Technological Dissonance

Strung out on Borderlands 2
— 10:57 AM on September 28, 2012

This isn't easy for me to say, so I'll just come right out with it: I have a Borderlands 2 problem. Thanks to playing until the wee hours of the morning several nights this week, I'm running a serious sleep deficit. I kept telling myself the late nights were necessary to get a good enough sense of the game to write this blog post, but that's only partly true. The fact is I'm an addict. Right now, Borderlands 2 is my drug.

The depressing thing about this admission is that I thought I'd kicked the habit. You see, I'd already experimented with the original Borderlands. After sinking a good chunk of my life into the game, I burned out and dropped it cold turkey. The Borderlands high was no longer enough to distract me from the cold realities of the game, specifically the labor-intensive looting and relentless mission grinding required to keep progressing.

When Borderlands 2 came out, I thought I could play responsibly and quit any time. Big mistake. Bags hang heavy under my eyes, yet I'm still plotting to stay up and play a bit more tonight. Too bad I won't be able to use "research" as an excuse anymore. Doling out Critical Hits would be a good way to decompress after writing, though. Addicts are good at justifying their behavior.

After my experience with the first Borderlands, you'd think I'd have built up a resistance to the game's central hooks. Turns out I'm just better at noticing when I succumb to them.  A couple hours into the sequel, I caught myself chasing the dragon again, compulsively looting in the hopes that the next body, the next crate, the next toilet would hold some exotic new weapon or item. Attempts to stay up and play just one more mission inevitably turned into longer quests for enough XP to reach the next level. I can't help myself.

At this rate, it seems inevitable that I'll burn out again. Borderlands 2 is, after all, quite faithful to its predecessor. Gearbox might as well have called the game More Borderlands, because that's exactly what it is. The formula has been refined a little, but the sequel is essentially the same only on a grander scale. In some ways, that's a very good thing.

I loved Borderlands' open world, and Pandora is even bigger this time around. Although the landscapes feel vaguely familiar, there's definitely more variety in the terrain, particularly early on. That said, the actual environments are relatively spartan. In the years since the first game, I've been spoiled Rage's richly detailed wastelands.

While Rage strives for realistic graphics, Borderlands 2 sticks to the pseudo-cel-shaded treatment introduced with the franchise. This graphical style's hard edges have been smoothed out thanks to the addition to FXAA support, and splashes of eye candy have been added through a handful of lighting and other effects. Still, it's clear you're looking at a game designed with console constraints in mind. A lot of the textures are blocky and pixelated, a stark contrast to the high-res surfaces on display in some of the latest PC games. No wonder Borderlands 2's installed footprint is less than 6GB.

Fortunately, the cartoonish graphical style softens the blow of the relatively low-fidelity assets. The excellent art direction produces great visuals even if the graphics aren't pixel-perfect. It feels like Gearbox's artists had more freedom to be creative in Borderlands 2. Maybe they've simply grown more comfortable with the stylized graphics. The designs are bolder, and there's more diversity in everything from the architecture to the characters.

The sheer number of characters is way up in Borderlands 2, whether they're enemies charging with guns blazing or friendlies trying to convince you to take on another side quest. The varied enemies provide fodder for more interesting combat, and the NPC interactions make the world feel more alive. A lot of those NPC conversations provide additional context for the larger narrative, adding depth—or at least breadth—to the story.

To be honest, the story hasn't really grabbed me. The dialog is fantastic, though. Borderlands 2 is peppered with genuinely funny one-liners that don't feel forced or horribly out of place. The offbeat humor is of the more mature variety; if this were a cartoon, it would probably air on Adult Swim.

At its core, Borderlands 2 is a first-person shooter with solid mechanics and old-school sensibilities. The open world affords players a certain degree of freedom in how they approach each enemy encounter, which is a nice change of pace from the linear, heavily scripted sequences that have come to permeate modern campaigns. Rather than being led through the game, players can choose their own adventure—and just the right gun for the situation.

Borderlands 2 has guns. Lots of guns. Too many guns, in fact. Much like the first game, there are countless variations on a handful of base weapons. The behavior of each one is unique, but they're far more similar than they are different. The worst part is figuring out which guns and other items to carry in your limited inventory. Managing the contents of your painfully small backpack is a constant struggle, since each new level unlocks a new suite of more powerful guns and accessories to pick up. The baddies get upgraded, too, ensuring that those who don't keep up are quickly outgunned.

While it's tempting to blame the tedious inventory management on Borderlands 2's RPG influences, the other aspects of the game's alternate personality are much better implemented. Gearbox has managed to add more character customization options without making the process of tweaking your Vault Hunter cumbersome. Having the side quests better integrated with the narrative makes leveling up feel like less of a chore, too. The missions are still formulaic, but at least there's more motivation behind them.

There are other things I don't like about the game, of course. Steering vehicles with the mouse still feels fundamentally wrong, and I had to edit one of the config files to tweak a sluggish LOD routine that caused some textures to appear blurry momentarily before sharpening up. Also, I can't shake the feeling that a lot of the game is set up for co-op play rather than solo questing. Fortunately, my assassin is pretty badass on his own. Indeed, I have the Badass Tokens to prove it.

So far, the Borderlands 2 buzz feels stronger than the high of the original game. Some of the rough edges have been smoothed out, and there's a certain confidence to the presentation—even a hint of swagger. Gearbox knows full well the potency of what it's dealing. At least for now, I'm still buying.

82 comments — Last by ol1bit at 11:12 PM on 10/20/12

Sleeping Dogs will keep you up at night
— 8:52 PM on September 13, 2012

Night falls in Hong Kong. Technicolor neon lights illuminate the darkness, their vibrant hue reflecting off the rain-slick streets. Scooters weave through the traffic, and soon, so will I. But first, a pork bun. I try to think of what Anthony Bourdain might say as I chow down on street food, but I'm distracted. There's a clothing store down the street, and my duds have seen better days. Time for a new outfit—and an, ahem, massage. When in Hong Kong...

The truth is, I've done far more objectionable things than pay for the touch of a woman. In just the last few nights, I've stolen several cars, caused multiple accidents, and leveled enough lampposts to light a small town. I beat a man senseless for not paying his debts. Another, I slammed face-first into an air conditioner for having the nerve to take a swing at me. Then there's the group of unarmed thugs I savaged with an angle grinder. They didn't have a chance.

I've spared some, including one guy I stuffed into my trunk after leaving his crew in a broken, bloody heap. He didn't last, though. Mrs. Chu, a dear old lady barely 4' tall, butchered the poor guy with a meat cleaver. I watched in silence from the corner of her kitchen; he had it coming. That's not even the worst of it. No, I've also been frequenting karaoke bars—and singing. What have I become?

A Triad gangster, apparently. Except I'm also an undercover cop. My name is Wei Shen, and this is Sleeping Dogs.

The premise for United Front's open-world GTAlternative is intriguing. In reality, the narrative isn't nearly as dynamic as one might hope. Through more than two thirds of the missions that appear to make up the single-player story, a smattering of in-game cutscenes has told me that Shen is conflicted and sinking deeper into the gang he's supposed to bring to justice. However, at no point have I made any decisions affecting my fate. The story hasn't been particularly gripping thus far, either. Feels like a Hong Kong action movie I've seen many times before.

I'll reserve final judgment on the story until I reach the final climax. Apart from side quests, the odds of completion are good. That's sort of a big deal, since I haven't finished an open-world game since Crackdown. The last few Grand Theft Autos, I grew tired of within a few sessions. Sleeping Dogs is literally keeping me up at night. Just one more mission, I tell myself.

While the storyline follows a predictable path, the missions offer a fair bit of variety. As a gangster, I've spent plenty of time unleashing all manner of violence on groups of baddies. The melee combat is reminiscent of the recent Batman games, complete with counter-attacks against opponents who shimmer red when they're on the offensive. In addition to bladed weapons, power tools, and the tire iron lurking inside most trunks, the environment can be used as a weapon. Meat hooks hang from certain ceilings, garbage bins are distributed liberally, and an enemy's head can be smashed into just about anything. There are combos, too, from takedowns that would make Georges St. Pierre proud to spinning kicks that send bodies flying. You'll need to be strategic about using the various combat elements, since attackers have different weaknesses and a tendency to swarm in groups.

When playing with a gamepad, the violence is engaging and satisfying. Still, the controls don't seem as tight as Arkham City; either there's some sort of latency, or I'm just not getting the timing down right. I do have a tendency to button mash, which may be affecting my ability to counter mid-combo. The action feels much better than anything else I've played in the genre, though.

Dual analog sticks may be ideal for hand-to-hand brawling, but they're not as good for gunplay. Sleeping Dogs has a little shooting, too. The game employs what the developers call aggressive cover, which means the player can slow time by vaulting over obstacles that also provide cover from gunfire. It's much easier to pick off opponents when everything is moving at Max Payne speed. Playing with a keyboard and mouse is an option, of course.

Thing is, that combo doesn't as feel as good for the game's driving elements. There's lots of cruising around town, plus races and chase sequences that involve hanging out the window, automatic weapon in hand. Bullet time is invoked easily, and watching flaming cars flip in slow motion always leaves a smile on my face.

Driving in open-world games has always bugged me. The physics are usually awful, and players are typically asked to traverse epic distances to the starting point of the next mission. Why can't someone come and meet me for a change?

In Sleeping Dogs, the driving feel is better than expected. It's not on the level of an arcadey Need for Speed game, and cars feel unnaturally glued to the ground unless the handbrake is yanked. That said, the handling seems a little more natural than in most games of this ilk. Driving from mission to mission doesn't take too long, at least.

Chase sequences are sprinkled throughout Sleeping Dogs, whether it's behind the wheel or on foot. There are brief flashes of parkour to spice up the running, but the camera is a little too slow to keep up around corners. At least there's an opportunity for a beatdown at the end of each chase.

The undercover missions are considerably less violent overall. They're also less memorable. Snapping pictures of crime scenes just isn't as much fun as snapping limbs. I haven't had to do any stealthy sneaking thus far, although I have mastered the handful of mini-games for lock picking, terminal hacking, and bug calibrating. The mini-games are simple, so they won't bog you down.

While Sleeping Dogs' rendition of Hong Kong doesn't feel as big as some other open worlds I've roamed, the scale is still impressive. There's an authenticity to the environment that's almost convincing, save for the lack of massive crowds and gridlock traffic. The city feels sparsely populated overall, even if what's there looks good. United Front has included some PC-specific eye candy, and a high-res texture pack was released on day one. The characters are particularly detailed, which works well with the in-game cutscenes.

As I write this post, I'm trying to figure out exactly what it is about Sleeping Dogs that keeps me coming back when most other open-world titles have failed to hold my attention. It's not one thing, I don't think, but a combination of slick graphics, entertaining combat, and a sense that the action isn't too encumbered by awkward mechanics. Rather than trying to explain why Sleeping Dogs is fun, I should take a cue from the title and simply enjoy the fact that it is. Something to contemplate over another massage, perhaps.

While I do that, consider checking out Sleeping Dogs yourself. The game's favorable MetaCritic rating suggests I'm not the only one having a good time on the streets of Hong Kong, and there's a demo on Steam that's free to try.

22 comments — Last by Delphis at 12:44 PM on 09/19/12

Apple's EPEAT withdrawal underscores disposable ethos
— 8:49 PM on July 12, 2012

There are probably more Apple computers in California than anywhere else in the US, if not the world. Before long, though, you may not find any new ones in the hands of workers employed by the city of San Francisco. According to the Wall Street Journal, the city's agencies have been told that Macs can no longer be purchased with city funds.

The ban comes in response to Apple's withdrawl from EPEAT, otherwise known as the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool. EPEAT sets certification criteria for "greener electronics." Among other things, it establishes standards for energy conservation, the use of environmentally sensitive materials, and end-of-life considerations like how easily a system can be disassembled for recycling.

That last item may have been Apple's point of contention. As iFixit discovered when tearing apart the new Retina-equipped MacBook Pro, a couple of key components appear inseparable. The gorgeous Retina LCD is fused to the glass panel covering it, and the battery is glued to the unibody aluminum chassis. Rather than have the Retina Pro deemed non-compliant with the EPEAT, it seems Apple has decided to bow out entirely.

The decision could affect more than just government workers in San Francisco. In accordance with a 2007 Executive Order, 95% of the computers purchased by the US government must be registered with the EPEAT.

To its credit, Apple appears to have taken great strides to reduce its environmental footprint. Old Macs and iDevices can be returned to the company for recycling, and you might even get an Apple gift card out of the deal. Also, according to an Apple representative quoted by The Loop, all of the company's products meet the US government's Energy Star 5.2 requirements for power efficiency.

EPEAT interim CEO Christine Ervin admitted to GreenBiz earlier this year that its current standards are "a little long in the tooth." Given Apple's seemingly green practices—at least versus others in the industry—there may be no reason for eco-mentalist hipsters to avoid the company's products on environmental grounds. 

Good luck removing the glued-in battery. Source: iFixit

That said, the fused display and glued-in battery are still reasons to pass on the new MacBook Pro. You can forget about buying cheap replacements for either component. Apple will replace the battery for $199, which is a lot more than the going rate on Amazon for older MacBook batteries. The rest of the Retina model does its best to thwart off-the-shelf replacement parts, too. Instead of using SO-DIMM slots, the RAM is soldered to the motherboard. Apple also uses a proprietary design for the solid-state drive, ignoring the mSATA standard adopted by others in the industry.

We shouldn't be surprised. Apple has never been friendly to folks who want to poke around inside their PCs. Mainstream consumers don't seem to care about easily replaceable components, either. They certainly don't expect to be able swap parts in other devices, like televisions and stereos. Those are consumer electronics, a category that has traditionally excluded PCs. Apple seems intent on blurring that distinction, and its iPhones and iPads already bridge the gap.

Obviously, simplified devices like smartphones and tablets have fewer parts that one might be inclined to replace—and no well-established standards for the ultra-tiny components required by their smaller sizes. Size is particularly important, because the smaller and ever-slimmer designs that Apple has pursued naturally favor greater integration over support for standardized components. SO-DIMM slots have a higher profile than RAM soldered to the circuit board, for example. The glued-in battery, in addition to having the cells inside the chassis, probably shaves millimeters.

The SSD is more questionable. It snubs the similarly slim mSATA standard in favor of a custon design using the same physical connector as the MacBook Air. But MacBook Air SSDs won't work with the Retina model. Apple can't even maintain compatibility across its proprietary interfaces. 

The Retina MacBook Pro's proprietary SSD. Source: iFixit

New EPEAT CEO Robert Frisbee told the Wall Street Journal that Apple indicated its "design direction was no longer consistent with the EPEAT requirements." That direction, it seems, is to make computers as closed as consumer electronics devices while catering to the population's misguided obsession with slimness.

PCs are starting to follow in those footsteps. Look at ultrabooks. They don't go as far as the Retina MacBook Pro's level of integration, but they certainly sacrifice easily-replaceable parts, expansion ports, and battery life in the name of meeting the arbitrary thickness requirements defined by Intel.

We've already passed the point of diminishing returns for ultra-skinny notebooks. Rather than further dieting, it would be nice to see a renewed focus on servicability. A notebook's memory, storage, and battery should all be replaceable. The process should be easy, ideally, but I'm willing to be reasonable. There are structural benefits to unibody chassis that lack large access panels and cut-outs for removeable batteries. However, users should be able to get at the guts with no more than a screwdriver. They definitely shouldn't have to deal with glue after getting past the first line of defense.

These days, one can revitalize an older notebook simply by adding RAM, a solid-state drive, and a fresh battery. Doing so might void the warranty, but by the time you upgrade, it will probably have expired already. Of course, if you could swap those parts easily, you might not buy a new notebook. No wonder Apple is making the practice as difficult as possible.

Steve Jobs once told MSNBC that "if you always want the latest and greatest, then you have to buy a new iPod at least once a year." That ethos, and the innovation that fuels the regular refreshes, has permeated Apple's lineup and driven its profits. At the same time, it's produced products that seem more and more disposable with each generation.

To be fair, the non-Retina MacBook Pro has a standard 2.5" hard drive and SO-DIMMs. Also, its battery is screwed rather than glued. But Apple's EPEAT withdrawal suggests those conveniences aren't part of its future plans. I can only hope the rest of the industry takes a break from copying Apple and doesn't follow suit.

Update 7/13: Apple has changed its tune on the EPEAT. In an open letter published today on its website, Senior VP of Hardware Engineering Bob Mansfield calls Apple's exit from the EPEAT a mistake. All eligible products will be back in the program starting today. Mansfield goes on to reiterate the company's desire to pursue environmentally responsible products, although it remains to be seen whether the trajectory toward less servicable PCs persists.

100 comments — Last by OneArmedScissor at 2:41 PM on 07/18/12

I, Cyborg
— 10:54 PM on June 28, 2012

The big news out of Google's I/O conference in San Francisco was, of course, the $199 Nexus 7 Tablet. We all knew it was coming, though. For me, the real surprise was Project Glass. We'd heard about Google's computer-infused glasses already, too. Google co-founder Sergey Brin had even been spotted wearing a pair at dinner. However, we'd never seen them quite like this:

That's really just a teaser. The Google keynote that showed off the glasses was even more impressive. (CNet TV has the video footage if you want to watch it for yourself.) A pair of the glasses were delivered to Brin by a relay of Red Bull-worthy stunts, starting with a skydive onto the roof of the Moscone Center where I/O was held. A team of mountain bikers took over from there, kicking out a few tricks before the glasses were rappelled down the side of the building. Next, a final ride onto the main stage.

The entire trip was streamed live from Project Glass units worn by the extreme delivery team.

Dude, that is so awesome.

And it got better. Although the final Google Glass product won't be on the market until 2014, attendees of the conference were given the opportunity to get in on the action early. For $1,500, they can order a pair of "Explorer Edition" specs for delivery early next year. Brin told Bloomberg that Google has received a lot of input on Glass already, and that it wants to bring others into the project's development. He wants to "make science fiction real," and there's apparently been plenty of interest. Brin noted that Google may run out of the swanky packages it put together for those taking advantage of the Explorer offer.

No wonder. Google Glass may be hugely geeky and perhaps even mildly contraceptive, but it's the most convincing wearable computer I've seen. The reality isn't far removed from science fiction. Sooner or later, we're going to be cyborgs.

To be fair, Google's Glasses won't shoot laser beams, see through walls, or allow us to leap over tall buildings. They will jack us into the Internet, though, and it's that infusion of information that bestows superhuman powers.

We're pretty much there already. Quick, grab your smartphone. Bet that didn't take long. If you weren't sitting on the thing, it was probably within arm's reach. Odds are that pocket-sized piece of technology has barely left your side since it woke you up this morning. It's your link to The Matrix—a conduit to your digital life, the people in it, and the ever-expanding wealth of information available online.

Smartphones are increasingly taking in information from our surroundings, too. Regrettable Facebook snapshots are captured on wild nights out. QR readers decode URLs from digital hieroglyps. Devices talk to each other via NFC transmissions. Foreign languages are translated from pictures alone. We speak questions to Siri, sometimes even getting the right answer. And, most appropriately for Glass, real-time camera streams feed applications that augment our reality.

Pocketable computers are becoming smarter about anticipating our needs, too. The freshly announced Google Now promises to check traffic reports and prepare an alternate route automatically when it knows you're heading out for the morning commute. Imagine what would be possible with the feed from a camera mounted on the auxiliary brain resting on the bridge of your nose.

<Simpsons comic book guy voice>Um, excuse me, we're still a ways off from being true cyborgs. Nothing remotely resembling a smartphone is going to be integrated into our biology anytime soon.</lisp> True, but we're better off for it. We can switch between multiple augmenting devices with ease; who wants to go under the knife for a hardware upgrade?

More importantly, we can turn our devices off, leave them in the next room, or otherwise separate ourselves when we choose. We control when, where, and how we immerse ourselves in the spoils of our growing virtual world. At the very least, we're becoming virtual cyborgs.

Some of us are better at cutting the cord than others. A stubborn few seem to find it difficult to put their devices into silent mode, let alone sever their connection to the Borg collective. Those folks are probably going to both love Google Glass and lament the fact that the battery likely won't last through an entire day of lifestreaming. I dread the wave of narcissistic over-sharing to come.

Even so, I can't help but be excited by Google Glass. While I can't see myself wearing a pair of computerized glasses regularly, I can already envision a few neat applications. The fact that Google is engaging with interested developers so early makes me even more intrigued by the project's potential.

Pocketable computers are commonplace now. Wearable ones are the next step in our cyborg evolution, bringing us ever deeper into the increasingly real world of science fiction. Now, where's my flying car?

61 comments — Last by Neutronbeam at 3:58 PM on 07/02/12

The other side of Computex
— 7:43 PM on June 14, 2012

It's close to 2AM on a Friday night, er, Saturday morning. Die Antwoord thumps over my headphones to keep me awake. I'm sitting in the airport, hunched over my laptop, waiting for my flight to begin boarding. Zone 5. Ugh. Ahead lies 12 hours crammed into coach, Vancouver to Taipei. Computex awaits.

At least it's a direct flight.

I tend to sleep pretty well on airplanes, especially with an empty seat beside me. I'm in and out for more than 10 of the 12 hours, arriving at just after 5AM Sunday morning. Technically, I'm in the future—and one day away from the week-long stretch of press conferences, meetings, and other engagements that make up one of the biggest trade shows of the year.

The Consumer Electronics Show may cover more football fields, but in the land of the PC, Computex is king. Taiwan is native soil for the likes of Asus, Gigabyte, and MSI. PC hardware is designed here. Some of it's even built here. Vegas, this ain't. There's no car audio section, and you can walk the show floor without being swamped by big-screen televisions.

This is my third Computex and my fifth time to Taipei, so I'm prepared for the week of madness that's about to ensue. We go non-stop from morning til night. Adam, our biz guy, is my only sidekick for the week. This isn't like CES, where we have a small army of editors (OK, three of us). From an editorial standpoint, Computex is a one-man show circus.

I've done this before, I tell myself. I've packed accordingly and prepared for everything. Well, everything but the heat and humidity. There's no avoiding the fact that it's over 30°C (86°F) with approximately 110% humidity. Within minutes of exiting the airport, my shirt is already sticking to my chest, and I can see the glint of a slight sheen of sweat on every exposed patch of skin.

There isn't much one can do to avoid the heat, especially when dressed in khakis and a dress shirt. My only adjustment for this year: Under Armor boxer briefs, recommended to me by another veteran of the show. At $25 a pair, they cost many times what I've ever spent on an undergarment, even in a bulk pack. I don't think I sweat any less while wearing them. However, the sweat doesn't soak into the fabric like it does with my usual cotton underoos. Comfort is much improved, and chafing averted. A hand-washed pair dries easily overnight, too, even in a muggy hotel room.

Good socks are another essential component to a comfortable Computex experience. The show is quite a shock for me, since I spend most of the day seated. At trade shows, one is constantly standing or walking. Cushy shoes help, and so do cushy socks. Over the years, I've built up a good collection of running socks that wick sweat and keep my feet relatively happy over the long days. No one brand stands above the rest, but I stick to the low-cut, thicker variety. Ventilation is essential, even at the ankle.

Other Computex essentials? A good bag. My Timbuk2 Snoop is perfect for trade shows, with enough room for my laptop and DSLR, plus an easily accessible pocket for my notepad. Yep, much of the note-taking that goes on at trade shows is old-school. Laptops work great at press conferences and during long, seated meeting, but they're lousy on the show floor and when browsing multiple products in hotel suites. I'm curious if a device like the Galaxy Note would suffice, but I get the impression it wouldn't be able to keep up with my frantic scribbling. As far as I can tell, nothing beats a no-bleed Sharpie pen and a notepad with a stiff cardboard back.

Like any trade show, Computex is littered with booth babes. They seemed to be hoochier than usual this year, and the surrounding vibe was a little, well, creepy. I get that sex sells, especially in an environment dominated by men of a certain social awkwardness. Admittedly, my own gaze drifted many times to a beautiful face, an exposed midriff, or a pair of tight booty shorts. (Give me a break; I was away from my girlfriend for over a week.) But those were just quick glances—not the leering and panting I saw from all too many attendees, gathered in herds, desperately taking pictures while asking for poses.

Often, these groups spilled out onto the congested walkways between larger booths. Even worse, photographers sometimes stood across the 'road' from their subjects to get wider shots and then looked annoyed when traffic got in the way.

I get it, though. Traffic talks. The folks we know say booth-babe galleries are the most popular part of their Computex coverage.

Our coverage was written almost entirely late at night on a 2.5-year-old Acer 1810TZ ultraportable. It's surprisingly competent when paired with a Bluetooth mouse, but the screen's TN panel is a pain for photo editing. Android tablets really need better external display software for Windows.

Based on what I've heard and seen about Haswell, I'll probably hold off on a new notebook until next year. My Acer only needs to survive a few more big outings before then, and the system still feels spry for its age thanks to the Indilinx-based SSD I put in there years ago. I want to see how long the romance will last, even if it's starting to wane a little. And, honestly, I'd get a lot more use out of a new tablet right now.

After our schedule of meetings ended on Friday, I spent a couple more days in Taipei before the red-eye home. The show is still going on Saturday, albeit at a much slower pace, leaving time to catch up on writing while the details are still fresh. After banging out each bout of news posts in the hotel room, I ventured out into the city in search of nourishment.

 

More often than not, I ended up at Din Tai Fung, an admittedly touristy restaurant that makes exquisite xialongbao, bite-sized dumplings filled with pork and soup. They're the best I've had by a wide margin, and I've become obsessed with the spicy, lightly pickled cucumbers, as well.

In addition to food, Taipei is known for its shopping. Night markets abound, but I didn't have much leftover energy this year. I did, however, go on one mission to the Gung Hua Digital Plaza, a sort of mall filled with countless tiny shops selling computer hardware and other electronics devices. The Benchmarking Sweatshop now has a high-speed camera reserved for a special project I can't wait to get started on. Soon, my precious. Soon.

In the end, Computex was a good way to spend a week. We were one of only a handful of North American sites covering the show, and we got to see a lot of very cool hardware due out later this year. Here's a little hint: there will be lots of Windows 8 tablets and hybrid notebooks. I look forward to seeing them in the hands of real people rather than tarted up models.

21 comments — Last by mockingbird at 11:19 PM on 06/17/12

Welcome to the Benchmarking Sweatshop
— 5:56 PM on May 31, 2012

For years, I've been meaning to do a blog post about the Benchmarking Sweatshop. Thing is, every time there's an opening in my schedule, my lab is a complete mess. "I'll take pictures the next time I clean up in here," I say to myself. And I do clean up, occasionally, but that only makes a small dent in the chaos of hardware that lines every free surface and the pile of boxes spilling onto the floor. Without an attached warehouse, it's difficult to keep up with the flow of new hotness delivered sometimes several times a week.

Screw it. The Benchmarking Sweatshop is never a pristine, clutter-free environment; showing it as such would be disingenuous at best. Besides, it would take hours to really clear the decks in here. There really isn't anywhere for all the boxes to go, since the laundry room that doubles as TR storage is still in the midst of repairs due to a blown water main. One wall in my living room is already lined with motherboard and PSU boxes displaced by the flooding, and a shipping container in the driveway is brimming with even more refugee hardware.

Really, I don't have it that bad. My current lab is larger than previous iterations of the Benchmarking Sweatshop, which got its name from a particularly toasty duplex I lived in years ago. The place was really quite nice, but the black tar roof and lack of air conditioning were a toxic combination during the height of summer. It didn't help that I was running a desktop, multiple monitors, and several test systems from the Prescott era, all of which conspired to raise temperatures past 35°C. Good thing I have a flexible dress code. Pants are optional, at least until FedEx knocks on the door.

Remarkably, much of the furniture in my lab has been with me since I left university residence about a decade ago. The configuration has never been completely overhauled, but it's been subtly refined in each move. Let's start with mission control, which has received the most attention.

The crown jewel of my workstation is the six-screen monitor array hooked up to my desktop and test systems. That's a whole other blog post, so I won't go into much detail. The bottom two screens on the right are connected to my desktop, while the remainder are linked to test systems on an adjacent shelving unit. In a pinch, I can switch my desktop to the top-mounted displays and enjoy a three-screen config for surround graphics, ahem, testing.

Despite the mix of papers, receipts, sunglasses, thumb drives, and other widgets that clutter my desk, there's still room for a trio of keyboards and mice. The lower combo on the left is attached to an ancient Avocent KVM switch, while the Corsair duo on the tray above makes a direct connection to one of my test rigs. The speakers perched above the monitors, plus the headset hanging on the wall to the right, are connected to my main PC. Test systems share the headphones on the left. One of these days, I'm going to spring for a receiver and revamp the audio system completely.

Perhaps the most important detail in the shot above is the chair, which cradles my butt for entirely too many hours in a given week. I've had this Nightingale 6200 CXO for probably close to eight years now, and it's showing no signs of wear despite heavy use. The chair is extremely comfortable, whether I'm leaning forward and typing intently or reclining back to wait for a benchmark run to finish. My only complaint is the so-called "soft" casters, which are supposed to keep floors scratch-free but inevitably get impregnated with little bits of dirt that have left a faint halo on the faux-wood flooring beneath my feet.

To the left of my workstation sits The Rack. This Ikea Ivar shelving unit has hosted my test systems for what feels like forever, and I've grown quite fond of its ability to stack four rigs within a relatively small footprint. The testing we do often requires benching multiple systems concurrently, and this seems to be the most space-efficient approach outside purpose-built test stations. I do have to be careful not to have the shelves too close together, though. The Rack's only airflow is generated by each system's CPU fans, GPU coolers, and PSU. Occasionally, collection of auxiliary 120-mm spinners will be deployed to troubleshoot problems that might be heat-related.

Obviously, running four test rigs alongside six screens, a desktop, and a handful of other systems requires quite a lot of cabling. I'm content with the modest jungle as long as it stays out of my way, which it does thanks to the liberal use of zip ties. I've even taken to color-coding the ends of various cables using smaller ties, so that I know which plugs go where. The residue left behind by adhesive labels always bugged me when I had to re-tag things after a move and subsequent layout tweak.

Getting to The Rack involves negotiating the pile of boxes and hardware slowly eating away at the only free floor space in my lab. Those boxes on the floor are from just the last week. Admittedly, though, the towers over on the right have been sitting there for months. Those are older systems waiting to be broken down for parts. If they weren't there, you'd be able to see The Beast, our custom PSU tester, which is tucked away in a half-height Ivar shelving unit.

Apart from my chair and a filing cabinet, the Benchmarking Sweatshop is made up exclusively of Ikea furniture. It's cheap. Also, the Ivar's adjustable shelves and multiple size options are perfect for the mix of items I need to store in the lab and anywhere else there's room for a few rows of motherboard boxes.

Atop the units pictured above is what can only be described as my junk drawer. Everything from swimming goggles to power adapters to loose change litters the top shelves, plus a few props for product shots, a bundle of business cards, and yet more boxes. There's a small TV, too, but it's rarely on unless I'm benching into the evening. 99% of those optical discs haven't moved in years. It's probably time to put them in the garage in a box labeled "dead media."

Our tour continues at the back corner of the lab, which hosts another Ivar shelving unit sitting on a Jerker desk that's been raised on a stack of 2x4s. I build all my test systems here, always while standing, so it helps to have a higher work surface. If you think this station looks busy now, you should see it in the midst of a motherboard round-up.

All the little things tend to live in this corner: DDR memory, solid-state drives, CPU coolers, fans, and drawers filled with the different screws needed to put together a PC. There's also a generous supply of isopropyl alcohol used to scrub off thermal paste, several screwdrivers, and a roll of duct tape—of course.

The last stop on our panoramic journey through the Benchmarking Sweatshop is its makeshift photo studio. Cyril has a nicer setup, but these hardware-store work lights seem to do the trick. It helps that the walls and ceiling are painted a neutral white. I can bounce the light off them without worrying about diffusing umbrellas

Like Cyril, I use a big sheet of white paper as the backdrop for product shots. Several microfiber cloths are at hand to buff away fingerprints and smudges, and an old brush designed to clean graphics cooling fans does a good job of banishing dust particles. The camera, which I used to take these pictures, is a Canon Rebel T2i. For product shots, it's usually paired with a tripod and a wired remote shutter. Having my PC serve as the control station for the photo studio doesn't really work, since it's difficult to walk between the two when the lights are in place. A combined 2000W of lighting gets really hot. It's best not to get too close, but the path between box mountain and the lab's gargantuan beanbag chair is pretty narrow.

The beanbag is necessary for the security system I have in place to protect all this hardware.

Vargas, a two-year-old Vizsla, is the final fixture in the lab. He can most often be found sleeping on the beanbag, one eye on the entrance. Truth be told, he's a lousy guard dog, more likely to lick a burglar than to bare his teeth. Thankfully, he's agile enough to avoid the stacks of hardware and webs of cabling that permeate the lab. Only occasionally do I have to interrupt his snoring for noise testing.

28 comments — Last by superjawes at 10:22 AM on 06/06/12

Have Internet, will travel
— 12:00 AM on May 25, 2012

To borrow the first line from The Streets' magnificent A Grand Don't Come for Free, it was supposed to be so easy. After a brutally long crunch period that lasted from late March through the first week of May, I set out on vacation. For two weeks, I would be roaming through the Italian countryside, girlfriend by my side, and the rigors of life as a hardware reviewer left behind.

Yeah, we get to play with the latest and greatest techno-toys all the time—and we get paid for it. But we also endure tight deadlines and last-minute releases that come without warning. The reviews we create here at TR take a lot of time, and I don't even want to contemplate my hourly wage between the latter part of March and the first week of May. During the month of April, I think I maybe spent two days away from TR-related work completely. Admittedly, a lot of the hurt is self-inflicted, in the pursuit of higher quality, so I'm not complaining.

My epic crunch is simply relevant because it explains why I didn't have time to do much planning for the trip. Neither did my feminine side, who was in the middle of her own work-related flurry. We were going to wing it. For two weeks, we'd road-trip from Lake Como to the Amalfi Coast. We'd done a little research and made a handful of reservations ahead of time, but the rest we were going to figure out along the way.

As I signed off from TR Friday afternoon, I felt optimistic that it would all work out. I had a secret weapon: the Internet.

Most folks eschew the thought of connectivity while taking time off from their everyday lives. In this situation, I was hoping to embrace it. While I planned to be dead to the world in terms of calls and text messages, I would have a 3G data device with an unlimited plan and support for up to five Wi-Fi devices. Add a Transformer tablet, two smartphones, and the power of Google—and its maps. What could possibly to wrong?

A couple of things, actually. But first, I should first take a moment to talk about this Internet device. I've seen smartphone and SIM rental services in airports before, but my smartphone is region-locked, and I didn't want to be hampered by a cramped keyboard and screen. Cellular Abroad promised a MiFi hotspot with 3G connectivity and support for up to five simultaneous Wi-Fi devices within a 10-meter radius. My girlfriend could post Facebook updates while I read up on the day's Giro d'Italia stage without having to make sense of Italian.

Although most of Cellular Abroad's services have restrictive usage limits, the MiFi Italy plan offers unlimited data pretty much throughout the country. The first 10GB is available over a speedy 3G connection that offers 2.5/0.9MBps of downstream/upstream bandwidth. After that, you're stuck on a slower 2G link.

For two weeks of connectivity, I paid $168 plus shipping. That's not cheap, but the daily price goes down for longer durations. Given what some hotels charge for Internet access these days, I figured I was getting a pretty good deal for a device I could take anywhere. There would be no need to pay for a GPS to go along with the rental car, either.

A few days before we left Vancouver, the MiFi device arrived at my door. It was tiny and came with all the requisite power adapters. There were also instructions not to turn on the device in the US. Worried that Canadian cellular networks might mess with its programming, I kept the hotspot in its case until we arrived in Milan. I didn't even charge the thing.

Upon arrival, my pocket ace got off to a good start. The hotspot had a full charge, and it took only seconds to establish a 3G connection. Connecting my tablet was no more complicated than joining the encrypted Wi-Fi network. We were soon barreling down the Autostrade, following Google Maps' directions to our hotel in Como. The Transformer's GPS tracked our location, and I was able to send out a quick email while sitting at a gas station, waiting for my navigator to combat jet-lag with a couple of espressos.

Although things started off well, we quickly ran into a problem. While walking about that evening in search of a quick bite, our hotspot dropped its data connection and displayed an "SMS only" message. Restarting the device didn't fix the problem, and the few instructions provided with it gave no clues about what to do next. Initially, I figured we were too close to the border with Switzerland and had somehow latched onto a foreign cell tower that wouldn't work with the service package I'd ordered. But the disruption persisted when we traveled south, guided by horribly antiquated maps printed on sheets of dead tree.

Turns out Cellular Abroad screwed up my order. Fortunately, and as in A Grand Don't Come for Free, everything worked out in the end. The error was corrected, and the several-day blackout confirmed the value of an omnipresent Internet connection. Traveling through a foreign country is much easier when the Internet has your back. Languages can be translated, routes mapped, hotel reservations made, and restaurant reviews perused without having to do more than tap a few times on a touchscreen.

Google Maps was probably the biggest asset during the trip. It made navigating a snap and saved me having to defy my male programming and ask for directions. However, real-time mapping did little to ease the butt-clenching stress of sharing impossibly narrow roads with oncoming tour busses. Italian drivers are insane and have seemingly no use for lane dividers or turn signals.

Interestingly, the Transformer's GPS proved more accurate and reliable than my girlfriend's iPhone 4S both in the city and on the road. Both struggled to establish our location when driving at high speed, though. Once the Transformer had a fix, speed wasn't an issue. Its larger 10" screen made directions easier to follow than on the iPhone, anyway. We brought bicycles, too, and the ability to overlay terrain maps proved valuable when planning each day's ride. I like hills, but my girlfriend does not.

Then there's Google Maps' ability to find just about anything. We tracked down laundry services, supermarkets, wine shops, and restaurants with little trouble, usually while strolling with the iPhone, which is considerably more discreet than a tablet. Online restaurant reviews were helpful and easier to trust than the recommendations of hotel receptionists, whose directions weren't as good. Reviews also informed our decisions on the final few hotels left to book. We booked those online with little trouble, of course.

The Internet came in handy for a bunch of little things, like checking hourly weather forecasts to figure out the best time to ride or to relax in the sun. Wikipedia answered questions like "what's that mountain range over there?" as we raced from Tuscany toward Rome. While munching a porchetta sandwich at an early morning market, I hit the Canada Customs website to confirm that cured meats could be imported, so long as they were pork-based, vacuum-sealed, and totaled less than 20 kg. Jackpot! During downtime and while waiting for the occasional train, I kept up with my favorite sports. I even sent a few emails to friends and family, which were banged out quickly and enjoyably on the Transformer's keyboard.

The point of this exercise wasn't to stay connected to my life back home, though; it was to have access to the incredible information resource I've grown accustom to having at my fingertips. We rarely had the hotspot on unless we were actively searching for something, in part because the battery only seemed to last about half a day. Connection speeds were typically slow outside major centers, but that was rarely an issue. We weren't streaming videos or downloading files. Scoping the scenic potential of a ride while zooming in and out of Google Maps' satellite view was probably the most bandwidth-intensive task.

Connection snafu aside, the service was absolutely worth the money. I probably wouldn't bother for shorter trips or for those confined to all-inclusive resorts, but the hotspot was a vital resource in an adventure that covered close to 3,000 km of roads, trails, and the narrow alleyways that pass for old-world city streets.

That said, when the time comes to plan another trip, I'll be looking for alternatives to Cellular Abroad. The service plainly states that emails may take up to 48 hours to answer, which is too long for paying customers who might have urgent needs. Three days have passed since I inquired about getting a refund for the days of service I lost, with no response yet. Also, the mix of power adapters provided with the MiFi device didn't inspire much confidence. Three adapters needed to be daisy chained to charge the unit, and the last one was looser than Fox News' interpretation of the term "fair and balanced." I had to prop up the adapters every time I charged the device, or it wouldn't stay plugged in.

Those complaints apply to this particular service rather than the general concept, though. The Internet has become a fixture in our lives in part because it's an unparalleled source of information. I can tell you from first-hand experience that travel is much more civilized with it than without.

34 comments — Last by Squeazle at 12:45 PM on 06/03/12