The Addendum

Latest OS X update boosts Team Fortress 2 performance
— 5:30 PM on August 18, 2010

Roughly three months have passed since Valve unleashed its Steam digital distribution service (along with a handful of its Source engine-powered games) onto Mac OS X. Following the initial disappointment of early performance results, we'd heard rumblings of Valve working closely with Apple engineers to eke some extra speed out of Snow Leopard's graphics drivers, which until now had never received much optimization for gaming.

With yesterday's release of the appropriately named Snow Leopard Graphics Update, we're beginning to see some encouraging results, while also learning a bit more about the partnership between these two companies. A lengthy post over at the official Steam blog goes into greater detail about the technical hurdles Valve and Apple have come across while trying to turn OS X into a proper gaming platform—and some of the techniques they used to overcome those challenges:

Apple has some very nice performance analysis tools that allow us to diagnose performance issues like the occlusion query stall described above. Using these tools, another area that we've seen the driver spending a significant amount of time is in code which validates floating-point parameters that we hand off to OpenGL to drive the logic in our GPU-side shader code. . . . We have been able to measure performance improvements in this area with the latest software update, but we are anticipating even more speedups in this area if Apple implements the uniform_buffer_object extension and GLSL 1.3 in a future update. With these additional features, we will be able to sidestep this particular CPU bottleneck, allowing us to win back a bunch of CPU time and, ultimately, performance.

In the past, I found Source performance on OS X good enough to avoid the trouble of Boot Camp, though I had to turn down most of the graphics options from their default settings to keep it playable. However, I didn't mind trading visual fidelity for the convenience of not needing to reboot to play a game, to dedicate a large amount of SSD space to a second operating system, and to spend time installing Windows or driver updates. I already have a PlayStation 3 that needs to be updated seemingly every time I turn it on. Unfortunately, graphics adjustments didn't always provide the performance increase I was expecting, suggesting that something in OS X's drivers was keeping the game CPU-limited. Yesterday's Graphics Update and the technical insight from Valve appeared to validate that hunch.

I quickly tested the Graphics Update with Team Fortress 2 on a mid-2010 15" MacBook Pro sporting a 2.66GHz Core i7, a GeForce GT 330M 512MB, 4GB of RAM, and a 160GB Intel X-25M G2 SSD. The graphics settings were left at the default OS X settings, as shown below, with the resolution set to the display's native 1680x1050. I recorded a timedemo of a 24-player match on cp_granary and compared the playback results before and after the Graphics Update. Just for kicks, I ran the same timedemo on a Boot Camp-ed Windows 7 partition with the latest Nvidia 258.96 WHQL drivers. The results are actually rather surprising.

While 40 frames per second might not seem like anything to get too terribly excited about, when you compare it to the 29 FPS from before the Graphics Update, it becomes clear that Valve and Apple are on to something here. That's roughly 38% quicker than Team Fortress 2 was running for Snow Leopard users a few days ago! I should also note that the gaming performance delta between Windows 7 and OS X (at least in Source-engine titles) appears to be closing dramatically, with the GeForce GT 330M hitting a similar ceiling in both operating systems. OS X users are closer to getting to blame Apple's poor GPU options, rather than poor drivers, for their gaming woes.

For what it's worth, the overall experience still seems a lot smoother on Windows 7, but without FRAPS for OS X, I haven't figured out a way to compare minimum framerates. That said, the Snow Leopard Graphics Update boost goes a long way for improving TF2 playability at stock settings.

For Mac users with lower-end GPUs like the GeForce 9400M or GeForce 320M, the Snow Leopard Graphics Update could make the difference between keeping a Boot Camp partition and going native. It's hard not to get excited about this large of a performance gain, especially when taken with encouraging words from Valve about more optimizations being on the way.

As for me, my game plan hasn't changed. I already played Team Fortress 2 in OS X, albeit with a lot of the graphical goodies turned down. This update just means that I can safely play the game without being embarrassed about the eye candy in my screenshots.

39 comments — Last by derFunkenstein at 3:21 PM on 08/23/10

Where have all the sims gone?
— 1:17 PM on April 13, 2009

Years ago, when Gears of War was but a twinkle in CliffyB's eye, simulations were a big deal in PC gaming. Thanks to them, I grew up driving vehicles ranging from World War II submarines to state-of-the-art tanks. As a continuing fan of sim games, however, I'm finding it harder to enjoy a genre that has become increasingly sparse.

Large publishers like Electronics Arts and Activision no longer give simulators a second glance, and fans are left with games that usually come from tiny European companies you've never heard of. They're generally buggy, lacking in polish, and with learning curves that can only be called vertical inclines. In fact, fan communities often make the titles playable through mods and fan-made patches. What's a throttle-jockey to do? Every type of sim appears to have fallen by the wayside.

Flight simulators
Remember when Jane's Combat Simulations was the top tier for combat flight simulation? Falcon 4.0 was the only game to challenge any of the Jane's titles for undisputed king of combat flight sims. In the decade that has passed since, though, we've seen little if any innovation in the market. Falcon 4.0 was re-released with a number of community additions, while Lock-on: Modern Air Combat became the only high-profile release in town. Microsoft's Combat Flight Simulator died a quiet death, and its civilian counterpart looks to be doing the same.

Flight Simulator X was an unoptimized mess at launch, and though Microsoft says it is committed to the franchise, a large number of the game's ACES Studio employees were recently let go. At least we managed to get one good expansion pack out of it. After that, fans were left turning to community-made mods that can't compare to commercial products in terms of quality. In the meantime, the Ace Combat series and Tom Clancy's HAWX have created a new genre: flight action, which is just a kinder way of saying "dumbed-down flight simulator."

Even helicopter sims are missing in action. Longbow 2 remains the pinnacle of the genre, while newcomers like the Enemy Engaged series remind us why games with seemingly no QA cycles should be avoided like the plague. DCS: Black Shark is the only modern helicopter sim even worthy of mention anymore, but with wildly inconsistent graphics and a brutal learning curve, newcomers to the genre will find it difficult to get into.

Naval simulators
There's something incredibly fulfilling about stalking your prey for hours on end, hiding in a tin can that's cruising just below the ocean's surface, and sinking your target at the opportune moment with a pair of well-aimed torpedoes. Submarine warfare is a blast on PCs, particularly because it doesn't require fancy controllers. But since the days of Wolfpack and 688(I) Hunter/Killer, there's only been one game in town: Silent Hunter.

While SH3 was easily the best entry in the series, the most recent Silent Hunter 4 sacrificed polish and design in favor of more attractive visuals. Keeping your submarine crew rotations in order proved to be a micro-management nightmare, while the game's copy protection punished even legitimate customers. Like many other recent sim games, Silent Hunter 4 would have been practically unplayable without a dedicated modding community.

Space simulators
Allegiance, Freespace, Tachyon: The Fringe, Freelancer, TIE Fighter, Wing Commander—all names that should bring a smile to a long-time PC gamer's face. The market used to be flooded with big-name space sims, but nowadays there's only one, maybe two if you count an MMO. The X series is now the only place for hardcore space sims to turn, with the newest game being X3: Terran Conflict. Terran Conflict had one of the most successful launches in the history of the franchise, with far fewer bugs and more robust content than any of its predecessors.

Beyond that, what are we left with? EVE Online is great if you like mining space rocks and staring at countless UI windows instead of actually fighting, but otherwise there's not a lot out there. The genre has simply failed to stay relevant, which is odd considering the continued popularity of shows like Battlestar Galactica and numerous sci-fi Hollywood films. Maybe another developer will decide to take a risk in the near future, but until then, the only game to play is X3.

Racing simulators
At last, a genre that isn't rapidly dying off. Racing sims have only become more popular in recent years thanks to successful console franchises like Gran Turismo and Forza Motorsport. PC gaming is still the place to be for racing games, though, thanks to in-depth sims like Race 07 and Live for Speed. Combined with a quality wheel and pedals, those games provide a racing experience that's second to none. If you're looking for the most robust online experience, however, consoles provide a much larger player base with which to interact.

Maybe simulators are just canaries in a coalmine, a genre representative of a much larger trend in video games: the move toward simplicity. Even before the days of Nintendo's Wii console, video games were becoming easier and more accessible, all for the sake of becoming more mainstream. There's no doubt it worked. Video games now generate $9.5 billion in revenue annually, but at the expense of the more niche genres. Sim fans like myself are a dying breed, it seems. All I have left to do is yearn for the glory days and start working on my "back in my day" stories for all of you young whippersnappers.

95 comments — Last by SHOES at 10:42 PM on 04/29/09

The bag
— 10:37 AM on March 31, 2009

Every once in a while, you come across a deal you just can't pass up. This past weekend held just such a moment for me. With spring officially in full swing, I went to REI on the hunt for a pair of new hiking shoes. Much to my surprise, the store was having one of its coveted used gear sales. There were a bunch of tables set out front with piles of returned merchandise up for grabs. Unfortunately, most of what I found was either defective or damaged in one way or another: zip-off pants that were missing a leg, jackets with ripped stitching, etc. After picking over a small parking lot full of products, I gave up on finding anything worth buying.

But then I saw it.

Off to the side, in an inconspicuous-looking pile lay saddle bags, backpacks, and messenger bags. Like the other gear I looked at, the majority of them were less than enticing buys. But one item caught my eye: a diamond in the rough, as it were. It was a pristine Timbuk2 laptop bag, a Blogger to be precise. After giving it a quick visual once-over, I fumbled for the price tag: $49! "That's 50% off of MSRP, so something's got to be wrong with it," I thought to myself. I read further on the tag, finding the reason for the return: "used - laptop did not fit well in bag." I read it twice just to make sure I hadn't made a mistake.

Save for a small "X" written in silver pen (to denote that it's an "as is" item), this was a perfectly fine, heavily discounted Timbuk2 Blogger bag being sold among damaged merchandise—and all because some poor guy couldn't fit his 17" desktop replacement inside of it. I promptly engaged my kung-fu death grip on the bag and didn't let it out of my sight before arriving at the cashier. Needless to say, I bought it. After about 15 minutes with some paper towels and a dab of orange-scented Pine Sol (thanks to Google, I now know dusting polish will remove silver ink), I had a like-new Timbuk2 Blogger.

By now, you're probably wondering why I'm so excited about a laptop bag, so it's only fair that I give proper disclosure: I've always wanted a Timbuk2 bag. In years past, I've stuck with more generic and inexpensive competitors from brands like Samsonite and Targus. And while they're generally capable, they often lack all of the extra touches like a padded laptop compartment, a reinforced bottom, a soft cell phone pocket, and the build quality to last several years. They're usually not all that special to look at, either. Timbuk2 bags are different. A friend of mine has used the same one for almost 10 years now, and while you pay a bit more for that reliability, you end up replacing your bag less often. Despite the long-term cost argument, I've always had a hard time forking over upwards of two hundred bucks on a laptop bag, no matter how cool it might make me feel walking around campus. Now you can imagine my glee at finding the discounted Timbuk2 Blogger.

The Blogger is a great fit for my needs, too. A vertically-oriented laptop bag is ideal for wearing while on my bicycle, and the extra padding on the back ensures my laptop won't sustain any damage by bouncing off of my rock-hard obliques. All right, maybe I won't be breaking anything on my less-than-perfectly toned body, but the padding is still a great comfort feature. It also guarantees I won't have to worry about being so delicate with my bag for fear of denting my laptop. Combined with a neoprene sleeve, it ends up cushioned by 1 to 2 inches of soft foam on all sides.

For being sold as a laptop bag, I was actually surprised at how much additional storage space the Blogger is packing. Not only can it fit my PSP, DS, cell phone, an external hard drive, power adapters, and a book; it can even hold my large-body digital SLR along with extra lenses and a flash. I think I've found my new trade show bag! Maybe I go a bit overboard with how much I like to carry around, but it's refreshing to see a quality laptop bag with plenty of extra room for goodies.

Of course, no product is perfect. For all of the space it packs, the Blogger is somewhat lacking in the organization department. My last bag couldn't carry nearly as many items, but I could at least keep my DS from scratching up my PSP and safely stow away less frequently accessed items like USB cables. The Blogger does have individual pouches for keys, a cell phone, and even writing utensils, but the main compartment still feels a bit sparse overall. I'll have to rely more on individual cases to protect devices, especially if I decide to toss my digital SLR in with everything else. You can't win them all.

In my never-ending quest to understand the tastes of fellow tech enthusiasts, I leave you with a few questions. First, what do you look for in a laptop bag? Do aesthetics matter, or are you more concerned with making sure your laptop stays in one piece? Do you need a ton of storage space, or is your laptop only being toted around with its AC adapter? Are laptop bags a disposable commodity to be replaced annually, or have you been lugging around the same pouch for the last decade? Feel free to tell me about your ideal bag in the comments below—I need something new to lust after now, after all.

32 comments — Last by ShadowTiger at 11:31 PM on 04/06/09

Let there be light!
— 11:20 AM on March 27, 2009

It all started a few weeks ago when I sent a picture over to Jordan, our resident podcast guru, showing off the light box I put together for our Eee PC 1000HE review. Of course, the first thing his eyes focused on was the new MacBook that was sitting on the desk, but after bringing it up in the podcast that week, he expressed an interest in learning a bit more about my product shots. Since my photos have also received some positive attention from our readers, and Cyril already showed off his homebrew studio, I thought I'd take a moment to demonstrate my solution.

A light box is a great tool for taking product shots, the goal being that the object you're photographing gets uniformly illuminated, thus eliminating harsh shadows. Some photographers construct a light box out of translucent materials draped over a skeleton frame. Then, by placing their lights on the outside, the diffused light that passes through is much softer, resulting in even illumination. This method is essentially like placing the object inside of a soft box. However, I went with a different, opaque approach for my light box, courtesy of a fantastic homemade light box guide I found online. With five pieces of Elmer's foam board, some tape, a white poster sheet, and 20 minutes of construction time, here's what I ended up with:

I admit, my light box doesn't look very impressive. But that's not the point—it's the photo that has to look good, not the tools you use to take it. The idea with this light box design is that by bouncing the light around all of the surfaces, the subject is uniformly illuminated. Why the poster sheet? Removing the hard edges of the box in Photoshop can be a pain, so I placed a background inside that provides a smooth surface throughout. Unfortunately, the light box alone isn't enough to properly illuminate the subject. Even with a high-power flash bouncing light around inside the box, the resulting effect just isn't uniform.

The flash was angled at the top of the box, somewhat diffusing the light, but the shadows still make it very obvious that there's only a single light source. The solution is simply to add more light.

The Home Depot sells inexpensive clamp lights, and after inserting four 100W daylight CFL bulbs, I was in business. Daylight CFLs are a bit pricey, but they have a higher Kelvin color temperature than their less expensive counterparts, so they're ideal for product shots on a white background. CFLs are also more energy efficient than incandescent bulbs, though that might just be the California propaganda talking. At least they manage to keep cooler than other studio lights I've used in the past. The only real downside is that the CFLs usually take a minute or two to get to their peak output, but that's time I can spend getting my camera set up. With 400W of illumination, along with a flash bouncing off of the ceiling of the box, there's more than enough light now.

That's much better! Notice the hard shadows are gone, and Mario's face is no longer drowned in darkness. My light box might look like a goofy contraption, but I can't argue with the results. Unfortunately, having taken a number of products shots over the past few weeks now, some problems have come up. Perhaps the biggest issue is that photographing objects with a glossy finish can be a real pain. I have a feeling that a soft box design would do a lot better in this scenario, because glossy subjects just love to catch the light from my bulbs—even when they're not aimed directly at the subject. More diffusion should solve that.

One more reason to use a soft box design is that it's easier to store, unlike my foam box monstrosity. Translucent light boxes are usually just made out of PVC pipe with a cotton sheet resting over it, making it trivial to disassemble the box when you're done with it. My light box gets to live in the garage when I don't need it, which leaves me looking for spiders and dusting it off every time I bring it into the house.

The final issue that's presented itself is that, at times, there seems to be too much light inside the box. 400W plus a flash is a lot, and it makes the task of photographing laptops with their screens on quite difficult. My solution thus far has been to turn off a pair of lights, but that can cause more shadows to creep into the photo. Ultimately, I think I'll have to pick up another set of bulbs with lower wattage to swap in as necessary.

If you've got a remote interest in photography, want a classy way to list your wares on eBay, or need to show off your latest Warhammer figure to your buddies, a light box is a fun afternoon project. Just remember to set your white balance before you shoot, and use an indirect flash if you can. Having a tripod around can also help for those pesky shots when you need a long depth-of-field, making you close down the aperture. If you're interested in seeing a few more shots of my light box in action, you can find some extra photos in the image gallery below. All of them were taken with my Canon EOS 20D, except of course the one of the camera itself. Unfortunately, I was forced to shoot that with my camera phone.

39 comments — Last by zima at 3:39 AM on 04/01/09

What's in a browser?
— 4:10 PM on March 16, 2009

With word that the final version of Internet Explorer 8 may be coming in the next few days, enthusiasts are once again preparing for another salvo in the ongoing browser war. As with most other major browser updates, I'll probably find myself reevaluating my weapon of choice for surfing the web—especially since IE8 doesn't look like an embarrassing release for Microsoft.

Like many of you, I've gone through a number of web browsers over the years. After Netscape Navigator died a slow and painful death, I reluctantly used Internet Explorer for a number of years—at least until a little-known Mozilla fork named Phoenix came along. I was along for the ride as Phoenix became Firebird, and later Firefox, as we know and love it today.

Beyond its improved security features, Firefox was just so different from IE. Tabs were a breath of fresh air in the stagnant browser market, and a myriad of plug-ins let you make Firefox a far more robust tool than just a basic web page renderer. The status bar could provide email updates, weather forecasts, and more.

Firefox certainly isn't perfect, though, and over time my tastes changed once again. Extensions could cause crashes, and web pages were becoming less static as JavaScript and Flash gained in popularity. Newer browsers like Chrome turned sites like Gmail, Facebook, and Twitter into self-contained desktop applications, putting increased importance on a solid rendering engine and less on what's around it. Suddenly, I didn't care about all of those add-ons. All I wanted was a browser that was just that: a browser. 

In recent years, I've found myself becoming further and further entrenched in the Safari camp. Like Firefox, Safari isn't perfect, but I've found WebKit to be far and away the superior rendering engine. Not only is it quite rigid with its standards compliance, but it's fast and versatile enough to power browsers in desktop PCs all the way down to cell phones. Since switching, though, I've still kept my eye on subsequent Internet Explorer releases, as well as other alternatives like Opera and Chrome. I might as well keep my options open, right?

What will Internet Explorer 8 be evaluated on when it comes out? Of course, everyone has their own method for judging a browser. Some dive straight for the Acid tests, while others run a volley of Javascript benchmarks. Personally, I take a bit more pragmatic approach. Here's what I look for:

  • Speed. Whether I'm reading the latest news on TR, checking emails, or arguing on forums, I spend more hours on the web than I do playing games or watching movies—and I want to spend as little time as possible waiting for the computer to catch up. As a result, I want a browser that's as fast as possible and won't leave me twiddling my thumbs while a page renders. Benchmarks give numeric comparisons, but in my unscientific research, Safari just proves to be the snappiest browser for the sites I view regularly. Microsoft is touting speed as a big improvement for IE8, so we may get a new champion.
  • Stability. It's not unusual for me to leave tabs open for hours or even days before finding the time to read them, so I need a browser that won't crash on me. Chrome might be the perfect browser for me in a few months (thanks in large part to its WebKit rendering engine), but for now, I just don't find it stable enough. Of course, I have yet to find a completely stable browser, and depending on the number of add-ons you're rocking, results can vary.
  • Standards compliance. I really don't care if a browser passes the Acid3 test—I care that it renders my web pages properly and consistently. In the case of Acid benchmarks, I personally haven't ever found these results to correspond to a browser's real world usefulness. So, while fanboys are welcome to argue over their Acid scores, I just want my browser to render The Tech Report and Gmail correctly. Anything Gecko- or WebKit-powered gets a pass from me, and I've always been wary of IE's oddball engine that often requires browser-specific hacks. Microsoft has made standards compliance a major focal point in IE8's development, so perhaps it will finally get things right this time.

Some browsers offer everything and the kitchen sink, but to be honest, I just don't need all of that. Here's what I don't worry about when evaluating a browser:

  • Add-ons. I touched on this already, but I just want my web browser to surf the Internet. I don't need it to tell me when my next dentist appointment is, if it's going to rain tomorrow, or what the time is in Bangladesh. Some Firefox plug-ins like Greasemonkey are quite useful, but I don't really miss them.
  • Resource consumption. Considering it's the most-used application on any of my PCs, I really don't care if my browser is a resource hog. I'm still not a fan of memory leaks, of course, and that can become a serious issue if browsing performance begins to suffer. But if a browser wants to eat up a few hundred megabytes of my 4GB of RAM for a large cache, then I have absolutely no problem with that. After all, RAM is meant to be used, not sit empty. Why people insist on arguing about "bloated" browsers using memory that would otherwise go to waste, I will never understand.
  • Aesthetics. I want a user interface to be functional and efficient—even if it sacrifices visual appeal in reaching those goals. Icons and menus can be ugly, as long as they're laid out in a sensible fashion. I've grown to like tabs embedded in the window's title bar (a la Chrome and Safari 4) and the status bar has long since lost its usefulness to me. Being able to customize the layout of the toolbars and buttons is also requisite for any browser I use daily.

Regardless of what you're looking for, increased competition is making the browser market interesting again, and both content producers and consumers stand to benefit. My goal really wasn't to start a browser superiority argument with this post, but I expect that could happen anyway in the comments section. Some people like Firefox; others are happy to stick with Internet Explorer. Safari is no longer just for Apple users, either, even if some think Chrome offers a superior WebKit experience on Windows. Everyone's got their own favorite browser, but I'm more interested in what you look for when making your choice. Are you hooked on browser plug-ins, or are you interested in the most lightweight browser possible? Maybe you're just too set in your ways to bother changing at this point. Hit the comments and share your thoughts!

98 comments — Last by John59 at 4:17 AM on 03/25/09

Google Latitude: a stalker's wet dream
— 10:35 AM on March 11, 2009

Geolocation is already one of the next big trends in mobile devices. Most premium cell phones have GPS capabilities, and those that don't can use less accurate network-based solutions to estimate their locations. In turn, location-based services are on the rise. Knowing your exact latitude and longitude in the urban jungle doesn't do a whole lot of good by itself, but it suddenly becomes useful when put into context. Travel directions, traffic conditions, and even the nearest ATM are just a few button presses away at any time, anywhere. As a daily Series 60 user, Google Maps is one of my most frequently used applications—GPS-assisted directions make finding new locations a breeze, and the real-time traffic conditions do their best to get me to Lakers games on time.

So, what happens when you take all of those location-aware mobile devices and make them social? That's exactly what Google aims to do with its new service, Latitude.

Basically, Latitude takes position data from your mobile phone and makes it visible to the world. All right, "the world" isn't entirely accurate, since you have to choose which contacts you want to share your location with. Authorized friends may then view your location within Google Maps on their mobile devices or within a Latitude iGoogle gadget on their PCs. Some mobile versions of Google Maps even have chat functions built in, so not only can you find your friends, but you can send them an IM saying you're sneaking up behind them.

Google Latitude in action on iGoogle

Latitude raises an interesting question: do people really need to know where I am at all times? I'm still not even sold on the idea of Twitter. No one wants to know what I'm up to every two hours, and I'd be a bit concerned if they did. Frankly, my life's just not that interesting. Now Google wants to add my current location to the wealth of personal information available on the Internet? The idea, according to Google, is that friends that just happen to be near you can stumble on your activity and share in the fun. But maybe I specifically didn't invite a certain friend, or maybe I'm not in the mood to hang out. I'd rather friends not drop in on me unannounced just because they're in the same area.

Thankfully, hiding your status for certain contacts, or even all contacts, is fairly straightforward. You can even spoof your location by manually selecting your position. But do I really want to manage all of that? Keeping track of which friends I have to hide from just to go about my day is not an idea I relish. I find it easier simply to turn off the service.

So, what is Google Latitude good for? How about using Latitude to let people find me only when I want them to? Honestly, I just don't see the point. In the past, my friends and I have never had problems meeting once we decide to get together. "Hey dude, meet you at Yard House in 20" has, amazingly, always worked. I've never found myself wishing for GPS-accurate position data for my friends, and I can't imagine they have, either. It might seem silly, but the first application that I thought of for Latitude was a large-scale, GPS-assisted urban game of tag. Clearly, Google Latitude isn't fulfilling a critical role in my life any time soon.

Like all things Google, Latitude also makes you wonder what Google is doing with all of that position data. Because, let's be honest: it's going to use the data for something. Whether it'll serve up location-aware advertisements or sell demographic data, Google potentially has a very large amount of valuable but also sensitive personal information on its hands. For now, Latitude's privacy policy guarantees your location data isn't available to third parties, and previously reported locations are not saved. Also, just last week, Google committed to protect position information from law enforcement agencies without a warrant. However, the concern over my personal information is just one more reason for me not to use the service.

Personally, I've found better uses for GPS in my mobile phone. Geotagging my hiking photos has proven to be a lot of fun (especially paired with iPhoto '09), and plotting my cycling routes helps manage my exercise. For now, I'll continue to use Google Maps without signing into the Latitude service. Maybe at a future trade show, the next time several of us TR writers are trying to find each other in an overwhelming environment, we'll turn to Google Latitude—but I doubt it.

Besides the S60, Google Maps is also available for Windows Mobile, Android, iPhone, and Blackberry devices. Latitude support for the iPhone is still unavailable, but that still leaves a large number of Latitude-capable devices on the market and many friends to potentially stalk. What about you? Are you already using Google Latitiude or a similar service to track your friends, or has the fear of Big Brother—or worse yet, your significant other—spying on you caused you to shy away? Hit up the comments and let us know what you think.

42 comments — Last by Ragnar Dan at 12:31 PM on 03/25/09

Gaming on a netbook: yes we can
— 10:52 PM on February 26, 2009

As you might have already seen, I recently had the chance to play with Asus' new Eee PC 1000HE. In my journey to further understand the merits of netbooks, I found myself curious to see what games I could play on it. After all, PC gaming is of great interest to many of us here at The Tech Report. No matter how focused a product's role or how one-dimensional it may be, if it's got a user interface and buttons, we want to know how to waste time with it.

I know what you're thinking: we've all seen the Intel GMA 950 benchmarks. We've all watched the proof-of-concept YouTube videos showing Half-Life 2 or World of Warcraft running at a dozen frames per second while some guy tells you it's "perfectly playable." That's not what I'm interested in. I don't care if some dork can dig through configuration files and console commands to force a game to launch, because after you've died for the seventh time due to slideshow performance, you're just not having any fun. No, I wanted to find games that were entertaining and actually ran well on a netbook.

For gamers, netbooks present some unique challenges compared to their full-sized brethren. Not only are you limited by the lackluster integrated graphics and energy-conscious Atom CPU, but the display resolution and input mechanisms create new hurdles.1024x600 doesn't leave enough vertical space for most new games, though some still find ways to fit. The keyboard and trackpad are often much smaller than on a regular laptop, which makes twitch reactions or precise movements difficult to pull off. The trick to gaming on a netbook is to find titles that play to the strengths (or at least fit within the constraints) of the platform. Believe it or not, you're not just limited to Solitaire.

Cave Story (a.k.a. Doukutsu Monogatari)
Cave Story is a game that hearkens back to the NES platformers of old. Part Metroid, part Castlevania, and a dash of Mega Man come together to form a wonderfully retro title made by a single programmer known only as Pixel. Cave Story's charming characters and challenging gameplay will keep you coming back for more, even after you've beaten the game. And of course, the low-resolution graphics and simple controls make it a perfect fit for netbooks. Did I mention that the music is awesome, too? An updated version will be arriving on the Nintendo Wii later this year, but the original PC version of Cave Story, along with an English translation, can still be downloaded for free.

Battle for Wesnoth
Linux users might have heard of Wesnoth already, but they're not the only ones that can enjoy this turn-based fantasy strategy game. Fans of Heroes of Might and Magic will feel right at home, while genre newcomers will warm quickly to the game's simple yet subtle game mechanics and interesting setting. Thanks to its open-source roots, Wesnoth has countless user-made scenarios and is regularly updated with new content. Battle for Wesnoth is a free download for Windows, Linux, Mac OS X, and more.

Grand Theft Auto 1 and 2
No, you don't need to spend $30 on Steam for a Grand Theft Auto pack to play these 2D classics again. A few years back, Rockstar Games released both GTA 1 and GTA 2 for free on its official website. If you've been meaning to revisit the series' roots, or you're just curious about where it all began, the 2D installments of the GTA franchise are a great fit for netbooks.

I don't care what you tell me—Sid Meier's Civilization series peaked with Civ II. Thanks to some endeavoring programmers, we can relive the glory days of the turn-based pioneer with Freeciv. As you might expect from the name, it's a free clone of Civilization II that just happens to have a great community to go with it. Freeciv doesn't like to be limited to 600 vertical lines, but as long as your netbook supports 1024x768 with scrolling, you'll be just fine.

The Ur-Quan Masters
You've got to love free clones of classic games. Some consider Star Control II: The Ur-Quan Masters to be one of the greatest PC titles of all time—a satisfyingly deep space adventure that broke new ground with its exploration and customization elements. Now, over 15 years after its initial release, we can experience the game all over again thanks to a free, open source remake called The Ur-Quan Masters. The slow gameplay style and limited visuals make it a perfect fit for netbooks. Regardless of whether you have a netbook or not, you owe it to yourself to give The Ur-Quan Masters a shot and see why the game is still held in such high regard to this day.

Adventure games
Point-and-click adventures also work great on netbooks. They're the opposite of twitch gameplay, and they don't require long gaming sessions. You can simply fire one up and enjoy it for a few minutes at your leisure, and then return to it whenever you like. Sierra On-Line was a pioneer in the genre and made some of its most memorable titles. The company's franchise-launching King's Quest was remade a few years back by ADG Interactive and released for free. Point-and-click fans will also want to grab ScummVM, which allows modern systems to run original versions of classic LucasArts and Sierra On-Line games.

All right, the Atom won't be able to play God of War, but there are plenty of older systems it will emulate just fine. Pick anything from before the 3D era, and you'll generally be good to go. The SNES and Genesis are my favorite consoles for netbooks, with dozens of RPGs to sink hours into. Anything with more action than that can cause some control issues—you don't want to attempt some of those jumps in Super Mario World on a netbook's tiny arrow keys. Don't just limit yourself to consoles, either. DOSBox makes revisiting some of your favorite games (that haven't been remade) a breeze. Performance on the Atom can be hit-or-miss, but it should be enough for some good old-fashioned Doom, SimCity 2000, or Worms.

Netbooks clearly aren't ideal gaming platforms, but with a little creativity and some nostalgiac thinking, you can still have fun with them. What games do you have loaded on your netbook? Maybe you're faithful to the "net" part of the term and rely solely on Flash games, saving yourself the hassle of installing anything. Did getting a netbook get you on a classic gaming binge, or have you found more free or independent titles to keep yourself entertained? Netbook owners, feel free to hit the comments and let others know how you have fun with your tiny laptop.

70 comments — Last by pwnrhasta at 12:40 AM on 03/10/09