New and Notable – 25th June 2010

Some of the things that I’ve found interesting over the last few days…

Windows Live Essentials “Wave 4” beta is out

Some major improvements that I like here. Windows Live Messenger has tabbed conversations, so you don’t need a different window open for each person you’re chatting with. Windows Live Photo Gallery has a neat facial recognition feature, so you can tag a person in a photo and it’ll try to find other instances of that person across your photo collection, and the marvellous Photo Fuse feature (formerly Group Shot).

I found a bug in it pretty quickly when I launched Messenger and got a message saying ‘%1 wants to be friends.’ I checked on the site and of course it wasn’t somebody called %1, it was someone with a proper name, who had left a message saying ” Hi, I’m [a different name again!] and I have some sexy undies to show you if you visit my site at…” Spammers; meh.

I was quick to turn off the “underline a word if I can add content about it from the web” feature in Messenger. Oh, and one quick tip – if you don’t need the whole suite (like the Family Safety feature or Bing Bar), make sure you hit the “Choose the programs you want” link, rather than “Download now”, which gives you the lot.

Windows Live Essentials may not be totally essential to everyone, but I recommend it and would suggest you download the beta.

You don’t hold it; it holds you!

So the iPhone 4 is out. Demand it high, stock was short, queues were long. I had a chance to see what it felt like in the hand and was suitable impressed with the very, very lovely screen. It’s a really nice device and anyone who says otherwise is wrong.

Of course I intentionally held it in my left hand with my palm bridging the two metal strips in the bottom left and I saw what lots of people are up in arms about. It really does drop reception to practically nothing. Apple have acknowledged the issue, with Steve Jobs himself saying “Just avoid holding it that way.” Well that’s one answer, but it’s quite a rubbish one since the whole reason to put the antenna strips on the outside was to improve reception, and that’s a fairly natural way to hold the phone.

Now whether this is a mistake, or the reason for Apple selling iPhone 4 Bumpers (glorified rubber bands), I don’t know. It seems there are also mutterings of similar issues on older iPhones that have been updated to iOS4, when I’d say it’s fairly obvious that the iPhone 4 issue is the design and not the software. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Personally I think it’s a shame to have to cover up such a pretty device, but I’m also big into function over form too, and you probably want to protect your investment as well as your reception, so you’d best start looking for an iPhone 4 case – there are plenty to choose from.

Kinect pricing and Xbox Live Family pack

The price of Kinect for Xbox 360 was one of the things that was really missing from Microsoft’s E3 press conference. Several online retailers were listing it at $150 dollars, but nothing was official. Then Microsoft’s own online store listed Kinect for $149.99, which left everyone assuming that is indeed the price. I don’t think that’s necessarily a given, but there’s a good chance.

That is higher than I would’ve liked to see, but if you think about it – you only need one Kinect for multiplayer games, whereas if you wanted motion controlled multiplayer action on the PS3 or Wii, you’re potentially going to be buying a bunch of wand and navigation type controllers and those mount up. I have to say that if it is going to be $150, and especially if it’s going to be converted to £150 in the UK (which wouldn’t be a surprise), I’d like to see a game pack-in. I would also like a lottery win. I’m not sure which is less likely.

If you were wondering, like I was, what’s going to happen when your Kinect recognises your face and signs you in to your Xbox Live account, and you’re playing an online game, but only one of you has a Gold account and the others are Silver, then wonder no more! Microsoft are releasing the Xbox LIVE Gold Family Pack in conjunction with Kinect’s release in November. US pricing is $99 per year – the price of two Gold annual subscriptions – which give you four users.

Sounds like they’ve done some sensible stuff in terms of the primary user being able to do things like dish out Microsoft Points to the other accounts for them to buy content. The only question I have is how that ties in to my existing Gold account, which, for a variety of reasons, is paid up until January 2012!

The other interesting Kinect news is that (unsurprisingly) it’s going to be appearing in use with devices other than the Xbox 360. I want to control my PC by waving my hands at it.

SE help you find and share Android apps

The Android Market for apps is woeful. It may be getting better in newer versions, but there’s still no getting around the fact that it’s sadly lacking. It’s not surprising that 3rd parties are making the effort to help people discover Android apps.

Sony Ericsson are the latest to do this with their site. People create collections of apps (mash-ups, mash-apps – you see what they’ve done there?), which can be shared and searched.

Personally, I use AppAware on my phone, which is good for showing what’s hot and what’s not, but Mash-App may be useful too – it’ll depend on the user base. One to watch anyway.

And there’s more…

You can hear me chatting about some of these stories and more with Andy and Ben in NEBytes Bytecast episode 3, which will appear at in the next day or so.

My Post-E3 Game Shopping List

Around this time each year, after I’ve had a bit of a chance to digest the announcements from E3, watch all the trailers and play all the demos, I like to check out the release calendar and work out how much money I need to set aside to satisfy my need to play the latest and greatest video games, even though I haven’t got enough time to do any of them justice.

First up, let me just say that if you’re excited to hear my recommendations for PS3 and Wii games, I’m sorry, but as much as I think Gran Tourismo 5 looks fantastic, I’m not about to buy a PS3 to play it and I’m seriously considering trading in the Wii despite the fact that I’d love to play Epic Mickey. I’m just too heavily invested in the Xbox 360 to worry about the other two platforms at this point, and I like the controller and online service better too.

So, I have two lists. One containing games to buy, and the other containing games to rent. When I say rent, it’s not just a couple of evenings from Blockbuster – I use LOVEFiLM and it’s not uncommon for me to keep hold of a rented game for a few months (it’s still a lot cheaper than buying!). It’s entirely possible that I’ll move things between these lists ahead of their release and I may not buy them as soon as they come out anyway. That said, here are the lists…

To Buy

Crackdown 2

This was originally on my rental list until I downloaded the demo from Xbox Live and it reminded me just how much I enjoyed playing the original Crackdown – then it moved right to the top of my most wanted list (which is nice because it’s also the first release out of all of these titles). The whole crime fighting agent with super powers thing just does it for me, and now they’ve added zombies! I love the challenge of collecting all of the agility orbs and trying to max out all the abilities. It has a good sense of humour too.

One thing that I like about this, which is common in Xbox Live Arcade titles, but I can’t recall seeing it in a full retail game, is that the demo allows you to earn achievements and gamerscore, which will be added to your Xbox Live account when you play the full game later. This video from Sanctuary4gamers shows those demo achievements (you could argue that it contains spoilers and content that is NSFW, so don’t play it if you don’t like those sorts of things, but I think it gives a good impression of the game)…

Test Drive Unlimited 2

I really enjoyed the first Test Drive Unlimited game, which introduced the term Massively Open Online Racing (M.O.O.R.) – a fairly good way to describe the way you could drive round a whole Hawaiian island, and flash your lights at an random online player you came across in order to challenge them to a race. This time they’ve added another island, Ibiza, which looks amazing. I’m hoping to get beta access to this one.

Call of Duty: Black Ops

Call of Duty 2 was the game that originally sold most of my former Playstation 2 owning friends on the Xbox 360 and Xbox Live, and today Modern Warfare 2 is the most played game in the house (not by me – I prefer Battlefield: Bad Company 2 myself, but that’s beside the point). I know this is by Treyarch and not Infinity Ward, but I think they really started to get it right with World at War, so I’m going to go with them on this one. And besides, check this out…

NBA 2K11

I usually pick up both of the big NBA titles, but the 2K Sports version is usually the one that I play the longest. NBA 2K10’s My Player mode was great fun (although my save game file got corrupted and I lost a lot of player development time) and I can’t wait to see how they’ve improved it in the new version. Plus “His Airness” is on the cover (although that’s not to take anything away from Kevin Durrant on the cover of EA’s game – he deserved that after the season he’s just played for the Thunder).

Medal of Honor

While I’ve had fun with the Call of Duty and Battlefield games over recent years, back in the day I played a crap-ton of Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, so I was glad to see EA bring the series back this year and bang up to date with an Afghan setting. Looks ace.

Kinect for Xbox 360

Not a game, but Microsoft’s new motion tracking camera and voice control system is on my list to buy. Depending on the titles that are available when it launches in November I may wait until after Christmas, but I know at least one person in the house who is keen to play Harmonx’s Dance Central, so that may be on this list too. I’ll be keeping an eye on the reviews of Kinect Adventures and Sports and the others.

To Rent

Gears of War 3 – I want to play through the story mode, but I doubt I’ll do much with the multiplayer.

Fallout: New Vegas – Need to see more details on this, but it looks pretty sweet. I’ll try it out with a rental first.

Tiger Woods PGA Tour 11 – Who doesn’t love a nice relaxing game of golf? Annual updates to Tiger don’t really justify a purchase for me since I play it very casually.

Toy Story 3 – I just love me some Toy Story, so I’ll rent this for a play through.

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II – The first Force Unleashed was a pretty good approximation to what I’d want from a Jedi game. The sequel looks good. Don’t think there’s any multiplayer though and that’s one of my main requirements for a purchase.

Dead Rising 2 – The original was a lot of fun, but in my mind this is competing with Crackdown 2 and Crackdown wins.

Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood – I found the first AC to be far too repetitive, but AC2 was awesome (and so big that I’m still playing it). This may be a long-term rental, or a pre-owned purchase.

Max Payne 3 – I wish I could have the original Max Payne over again with updated graphics. Can’t have that, so this will be played through.

Homefront – Near-future USA has been invaded by North Korea. Fight them off. Sounds like fun. Too much competition in this genre though.

NBA Elite 11 – A reboot for the NBA Live series with a brand new control scheme. Got to give it a shot really, haven’t I?

Next Year

I’m just going to say one thing about 2011 game releases:

Portal 2

The Cultural Thing

For the last couple of months, I’ve been doing a segment on a local community radio arts/cultural show called The Cultural Thing covering podcasts. I’ve been listening to a fair variety of podcasts for a few years, but this show is taking me into some uncharted territory.

This month I highlighted a number of World Cup podcasts and, for those not interested in the football, talked about – a site that offers free audiobooks in podcast form. The segment is only a few minutes long, so please have a listen and give me some feedback.

If you have any suggestions for podcast categories that you’d like to hear me cover in the future, please let me know in the comments. I’d especially love to hear from any podcasters who would like their show highlighted.

p.s. The first segment, which is an introduction to podcasts in general and covers what I’m listening to, isn’t online at the moment, but I’ll provide an update when it is.

NEBytes Event this Wednesday – Exchange 2010 and WCF Data Services

This Wednesday, 16th June, the 7th North East Bytes meeting of the year has NEBytes co-founder Ben Lee talking about Exchange 2010 and Iain Angus of Black Marble covering WCF Data Services. Here are the full details…

“WCF Data Services” with Iain Angus
WCF Data Services is a framework for exposing data layers in a REST-ful manner. This session will look at how WCF, REST and LINQ come together to form Microsoft’s latest data access technology. Topics covered include implementing and consuming data services, why IQueryable and IUpdatable are important, service operations / interceptors and concurrency.

“Exchange 2010, Product Overview And Example Architectures” with Ben Lee
Exchange 2010 is the latest generation of Microsoft’s enterprise messaging suite. This session will provide an overview of the platform, focusing on the architecture changes including the simplified storage topology, resiliency options as well as the improvements to the end users. If you didn’t know what a DAG was before the session, you certainly will by the end!

This free event is hosted at Newcastle University from 18:30 to 21:30 and if you’d like to come along, please register at Eventbrite.

New and Notable – 13th June 2010

I’m not planning to do this on a schedule (the last time was on the 18th May), but what I do plan to do is batch up interesting bits of news and things that I’ve found and do a roundup post. There’s been a lot of news in the last week with Microsoft and Apple both hosting big conferences, so these are a few things and links that you might find interesting from TechEd North America and WWDC and the week before, and my views on them…

Office Web Apps go live on Skydrive

You can now sign in to with your Live ID and upload/create/edit Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote files. This has instantly made me a former user of Google Docs and Evernote. The biggest win in my mind here is OneNote, where you can create a notebook in the cloud, add/edit note in your browser and open the notebook from the full OneNote client on any number of PCs where it will sync up for you. I’d been using Evernote to do that, but OneNote is just a better app, and you can share your online notebook with others and collaborate. The same is true of Excel spreadsheets in the web app (although you can’t collaborate on those via the desktop application yet).

Editing capabilities are limited in the Office Web Apps, but they’re still, in my opinion, better than the Google equivalents. Whether you wo with the Office Web Apps, or stick with Google Docs, the battle for this space has been joined, and that can only be a good thing.

Apple announces iPhone 4

There’s no way you didn’t already know that, right? I was following the WWDC keynote live on and thinking “this is a device I would like to own”, although that often happens with Apple keynotes and it isn’t until the days and weeks afterwards that you hear the flip-side of the story. It’s fair to say though that this launch didn’t go as planned, with attendees flooding the room with wifi and creating enough interference to cause an embarrassing failure of Steve Jobs’ demos:

Anyone who has ever done a live demo of anything has probably suffered a demo failure similar to this, so Steve has my sympathy.

As well as the new phone, which Gizmodo had famously reported on (but failed to actually work out the highlights of the new hardware, like the lovely high definition screen), the operating system gained a new name, iOS, which was a name previously owned by Citrix (along with iPhone as it happens).

There were some other good announcements, like PDF support in iBooks, the availability of Safari 5, Bing as an optional search provider in iOS and Safari 5, and of course reference to the fact that 2 million iPads were sold in the first 60 days. MacOS was conspicuous by its absence.

Apple had other cause to celebrate this as their market cap surpassed Microsoft’s at the end of May. I wonder if that now makes them the evil empire?

Microsoft TechEd North America in New Orleans

Microsoft’s keynote at TechEd, mostly presented by Bob Muglia, wasn’t without its own share of the demo gremlins. During a demo of the impressive Communications Server “14” (which has been variously called Office Communications Server and Live Communications Server in previous incarnations). When the remote demo-er was annotating a plan of the TechEd venue, the annotations appeared to the audience long before the underlying floor plan. Not a big deal, but I bet it worked perfectly in rehearsals.

Main themes appeared to be: Windows Azure and SQL Azure, Communications Server “14”, Windows Phone 7, Bing updates for devlopers, Service Pack 1 for Windows 7 and Server 2008 R2 (beta available before the end of July), Windows Server AppFabric, Exchange 2010 SP1.

The Exchange 2010 SP1 stuff was probably the most interesting to me, especially the fact that the native archiving feature has been enhanced, so you can store an archive on any mailbox database (rather than just on the same database as the actual mailbox in the RTM version – I don’t need to point out how useless that was, but it was so useless that it’s worth re-iterating!).

365 sessions recorded in New Orleans are now available on-demand.

Communications Server PowerShell blog launches

Tied in to the coverage of the product at TechEd, the Communication Server folks at Microsoft launched a blog specifically to cover the use of PowerShell with the forthcoming version. The support is really extensive, and for those who have used PowerShell with Exchange, it will appear pretty familiar (and that’s a good thing, especially in this case). They’ve sensibly realised that a lot of people may get their first exposure to PowerShell with Communications Server “14” and so they’ve provided not only a reference for CS PowerShell, but also a reference for getting started with PowerShell 2.0. Nice work.

Dell launch into the smartphone market with the Streak

I’ve been looking forward to the Streak device since it was first announced (and referred to as the Dell Mini 5). It’s running Android, which I like a lot, and it’s got a gorgeous big screen, being not just a smartphone, but a 5 inch tablet – lovely for web browsing. I even had one in my posession briefly earlier this week until I learned that the only models available at the moment are locked to O2’s network. It now looks like I’ll have to wait until they’re available direct from later in the month. Until then, I’ll continue hoping for the Android 2.1 update for the HTC Hero!

Google copies Bing

Google surprised and angered a lot of people by putting a full page image on the background of their search page. Personally I didn’t think they did it as nicely as Bing does (the text on top of the image wasn’t as readable; Bing uses slightly opaque text boxes to improve contrast), but they were quick to point out in an update to this blog post that they just made this temporary change for a day to show people that they now have the option to add their own background to the page. Normal service is now resumed.

Review: PowerMobile Advanced Emergency Charger

My friends at have obviously heard my repeated cries of having run out of battery life on my phone, having forgotten to put it on change in the office, and they sent me the PowerMobile Advanced Emergency Charger to review.

Let me start by saying that with the current set of power-hungry smartphones, with no sign of fuel cell or some other technology coming along that will help them last more than a day, this type of product could well save your skin on a regular basis, especially if you own one of those snazzy phones with no removable battery, so no scope to carry a spare. There are a few product in this category, so how does the PowerMobile shape up?

Well, before we discuss the charging capabilities, I’ve got to say that this is a remarkably well designed bit of kit! Let’s break that down in terms of juice and connectivity…

It comes with a pair of 2000mAh AA batteries that fit snugly into the housing (and arrive with a charge ready to go), but that’s not to say you can’t use any normal AA batteries you have lying around if you find yourself in a position when you don’t have them charged. In fact you can also use the device to charge other rechargable AA batteries. I think that probably checks every box on the AA battery charge/discharge matrix, which is really pleasing – you see too many products that have a set of goals and block any use cases outside of that. With this device it’s like they’ve made it as useful as they can in terms of battery usage, so that’s a big plus.

You charge the PowerMobile using its flip-out USB plug, so that does mean that you need a computer of some description, or a mains/USB adapter. It may be that you already have one of those if handset changes over USB (I had a SonyEricsson one gathering dust in a drawer and one that I’d purchased a while back with a variety of worldwide plugs), but if you don’t have one they are pretty cheap if you don’t want to be tied to using the PowerMobile with a computer.

That’s the connectivity in one direction covered, on the other end you should have no complaints at all! You’re getting an retractable cable (good for portability), with a variety of tips (seven to be exact) covering the majority of phones from the biggest manufacturers. However, if your device manufacturer insists on producing a proprietory cable, such as the iPod/iPhone dock connector, you’re still good due to the fact that the PowerMobile gives you a USB socket into which you can just plug the cable that came with your device.

So that’s USB in and USB out. Elegant in its simplicity. If only everything was designed this way. In terms of hardware, that’s basically all there is to say, except for the indicator lights on the top which indicate whether the PowerMobile is charging or discharging its batteries, and when it’s doing neither you can press the button to see how much charge it’s currently holding, on a three LED scale.

All that would be moot if it didn’t breath new life into your flat devices when you need them. I did this multiple times (because my HTC Hero is forever eating its way through its battery at inconvenient times), and the PowerMobile did alright. From an empty battery on the Hero, I could get back up to 50% in about 80 minutes with the phone switched off. Charging with the phone on wasn’t so successful, but that’s because I have it running in “power hungry” mode (simply because I have so many background tasks refreshing over the data connections), so after adding about 30% to the charge the phone would tell me that the power source wasn’t providing enough current to charge the battery (or words to that effect). Is that disappointing? Well, only as much as it’s disappointing that a standard smartphone battery can barely get you through a working day! This is an *emergency* charger after all.

MobileFun are offering the PowerMobile Advanced Emergency Charger for a couple of bits of shrapnel shy of fifteen and a half pounds, so compared to a 2nd battery for your phone (if you have the option), it’s a good deal. Add to that the fact that this device can charge not just your phone, but potentially also a portable media player, portable gaming machine, Bluetooth headset, or anything else that you can think of that charges from USB, and it becomes all the more attractive.