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Technology and Devices

I Now Own Far Too Many Consoles

It started with the PS2. I wanted one. I was 20 and this was nearly two years ago. I’ve owned a PS4 since 2014 but now I wanted a PS2 as well. Finding one on eBay was a trivial matter and I found mine for about £40 with a bunch of PS2 classics like ‘BRATZ: Forever Diamonds’ and ‘Charlies Angels.’ PS2s are cheap because of how ludicrously successful the system was back in the day – the christmas after the PS3 came out the PS2 was still the best selling console. I had no idea what path I was walking down, and how easy and tempting each step is. My name is Henry Vincent, and I have a retro-console problem.

CEX is a good shop. Hull has two of them for some reason. I would go to both of them everytime I could be bothered to walk into town. I wouldn’t buy a game every time I visited, I just wanted to look at all the games they had and got excited about what I found, so then I’d have to convince myself that I don’t need the Futurama game because I remember it being bad and not in a fun way, and other people seem to agree, but it’s still just so tempting. Although sometimes when a really bad game is exactly 25p I won’t be able to stop myself.

How could I turn away from such a awe-inspiring sight?

One fateful morning, a few months after getting my PS2, during a typically self-inflicted student-life sleep-deprived state, I wandered into the now-defunct Hull branch of Granger Games to find – to my amazement – a PlayStation 1 behind the glass. Now, the PS1 isn’t that rare in itself, but this was the very first original PAL version, with the RCA jacks on the back, RF video support (lol), and – most importantly, the PlayStation controller. Not DualShock, not even Dual Analogue – the first PlayStation controller, with no analogue sticks and no vibration. I’d never seen one before. I was barely aware of their ever having existed to be honest; we always had DualShock when I was a child. And all of this for a mere £22. I couldn’t believe it. I should have gone to sleep; I was exhausted – but instead, I bought the console.

Okay, yes – obviously, I already had a console that could play PS1 games perfectly well (even better you might argue) – the PS2. But that never seemed right to me. It seemed to me that if I can play PS1 games on an actual PS1, that’s better isn’t it? Apparently that makes me what’s known in the retro console community as an ‘original hardware person’. I don’t want backwards compatibility or emulation when I can experience a game authentically, on the hardware it was built for, experiencing the quirks of the system, using the actual controller the game was designed to work with and the actual disk – the full experience that is more than the game itself – there’s an important meta side to the game. No matter how complex and technically accurate your emulation experience gets, you’ll never have the true feeling of pushing the power toggle button in, hearing the clunking and whiring, and seeing the bootup animation, and then hoping the game will actually load past the PlayStation logo because sometimes it doesn’t so you need to try with the PS1 upside-down. You can’t beat that feeling with any kind of backwards compatibility or emulation.

You’d think that it would be annoying that you sometimes have to turn the console upside-down to get it to detect the disk – but I love that about it; it’s such a bizarre quirk that you don’t get with modern hardware. I mean – I don’t want that to be a ‘feature’ of my PS4 but I think it’s cool on the PS1 as a charming oddity of my model of the system. Although I would like to get the slim version (confusingly called the PSOne) which doesn’t have this problem (it also looks cool as frick).

After a month or so of being perfectly happy with the quality of my gaming experience with the then three PlayStations I owned, ‘the algorithm’ got to me. Youtube recommended me a video titled “Getting the Best Picture from your PlayStation 1 Games”. I was mortified; I’ve been playing PlayStation games as a scum-lord using disgusting, dirty composite video. It was lucky then that my room had a TV with a SCART input that supported RGB. I could use a nice RGB video signal from both my analogue-only consoles. It required me to buy some slightly expensive new cables, but the video quality was quite well improved – so I was happy.

Needed to make sure my two new boys got home with me nice and comfortable.

A fool I was! As soon as I was content again, I watched NakeyJakey’s Halo videos. Great – now I need an Xbox. Furthermore, it occurred to me that I had every PlayStation apart from the PS3, so now I need one if only to complete the set and not have a weird gap in my collection. I didn’t even have a particular game I wanted to play on it! Then one of my housemates had an Xbox 360 which he didn’t want anymore, so of course I bought it off him! What do you think I am? Some sort of person who wouldn’t do that and would instead be satisfied by the things they already have? I’m not some sort of Buddhist who seeks satisfaction from within, I’m exclusively about external pleasures.

Okay, then I took it to a level of ‘OG hardware’ that was too far. I sourced a CRT TV in Hull for £20 which accepted RGB input and seemed to be decent quality. Because ultimately, you’re not getting the full experience if you’re not playing these games on a display from the time. I was pretty happy with it for a few months. It looked okay and it gave me the nice tingly feeling of better times gone by.

Am I taking this too far? Or not far enough?

But… you know… it is quite big… and everything looks fairly fuzzy on it. It didn’t even have the blessed scanlines coveted by the retro console community. I mean if it were a Sony Trinitron I’d be fighting people off with a pointy stick, even if they weren’t fighting me – but this display ultimately just disappointed, so I sold it for £25. So at least I’m an entrepreneur. 

I think I’ve worked out what all of this is about. Some number of years ago, my cousin got some vinyl records for a Christmas present. I remember my Mum and my Aunt asking why he’d want records in the modern day, considering that we now have CDs and streaming services which are quite obviously better in all possible ways. He said that they’re ‘just nice to have.’ I catch that drift. In a world where more and more of our lives exist digitally, it’s a becoming a novelty to actually own real stuff – especially entertainment stuff. Holding a vinyl record in your hands and realising that this thing contains the sound you’ll listen to and nothing else… it feels authentic. In some ways, these old consoles have that same sense of authenticity. The PS1 plays PS1 games. That’s all it does. That’s all it’s designed to do. It was built from the ground up to process polygons and draw an image on the screen, play some sounds and accept user input. Playing these same games on my PC – a device that was designed to do any number of different tasks feels sort of not real. A game was not made specifically for this hardware, nor just for this kind of input. It’s hard to explain, like trying to describe what it means for sound to be ‘warm.’

I know that it’s probably just a phase, but it’s one I’m enjoying right now. I now have way too many games to play and I’ll probably never get through them all because the library is expanding faster than I can consume it, but in some ways just owning some of them is nice enough for me. Playing older games has given me an appreciation for the design choices of modern games, and for how much things have improved and also how much has been left behind over the years. Games of today are better than games of twenty years ago, not exclusively, but generally, and I can say that now. I got over the nostalgia of it all ages ago – now I’m just playing these games and appreciating them. I gave up on the CRT because once the nostalgia wore off, I realised I didn’t really like it, but these consoles and these old games are pretty cool if you ask me even after nostalgia has faded. Thanks for listening and have a nice day. I will one day learn to end these things well. Until then, peace out.

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Comment Technology and Devices

One Year of Windows 10

I was holidaying in Sweden on the 29th of July 2015, the first day of Windows 10. Of course, I stayed up all night watching my laptop, waiting for the message telling me it was ready to upgrade. I wasn’t aware of the system Microsoft was using, which meant that Windows 10 wouldn’t install on most machines straight away unless you force it. I ended up forcing it as a result of a life-long, crippling impatience. On this, the day after the day after the anniversary of that day, I thought I would find a selection of tweets to illustrate that day:

https://twitter.com/sammysquirrel12/status/626060057701130240

And then, many hours later:

https://twitter.com/sammysquirrel12/status/626309899555872769

So, then, Windows 10 has been with us for a whole year. The free upgrade offer (as far as I know without actually checking) is over. It’s been a rocky metaphorical road of good times and bad, of moments of “wow – that’s nice” and also “why did they do that?” I can say that I’ve overall been very pleased with Windows 10. I would describe it to any fool who has not upgraded yet, as a mature, more developed Windows 8. Indeed, some outraged people commented that Windows 10 is what Windows 8 should have been in the first place. However, if you believe the theory that every other version of Windows is doomed to be a failure, then there was no way that Windows 8 had to happen. Incidentally, I actually quite liked Windows 8; it was just misunderstood.

My joy for windows 10 did not last forever, however, as is apparent in this poorly typed tweet (“iven” should have a g in front of it):

https://twitter.com/sammysquirrel12/status/646641133305626624

It was true that Windows 10’s development was the shortest of all the Windows versions. And some of us felt that Windows 10 could have done with a bit more polishing before it was released. As a response to this, Microsoft released the first big update in October which added a multitude of things, fixed a bunch of issues and generally made the OS feel more like a version of Windows I like. It’s the version we’re currently all using if you’ve been updating your computer like a good human. Soon, there will be a new update – on August the 2nd to be precise, and it will add many, many more thing – some of these things you might actually use!

This update will not include two things I’d really quite like in Windows 10, and my trademark impatience is growing. I, like most issues I care about, have tweeted many times about these things.

https://twitter.com/sammysquirrel12/status/646663837995925504?lang=en-gb

This is the first thing. In Windows 8, you could look at the entire contents of your OneDrive right from File Explorer, even the files you haven’t downloaded. This is a system which worked really well in Windows 8 – you could directly interact with your OneDrive files without ever having to open a web browser. Now it’s gone and even a year later I still miss it; it was what made OneDrive the best cloud storage service. It’s gone now and OneDrive has become just another cloud storage service.

Another thing I’d quite like is something I care about far less, but It’d be nice:

https://twitter.com/sammysquirrel12/status/674411873513684992?lang=en-gb

I don’t have much to say about this. I think it’d look cool. That’s all.

Overall, I’d say Windows 10 has been better than I thought It’d be, and I was hyped. I’m looking forward to the many big updates we’ll be getting to Windows 10 forevermore, but slightly saddened that I’ll never have the experience of building up to a new version of Windows; it’s always something I enjoy – it’s the anticipation and the waiting that makes the experience of waiting for a big update very exciting, and the gradual updates just don’t have the same magic about them. No, I don’t have many friends, why do you ask?

I hope you enjoyed my blatant advert for my twitter account. Please follow me at @sammysquirrel12. I have 70 followers now, I’m hoping to break 100 by the end of the year. Support my cause!

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Technology and Devices

Life Without An Optical Drive

Apple loves to feel like it’s innovative, and their way of convincing themselves and their loyal fans that this is true is by removing things. They did it with the floppy drive, FireWire, the optical drive and more recently, every port on the device apart from USB type C and headphone jack (we may see that disappear as well in coming years). The common denominator with these “innovations” is that Apple remove them too early – much earlier than people are ready for. It was years ago when they released the first MacBook without an optical drive, proclaiming, “Who even uses optical media anymore?” Which met a response of many voices, including mine, crying “Me!” It was true. I, at that time was using CDs and DVDs in my computers regularly, perhaps not as regularly as before, but regularly enough that I wouldn’t want a PC without one. Times have changed, however, and I can say that it has been over a year since my last interaction with my optical drive; I simply haven’t had a need for it, it’s just been sitting in my optical drive bay, taking up space. Mine was even a Blu-Ray reader, although that has never been of much use to me, as Blu-Rays are irritatingly encrypted – you can’t just open them in VLC like a DVD. My optical drive is gone now, and I need to accept life without an Optical Drive.

If you’re wondering why I felt I needed to loose the optical drive, I’ll tell you. My PC case is windowed, meaning I can look inside and see all my nice looking components. However, this is impossible without some form of lighting. I was using some terrible whitish, yellowish LEDs which frankly were a disgusting colour and an abomination of mankind. I needed a replacement which looked really cool but didn’t cost me several of my less vital organs in order to acquire. I settled on the NZXT Hue. It sits in the optical drive bay and gives you full RGB colour control, including brightness and various lighting effects. Yes, I ditched my optical drive for purely aesthetic reasons – this is how little value I place in my ability to read optical discs.

Modern day computing is no longer reliant on optical media. Video games, like Fallout 4, bought on disc just install the game through Steam, which just involves downloading the game from Valve’s servers, music is downloaded from the Internet at pretty high quality these days, and films are streamed from services like Netflix. What’s left for poor optical media to be needed for? Well, for people like me who appreciate the high bit rate of Blu-Ray films, optical media is still currently the cheapest way of distributing these massive video files.

Yes, there are alternatives, my favourite being the simple old USB, although SD is more viable due its better protection since SD was originally designed as a replacement for the CD. I think that this would be a much more convenient solution for distributing software and films – in fact, I have seen software being distributed over SD – however, optical media is still a cheaper way of doing it. Personally, I don’t want to see the end of physical media; it’s happening rapidly with many games now not having any kind of physical release on PC, as everyone downloads games on Steam. I have a small collection of games on discs which I enjoy having. I also have some of my favourite albums on CD and my favourite films on Blu-Ray. Like anyone who’s bought an album on vinyl will tell you, it’s just a nice thing to have and look at, they’re not going to actually ever listen to the album on vinyl – or at least very rarely. In the same way, I never actually use any of my disks.

Optical media is dying, like a lot of forms of physical media, and I can’t say I’m that extremely sorry to see it disappear. Like a sick pet, we’re all just waiting for it to die. It’s now only a matter of time before distributing films and music becomes cheaper to do on SD cards or USB flash drives. This may read like the writings of a crazy soothsayer, but you’ll all see. YOU’LL ALL SEE! Or perhaps I’m just plain wrong and physical media basically just dies out entirely. I will hate to see that day come.

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Comment Technology and Devices

We All Know First Generation Devices Suck

My friends, we are teetering on the dawn of a new wave of exciting and exhilarating technology. We’ve all (and I mean all!) been talking about it for years: Virtual Reality. Many have said that VR will change the way we use computers, and will, therefore, change the way we live our lives. And we are all part of the generation who were there before and during this fundamental change to existence. Sounds exciting, doesn’t it? It sounds like you should absolutely go out right now and order every headset on the market and wear them all at once. But hold back, comrades! Take a deep breath and a moment to think about it. We all know and have always known, that first gen sucks.

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The time – that’s a novelty.

Consider Apple’s recent new products. In particular, the Watch and the MacBook. These are two devices which have confused and befuddled many minds, while others have simply bought the devices thinking about how cool and innovative they are. On the one hand, you have a smart watch. That’s fair, isn’t it? Smart watches are in right now. People seem to want them, and if it’s Apple, of course, the watch they make would cost the arm you would be wearing it on. But many (including myself at any opportunity that arises) have commented that there really isn’t much you can actually do with an Apple watch that your phone can’t already do a much better job at anyway. You have the notification feature, but that’s about it for actually useful functions – oh, and I hear it can also tell the time, which is a nice feature. And that’s not to mention all the issues with the hardware, like the almost useless battery life and the many other simply irritating design choices of the OS.

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Since when did THIS become sexier than my T420?

On the other hand, you have the MacBook. Oh, the things people have said about this device. It’s a fairly stupid device if you want to do anything serious. It’s basically a Chromebook; there’s not much yo can do with it that hasn’t got anything to do with the internet. Featuring only two ports – the headphone/microphone combo and the USB type c connector – you can be sure that you are going to have a fun time with your bank account when it comes to the time you need to connect any new type of connector to the laptop, especially as Apple are the only people out there who’ll sell you what you want (as far as I know without actually checking that). And we all know Apple – they only need to stick an Apple logo on a white IEC and it bumps the price up to 150%. I baffles me that anyone at all has bought this laptop, when there are so many other much better, MUCH cheaper laptops which will give you the same (likely far better) functionalities, practically equal portability and more power – and I’ve taken quite an open mind towards Apple of late, I’ve accepted and tried to understand where they’re coming from. This still confuses me.

You see, these two devices are first generation devices. And we all know first generation devices suck. The Apple watch right now is more of a dev-kit than a truly useful product. It exists because it needs to for Apple to get anywhere in terms of wearable technology. They both need developers to start finding fun things to do with this device, and they need a ton of user feedback about it so, in about a year, they can release the Watch 2 – featuring actual features, and genuinely useful applications.
“But, Henry!” you blurt out in a confused, outraged and aggressive white hot rage, furious that I’ve missed a vital point in my argument. “The MacBook 2015 is not the first MacBook! It is the latest in a long line of laptops that but Apple on the map! How can you say that this is merely a dev-kit device? Explain your reasoning or leave us and never post about technology again!” A little over the top and unnecessary, but I do intend to explain. Apple is doing the same thing with the 2015 MacBook as the Watch, however, they are testing only one feature – the USB type c port. This is a port which has excited and tantalized anyone who cares about connectors (which is not a large proportion of the general public), and Apple want to know what they can do with it, and the possibilities they can get out of it. They created a real world product that relies on it – if they’d put full sized ports on it, people would have just used them, and Apple have a habit of removing choices from users for the sake of ‘progress’. They want people to give their opinion about a laptop which uses this quite heavily before their make their move on using it and how heavily on their other computers. So yes, if you’ve bought a MacBook or a Watch, you’re a lab rat – nothing more. If you’d waited until they released the second version, you’d have gotten a far superior device at a cheaper price or at least the same price you paid for the first one.

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Yes – this curve is really helping me get into this episode of Bake Off.

Another real world example to consider would be 4K, or Ultra High Definition if you’re a marketing junkie (I hate you). 4K has been around for quite the number of years now and is only just becoming vaguely affordable for those who have lots of money to splash. But from what I’ve seen, it’s still not really worth it. The importance of resolution in a display has been far exaggerated – colour representation and bit rate are much more important if you’re looking for a good quality image. We need 4K Blu-Ray before you’ll get anything decent out of 4K, as there’s no streaming service that offers 4K streams at a higher bit rate than HD Blu-Ray. If you really care about image quality, you’ll want to get the 4K Blu Rays. And by the time that happens, 4K panels will be even cheaper and better. We’re even getting set for the coming affordability of OLED, which blows current screens out of the water in terms of colour contrast. My point is that while a shiny new 4K panel may be better than your basically new HD screen, it’s still early days, and until we get some decent 4K content, it’s not gonna be worth it.

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That would give you a neck ache after a few minutes.

This all applies, I think, to VR. We’ve all heard about these new VR headsets and some of us have even tried them out. But there’s one thing I can’t shake: give it five years, and I’ll bet a substantial sum that we’ll all be remarking that the original Vive and the Oculus Rift were terrible – like the way you think about the first iPhone. Currently, the pixel density is nowhere near high enough to play any game that is not designed specifically for VR, and that’s going to be a lot of the games you’re gonna be playing on it, considering how few good VR games there actually are. Steam will have a theater mode for playing non-VR games, but I can’t honestly see the point; I might as well just play my game on my normal screen. I can get a fairly lovely screen for less than either headset, and I’d rather play on that. Make no mistake, VR will follow the same trends that everything else does, the next few generations will get progressively cheaper and much better in probably every way.

So, if you were to ask if I’m buying a VR headset, my answer is no. I’m not going to get any form of VR headset until they inevitably get way better; there aren’t the games, nor the sufficient hardware to both drive the experience for an affordable price, but also provide a decent experience when compared to what I believe will be possible in just a few years. The current VR is like Apple’s MacBook and Watch, more a proof of concept at the moment – we’re going to see nothing but tech demos in VR for the next couple of years until VR gets popular enough to be worthwhile, which ain’t happening until the price of both a competent computer and the headset itself become affordable. So, until there is a game out there that I really want to play but can’t because I don’t have the required VR headset, I’m not interested. That won’t be for a while; as we all know, the first generation sucks.

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Technology and Devices

The Hidden and Quite Clever Design of IOS

I am not an IOS user. I have an iPod touch… somewhere. It’s the only Apple product I own. I’m not big on Apple, in the past I hated all products made by Apple, but then I grew up a bit and came to accept that Apple’s products aren’t all that bad – they’re just overpriced in a major way. I actually quite like IOS as an operating system; it works well, it’s fairly seamless and quite easy to use (although nothing can trump the majesty of Windows Phone). I would probably get an iPhone if they weren’t quite so expensive and if it weren’t for their dependants on iTunes (the worst software ever), and I’ve come to appreciate something quite clever about the design of IOS – in particular, the way it treats applications and how they communicate with each other. To explain why it’s a cool idea, I’ll have to take you back in time…

Modern operating systems are based on some very old operating systems written as far back as the late 1950s. These were designed for very clever people to use. These people had to go through months of training in order to properly use these computers, so simplicity wasn’t that important, and neither was building an idiot-proof environment because this was not being used by idiots. These computer users had full access to all the stuff on the computer and if they screwed it up, it’s their own damn fault – they couldn’t complain about it on the then nonexistent world wide web. Any application could grab any file, fiddle about with it, move it around or even destroy it – but at this point, viruses weren’t a thing, so you’re not likely to have applications doing this sort of thing unless you actually want these things to happen to you. These were computers designed for clever people.

This was the starting point of computers, the foundation on which modern computing is built. Sure, you’ve got systems in place which try to prevent software from modifying files that they shouldn’t be modifying, but these systems don’t seem too difficult to get around; viruses still find new and exciting ways to ruin your day. The problem operating system engineers have is they don’t have a chance to go back and change this to build an operating system for stupid people to use (I mean that in the nicest way possible), especially because it would upset the many people who like the way modern operating systems work. I would hate it if, in the next version of Windows, all the software I used to use suddenly didn’t work anymore, and all software from then on has to fit into claustrophobic restriction in the name of simplicity. Although it would be better for people who want computers to be simpler, it would be awful for people who understand computers and have a deep affinity with them on a spiritual level.

So, when Apple got together and started working on the very first iPhone, they saw a chance to make an operating system in which viruses could not be installed and could be very simple to use, because they were designing the very first of its kind, and they were designing it for a normal person. It works like this: you have a bunch of apps installed that you trust because they were designed by Apple and Apple are trying to help you have a good time. These apps manage your stuff, all the important things you want to protect from nasty viruses and spyware. If you want access to your stuff, you have to ask this set of applications. One example would be the Photos app. The only way anything, including you, can access your photos is via the photos app. When a third party app comes along and wants a photo, it asks the photos app, which asks you. You have to approve Mr. Third Party App’s use of this photo, and you have to know about it before the third party app can even see the photo. It can’t see any of the contents of your phone unless you let it – and only the things you want it to see.

This is how every app works, and not just with photos. All the apps are separated into their own little bubbles. They can put stuff in their bubbles, but they can’t put stuff into other bubbles or get anything from another bubble without the user’s permission, they can’t even see any other bubbles, and they need to tell the user what they are doing every time they want something outside of their own bubble. Then only stuff they can mess up is anything inside their bubble. This way, everything that matters can be put in special trusted bubbles which stops bad things from happening to them. But this is done in a way which is so streamlined, I bet you didn’t even ever notice. This is actually Apple being pretty clever here (although I’m not convinced they actually came up with the idea themselves). It removes the need for the user to ever need to open a file manager and look at folder structures, or worry about where they put that word document because all your word documents are in the word app. You know where everything is, and it is a great way to eliminate confusion.

Now, obviously, this adds some restrictions to what the user can do. It makes everything simpler and safer, but it makes it hard for some applications to do what they need to do. This is a kind of design which would only work on phones and mobile devices, but couldn’t work on desktops – imagine if Windows worked like that – it would be horrible and quite painful to use, but because we are so used to the openness of the was our computers work and the freedom that gives us. Any application can access your documents, but that’s okay; we have user permissions – which work sometimes. The IOS system takes all control from the user to control how stuff is stored. The user can’t make folders and put different things in it. It doesn’t work well for proper work, but it does work well on a mobile device like a phone, which is already awkward to use. IOS gives us a system which is simple to use and easily understood, and I think we all, whether you like IOS or not, need to appreciate how clever this is.

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Comment Technology and Devices

Why I’ve Switched From Windows Phone to Android

Two years ago at this time, I was given the choice of a new phone. I was excited; it would be the first proper smartphone I’d ever owned. True, I had had a smartphone before – a Samsung Galaxy Ace. Possibly the worst thing in the world. It was super slow and almost useless as a smartphone. It wasn’t a good introduction to Android for me. I’d been handed a Windows phone by a friend of mine, being told that Windows Phone was actually a pretty good operating system. After a couple hours of use, I completely agreed. The thing that blew me away was the speed. The phone he was demoing this on wasn’t a pricey phone, it was fairly budget. I must stress this – Windows Phone is snappy as hell, it’s really very impressive and nice to use. The UI is cool, funky and impressively simple – I’ve never gotten lost on my Windows phone. So when my Father asked me what phone I wanted, I replied “Any Windows Phone.”

The phone we settled on was the Nokia Lumia 820 (this was before Microsoft bought Nokia). This is on the cheaper side of the Lumia spectrum but packed with nice features and not-too-shabby specs either. It’s got a 5″ screen and an 8mp camera. Okay, so that’s not great – but you need to remember that this was two years ago and this wasn’t an expensive phone.

The most impressive thing about this phone is the screen; the colours are bright, accurate and vivid. I love looking at this screen and I love using this phone. The OS is snappy, quick and easy to use, and is bursting with features I still wish were in Android. The phone, in true Nokia style, feel indestructible. I’ve thrown it around in my time, and it’s barely scratched. I could beat someone to death and then call the police with the same phone. This is not an exaggeration.

In the past few weeks, I’ve been given a new choice. My two-year contract was up time for a new phone. Time to make the choice: stick with Windows or go Android. At first, the choice was simple for me, I was going Windows. But my internal voices, multiplied by time, wore down my confidence. Also, my brother has some ungodly power to convince me to do things. I asked myself whether I was really prepared to spend another two years on windows. I eventually decided that I was not. I went with Android.

Why then? I was so positive about it. I raved to my friends about how much I liked my phone and how everyone should use Windows because it is the best phone OS out there. I actually convinced one of them to get one, and he seems pretty happy with it. How can someone so enamored with Windows peel off and fall into the net of Android so simply? Well, I’ll tell you, Windows is almost there. It’s almost at the point where I could honestly say that it’s the best. It is, in fact, irritating close – there are just a few things which need to be fixed in Windows for it to be great. But Microsoft isn’t getting the point.

Let’s start with the little things, because the little things are the biggest problem.

I’ve recently started my first year at University, so I’ve never had this problem before now, but now it’s there it’s the worst thing in the world (besides the Samsung Galaxy Ace). The WiFi network on my campus has a login system. That means I have to enter a username and password to get online. Most operating systems would be like, “No problem, Henry, I’ll just save this in my settings and you won’t have to worry at all about connecting. You won’t even notice it happening.” Windows desktop does this, Android does this, iOS (I assume) does this. Windows Phone says, “I can remember one thing – your username or your password, take your pick”. Why? Why is this an issue? When the Windows Phone team implemented the WiFi feature, why did they design it like that? Why should I have to enter my password every time I go near the network? What’s worse is it beeps at me every half an hour until I enter it, or tell it I don’t want to. Oh, and if the WiFi drops for a second, I have to enter my password again.

Another small problem, which some would regard as being quite a large problem, is the complete and utter lack of a proper multitasking function. Windows does have a vague form of multitasking, which stores any open apps in memory until it is manually closed by the user. It doesn’t give those apps and CPU time unless it is being looked at and on the screen. This is great for if you’re trying to squeeze the battery for all it’s got but awful for productivity. The result is a multitasking system which is very slow because it has to resume operations of the running app when you switch to it. If you don’t know what that means, it means that when you switch to another app in multitasking, you have to wait a few seconds for it to remember what you were doing. Other OS’s actually run the app in the background. They may give priority to the app you are currently using, but the other apps you have open are actually open and talking to the phone. The whole experience isn’t a deal-breaker for me, but it is bloody annoying at times – especially when you aren’t in a patient mood.

The biggest problem which people always jump to when they are asked about Windows Phone is the apps. Or, put more accurately, the lack of apps. Most of the essential apps are currently available for windows phone, but that’s only because Microsoft is sensible. Facebook and Twitter are absolutely essential, and when neither company expressed interest in making apps for windows phone, Microsoft got permission to do it themselves. The apps Microsoft make are okay. They clearly aren’t as good as the official ones and are constantly behind. This is because Facebook and Twitter have dedicated teams working on their apps, while Microsoft doesn’t, and they have to keep up with the updates of the official apps. This is, I think, a fundamental problem with the development of Windows Phone, but more on that later. I’ve always told people that Windows Phone is for the individual who doesn’t really use apps, or doesn’t consider apps as an important part of their lifestyle. I think this is true, but this individual would have to go from not using most of the apps their phone has to offer, to someone who has locked them self out of the availability to those apps.

Microsoft is trying their best to combat the ‘app-gap’ by using the ‘universal app platform’ what they came up with. Microsoft noticed that a lot more people use apps on their desktop PC than then number of Windows Phones out there. They had the quite good idea of giving the developers the ability to, in one fell swoop, make an app for desktop Windows and Windows Phone. They make one app which works on desktops, phones, Xbox, and tablets. I think this is something which could very well work. It all depends on how much windows store apps on the desktop take off. I don’t ever use them and never have – but that’s just me.

They also are working on some converter-me-bob machine, which developers can feed their Android app into, and get a Windows app back. This is actually a pretty good idea, and may solve a lot of problems, depending on how well it works.

I have a theory about why it is that Windows Phone feels half finished. It has the same problem that Linux has. It’s not popular. People who use it love it, but that’s only about 2.5% of people who have phones. Most developers can’t be bothered or don’t think it’s sensible to spend the money on developing apps which will reach such a small number of people. If real money is involved, you ain’t gonna get that back from Windows Phone. What it needs is more users, users want more apps in the store to go to Windows phone, developers won’t make apps for a platform with do few users. And the cycle goes on and on. What can Microsoft do? They’re trying to make windows phone as attractive as possible for developers. It’s entirely free to get your apps on Windows Phone, which makes it attractive to young and hobbyist developers who don’t want to spend money on their apps. But this results in a load of low-quality apps. It’s not a good situation at the moment. And it’s not gonna get better until Windows Phone has more users – and we’ve already been through the problems with that.

Windows Phone currently has a market share of around 2.5%. That’s barely anyone – it’s only a little better than Blackberry. BLACKBERRY. I’m surprised they even still exist and that person actually buys from them! As far as I’m concerned, Windows Phone only still exists because Microsoft has some plan for it. Satya Nadella has said that Windows Phone isn’t dead yet. To me, this meant that Windows 10 for Phones is gonna fix everything. Windows 10 will save everything and make the OS the savior we’ve all wanted.

Windows 10 for phones is almost out, so I’ve downloaded the beta to see if this is the case. Microsoft has made some very big improvements – to the UI. The one thing I had almost no problems with. Of all the things that needed work, the UI was not one of them. Obviously, add a few things, like the new wallpaper thing, but please focus on the other glaring problems! Windows Phone has some big and small problems at the core, a lot of under-the-hood issues which need fixing. Microsoft seems to have fixed nearly none of them. This is very disappointing. Perhaps they will fix these things in later updates, I believe this is the plan. But I don’t think I can wait for an undisclosed amount of time for these problems to maybe be fixed.

So, why am I switching to Android? I’m taking a break from Windows. I want to use a complete OS until Windows is at a point where I feel like it is complete and works perfectly – as well and effectively as its competitors. I can see windows phone following two paths, depending on what Microsoft do next: It will either have a massive cash and resource injection and get the attention it needs to become what Microsoft supposedly want it to become, or it will fizzle and die over the next few years. In its current state, I’d be surprised if it’s still around by 2019. Then again – I’m very surprised that BlackBerry still exists. At least Windows Phone isn’t as bad as the Samsung Galaxy Ace because that is literally the worst thing in the world (I’m gunning for an inside joke, here).

Categories
Reviews Technology and Devices

The Microsoft Band Is a Great Fitness Tracker

…but not a great smart watch. I bought one of these devices last week having been told many times that it makes a great smart watch and will change the way  you use your phone and therefore your life will change forever. I’ve always liked the idea of a smart watch, as long as they aren’t too expensive, and as the Microsoft Band is only £145 on Amazon I decided to get one.

When researching the band I found myself confused; a quick peruse of the official web page will tell you the Microsoft aren’t really pushing it as a smart watch and more focusing on the fitness band side of things. You would have thought that the band would be advertised more as a smart watch considering the Apple Watch (or is it iWatch?). Microsoft could immediately put forward their smartwatch to show people their alternative, with very little effort. After all, it has basically all the  features of a smartwatch and is much better at tracking your heart beat and general exercise than the Apple Watch. I put this down to Microsoft, as usual, being a bit stupid with their advertising.

I got my band last Monday and started wearing it constantly. I enjoyed my time with it, but after a while, I started noticing some irritating problems. But first, let’s talk about some of the positives. My favourite feature of the Band is the sleep tracking. Before you go to sleep you simply have to tap the sleep icon and press the ‘Action’ button. I’ll bid you goodnight and the screen turn off. When you wake up, you press the action button again and the sleep tracking ends. Immediately it’ll tell you if you had a good night’s sleep, how many times you woke up, your resting heart rate and more. What do you do with this information? It’s up to you, but I’ve found it useful when people ask if you’ve slept well. You can give them some very specific information about your night’s sleep and even hand them a graph on your phone for them to see for themselves. I’m sure this gets old eventually.

I had optimal sleep that night!
I had optimal sleep that night!

Another feature I appreciated was the step tracking tool. You can set a daily goal for steps you want to be walking a day. Microsoft (I think based on my height, weight, and sex) recommended a daily step goal of 5000 steps a day. Sounds like a lot? It really isn’t. I achieved that goal by vaguely wandering around my house. I increased this goal to 8000 steps a day which was slightly more than I would be doing anyway. When you reach this goal the band buzzes on your wrist and congratulates you. It does work; I wanted to make the band praise me for being a great guy for reaching my goal, and 8000 steps sound like an achievement to me. If I ever get used to that goal, I can simply increase it even more. It encouraged me to find reasons to go out walking and add some steps to my count. In terms of accuracy, it’s pretty good, but not exact. I found that I could increase the step count by viciously waving my arm around in big circles. Somehow this doesn’t feel like cheating the system when the method requires such physical exertion.

My daily step count last week.
My daily step count last week.

The band does these fitness and health things pretty well. It can also track your golf games, bike rides, and runs. It also has quite a cool ‘Guided Workout’ feature, which basically makes the Band buzz and tell you when to move on to the next stage of your workout, then afterwards it’ll tell you stuff like calorie burn and peak heart rate. This would be great, but I’m not a fitness guy – I’ve never been to a gym or done a workout without being forced (I’m talking about school, not anything weird).

What it ain’t so great at is all the basic smart watch stuff. When I got texts my phone would buzz but my wrist wouldn’t, at least not until I’d read and replied to the text on my phone. I’d get a phone call and my wrist would do nothing. This is quite annoying because it makes you feel like you can’t actually trust it to tell you anything. I wouldn’t leave my phone on silent with the vibration off because I would definitely miss a phone call or a text message. When it does tell you about a phone call, text message or email, it pops up on the screen and buzzes, you dismiss it and then the icon concerning the notification will have a big number on it demanding you acknowledge the notification again. This became mildly irritating after a couple of days of it. It seems to forget when you’ve read a notification and when you haven’t.

Moving on to the actual hardware of the band, I have a complaint about the shape of the band. A band would normally be a circle which wraps around your wrist and it feels very comfortable. The Microsoft Band is a square. It’s designed with the heart rate monitor on one side and the screen on the other. Both sides are completely flat and reasonably wide. This makes you wait feel more like it’s had a vice attached to it, only a little bit more comfortable than that. This is something which you can bear for a while and eventually get used to. It would be so much better if the screen were curved just a little bit to fit over your wrist more comfortably.

I was amazed how quickly the band picks up scratches. In one week I looked after it pretty damn well and tried pretty hard not to scratch it, and it seemed to pick up scratches like nothing else. This is why the band comes with a screen protector already applied. It’s not a big problem; you can’t see the scratches on mine unless you’re looking very closely and with direct light, but that’s only after a week, what about a month, or even a year?

Some of that is smudged fingerprints.
Some of that is smudged fingerprints.

I suppose that’s it. I had fun with my band, but it’s not what I expected. I’d like it a lot if I were really into fitness, but I wanted a smart watch, and it just doesn’t fit the brief there. I’m serious, get this if you want a great fitness band, don’t if you want a smart watch. If you do want it, why not have mine? It’s on eBay right now! (Ends 20th of September 2015)