Sunday, November 22, 2009

This is the DROID I've Been Looking For

Like most people, every two years I get a new cellphone whether I really need to or not. My last phone, the LG Voyager, turned out to be a bit of a let down in terms of its ability to access the Internet. So, for the last two years I've bided my time until my next upgrade date and read reviews of various smartphones. Until recently the choices for smartphone operating system were Windows Mobile, Palm OS or Blackberry. None of these particularly appealed to me. When the iPhone hit the market, it seemed to have set the mobile device world on its ear and showed that a hand held device really could be both a phone and a solid device for accessing the Internet. The problem with the iPhone was (and in my opinion still is) the fact that it is exclusively on the AT&T network. I remember reading a lot of reviews of the iPhone complaining about this fact and that Apple had signed a five year exclusivity deal with AT&T. So, when I found out that Verizon had launched a new smartphone a few weeks ago that utilized the Android Mobile OS developed by Google, I became quite excited. No other smartphone in the VZW catalog has appealed to me as much as the Motorola DROID, so I embarked on doing a lot of research on this new device. I read reviews, watched YouTube videos, weighed all the pros and cons and finally made my way to the nearest Verizon Store to check it out for myself (which means, I went to go play with it *grin*). It didn't take long for me to be hooked and within a few minutes I had made up my mind that I wanted to use my upgrade eligibility to get the DROID. I've had it now less than twenty-four hours, but I want to share my first impressions.

First of all, I love the size of the phone. I've heard a few people say that think the phone is to big. I love the fact that this device is not the tiny, small-buttoned phone that seems to permeate the market. I'm a big guy, with fat thumbs; I need the keyboard (be it virtual or real) to be large lest I hit the wrong keys. The DROID has, essentially, three keyboards; one physical, slide-out keyboard and two virtual on-screen keyboards (I say two, because the virtual keyboard can be used when the phone is either vertical or horizontal). The dimensions of the phone aren't really that large; it's essentially the same size as my Voyager (perhaps slightly wider, but also a bit thinner). It just appears larger because of the generously sized 3.7 inch screen (to put that in perspective, my Garmin Nuvi 255W GPS has a 4.3” screen, so it's not much bigger). The phone also has some heft. That's not to say it's heavy, but it's not feather-light either; personally, I like that too. I would prefer that the physical keyboard's keys were a bit larger as I have hit a few wrong keys (again, fat-thumb syndrome), but I'm sure I'll get used to the layout soon. Overall, the phone feels very solid and is very easy to handle and see. In fact, most of the reviews I've read seem to point out how easy the screen is to see both in terms of it's size and it's very vivid resolution.

Ok, enough about how the phone looks, let's move on to function. I'll start with the phone functionality itself, since that's probably what it will be used for the most. I have to say, it's very different not having a send or end key (even the Voyager had that even though it is also a touch screen device). Other than that it is pretty straight forward to use the phone on the DROID. Simply press the phone icon and up comes the dial pad. Dial the number, press the green phone receiver icon, and there you go. When you're done, tap the red phone receiver icon and the call is ended. It's just that simple. The contact list is very impressive thus far. It automatically integrates and syncs with my Google Contacts, which means I didn't have to spend an hour manually transferring my phonebook from the Voyager to the DROID or trying to use the wireless backup service from VZW (which doesn't work the same with the smartphones as it does other phones). Of course, the fact that I had put everyone's email addresses and phone numbers into Google some time ago helped, but it's still pretty cool that the sync feature works so smoothly. Dialing a number from the contacts list is pretty easy, even it does require more screen taps to pull off. I also like the fact that I can set Favorites in my contact list so that the people I call most are placed in a shorter list rather than having to scroll through all of my contacts looking for them. The only cons I can think of here are the lack of a speed dial list (at least, I haven't found one yet) and that the phone does not support one touch voice dialing via my Bluetooth headset. The phone does have a voice dial app already built in, however. You just have to tap it first, so I've put it in a very easy to find spot on the home screen should I need it while driving. So far, I've really only made one phone call with the DROID, but the sound quality was superb. I switched from the Bluetooth to the speakerphone seamlessly with the controls on the screen that come up while in a call and the I have to say, the speakerphone on this thing is loud and clear (on the Voyager, the sound was muffled unless you opened the flip to expose the speakers).

Now for the fun stuff (the Android OS, the Browser and the Apps) that make this a smartphone instead of just another cellphone. I won't lie, I immediately starting playing with these features before I made my first phone call or sent my first text message. In fact, the salesperson had me enter my Gmail account information in the store before I even left as part of the phone's initial setup. The touch screen is very responsive (in fact, I may need to see if I can adjust the sensitivity in the settings). I love that I can customize the home screen, not only in terms of what applications are there, but also in how the icons are laid out. Naturally, being a Google Android based device, Gmail, Google Calendar and YouTube are preloaded as applications. Being that I've used Gmail as my primary email for several years as well as using Google Calendar for keeping track of birthdays and appointments, this was a big plus. Facebook mobile is also preloaded, which is a nice touch (although, I'm sure I would've downloaded it anyway). One of the features of Android that I love is how it notifies me of when I get an email or text message. Rather than popping up on screen automatically (which I've always found annoying, especially if I'm already trying to read a previous message or compose one) it uses the status bar at the top of the screen. When I'm ready to view the message(s), all I have to do is expand the status bar to full screen. This has the added benefit of allowing me to read messages in any order I want instead of having to read them in the reverse order they arrived in.

The browser on the DROID is awesome! Unlike the Voyager, it's not limited to WAP versions of websites or simple HTML. So far, every site I've pulled up has loaded just as it would on my computer. Of course, it's much smaller, so I do usually have to zoom in to read the text, but the fact that I can even view sites with dynamic elements like Fash and Java is great. On the Voyager, I eventually dropped the unlimited mobile web feature from my plan because I just wasn't using it. On the DROID, I'm almost glad to start paying an extra $30 a month again since I can actually see my favorite Internet sites as they are intended to be viewed. Again, this is why I love the size of this phone, because if the screen were any smaller, it would be useless for web browsing (of course, any larger, and it would become to cumbersome to carry around).

Let's talk about Apps! The Android Market (which is the equivalent to the iPhone's “App Store”) has been criticized for only having around 10,000 apps compared to the over 100,000 available to iPhone users. So what? 10K applications to choose from is plenty, especially when you consider that both the DROID's and iPhone's users aren't going to come close to using all of those. For every useful app I've found, I've found dozens that have no appreciable use (at least, not to me). Either way, the fact that I can download applications to customize my DROID to suit my needs versus not being able to do that with my Voyager, is just plain awesome. So far, I've found several apps to make life a little easier or fun, especially when I'm away from my computer (like when I have to sit for an hour getting my oil changed or if I decide to go sit at a coffee shop to just get out of the house for a bit). Here's a list of some of the apps I've downloaded so far:

  • Aldiko – an eBook reader; came preloaded with The Art of War and The Invisible Man, and has a pretty big library of free, public domain books available. There are serveral eBook readers to choose from in the Market, some free, some that you have to pay for.

  • Pandora – a free streaming Internet radio application that is customizable. The fact that the DROID (unlike the iPhone) can run multiple apps at once makes this a very usable music app since I can continue doing other things while still listening to music.

  • Barcode Scanner – this turns your DROID's camera into a barcode scanner and links with Google Product Search so you can shop online for the best price on an item while you are still standing in the store.

  • Key Ring – this one seems pretty cool, but has gotten mixed reviews, so I'll have to test it out to see if it's worth keeping. What it does is, allows you to scan and save all those little discount club cards you keep on your key ring into your DROID so you can clear your key ring of all the clutter.

  • United States Constitution – there are several apps like this available. The one I selected includes not only the Constitution but also the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, et.,al.

  • Twidroid – a Twitter app available in both free version and a paid version if you need more features.

  • SportsTap – a sports score app that can be configured to send you updates on your favorite team(s) for when you can't watch the game yourself.

There are also a few other apps I'm considering such as “Open Home” which allows for more home screen customization and “Locale” which allows you to use the DROID's built in GPS to set profiles for your device based on where you are located (like automatically going into silent mode when you are at your favorite movie theater). Visual Voicemail is also available on the Android platform and while the app itself is free, to use it I'd have to pay an extra $2.99 a month on my monthly bill, so I'm still debating if that's really worth it or not.

All-in-all, I love the DROID. I finally am able to have an iPhone-like experience without having to deal with AT&T's questionable 3G coverage or Apple's proprietary nonsense. I'm very pleased that Verizon chose to let the Android OS do it's job as intended without imposing their standard VZW UI as they usually do giving me the freedom to do what I want with the device, while still having access to Verizon's superior (in my opinion) 3G coverage and speed. As I said though, it has not even been twenty-four hours, so I'll have to let you know about other things (like battery life, which so far seems low, but I've also been using it rather heavily downloading apps and getting used to the UI, so once I start using it “normally” I'll have to see how the battery does). For now, I have to give the Motorola DROID 5-out-of-5 stars.

~ JC

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Your Hobby Sucks... but then again, so does mine

Everyone has a hobby, or at least something they enjoy doing when they are not working or sleeping. What is a hobby or pastime if not just a big time sink? I mean, let's think about this for a moment. There are twenty-four hours in day. Most of us work six to eight of those hours and sleep six-to-eight as well (for the sake of argument, we will go with the “normal” eight hour work day and eight hours of sleep per day). That leaves an extra eight hours to kill everyday. You have to fill that time with something (hopefully, bathing and eating are amongst those activities). So, the question remains, what to do with all that free time? Housework? Yardwork? Sure, those are things that need to be done, and on days that one doesn't have to be at work, there are even eight extra hours to be filled beyond the normal eight the other five days. So, people find ways to keep themselves busy or entertained to fill the void, right? The point is, no one really has the correct answer to this equation, but I would be willing to bet they think they do. Why? Because so many of us love to put down or criticize others who fill their free time with activities that we would not or do not enjoy, so therefore, their hobby must suck.

As a lifelong gaming geek who has enjoyed playing role playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons and the like for over twenty years, I have always had to catch hell from others who do not understand why I play/played such games. Now that we have moved into the age of the Internet and World Wide Web, those interests in RPGs has moved to into the realm of playing MMORGPs such as World of Warcraft and D&D Online. Now, I freely admit that I am a bit OCD at times and when I take up a hobby, be it a game or other activity, I tend to become immersed in it to the point of being almost evangelistic when speaking of it. So, I can kind of see where I would get on someone's nerves who is not interested in those activities. However, that does not mean that I am wrong for enjoying them does it? I ask because sometimes I find people that seem to think I am. I hear questions all the time like, “Why do you play [insert name of game here]? That game is stupid!” or “That is such a waste of time.” To the first statement I'll say, it is a free country and your are entitled to you opinion. To the second statement, yes, it is a waste of time; that's the point! I have eight extra hours to fill everyday, and anything I do outside of work or sleep can be categorized as a waste of time (you know, except for household chores and the aforementioned bathing and eating). I want to be clear on this so I'll use all caps, ALL HOBBIES ARE A WASTE OF TIME! Yep, I said it. I don't care what you choose as a hobby, it is nothing but a waste of time. That's the point. If we aren't working, sleeping or doing chores, we want, (dare I say, need) our other time to be wasted doing something other than staring at a wall being bored.

I guess what I'm getting at is this. In the gaming world, geeks can become quite vicious when talking about or defending their particular game. People who play WoW think that people who play other MMORPGs are stupid. People who used to play WoW and quit talk trash to and put down those who still play, and it goes on and on an on; just find any message board on gaming if you don't believe me. But even outside of the gaming community people can become quite petty about things. Persons A and B both like to read, for example. Person A likes to read trashy romance novels, while Person B prefers Science-Fiction. Now, neither of these genres serve any purpose other than to be entertaining. They aren't scholarly books that might teach the reader something about history or politics or science or any of hundreds of other topics. So they both want to know why the other one reads “that crap.” And of course, Person C comes along and wants to know why either of them waste their time reading “that crap” since he “doesn't waste my time reading fiction.” Then there are the people who do not even enjoy reading at all and wonder why all the “nerds” are reading when they could just be watching TV or going to a movie instead.

Maybe I'm just over sensitive because it seems that gaming geeks like me seem to catch the most shit from people who don't get why we play games. But the real point to this whole diatribe is, no one truly has the right to question anyone else's hobby or pastime. Just because you don't enjoy, doesn't make it invalid and just because you do enjoy it doesn't make it “better” than mine or anyone else's. So, STFU and go play your games, read your trashy romance novel, watch you reality TV shows, pimp your rides, or whatever else cremes your Twinkie. Just remember to eat and bathe (especially bathe; that one is a non-negotiable).

~ JC

Sunday, November 01, 2009

D&D Online - 1st Impressions

As everyone who knows me or regularly checks out my blog knows, I'm a World of Warcraft fanatic. I've been playing it since August of 2008, I've gotten two characters to the level of cap (currently 80) and I still play almost everyday (the number of hours per day varies based on what's on TV that night or if I have other real life things to do). Lately, however, the game has become, well, a bit tedious and even frustrating. Once a “toon” hits 80 in WoW, there's little else to do except run the same daily quests (everyday – hence the “daily” part) to make gold and grind out reputation with different factions and try to earn or find the best gear available in the game. All this is done in order to experience the “end game” content – this is content meant for max level characters wearing the best gear. But what happens when there is no one on to play that content with? Raids require either 10 or 25 toons in the party to even have a chance of completing, so when there's only eight guildmates online, and half of those either aren't level 80 or or just turned 80 and don't have the gear to survive the end game raids yet, what is one to do? Hmmm.... level up an “alt” or go do more dailies? Ok, but even that gets boring after awhile – I mean, leveling an alternate character means going back and doing all the same quests you did with your main character months ago and gets really bland really fast. So, in order to keep things fresh, a couple of us have decided that when we're feeling burned out on WoW we'd try something different lest we end up quitting WoW entirely to keep from going mad. That something, for now anyway, is Dungeons & Dragons Online.


The first thing of note about Dungeons & Dragons Online (DDO) is that it's advertised as Free to Play. This sounds like a great thing since I'm already paying $15 per month to play WoW; I can play DDO for free and not have to maintain subscriptions to two different games. The problem with the Free to Play concept, however, is the limitation of only being allowed a maximum of two characters in contrast to the up to fifty I could have on WoW. It is the Free to Play option of DDO that made me willing to give it a try though, so I'll gladly deal with the limitations in race and class selections that are also imposed for free players. The game client itself for DDO is also a free download and generally takes only a few mintues to download and setup (I had some issues that caused it to take over an hour, but the two friends who are trying this out with me said it only took them about five minutes). WoW's client is technically a free download, but the license keys to actually get beyond the 10-day trial do have costs ($19.99 for the Basic Game, plus $29.99 for the “Burning Crusade” expansion and another $39.99 for the “Wrath of the Lich King” expansion – the expansions aren't necessary to play the game, but they are necessary if you want to advance beyond level 60, but I digress). WoW's client typically takes up to two hours to completely install regardless of using the download option or actually obtaining the DVD discs due to all of the patches and updates that will have to download (WoW is currently on version 3.2 with 3.3 due out soon, so even if you're only planning on doing the basic game, you still have to get all the patches). So, as far as the client and costs are concerned, DDO gets the advantage (at least at first glance; however, DDO can cost real life money if you want to do anything beyond the basics).

My initial reaction to DDO's user interface was that it was just plain bad in my opinion. It's was confusing. Most other MMORPGs use similar controls such as right clicking to attack a target while using left click to simply target something without necessarily attacking it. Now that I've spent some time playing (I've made it to level 2 *grin*) and gotten used to it, it's not so bad. It is more interactive in combat than WoW's UI. In WoW, a target is picked, and buttons are pushed depending on which ability you wish to attack with. In DDO, you keep left clicking on your target, which may or may not move around, to keep attacking and your hits and damage are determined by a d20 die roll just like in the table top version of D&D. There are special abilities in DDO as in WoW, and the player still activates those abilities the same way, by clicking them on their action bar, but in DDO there are no macros to string abilities into a single button push. So, I like DDO's combat a little better than WoW's since in WoW it's not very engaging to simply click buttons over and over. In DDO I have to pay attention to the fight, move around, and try to keep clicking my target(s).

Game play in DDO seems to be a lot less grind oriented than does WoW. There is no race to get better gear, no mindless running around on quests that require you to kill 50 of something or collect 25 this-or-that. DDO is all quest and dungeon crawl driven in it's leveling methods. You get the quest from the quest giver, you find the entrance to the dungeon (usually not far from the quest giver), you go inside the dungeon, you complete the quest-line (complete with a check list on screen to help guide you) and then turn in the quest at the end for your reward – VOILA! In WoW, you pick up the quest, run around trying to find whatever/whoever/whichever it is you need to kill/gather, usually well away from the quest giver, and grind until you get bored or complete the quest. Assuming you diddn't give up and abandon the quest, you go turn it in for a reward that you may or may not be able to use. Which brings up another point – quest rewards. DDO has a feature built in that causes all quest reward selections from the quest giver to be class appropriate. I like that. In WoW, playing a leather armor wearing rogue, it was very frustrating for the quest rewards to be selections of caster-class cloth, or plate armor for the warriors and paladins – all I could do was select the most expensive one, and sell it. In DDO, my Dwarf Barbarian is given a selection of items, all of which he could use, it's just a matter of deciding, based on how I want to play him, which one would be the most useful. Oh, and all the dungeons in DDO have the option to do them on normal mode, hard mode, epic mode or simply solo mode, so you don't have to go hunting for a group or waiting for guildies to log on if you don't want to.

In terms of content, the content in DDO hasn't really drawn me in yet. There doesn't seem to be much of a storyline, but truthfully, very few people who play MMORPG's even pay attention to that anyway; they read enough of the quest text to know what they need to do to complete it, and that's it. So as far as that goes, WoW may appear to have a more detailed and elaborate back-story than DDO, but in the end, that doesn't really matter. I'm playing the game, if I really want to become that immersed in a great story, I'll turn off the computer and go read a book.

Now, let's bear in mind here that I've only been playing DDO for a few hours total since I downloaded it on Friday night and I've been playing WoW for over a year. I'm certainly not saying that I'm about to quit WoW (for which my subscription is paid for through mid-January) and start playing a free MMO entirely. There are things that I think DDO does better than WoW such as better graphics, a better questing system, and more interactive combat, but there are things that they fall short on as well, such a UI that may be almost to simplistic and doesn't allow for much customization (WoW allows others to write addons so players can fully customize the UI if they want to). All I'm saying is, I love gaming, and I want to continue to play an MMO (let's face it, there's nothing on TV worth watching anymore), so DDO is a nice substitute for when WoW starts getting boring because I've done it over and over to many times.

Until next time – PEACE!

~ JC