The new AppleTV

When the 2nd generation of the AppleTV came out and offered AirPlay support, I bought one more or less for curiosity value, but it worked so well in conjunction with AirVideo that it has completely replaced my previous attempts at an in-home media center system.

It was silent, never really required OS or application updates, never crashed and never overheated. And thanks to AirVideo it was able to play everthing I could throw at it (at the cost of a server running in the closet of course).

The only inconvenience was the fact that I needed too many devices. Playing a video involved my TV, the AppleTV and my iOS device. Plus remotes for TV and AppleTV. Personally, I didn’t really mind much, but while I would have loved to give my parents access to my media library (1 Gbit/s upstream FTW), the requirement to use three devices and to correctly switch on AirPlay has made this a complete impossibility due to the complexity.

So I patiently awaited the day when the AppleTV would finally be able to run apps itself. There was no technical reason to prevent that – the AppleTV totally was powerful enough for this and it was already running iOS.

You can imagine how happy I was when finally I got what I wanted and the new 4th generation AppleTV was announced. Finally a solution my parents can use. Finally something to help me to ditch the majority of the devices involved.

So of course I bought the new device the moment it became available.

I even had to go through additional trouble due to the lack of the optical digital port (the old AppleTV was connected to a Sonos playbar), but I found an audio extractor that works well enough.

So now after a few weeks of use, the one thing that actually pushed me to write this post here is the fact that the new AppleTV is probably the most unfinished and unpolished product that I have ever bought from Apple. Does it work? Yes. But the list of small oversights and missing pieces is as big as I have never seen in an Apple product. Ever.

Let me give you a list – quite like what I’ve done 12 years ago for a very different device

  • While the AppleTV provides you with an option to touch it with an iOS device for the configuration of the Wifi and the appleid settings, I still had to type in my appleid password twice: Once for the AppStore and once for the game center. Mind you, my appleid password is 30 characters long, containing uppercase, lowercase digits and symbols. Have fun doing this on the on-screen keyboard
  • The UI is laggy. The reason for having to type in the game center password was because the UI was still loading the system appleid as I was pressing the “Press here to login button”. First nothing happened, then the button turned into a “Press here to sign out button” and then the device reacted to my button press. Thank you
  • The old AppleTV supported either the Remote app on an iPhone or even a bluetooth keyboard for character entry. The new one doesn’t support any of this, so there’s really no way around the crappy on-screen keyboard.
  • While the device allows you to turn off automatic app updates, there is no list of apps with pending updates. There’s only “Recently updated”, but that’s a) limited to 20 apps, b) lists all recently updated apps, c) gives no indication what app is updated yet and what isn’t and finally d) isn’t even sorted by date of the last update. This UI is barely acceptable for enabled automatic updates, but completely unusable if you want them disabled to the point that I decided to just bite the bullet and enable them.
  • The sound settings offer “Automatic”, “Stereo” and “Dolby Surround”. Now, “Dolby Surround” is a technology from the mid-90-ies that encodes one additional back-channel in a stereo signal and is definitely not what you want (which would be “Dolby Digital”). Of course I’ve assumed that there’s some “helpfulnes” at work here, detecting the fact that my TV doesn’t support Dolby Digital (but the playbar does, so it’s perfectly fine to send out AC/3 sinal). Only after quite a bit of debugging I found out that what Apple calls “Dolby Surround” is actually “Dolby Digital”. WHY??
  • The remote is way too sensitive. If you so much as lift it up, you’ll start seeking your video (which works way better than anything I’ve seen before, but still…)
  • Until the first update (provided without changelog or anything the like), the youtube app would start to constantly interrupt playback and reload the stream once you paused a video once.
  • Of course in Switzerland, Siri doesn’t work, even though I would totally be able to use it in english (or german – it’s available in Germany after all) Not that it matters because the Swiss store is devoid of media I’d actually be interested in anyways and there’s no way for third-parties to integrate into the consolidated system-wide interface for media browsing.
  • Home Sharing doesn’t work for me. At. All. Even after typing in my Apple ID password a third time (which, yes, it asked me to).
  • It still doesn’t wake up on network access, nor appear in the list of Airplay-able devices of my phone when it’s in sleep mode. This only happens in one segment of my network, so it might be an issue with a switch though – wouldn’t be the first time :/

I’m sure as time goes on we’ll see updates to fix this mess, but I cannot for the life of me understand why Apple thought that the time was ready to release this.

Again: It works fine and I will be brining one to my mother next Friday because I know she’ll be able to use it just fine (especially using the Plex app). But this kind of lack of polish we’re used to on Android and Windows. How can Apple produce something like this?

The Future of the JRPG genre

After an underwhelming false start with Xenoblade Chronicles back when the game came out, the re-release on the 3DS made my give it another try and now that I’m nearly through with the game (just beat the 3rd last main quest boss), I feel compelled to write my first game review after many years of non-gaming content here.

«Review» might not be the entirely correct term though as this article is about to explain why I personally believe Xenoblade to be one of the best instances of the JPRG genre and might actually be very high up there in my list of all-time favorite games.

But first, let’s talk about what’s not so good at the game and why I nearly have missed this awesome game: If I had to list the shortcomings in this masterpiece, it would be the UI design of the side-questing system and the very, very slow start of the story.

First the story: After maybe an hour of play time, the player is inclined to think to have been thrown into the usual revenge plot, this time about a fight against machine based life-forms, but a simple revenge-plot none the less. Also, to be honest, it’s not even a really interesting revenge-plot. It feels predictable and not at all like what we’re usually used to from the genre.

Once you reach the half-time mark of the game, the subtle hints that the game’s dropping on you before that start to become less and less subtle, revealing to the player that they got it all wrong.

The mission of the game changes completely to the point of even completely changing whom you are fighting against and turning around many things you’ve taken for granted for the first half.

This is some of the most impressive story-development I’ve seen so far and also came as a complete surprise to me.

So what felt like the biggest shortcoming of the game (lackluster story) suddenly turned into one of its strongest points.

«Other games of the genre also did this» you might think as you compare this to Final Fantasy XII, but where that game unfortunately never really takes off nor adds any bigger plot-twists, the thing that Xenoblade does after the half-time marker is simply mind-blowing to the point of me refusing to post any spoilers even though the game is quite old by now.

So we have a game that gets amazing after 20-40 hours (depending on how you deal with the side-quests). What’s holding us over until then?

The answer to that question is the reason why I think that Xenoblade is one of the best JRPGs so far: What’s holding us over in the first 40 hours of the game is, you know, gameplay.

The battle system feels like it has been lifted from current MMORPGs (I’m mostly referring to World of Warcraft here as that’s the one I know best), though while it has been scaled down in sheer amount of skills, the abilities themselves have been much better balanced between the characters, which of course is possible in a single-player game.

The game’s affinity system also greatly incentivises the player to switch their party around as they play the game. This works really well when you consider the different play styles offered by the various characters. A tank plays differently from DPS which plays differently from the (unfortunately only one) healer.

But even between members of the same class there are differences in play style leading to a huge variety for players.

This is the first JRPG where I’m actually looking forward to combat – it’s that entertaining.

While the combat sometimes can be a bit difficult, especially because randomness still plays a huge part, it’s refreshing to see that the game doesn’t punish you at all for failing: If you die you just respawn at the last waypoint and usually there’s one of these right in front of the boss.

Even better, normally, the fight just starts again, skipping all introductory cutscenes. And even if there still is some cut-scenes not skipped automatically: The game always allows cutscenes to be skipped.

This makes a lot of sense, because combat is actually so much fun that there’s considerable replay-value to the game which gets much enforced by skippable cutscenes, though some of them you would never ever in your life want to skip – they are so good (you know which ones I’m referring to).

Combat is only one half of the gameplay, the other is exploration: The world of the game is huge and for the first time ever in a JPRG, the simple rule of «you can see it, you can go there» applies. For the first time ever, the huge world is yours to explore and to enjoy.

Never have I seen such variety in locations, especially, again, in the second half of the game which I really don’t want to spoil here.

Which brings us to the side-quests: Imagine that you have a quest-log like you’re used to from MMORPGs with about the same style of quests: Find this item, kill these normal mobs, kill that elite mob, talk to that other guy – you know the drill.

The non-unique and somewhat random dialog lines between the characters as they accept these side-quests break the immersion a bit.

But the one big thing that’s really annoying about the side-quests is discoverability: As a player you often have no idea where to go due to the vague quest texts and, worse, many (most) quests are hidden and only become available after you trigger some event or you talk to the correct (seemingly unrelated) NPC.

While I can understand the former issue (vague quest descriptions) from a game-play perspective, the latter is inexcusable, especially as the leveling curve of the game and the affinity system both really are designed around you actually doing these side-quests.

It’s unfair and annoying that playing hide-and seek for hours is basically a fixed requirement to having a chance at beating the game. This feels like a useless prolonging of the existing game for no reason but to, you know, prolong the game.

Thankfully though, by now, the Wiki exists, so whether you’re on the Wii or the 3DS, just have an iPad or Laptop close to you as you do the side-questy parts of the game.

Once you’re willing to live with this issue, then the absolutely amazing gameplay comes into effect again: Because exploration is so much fun, because the battle system is so much fun, then suddenly the side-quests become fun too, once you remove the annoying hide-and-seek aspect.

After all, it’s the perfect excuse to do more of what you enjoy the most: Playing the game.

This is why I strongly believe that this game would have been so much better with a more modern quest-log system: Don’t hide (most of the) quests! Be precise in explaining where to find stuff! You don’t have to artificially prolong the game: Even when you know where to go (I did thanks to the Wiki), there’s still more than 100 hours of entertainment there to be had.

The last thing about quests: Some of the quests require you to find rare items which to get you have a random chance by collecting «item orbs» spread all over the map. This is of course another nice way to encourage exploration.

But I see no reason why the drop rate must be random, especially as respawning the item orbs either requires you to wait 10 to 30 minutes or, saving and reloading the game.

If you want to encourage exploration, hide the orbs! There’s so much content in this game that aritifically prolonging it with annyoing saving and reloading escapades is completely unnecessary.

At least, the amount of grinding required isn’t so bad to the point of being absolutely bearable for me and I have nearly zero patience for grinding.

Don’t get me wrong though: Yes, these artificial time-sinks were annoying (and frankly 100% unneeded), but because the actual gameplay is so much fun, I didn’t really mind them that much.

Finally, there are some technical issues which I don’t really mind that much however: Faces of characters look flat and blurry which is very noticable in the cut-scenes which are all rendered by the engine itself (which is a very good thing).

Especially on the 3DS the low resolution of the game is felt badly (the 3DS is much worse than the Wii to the point of objects sometimes being invisible) and there’s some objects popping into view at times. This is mostly a limitation of the hardware which just doesn’t play well with the huge open world, so I can totally live with it. It only minimally affects my immersion into the game.

If you ask me what is the preferred platform to play this on, I would point at the Wii version though, of course, it’ll be very hard to get the game at this point in time (no. you can’t have my copy).

the good

So after all of this, here’s a list of the unique features of this game it has over all other members of its genre:

  • Huge world that can be explored completely. No narrow hallways but just huge open maps.
  • Absolutely amazing battle system that goes far beyond of the usual «select some action from this text-based menu»
  • Skippable cutscenes which together with the battle system make for a high replayability
  • Many different playable characters with different play styles
  • Great music by the god-like Mr. Mitsuda
  • A very, very interesting story once you reach the mid-point of the game
  • Very believable characters and very good character development
  • Some of the best cutscene direction I have ever seen in my life – again, mostly after the half-time mark (you people who played the game know which particular one I’m talking about – still sends shivers down my spine).

My wishes for the future

The game is nearly perfect in my opinion, but there are two things I think would be great to be fixed in the successor or any other games taking their inspiration from Xenoblade:

First, please fix the quest log and bring it to the current decade of what we’re used to from MMORPGs (where you lifted the quest design off to begin with): Show us where to get the quests, show us where to do them.

Second, and this one is even bigger in my opinion: Please be more considerate in how you represent women in the game. Yes, the most bad-ass characters in the game are women (again, I can’t spoil anything here). Yes, there’s a lot of depth to the characters of women in this game and they are certainly not just there for show but are actually instrumental to the overall story development (again, second part).

But why does most of the equipment for the healer in the game have to be practically underwear? Do you really need to spend CPU resources on (overblown) breast physics when you render everybodies faces blurry and flat?

Wouldn’t it be much better for the story and the immersion if the faces looked better at the cost of some (overblown) jiggling?

Do you really have to constantly show close-ups of way too big breasts of one party member? This is frankly distracting from what is going on in the game.

I don’t care about cultural differences: You managed to design very believable and bad-ass women into your game. Why do you have to diminish this by turning them into a piece of furniture to look at? They absolutely stand on their own with their abilities and their character progression.

It is the year 2015. We can do better than this (though, of course, the world was different in 2010 when the game initially came out).

Conclusion

All of that aside: Because of the amazing game play, because of the mind-blowing story, because of the mind-blowing custscene-direction and because of the huge world that’s all but narrow passages, I love this game more than many others.

I think that this is the first time that the JRPG game really has moved forward in about a decade and I would definitely like to see more games ripping off the good aspects of Xenoblade (well – basically everything).

As such I’m very much looking forward for the games successor to become available here in Europe (it has just come out in Japan and my Japanese still is practically non-existent) and I know for a fact that I’m going to play it a lot, especially as I now know to be patience with the side-quests.

Geek heaven

If I had to make a list of attributes I would like the ISP of my dream to
have, then, I could write quite the list:

  • I would really like to have native IPv6 support. Yes. IPv4 will be
    sufficient for a very long time, but unless pepole start having access to
    IPv6, it’ll never see the wide deployment it needs if we want the internet
    to continue to grow. An internet where addresses are only available to
    people with a lot of money is not an internet we all want to be subjected to
    (see my post «asking for permission»)
  • I would want my ISP to accept or even support network neutrality. For this
    to be possible, the ISP of my dreams would need to be nothing but an ISP so
    their motivations (provide better service) align with mine (getting better
    service). ISPs who also sell content have all the motivation to provide
    crappy Internet service in order to better sell their (higher-margin)
    content.
  • If I have technical issues, I want to be treated as somebody who obviously
    has a certain level of technical knowledge. I’m by no means an expert in
    networking technology, but I do know about powering it off and on again. If
    I have to say «shibboleet» to get to a real
    technicial, so be it, but if that’s not needed, that’s even better.
  • The networking technology involved in getting me the connectivity I want
    should be widely available and thus easily replacable if something breaks.
  • The networking technology involved should be as simple as possible: The
    more complex the hardware involved, the more stuff can break, especially
    when you combine cost-pressure for end-users with the need for high
    complexity.
  • The network equipment I’m installing at my home and which has thus access
    to my LAN needs to be equipment I own and I control fully. I do not accept
    leased equipment to which I do not have full access to.
  • And last but not least, I would really like to have as much bandwidth as possible

I’m sure I’m not alone with these wishes, even though, for «normal people»
they might seem strange.

But honestly: They just don’t know it, but they too have the same interests.
Nobody wants an internet that works like TV where you pay for access to a
curated small list of “approved” sites (see network neutrality and IPv6
support).

Nobody wants to get up and reboot their modem here and then because it
crashed. Nobody wants to be charged with downloading illegal content
because their Wifi equipment was suddenly repurposed as an open access point
for other customers of an ISP.

Most of the wishes I list above are the basis needed for these horror
scenarios never coming to pass, however unlikely the might seem now (though
getting up and rebooting the modem/router is something we already have to
deal with today).

So yes. While it’s getting rarer and rarer to get all the points of my list
fulfilled, to the point where I though this to be impossible to get all of
it, I’m happy to say that here in Switzerland, there is at least one ISP that
does all of this and more.

I’m talking about Init7 and especially their
awesome FTTH offering Fiber7 which very recently
became available in my area.

Let’s deal with the technology aspect first as this really isn’t the
important point of this post: What you get from them is pure 1Gbit/s
Ethernet. Yes, they do sell you a router box if you want one, but you can
just as well just get a simple media converter, or just an SFP module to plug
into any (managed) switch (with SFP port).

If you have your own routing equipment, be it a linux router like my
shion or be it any
Wifi Router, there’s no need to add any kind of additional complexity to
your setup.

No additional component that can crash, no software running in your home to
which you don’t have your password to and certainly no sneakily opened
public WLANs (I’m looking at you,
cablecom).

Of course you get native IPv6 (a /48 which incidentally is room for
281474976710656 whole internets in your apartment) too.

But what’s really remarkable about Init7 isn’t the technical aspect (though,
again, it’s bloody amazing), but everything else:

  • Init7 was one of the first ISPs in Switzerland to offer IPv6 to end users.
  • Init7 doesn’t just support network neutrality.
    They actively fight for it
  • They explicitly state
    that they are not selling content and they don’t intend to start doing so. They are just an ISP and as such their motivations totally align with mine.

There are a lot of geeky soft factors too:

  • Their press releases are written in Open Office (check the PDF properties
    of this one
    for example)
  • I got an email from a technical person on their end that was written using
    f’ing Claws Mail on Linux
  • Judging from the Recieved headers of their Email, they are using IPv6 in
    their internal LAN – down to the desktop workstations. And related to that:
  • The machines in their LAN respond to ICMPv6 pings which is utterly crazy
    cool. Yes. They are firewalled (cough I had to try. Sorry.), but they let
    ICMP through. For the not as technical readers here: This is as good an
    internet citizen as you will ever see and it’s extremely unexpected these
    days.

If you are a geek like me and if your ideals align with the ones I listed
above, there is no question: You have to support them. If you can have their
Fiber offering in your area, this is a no-brainer. You can’t get synchronous
1GBit/s for CHF 64ish per month anywhere else and even if you did, it
wouldn’t be plain Ethernet either.

If you can’t have their fiber offering, it’s still worth considering their
other offers. They do have some DSL based plans which of course are
technically inferior to plain ethernet over fiber, but you would still
support one of the few remaining pure ISPs.

It doesn’t have to be Init7 either. For all I know there are many others,
maybe even here in Switzerland. Init7 is what I decided to go with initially
because of the Gbit, but the more I leared about their philosophy, the less
important the bandwith got.

We need to support companies like these because companies like these are
what ensures that the internet of the future will be as awesome as the
internet is today.

Gmail – The review

It has been quite a while since I began routing my mail to Gmail with the intention of checking that often-praised mail service out thoroughly.

The idea was to find out if it’s true what everyone keeps saying: That gmail has a great user interface, that it provides all the features one needs and that it’s a plain pleasure to work with it.

Personally, I’m blown away.

Despite the obviously longer load time to be able to access the mailbox (Mac Mail launches quicker than it takes gmail to load here – even with a 10 MBit/s connection), the gmail interface is much faster to use – especially with the nice keyboard shortcuts – but I’m getting ahead of myself.

When I began to use the interface for some real email work, I immediately noticed the shift of paradigm: There are no folders and – the real new thing for me – you are encouraged to move your mail out of the inbox as you take notice of them and/or complete the task associated with the message.

When you archive a message, it moves out of the inbox and is – unless you tag it with a label for quick retrieval – only accessible via the (quick) full text search engine built into the application.

The searching part of this usage philosophy is known to me. When I was using desktop clients, I usually kept arriving email in my inbox until it contained somewhere around 1500 messages or so. Then I grabbed all the messages and put them to my “Old Mail” folder where I accessed them strictly via the search functionality built into the mail client (or the server in case of a good IMAP client).

What’s new for me is the notion of moving mail out of your inbox as you stop being interested in the message – either because you plain read it or because the associated task is completed.

This allows you for a quick overview over the tasks still pending and it keeps your inbox nice and clean.

If you want quick access to certain messages, you can tag them with any label you want (multiple labels per message are possible of course) in which case you can access the messages with one click, saving you the searching.

Also, it’s possible to define filters allowing you to automatically apply labels to messages and – if you want, move them out of the inbox automatically – a perfect setup for the SVN commit messages I’m getting, allowing me to quickly access them at the end of the day and looking over the commits.

But the real killer feature of gmail is the keyboard interface.

Gmail is nearly completely accessible without requiring you to move your hands off the keyboard. Additionally, you don’t even need to press modifier keys as the interface is very much aware of state and mode, so it’s completely usable with some very intuitive shortcuts which all work by pressing just any letter button.

So usually, my workflow is like this: Open gmail, press o to open the new message, read it, press y to archive it, close the browser (or press j to move to the next message and press o again to open it).

This is as fast as using, say, mutt on the console, but with the benefit of staying usable even when you don’t know which key to press (in that case, you just take the mouse).

Gmail is perfectly integrated into google calendar, and it’s – contrary to mac mail – even able to detect outlook meeting invitations (and send back correct responses).

Additionally, there’s a MIDP applet available for your mobile phone that’s incredibly fast and does a perfect job of giving you access to all your email messages when you are on the road. As it’s a Java application, it runs on pretty much every conceivable mobile phone and because it’s a local application, it’s fast as hell and can continue to provide the nice, keyboard shortcut driven interface which we are used to from the AJAXy web application.

Overall, the experiment of switching to gmail proofed to be a real success and I will not switch back anytime soon (all my mail is still archived in our Exchange IMAP box). The only downside I’ve seen so far is that if you use different email-aliases with your gmail-account, gmail will set the Sender:-Header to your gmail-address (which is a perfectly valid – and even mandated – thing to do), and the stupid outlook on the receiving end will display the email as being sent from your gmail adress “in behalf of” your real address, exposing your gmail-address at the receiving. Meh. So for sending non-private email, I’m still forced to use Mac Mail – unfortunately.