6.07.2014

Promising

I officially became a Mac user almost 14 years ago.  I was a freshman in college and I needed a computer for school work.  I wanted a laptop and planned to take out a computer loan at my campus student center to get something nice that would last me for the next 4 years.
photo of the original iBook
About a year earlier Apple had announced the iMac and shortly thereafter had introduced the iBook.  They were quite attractive, but I had been raised on Windows and was only vaguely familiar with the Mac's then-brand-new operating system, OS 9.

In the end my decision came down to a fully-loaded Dell Inspiron (or maybe it was a Latitude...) or a fully-loaded iBook SE with Firewire.  Believe it or not, when compared feature for feature the iBook was $200 cheaper and thus my decision was made easy.


Learning OS 9 was easy enough and I was constantly surprised by how similar Mac OS and Windows actually were, despite always believing that the two existed in alternate dimensions.


OS 9 was a decent and capable operating system, but I still managed to crash and wipe my system several times.  I learned the hard way (several times) never to user my computer while drunk and to never attempt to clean house in my System folder while stoned.  Ah, college.
OS X was released my sophomore year of college and it was a revelation.  It's important to remember that at this point in time Windows XP hadn't even been released yet, so when people saw the eye-popping new interface of OS X as compared to Windows 2000 or Windows ME their jaws hit the floor.  It was a great time to be a Mac user.
Later that year the iPod was released.  It was an interesting and compelling foray into the burgeoning market of MP3 players, but I was quite content with my Minidisc player.  Nevertheless, my dad surprised me with the new iPod that Christmas.  I quickly became enamored by the little chrome music player that one of my classmates initially mistook for a cigarette case.  Though, what truly captured my imagination was Apple's new promise that their Macs would become "the hub of your digital life".  


You could sync your music from your Mac to your iPod.  You could transfer your photos from from your camera to your Mac.  You could turn those photos into videos, burn them and play them on the DVD player in your living room and do all of it easily and intuitively.  It was literally promising.  I managed a glimpse at a future where all of our devices would communicate with each other effortlessly and the home PC would act as a nucleus.

The closer we got to that reality the further it seemed we had to go and every time a new device was released or functionality was added to the software the bar set itself higher.


Fast-forward six years to when the idea of device convergence had begun to take a hold of me.  I grew tired of carrying an iPod for music, a digital camera for photography, a cellphone for phone calls, a laptop for Internet access and a Gameboy to play video games.  Cargo pants were out of style.  Pockets could only carry so much and I was getting a little old for backpacks.


Apple debuted the iPhone and made a new promise.  Here's a device that does everything you want and does it well enough that you can leave all those other devices at home.  The first iPhone was a little rough around the edges, but I bought into that promise, not only of convergence, but also still chasing the idea that slowly but surely all of my devices would work together seamlessly.


The iPhone ran a modified version of OS X which, theoretically, could allow it integrate nicely with the desktop version of OS X which was in it's 4th incarnation: Mac OS 10.4 Tiger.


As revolutionary as it all seemed, progress was slow.  The subsequent releases of iOS and OS X ran hot and cold in terms of the introduction of new milestone features.


OS X's marquee releases had always been packed with massive upgrades and huge new features.  That began to change after the release of OS 10.5 Leopard.  The following update, 10.6 Snow Leopard, introduced a litany of behind-the-scenes and stability upgrades.  To this day, Snow Leopard remains my favorite version of OS X, but new features and functionalities were meager and I was still left wanting for deeper integration with iOS.


What's worse, with the release of OS 10.7 Lion, long-time Mac users like myself were beginning to fear that the intersection of the two operating systems would result in a Mac that simply ran a glorified version of iOS.  Additions to Lion like Launch Pad and the Mac App Store gave me a sinking feeling that instead of my smartphone getting smarter my computer was getting dumber.

This was a tough time for me to be a Mac user.  The relative obscurity Apple-users lived in had truly started to erode as more and more people bought iOS devices (and considered buying Macs) and Apple's famed innovation was seemingly beginning to slow as competitors like Google and even Microsoft began to create more intriguing products.  The enjoyment of being in "the Apple club" was waning.  My fellow Apple users were getting "douche-ier" and dumber and the intuitive software design and inspiring products were drying up.

I was primarily using my new iMac to run Windows 7 (another phenomenal operating system) and playing PC games.  I was seriously considering switching to a newer, fancier, sleeker, larger Android phone.


iOS 7 was a radical redesign and a breath of fresh air.  It introduced a bevy of new features, but for all it's strengths it was still a new coat of paint on an old product.


OS X Mavericks was an interesting new direction for the desktop OS but Apple's new direction of supplying annual updates to OS X with just a few token new features was underwhelming.


It felt as though Apple was meandering directionless.


Fast-forward again to the now.  On June 2nd, 2014 Apple announced another revision of their software offerings: OS X Yosemite and iOS 8.  It marked the first time I have been excited by one of Apple's OS X upgrades since 2007's OS 10.5 Leopard.

The reason?  Quite simply: massive integration between iOS and OS X.  Apple promises to let us place phone calls and send SMS messages through our computer, pass tasks like writing emails or editing documents back and forth seamlessly and do so in a more unified interface across both devices.  With new SDKs, extensibility and even a new programming language there's now even more promise than ever before that things will continue to improve.


The announcements reignited the idea of having tightly integrated devices with inherent functionality that are enjoyable to use.  It also rekindled my desire to be a part of Apple's technological vision.


With Yosemite and iOS 8 it seems that Apple has rediscovered what has always made Apple special.  By controlling hardware design and software design you can exert complete command over your experience.  This is why Apple products have always been touted as able to "just work" and innovations can occur more freely without the need to coordinate with 3rd party developers and hardware manufacturers.


Apple is now positioning itself to unify it's mobile and desktop experiences in a much greater capacity in a much more compelling way.


It is finally, once more, an exciting time to be a Mac user.


But the bar is ever-rising.  The more new features and functionality that are added, the more we will request and Google, Microsoft and the others continue to make truly awesome products that offer stiff competition.

My only hope is that Apple will finally make good on the one promise they have never delivered on.  All I truly want is for my iPhone to be able to "hand-off" my current song and resume playback on my Mac or vice versa, just as it was almost promised back in this original ad for the first iPod:


It's all I've really ever wanted.

12.17.2012

Lost to the Ages

It's crazy to think that there are films out there that never made it to DVD.  They saw a release on Laserdisc or VHS, but never made the jump.

Original Super Mario Bros 3
We're getting to the point where it's hard to believe that something like a movie or a song can fade away and die.  Sure it's popularity might decline, it might be overlooked or derided, but a piece of media's availability is almost never doubted.  I know that The Matrix: Reloaded is generally an unfavorably regarded movie, but if I love it (and I do) I can go to iTunes or Amazon or Blockbuster or Netflix and I can track down a copy.

That's why it's interesting to me that of all the media formats out there, there are some that don't quite have longevity figured out yet.

Super Mario Bros 3 remake for GBA
We've seen our favorite albums released on vinyl and then 8-track, cassette, CD and MP3.  We've seen all of the movie formats and then some, but what about video games?

We're at the point now where video games (and I'm mainly speaking of the home console variety) are about a generation old.  Video games are easily pushing 40.  My first reaction is to start talking about preservation, but preservation isn't the problem.  Anyone can take a factory sealed Nintendo Entertainment System and a factory sealed copy of StarTropics and lock them away in a humidity controlled vault somewhere.

No, I think the idea I want to explore here isn't preservation but prevalence.  I'd like to live in a future where older games can be purchased and played just like classic movies.  Albeit, we've already seen a resurgence in the prevalence of "classic" video games.  The old school stuff like Space Invaders, Galaga, Pac-Man and Dig Dug.  It's all out there on just about any platform you can think of.  But what about those other games that came out around the same time and have since fallen into obscurity.

The PC is probably the shining example of how to do old games right.  It's not a perfect eco-system, but chances are if you've got a game that ran on Windows back in the day, it can probably still run today.  It's exciting to think that barring any kind of crazy hardware compatibility you can still play Wolfenstein 3D largely unchanged from the way it was in 1992.

The problem with home console video games is that those games and the hardware they ran on were so inextricably linked that it leaves us with only three options should we want to replay them now.  The first is the obvious but cumbersome one.  We can lug out our old equipment and hook it up.  With the jump to HD, this could be impossible nowadays (I'd have no clue how to connect an RF switch to my Bravia).  If you can get everything working your picture is still going to look terrible without an upscaler.  HD TVs are rather unkind to old sub-480p content.  Lastly, everytime you drag that stuff out you get closer and closer to the day it won't work anymore.

The future proof way would be to use an emulator.  Emulators are software engines coded to behave like those old video game consoles.  The problem with that is that since there's no way to hook your game cartridge up to your computer and your optical media-based games can't be read by the blu-ray drive in your computer, you have to go to shady websites and downloaded pirated ROMs of the games you want to play.  Now you're a criminal, and unless the emulator and ROM were done well, your game may not play even closely to the way you remember it.

The last way to to enjoy those old games is through re-makes and re-releases.  This phenomenon has been going on for quite a while now.  The first major rush on our nostalgic tendencies I can clearly remember were the re-releases of NES classics on the Game Boy Advance with Nintendo's Classic NES series.  This was the first time I could remember an old game being repackaged and resold (at a ridiculous price) back to the people who had already bought it.  As insulting as it may have seemed, it worked.  Players didn't want to drag out their NES, if it even still worked, and buying these old games again scratched that nostalgic itch.  This idea has been adopted by just about every video game company with an old, well-regarded game worth re-releasing, but the trend has gone from selling a straight re-production of the original to compilations or collections of games to remakes of games and now to HD remakes and collections.

And here's where we get to the real meat of the issue.  When a company sets out to produce an HD remake of a game, even if the remake is simply "up-resing" existing assets and putting out a prettier version of an old game, that company is going to need a team, and money to pay that team.  If you have to pay that team, then you expect to recoup your investment.  If you expect to recoup your investment then you choose your remakes carefully and only choose those that are likely to turn a profit.  The list of video game remakes is surprisingly (or maybe unsurprisingly) short.

So far, this model isn't actually sounding too different than the movie or music industry.  Media that is good and popular or has some kind of merit will continually be brought to future formats.  Media that is bad will fall by the wayside.  Except with video games there's an extra wrinkle and that is rights management.  For example every once in awhile in the other industry, a record label goes under and the rights to their catalog get trapped in legal limbo, or a book publisher refuses to make ebook versions of their titles available.  However with video games, often times the companies can still be in business, healthy and profitable, but unable to release their old games because they don't have the legal right.

Have fun playing in 4:3 480i...forever!
There are plenty of scenarios, but one example is the James Bond game 007: Everything Or Nothing.  This game came out in 2004 and was developed by EA and MGM Interactive.  Since 2004, the video game rights to the James Bond franchise have changed hands to Activision while MGM has since fallen under the umbrella of Sony.  007: Everything Or Nothing, was an impressive, big budget game featuring the voicework and likenesses of Pierce Brosnan, Judi Dench, John Cleese, Willem Dafoe, Shannon Elizabeth and Heidi Klum.  An HD remake would be something to truly behold, but it will likely never happen because of the legal gymnastics required to bring it back to market.

It's a complication that seems to be rather unique to the video game industry and one that will require more attention as we move forward on to new consoles.  It will be especially interesting to watch the PS2-era games (referred to as the sixth generation) age.  These games have been the most frequent recipients of the hd remake treatment, but plenty of deserving games are getting left behind.

There is no ready-answer or easy solution, and it's likely that unless we keep those old boxes lying around, some of those old games will not be playable any other way.  With the next offering of consoles on the horizon, however, I hope some attention is turned to longevity and giving video games a permanent digital shelf space so that they can be enjoyed perpetually long after we've moved on to the next-next Playstations and Xboxes.

9.15.2012

8 Things You Need To Know About Backup and Restore on PS3

I am religious about backing up my data.  If a device lives under my roof and it has a hard drive it gets backed up once a week, with an offsite backup at least once a month.

I've been a Playstation 3 owner since 2008 and shortly after I bought my shiny new toy a friend of mine suffered a hardware failure on his own PS3.  This served as a cautionary tale and I began to faithfully make backups every week.

The PS3 backup utility is buried in the system menu on the PS3 Xross Media Bar and it is about as bare-bones as a backup utility can get.  It simply copies everything from the PS3's internal hard drive to an external hard drive of your choosing.  Or at least that's what I thought.

A couple weeks ago, after four long years of hard work and arduous service, my PS3 finally gave out.  It is a form of death informally known as the Yellow Light of Death, much akin to the Xbox 360's similar Red Ring of Death.

For most users this would have been a moment of extreme panic and lament.  For myself, however, it was simply an annoyance.  I had a very recent backup so when I contacted Sony and set up my "repair" I knew that aside from the $100 fee the only inconvenience would be waiting for my new unit to arrive and then waiting for my backup data to be restored.

I'd never done a full restore of a backup before and I knew anecdotally that certain items wouldn't restore properly (content purchased from the Playstaiton Store, like games would have to be redownloaded), which made sense.  But here are a few things that I didn't expect:

1. Swapping hard drives will require firmware on a thumb drive
To compound my problems, not only was I restoring a new PS3, but I also needed to swap back in my 500GB hard drive.  The drive was in good shape with no bad sectors but I kept getting an error message when I turned on the PS3.  I had forgotten that if you want to swap hard drives, a USB device loaded with up-to-date firmware is necessary.  There are plenty of guides for this process, but the one thing they all seemed to omit is if you're having problems getting the ball rolling (aka an annoyingly vague error message) you'll need to initiate recovery mode by holding the power button down when you turn on the PS3 until you hear a second beep to see a list of new options.
2. Media purchased from the 'Video' side of the Playstation Store is gone forever.
I'm still not 100% sure about this one, as I have yet to contact Sony customer support, but from what I have read around the Internet any movies and TV shows purchased from the Playstation Store are gone forever.  Apparently buried deep in the Terms of Service it says somewhere that you only get to download these items once.  Once you've downloaded them they are locked to that box and if you switch boxes you're out of luck.  It's pretty bogus.  I didn't own too much stuff, but I had an entire season of Futurama and some other random episodes of shows that apparently I can't get back without re-purchasing.
3. Locked saves are gone too.
It's not too common for developers to use locked saves for their games, but a few of my games used them and those saves did not get backed up.  How can you tell if any of your game saves are locked?  You can't... at least not easily.  The only way I've ever been able to determine it is to highlight a save and hit triangle.  If the 'Copy' option is grayed out you've probably got a locked save.  Like I said, not too many games use locked saves these days, but all the work I put into unlocking songs and extras in DJ Hero 1 & 2 went down the drain.
4. Your game data is gone.
I knew I'd have to redownload all the games I'd purchased, but what I didn't expect was that none of my game data would make the trip over to the new hard drive.  Your game data is separate from your game saves.  Game data is all of the "other" stuff that gets saved to your PS3's hard drive.  Game installs from disc-based games and downloadable games have to be re-installed.  I'd forgotten what a joy it was to load Gran Turismo 5 with it's 40-minute mandatory install.
5. You've redownloaded your games, but don't forget to patch them.
Something else that came as a surprise was that even though I had to download fresh copies of my games, the games weren't patched!  Redownloading patches for my disc-based games makes sense after loosing all of my game data, but when I download a fresh copy of a full game I expect it to come fully patched.  It took a while to download Burnout paradise, but it took even longer to download all the patches that have come out since its' 2008 release.
6. Your metadata is gone.
This was one of the bigger bummers for me.  While I was disappointed to have lost the video content I purchased from the Playstation Store, it wasn't a huge deal to me because I had far more video that I had ripped and copied to the Playstation myself.  This was all backed up and restored intact except for one small annoyance that turned out to be a big hassle to fix.  I had organized all my videos, games and music into folders.  These folders are created and applied on the PS3 and evidently that information is not encoded into the PS3's copy of the file because after the restore my folders were all gone.  This may not sound like a big deal, but when you've got 200GB of content heaped into a pile with no way to make sense of it, the only thing you can do is sift through it file by file and place each item into a new folder one at a time.  The songs I had on the drive had all been shaken loose of their playlists, TV shows jumbled and all the file names reverted to what they were when I originally copied them over to the PS3.
7. Your trophies are OK
On the plus side, even if your game saves were locked and they didn't get transferred over, your trophies should remain intact.  So long as you made a point to go through with that mind-numbing 'sync trophy data with server' every once in a while.
8. Re-registering your device may result in happy bonuses.
It's not all gloom and doom.  If you're restoring to a new PS3 or replacement unit re-registering your unit with some services like VUDU or Amazon Instant video may garner you a complimentary credit with the service.  VUDU gave me a $5.99 credit (enough for a free HDX rental) and Amazon gave me $5.