The co-op conundrum

In multiplayer gaming there are really only two broad categories of gaming, versus or co-operative, at least for the purposes of this article.

When you play a multiplayer game versus other people, generally you can drop in, blow some noobs back to the stone age, check your kill:death ratio and your achievements then go back to whatever it was you were doing before the urge to distribute brain matter came over you.

In co-operative multiplayer you generally join a small group of friends to work you way through a campaign of some sort, be that slaying dragons or breaching a safe house full of terrorists.

Fable 2 had a co-op system which relied on finding a friend who didn’t want to actually play their own character while helping you complete your game with no reward for them, nobody like you that much buddy, big mistake Fable 2, fail. The co-op mode in Crackdown 2 also only progressed the game of the host, leaving the other players as nothing more than hired lacky’s who gained nothing from the experience, we could call this the Fable 2 co-op model, very broken, very wrong.

Saints Row 2 also included a co-op mode and while you could play through the campaign with a friend it was way too much fun to just surprise them with an RPG to the face, over and over and over. That never got old and unfortunately it severely impaired progress through the campaign.

Which brings me to Halo:Reach. A game which has nailed the co-op campaign like no other, while it doesn’t support drop in/out in the co-op campaign it does allow you to play through with a friend (or up to 3 friends) with your own customised character and allows you to bring in the items and character from your single player game in to the campaign and firefight (versus) modes. Almost a perfect co-op experience.

Which brings me to the co-op conundrum.

A game which doesn’t allow drop in/out, but does allow you to play through the campaign with friends where everyone gets credit for completing the campaign introduced a dynamic whereby you need everyone who started the campaign with you be available to play at the same time in order to progress.

Unfortunately, for me at least, your friends all have families, with kids or other commitments (or just other games they play, I hate you WoW) and it would seem that the chances of assembling four of you at the same place for any considerable period of time is approaching impossible in a logarithmic progression the more players you add to the mix.

Obviously, the chances of getting game time in a single player game is 100%, but as you add players, the chances that you are all available in a coherent block of time approaches zero, this dynamic works for as little as 4 players depending the age of the player.

For example, when you’re 15 years old and you’de done all your homework and you parents will let you play, you may be able to get 3 of your friends in to a game maybe 50% of the time, like so:

Single guys, around mid 20’s (or maybe any age) probably still living in there mothers basements have a much easier time of it.

35+, with a family, four player co-op? Forget about it.

I fit in to this last category of course and I know these numbers are scientifically proven by empirical evidence collected over the last 40 years, it’s real science, you can’t dispute my findings.

What these finding do tell us is that as an Angry Old Bastard gamer the most you can hope for in a game like Halo:Reach is to be able to game with one buddy, add more in to the mix and you’re just asking for a world of hurt and frustration. Of course, there will be exceptions and by changing the variables (for instance adding drop in/out to a co-op game, like Diablo 3) and the chance of achieving gaming nirvana are increased.

So, if you’re old and stupid and still manage to co-ordinate both thumbs at the same time through all the arthritis pain grab a copy of Halo:Reach and sign up one of your friends, pick wisely, in fact, maybe you should pick your single friends as your co-op partner. I didn’t chart that possibility, shit. Maybe next time.

Sync or Swim

This post is about how I have manage to avoid paying full price for most of the iPhone apps I have installed.

Sure, there are some which I have paid full price for and they have been worth every cent (Camera+ -currently unavailable- springs immediately to mind, as does eWallet and SprintGPS) but some apps are good value at $1.19, and even better value at $0 (most aren’t even worth $0 but that’s the topic of another post entirely).

The thing is that quite often iPhone app developers will drop their price for a special promotion, or set the price to FREE for a random 24 hours period to create some buzz, sometimes because they have another app coming out soon and want to raise awareness and sometimes just because they’re batshit insane and like living on two minute noodles and expired beer.

Anyway, it’s not rocket surgery but what I do avoid paying developers for their hard work isn’t completely obvious either, so here’s the deal:

The easy way

As the name would suggest FADD offer one paid app for free every day, most of the apps are only free for one day but some persist for several days and the FAAD app keeps track of them for you.

See, I told you it wasn’t rock science. I used to use an app called AppSniper but it became increasingly unstable and unreliable so I removed it and now prefer to use the method below.

The slightly less easy way

  • Sign up for a Google Reader account
  • Use google reader to subscribe to the appshopper.com rss feed at http://appshopper.com/feed/?mode=featured
  • Check the feed on your iphone using the google app or via your browser on the dekstop, as per the image to the right it clearly shows apps which have dropped in price and even notifies you of new ones as they are released.

The other great feature of Appshopper is that when you view the app page in their site it shows you a price history of the app so you can see when the sneaky developer increased the price from FREE to $5.99 then to FREE again within the space of two days. These are the ones you usually know to avoid because they’re permanently free for a reason (not all free apps are shit, but it’s a generalisation I stand by).

You’ll be drowning in free apps before you have time to say “Chris, you’re a certified genius!”

One Caveat: I have noticed a disturbing trend of once paid apps going free but integrating either micro-transactions or iAds in to their normal flow.Tower Madness is one example. This once $2.99 tower defence app has gone free but now seems to offer upgrades to weapons or new maps, for a price. While I understand the developers need to feed their families I much prefer they do so by offering a product which people will actually want to pay for without using dirty tricks.

So there you have it, enjoy your free apps and remember if you like an app you happen to get for free make sure you support the developer in the future, the good ones deserve your money and encouragement  and who knows, maybe one day the signal to noise ratio in the app store will favour the apps worth paying for rather than 698 fart apps.

yes, 698 fart apps

Stuff about printers

Kristie does a lot of printing for the business and our old $50 Samsung laser printer (ML-1740) is about to give up the ghost after several years of faithful service, if I had to guess I’d say it’s output well over 30,000 pages of newsletters, hands out and what-knot. This large number is mostly due to the fact that printing stuff yourself is convenience and if you pick the right printer/toner, most likely cheaper than going to Officeworks. My crude calculations put our cost per page for the old 1740 at about 2c, if we use refills rather than genuine toner carts (double that for genuine carts).

With an eye to replace the 1740 with a similar model I discovered that the 1740 is no longer in production but it’s impossible to find a mono laser with similar specs and toner capacity, the nearest thing being the 1640 which only has a 1,500 page toner for the same price as the 1740’s 3,000 page toner, lame.

So, it becomes apparent as I research that the laser printer market has become more and more aimed at small consumers, there are lots of printers for under $100 with tiny capacity toners which would do the average home user just fine, but if you’re looking for print one to two thousand copies a quarter, forget about them.

I started looking at the mid ranged models, the Brother 5340D stood out as a contender until I realised that it had a changable print drum, and the replacement cost of the drum is almost more than the cost of the original printer, combine that with the cost of the toner cart and you would actually be better off throwing the old printer in the bin and buying a new one when it came around to replacing the drum at 25k pages, not very environmentally friendly.

Which brings me to the SOHO class printers which tend to range in price from $800 to $1200 and have some awesome features like upgradable memory, network connectivity, web based management, automatic duplexing, more RAM and faster processors than your old pentium II and very high yield toners. All features which don’t initially sound like they’re worth the money but in the end they work out to be just icing on the cake. It may seem obvious but it’s not until you do the sums that you realise that the cost per page actually ends up being significantly cheaper when you pay $1000 for a printer with a 20k page yield toner capacity than a $100 printer with a 1,500 yield.

So I knocked up the following charts to help my own understanding, all things equal, the toner and printer prices below are the cheapest I could find (on www.staticice.com.au) for genuine toner carts, the refills/OEM version are usually about 40% cheaper but for an apples to apples comparison I stuck with the genuine versions.

Printing 25,000 pages

image

The reason the Samsung models don’t have a drum replacement cost is that their toner carts incorporate the drum mechanism so when you replace the cart you also replace the drum, strangely this isn’t really reflected in the cost of the toner carts, so kudos to Samsung for further driving the costs and environmental impact down.

As you can see, if you print below 25,000 pages on the printer over the entire lifetime the cheaper units do end up being more economical by 30-50% which makes the decision for low usage home users pretty easy, in fact if you stopped at 24,999 and didn’t bother replacing the drum in the Brother model the gap is even larger.

However, crank up the usage and you can see that the cheaper printers with user replaceable drums are not such a good idea, see below:

Printing 50,000 pages

image

50,000 pages is pretty close to the breakeven point for the larger, more expensive network enabled office printers so if you print 50,000 pages over the life of the printer, keep in mind that both the 4050 and 4551 models are rated to a 200,000 per month so their lifetimes should go in to the millions.

Printing 100,000 pages

image

The more you print beyond the break even point the more sense the higher end printers make on a purely cost per page basis and you’re also benefiting from the added features you get from spending more on the initial printer.

Let’s get a little silly with 1,000,000 pages printed:

image

…and the owner of the Brother model just spend $10,000 on drum replacements, you could have bought yourself an awesome motorbike and driven yourself to Officeworks to get them to do the hard work for you. Your $300 printer doesn’t seem like such a great idea now huh?

So the end result of all this and the fact that the government is still offering small business an additional 50% tax deduction on depreciating assets worth over $1000 the choice is pretty clear, nice one Samsung.

image

Bloody #Dell

Like most of you, in my far distant past I used to offer to build PC’s for friends and family, I had plenty of spare time and the know-how to help people who otherwise would have to spend stupid amounts of money to have someone else build a PC for them. This was before Dell came along and offered good value for money and an easy to use on-line ordering system and I pretty much exclusively answered “Dell” whenever anyone asked me which computer they should buy (or worse still, asked me to build one for them).

These days it’s just not worth the time and effort to build your own unless you:

1) know what you’re doing

and

2) are a tight ass

(I am both, so still build my own PC’s)

Imagine my shock when after years of recommending but never actually buying a Dell, I decided to follow my own advice and sample their wares. The old Asus laptop Kristie is using for the business is on it’s last legs and it was time to look around for a replacement and taking advantage of the extra tax deduction for small businesses was a little extra incentive to do it soon.

I did a small amount of research and based on good experience with the Dell Studio 15 which we won last year in a competition I ordered a Dell Studio 17, pretty much stock except for increasing the screen res to 1920×1200 and a custom pink casing, using a 15% off coupon and moneybackco (5% rebate from Dell) saved me another $200ish bringing the total to about $1200, comparing this to the specs (which aren’t important for this rant) on equal laptops from other manufacturers and this couldn’t be beaten.

So I pushed the order button and waited 8 business days and I cracked it open plugged it in and turned it on to be greeted with this:

P150709_14.02

P150709_13.37

Lovely I thought, a familiar sight to anyone who’s ever overclocked a video card (no, I didn’t) and my immediate thought was that the shitty on-board GPU was shot. I promptly then went on holidays for nine days and forgot all about the laptop and this problem. One other thing I noticed and didn’t think much of it was that it was missing a webcam and fingerprint scanner (which are supposed to be standard on the Studio laptops), I didn’t give it another thought until talking to a friend she informed me that her Studio 17 which she ordered a day after me (on my advice) had both these items.

When we got back I immediately called Dell to try and get the graphical problem sorted out, and enquire about what the hell happened to my webcam and fingerprint scanner.

To cut a long story not so long, I spent two hours on the phone to Dell on the first day going over standard troubleshooting which I had already performed myself (install new drivers, update BIOS, etc etc) but I tolerated it because I know Dell has to satisfy itself that there is an actual hardware issue, the end result of this was having me re-install Vista on a BRAND NEW FRESHLY INSTALLED laptop. Despite knowing it wouldn’t make a lick of difference I did this, and surprise, it didn’t make a lick of difference.

I was promised a call back from a level 2 tech to escalate the issue.

I waited.

No call back, so I called again, spent another hour and a half with another level 1 script reader in Bangladesh…errr, I mean Melbourne, I also mentioned at that time the missing webcam and scanner and he assured me he would create a case for that issue as well and put me through to Customer Care to talk about that.

I was on hold for 10 minutes then lost the phone connection. I called back and was put on hold and transferred to four different people, each one more clueless than the last until finally I was told all the Customer Care people were busy and they would call me back.

I wait.

Nothing.

I called again and got through to Tech Support, after going through all the same old shit again, with some new shit this time (he actually told me to install the “Studio 17 Wallpaper” as part of the diagnosis process, for an ultimate WTF moment) and an hour and a half more of my time he finally ordered a replacement motherboard to be installed. Presumably this would solve the problem, but wouldn’t help me much with the missing webcam and fingerprint scanner.

So I tried once again to talk to Customer Care and after being on hold for 20+ minute finally spoke to a human who wasn’t completely unhelpful or unsympathetic but said she had to get approval to waive the $200 fee associated with a returning a product (another WTF moment). I smelled a shitfight while I tried to explain that I ordered a laptop with a webcam and fingerprint scanner but didn’t get one, again, promised a call back later today, it’s currently 3:30 and I’m not holding my breath.

So a total of about six hours on the phone and still no solution to a simple problem.

I also twittered randomly while waiting on the phone, here’s a transcript because I know if you’ve read this far you love pain (in reverse date order, oldest last):

  • 1hr 30mins and I may have a solution, maybe, but the promise that they will call me back today doesn’t inspire confidence #dell
  • 1hr 15mins, finally get on to Customer Care and she can’t find the case the tech support guy says he created
  • 52mins #dell
  • @justinitsuj I think I know the script better then they do now.
  • On hold for 10 minutes, he’s gone off to get a coffee and forgotten about me (I was going to say CURRY, but that’s racial profiling), right?
  • @justinitsuj luckily I haven’t got anything of value on there, they already had me install Vista again, clean install, problem still there
  • Install video drives again, install wallpaper (huh?!), re-flash BIOS, here we go…
  • 30 minutes and counting and I’m about where I have been with every other tech support drone, no progress.
  • Back on the phone with #Dell, one of this clowns diagnostic steps is to install the specific studio wallpaper, all I have to say is WTF
  • "Our customer care representatives are all busy at the moment, I will have one call you back by the end of today" – yeah, right.
  • Person number five just hung up on me, I hardly said anything apart from that innocent comment about her mother!
  • Stop putting me through to tech support when my issue is NOT technical, sheesh. #dell
  • Shoot me now.
  • At least their on hold music doesn’t suck too much, if "doesn’t suck" means Kenny G, ugh.
  • Gave up after being on hold to nowhere for 5 minutes, trying again, ho hum.
  • not=now, still on hold with gawd knows who…I think I’ll just ask for a refund and save myself the next 3 hours on the phone
  • Oh great, he put me through to someone else and they are not putting me through to someone else…the journey continues.
  • I think I’ve been hung up on, we were
    getting on so well too! Oh wait, there he is…..aaaand, I’m on hold again……
  • (Zeus is not the -fake- name of the guy on the other end of the phone)
  • On phone to Dell tech support, Zeus help me!

I had always recommended Dell on the basis of the apparent value for money and support. This experience hasn’t been terrible enough to make me stop telling people to buy Dell rather than offer to build them a PC, because I’d rather open that can of works again but I will be less enthusiastic in the future and will provide a caveat that Dell are great if you don’t have any issues or don’t mind talking to a phone operator with more training on how to speak with an American accent than on how to actually deal with a technical issue other than reading from a script.

This may seem like a long whinge over something insignificant but the bottom line is it took way too long to get the technical issue to a point where they would admit an obvious fault (and organise a repair) and I also did not get the item I ordered, the process to sort that out is looking to be just as long if not longer than the technical issue resolution.

We’ll see, will report results.

Playing 1080p MKV’s on Windows 7

I recently joined ultrageekdom and built a HTPC to replace my aging XBOX and negate the need to run TVersity and even manually convert non-XBOX360 content (i.e. you know, Debian ISO’s….) to be playable via the 360 (i.e. WMV).

Since I built the HTPC it’s been fine (apart from a few niggles, I still need to configure the harmony remote properly) but I haven’t been able to play back any 1080p content smoothly. I’ve been blaming a combination of the hardware (the hippie green low power CPU 5050e) and motherboard (Asus M3N78-EM) and Windows 7 for not being optimised yet, which is partially true. The other issues is that I’m using XBMC to play back which is an amazing media center but notoriously doesn’t use external codecs for playback, which is great if everything works out of the box but shitty if it doesn’t.

Anyway, I found the solution to my problem via the Media Center community forums  with this:

http://shark007.net/win7codecs.html

and the 64 bit components if you’re running Windows 7 64bit:

http://shark007.net/x64components.html

Go through the config screens on both and fiddle the settings as appropriate, and viola! smooth as silk play back in Windows Media Player (haven’t tested VLC yet but I assume it should work the same). Apparently CoreAVC would also have solved the problem but it’s not free, and free is good.

However this doesn’t solve the problem of XBMC not playing smoothly because as mention it doesn’t use external codecs, so…now I just need to do the following:

http://xbmc.org/forum/showthread.php?t=43511&highlight=external+player

to set up WMP as an external player within XBMC and it’s done, not that it was really a big issue since even on a 100” screen sitting 4m away I can’t tell the visible difference between 720p and 1080p, but it was the principle of the thing.

 

XBMC Mutiplex View

GEEK ALERT: Installing Windows Home Server

server

Having just installed WHS for the first time over the weekend I figured I would share some thoughts. Beware, technical content.

My main reason for using WHS was the stupidly large collection of external and internal hard drives of varying sizes which were getting hard to manage using XP in a drive-by-drive basis. I literally ran out of drive letters after mapping various drives from other PC’s on the network. WHS lets me consolidate them all in to a single pool of storage and makes adding and removing drives from that pool easy as pie. 

My secondary requirement (and this will make some readers cringe) was the ability to run the WHS server as a second utility PC, for iTunes, playing video, music, uTorrent MSN Messenger, burning CD/DVD’s and other tasks previously taken care of by the same hardware running XP. Yes, I know you’re _supposed_ to run WHS headless but I’m currently treating it like I did the XP install, complete with dual monitors and fancy wallpaper, take that!

After some initial apprehension about whether WHS could handle being used as a regular desktop install, the only real workaround I had to do during install/config was download the msi install for Live Messenger (8.5) because it didn’t want to install from the .exe. I haven’t managed to get the newest version of Live Messenger running yet but I’m working on it.

The bottom line for installing and running apps on the desktop is that anything which will run on Windows Sever 2003 will run on WHS, this also applies to drivers for your hardware. I didn’t have a problem getting all the drivers running on a five year old socket 754 motherboard (Asus K8V SE Deluxe). I even managed to get my bluetooth keyboard/mouse and Logitech Z-10 speakers and LCD screen to work as they did in XP (using the XP drivers in compatibility mode).

As far as I understand it the Raid-lite system is really just a striped set with the addition of optional mirroring for nominated shares, all handled by the software and configured by the very easy to use console. There’s no limit to how much data you can set as redundant other than the amount of disk space you have (i.e. you need the same amount of free space as you are setting to be redundant, obviously).

I’m still not 100% sure what happens if a drive in the non-redundant pool dies suddenly but I’m assuming anything which was balance to that drive will be lost forever, but that’s really no different to my old system of individual hard drives and there’s the advantage that (hopefully) WHS will warn me ahead of time if a drive is going to die so I can remove it from the storage pool and the files on it will rebalance to the other drives before the target died (hopefully). Some automatic settings to make this happen without intervention would be nice.

From what I’ve read the system uses the boot drive as a scratch area while it balances to the bigger your install drive the better, so yes, use your 1.5Tb drive as the primary boot drive (I wish I’d known this BEFORE I installed mine on a 320Gb).

I promise, once I get another "utility" PC organised I’ll put my WHS server in a closet and stop using my WHS install as a desktop, maybe.

Final note, there is a site entirely dedicated to users of WHS with lots of great hints and tips and a pretty active forum, http://www.wegotserved.com/.

EDIT: The WHS console supports add-ins for supliment or add new features to the server, some useful ones I have found in my travels are:

  • Duplication Info – Gives you information on which files are duplicated where over your various hard drives, unfortunately doesn’t give you any control over where the files actually go.
  • uTorrent – Allows you to manage torrents from any PC on your network using the WHS console.
  • Windows Home Server Disk Management – Designed for users who need more detail about their server’s storage status than what the standard Windows Home Server Storage interface provides, with 3D wire-map diagrams!
  • My Movies – Metadata management for media files stores on the server.
  • WHS Task Viewer – Remotely monitor and manipulate tasks on the server.
  • Samsung Photo Frame Controller – A little specific but I have one of these frames running at home and this add-in lets you manage it from the console.
  • WHS DB Check – Checks for problems with the WHS backup database
  • Remote Notification – Send System Health notification emails from the server

Here’s a full list of add-ins or here, and a page of the most popular add-ins.

Windows Live Messenger and default browser

The new version of Windows Live Messenger has one great feature which made it worth upgrading to. That feature is the ability to stay logged on with multiple PC’s at the same time and have the messages delivered to all of them, this saves the inevitable problem of people sending you messages to a machine you’re not actually logged in to.

Unfortunately, the new version also had a deal breaker “feature” also, being that when you used the inbox button/popup menu it would load hotmail in your default browser where previously it would load it in IE no matter what your default browser was and because I use Opera as my primary browser and hotmail hates Opera, this annoyed me a lot…until….

Changing Windows Live Messenger 2009’s Hotmail button to use Internet Explorer instead of the default browser

Jonathan Kay wrote a little app which fixes this issue, load it up, press a button and your default browser is ignored in favour of IE for the inbox link only (so following links within messages still go to your default browser), it’s simply genius!

Now if only Microsoft would update the Messenger client on the XBOX 360 so it didn’t kick off ALL my other messenger sessions whenever I turned my XBOX on.

It’s back, www.royalla.net, for reals!

So after a couple of years and some half-arsed attempts to get the royalla.net domain back from some filthy squatters they finally gave up and let it go without so much as a “sorry about that”. Arseholes. OK, so I offered them $1 for it, once, they weren’t keen. I think my exact words at that time where, “fine, I’ll just wait until you realise it’s not even worth $1 and get sick of paying the yearly renewal”, it seems I won, ha!

The other good news is that apart from some widget stuff on the right side (work in progress) and the missing gallery, I have finished moving the site to the new server and everything seems to be working with special thanks to Velvet Blue’s Update URL plug-in which saved me messing with the database or manually relinking 400 images, yay for me!

So, update your bookmarks and rss feeds to http://www.royalla.net, again!