Us gamers tend to be hoarders when it comes to our game collections with many of us amassing huge stashes of titles on our platforms of choice. My steam library alone blew past 300 titles some time ago and anyone visiting my house will see the dozens of game boxes littering every corner of the house. There’s something of a sunk cost in all this and it’s why the idea of being able to play them on a current generation system is always attractive to people like me: we like to go back sometimes and play through games of our past. Whilst my platform of choice rarely suffers from this (PCs are the kings of backwards compatibility) my large console collection is in varying states of being able to play my library of titles and, if I’m honest, I don’t think it’s ever going to get better.
For the current kings of the console market the decision to do away with backwards compatibility has been something of a sore spot for many gamers. Whilst the numbers show that most people buy new consoles to play the new games on them¹ there’s a non-zero number who get a lot of enjoyment out of their current gen titles. Indeed I probably would’ve actually used my PlayStation4 for gaming if it had some modicum of backwards compatibility as right now there aren’t any compelling titles for it. This doesn’t seem to have been much of a hinderance to adoption of the now current gen platforms however.
There does seem to be a lot of faith being poured into the idea that backwards compatibility will come eventually through cloud services, of which only Sony has committed to developing. The idea is attractive, mainly because it then enables you to play any time you want from a multitude of devices, however, as I’ve stated in the past, the feasibility of such an idea isn’t great, especially if it relies on server hardware needing to be in many disparate locations around the world to make the service viable. Whilst both Sony and Microsoft have the capital to make this happen (and indeed Sony has a head start on it thanks to the Gaikai acquisition) the issues I previously mentioned are only compounded when it comes to providing a cloud based service with console games.
The easiest way of achieving this is to just run a bunch of the old consoles in a server environment and allow users to connect directly to them. This has the advantage of being cheaper from a capital point of view as I’m sure both Sony and Microsoft have untold hordes of old consoles to take advantage of, however the service would be inherently unscalable and, past a certain point, unmaintable. The better solution is to emulate the console in software which would allow you to run it on whatever hardware you wanted but this brings with it challenges I’m not sure even Microsoft or Sony are capable of solving.
You see whilst the hardware of the past generation consoles is rather long in the tooth emulating it in software is nigh on impossible. Whilst there’s some experimental efforts by the emulation community to do this none of them have produced anything capable of running even the most basic titles. Indeed even with access to the full schematics of the hardware recreating them in software would be a herculean effort, especially for Sony who’s Cell processor is a nightmare architecturally speaking.
There’s also the possibility that Sony has had the Gaikai team working on a Cell to x86 transition library which could make the entire PlayStation3 library available without too much hassle although there would likely be a heavy trade off in performance. In all honesty that’s probably the most feasible solution as it’d allow them to run the titles on commodity hardware but you’d still have the problems of scaling out the service that I’ve touched on in previous posts.
Whatever ends up happening we’re not going to hear much more about it until sometime next year and it’ll be a while after that before we can get our hands on it (my money is on 2016 for Australia). If you’re sitting on a trove of old titles and hoping that the next gen will allow you to play them I wouldn’t hold your breath as its much more likely that it’ll be extremely limited, likely requiring an additional cost on top of your PlayStation Plus membership. That’s even if it works as everyone speculating it will as I can see it easily turning out to be something else entirely.
¹ I can’t seem to find a source for this but back when the PlayStation3 Slim was announced (having that capability removed) I can remember a Sony executive saying something to this effect. It was probably a combination of factors that led up to him saying that though as around that time the PlayStation2 Slim was still being manufactured and was retailing for AUD$100, so it was highly likely that anyone who had the cash to splurge on a PlayStation3 likely owned a PlayStation2.
In the general computing game you’d be forgiven for thinking there’s 2 rivals locked in a contest for dominance. Sure there’s 2 major players, Intel and AMD, and whilst they are direct competitors with each other there’s no denying the fact that Intel is the Goliath to AMD’s David, trouncing them in almost every way possible. Of course if you’re looking to build a budget PC you really can’t go past AMD’s processors as they provide an incredible amount of value for the asking price but there’s no denying that Intel has been the reigning performance and market champion for the better part of a decade now. However the next generation of consoles have proved to be something of a coup for AMD and it could be the beginnings of a new era for the beleaguered chip company.
Both of the next generation consoles, the PlayStation 4 and XboxOne, both utilize an almost identical AMD Jaguar chip under the hood. The reasons for choosing it seem to align with Sony’s previous architectural idea for Cell (I.E. having lots of cores working in parallel rather than fewer working faster) and AMD is the king of cramming more cores into a single consumer chip. Although the reasons for going for AMD over Intel likely stem from the fact that Intel isn’t too crazy about doing custom hardware and the requirements that Sony and Microsoft had for their own versions of Jaguar could simply not be accommodated. Considering how big the console market is this would seem like something of a misstep by Intel, especially judging by the PlayStation4′s day one sales figures.
If you hadn’t heard the PlayStation 4 managed to move an incredible 1 million consoles on its first day of launch and that was limited to the USA. The Nintendo Wii by comparison took about a week to move 400,000 consoles and it even had a global launch window to beef up the sales. Whether the trend will continue or not considering that the XboxOne just got released yesterday is something we’ll have to wait to see but regardless every one of those consoles being purchased now contains in it an AMD CPU and they’re walking away with a healthy chunk of change from each one.
To put it in perspective out of every PlayStation 4 sale (and by extension every XboxOne as well) AMD is taking away a healthy $100 which means that in that one day of sales AMD generated some $100 million for itself. For a company who’s annual revenue is around the $1.5 billion mark this is a huge deal and if the XboxOne launch is even half that AMD could have seen $150 million in the space of a week. If the previous console generations were anything to go by (roughly 160 million consoles between Sony and Microsoft) AMD is looking at a revenue steam of some $1.6 billion over the next 8 years, a 13% increase to their bottom line. Whilst it’s still a far cry from the kinds of revenue that Intel sees on a monthly basis it’s a huge win for AMD and something they will hopefully be able to use to leverage themselves more in other markets.
Whilst I may have handed in my AMD fanboy badge after many deliriously happy years with my watercooled XP1800+ I still think they’re a brilliant chip company and their inclusion in both next generation consoles shows that the industry giants think the same way. The console market might not be as big as the consumer desktop space nor as lucrative as the high end server market but getting their chips onto both sides of the war is a major coup for them. Hopefully this will give AMD the push they need to start muscling in on Intel’s turf again as whilst I love their chips I love robust competition between giants a lot more.
It’s been a rough few months for Microsoft’s gaming division with them copping flak from every angle about nearly all aspects of their next generation console, the Xbox One. I’ve tried to remain mostly neutral on the whole ordeal as I had originally put myself down for both consoles when they both released but that changed when I couldn’t find a compelling reason to get both. Since then Microsoft has tried to win back the gamers it alienated with its initial announcements although it was clear that the damage was done in that respect and all this did was helped to keep the loyalists happy with a choice they were never going to make. Since then it’s been all quiet from Microsoft, perhaps in the hopes that silence would do more to help than anything else they could say at this point.
However a recent announcement from Microsoft has revealed that not only will Microsoft be allowing independent developers to self-publish on the Xbox One platform they’ll also be able to use a retail kit as a debug unit. Considering that traditionally development kits were on the order of a couple of thousand dollars (the PlayStation3 one was probably the most expensive I ever heard of at $20,000 on release day) this announcement is something of a boon for indie developers as those looking to do cross platform releases now don’t have spend a significant chunk of change in order to develop on Microsoft’s console. On the surface that would seem to be a one up on Nintendo and Sony but as it turns out Microsoft isn’t doing something truly notable with this announcement, they’re just playing catch up yet again.
Sony announced at E3 that they’d allow indie developers to self publish on the PlayStation4 however you’ll still need to get your hands on a development kit if you want to test your titles properly. This presents a barrier of course, especially if they retain the astronomical release day price (I wouldn’t expect that though), however Sony has a DevKit Loaner program which provides free development kits to studios who need them. They also have a whole bunch of other benefits for devs signing up to their program which would seem to knock out some of the more significant barriers to entry. I’ll be honest when I first started writing this I didn’t think Sony had any of this so it’s a real surprise that they’ve become this welcoming to indie developers.
Similarly Nintendo has a pretty similar level of offerings for indies although it wasn’t always that way. Updates are done for free and the review process, whilst still mandatory, is apparently a lot faster than other platforms. Additionally if you get into their program (which has requirements that I could probably meet, seriously) you’ll also find yourself with a copy of Unity 4 Pro at no extra charge which allows you to develop titles for multiple platforms simultaneously. Sure this might not be enough to convince a developer to go full tilt on a WiiU exclusive but those considering a multiplatform release after seeing some success on one might give it another look after seeing what Nintendo has to offer.
Probably the real kicker, at least for us Australians, is even despite the fact that indies will be able to self publish on the new platform after testing on retail consoles we still won’t be able to see them thanks to our lack of XBLIG. Microsoft are currently not taking a decisive stand on whether this will change or not (it seems most of the big reveals they want to make will be at Gamescon next month) but the smart money is on no, mostly due to the rather large fees required to get a game classified in Australia. This was supposed to be mitigated somewhat by co-regulation by the industry as part of the R18+ classification reforms and it has, to some extent, although it seems to be aimed at larger enterprises currently as I couldn’t find any fee for service assessors (there was a few jobs up on Seek for some though, weird). Whilst I’m sure that wouldn’t stop Australian indie devs from having a crack at the Xbox One I’m sure it’d be a turn off for some as who doesn’t to see their work in their own country?
I’m getting the feeling that Microsoft has a couple aces up its sleeve for Gamescon so I’ll hold back on beating the already very dead horse and instead say I’m interested to see what they have to say. I don’t think there’s anything at this point that would convince me to get one but I’m still leagues away from writing it off as a dead platform. Right now the ball is in Microsoft’s court and they’ve got a helluva lot of work to do if they want their next gen’s launch day to look as good as Sony’s.
When was the last time you picked up a compact camera? I’ve got one sitting in my drawer beside me (the Sony DSC-HX5V that I reviewed all those years ago) and it’s been there for the better part of 2 years, not seeing the light of day. I’d hazard a guess that everyone has at least one digital camera lying around their house somewhere that simply doesn’t get used anymore and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out why. When the picture quality of your smartphone is comparable to your pocket cam there’s really no reason to bring it along, even more so when your smartphone has all those convenient options for sharing them instantly. With that in mind it seems a little odd that the major camera manufacturers still bother making them as it seems clear where the future of that segment is.
Indeed if you check out the recent financial results of both Canon and Nikon they both cite the lagging sales in compacts as a contributing factor to their recent decline in sales and profit. It’s not just isolated to them either, pretty much everyone in the camera business has been hurting recently and it seems to be all directly related to their continued presence in the compact market. Now I’m not saying that this market needs to disappear completely, there’s still people out there to sell them too, however when your bottom line is having an axe taken to it because of one particular product line it’s time to rethink your presence there. Indeed when the major player’s interchangeable lens system cameras are doing so well in comparison it seems inevitable that this is the direction they should take, although some would think otherwise.
Nikon’s president Makoto Kimura doesn’t want to abandon this sector and instead wants to “change the concept of cameras”, potentially with a non-camera device. As some analysts have picked up on this sounds an awful lot like they might be trying to enter into the smartphone market somehow but in all honesty that’s the last thing they should be doing. If Nokia’s attempt at bringing better camera technology to the mobile platform is anything to go by then I can’t imagine Nikon’s going much better, especially considering the luke warm reception their Android based pocket cam received. It would be far, far better for them to simply drop the whole sector together and then refocus their efforts on further improving their mirrorless and DSLR ranges which will always have a strong market behind them.
I’m not advocating that they just straight up stop making them, there’s still a bit of money to be made here, but it’s obvious that even super cheap compacts aren’t enough to pull consumers away from their smartphones. Instead they should gradually taper away their involvement in the area, reducing the number of models they produce significantly. It’s very possible that there’s a sustainable niche in there somewhere which could support a couple models and reducing the available product lines would show that. If they became unsustainable then it’d be time to drop that area completely and then put those resources to use in their other imaging sections. There’s also the possibility of licensing out their technology to smartphone manufacturers in order to get at some of the action that they’re currently missing out on although whether any of their tech is applicable is an engineering question I can’t answer.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing for compact makers, all it means is that part of their market has been eaten away by technological advancements in other fields and it’s time for them to adapt. I think they’re all well placed to whether this change as their businesses outside their compact range are all strong, even growing in most cases. Whilst the loss of the compact sector won’t necessarily mean a boost to the DSLR/mirrorless sector it will mean they’re spending less money on a shrinking sector, something which seems like smart business sense. Hopefully they take this path sooner rather than later as I’d hate to see my favorite camera manufacturer suffer unduly because of it.
There was an awful lot of noise last month around the whole XboxOne DRM/features/whatever debacle that ended up with Microsoft doing a 180 on their often-on DRM stance. Ostensibly it was reactionary due to the amount of praise that Sony was getting at Microsoft’s expense, even though they’d managed to hold fast during the initial PR stampede. There were a few though, certainly not the majority but a non-zero amount, who lamented this change by Microsoft, saying that they had capitulated to the crowd and were essentially keeping gaming services in the dark ages. There’s a little meat to this story as the removal of the daily check-in requirement meant that some of the features that came along with it had to go away. Initially the things people were talking about didn’t require a daily check-in to achieve (like worlds that “live on” between game sessions, I think Animal Crossing had that covered pretty well) but there was one that was so revolutionary that I thought people were just making it up.
That was the ability to sell your digital only games.
Now as someone who’s got a massive library of these kinds of games on Steam (last count was in the realm of 300+) the ability to sell, or even just transfer, these games would be a pretty great feature. It’s possible that residents of EU countries might end up getting this by default thanks to a 2012 CURIA ruling but the idea that this could come to the XboxOne, regardless of territory, would be very appealing to a lot of gamers. The often on check is then required to make sure you haven’t sold the game through one channel and then continue to play it offline, which makes some sense in context, although I’d argue that the number of people who’d do such things would be in the minority (and you could just check whenever they did eventually get online anyway). However all that still has the one enormous caveat that I think was the crux of the issue for everyone: you have to rely on a service that may or may not be there in the future.
“Ah ha”, I hear you say, “but that’s the same for Steam and everyone just accepts it there!” and you’re right, to a point. That was probably the biggest thing that Steam had going against it at the time as PC gamers were most certainly not welcoming of it, I know I certainly wasn’t. However once the value proposition became very attractive, mostly through the sales, ease of use and increasing broadband penetration we started to warm to the service. There was also the assurance from Gabe Newell (although trying to source a direct quote relating to this is proving elusive) that should Steam have to shut down there’ll be a patch issued that would free your game library from its decaying hands. With Microsoft’s announcement there wasn’t, or at least it wasn’t communicated well, an equivalent assurance that would allow gamers to continue to play such games past the time when the Xbox Live service disappeared.
Indeed this problem faces all gamers as many titles move towards a more connected model which could mean that core features become unusuable the second the developer can no longer support running the back end infrastructure. For some times, ones that are traditionally multiplayer only, this is kind of expected but the difference between Diablo and Diablo III for instance is that in 20 years I can almost guarantee the former will still be able to be run by anyone with the disc, the latter I’m not sure will see the end of this decade. Sure the number of people doing this might not be in the majority but they’re a vocal one and the sole reason why services like GoG exist. Had Microsoft given some assurances to the contrary they might not be in the position they are today and those features might still be available to Xbox customers.
It may seem like we’re just being backwards Luddites bent on keeping the status quo but it’s far more than that, we just want to be able to play our games long into the future like we can do with so many titles we grew up on. I see no technical reason why systems can’t be built to enable both sides of the equation, one that allows us to sell/trade digital games whilst also giving the opportunity to play offline whenever we want, but the reasons are far more likely business in nature. It’s a real shame as Microsoft could have really outdone Sony on this particular front but it seems like they’re instead gearing up for being second place, capitulating just enough so they don’t end up competing with the Wii U for scraps of market share.
Whilst its easy to argue to the contrary Microsoft really is a company that listens to its customers. Many of the improvements I wrote about during my time at TechEd North America were the direct result of them consulting with their users and integrating their requests into their updated product lines. Of course this doesn’t make them immune to blundering down the wrong path as they have done with the XboxOne (and a lot would argue Windows 8 as well, something which I’m finding hard to ignore these days) something which Sony gleefully capitalized on. Their initial attempts at damage control did little to help their image and it was looking like they were just going to wear it until launch day.
And then they did this:
Essentially it’s a backtrack to the way things are done today with the removal of the need for the console to check in every day in order for you to be able to play installed/disc based games. This comes hand in hand with Microsoft now allowing you to trade/sell/gift your disc based games to anyone, just like you can do now. They’re keeping the ability to download games directly from Xbox Live although it seems the somewhat convoluted sharing program has also been nixed, meaning you can no longer share games with your family members nor can you share downloaded titles with friends. Considering that not many people found that particular feature attractive I’m not sure it will be missed but it does look like Microsoft wanted to put the boot in a little to show us what we could have had.
I’ll be honest and say I didn’t expect this as Microsoft had been pretty adamant that it was going to stick around regardless of what the consumers thought. Indeed actions taken by other companies like EA seemed to indicate that this move was going to be permanent, hence them abandoning things that would now be part of the platform. There’s been a bit of speculation that this was somehow planned all along; that Microsoft was gauging the Market’s reaction and would react based on that but if that was the case this policy would have been reversed a lot sooner, long before the backlash reached its crescendo during E3. The fact that they’ve made these changes shows that they’re listening now but there’s not to suggest that this was their plan all along.
Of course this doesn’t address some of the other issues that gamers have taken with the XboxOne, most notably the higher cost (even if its semi-justified by the included Kinect) and the rather US centric nature of many of the media features. Personally the higher price doesn’t factor into my decision too much, although I do know that’s a big deal for some, but since the XboxOne’s big selling points was around it’s media features it feels like a lot of the value I could derive from it is simply unavailable to me. Even those in the USA get a little bit of a rough ride with Netflix being behind the Xbox Live Gold wall (when it’s always available on the PS4) but since both of them are requiring the subscription for online play it’s not really something I can really fault/praise either of them for.
For what it’s worth this move might be enough to bring those who were on the fence back into the fold but as the polls and preorders showed there’s a lot of consumers who have already voted with their wallets. If this console generation has the same longevity as the current one then there’s every chance for Microsoft to make up the gap over the course of the next 8 years and considering that the majority of the console sales happen after the launch year it’s quite possible that all this outrage could turn out to be nothing more than a bump in the road. Still the first battle in this generation of console wars has been unequivocally won by Sony and it’s Microsoft’s job to make up that lost ground.
If the deafening outcrying from nearly every one of my favourite games news sites and social media brethren is anything to go by the console war has already been won and the new king is Sony. Whilst the fanboy in me would love to take this opportunity to stick it to all the Xboxers out there I honestly believe that Sony really didn’t do much to deserve the praise that’s currently being heaped on it. More I feel like the news coming out of E3 just shows how many missteps Microsoft took with the XboxOne with Sony simply sitting on the sidelines, not really changing anything from what they’re currently doing today.
The one, and really only, point that this all hinged on was the yet unknown stance that Sony would take for DRM on the PlayStation4. It was rumoured that they were watching social media closely and that spurred many grassroots campaigns aimed at influencing them. The announcement came at E3 that they’d pretty much be continuing along the same lines as they are now, allowing you to trade/sell/keep disc based games without any restrictions built into the platform. This also means that developers were free to include online passes in their games, something which has thankfully not become too common but could go on the rise (especially with cross platform titles).
There wasn’t much else announced at E3 that got gamers excited about the PlayStation4 apart from seeing the actual hardware for the first time. One curious bit of information that didn’t receive a whole lot of attention though was the change to Sony’s stance on free multiplayer through the PlayStation Network. You’ll still be able to get a whole bunch of services for free (like NetFlix/Hulu) but if you want to get multiplayer you’re going to have to shell out $5/month for the privilege. However this is PlayStation Plus which means it comes with a whole bunch of other benefits like free full version games so it’s not as bad as it sounds. Still it looks like Sony might have been capitalizing on the notion that there will be quite a few platform switchers for this generation and thus took the opportunity to make the service mandatory for multi.
It could also be partly to offset the extremely low (relative) price of the PlayStation4 with it clocking in at $399. Considering its specs it’s hard to believe that they’re not using the console as a loss leader yet again, something which I thought they were going to avoid for this generation. If the life of these consoles remains relatively the same that means they’ll at least get the console’s price back again in subscription fees, plus any additional revenue they get from the games sales. At least part of it will have to go to the massive amount of online services they’re planning to release however, but overall it seems that at least part of that subscription cash will be going to offset the cheaper hardware.
The thing to note here is that the differences between Sony’s current and next generation console are far smaller than those for Microsoft. This is the same Sony who were ridiculed for releasing the PSN long after Xbox Live, pricing their console way above the competition and, even if it wasn’t for games specifically, had some of the most insane DRM known to man. The fact that not much has changed (they have, in fact, got objectively worse) and they’re being welcomed with open arms shows just how much Microsoft has dropped the ball.
Whether or not this will translate into lost sales though will have to remain to be seen. The consumer market has an incredibly short memory and we’ve got a good 5 months between now and when the XboxOne goes on sale. It’s entirely possible that the current conversation is being dominated by the vocal minority and the number of platform loyalists will be enough to overcome that initial adoption hump (something which the Wii-U hasn’t been able to do). I’m sure that anyone who was on the fence about which one to get has probably made their mind up now based on these announcements but in all honesty those people are few and far between. I feel the majority of console gamers will get one, and only one, console and will likely not change platforms easily.
The proof will come this holiday season, however.
[UPDATE]: It has come to my attention that Sony has stated that they will not be allowing online passes from anyone. Chalk that up to yet another win for them.
I don’t think I’m alone in saying that the timing of Sony’s announcement at the beginning of the year was a little surprising. Sure when they started inviting press to an event for an unnamed product we weren’t exactly surprised to find out it was the PlayStation 4 but by the same accounts we were also under the impression that it was nowhere as far along as the XboxOne was. Indeed I had gone on record several times saying that we’d likely see the new Xbox this year (which we will) and that the PS4 would follow sometime next year. It follows then that Microsoft would be the first to announce it but Sony beat them to the punch and, based on the reaction of the gamer community, this move appears to have benefitted them greatly.
Announcing a product early is always a risky endeavour as everyone will pick up on any half-baked ideas and descend upon them in a torrent of Internet rage. Indeed Sony copped quite a bit of criticism for doing just that as they failed to show the console (which feeds into the idea that it’s not done yet) and hand waved over a couple of the more important questions like backwards compatibility. Still the announcement set the tone for the next console generation with Sony putting games at the forefront and putting heavy emphasis on the features they’d built to enhance the gaming experience.
What did Microsoft bring to the table? Well if the following video is anything to go by:
The announcement had left me somewhat indifferent to Microsoft’s console, mostly thanks to the things that the above video highlights, and it appears that this sentiment has been echoed by many other gaming websites. Indeed whilst Microsoft may have made the right decision by broadening the console’s appeal through expanding its media offerings it’s certainly done nothing to endear them to the core crowd of Xbox gamers. You could leave the argument at that and still have a decent explanation for the backlash but honestly I think Sony’s press event set gamer’s expectations for the XboxOne long before Microsoft swaggered out with media-centric guns blazing.
Us gamers might have our various affiliations for different consoles, born from the days when we were allowed one and only one console which laid the groundwork for the fanboyism we see today, but we’re also astutely aware of what the competition is bringing to the table. Thus many of them would have been aware of what the PlayStation 4 was offering and would expect that Microsoft would have an answer to each and every feature that Sony had lauded at the PS4′s launch. Microsoft didn’t do this however, instead focusing on what they perceive as the major use case for the XboxOne: media consumption. Now this might not be too far out of left field, indeed more hours are spent watching Netflix than playing games on Xbox today, but I doubt that many of them were purchased solely for that. Indeed I believe many of them were bought by or for gamers primarily and the media integration was a nice add on for anyone else who wanted to use it.
Whether this translates into lost sales for Microsoft though will remain to be seen as whilst us gamers are a vocal bunch it’s entirely likely that consumers at large will view it as a solid DVR that also plays games. Like the Nintendo Wii before it this could have the potential to open up the Xbox to a much larger market, bypassing the vocal gamer community. It will be interesting to see how the sentiment develops over the next 6 months as that will determine if the XboxOne will retain its currently loyal gamer community or if they eschew it in favour of cementing their foothold as the center of your home entertainment system.
This year was already shaping up to be a great run for gamers, what with all the new IP heading our way and multiple high quality sequels, and the next console generation will likely be upon us before the year is out. Had you asked me last year what my predictions were I would’ve told you that we’d be lucky to see the next generation Xbox this year and it was far more likely that we’d see both of them sometime in 2014. I’m quite glad to be wrong in this instance however as whilst I might still be primarily a PC gamer I grew up on consoles and will always have a soft spot for them.
Today Microsoft officially announced their successor to the Xbox360: the XboxOne. If you’ve been following the rumours and leaks like I have there’s nothing too much surprising about the console itself as it sports the exact specs that have been floating around for a while. However there are still a few surprises from Microsoft’s next generation console and the launch event clarified some of the more controversial rumours that had been flying around. Suffice to say that Sony and Microsoft have very different audiences in mind for their next gen offerings, meaning that the choice between the two might no longer be based on platform exclusives alone.
Whilst I won’t go over the hardware specifications as they’re near identical to that of the PS4 (although I can’t find a confirmation of DDR3 vs GDDR5) there were a couple surprises under the hood of the XboxOne. For starters it’s sporting a BluRay drive which was kind of expected but still up in the air thanks to Microsoft initially throwing its support behind HDDVD, giving a little credence to the rumour that they wouldn’t incorporate it into their next gen offering. It also brings with it a HDMI in port, allowing those with set top boxes to run their TV through it. Whilst that doesn’t sound like much it’s telling of the larger strategy that Microsoft has at play here: they’re marketing the XboxOne as much more than a games console.
Indeed all the other features that they’ve included, like Snap Mode and the upgrades to their SmartGlass app, are all heavily focused on media consumption and making the XboxOne the central point of your home entertainment setup. Considering that current generation Xboxs are used to watch media more than they are to play games this change in direction is not surprising however it could alienate some of the more hardcore games fans. It seems Sony was well aware of this as their launch focused far more heavily on the gaming experience that their console could deliver rather than its additional media capabilities. The delineation then seems clear: if you want a gaming machine go for the PS4, but for everyone else there’s XboxOne.
The Xbox had always been Microsoft’s last piece in the Three Screens puzzle and it appears that the XboxOne will in fact be running a version of windows under the hood. In fact it’s running 3 different operating systems: Windows 8/RT, a second Xbox OS that’ll remain largely static (for developers) and the third layer sounds more like a hypervisor, managing access to resources for the 2 main operating systems. I speculated last year that Microsoft would be looking to bring WinRT to the next gen Xbox and that appears to be the case although how much of the functionality is directly compatible is still up for question as Microsoft has stated that you’ll “need to do some work” to port them across.
Unfortunately it does look like Microsoft wants to take an axe to the second hand games market as whilst the rumours of it needing to be always online have turned out to be false (although games can make use of Azure Cloud Gaming services which would require an online connection) installing a game to a hard drive locks it to that particular Xbox account, requiring a fee to do it on another. Whether or not you can play games without installing them is still up for debate however and the answer to that will make or break the second hand games market.
Additionally there’s going to be no backwards compatibility to speak of, save for transferring of licenses for media and your gamer score. Whilst this was not unexpected this combined with the lack of a second hand games market might be a dealbreaker for some. Whether this will push more people to Sony remains to be seen though as whilst they’ve alluded to backwards compatibility possibly coming via some kind of cloud gaming service that won’t be something former Xboxers will care about. It’s far more likely that the decision will be made on what the console will primarily be used for: gaming or media.
I’ve been something of a stalwart “buy all the things” consumer ever since I had a job that would allow me to do this but with the announcement of XboxOne I’m not sure if that will be the case anymore. I say this because I believe that the vast majority of titles will be cross platform, thanks to the x86 architecture, and as of yet there hasn’t been any compelling exclusives announced for either platform that would draw me to it. The Xbox360 landed a purchase solely for Mass Effect but I get the feeling that we won’t see another title that’s bound to a single platform like that again. With that in mind it’s highly likely that my current console collection will be slimmed down to one, and the last man standing will be the PS4.
I would love to be convinced otherwise though, Microsoft.
When Google announced the Nexus 4 I was genuinely excited, my Lumia was showing its age and I was eager to get back to the platform that I loved, especially one delivered by Google. However month after of month of delays which had me hanging on the order page every day eventually wore my patience down and I swore that Google wouldn’t be getting any money from me this time around. Whilst I’ll admit that I almost caved when they finally became available I stuck to my guns and kept searching for a replacement handset.
Initially I was sold on the ZTE Grand S as it’s release date wasn’t too far off into the future and it’s specifications were really quite impressive. Still being an impatient, instant gratification kind of guy I kept searching for other phones that had similar specs but would have a release date sooner rather than later. It didn’t take long before I stumbled across the Sony Xperia Z which not only matched the ZTE in every way it was going to be available months earlier. Within a week I had dropped the requisite cash for one and not long after it arrived at my doorstep.
The Xperia Z is by far the largest phone I’ve ever owned with a massive 5″ screen with an even more incredible 1080p resolution (yeah, that’s the same as my TV). For someone with large hands who struggled with the smaller screens on iPhones and my Samsung Galaxy S2 the increased screen real estate is just awesome, especially when it comes to typing on it. The screen itself is none too shabby either with that high DPI making everything look clear and incredibly detailed. It is a TFT screen which means that it’s viewing angle is somewhat limited (which is not usually a problem, but its certainly noticable) and it’s a little rubbish when used in sunlight. This can be combated somewhat by turning on auto-brightness adjustments which is strangely set to off by default.
Despite its size and glass casing the Xperia Z is quite light, especially when compared to the hefty Nokia device that I upgraded from. It’s not on the level of the Galaxy S2 where I’d sometimes forget I had it in my pocket, it’s far too large to forget about. I believe this is due to its rather unique construction where the glass layers are actually quite thin which, whilst reducing weight, does mean that when pressing on the screen you can sometimes cause the LCD to warp slightly which is a little disconcerting. Having said that though I’ve already managed to drop mine a couple times and it’s managed to survive with no noticeable consequences.
The hardware under the hood is great on paper (Snapdragon S4 Pro quad-core 1.5 Ghz processor with 2GB RAM, 16GB on board storage) and it doesn’t fail to deliver in the real world either. Out of the box all motions are buttery smooth with all applications reveling with the insane amount of grunt that the Xperia Z has behind it. The only time that I’ve seen it struggle is when I’ve started to make modifications (like a custom launcher and theme) but even that only seems to happen at very particular times and disappears as quickly as it started.
Surprisingly such grunt doesn’t come at the cost of battery life thanks to the massive 2400mAh battery that powers the Xperia Z. Whilst it will gladly chew through all that energy should you give it a reason to (like playing Minecraft on it, for instance) in its default state it’ll last for days on a single charge. I charge my battery every night but most of the time it’s above 50% when I do, showing that it’s quite capable of going for 2 days without requiring a charge. This is all without its crazy STAMINA mode enabled either which disables data connections when the screen is off which I can only assume would increase the battery life further.
The camera is none too bad either being a 13MP Exmor RS chip, similar to the ones that power Sony’s powerhouse pocket cams like the NEX-5. It’s capable of producing some pretty decent pictures, like the one you see above, however like all smartphone cameras it languishes in low light when it tries to ramp up the ISO and just ends up creating a noisy mess. The HDR video also seems to be something of a gimmick as turning it on doesn’t seem to have a noticeable impact on the result video produced. I haven’t done any conclusive testing with it however.
Sony took something of a light touch when it came to customizing the underlying Android OS with their mobile theme being a thin veneer over the default Jellybean interface. They’ve also favoured the in-built applications over developing their own versions of them which is great as whilst Samsung’s apps weren’t terrible they paled in comparison to others, including the stock Android versions. The only application that got a lot of work was the camera app and realistically all that was done to support the not-so-standard features that Sony packed into it. Overall I was quite pleased with Sony’s approach as it shows that they’re focused on providing a great experience rather than attempt to shovel crapware.
However I can’t really give Sony all the credit for that as it really comes down to Android and the third party application ecosystem that’s developed around it. Whilst I hadn’t been gone from Android for long the improvements in many of the applications that I used daily is really impressive and things that felt like a chore on other platforms are just so much better. That coupled with the insane amount of customizability that Android allows has enabled me to make my Xperia Z truly unique to me coupled with all the functionality I had been missing on my Lumia.
Sony has really come a long way with their line of phones, from way back in the day when they launched their first Xperia (which I still have in my drawer at home) to today when they’re building phones that are, in my opinion, best in class. I’ll admit that I was a little worried that I had jumped the gun when I heard the S4 was going to be out soon but the Xperia is not only comparable, it beats it in several categories. The fact that Sony was able to release a phone of this calibre ahead of the competition says a lot about Sony’s development team and I’m happy to say they’ve created the best phone I’ve ever used to date.