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Angry Birds: The Next Generation

Angry Birds Space – Game Review

First they were merely slinging birds at green pigs, then they were doing it over various holiday seasons, then they were doing it in Rio (with some monkeys around), but now the Angry Birds have taken their war with the green pigs (who I’ve always suspected of being aliens anyway) into outer space. In typical Angry Birds tradition, there is a loose storyline surrounding the game, and in the latest sequel, the pigs have taken an entire egg planetoid from the birds and they’re not happy. As far as the game goes, it’s a variation on the basic mechanics of the other three (i.e. slingshot the birds at the pigs). I am truly glad they didn’t try to take the birds and put them into spaceships and create a totally different kind of game using the same characters. That being said, there are a number of fresh elements to Angry Birds Space that make it a refreshing new instalment.

The biggest change is that now rather than having the birds on one side, targeting the pigs on the other side of a single horizon, often we are dealing with entire planetoids. What that means is that there is gravity to deal with. What used to be a simple arc trajectory for the birds is now curved even more according to planetary gravity (I’m no physics expert, but I’m trying … ). In some cases, you can even shoot your bird past the planetoid and the gravity will cause the bird to “slingshot” back and orbit the planet for a second shot at the pigs (it’s way cooler than I’m describing it). Also, since it’s space, there’s atmosphere and atmospheric gravity to deal with. Sometimes the pigs are floating in bubbles. If you pop their bubbles, they will die in the vaccuum of space (I know, it sounds terribly cruel, but it’s still a cartoony game — suffocation is all in fun). Also, when your birds lose momentum, they float through space very slowly without gravity until they reach the atmosphere, then wham, straight down to the planet! I love these kinds of clever rules of physics that have been added to this fresh, new variant on the Angry Birds basics. The game makers have clearly given thought into how to continue the tradition of fun gameplay that they’ve already established.

If you’re wondering what new birds there are, most of our familiar feathered friends have joined the space program, but now they have funky cool space capes and goggles. Red bird is still our main guy, blue bird still splits in three, bomb bird still blows up. However, yellow bird has been replaced with purple bird who not only speeds across the screen when you tap, but actually follows the location of your finger for a target. After a few screens, you will also be rewarded with three free Space Eagles. Similar to the eagle from the original game, the Space Eagle basically finishes the screen for you if you get stuck.

The game play is still fun and simple; with the same broad appeal that the rest of the series had. I hope that Rovio will keep coming with the updates like they have for the others (that’s definitely part of what makes the games appealing). Even after very little time, I’ve already finished two thirds of the first set of screens (albeit not all with three stars), so it won’t be long before I’m looking for more. If you’re already a fan of the birds, this is more of the same with a twist. If you’ve never slung a bird at a pig, you’re probably better off with the original game as a starter — more bang for your buck. But you’ll soon be ready for the space birds, and I’m sure they will be waiting. (4.5 out of 5)

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Help, I’m frozen in Carbonite!

As I’ve said already, for the last while, my venerable white iMac had been acting up. Fearing the inevitable, I decided to listen to all that advice out there about backing up my data. One of the solutions I chose was to sign up for Carbonite. Carbonite is a backup service that I’d heard about on the Macbreak Weekly podcast with Leo Laporte. You pay a fee (a relatively reasonable one at that) and download the software onto your computer (Mac or PC) and Carbonite goes to work backing up essentially your entire computer (minus apps and videos). It sounds like a great idea, right? Yes. It’s probably still a good idea, but I want to share a few lessons from my experience so far that they don’t tell you about on the podcasts.

A long long time (… ago, in a galaxy far far away)

If you’re anything like me, with a modern computer and modern computer needs, over time you gather more than your fair share of files. After several years, you end up with a nest egg of more than just a few itty bitty text files. I didn’t really realize how much stuff I had on my computer until I started my initial backup. It was going to take days and days to upload these files to Carbonite’s servers. Thankfully, one of the features of the software is that you can make exceptions, to choose which folders (the ones with large, expendable files) you could leave out of the backup. So I started cutting out large folders, especially stuff that I had backed up elsewhere. Eventually, I shaved the upload time down a bit, but it was still no blink of an eye. Just so you know, in the end I had a total of 60GB of files — so I’m not blaming Carbonite for taking its sweet time, but it’s not how I thought things would go.

Do, or do not. There is no try.

So since I was slightly selective about my backup, I fully expected to be selective about my restoration now that I’ve got my new computer. Carbonite is also equipped with a feature allowing you to browse through your backup files and folders. You can choose what you want to restore: keep one file and discard another. At first I intended to do that very thing, but do you have any idea how many files there are in 60GB? Over 315,000 in my case. Not about to spend my 40s going through that huge haystack, I decided to use the automatic restore mode on Carbonite, where all I had to do was match the user account on my backup against a user account on my computer and Carbonite would take care of the rest.

A long time ago (the sequel)

I have now been waiting on my restoration for 4 whole days. The computer and the software have not stopped running in that time. I am just glad I have unlimited Internet access!

I should tell you about my first experiences with Carbonite. There’s a little progress bar, and a countdown telling you how many files (out of the total) have been restored. Sometimes the numbers don’t move. When I woke up the next morning to check my progress I was amazed that several thousand files had been restored. However the count seemed to have stopped. I thought the software had frozen (oh me of little faith!) and I restarted the preference pane. When the preference pane started up, the progress bar was all swirly and the message indicated that it was still calculating the file count. This went on for at least 15 minutes, at which point I gave up and hit cancel. Y’see, I was under the false impression that once I restarted the restoration, progress would continue from where it left off. When I saw it start from the beginning again, my jaw dropped. There’s one day of solid computing that I won’t get back.

Next time round I did not hit the cancel button no matter how much I doubted the progress. My faith was rewarded as the numbers slowly crept towards the finish line. I even had a Carbonite miracle when I woke one morning to find that almost 100,000 files had been restored overnight. Unfortunately, that was a bit of a tease as the pace has now slowed down to parity with a dying snail. Now I just hope that I can get this done by the end of the week, so my computer can move on with its new life.

As for me, I still don’t doubt that it’s a good service, and it’s not as if another service can really do any better, but this has been an eye-opening ordeal. Now that I’m in the home stretch I just hope that nothing bad happens to disrupt the process before it’s done. If that happens, just look at Han Solo’s expression in the image above to know how happy I will be about that!

Update: A New Hope

After almost a week of solid restoring, I got home from work and found that the Carbonite pref pane was not displaying anymore on my screen, replaced with a pop up warning message about how Carbonite encountered some errors restoring some of my files. There was, unfortunately, no confirmation that my long restoration was complete. I looked at some of my folders and found that they appeared to be full of restored files. It took me a while to find the error log, but it was actually just sitting on my desktop. I opened the file, much to my shock, there were hundreds of files listed, which couldn’t be restored. I panicked a bit and immediately clicked on the button for Carbonite Support that was on the pref pane. I submitted an email form with my problems and clicked submit, but never really felt like the message actually got through.

There was also an option to go with live chat support. There was even the status message saying that there was someone available to receive my chat, so I clicked the link. A friendly support guy came up on the other end of the chat window and I asked about whether my restoration was complete, and what the error log meant. He was very helpful to confirm that the process had completed, but he wasn’t quite clear about the error log. He asked me a few questions about it, and eventually I uploaded the log to him. He recommended seeing the files on my computer by taking remote control. I have always been wary of situations where support folks have to take control of your computer. I feel kind of powerless, but I’d done it before at work, so I figured it’d be OK. Eventually he was combing through the folders on my computer, looking to see if the error log files were indeed restored. They weren’t, but as I looked through the log as well, I saw that the missing files were simply non-essential files, or files that I had already backed up to my Drobo drive. I quickly told the support guy that we could stop the remote control process because I didn’t need the files restored. He also told me that if I needed those files back, I could always come back to my backup and manually transfer them to my computer.

In the end, he wasn’t super helpful, but at least he was very nice about it. Carbonite’s support seems pretty good, but I think it would have been preferable if the software and web site were built with more newbies in mind, who may not know everything that’s going on. Plus, when someone loses their computer, it’s a very stressful time and people are very attached to their files, so there should be a whole lot more handholding within the restoration process.

All in all, I can’t say that I’d recommend Carbonite as a backup solution, but it’s alright. There may be better, more user-friendly ones out there. Hopefully there are also some quicker ones out there.

In the end, between my Drobo drive and Carbonite, I think I’ve got everything back that I needed, so I guess that was the point all along.

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Qwiki, Hitpad, Zite & Flipboard: The next generation of iPad info apps

In only one short year, the iPad has changed the way we consume internet information. Wikipedia, RSS, Twitter, and other online sources of info and input are not new, but who isn’t sick of scanning through endless streams of text headlines? The iPad provides a great platform for users to get this kind of info in a media-rich way, and the latest batch of apps (all free!) makes that experience even more enjoyable and exciting.

Qwiki is a brand new app which makes interacting with Wikipedia much more lively. While Wikipedia takes the traditional paper-bound encyclopedia and adds not only the mass-authoring dimension, but also the online searchability of the information provided. Qwiki takes a leap forward by making Wikipedia more like a tv/video program. It takes the various images associated with a topic and shifts focus from one image to the next all the while a pleasant computer voice reads out the summary text from the Wikipedia entry itself. For most of us raised on TV and other kinds of active media, this is a lot more engaging than having to read each entry for ourselves. It even makes me want to browse around Wikipedia even more than before. For those who are interested in more detail, there are links to the actual Wikipedia page as well as other relevant sources at the end of the readout, so people can click to open those within the browser.

Hitpad a slickly-designed aggregator of info from a few different sources. Across the screen it displays columns for News, Twitter, Videos, Web and Photos. Each column pulls from various sources to collect different types of info and media about the topic in question. On the left there is a trending topics bar which allows users to discover topics which are popular on the internet at the time (according to Hitpad, anyway). Once you click on one of those topics, the columns all repaint with info and media relevant to the topic you’ve selected. While the trending topics are mildly interesting, I often prefer to look up other topics, so the search bar allows me to enter my own. Hitpad will pull together info and media from across the internet for topics that I query as well. So far I don’t find Hitpad as useful as the other apps simply because the limited number of topics (or the additional steps required to enter my own topics) make it slower to get info that is of interest to me. However, Hitpad brings back all kinds of media results which the other apps don’t, and the interface is extremely well made and fun to use.

Zite and Flipboard are similar apps that aggregate from your RSS feeds (specifically whatever you’ve subscribed to using Google Reader). Both apps use the iPad’s touch interface to allow you to swipe the screen to flip pages and tap on articles arranged in grids in order to read more. They both take images and fill the grid with them in order to increase visual appeal, and they both make use of the folders you’ve set up in Google Reader to organize feeds by topics. The one main difference is that Zite will also seed articles from other feeds that you haven’t subscribed to or selected (which got them in a bit of trouble from some publishers of those feeds/sites). Nevertheless, this feature is both a plus and a minus in my books for using Zite over Flipboard. When I run out of new posts on Flipboard, I’ll probably fire up Zite to find more posts to read. However, I prefer Flipboard on a regular basis because it’s less cluttered by feeds that I didn’t actually subscribe to. (I know it’s a bit of Catch-22, but that’s how I feel, OK?) Regardless, both are very nice to use and make reading RSS feeds much more of a pleasure than NetNewsWire and other similar apps ever did.

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Infinity Blade – Game Review

If you think that games on the iPhone and iPad are all puzzle games about cutting the rope or flinging birds at pigs, and wish that there were something more exciting, visually impressive, and more violent (You can’t help it, you’ve been desensitized by TV, right?) then you should try the impressive Infinity Blade. Originally there was a free demo that showed how amazing the 3D environment could be rendered on an iOS device, but now it’s a full-blown game. The title is completely apt because essentially you play a knight in a fantasy realm trying to get to the top of a castle where you face the evil God King (this isn’t much of a spoiler because it happens right away when you start the game) and you end up dead very quickly. Fortunately, your descendant (who’s got the same equipment, gold, experience as you did) comes back to try again. Along the way into the castle and up its tower, you do battle with a number of enemies (though not a very large number of enemies) before you face the God King again (and probably die again). This cycle keeps going again and again until you defeat him (and even then it goes on).

What makes this game good is firstly the graphics. The 3D CGI is amazingly sharp and you really feel a sense of the virtual depth. The characters, their weapons, armour, etc. are really imaginatively-designed and look good (My favourite enemy is called a Wood Jester, look for him!). The gameplay functions perfectly for a player like myself. I like things simple. I don’t like having to manipulate 10 different parameters, or perform a complex series of gestures just to get my character to do something. Instead, there are two arrows at the bottom corners of the screen to allow you to dodge to the left or right when the enemy attacks. There are also blocking moves, parries, stabs, etc. To attack, you just slide your finger over the enemy in a slashing motion. Again, the graphics are nice and fluid. On top of all that, there are spells that you perform by drawing a certain pattern on the screen with your finger once your magic gauge is full. Even on my iPad 1, the responsiveness is excellent, and my knight moves quickly and responds to all my commands (for the most part) immediately.

As you continue to fight, after each victory, you get gold and experience. The experience also goes towards mastering your weapons and armour (which is actually kind of a bad thing because there’s a gauge on each item which fills with experience points and as they fill up, they increase your overall experience and allow you to level up. Unfortunately, once you master an item, there are no more points added to your overall experience, so levelling-up goes much slower until you can buy and equip more items. Items cost gold, but there is a way to make in-app purchases for more game-gold in exchange for real-world cash. If you have the patience to spend many virtual bloodlines to do it, you probably can earn the gold in the game world eventually without shelling out more actual dollars.

Anyway, after you level up and get good weapons and armour, you will probably defeat the God King. Unfortunately that doesn’t automatically get you to the next level (I thought that surely the Infinity Blade which the God King uses would have been given to me and then I could use it to unlock the second level in the basement, but I have to earn the gold to buy the Infinity Blade myself — and it’s not cheap!). Anyway, once you get the Infinity Blade, you put it into a small obelisk in the castle basement which then opens three more doors to the Deathless Kings cells (this is the new content that was part of a free upgrade from the company). The Deathless Kings are even tougher than the God King, and pretty cool looking to boot.

As far as tips go, it was a great tip that I got from another blog which recommended that after a certain point, I should restart level 1 (keeping all I had acquired) because the enemies would be easier now that I’d levelled up and I could get more gold and experience quicker than ever. Another tip is that a healing ring is a must-have for any big battle. It allows your knight to become almost deathless himself.

Unfortunately there are a few flaws to the game as well. I already mentioned problem with mastering items. Another problem is the repetitiveness of the game (but that can actually be fun because you’ll become a better fighter by learning how each enemy fights). It would be nice if there were more paths within the castle, more choice. Also, maybe because it’s such a large app to have in RAM, it crashes not-infrequently. Thankfully your progress will likely be saved in the system so you can come right back to where you left off.

After I beat the final boss, I’ll have to look back at how distracting this game has been. I’ve spent many hours playing this game, and enjoyed every minute. (4 out of 5)

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In Defense of iPad

In the tech world it feels like old news, especially for the US who have had their iPad for months. In Canada, it’s been less than a month since the magical little device made it to our shores and I still get all kinds of questions from people when they first see me with mine. I guess it’s a testament to the hype and reputation of Apple that everyone seems to have heard enough about the iPad to form some opinions about it (can’t say the same for the latest HTC smartphone or Google Android device). Most people are just curious and are not really intending to judge me for buying an iPad, but since I shelled out the big bucks for the top of the line 3G model, I guess I always feel some need to justify myself as an early adopter and why I don’t think I got scammed.

Do you love it? What do you do with it?
I have to say, even though I don’t believe it’s magical, I do love my iPad. I use it every day, a few times a day. Mostly I’m either checking up on my Godfinger worshippers (it’s a game where you are God, taking care of a bunch of farming minions), or reading on Early Edition (it’s an app that lays out my RSS feeds to look like a newspaper — very cool!). Also, it’s a lazy-man’s device for sure. Even though I’m only a few feet from the computer, whenever I get notifications of new gmails or tweets, instead of getting my butt off the couch to check, I just pull out the ol’ iPad and saved myself from burning a few extra calories. On top of the convenience, I actually find myself really liking the way it runs so smoothly and the way everything looks on it. I’m looking forward to journaling on it as well when vijournal M (a journal app that syncs to my Mac and my iPhone) makes its way to the iPad.

Isn’t it just a big iPod touch?
It’s true that in essence it’s a big iPod touch. It is not as revolutionary as all the marketing from Apple would have you believe. However, my counter-argument is that it’s a big iPod Touch in the same way my recently-purchased 42 inch LCD TV is a big version of my old 26 inch CRT TV. Everyone is clamouring for new big flatscreens, but they’re just essentially bigger versions of the smaller TVs we used to have — but there’s the rub! The larger TV allows for an HD signal to look noticeably better. Similarly, the larger screen real estate of the iPad makes games look better, but also many apps can take advantage of the extra space for menus, lists, etc and still maintain a good sized screen on the right. (Case in point, an app called Air Video lets me stream video from my computer. On my iPhone, the menu takes up the screen until the video comes on, at which point that takes over the entire screen. On the iPad, there are menus on the left, while a decent sized video can fill in the right.) And don’t get me started on how great a reading device it is for comic books, magazines and regular eBooks. The bigger screen makes all the difference.

But it still doesn’t have a camera, or support Flash, right?
Well, those are both true, but frankly, I have yet to care. I have a camera on my iPhone, and I don’t do much chatting, let alone video chatting. I definitely don’t need to be doing that on my iPad. Plus, there’s no way I would be caught dead holding my huge iPad up to my face to take a photo. Similarly, there’s only been a handful of times I’ve come across sites on my iPad where missing Flash posed a problem (plus I was reading something recently stating that for most mobile phones, the Flash they support is not the most recent or capable of displaying a lot of the flash video out there on the web.

Does anyone really need an iPad? I could have purchased a computer for that price.
It’s also true that the iPad is a luxury item. For the most part, if you have computing needs, you’d be better off getting a cheap laptop (or maybe even a netbook) but for the rest of us, that is not nearly as fun. Apple does a great job of creating things that developers get behind and support with 1001 inventive new apps/functions. It’s cool to be part of that community. No one needs an iPad, but everybody wants one (at least those people who have had their hands on one). It’s an easy sell.

Bottom line is that it puts so many wonderful things at my fingertips and fills so many of my needs for convenience. It’s a fantasy come true after watching years of Star Trek and seeing them hold their PADD devices in their hands. Now I finally have my own version of one (now if Steve could work on getting me that starship!)

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Flight Control – Game Review

Flight Control is a simple game for iPhones/iPod Touches that is addictive and a great time killer for the subway ride, the doctor’s office, or wherever you want to distract yourself for a few minutes. Using your finger, simply trace the path that leads the appropriate planes to the correct runways. Easy, right? Yup it’s all a breeze until the airspace starts to crowd with aircraft, and the big planes with their speedy engines start to fly in from all directions. One of the best features of this game is that it gives you the option to either use the game sounds or keep playing your own music in the background — too many games prefer to replace that Lady Gaga song that I had been enjoying … darn you Bejeweled 2! Anyway, as I said, this is a nice little game that you will enjoy anywhere you bring your iPod (except you might want to avoid playing it on your next flight… I’m just sayin’).

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Pocket God – App Review

Imagine you are a powerful Polynesian deity, able to wield your infinite might over a tiny island nation of palm-frond-wearing natives. You control the sun and the moon; you manipulate the clouds and storms; they worship you and fear the wrath of your mighty lightning. Omnipotence sure feels good, don’t it? Well, with Pocket God, a really cute pseudo-game from the iTunes app store, you get a taste of what that’s like.

It’s a very simple concept: there’s an island on the touch screen, complete with coconuts and idols, and a shark waiting in the water for the little cartoon natives. If you tap on the coconut, it drops out of the tree. With your finger you can lift the natives high into the air, or drop them into the sea (if you dangle them over the shark, it might just jump out of the water for a snack). You can even manipulate gravity by turning your iPod upside-down. If you’re feeling vengeful, you might toss a few islanders into the nearby volcano — try three of them. (Don’t worry, you can easily create more — you’re God,)

It doesn’t take long to do all the things that you can do, but the animations are extremely cute. The best part is that the updates are frequent, and each update brings new features and new activities that you can do. The latest update added the feature where tapping on the moon brings a vampire bat to your island to bite one of your little friends — you can guess what that’s going to lead to. Just wait until the sun rises in the morning — ouch!

This is one of those fun little apps that are great to show your friends, plus you may become addicted to trying out all the activities. I hope they keep adding on the updates. Til then I think I’ll chuck a few more thunderbolts their way. Hey, not actual islanders were harmed in the making of this game. We’re cool.

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