heart, is just another arrangement of carbon but the properties it has are wildly different to the carbon that most of us are familiar with. It just goes to show that when you think you know science is always ready to throw you another curveball and that’s why I find things like this so exciting.

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The EmDrive is Most Likely Not a Warp Device.

Science reporting and science have something of a strained relationship. Whilst most scientists are modest and humble about the results that they produce the journalists who report on it often take the opposite approach, something which I feel drives the disillusionment of the public when it comes to announcing scientific progress. This rift is most visible when it comes to research that challenges current scientific thinking something which, whilst needs to be done on a regular basis to strengthen the validity of our current thinking, also needs to be approached with the same trepidation as any other research. However from time to time things still slip through the cracks like the latest news that the EmDrive may, potentially, be creating warp bubbles.

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Initially the EmDrive, something which I blogged about late last year when the first results became public, was a curiosity that had an unknown mechanism of action necessitating further study. The recent results, the ones which are responsible for all the hubbub, were conducted within a vacuum chamber which nullified the criticism that the previous results were due to something like convection currents rather than another mechanism. That by itself is noteworthy, signalling that the EmDrive is something worth investigating further to see what’s causing the force, however things got a little crazy when they started shining lasers through it. They found that the time of flight of the light going through the EmDrive’s chamber was getting slowed down somehow which, potentially, could be caused by distortions in space time.

The thing to note here though is that the previous test was conducted in atmosphere, not in a vacuum like the previous test. This introduces another variable which, honestly, should have been controlled for as it’s entirely possible that that effect is caused by something as innocuous as atmospheric distortions. There’s even real potential for this to go the same way as the faster than light neutrinos with the astoundingly repeatable results being created completely out of nothing thanks to equipment that wasn’t calibrated properly. Whilst I’m all for challenging the fundamental principles of science routinely and vigorously we must remember that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence and right now there’s not enough of that to support many of the conclusions that the wider press has been reaching.

What we mustn’t lose sight of here though is that the EmDrive, in its current form, points at a new mechanism of generating thrust that could potentially revolutionize our access to the deeper reaches of space. All the other spurious stuff around it is largely irrelevant as the core kernel of science that we discovered last year, that a resonant cavity pumped with microwaves can produce thrust in the absence of any reaction mass, seems to be solid. What’s required now is that we dive further into this and figure out just how the heck it’s generating that force because once we understand that we can further exploit it, potentially opening up the path to even better propulsion technology. If it turns out that it does create warp bubbles than all the better but until we get definitive proof on that speculating along that direction really doesn’t help us or the researchers behind it.

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Microsoft’s Azure Stack: It’s Finally Here.

I’ve spent the better part of the last 4 years banging on about how the hybrid cloud should be the goal that all cloud services work towards. Whilst the argument can be made that this might be born out of some protectionist feeling for on-premise infrastructure it’s more that I could never see large organisations fully giving up control of their infrastructure to the cloud. However the benefits of using the cloud, both in terms of its IaaS and PaaS capabilities, are undeniable and thus the ideal scenario is a blend between these two. Only one cloud provider has seriously considered this position, likely because of their large footprint in the enterprise space. Today Microsoft has launched the next stage in its cloud strategy: the Microsoft Azure Stack.

Microsoft Azure Stack

The Azure Stack appears to be an extension of the Azure Pack that Microsoft released a couple years ago, bringing many of the backend features that Microsoft itself uses to power the Azure Cloud to the enterprise. However whilst the Azure Pack was more of an interface that brought a whole lot of tools together the Azure Stack is its own set of technologies that elevates your current IT infrastructure with Azure features. As to what those features are exactly Microsoft isn’t being more specific than saying IaaS and PaaS currently although the latter indicates that some of the more juicy Azure features, like Table Storage, could potentially find their way into your datacenter.

The idealized hybrid cloud scenario that many have been talking about for years is an on-premise deployment that’s able to burst out to the cloud for additional resources when the need strikes. Whilst this was theoretically possible, if you invested the time to develop or customize your applications to take advantage of it, the examples of successful implementations were few and far between. The improvements that come with the Microsoft Azure Stack make such a scenario far more possible than it ever was before, allowing developers to create applications against a common platform that remains consistent no matter where the application finds itself running. At the same time supporting infrastructure applications can benefit from those same advantages, greatly reducing complexity in administering such an environment.

This comes hand in hand with the announcement of Microsoft Operations Manager which is essentially the interface to your on-premise cloud. Microsoft is positioning it as the one interface to rule them all as it’s capable of interfacing with all the major cloud providers as well as the various on-premise solutions that their competitors provide. The initial release will focus on 4 key features: Log Analytics, Security, Availability and Automation with more features to be coming at a “rapid pace” as the product matures. For me the most interesting features are the availability (apparently enabling a cloud restore of an  application regardless of where it sits) and the automation stuff, but I’ll need to have a play with it first before I call out my favourite.

The Microsoft Azure Stack is by far the most exciting announcement to come out of Redmond in a long time as it shows they’re dedicated to providing the same experience to their enterprise customers as they currently deliver to their cloud counterparts. The cloud wall that has existed ever since the inception of the first cloud service is quickly breaking down, enabling enterprise IT to do far more than it ever could. This new Microsoft, which is undoubtedly being powered by Nadella’s focus on building upon the strong based he created in the Servers and Tools division, is one that its competitors should be wary of as they’re quickly eating everyone else’s lunch.

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Tesla’s Powerwall: Home Power Revolutionized.

The problem that most renewables face is that they don’t generate power constantly, requiring some kind of energy storage medium to provide power when its not generating. Batteries are the first thing that comes to everyone’s mind when looking for such a device however the ones used for most home power applications aren’t anymore advanced than your typical car battery. Other methods of storing power, like pumped hydro or compressed air, are woefully inefficient shedding much of the generated power away in waste heat or in the  process of converting it back to electricity when its needed. Many have tried to revolutionize this industry but few have made meaningful progress, that was until Tesla announced the Powerwall.

Tesla Powerwall

The Powerwall is an interesting device, essentially a 7KW (or 10KW, depending on your application) battery that mounts to your wall that can provide power to your house. Unlike traditional systems which were required to be constructed outside, due to the batteries producing hydrogen gas, the Powerwall can be mounted anywhere on your house. In a grid-connected scenario the Powerwall can store power during off-peak times and then release it during peak usage thereby reducing the cost of your energy consumption. The ideal scenario for it however is to be connected to a solar array on the roof, storing that energy for use later. All of this comes at the incredibly low price point of $3,000 for the 7KW model with the larger variant a mere $500 more. Suffice to say this product has the potential for some really revolutionary applications, not least of which is reducing our reliance on fossil fuel generated power.

The solar incentives that many countries have brought in over the last few years has seen an explosion in the number of houses with domestic solar arrays. This, in turn, has brought down the cost of getting solar installed to ridiculously low levels, even less than $1/watt installed in some cases. However with the end of the feed-in tariffs these panels are usually not economical with the feed-in rates usually below that of the retail rate. Using a Tesla Powerwall however would mean that this energy, which would otherwise be sold at a comparative loss, could be used when its needed. This would reduce the load on the grid whilst also improve the ROI of the panels and the Powerwall system, a win-win in anyone’s books.

It would be one thing if Tesla was just making another product however it seems that Elon Musk has a vision that extends far beyond just ripping the battery out of its cars and selling them as grid connected devices. The keynote speech he gave a few days ago is evidence of that and is worth the watch if you have the time:

In its current incarnation the Tesla Powerwall is a great device, one that will make energy storage feasible to a much wider consumer base. However I can’t help but feel that this is just Tesla’s beachhead into a much larger vision and that future revisions of the Powerwall product will likely bring even larger capacities for similar or lower prices. Indeed this is all coming to us before Tesla has completed their Gigafactory-1 which is predicted to reduce the cost of the batteries by some 30% with further iterations driving it down even more. Suffice to say I’m excited about this as it makes a fully renewable future not only inevitable, but tantalizingly close to reality.

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Bloodborne: May The Good Blood Guide Us All.

The Souls series never really appealed to me as it seems its target audience was a certain subsection of gamers who craved games that gave their player nothing and took from them everything. I didn’t really fit into that mould and despite the raving reviews from my friends I couldn’t bring myself to invest the time to see if there really was something to them. For some reason though Bloodborne held a mild level of intrigue for me, probably because I didn’t know it was made by the same developer. After many weeks of being told I needed to play this game I eventually relented and began my journey into the world of a genre that I’d held at arms length for many years. Now here I am, some 35 hours of game time later, and I’m wondering why I held out for so long.

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It is the night of the hunt, a time when beasts and monsters roam the streets of Yharnam and terrorized the populace to no end. You are a hunter, well at least you’re told you are, sworn ally of the healing church whose duty it is to rid the streets of these foul creatures and bring about the morning. However the plague that has befallen Yharnam is not all that it first seems and it citizens ruthlessly attack you on site, saying that you’re cursed. Oh dear hunter, the challenges that lie ahead are sure to break you but do  not fear; death is just another part of life here, one you will become intimately familiar with.

I’m not sure if it’s the drab colour pallette or gothic aesthetic but Bloodborne doesn’t really look like a current generation game on first pass. The combination of muted colours and strategic use of specularity certainly feel like a lot of previous generation games that came before it although there are the moments where Bloodborne does provide a visual experience I have come to expect. I think partly this is for performance reasons as Bloodborne is the first PS4 game I’ve played that’s visibly chugged during several very intense action scenes. Overall it doesn’t look bad, maybe just a little on the dated side, something which could almost be wholly attributed to its visual style which is reminiscent of previous generation games.

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Bloodborne is being called an action RPG, which would put it in the same category as games like Dragon Age, but it feels like these kinds of games need their own sub-genre to more accurately define the game experience. The base elements of an action RPG are there: real time combat, levelling system and item progression, but the way the game actually plays is so far removed from other titles in the genre means the experience is vastly different. The combat relies on precise timings, reactions and understanding your enemy at a much deeper level than traditional RPGs would ask you to. Player skill plays just as much of a role as items and levels do as you can have all the gear and in the world yet still find yourself pinned to a wall by a couple choice enemies. It’s a genre that, to be frank, is actively hostile towards the player which is what makes it so rewarding when you finally get to say fuck you and beat it.

At first the combat seems relatively straightforward: enemies telegraph their moves widely and it’s up to you to figure out if you can interrupt them with your own or if you need to get out of the way before they hit you. The challenge then comes from knowing what moves an enemy can do, what the timings of those are and, should there be more than one of them, which one you should deal with first before trying to move onto another. This means that every new area you come into is a minefield of new movesets, abilities and strengths/weaknesses which have to be learnt, understood and exploited in order for you to be able to progress. It’s not so much of a learning curve as it is a learning brick wall, one the game is specifically designed around to make your life hell for the first couple hours.

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Indeed the very first section of the game, the one where you need to complete a loop to unlock your first shortcut and start making meaningful progress in the game, took me a grand total of 3 hours to complete. That section. played properly, can be done in approximately 10 minutes and so I spent much of my time dying in numerous stupid and, what seemed at the time, unpredictable ways. Of course the more I died the more I began to understand the mechanics I was playing with, what I could get away with and how I should approach everything to make sure I had the best chances of surviving. Eventually, after butting my head against what felt like an impenetrable wall for far too long, I finally made it through to my first shortcut and that’s when the game started getting interesting.

You see Bloodborne, and all games that preceded it, revel in the idea of not holding your hand at all with the only tutorial coming in the form of a few notes scattered across the ground in your overworld area. How levels work, what the currencies are and what they mean, how you upgrade your weapons and how you can unlock other ways to improve your character are all things you have to discover incidentally or, like I did, Google furiously. It might surprise you to learn that I don’t count this as a negative of Bloodborne as many games I’ve played take a similar approach and the flip side to it seems to be that great communities are born out of sharing details like this. Once I had gotten to my first “safe” point I started to become intrigued about where I should go next and all roads pointed towards the first boss: The Cleric beast.

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The boss battles are the ultimate goal for any hunter in Bloodborne both for their challenge and progression that they will provide you. They are, put simply, a terrifying thing to behold as they’re often several times your size and have attack patterns unlikely anything else you’ve seen before. For the most part you’ll be able to figure out what approach best suits you after a couple runs however there are some fights which will either require you to up your skill significantly or, and this can be heartbreaking, leave the fight and go and level up some more before you face them. Indeed after throwing my body at Martyr Logarius for hours on end I was forced to leave the battle to replenish my stocks of blood vials, something that made me feel so defeated that I considered just giving up then and there. I didn’t come back to that fight for a very long time but when I did the satisfaction I got from handing his ass to him is something few games have been able to give me.

The level system, whilst retaining the obtuse nature of the rest of the game, is one that requires you to balance all your requirements against each other. Being a jack of all trades will make the game incredibly difficult and will ultimately net you no benefits so you have to choose a few stats you want to excel in and then seek out the items that best suits that. Reading through some guides will help you make the right decisions early on to support the kind of playstyle you want to pursue, especially when it comes to points of diminishing returns, soft caps and hard caps on benefits that each point gives you. My Strength/Skill build seemed to work out quite well for the way I wanted to play the game and after I finished my initial playthrough I was able to start looking at dumping points into other stats to unlock certain choice weapons that I wanted to experiment with.

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Bloodborne is mechanically sound for the most part however the hit detection they use does have its limits and sometimes its behaviour can be completely out of line with what you expect. I had numerous times when my sword went right through an enemy and failed to connect (no blood, sound nor enemy taking damage) and other times when enemies appeared to be able to hit me when their models were no where near me. Whilst death is an integral part of the game when they’re not the result of you getting greedy or stupid it does little to endear the game to you and indeed I stopped playing when these sorts of things happened too often. There was also the few performance slow downs I mentioned previously which were thankfully rare however in a game where timing and precision are key these sorts of things can be devastating if they happen at the wrong moment.

Bloodborne’s story is interesting although the way it’s presented, through various small bits of dialogue and vague allusions to things, makes it hard to discern whether or not it’s actually a good story. Sure you have enough to understand the motivations of certain characters but much of the lore behind the beasts, bosses and other NPCs are mostly built up out of conjecture. Sure this provides a healthy amount of discussion among the community however after reading the 100th fan theory about why the Great Ones can’t have kids you start to want a little bit more than just what everyone thinks it might be. Unfortunately it seems like closure isn’t something the developers of Bloodborne are interested in giving us so I’ll just have to say that the story is serviceable but far too vague to be much more than that.

Bloodborne Review Screenshot Wallpaper Oh Good Hunter

Bloodborne is a game I honestly didn’t want to like when I started out playing it and indeed I was willing to give up very early on in the piece just so I could be done with it. However once Bloodborne got its hooks into me I couldn’t help but be intrigued as the game taunted me with ever greater challenges and the prospect of even better loot. I can remember clearly the point at which I transitioned from the terrified hunter, one who would walk around every corner, to the slayer of the night, one who feared no beast and laid waste to anyone who dared cross him. There are few games that can take you on a journey like that and make your progress feel meaningful but Bloodborne does it beautifully, all the while gnawing away in the back of your head that it could all come to a crashing end if you let your hubris get the better of you. If you’ve been putting off playing this style of game because it seems too harsh then I’d encourage you to give Bloodborne a few hours of your time as that frustration could soon turn into obsession, one that will be rewarded handsomely.

Rating: 9.25/10

Bloodborne is available on PlayStation4 right now for $99.95. Total play time was approximately 35 hours reaching NG+.

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Windows Universal Apps to Enable Porting from iOS/Android.

Microsoft has been pursuing its unified platform strategy for some time now with admittedly mixed results. The infrastructure to build that kind of unified experience is there, and indeed Microsoft applications have demonstrated that it can be taken advantage of, but it really hasn’t spread to third party developers and integrators like they intended it to. A big part of this was the fact that their mobile offering, Windows Phone, is a very minor player that has been largely ignored by the developer community. Whilst its enterprise integration can’t be beaten the consumer experience, which is key to driving further adoption of the platform, has been severely lacking. Today Microsoft has announced a radical new approach to improving this by allowing iOS and Android apps to run as Universal Applications on the Windows platform.

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The approach is slightly different between platforms however the final outcome is the same: applications written for the two current kings of the smartphone world can run as a universal application on supported Windows platforms. Android applications can be submitted in their native APK form and will then run in a para-virtualized environment (includes aspects of both emulation as well as direct subsystem integration). iOS applications on the other hand can, as of today, be compiled directly from Objective-C into Universal Applications that can be run on Windows Phones. Of course there will likely still be some effort required to get the UX inline but not having to maintain different core codebases will mean that the barriers to developing a cross platform app that includes Windows Phone will essentially drop to nothing.

Of course whether or not this will translate into more people jumping onto the Windows Phone ecosystem isn’t something I can readily predict. Windows Phone has been languishing in the single digit market share ever since its inception and all the changes that Microsoft has made to get that number up haven’t made a meaningful impact on it. Having a better app ecosystem will be a drawcard to those who like Microsoft but haven’t wanted to make the transition but this all relies on developers taking the time to release their applications on the Windows Phone platform. Making the dev experience easier is the first step to this but then it’s a chicken and egg problem of not having enough market share to make it attractive for both ends of the spectrum.

Alongside this Microsoft also announced the ability for web pages to use features of the Windows Phone platform, enabling them to become hosted web pages with enhanced functionality. It’s an interesting approach for enabling a richer web experience however it feels like something that should probably be a generalized standard rather than a proprietary tech that only works for one platform. Microsoft has shown that they’re willing to open up products like this now, something they never did in the past, so potentially this could just be the beachhead to see whether or not there’s any interest before they start pushing it to a wider audience.

This is definitely a great step in the right direction for Microsoft as anything they can do to reduce the barrier to supporting their ecosystem will go a long way to attracting more developers to their ecosystem. There’s still a ways to go to making their mobile platform a serious contender with the current big two but should this app portability program pay dividends then there’s real potential for them to start clawing back some of the market share they once had. It’s likely going to be some time before we know if this gamble will pay off for Microsoft but I think everyone can agree that they’re at least thinking along the right lines.

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OUYA Up for Sale.

I’ll be honest here: my faith in OUYA has long since faded away.

Wind back 3 years and you’d get a completely different story; the idea of a console freed from publishers and big money marketers appealed to the guy who wanted to see the indie renaissance turn into a full blown revolution. I wasn’t alone in thinking this and many of the backers saw the OUYA as the key to unlocking a console market for indie devs that, back then, wasn’t really available. The late release to backers and dated hardware meant that it wasn’t much of a platform indie devs wanted to find themselves on which meant that users really couldn’t find much to love about the console either. Couple that with the fact that the major consoles are now extremely friendly to indie devs and the OUYA has lost the mission it was the champion of. The result of this is that OUYA has been struggling and now it’s looking for someone to rescue it.

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Over its life OUYA has taken in some $23 million in both Kickstarter funds as well as venture capital making it quite a well funded startup comparatively. A quick search around will reveal a lot of vanity metrics, like the fact they’ve got over 1000 games and 40,000 developers signed up but no where will you find number of units shipped nor any solid figures on how many titles developers are able to move on the system. Indeed even those metrics they tout paint a pretty grim picture of the OUYA as only 1 in 40 developers signed up to the program have actually released a title on it, a mere 2.5%. Mix in the conversion rate of users actually on the console and it’s really no wonder that they’re looking for a buyer as the revenue on their sales, both hardware and software, can’t be good.

Thinking back on it though there’s really no one defining problem that I can point to that really soured OUYA, more it was death by a myriad of little problems that just compounded the impending irrelevance it was facing. Not getting the console into the hands of the enthusiasts, I.E. the backers who were genuinely excited to see the product come to life, long before anyone could get their hands on it meant that when it did finally release there was no Kickstarter fuelled fanfare to go with it. Taking as long as it did to release meant the hardware was long since surpassed and whilst it was sufficient at the time it quickly started to show its age. The quality of the console, whilst decent for the price point, wasn’t great and only helped to compound the idea that it was a gimmick and not much more. All of this, and more, has meant that the OUYA has just faded from the greater gaming community’s conscious and I don’t think it’s likely to return.

I won’t pretend to have a solution for their woes as I don’t. As far as I’m concerned the ship has long since sailed on the OUYA idea and now, with the major console players coming onboard with better support for indie developers, there really isn’t any room for them to play in. Today most people would much rather just play Android games on their Android phone and, should they want it, pairing it up with the controller of their choice. If OUYA manages to find a willing buyer I’d be very surprised as I can’t really see a future for OUYA that ends with them becoming a successful niche console.

Nexus 6 Box

Nexus 6: Stock Android is the Only Way to Fly.

My Xperia Z managed to last almost 2 years before things started to go awry. Sure it wasn’t exactly a smooth road for the entire time I had the phone, what with the NFC update refusing to apply every time I rebooted my phone or the myriad of issues that plagued its Android 4.4 release, but it worked well enough that I was willing to let most of those problems slide. However the last month of its life saw its performance take a massive dive and no matter what I did to cajole it back to life it continued to spurt and stutter making for a rather frustrating experience. I had told myself that my next phone would be a stock Android experience so I could avoid any potential carrier or manufacturer issues and that left me with one option: the Nexus 6. I’ve had this phone for just over a month now and I have to say that I can’t see myself going back to a non-stock experience.

Nexus 6 Box

First things first: the size. When I moved to the Xperia Z I was blown away by how big it was and figured that anything bigger would just become unwieldy. Indeed when I pulled the Nexus 6 out of the box it certainly felt like a behemoth beside my current 5″ device however it didn’t take me long to grow accustomed to the size. I attribute this mostly to the subtle design features like the tapered edges and the small dimple on the back where the Motorola logo is which make the phone both feel thinner and more secure in the hand than its heft would suggest. I definitely appreciate the additional real estate (and the screen is simply gorgeous) although had the phone come in a 5″ variant I don’t think I’d be missing out on much. Still if the size was the only thing from holding you back on buying this handset I’d err on the side of taking the plunge as it quickly becomes a non-issue.

The 2 years since my last upgrade have seen a significant step up in the power that mobile devices are capable of delivering and the Nexus 6 is no exception in this regard. Under the hood it’s sporting a quad core 2.7GHz Qualcomm chip coupled with 3GB RAM and the latest Adreno GPU, the 420. Most of this power is required to drive the absolutely bonkers resolution of 2560 x 1440 which it does admirably for pretty much everything, even being able to play the recently ported Hearthstone relatively well. This is all backed by an enormous 3220mAh battery which seems more than capable of keeping this thing running all day, even when I forget that I’ve left tethering enabled (usually has about 20% left the morning after I’ve done that). The recent updates seem to have made some slight improvements to this but I didn’t have enough time before the updates came down to make a solid comparison.

Nexus 6

Layered on top of this top end piece of silicon is the wonderful Android 5.1 (codename Lollipop) which, I’m glad to say, lives up to much of the hype that I had read about it before laying down the cash for the Nexus 6. The material design philosophy that Google has adopted for its flagship mobile operating system is just beautiful and with most of the big name applications adhering to it you get an experience that’s consistent throughout the Android ecosystem. Of course applications that haven’t yet updated their design stick out like a sore thumb, something which I can only hope will be a non-issue within a year or so. The lack of additional crapware also means that the experience across different system components doesn’t vary wildly, something which was definitely noticeable on the Xperia Z and my previous Android devices.

Indeed this is the first Android device that I’ve owned that just works, as opposed to my previous ones which always required a little bit of tinkering here or there to sand off the rough edges of either the vendor’s integration bits or the oddities of the current Android release of the time. The Nexus 6 with its stock 5.1 experience has required no such tweaking with my only qualm being that newly installed widgets weren’t available for use until I rebooted my phone. Apart from that the experience has been seamless from the initial set up (which, with NFC, was awesomely simple) all the way through my daily use through the last month.

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The Nexus line of handsets always got a bad rap for the quality of the camera but, in all honesty, it seems about on par with my Xperia Z. This shouldn’t be surprising since they both came with one of the venerable Exmor chips from Sony which have a track history of producing high quality cameras for phones. The Google Camera software layered on top of it though is streets ahead of what Sony had provided, both in terms of functionality and performance. The HDR mode seems to actually work as advertised, as demonstrated above, being able to extract a lot more detail of a scene than I would’ve expected from a phone camera. Of course the tiny sensor size still means that low light performance isn’t its strong suit but I’ve long since moved past the point in my life where blurry pictures in a club were things I looked on fondly.

Overall I’m very impressed with the Google Nexus 6 as my initial apprehension had me worried that I’d end up regretting my purchase. I’m glad to say that’s not the case at all as my experience has been nothing short of stellar and has confirmed my suspicions that the only Android experience anyone should have is the stock one. Unfortunately that does limit your range of handsets severely but it does seem that more manufacturers are coming around to the idea of providing a stock Android experience, opening up the possibility of more handsets with the ideal software powering it. Whilst it might not be as cheap as other Nexus phones before it the Nexus 6 is most certainly worth the price of admission and I’d have no qualms about recommending it to other Android fans.