I thought I'd be writing about Far Cry 3 Blood Dragon this week. The awesome-looking homage to 80s cheese is out, and there's a download code in my inbox. I've heard good things from people who have played, too. There's just one problem: Blood Dragon is apparently about eight hours long. That's great for a game that costs only $15, but it also means I'll have to do some juggling to find enough time to really sink my teeth into it.
As a gamer, the sad fact is I'm past my prime. A decade ago, I would play Battlefield 1942 with friends for eight-hour stretches in a single evening. I had fewer responsibilities and other hobbies back then, and I could get by on a lot less sleep. These days, I'm lucky if I can steal a few minutes here and an hour or two there. Staying up late to play just one more level can leave me zombified the next day. And, tragically, I'm somehow losing my ability to sleep in on the weekends.
I'm rambling more, too. So, moving on...
Gaming in shorter bursts has driven me to spend more time with simpler, arcade-style games. This largely indie-fueled genre has exploded recently, and it continues to produce polished gems at reasonable prices. The latest one on the PC is Dyad, a PlayStation 3 import that's finally made its way to Steam. Like Blood Dragon, Dyad is a visual feast peppered with the neon hues of the 80s. But that's where the similarities end.
Dyad plays like a cross between Audiosurf, Space Giraffe, and Rez HD—on acid. You pilot a glowing, squid-like avatar down a trippy, Technicolor tunnel tuned to the music. The faster you go, the more intense the music and visuals become. It feels like the dosage ramps up as you're sucked deeper into each psychedelic pipe.
The levels last only a few minutes, so you won't be in a trance for long. That's probably a good thing, because I'm not sure how much I actually blink while playing. Despite the bright visuals, it feels like my pupils are dilated to better gobble up all the eye candy.
Each level offers a different challenge based on a few key gameplay elements. You can hook onto enemies to increase your speed and create accelerating bridges between baddies of the same color. Grazing the perimeter of enemies builds up energy for lancing, which turns you into an invincible missile moving at warp speed. While there are slight variations on those themes, the game remains rooted in those basic mechanics.
Unless you're lancing, hitting enemies will slow you down abruptly, harshing the buzz until you can get back into the flow. And Dyad flows. The interplay between the graphics, the music, and the action makes the game incredibly engaging when you're on a roll. Playing isn't just a matter of mashing buttons to the beat, either. It pays to plan your moves carefully, injecting subtle strategy into an otherwise action-oriented experience.
In fits and spurts over the past couple weeks, I've managed to careen through a good chunk of Dyad's levels at least once. Getting a high enough score to move onto the next level hasn't been too difficult. There are plenty of additional challenges on tap, too. A trophy mode brings more goals to each level, and integrated leaderboards will tickle your competitive side. Achievements abound, of course.
If you'd rather just chill, a remix mode offers various toggles that affect how the game looks and behaves. Collisions can be disabled to eliminate speed bumps, and you can load yourself up with infinite energy for lancing—god mode and give all, basically. Combine those tweaks with a continuous play mode that extends the levels indefinitely, and you can sit back and enjoy an epic ride without being any good.
The music in Dyad nicely suits the feel of the game, but none of the background tracks have really stuck with me. You can't use your own songs, either. That's probably my biggest complaint, but perhaps I've been spoiled by Audiosurf's ability to turn any song into a new level. The visuals in Dyad are light years ahead of those in Audiosurf, though, and they play such a big role in pulling me in that I can live with the default soundtrack. I've yet to play a rhythm-infused game—indeed, any game—that's this hypnotic.
Something special happens when I get into a groove playing Dyad. The rest of the world melts away, my heart quickens, and my interactions with the game feel perfectly in sync. In those moments, Dyad is truly transcendent. I become one with it; the immersion is complete. And it's even more intense in a mind-altered state. Except, you know, stay away from drugs, kids.
Even if you're on the straight and narrow, Dyad is a treat. It's a great game to play from the couch, and it's well-integrated into Steam's Big Picture UI. You can also buy it on GOG if you prefer to be free from the shackles of DRM.
Perhaps best of all, Dyad doesn't seem to be terribly addictive. Playing one more level only takes a few minutes, and the rush is usually sufficient for me to walk away satisfied. I'll be back, of course, but I can stop anytime I want. I swear.Antichamber just blew my mind
I didn't know a whole lot about Antichamber when I started playing. That ignorance was intentional; after first laying eyes on last year's teaser trailer for the indie puzzle game, I decided it would be best to steer clear of reviews and other promotional materials. Some things are best experienced untainted by preconceived notions, and this looked like one of them.
Besides, the teaser revealed that Antichamber had already won all kinds of awards on the indie gaming circuit. That's usually a pretty good indicator a game doesn't suck.
After spending several evenings with Antichamber, I can confirm that all of the accolades are well-deserved. I cannot, however, say that I have a firm grasp of what's actually happening in the game. That's part of what makes the experience so compelling.
Antichamber starts abruptly, with no story or introduction to set the stage. There's no tutorial, either. You figure things out as you go along, aided only by cryptic hints scrawled on the walls. These illustrated clues provide vital insight into a game world unlike anything I've explored before.
The stark, largely black-and-white environments look like they've been pulled from M.C. Escher's sketchbook. They show a similar disdain for Euclidean space. The world is presented in three dimensions, but those dimensions don't always line up as one might expect. Corridors that should lead to the next room sometimes empty out right where you began—and without covering the necessary distance or making the turns required to actually loop around to your original position. Even the content of the world can change based on the speed of your movement and the direction you happen to be looking.
Want to navigate this surreal maze successfully? Be prepared to forget everything you think you know about how to play video games. Antichamber seems to delight in defying expectations. The scattered hints may seem vague and obtuse, but they make it pretty clear Antichamber shouldn't be approached like other games. At times, it feels like you're playing against yourself, battling habits reinforced by years spent in titles designed according to an entirely different rulebook.
Although Antichamber isn't a shooter, there are guns. These are used to solve puzzles by manipulating blocks of matter distributed throughout the world. I've managed to collect three of the four guns so far, and each one behaves differently. The game doesn't tell you how differently, of course, but it provides ample opportunity for you to make that determination yourself.
If my descriptions seem a bit hazy, that's because I'm trying to avoid saying too much. Antichamber's genius, at least for me, is how it lets players discover the world for themselves. The game doesn't unfurl before your eyes; you unwrap it, fold by fold, as if deconstructing an intricate piece of origami from the inside out.
While the process is often frustrating and confusing, the puzzles don't feel unfairly difficult. Players aren't really penalized for failure. It's impossible to die, as far as I can tell, and hitting the Escape key brings you to a sort of home room that allows instant warping to any location you've visited. One wall of this room contains all the hints encountered thus far, while another has a 90-minute countdown timer. Nothing happens when the time runs out, but I assume there's some kind of bonus for finishing within the limit. That may be the only achievement the game offers, since rewards aren't doled out for progression.
In a game like this, progression is the reward. I've felt deep satisfaction solving some of the puzzles and figuring out various mechanics. I've also felt incredibly stupid for not seeing some solutions earlier, especially since they were right there in front of me the whole time. Antichamber can be maddening when you're stuck, but getting unstuck is a liberating experience. You're freed not only from the shackles of the puzzle, but also from the preconceptions making the path forward—or not forward—so difficult to see.
So, yeah, mind blown. And I haven't even finished the thing yet.
The more I think about it, the more Antichamber reminds me of a low-grade magic mushroom trip. Or, ahem, so I've heard. I'm not talking about hallucinating roughly sketched surroundings with occasional splashes of vivid color, but about perceiving the world from an askew perspective that offers moments of genuine insight and inspiration. Playing Antichamber evokes a relaxing, almost meditative state, as the ambient soundtrack and overall design encourage calm contemplation.
At $20 on Steam, Antichamber is a little pricier than the average indie game—and more expensive than the psychoactive fungi I may or may not have ingested during my misspent youth. But there is real depth and brilliance here, even if the developer's methods feel just a little bit exploitative.Dispatches from the Nexus
This past summer, the power button my Palm Pre started misbehaving. At last, I had an excuse to replace the aging handset with something better. There were myriads of options, including the Samsung Galaxy S III, which was the new Android hotness at the time. I'd actually been testing the S III for an article I was working on, and my time with it ultimately guided me to a different model: Samsung's own Galaxy Nexus.
Yep. Several weeks with the latest and greatest smartphone prompted me to buy an older model released more than six months earlier. The primary reason? As a Nexus device, the Galaxy Nexus gets the latest OS releases right away. I'd watched Samsung's own Galaxy Tab languish with an older version of Android as I enjoyed the nice step up to Ice Cream Sandwich on my Asus Transformer tablet, and I didn't trust the Korean firm to deliver an update to the then-fresh Jelly Bean release with any sort of urgency.
And they were gonna TouchWiz all over it, anyway.
In the seven months since I picked up the Nexus, Google has rolled out several Android updates boasting new features and functionality. There have been lots of little tweaks and some fairly major additions, and I've been able to experience them all with little delay. But has the steady stream of updates made up for carrying around older and ultimately inferior handset hardware?
Mostly, it has. Here's why.
First came Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, my primary motivation for going with the Nexus in the first place. Most Galaxy S III owners are running that version of the OS now, but it took Samsung months to start rolling out the update. I'm glad I didn't have to wait for Jelly Bean's "Project Butter" responsiveness enhancements, which make interface navigation and animation noticeably faster and smoother than in older versions of the OS. Anyone who's ever picked up an iPhone can attest to the difference a snappy UI makes. Responsiveness is especially important on touchscreen devices that allow users to watch the interface move beneath their fingertips.
Jelly Bean's other big-ticket item is Google Now, which combines search with intelligent information aggregation. The aggregator is pretty slick, and I love that it automatically tracks sports scores for my favorite teams. The fact that it can scour my email for flight details and information on shipped packages is a nice touch, as well. If I actually had a commute, the traffic updates and time-to-home estimates would probably be invaluable.
Google Now has quirks, of course. The public transit feature is supposed to show relevant schedules when you're near a bus stop or train station, but it doesn't work reliably at the bus stops near my home. Those bus stops appear in Google Maps, complete with accurate schedules, so it's not like the data isn't floating around inside Google's servers.
If it hasn't been run in a while, Google Now can take a few seconds to populate the "cards" on which information is displayed. While not hugely annoying, it's a little frustrating for a feature dubbed Now.
Speech recognition is central to Google Now's search component. In short, it's awesome. The speech recognition engine can be configured to run locally, where it won't eat into your monthly data allowance, and it works very well for quick queries. It's also accurate enough to transcribe text messages, notes, and brief emails effectively. I probably use voice for more than half of my text input—and for nearly all of my searches.
Android 4.2 doesn't have a fancy code name, perhaps because the enhancements it brings aren't quite as dramatic. Some of them, like the gesture-infused keyboard, don't apply to me at all. (When I'm not using voice, SwiftKey is my input mechanism of choice.) Support for multiple user accounts is offered for tablets but not smartphones, which does nothing for my Galaxy but is useful for the Nexus 7 that my parents share.
I do like the settings shortcut panel that Android 4.2 added to the notification bar. While this is really a minor change, it's now easier to tweak things like the screen brightness, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth. Alarms can be accessed instantly, as well.
Speaking of alarms, I'm absolutely in love with Android 4.2's new clock. A lot of folks seem to be complaining about the redesign online, but I rather like the stylized interface. There's a certain elegance to its stark simplicity. Swiping to the right brings up a countdown timer, and swiping to the left produces a stopwatch. I use both of those extras several times a week at least, and it's nice to have them so well-integrated into the native clock.
If the clock is an odd thing to obsess over, then my intense appreciation for its alarm-programming interface is especially bizarre. Rather than flicking virtual wheels that look like they've been pulled out of a slot machine, you enter the digits on a pop-up numpad. This method is much faster and more precise—attributes I appreciate when groggily setting my alarm for the next morning. Plus, I'm getting sick of skeuomorphic interface elements that impersonate real-world objects.
One of the other controversial changes in Android 4.2 the ability to distribute widgets across multiple "panes" on the lock screen. Part of the problem is that Google adds two panes by default: swiping to the left brings up the camera, and swiping to the right reveals the "add a widget" button. The camera is a nice shortcut to have, but I've triggered it accidentally on numerous occasions when pulling the Galaxy out of my pocket. The fact that Android provides no way to disable this feature—or lock screen widgets at all—adds to the annoyance.
Third-party apps will let you nuke lock screen widgets entirely, including the camera shortcut, but I haven't bothered. I've become too attached to quickly swiping between panes that show the weather forecast, incoming text messages, and Google Now without having to punch in my unlock code. Thanks to Keep, Google's recently released note-taking app, I've actually maxed out the number of lock screen widgets supported by the OS.
Nothing displayed in any of the lock screen widgets I'm using is sensitive enough that I worry about the phone falling into the wrong hands. However, depending on the maturity of your social circle, you might want to be wary of friends surreptitiously snapping lewd pictures using the camera shortcut—not that the thought of doing so has ever crossed my mind. Never.
The Android 4.x updates have been joined by smaller 4.x.x releases that make small tweaks and address bugs introduced in previous versions. My Galaxy Nexus wasn't afflicted with any issues until the 4.2.2 update, which sent the Android OS process into a tizzy and cut my battery life by more than half. Apparently, that's not an uncommon problem. I was on vacation when it hit, and when I returned home a couple days later, the issue had mysteriously resolved itself. The Android OS process emerged from its funk, and battery life returned to normal. That brief hiccup is the only one I've encountered to date.
I didn't really have any expectations for what Google had planned for Android when I took the Nexus plunge, but I'm impressed with the OS updates that have trickled out thus far. While the releases haven't been revolutionary, they've made a lot of day-to-day tasks more efficient. They've also improved the ease with which pertinent information can extracted. I get the sense that Google wants to make Android more PDA-like, focusing on the smartphone's role as a personal digital assistant rather than as a pocket PC. That makes a lot of sense given my smartphone usage patterns, and it's the reason Nexus devices will be at the top of my list when this one eventually bites the dust.Smartphone forecast: Reflective, with a chance of water damage
Smartphones are true marvels of modern technology. Although inherently limited by their pocketable bodies, these portables have evolved far beyond the realm of cellular-equipped PDAs to become truly indispensable computing devices. They've got communications and navigation pretty much down pat. HD media consumption avenues abound, and the web has become increasingly friendly to smaller screens. A huge and indie-rich mobile gaming ecosystem has also popped up to serve what have become pretty decent gaming platforms.
Then there the apps. Oh the apps. The sheer number is unimportant, because most of them are crap. It's the fact that everyone I know seems to have found at least a few really good applications—or programs, or software, or however you'd like to refer to code executing on the device—that improve their day-to-day lives in meaningful ways. And let them waste more time on social media. Some folks even manage to produce bursts of real productivity thanks to improving cross-platform compatibility and cloud support. Meanwhile, smartphones have become most peoples' go-to camera, not only for stills, but also for video.
You don't have to be a nerd to appreciate this new breed of mobile computers. The fact that there's so much interest from people in the so-called mainstream is what makes the revolution such a meaningful one. Yet I still can't shake the notion that smartphones feel a little like that nerdy kid from high school.
You know the one I'm talking about, with the translucent skin and coke-bottle glasses. He's much older now, and his body has outgrown its pudgy, awkward youth. He's developed maturity, style, and even some sex appeal, the latter without the aid of Bar Refaeli. But he's still wilts under the blazing fireball in the sky. His deathly fear of water remains, too.
Sunlight sensitivity is perhaps the most depressing detriment to further smartphone evolution. Despite boasting amazing sharpness and rich colors indoors and under dark skies, modern screens look horribly pale and washed out in direct sunlight. They're still usable, of course, but there's no getting around the fact that backlit, reflective displays have issues with really bright environments.
The worst thing about this particular flaw is that there doesn't seem to be a technical silver bullet just yet. While the Kindle's paper-like display laughs at the sun, I don't think we want to go back to the monochrome color palette of late-90s Palm Pilots. Mirasol promised to combine e-ink readability with full color, and a limited run of at least one device actually came out based on the tech. However, Qualcomm has bailed on putting Mirasol into mass production and is looking for licensees. Someone else will have to figure out how to reduce the cost of commercialization, I guess.
Depressingly, there really isn't anything else waiting in the wings. Pixel Qi has some interesting technology, but it has for a while without any mass-market impact. Besides, the smallest screens the company makes still stretch seven inches across, too big for even one of those funky phablets.
Reflective LCDs (not to be confused with LCDs sitting under glossy, reflective outer layers) may be our greatest hope. Unfortunately, current prototypes are a long way from smartphone-ready. Not to be a Debbie Downer, but the outlook is pretty bleak.
Perhaps the best solution in the interim is the sort of thing Jeremy Clarkson might suggest. Moar power. Not to the rear wheels, mind you, but to the display's backlight. Fight fire with fire, or in this case, the immense power of the sun with an array of tiny LEDs. I don't like that match-up. However, I will admit that the Super IPS+ mode on some Asus tablets, which uses a backlight pumped up with more steroids than Mark McGwire in his prime, does improve outdoor readability. To a degree. Incremental improvements may be the best we can hope for in the near future.
Fortunately, we may to be better equipped to help smartphones with their reluctance to get wet. Living in the Pacific Northwest, where the sky is ripped open and rain pours through a gaping wound (thanks, Bono) for half the year, I'm far too often faced with the prospect of pulling out my precious portable computer in more than a gentle drizzle.
The seemingly innocuous water droplet is the Kryptonite of electronics devices of all shapes and sizes. Worse, smartphone makers have become incredibly adept at detecting when their products have been exposed to excessive moisture. The only thing worse than having a little red dot void your warranty is not having an expired contract to subsidize the cost of an ultimately pricey replacement.
Ruggedized smartphones that can be fully immersed in water do exist, but they're few and far between and often well behind the technology curve. Worse, they typically employ bulky shock-proof cases that look decidedly chunky next to the slim physiques of more fragile designs.
The full water-proofing of ruggedized handsets is probably overkill, anyway. Who needs to take his smartphone swimming? I'd settle for weather-proof rather than water-proof—surviving a few minutes in a heavy downpour would suffice. There's already a standardized IP Code of liquid protection ratings that spans eight degrees between dripping water and continuous immersion. A nice threshold would be level five, which demands that devices withstand being soaked by a targeted water jet that pumps out about 37 liters over a three-minute span. Heck, I'd settle for level four, which splashes 50 liters of water in five minutes.
Sufficiently water-resistant smartphones appear to be within our grasp. A company called Liquipel has already developed a process that applies a thin hydrophobic coating to existing smartphones. It costs only 60 bucks and is purportedly good enough to protect devices from "short-term submersion." HzO, another firm, has purportedly come up with a treatment that's applied during the manufacturing process and offers level-seven water protection, allowing for dives to a depth of one meter for half an hour.
The technology exists to allow the next generation of smartphones to outgrow their fear of downpours, seemingly without substantial sacrifice. That sort of weather-proofing might not be cheap, but neither is pursing arbitrarily thinner profiles and ever-faster performance, both of which have diminishing returns at this point.
Smartphones have become so compelling because they allow folks to bring competent computing devices with them. To really offer a good experience anywhere and anytime, though, handsets need to do a better job of dealing with the weather. It certainly looks feasible that the next generation may not need to be shielded from the rain. Too bad we'll likely have to keep shading the screens from the sun.Local game streaming: Coming soon from the PC
Nvidia's Project Shield was one of the most intriguing new products on display at this year's Consumer Electronics Show. This handheld gaming device combines the latest Tegra 4 SoC with a 5" screen, a console-style controller, and a stock version of Google's Android OS. It can play Android games, of course, but that's only one part of the picture. Project Shield's real allure is its ability to stream PC games from a GeForce-equipped system. That capability made for some pretty neat demos on the CES show floor, and it has big implications for the future of PC gaming.
Although Project Shield is very much a new device—and arguably a new class of product—the foundation for the streaming technology is not. This summer, Nvidia revealed GeForce Grid, a cloud gaming platform designed for online services like Gaikai and OnLive. The platform uses the on-chip H.264 encoding capabilities built into Kepler GPUs, combined with low-latency APIs and other widgets, to allow users to play PC games remotely over the Internet.
The prospect sounds exciting, but streaming solutions come with inherent baggage. First, they require a lot of bandwidth. Nvidia's Phil Eisler estimates that you'd need a 5Mbps link to deliver 720p video at 30 frames per second, and that a 1080p feed at 60 FPS would require a whopping 15-20Mbps. Then there's the issue of responsiveness. The GeForce Grid-powered Gaikai service has about 160 milliseconds of latency, according to Eisler. That kind of lag may be tolerable for slower-paced strategy games and MMOs, but it's problematic for shooters and other action-oriented titles.
Network speed shouldn't be a problem for Project Shield. Instead of tapping into remote servers over the Internet, it streams games from PCs connected to a local area network. Even over Wi-Fi, most home networks should have ample bandwidth for streaming. More importantly, latencies should be low enough to offer a good experience in even fast-paced games. And, since Project Shield streams games from your own PC, there's no need to pay a separate service fee; you can administer your own local gaming cloud.
The prospect of enjoying PC games from any room in the house is pretty enticing. While I may prefer playing first-person shooters in front of the triple-monitor array in my office, keyboard and mouse in hand, some games are simply more enjoyable when reclining on the couch across from a big-screen TV. That's why there's a gaming rig tucked under my 42" plasma. Maintaining a second gaming system isn't cheap, though. Were it not for all the old review hardware I have lying around, this luxury would be hard for me to justify—especially given how well the new breed of low-cost media boxes handles the video and music playback duties that occupy most of my home-theater PC's time.
Project Shield probably won't be cheap, so it, too, is likely to be a luxury. Then again, I'm more enthusiastic about the potential of local streaming than I am about this particular implementation. While the controller looks solid, squinting at games on a 5" screen doesn't really appeal to me. The HDMI port at least allows output to larger displays, including pretty much any decent TV, but I can't help but think a simpler approach would have broader appeal.
Imagine, if you will, a set-top box with a Tegra 4 chip, an HDMI output, integrated networking, and USB ports for controllers and external storage. Such a device could surely be sold for close to a hundred bucks (the Tegra-3 powered Ouya console is $99), and it should be every bit as capable of streaming games from a local PC. Add Android, and you've got instant support for native games plus the ability to play just about any kind of multimedia content, whether it's streamed from Netflix or liberated from BitTorrent. A remote would have to be included, of course, but you could get by without making a dedicated controller; Nvidia built third-party gamepad support into the Tegra 3 platform, and that feature has surely carried over to its successor.
While any Tegra 4-based device could conceivably be capable of getting in on the remote gaming love, the touchscreen interfaces of tablets and smartphones seem ill-suited to PC titles designed with different inputs in mind. Smaller and higher-PPI displays may not get along with PC-centric UI and HUD elements, either. A 1080p TV seems like the most appropriate target for local streaming.
Project Shield and GeForce Grid may be Nvidia products, but there's no reason AMD can't come up with a comparable solution. The Radeon maker has GPUs for the PC side of the equation and low-power processors suitable for a device on the receiving end. All that's required is the glue that links them together—including, perhaps, some dedicated logic at the silicon level. Of course, AMD seems to have locked up the contracts for the next-generation consoles, and its hardware is already in the Xbox 360, the Wii, and the Wii U. There may be little desire to rock the boat by creating a potential competitor to those products.
Boy, would it be nice if there were a set of open protocols designed specifically for low-latency local game streaming.
As it turns out, we might just get the next best thing. In an interview with The Verge, Gabe Newell revealed that Valve is working with Nvidia on streaming tech that could allow Steam-enabled TVs to play games served by network-attached PCs. Newell doesn't know whether that network will be wireless or not, suggesting that Wi-Fi may still have some latency issues. He does, however, throw out this tasty teaser:
The Steam Box will also be a server. Any PC can serve multiple monitors, so over time, the next-generation (post-Kepler) you can have one GPU that’s serving up eight simultaeneous [sic] game calls. So you could have one PC and eight televisions and eight controllers and everybody getting great performance out of it.
Makes perfect sense, really. CPUs and GPUs continue to add parallel processing capacity, but most games are designed for consoles based on hardware that's out of date when it's released and then stagnates for years after that. Future PCs should have the ability not only to deliver a premium gaming experience in a traditional desktop environment, but also to provide a good experience for multiple networked sessions on separate devices. The potential for LAN parties—indeed, for multiplayer home arcades—is enormous. I couldn't be more excited.
Talk to the Dragon, NaturallySpeaking
While I wouldn't consider myself to be particularly injury prone, I've managed to damage various bits of my body over the years. Muscles have been pulled, joints have been sprained, skin has been gashed, and bones have been broken. These injuries usually result from me catapulting off a bicycle, and I've earned most of 'em. My latest crash was less than spectacular, though. Instead of careening down a muddy trail dodging roots and rocks in an attempt to hit a drop-off just right, I was riding along a quiet city street at relatively low speed. I misjudged the gap between two cars, squeezed the brakes too late for the rain-slick pavement, and then hit the deck.
As far as spills go, this was a minor one. My bike escaped without a scratch, and for the most part, so did I. However, my right ring finger was in the wrong place at the wrong time, I suspect crushed between the road and my handlebar. It sustained a spiral fracture to the proximal phalanx—the first stretch extending from the palm—and it is now being held together by three wires while the bone heals. When looking at the initial X-ray, the ER doctor joked, "You're not a concert pianist, are you?"
"No," I replied, "I write at a keyboard for a living." Doh!
At first, I panicked. But then a wave of calm washed over me, and not just because I'd been dosed with pain killers. It's 2012, I thought. The PC must have speech recognition sorted out by now.
There was good reason for my optimism. I remembered reading about PC-based speech recognition more than a decade ago. At the time, the accuracy was supposed to be around 95%, a figure I recall because the author noted that this meant one in twenty words was still wrong. Surely, after years of software tuning, with the horsepower available in modern hardware, the accuracy would be higher. After all, even the speech recognition on my smartphone is pretty good.
In the months before I munched my finger, I'd been talking to my Galaxy Nexus on an almost daily basis. Using the Siri-style voice commands is a little slower than navigating the UI manually. For me, the real draw is the ability to dictate short text messages, emails, and searches—things that are frustrating to type on the tiny keyboard, especially when holding the phone in a portrait orientation with one hand.
Android's built-in speech recognition engine can't be trained to recognize specific words or to compensate for thick accents, but the default implementation does a decent job of interpreting my mumbling even in noisier environments. Languages can also be cached locally, making voice usable if you don't have a data connection. While mistakes are common, the error rate is no higher than what my clumsy fingers produce with the on-screen keyboard. Even accounting for corrections, voice is still faster for short bursts of text.
Speech recognition may be a viable alternative to my smartphone's touchscreen keyboard, but it faces stiffer competition on my desktop: a full-sized mechanical keyboard on which I can crank out over 100 words per minute. Like Android, Windows actually has a speech recognition engine of its own. However, on the morning after my crash, everything I read on the subject said Nuance's Dragon NaturallySpeaking 12 was much better. The basic version was selling for half price and claimed an accuracy of "up to 99%," so I took the plunge.
The setup process was simple, and the default training routine took only a few minutes to learn my voice. Moments later, I was leaning back in my chair, feet propped up on my desk, dictating sentences with ease. Punctuation was a snap, everything was capitalized properly, and I didn't even mind wearing a headset until I left the house without noticing the tufty mess it had made of my hair.
Initially, I was incredibly impressed. NaturallySpeaking does such a good job of deciphering speech that I don't for a moment doubt the 99% accuracy claim. Most of the mistakes that pop up on my screen are a result of my tendency to mumble and speak quickly, causing words to slur together. Fixing errors is easy, though. Voice commands can be used to move the cursor and select words for correction, enabling hands-free editing with little fuss.
If you want to invest more time tailoring NaturallySpeaking to your voice—and more time practicing clear and even delivery—additional training passages can be dictated. The application can learn words and tendencies by reading your emails and other documents, which comes in handy if you use a lot of specialized terms. New words can be added manually to Dragon's vocabulary, of course, and there are a number of auto-formatting options that govern how numbers, units, abbreviations, and other special cases are handled.
Even if you don't resort to additional training, NaturallySpeaking slowly builds up a profile based on your interactions with the software. The accuracy certainly improved over the two weeks I was using Dragon regularly. However, the moment my massive, post-surgery cast was traded for a lower-profile splint that freed the index and middle fingers on my right hand, I tossed my headset in favor of pseudo hunting and pecking. This slightly hobbled setup produces fewer words per minute for sustained writing sessions, but it feels far less cumbersome for day-to-day work.
You see, Dragon NaturallySpeaking works exceptionally well if you want to dictate big blocks of text into Microsoft Word, with which it is tightly integrated. For most other applications, including my preferred Notepad++ text editor, pop-up dialog boxes accumulate dictated passages before transferring them to the desired location. That's not so bad if you're using only one application at a time, but it's less than ideal when your daily routine involves bouncing between a text editor, multiple IM windows, email, a web browser, and Excel. It probably doesn't help that I've become accustomed to writing TR news posts, articles, and reviews in raw HTML rather than using WYSIWYG editors that would be more amenable to natural language dictation. NaturallySpeaking isn't quite smart enough to figure out HTML markup.
Another problem with NaturallySpeaking is that it doesn't feel particularly fast. I never speak so quickly that it can't keep up, but the app still takes its sweet time displaying words on the screen. That's probably an artifact of interpreting multiple words to improve accuracy. Yet even with the accuracy slider pushed all the way toward faster recognition speeds, I'm usually at the end of a sentence before my words have been transformed to visible text. I've been running Dragon on a quad-core system with an SSD and 8GB of RAM, so my rig should be up to the task; the Windows Task Manager tells me NaturallySpeaking is leaving most of those hardware resources idle. I guess I'm just not used to feeling like I'm waiting on a text editor.
Dragon NaturallySpeaking may have limitations, but its phenomenal speech recognition engine makes fewer errors than my healthy hands produce typos. That's an impressive achievement regardless of the less-than-ideal fit for my particular workflow. At least I know I have a competent dictation solution should my mad typing skills be compromised by another injury. As it turns out, typing has been the least of my problems. You don't know how much you miss fast, accurate mouse movement until you're forced to use your opposite hand. All those holiday games I had queued up will have to wait another few weeks for the wires to come out and my splint to be discarded. Perhaps I should have lined up some old-school text adventures to pass the time.A tale of tablet flashing
About a year and a half ago, I picked up Asus' original Eee Pad Transformer tablet. This precursor to the growing crop of Win8 convertibles quickly worked its way into my life, proving the virtues of the concept long before Microsoft had an OS to match. Me and Arcee, as I sometimes call her, developed a true bond. We spend countless hours cuddled on the couch reading together. She was by my side for a romantic road trip through Italy and a rugged kayaking adventure on the remote Pacific coast of Vancouver Island. We played together and we worked together. She even met my parents.
My love affair with the Transformer burned brightly for close to a year before the flame started flickering. How could it not? Arcee shared space on my coffee table with an ever-changing harem of newer tablets boasting faster processors, higher-density displays, and thinner bodies. Making matters worse, some of those other tablets started running Android 4.1, otherwise known as Jelly Bean.
Asus did a great job of keeping the Transformer up to date with new versions of Android for the first year after the device's release. The tablet got a taste of Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich before most of its peers, too. However, as newer Transformers and other devices have been upgraded to Android 4.1, the old Transformer appears to have been left behind. Asus has been mum on whether a Jelly Bean update will ever be released for the tablet.
Why get worked up about a 0.1-point increase? Because Android 4.1 includes a series of "Project Butter" performance tweaks that make the entire user interface feel noticeably more fluid and responsive. That's the sort of upgrade that could breathe new life into an older tablet like the Transformer. Jelly Bean also offers Google Now, a nifty information aggregator with surprisingly effective voice recognition. After experiencing both of those enhancements on several other devices, I couldn't bear to use the Transformer without. It was time to take matters into my own hands.
At its core, Android is a Linux-based operating system. Google releases the source code for new versions, and a sizable development community has grown around making that code work with various devices. There are countless custom ROMs available for tablets and smartphones alike, including several different Jelly Bean flavors tailored specifically for the first-generation Transformer. Having successfully—and painlessly—flashed my Galaxy Nexus to a stock Jelly Bean image this summer, I figured I'd do the same with the Transformer. How hard could it be?
Yeah, I know. Famous last words.
The easiest part of flashing my Galaxy Nexus was choosing the ROM. Google provides a stock image for the device, and that's what I installed. Since the Transformer isn't part of Google's Nexus program, only third-party ROMs are available. I went with the latest one from the CyanogenMod team, mostly because I'd heard of them before. The CyanogenMod Wiki also provided clear, start-to-finish instructions for installing the ROM on an otherwise unmodified device.
To prime the Transformer for flashing, I had to jump through a few hoops. First, I needed drivers to allow my PC to communicate with the Transformer's diagnostic APX mode. After that, separate software was required to push the ClockworkMod Recovery image onto the tablet. With that installed, I was finally free to cut the cord to my PC and proceed with the tablet alone. I downloaded the latest version of CyanogenMod and the supplemental Google Apps package and rebooted into recovery mode.
Once in ClockworkMod Recovery mode, the flashing process was pretty straightforward. Within minutes, I was watching the Transformer boot into its new OS. It only took a few swipes of the touchscreen to confirm that Jelly Bean's responsiveness enhancements had greased the UI. Google Now loaded without a hitch, too, and I soon had the system configured just how I like it.
For the most part, CyanogenMod looks and feels like a stock Android install. The custom ROM does add some new features, such as the ability to display weather information and additional shortcuts on the lock screen. A file manager is included, as is a DSP app loaded with audio controls. There's support for themes, too, if you're into that sort of thing. CyanogenMod even has a built-in update mechanism that downloads the latest nightly build, although you still have to flash it manually.
The extras were nice, but they were soon overshadowed by a handful of pesky flaws. The Gallery app didn't sync with my Google account. Closing the tablet/keyboard clamshell no longer put the device to sleep. The keyboard's shortcut keys all worked, but gone were the pop-up notifications confirming their status. Asus' Android customizations were also missing, obviously, and I was surprised the CyanogenMod folks didn't copy the most important one: the ability to change the touchpad's on-screen avatar to a proper mouse pointer instead of a clumsy, fingertip-sized circle.
By far the biggest problem was the fact that the GPS didn't work. That's a real deal-breaker for me. After using tablets to navigate the streets of Taipei, a huge chunk of Italy, and the waters off British Columbia's Sunshine Coast, I'd rather not give up the ability to track my precise location on a sizable screen.
Since the flashing process was so easy, I decided to try some alternative ROMs. My initial attempts at additional flashes failed until I stumbled upon a forum post recommending ditching the ClockworkMod recovery image for one from TeamWin and using that to wipe various caches before each flash. With a name like TeamWin, how could I lose?
TWRP—TeamWin Recovery Project—worked like a charm, and I was soon cycling through ROMs from RaymanFX, EOS, and JellyBro. Each one was a little bit different, but they all had the same Jelly Bean goodness I was seeking. Thing is, none of them worked with my tablet's GPS. I even tried an early RaymanFX build based on the very latest Android 4.2 revision, to no avail.
After digging around some more in the XDA Developers forums, I discovered I'm not the only one experiencing GPS issues with custom Jelly Bean ROMs. I've seen a handful of reports of other problems associated with various ROMs but also lots from happy users who have no complaints. ROM development is ongoing, and I'm vaguely optimistic that someone will release a Jelly Bean ROM that gives me everything I need... eventually. In the meantime, the Transformer has been restricted to couch duty, where Jelly Bean's smoothness can be enjoyed without the lack of GPS reception getting in the way.
While I'm a little discouraged that perfection remains elusive, I'm pleasantly surprised by the process as a whole. Flashing custom ROMs is quite easy, and so is finding the latest versions. There are even free Android apps that will take care of the downloading. Depending on the support level for your particular hardware, installing a custom ROM can be a great way to revitalize an older device with Android updates it wouldn't get otherwise. Custom ROMs can also bring the benefits of the full Android experience to locked-down tablets like the Kindle Fire, which is strangled by Amazon's heavily modified OS. Freedom is just a flash away.
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