Monthly Archives: June 2015

The Nikola Phone Case is Bunk.

I understand that a basic understanding of circuit fundamentals isn’t in the core curriculum for everyone but the lack of knowledge around some electrical phenomena really astounds me. Whilst most people understand the idea of radio waves, at least to the point of knowing that they power our wireless transmissions and that they can be blocked by stuff, many seem to overestimate the amount of power that these things carry. This misunderstanding is what has led several questionable Kickstarter campaigns to gain large amounts of funding, all on the back of faulty thinking that simply doesn’t line up with reality. The latest incarnation of this comes to us in the form of the Nikola Phone Case which purports to do things that are, simply, vastly overblown.

nikola phone caseThe Nikola Phone Case states that it’s able to harvest the energy that your phone “wastes” when it’s transmitting data using it’s wireless capabilities. They state that your phone uses a lot of power to transmit these signals and that only a fraction of these signals end up making their way to their destination. Their case taps into this wasted wireless signal and then captures it, stores it and then feeds it back into your phone to charge its battery. Whilst they’ve yet to provide any solid figures, those are forthcoming in the next couple weeks according to the comments section, they have a lovely little animated graph that shows one phone at 70% after 8 hours (with case) compared to the other at 30% (without case). Sounds pretty awesome right? Well like most things which harvest energy from the air it’s likely not going to be as effective as its creators are making out to be.

For starters the the idea hinges on tapping into the “wasted” energy  which implies that it doesn’t mess with the useful signal at all. Problem is there’s really no way to tell which is useful signal and which isn’t so, most likely, the case simply gets in the way of all signals. This would then lead to a reduction in signal strength across all radios which usually means that the handset would then attempt to boost the signal in order to improve reception, using more power in the process. The overall net effect of this would likely be either the same amount of battery life or worse, not the claimed significant increase.

There’s also the issue of battery drain for most smartphones devices not being primarily driven by the device’s radio. Today’s smartphones carry processors in them that are as powerful as some desktops were 10 years ago and thus draw an immense amount of power. Couple that with the large screens and the backlights that power them and you’ll often find that these things total up to much more battery usage than all of the radios do. Indeed if you’re on an Android device you can check this for yourself and you’ll likely find that the various apps running in the background are responsible for most of the battery usage, not your radio.

There’s nothing wrong with the Nikola Phone Case at a fundamental technological level, it will be able harvest RF energy and pump it back into your phone no problem, however the claims of massive increases in battery life will likely not pan out to be true. Like many similar devices that have come before it they’ve likely got far too excited about an effect that won’t be anywhere near as significant outside the lab. I’ll be more than happy to eat my words if they can give us an actual, factual demonstration of the technology under real world circumstances but until then I’ll sit on this side of the fence, waiting for evidence to change my mind.

Philae Wakes Up.

The Rosetta mission’s journey to comet Churyumov–Gerasimenko 67P spanned some 10 years, nearly all of that spent idling through space as it performed the numerous gravity assists required to get up the required speed. By comparison the mere 60 hours that the Philae Lander, the near cubic meter sized daughter craft of the parent Rosetta satellite, seemed almost insignificant by comparison but thankfully it was able to return some data before it went dead. There was some speculation that, maybe, once the comet got close enough to the sun the lander would have enough power to come back online and resume its activities. Chances were slim though as it had landed in a high walled crater that blocked much of the sun from hitting.

However, just under 12 hours ago, Philae made contact with Rosetta.

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To say that the chances of Philae waking up were slim was putting it lightly given the trials and tribulations it went through during its landing attempt. In the extremely weak gravity field of its parent comet the 100KG lander weighs a mere 1g meaning the slightest push could send it tumbling across the surface or, even worse, out into space. This wouldn’t have been an issue if Philae’s landing hooks had fired but they unfortunately failed meaning it had no way with which to hang onto the surface. Thankfully it seems that an outgassing event hasn’t blown our little lander away and, after the Rosetta craft turned on its receiver to listen for it, we’ve finally made contact with Philae.

Reestablishing contact with Philae is a boon to the Rosetta mission as the lander contains a wealth of data that we could not retrieve when it was last active, due to time constraints. After the initial burst of 300 that the ESA was able to retrieve during this first contact after it went dark there are still some 8000 packets left to collect. These will provide some great insight into what happened to the lander during the dark period and what it’s been up to since it finally woke up. Early indications are that Philae has actually been awake before it was just unable to make contact with the Rosetta probe for whatever reason. We’ll likely know a lot more as the ESA team gets more time to analyze the data.

This also doesn’t appear to simply be a spurious occurrence either as the telemetry data indicates that Philae is operating at a balmy -35°C and is generating some 24 watts of power off its solar panels. Considering that its panels were rated for 32 watts at 3AUs from the sun  (it is currently 1.4AUs as of writing) that’s not bad considering that it’s in something of a crater which would limit its sun exposure dramatically. This figure can only be expected to increase as time goes on meaning that Philae will likely be able to keep transmitting data and continue the experiments that it was unable to do previously. One such example is drilling into the surface of its parent comet, something which was attempted previously but didn’t prove successful.

Spacecraft coming back from the dead like this are a rare occurrence and it’s an absolute joy to hear that Philae has awoken from its 7 month slumber. It’s brief 60 hour mission will hopefully now be extended several times over, allowing us to conduct the full array of experiments and gather valuable data. What insights it will dredge up is anyone’s guess but suffice to say that Philae’s reawakening is a boon to both the ESA and the greater science community at large.

The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt: I Will End You, Eredin.

4 years; that’s how long it’s been since the last instalment in The Witcher series. Back then I felt The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings was a serviceable RPG though the various issues that plagued it, along with the rather mediocre story, meant it wasn’t exactly game of the year material. However that assessment was way out of line with the general public’s who lavished it with praise. It should come as no surprise then that it’s sequel received the hype it did with a dedicated fan base that was hungry for the next instalment in this franchise. Try as I did to avoid the hype the perfect review scores and relentless enthusiast press meant I knew what the community was thinking long before I first delved into The Witcher 3 and, whilst I’ll reserve my position for later in the review, I believe much of the praise is well founded.

The Witcher 3 The Wild Hunt Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

The Witcher 3 takes place immediately after the events of The Witcher 2, with Geralt free of those who’d seek to use him for their own purposes and set off to return a life that he is in charge of. Geralt has spent the majority of his time pursuing his long lost love Yennefer, chasing stories and tales of her appearance throughout Velen and beyond. All the while he’s plagued with dreams of his adopted daughter, Ciri, being snatched away by The Wild Hunt, a troubling vision that means she’s in danger. His instincts prove correct as not long after his first contact with the Nilfgaardian the Emperor sends for him and tasks Geralt to find his daughter. Whilst this comes with the reunion of Yennefer it’s short lived as they split up to follow the leads that the Emperor has found for them. It is then up to you, dear Witcher, to scour the land for any trace of Ciri and to protect her from The Wild Hunt.

As of writing there is simply no other game that can compare to The Witcher 3 in terms of graphical fidelity. I cannot tell you how many times I found myself taking a moment to soak in the scenery, marvelling at the incredible level of detail in all aspects of the The Witcher 3’s graphics. It would be one thing for it to simply be a beautiful world, ala the original Crisis games, but it’s so much more than that. The trees sway softly in a light breeze, storms can brew and then rage on with unrelenting force and fields can be blanketed in mist in the early morning as the peasants go to work in them. The world genuinely feels alive, more so than any other game I’ve played. The Witcher 3 has now set the bar to which all future games like this will be compared as it has handily swiped the crown away from Crisis as the most beautiful game to play on PC. Of course to enjoy all that splendour you’ll need to have the requisite hardware but, in all honesty, the rewards for having it are worth every dollar spent.

The Witcher 3 The Wild Hunt Review Screenshot Wallpaper Stunning Views

The sheer scale of The Witcher 3 is something that simply cannot be understated. When the creators, CD Projekt Red, said that it was 30 times the size of The Witcher 2 they weren’t kidding as the size of the maps is staggering. It’s one thing to create a huge world though and another to fill it with things that make it worthwhile to explore it, something which the developers have most assuredly recognised. So whilst the mainstay of The Witcher 3 might be the same 2 sword and sign combat that its predecessors championed there’s countless other things that are peppered throughout the world to keep you interested. The crafting system makes its return and includes scavenger hunt quests that grant you some of the most amazing gear in the game. Many of the various mini-games that were in previous Witcher titles make a return, alongside a new card game called Gwent that proves to be a great distraction (and potential source of income). The talent system is revamped and simplified, allowing you to craft Geralt’s abilities how you see fit. Underlying all this is the numerous storyline quests, side quests and Witcher Contracts that you can try your hand at to get better items, more gold or just for the fun of exploring the world. Combining this all together results in a game that can take well over 100 hours to fully explore and appreciate, something that’s sure to delight Witcher and RPG fans alike.

Whilst the introduction to The Witcher’s combat system is improved significantly over the original non-tutorial that its predecessor had there’s still something of a learning and power curve to overcome before the combat becomes engaging. The combat system is somewhere between the Souls’ series of telegraphing/dodging and the usual action RPG hack and slash fest. In the beginning it was, to be blunt, incredibly frustrating however once you start to treat it like a Souls game you begin to figure out their move set, the telegraph that leads to a certain move and what you can do to dodge it. The fight that sealed this for me was the first werewolf fight which, if you don’t figure out how to dodge properly, becomes an exercise in frustration as he whittles your health down as his regenerates. After that point however most enemies were either a complete cakewalk, like any humanoid with a sword, or simply a matter of time and me whittling them down. You’d think that’d mean the challenge was gone past a certain point, and to some extent it was, however it was more that I had a bigger arsenal of tools at my disposal to recover from any mistakes.

The Witcher 3 The Wild Hunt Review Screenshot Wallpaper Talents

To put this in perspective I was primarily a combat Witcher, favouring the fast strikes over anything else. As you can see my build was tailored towards that pretty specifically with only a handful of points in the signs to beef up Axii (for the dialog options) and Quen (as that’s the only way to regenerate in health in combat bar consumables). Whilst at the beginning this build felt somewhat underpowered, likely owing to the balance of points I spent in 2 trees, it didn’t take long for it to really come into its own. There’s a great deal of min/maxing going on here too, like the Cat School Training which doubles your DPS if you’re wearing all light armour (which I did) and the various talents to boost up the benefits gained by adrenalin points. Probably the one skill that made the most change to how the game played out for me was the whirlwind ability which, if the first strike landed, enabled me to relentlessly wail on whomever I felt like, often shredding their health in a fraction of the time it’d take otherwise. As an added bonus it meant that I never got swarmed again as the whirlwind ability is able to strike any enemy before they get to you. Had I done similar min/maxing with the other talent trees I’m sure I could’ve come up with similarly broken builds although I’m not sure any of them would be as fun.

The Witcher 3’s crafting system is as deep and rewarding as any others I’ve encountered although some of the issues that plagued it’s predecessor’s remain. You’ll find crafting materials everywhere, from the numerous fields and forests that are littered with herbs and fruits to the dozens of crafting components that drop from the monsters that you’ll slay. Whilst you can happily go along picking up basically everything in your path for a long time before inventory management becomes an issue once you hit that barrier you’re going to be forever wondering if you should vendor an item, break it down for materials or simply drop it on the ground and forget about it. Once you make your way into Novigrad you can (mostly) solve this problem by purchasing yourself a set of what I assume is the largest saddlebags in the game, giving you another 100 weight to mess with, although if you’re a confessed RPG kleptomaniac like most of us are that will just delay the inevitable. If you’re so inclined the modding scene has already come up with a solution to this issue if you’d rather not have to worry about it.

The Witcher 3 The Wild Hunt Review Screenshot Wallpaper Cat School Mastercrafted

However if you stick with the crafting system the rewards you get are most often far better than any other gear you’ll be able to obtain either through killing monsters or buying from vendors. The scavenger hunts, which start when you find the first schematic for one of the Witcher school’s armour (you start off with the Wolf School set, but there are 3 others available) and each are tailored to a specific playstyle. If you, like me, favour quick strikes and massive stamina regeneration then the Cat School set is for you. The Bear School is for those that like to take enemies head on and soak up insane amounts of damage. The Griffon school is the in-between set, catering for a more balanced playstyle. These sets have several versions with the improved ones requiring the previous set to continue crafting them which means the final pay off is quite an investment in both time and materials. It is completely worth doing however as each upgrade of gear means you’re fully equipped to tackle all the challenges that the next few levels will bring and you never have to worry about where the next upgrade will come from.

The various mini-games are much better done this time around, being much more optional than their predecessors in previous Witcher games were. You can try your hand at a bare fisted fighting tournament that will take you through all the areas with an ultimate fight against the current world champion. You can try your hand at Gwent with nearly every vendor you encounter and, should you best them, you can take one of their cards away from them. If you’re so inclined there’s also a sort of tournament you can play with Gwent although where that leads I couldn’t tell you. There’s also a few other strange mini-games like the contract price negotiation thing, where you barter with a NPC over the cost of the contract they want you to undertake, but that’s mostly just an exercise in finding out what the maximum price has been set before you piss them off too badly. I was very thankful that these mini games took a back seat in The Witcher 3 as they felt like an inescapable tedium in the previous instalment, something which didn’t do much to endear me to it.

The Witcher 3 The Wild Hunt Review Screenshot Wallpaper Other Worlds

The sheer depth and breadth of all the quests within The Witcher 3 is staggering. Quite often you’ll be riding to your next objective only to come across someone with an exclamation mark over their head and it’s impossible to tell if you’ll be done with them in 10 minutes or 2 hours. You can still do the “get all the quests!” thing that most RPGs allow you to do, stuffing your quest log with dozens of quests that you can complete at your leisure, however they all have their own level at which they should be done. Even if you’re like me and favour doing the campaign missions above anything else you’ll likely find yourself quickly out levelling most quests which, on the one hand, makes them a lot easier but also takes away a lot of the incentive to do them. However there are a certain number of them that you’ll want to go and do regardless of how far below you they are as they’ll shape the world in which you’re playing. Whilst there are only a couple options which influence the ultimate ending should you be passive in the world there are many things that might not go as you wish, sometimes stopping you from doing something you may have wanted to do.

There’s also numerous encounters, caves, dungeons and other things that you’ll find on your travels throughout the world of The Witcher 3. In the beginning it’s probably advisable to stick to the roads as it’s hard to predict what level the monsters will be, however after a while it’s far more rewarding to take the straightest route to where you’re going. This is because you’re far more likely to come across a hidden stash, guarded treasure or the beginning of a quest line that could ultimately lead to something awesome when you’re traversing the country. After a while these things become somewhat secondary as the rewards start to taper off as you approach the later levels however it can still be pretty fun to stumble across a monster infested cave that triggers a quest in the nearby village from time to time, just to break up the monotony of following a single quest for so long.

The Witcher 3 The Wild Hunt Review Screenshot Wallpaper Nithral

The original release of The Witcher 3 was, to be brutally honest, was a total mess of bugs, glitches and crashes that would make you think Bethesda was the developer. Adding the Steam overlay to the GoG version of the game caused the text to glitch out profusely and would often result in the graphics driver crashing and recovering, leaving the game running but without any video output. This comes hand in hand with numerous performance issues which no amount of twiddling with the graphics settings seemed to fix. It was only after I trudged through numerous forums, Reddit threads and useless advice posts (telling me to update my drivers is not helpful, guys) I found out that most issues stemmed from things like the GeForce Experience program or the NVIDIA Streaming Service and HD Audio device. After disabling numerous things I finally got The Witcher 3 to a state that I could consider stable and thankfully it also resolved many of the performance issues that came with it. There were still however some rather irritating glitches that persisted which just added to my frustration at times.

Some good examples of these glitches were things like Geralt jumping incessantly with nothing that could be done to stop him. I tried pretty much everything I could think of from getting into combat, triggering dialogue to getting on my horse but nothing could stop his jumping. Similarly every so often my stamina bar would simply stay at zero, refusing to refill even after I had reloaded the game or another save. That particular bug usually meant I had to backtrack through saves to a point before the issue happened and then replay that entire section again, something which could result in an hour or so’s worth of lost effort. There were also numerous times where the hit detection got super squirrelly, with enemies able to hit me even though their models where no where near me at the time. Many of these issues seem to have died down in the most recent patch that was released last week however that doesn’t detract from the fact that numerous glitches still persist or that they were still present upon release.

The Witcher 3 The Wild Hunt Review Screenshot Wallpaper To Destiny

The story of The Witcher 3 gets my vote for most improved out of any series that I’ve played of late. Whilst The Witcher 2’s story felt serviceable, being above average in many regards, The Witcher 3 has had a great deal of effort put behind crafting a narrative that can evolve with the player’s choices whilst still being coherent with a clear direction in mind. Whilst the time between The Witcher 3 and its most recent predecessor likely means that the nuances of the previous story are a jumble to most of us each of the characters is given enough time to flesh out their backstory, their history with Geralt and where that might lead you in the future. Many of the ancillary characters from the previous instalment make a return and, for the most part, they’re not just a token gesture with many of them having deep quest chains that quite often have an impact on the world around you. Suffice to say that, at a base level, The Witcher 3 presents one of the most deep and engrossing narratives to cross our path in a long time.

ENDING SPOILERS BELOW

I managed to get the good ending where Ciri becomes a Witcher and whilst many sites point to the White Orchard ending as the “ideal” one I honestly couldn’t disagree more. Throughout the game Ciri makes no mention of wanting to take over as Emperor of the Nilfgaard and from the short I’ve seen of the ending it doesn’t appear like she’s all too happy with the situation, despite what she says. Apart from that however I was incredibly pleased with how everything wrapped up in the end as the side quests I had done and the decisions I made resulted in the outcomes that I had desired. There were one or two which I didn’t really remember which quest it wast that would’ve led to the outcome I got but that’s more of a testament to the breadth of The Witcher 3 more than anything else. Suffice to say whilst CD Projekt Red might say that this is the end of Geralt’s story I don’t believe they’re done with the world that The Witcher resides in at all as there’s still plenty of stories that they could follow.

SPOILERS OVER

The Witcher 3 The Wild Hunt Review Screenshot Wallpaper The White Frost

The Witcher 3 sets a new standard for RPGs, open world games and graphical marvels. The absolutely staggering breadth and depth of the world that The Witcher 3 is set in means that there’s just so much to keep you occupied that you’re never wanting for things to do. The combat system, whilst retaining its steep learning curve, becomes incredibly rewarding as you level up and learn all the tricks of the trade. The crafting system is highly rewarding. giving you a reason to explore some of the vast reaches of the earth in search of better patterns and materials to bolster Geralt to the highest levels of power. The story is a huge improvement over its predecessor, giving each character enough screen time to really build out their back story, motivations and place within the massive world. My experience was marred somewhat by the initial teething issues that the release faced but it’s a testament to the game’s underlying quality that I continued on for as long as I did. The Witcher 3 will be the game to which I compare so many others for a long time to come and, whilst I will shy away from giving it the perfect score that so many have lavished upon it, I cannot deny just how great a game it is.

Rating: 9.75/10

The Witcher 3 is available on PC, PlayStation4 and XboxOne right now for $53.99, $109.95 and $109.5 respectively. Game was played on the PC with 45 hours of total play time with 46% of the achievements unlocked.

Science Powered Zen Garden.

I’ve always appreciated the simple beauty of Zen gardens, mostly from afar as my natural instinct is to run directly to the perfectly groomed sand and mess it all up. That being whilst I may have kindled an interest in gardening recently (thanks to my wife giving me some chilli plants for Christmas) I have very little interest in creating one of these myself, even of the desktop variety. The video below however demonstrates a kind of Zen garden that I could very well see myself spending numerous hours, mostly because it’s driven by some simple, but incredibly cool, science.

On the surface it seems like a relatively simple mechanism of action, two steel balls roll their away across the sand and produce all sorts of patterns along the way. The reality of it is quite a bit more interesting however as, if you watch closely, you can see that the two steel balls’ motion is linked together around a single point of motion. This is because, as Core77’s post shows, there’s only a single arm underneath the table which most likely houses 2 independent magnets that are able to slide up and down its length. In all honesty this is far more impressive to me than how I would’ve approached the problem as it makes producing the complex patterns that much more challenging. If it was left to me I would’ve had a huge array of magnets underneath the surface, but that seems like cheating after seeing this.

LightSail-A Deploys, Paves Way for Future Missions.

Solar sails sound like something that’s strictly science fiction but they’ve had a surprising amount of real world success over the past 5 years. Back in 2010 Japan launched their IKAROS craft, an ambitious project that had its sights set on a fully solar sail powered mission to Venus which it successfully completed in December of the same year. Nanosail-D2 (D1 was lost when the Falcon rocket carrying it failed to reach orbit) followed shortly afterwards and, whilst it had some issues deploying from its parent satellite, eventually managed to deploy and stay in orbit for some time. The most recent mission, headed up by the Planetary Society who took over the Nanosail project from NASA,  called LightSail-A announced that they had successfully deployed their sail which bodes well for their future missions.

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Whilst this isn’t exactly new territory for solar sails as a technology it is a rather important validation of the technological platform that the Planetary Society wants to use going forward. LightSail-A was built on a three unit cubesat platform with one unit dedicated to the core electronics platform and the other two holding the solar sail. It’s essentially another version of the Nanosail-D type craft that NASA launched when they were in charge of the program although I’m sure there’s some fundamental differences under the hood. What’s really interesting about LightSail-A though is that it’s entirely funded by the Planetary Society through their member dues and a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign, raising the requisite $1.8 million to get their craft into orbit.

It hasn’t been smooth sailing for this little craft however, something which seems to be par for the course with solar sail projects. Two days after launch LightSail-A fell out of contact with earth, rendering it unable to deploy its sail. All hopes were then pinned on LightSail-A rebooting itself which it did just over a week later. Just a few days after that however an issue with the battery system, which had failed to charge after the solar panels had deployed, knocked the craft out of communication again. 4 days ago however contact was reestablished and, just one short day afterwards LightSail-A confirmed that it had deployed its sails. Today the Planetary Society released the first image captured from LightSail-A (shown above), confirming that the sails had been deployed.

The amount of time that the craft has left up in orbit is anyone’s guess as the original mission duration was planned for two to ten days after the sail had been deployed. The altitude of LightSail-A’s orbit means that it can’t be used to test the propulsion capabilities as the atmospheric drag is far greater than any thrust that the sail can generate. The next week or so will give the Planetary Society enough time to shake down the rest of the systems, hopefully working out any further kinks before they attempt their next mission, currently planned for sometime next year.

It might not be the most revolutionary nor sexy of space missions however the fact that this happened on the back of support from the public is what makes LightSail-A’s accomplishments significant. Solar sails have the potential to revolutionize the way our spacecraft access deep space, enabling faster and more efficient missions to other celestial bodies within our solar system. We may be a decade or so away from seeing it being adapted in earnest but without missions like LightSail-A we’d be waiting for much, much longer.

OSX El Capitan: Countdown to Mac iOS.

When you think of Apple what kind of company do you think they are? Many will answer that they’re a technology company, some a computing company, but there are precious few who recognise them as a hardware company. Whilst they may run large non-hardware enterprises like the App Store and iTunes these all began their lives as loss-leaders for their respective hardware platforms (the iPhone and the iPod). OSX didn’t start out its life in that way, indeed it was long seen as the only competitor to Windows with any significant market share, however it has been fast approaching the same status as its iCompanions for some time now and the recently announced El Capitan version solidifies its future.

OSX El Capitan

I haven’t covered an OSX version in any detail since I mentioned OSX Lion in passing some 4 years ago now and for good reason: there’s simply nothing to write about. The Wikipedia entry on OSX versions sum up the differences in just a few lines and for the most part the improvements with each version come down to new iOS apps being ported and the vague “under-the-hood” improvements that come with every version. The rhetoric from Apple surrounding the El Capitan release even speaks to this lack of major changes directly, stating things like “Refinements to the Mac Experience” and “Improvements to System Performance” as their key focus. Whilst those kinds of improvements are welcome in any OS release the fact that the last 6 years haven’t seen much in the way of innovation in the OSX product line is telling of where it’s heading.

The Mountain Lion release of OSX was the first indication that OSX was likely heading towards an iLine style of product with many iOS features making their way into the operating system. Mavericks continued this with the addition of another 2 previously iOS exclusives and Yosemite bringing Handoff to bridge between other iOS devices. El Capitan doesn’t make any specific moves forward in this regard however it is telling that Apple’s latest flagship compute product, the revamped and razor thin Macbook, is much more comparable to an upscale tablet than it is to an actual laptop. In true Apple fashion it doesn’t really compare with either, attempting to define a new market segment in which they can be the dominant player.

If it wasn’t obvious what I’m getting at here is that OSX is fast approaching two things: becoming another product in the iOS line and, in terms of being a desktop OS, irrelevance. Apple has done well with their converged ecosystem, achieving a level of unification that every other ecosystem envies, however that strategy is most certainly focused on the iOS line above all else. This is most easily seen in the fact that the innovation happens on iOS and then ported back to OSX. This is not something that I feel Apple would want to continue doing long into the future. Thus it would seem inevitable that OSX would eventually pass the torch to iOS running on a laptop form factor, it’s just a matter of when.

This is not to say it would be a bad thing for the platform, far from it. In terms of general OS level tasks OSX performs more than adequately and has done so for the better part of a decade. What it does mean however is that the core adherents which powered Apple’s return from the doldrums all those years ago are becoming a smaller part of Apple’s overall strategy and will thus recieve much less love in the future. For Apple this isn’t much of a concern, the margins on PCs (even their premium models), have always been slim when compared to their consumer tech line. However for those who have a love for all things OSX they might want to start looking at making the transition if an iOS based future isn’t right for them.

Toren: A Moonless World.

Creating a game is an exercise in compromise. On the one hand you have your vision for what you want the game to be, whether it be a sweeping epic or a simple puzzle game, on the other you have the amount of resources at your disposal. These are often at odds with each other and the resultant product will likely not be the full embodiment of the original vision. This is fine, however, as the white whale of perfection has killed so many titles, many before they saw the light of day. Toren, the first game from the nascent Swortales, is a game that has remnants of a greater vision scattered through it which the spectre of compromise laid off to one side.

Toren Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

You are the moonchild, born of the night and destined to climb the Toren in search of your purpose. The sun never sets in this world, basking it in an endless sunshine. This is the will of the dragon who, for reasons unknown to you, refuses to allow the sun to set. As you climb the Toren your guide, a mysterious figure who appears to be long dead, reveals to you the secrets of this world and why you are doomed to repeat this cycle again and again until your true purpose is discovered. It is then up to you to discover the real history of this world and your part to play in its future.

Toren isn’t exactly cutting edge when it comes to graphics with the vast majority of the assets feeling like they’re a generation behind current trends. Part of this is due to the Unity engine, which has a definite stylization characteristic to it if you don’t wrangle the engine appropriately, but other things like the stiff (most likely hand cranked) animations lead more towards this coming from the studio’s inexperience. On a tablet or other portable device such graphics aren’t out of the ordinary however Toren is currently only available on PC and PlayStation 4, platforms both capable of much more than what Toren offers. On the flip side the soundtrack that backs Toren is absolutely amazing which makes me think that they paid far more attention to that than anything else. Such is the battle of compromise.

Toren Review Screenshot Wallpaper Hide From The Dragon

In broad strokes Toren would be called a 3D puzzle platformer as it has characteristics of both, although there are some hints of greater aspirations for this game hidden throughout half finished mechanics. To start off with you’ll be exploring and stumbling across different puzzle elements which is mostly just setting the scene for the later reveals. Later on the platforming element is introduced which starts off simply and does introduce some rather interesting elements. Finally there’s some semblance of a combat system although it’s extremely simplistic, basically only serving as another aspect to the other puzzle mechanics. All in all it’s got the makings of a much larger game that hit with the cold hard reality of deadlines and deliverables but still manages to cobble together a fairly decent game experience out of it.

The puzzles are incredibly simple, mostly just requiring you to find something and put it somewhere else. The platforming is very similar as your objective is, most of the time, clearly visible with an easy path to reach it. Toren makes the mistake of having a fixed camera for everything which means the platforming sections are an exercise in frustration most of the time as you try to figure out how your controls should be reacting given the current camera angle. This also flows onto some of the puzzles which require you to cover an emblem on the ground in salt, something that’s rather difficult to pull off when your character doesn’t react in the way you’d expect them to. Suffice to say I think it’s a passable experience although there’s definitely a lot of room for improvement in terms of mechanics and their execution.

Toren Review Screenshot Wallpaper Sweeping Views

The experience is heavily marred by its numerous technical issues, not least of which stem from the horrendous control scheme. I did the right thing at the start and plugged my controller in, as I was told to however that, for some reason, resulted in the camera always pointing upwards so I couldn’t actually see my character. Switching to keyboard and mouse made that issue go away but the default keyboard layout is nonsensical and it’s obvious that the controller was programmed first and the keyboard controls shoe horned in afterwards. Couple this with the extremely basic hit detection (which powers nearly every interaction in the game) and Toren feels like it’s lacking a certain amount of polish required to take the experience to the next level.

Whilst I’m speculating heavily here I’m quite sure that the majority of these issues stem from Toren having much greater aspirations than its final incarnation has. For example there’s a kind of inventory system in there and you’ll pick up a few items along the way. However it’s not like you have to go out of your way to find these items and they’re given to you know what to do with them. The “chainmail” for example protects you from small monsters but you get it before you even see your first monster, let alone know they can do damage to you. It feels like Toren was meant to be more of a RPG than an exploration game however it was never able to reach this goal due to the constraints they faced in implementing it. This is somewhat reflected in Toren’s short length as well, although that’s not a negative in my book.

Toren Review Screenshot Wallpaper The Sun Finally Sets

The story is, to be blunt, frustratingly vague at the beginning although it does manage to redeem itself over the course of its 2 hour play time. It might not be original, nor very emotionally engaging, however it does manage to set everything up well enough that the final pay off is somewhat satisfying. Developing the story further however would likely require a much longer playtime, which would require even more work to accomplish, so given the bounds Toren works within it does manage to achieve an impressive amount. If you’re a story first gamer though you might not get that much out of Toren as you would say a more story focused title.

Toren is a game that’s scarred by its ambition, attempting to reach for much greater heights than it finally ended up achieving. Whilst the final product is most certainly playable, and for small sections quite enjoyable, its below par graphics, simplistic mechanics and frankly horrendous control scheme mar the better aspects of it significantly. The soundtrack is by far the stand out component of Toren although I can’t help but feel that the game would be that much stronger if some of the effort dedicated to crafting that was directed at the game play and story development. For a studio that’s never released a game before it’s a good first attempt however I hope they take the lessons learned from Toren and apply them to their future titles as there’s every opportunity for them to make a great experience if they do.

Rating: 6/10

Toren is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $9.99 and $14.95 respectively. Game was played on the PC with 2 hours of total playtime and 75% of the achievements unlocked.

Batteriser: It’ll Extend Battery Life, Just not as Much as Claimed.

Alkaline batteries are something that many of us have come to accept as a necessary evil. Either you pay up the premium price for the good batteries, and hope that their claims are as good as they say they are, or you risk it with a giant pack of cheap ones hoping that you don’t have to replace them every other week. They’re less of an issue now that decent rechargeables come as standard for many devices but I can count at least 4 devices in my living room still powered by these disposable power packs. I’ve heard all sorts of strange ways to extend the life of these things, from tapping them on something or warming them up in your hands, but none really provide a good solution. Batteriser purports to be able to squeeze up to 800% more life out of your alkaline cells, all by slipping on this thin metal sleeve.

batterizer_on_black-100588215-orig

All alkaline batteries start out their life providing a healthy 1.5v to the device they’re powering. As batteries become depleted however their output voltage begins to drop, slowly tapering down before dropping off a cliff depending on battery formulation. This is how all modern battery meters, including the one in your phone, work: by comparing the current output of the battery against its ideal voltage and then giving you an estimated amount of percentage left. Batteriser’s claim to fame is that, regardless of the current output of the battery, it will boost up the voltage to 1.5v making it appear “new” until all the chemical energy runs out. On the surface that might sound like some form of wizardry but it’s a well known circuit referred to as a Joule Thief.

Essentially the Batteriser device is a DC to DC converter, one that takes a wide range of input voltages and boosts them up to 1.5v. They’re coy on exactly how far down their converter can go but considering that most batteries become completely unusable past the 0.6v range my guess is that they don’t work past that. Their claim is that most devices will consider a battery dead below the 1.4v range which, if you take the rather gross assumption battery capacity decreases linearly as a function of voltage (which the graphs I liked to earlier clearly show is false), then they can provide almost 800% more life out of a single AA battery.

That claim, as you can probably guess, is well out of touch with reality.

This isn’t exactly a new and unknown phenomenon, it’s an inherent property of any kind of chemical battery that you’ll find on the market today. Developers of products that use alkaline batteries know this and will often include circuitry of this nature within them in order to make their devices last longer. Indeed it doesn’t take long to find numerous home made versions of such a device, albeit with far less slick packaging than what Batteriser is showing. So, if the claims in the patent match the final production device, it might be able to squeeze some more juice out of your batteries but I wouldn’t be surprised if the additional life you got wasn’t as great as they claim it is, especially for any modern portable device.

The real innovation here is the miniaturization of the whole package which, admittedly, is quite neat in its own right. However the claims they’re making are wildly out of alignment with reality, something which isn’t going to help their case when the eventual Indiegogo campaign hits. Still I’d be interested to see just how well it functions in the real world as even a simple doubling of battery life would likely be worth the asking price (currently $10 for 4 of them, reusable). At the very least it’s on the plausible side of these kinds of crowdfunded projects rather than being outright snake oil like we’ve seen so many times before.

Thunderbolt 3 Brings USB-C, 40Gb/s Bandwidth.

There are few computer interconnects that have been as pervasive as USB. Its limitations are numerous however the ease at which it could be integrated into electronic devices ensured that it became the defacto standard for nearly everything that needed to talk to a PC. Few other connectors have dared to try to battle it for the connectivity crown, Firewire being the only one that comes to mind, but the new upstart of Thunderbolt as the potential to usurp the crown. Right now it’s mostly reserved for the few who’ve splashed out for a new Macbook but the amount of connectivity, bandwidth and versatility that the Thunderbolt 3 specification from Intel brings is, quite frankly, astounding.

thunderbolt-3

Thunderbolt, in its current incarnation, uses its own proprietary connector. There’s nothing wrong with that specifically, especially when you consider the fact that a single Thunderbolt connection can breakout into all manner of signals, however its size and shape don’t lend it well to applications in portable or slimline devices. The latest revision of the Thunderbolt specification however, announced recently by Intel at Computex in Taiwan, ditches the current connector in favour of the USB Type-C connector which, along with the space savings, brings other benefits like a reversible connector and hopefully much cheaper production costs. Of course the connector is really just one tiny aspect of all the benefits that Thunderbolt 3 will bring.

The new Thunderbolt 3 interface will double the current bandwidth available from 20Gb/s to 40Gb/s, enough to drive two 4K displays at 60hz off a single cable. To put that in perspective the current standard for high resolution screen interconnects, DisplayPort, currently only delivers 17Gb/s with the future 1.3 version is slated to deliver 34Gb/s. On its own that might not be exactly groundbreaking news for consumers, who really cares what the raw numbers are as long as it displays the pictures, but combine that with the fact that Thunderbolt 3 can deliver 100W worth of power and suddenly things are a lot different. That means you could run your monitor off the one cable, even large monitors like my AOC G2460PGs, which only draw 65W under load.

Like its predecessors Thunderbolt 3 will be able to carry all sorts of signals along its wires, including up to 4 lanes worth of PCIe. Whilst many seem to be getting excited about the possibility of external graphics cards, despite the obvious limitations they have, I’m more excited about more general purpose stuff that can be done with external PCIe lanes. The solutions available for doing that right now aren’t great but with 100W of power and 4 PCIe lanes over a single cable there’s potential for them to become a whole lot more palatable.

Of course we’ll be waiting quite a bit of time before Thunderbolt 3 becomes commonplace as manufacturers of both PCs and devices that have that connector ramp up to support it. The adoption of a more common connector, along with the numerous benefits of the Thunderbolt interface, has the potential to accelerate this however they still have a mountain to climb before they can knock USB down. Still I’m excited for the possibilities, even if it will mean a new PC to support them.

Who am I kidding, I’ll take any excuse to get a new PC.

Windows 10: Coming July 29th.

The date for the final version of Windows has been set: July 29 of this year.

The announcement comes as a shock to no one, Microsoft had repeatedly committed to making Windows 10 generally available sometime this year, however the timing is far more aggressive than I would have expected. The Windows Insider program was going along well although the indications were that most of the builds still had a decidedly beta feel to them along with many features being missing. Indeed the latest build was released just three days ago indicating that a full release was still some time away. Microsoft isn’t one to give soft dates, especially for their flagship OS, so we can take the July 29 date as gospel from here on out.

Windows 10 29th July 2015Since everyone in the Insider program has had their hands on Windows 10 for some time now the list of features likely won’t surprise you however there were a few things that caught my eye in Microsoft’s announcement post. By the looks of it Office 2016 will be released alongside the new version of Windows including a new universal app version that’s geared towards touch devices. Considering how clumsy the desktop Office products felt on touch screens this is a welcome addition for tablet and transformer devices although I’d hazard a guess that the desktop version will still be the preferred one for many. What’s really interesting though is that OneNote and Outlook, long considered staples of the Office suite by many, will now be included in the base version of Windows for free. It’s not a big of an upset as including say Word or Excel would be but still an unexpected move none-the-less.

Many of the decidedly lacklustre default metro apps will get some new life breathed into them with an update to the universal app platform. On the surface this removes their irritating “takes over your entire desktop when launched” behaviour and makes them behave a lot more like a traditional app. Whether or not they’ll be improved to the point of usable beyond that is something that I’ll have to wait and see although I do have to admit that some of the built in apps (like the PDF reader) were quite useful to have. How the well integration between those apps, the cloud and other devices that can run universal apps, works remains to be seen although I’ve heard positive things about this experience in the past.

It seems that Microsoft has had this date in mind for some time now as all my home Windows 8.1 installs last night chirped up with a “Reserve your free Windows 10!” pop up late last night. This is the realisation of the promise Microsoft made back at the start of the year to provide a free Windows 10 update to all current consumer level customers, something I thought would likely be handled through a redemption portal or similar. However, based on the success Microsoft had in getting people to upgrade from 8 to 8.1 with a similar notification, I can see why they’ve taken this approach as it’s far more likely to get people upgrading than a free Windows 10 serial would.

What will be truly interesting to see is if the pattern of adoption continues with major Windows versions. Windows 7, which is now approaching middle age, still remains unchallenged by the previous two upstarts. The barriers to transitioning are now much lower than they once were, however customers have shown that familiarity is something they value above nearly everything else. Windows 10 has all the makings of a Windows version that consumers want but we all know that what people say they want and what they actually want are two different things.