I think I am going to give Mediaportal another go, now that 1.1 final has been finally (after so much time and so many release candidates) released. I had been using Mediaportal as my media center software of choice since about 2007 (back in the 0.2.x days) but recently I had been lured away with some of the shinier features of Windows 7 Media Center.
Although overall I have enjoyed the user experience and polish of 7MC, the frustrations and limitations (lack of good plug-ins, local content, themes etc..) continue to mount. There are a lot of things 7MC is simply great at (series record, intelligently recording at another time to deal with timing clashes, Windows integration, four-foot configuration and so on..) but I think I am ready for a bit more freedom again from my media center.
Valve have come up with a great promo for XCOM fans – ALL the games (including Interceptor and Enforcer) for £2.99 ! This is an incredible bargain as all five games separately are £2.99, not to mention that Valve have done some tinkering so you avoid all the DOSBox / 16bit emulation woes.
Unfortunately I already own all the originals (apart from Interceptor and Enforcer – but these are not true XCOM strategy games as far as I am concerned) – however if you missed one or two of them then now you have absolutely no excuse.
Today I got my grubby mits on a copy of Stalker: Clear Sky and showing an uncharacteristic amount of self restraint, didn’t rush home to play it immediately. When I did fire it up I was initially left with mixed feelings. However, I have now played about three hours on the hardest difficulty setting and thus far quite enjoyed the experience.
Clear Sky is a prequel to Shadow of Chernobyl, set in a larger Zone around the NPP. There is a fair amount of new content and a lot of the original terrain has been rejigged which adds greatly to the excitement. You wake up as an anonymous loner who has *just* survived a massive blow out which cooked the other members of your party. The similarity to the original title ends there though, and players are immediately put to work as a member of the Clear Sky faction – a group of scientists who are studying the Zone. The game starts quickly, throwing the player into the nearby swamp and introducing them to a lot of the ‘strategy’ concepts early on.
Do not get too excited about the strategy side of things – I was of the mistaken impression that it would involve a game play cross between the original Stalker and a Battlefield style with resources and areas of influence. Unfortunately it is a lot more basic than that and really just expands the completely superfluous Stalker ranking system of the original game. To those of you wondering what I am talking about.. you have made my point for me. The feature was completely superfluous and merely tracked the player’s progress through the game based on how many people they had killed. Fast forward 18 months and Clear Sky expands this concept by formalising the factions in the PDA and providing nifty bars showing faction influence, disposition to the player and ‘resources.’ Any hope of any deep strategy is wiped out here as the stats can so far simply be interpreted by: powerful faction – lots of pointless side quests, otherwise ignore. The side quests are the biggest disappointment thus far for me as they seems to be generated from the template : “Go 5 to 10 mins out of your way and kill something” which gets very old very quickly. Scripted side quests are however interesting and having met a deserting Russian Army driver who promptly tried to double cross me I am cautiously optimistic about the rest of the game. Let this be a warning to you – don’t trust people you meet hiding under a bridge. :p
Despite the use of the original locations, models and textures Clear Sky is a very different game. The story is just as engaging as the original, if not more so, as it makes full use of the fact it is a prequel to interweave some of the key characters from Shadow of Chernobyl into the plot. Who knows, maybe even Strelok will make an appearance later? The engine has been greatly upgraded and now includes a lot of beautiful weather and lighting effects coupled with a day night transition system which turn a game already dripping in atmosphere into something almost surreal in places. The atmosphere is largely thanks to the authenticity of having a development team from the Ukraine. The moody, functional architecture from a post Soviet era comes accross naturally and is sufficiently alien to many Western players to really add intrigue to this already very different world. Greatly improved textures and sounds coupled with the graphical enhancements and interesting developments to the AI really make the game stand out for me, and although it will never have the same level of graphical polish as something like Call of Duty 4, there have been moments already which have left me in awe. Sadly players who played the original will be frustrated that some of glitches still present in Clear Sky. Randomly disappearing NPCs, occasional clipping bugs, annoying side quest spawning (and timing) all remain, although many bugs have been fixed.
Bugs not-with-standing, I have only played this game for a very short duration and even by my overly critical standards the game is, so far, highly enjoyable and definitely worth buying. I will write more when I have had a chance to get deeper into the Zone.
I managed to acquire, for the price of a nice lunch, a brand new Elonex media center Artisan LX a couple of days back. I was initially very excited because up to then I had still been running my first media center was really just an experiment, built from scratch containing mostly old components I had around my place. A year and a bit on, I am firmly hooked on a PC based PVR system the cornerstone of my entertainment system. It contained an Athlon 2600+ processor with 512Mb of DDR coupled with a DVB-T Hauppage tuner and an 80Gb drive for recordings running the open source MediaPortal software. So as you can see, there was plenty of room for improvement.
This was the first time I have really had a tinker with the Windows Media Center range of Operating systems that Microsoft produce and I went in with few expectations, apart from wanting at least as comparable an experience in terms of functionality and flexibility as I have enjoyed with MediaPortal.
The first thing that struck me was how fickle Windows Media Center 2005 was, even with all the roll ups (essentially what Microsoft call Service Packs for Media Center OS) installed. Wikipedia sums up the ‘capabilities’ of WMC 2005:
‘Media Center originally had a limitation of 1 analog tuner, but was raised to 2 analog tuners with Media Center 2005. With Update Rollup 1 for Media Center 2005, support for a digital tuner was added, but an analog tuner must still be present for the digital tuner to function. With Rollup 2, up to 4 TV tuners can be configured (2 analog and 2 HDTV). All the tuners must use the same source, for example they must all be off an aerial or a set-top box using the same guide data, you cannot mix Sky Digital and DVB-T for example.’
XP Media Center really shows its age here – I do not watch any analogue transmissions, so for a Media Center to require a legacy piece of hardware just to be able to access DVB (digital) seems preposterous. But that was not the worst thing! Windows Media Center 2005 is not capable of pulling EPG data OTA (over-the-air) instead requiring an overly elaborate system that relies on a permanent, always on Internet connection. This also raises some privacy concerns as ‘anonymous’ data, which is not entirely anonymous as Microsoft asks for your postcode during set up, is fed back to Microsoft which can include recording / watching trends and general EPG usage. Hitherto my media center system has not been networked. Considering it is in the opposite corner of my house, and I do not stream my recordings or have formal media shares, I never felt the need to network it. It was nice to just have a static, secure system without any security programs or periodic updates – now security monitoring of my media center has been added to my list of digital chores.
None the less, I was determined to give it a fair go, so I added a wifi adaptor, added some plug-ins and configured everything. After spending eight hours getting everything working, playing around and testing… I went back to my custom build. Not all the problems can be put squarely at Microsoft’s feet however. Elonex declared bankruptcy shortly after launching this range and the malicious part of me can see why, if this mediacenter is the sum total of their expertise.
Whilst the case looked rather nice from the outside, the hardware and the design of the internals is what really lets it down. The only element Elonex got right was the noise (or lack thereof) – the media center barely gives out a murmur when idle due to only a since fan which is housed inside the power supply. It runs at 690rpm, which draws air over the CPU heatsink (which has four heat pipes) and directly out the side of the case. However, I stressed ‘at idle’ before for a reason. When the media center does anything the incredibly noisy hard drive starts very audibly clicking and crunching away and it completely lets the machine down.
However that’s not the worst thing about this mediacenter. Due to the fact that there is only one very slow fan the airflow in the case is restricted to circulating around the motherboard tray, the processor then out the power supply. The harddrive and PCI / AGP cards are completely neglected. This point was slammed home when the harddrive consistently reported temperatures of high 50s to 62 degrees Celsius!!! Worse still, when I idled the system, that heat didn’t dissipate. The hard drive is locked into place with a pretentious plastic locking mechanism which neither improves the accessibility of the drive bay nor decreases the vibrations from the drive. There is no thermal (or thermally viable) contact between the hard drive and the case and as such, the hard drive is left smouldering away with no way to cool down predictably with next to no drop in temperature. There is a valid point that maintaining electronic components at a set temperature prolongs their life by avoiding constantly repeating thermal differentials (i.e. heating and cooling) however the fact remains that 60+ degrees centigrade is far too hot for a hard drive. Although my brief research on this did not yield any definitive threshold, most sources agree that 50-55 degrees Centigrade is about the absolute maximum recommended operating temperature.
Couple this practically zero thermal conduction with a lack of airflow and you have a recipie for a very short hard drive life. Even worse, this thermal issue was not limited to HDD, the south-bridge and GFX heatsinks were equally poorly cooled and get unpleasantly hot to the touch.
Worst of all, it is just slow. CpuID and the BIOS disagreed with each other about the exact Intel processor that powers the system. I believe it to be either an Intel Pentium 4 530 (at 3.06Ghz) or a Celeron D 345. There is no way the much older Athlon 2600+ processor with the same RAM should be out performing this setup and yet it does so without breaking a sweat.
All in all, very disappointing. A remarkable demonstration of technical ignorance on the part of Elonex. But hey, I didn’t pay for it and now I have an extra DVB-T tuner back in my original, self built machine.
Design (cosmetic) : 8/10 - Pleasing, with a nice Hi-fi look.
Design (technical) : 2/10 – Poor components poorly arranged.
Cooling : 6/10 - Great CPU and powersupply cooling, but everything else is woefully neglected.
Acoustics : 6/10 - Silent until it has to touch the harddrive, still a good effort though
Connectivity : 8/10 – Lots of connectors for digital Audio and Video
Capacity : 5/10 - 200Gb harddrive with a portion taken for recovery. I wouldn’t trust it though and by modern standards it is rather anemic.
Overall : 2/10 – Great for free, if I paid anything for it I would have been annoyed.
Despite all the problems circulating the web about Windows XP Service Pack 3, I thought I would go ahead anyway on a new installation. The installation part went fine and the system restarted properly with no lock ups, stops or looping restarts. So far so good, unfortunately I celebrated my good fortune too soon – Windows Update stopped functioning. Whilst updates were being downloaded, Windows XP would fail to actually perform the update.
I did a bit of googling and whilst I didn’t find any accounts exactly matching my problem, I decided to follow the advice on this Microsoft KB article.
First of all, stop the automatic update service from the command prompt.
1. Open up Start Menu > Run
2. Type “cmd” and press Enter.
3. In the command box, type “net stop wuauserv”, should should get the following confirmation:
Now we need to reregister the DLL involved in the Windows Update process.
4. Type in “regsvr32 %windir%\system32\wups2.dll”. The following control box should pop up after a moment:
Now we need to start the update service and hopefully all should be well again.
5. Type “net start wuauserv” which should yield this confirmation:
Thats it, updates started working for me immediately afterwards. If this didn’t do the trick for you, follow the alternative methods on Microsoft’s KB article linked above.
Its unusual to see such a user-unfriendly way of managing (or changing) the default settings in a program. Windows Vista ships with Vista Sidebar, a gadget/widget engine which brings limited but extensible functionality to Windows Vista.
The main criticism I had initially was with the RSS widget – there seemed to be no way of changing the default feeds that shipped with Vista from the default and fairly bland MSN rss feeds. Despite tinkering with the widget and sidebar program, I eventually conceded defeat and did a bit of digging.
It turns out, rather counter-intuitively that the way to change the RSS feeds is via Internet Explorer. Fire up Internet Explorer and hit “Control+J“, this is the keyboard shortcut to bring up the feed window.
Once here, you can add / delete / modify the RSS feeds that Vista shows to your heart’s content. In doing so, you expose the greatest weakness of Vista’s default RSS widget, it does not scale very well. Whilst in “at-a-glance” RSS perusal for a few feeds works rather well, its over simplification is its greatest downfall.
There is no easy way to change between RSS feeds / groups (it has to be done via a menu each time) nor is there a way to dismiss headlines which have been read. This greatly limits the usefulness of this widget for any serious RSS subscriber.
I had a brief look, but I could not find a 3rd party, general purpose RSS feed widget on the Microsoft Live Widget site. Whilst this gadget is certainly of use, its limitations greatly diminish its usefulness.
UPDATE: Just a brief note to say this works in exactly the same way for Windows 7.
Well, it has been a fair few months since the first ultra cheap ultraportable sublaptop was released by ASUS, namely the EEE PC – few thought this single, largely under-hyped launch would change the face of mobile computing in the way it has. Personally I am delighted, I am a fan of both gadgets and small portable devices like this. I tried out an EEE PC at PC world a few weeks ago and was impressed at the build quality and size. More surprisingly, I was impressed with the screen which was the main source of my disdain being only 7″ and having a non standard resolution of 800×480. One thing I could not try out was surfing the internet- which a device like this is primarily designed to do.
Before the hate mail comes in let me explain, whilst the unit is very capable for a variety of uses, many of those will be in the ‘cloud’ and as a result, reliable and efficient internet browsing is essential. Since most webpages are designed for 1024×768, the 1st generation EEE PC and even the second (900 series) to an extent, will always be lacking in my opinion. Which is a shame. I really want to buy an EEE PC, but I know such a purchase would be based on a long festering impulse rather than any real need or desire. I carry around my 15.4″ laptop whenever I need to do any computing away from my home and it serves me rather well. Of much greater interest to me is where ASUS goes from here. Whilst other companies struggle to release their own clone (more about this later) of the EEE PC, the engineers at ASUS are clearly scratching their heads wondering where they can take this platform from here. In my opinion, there are two directions ASUS can go.
Direction one : More more more more! In a way, ASUS have already indicated this is their intention with the 2nd generation EEE PC laptop, the 900 series. It has a bigger screen as well as a number of other refinements which are great to see, however they still do not bring the machine upto par with an ultra-cheap full-sized notebook. Given the two units sell at comparable prices here in the UK, there really is no incentive to buy the 2nd Generation EEE PC. This coupled with some of the better specced models only being available with Microsoft Windows XP is also short sighted. If ASUS continue in this direction, then we will see a similar development to Psion’s 5(mx) -> 7 / Netbook with a larger, similarly underpowered system being produced. Off the top of my head, I would predict either a 9″ or 10″ screen, 20Gb flash HDD and no doubt other tweaks. There is no doubt, if the screen is of better quality (i.e. resolution and dpi) and the laptop is not substantially more expensive, it could make for a great addition to the EEE PC range; however, I am more interested in Direction two.
Direction two: No this is not some shadowy Orwellian organisation in the basement of a Cinema called “Freedom”* but rather, what my plan would be for the continuation of the EEE PC range. The expression “Stick to what you are good at” comes to mind, ASUS have found a niché which, in business parlance equals profit. More than that, by getting into bed with the open-source crowd, they have a lot of “value-add” through third party modders and hackers – one just needs to look at the number of Operating Systems that now have been run on the EEE PC to see this. In six months time, there should be a new EEE PC, lets call this fictional product the 71x series (so 711, 712, 713 and 714 to match current 1st gen model numbers) and put a higher resolution screen maybe in a 7″ or 8.4″ form factor into it. RAM options seem perfectly adequate at the moment, but allow the addition of traditional platter HDDs as well as the 1st Generation flash drives as options. The idea that, as higher capacities of flash discs drop slightly, they are immediately incorporated into the next generation of EEE PC device is frankly ridiculous, the cornerstone of the EEE PC philosophy was value – something ASUS seem to have forgotten with their 900 series laptops. Using the same flash hard drive capacities as the first generation (e.g. 2, 4 and 8Gb) or offering traditional platter harddrives (in 10, 20 or 30Gb sizes) would lower the price of the product whilst preserving the original fanbase as well as enticing new customers.
The only downside to direction two is the number of companies eager to get a slice of the pie. Recently, DELL, HP and ACER added their names to the list of companies developing laptops for this formerly niché market. Whilst companies like Acer (in my experience) have never been particularly concerned over quality, others like DELL, HP, VIA are. Its not just these companies who are after a slice of the market, Elonex, MSI, OLPC and others have either expressed an interest in or have released comparable products. The question remains – stand still and possibly get left behind or innovate and put the price up. There is no easy answer, but I believe the EEE PC brand has a lot of clout for being both first and for being good quality. These two factors will keep ASUS onto of this niché market, provided they keep on track and continue to impress us.
On a side note, Cnet have a great side by side comparison that’s worth glancing at.
*Believe it or not, there actually was a secret Soviet KGB/GRU interrogation facility in a Cinema called Wolność (Freedom) in Krakow during the Communist era – its the kind of thing you just can’t make up. Apparently they always had a habit of playing their films a bit loudly there…