1. PS4 or “Oh, Sony”

    Recently I decided that a games and technology writer could forestall a next (current) generation console purchase for only so long. When the PS4 and Xbox One were announced, there were very few good reasons to buy one other than being an early adopter. Usually that would have been enough, but in this case I had other things to spend the money on. Short version: I waited. My theory was that I’d buy the system I felt best suited my needs when there was a game that I wanted to play on that system and only that system. So for nearly a year, I played PC exclusives and ports or various iOS games. I oscillated between tossing my rule away for the sake of relative console simplicity and swearing off consoles in general. Then the Destiny beta hit.

    Suddenly I had the game I’d been waiting for. Now, I wasn’t able to play the beta, but through my various channels, I had the information I needed to know that this was the game that would sell me a PS4. I have no intention of explaining my choice of system any more than I simply felt that it was the better choice for a machine whose primary purpose would be to play games. I have an Apple TV which I prefer for Netflix and the like, and though the PS4 will see a great deal of use as a Blu-Ray player, the PS3 I had for years (before it died) served this purpose quite well. Better, in fact, than the dedicated Blu-Ray player we used in the PS3’s absence.

    With that out of the way, I’d like to give some impressions of this step into the new console generation.

    Hardware

    The unit itself is attractive, if a little angular, but still has the shiny Sony-black plastic that will scratch easily. I tried a microfiber cloth to clear away dust, and sure enough, there are hairline scratches on the shiny portions.

    The power and eject buttons made for an amusing story. When I plugged in the system, I was unable to find them. Not just for a moment, but unable at all. I had already put the box away (Seriously, who needs a manual?) and finally had to retrieve it in order to find the buttons. Now don’t go judging my eyesight, as mine is quite clear. The labels are just too small and the buttons themselves too much an invisible part of the design. But, once you’ve found them, it’s not like you’ll forget where they are. I just felt like an old man, hunting for the power button (or switch) and literally being left with no other option than to give up and look in the manual.

    To be honest, I was a little disappointed in the audibility of the PS4’s cooling system, even when the device is in a low usage state. Standby mode is silent, but the system is essentially asleep and only able to do low-level tasks. There is no operational state that has the fans at zero. However, the sound that you can hear, whether it’s at low fan RPM or high, is as pleasant as any cooling system I’ve heard on a console or Mac. I’m sure there’s some incredibly expensive or technical PC upgrade that could eliminate more sound, but that is beyond my scope. The best fans I’ve heard in a device like this are Apple’s, which use variable blade angles to achieve a more uniform if not outright quieter sound. The PS4 is somewhere in the ballpark, and far more tolerable than its predecessor or the unacceptable levels of the Xbox 360.

    Controller

    I’ll make this section simple. The PS4 controller is better in every conceivable measure than the PS3 controller except battery life (and that’s only in comparison to the SIXAXIS that I had on PS3 which had no rumble feature). The analog sticks have better range of motion (though they stubbornly retain the mildly uncomfortable legacy position below the buttons and d-pad) and a better designed surface texture. The trackpad is an odd choice, though it serves a purpose and works great as a catch-all button that is so comically large that you’ll never miss it. The triggers are worlds better than on PS3, and the “horns” curve in a more natural way.

    The Xbox 360 controller is still superior in my experience, but not by much.

    UI

    Oh good grief. If you’re a Mac or iOS (or even stock Android or Windows Phone) user, the UI could very well give you fits. It seems as if Sony wanted to stick with the XMB system from PS3 but also knew that said system was kind of a mess. Unfortunately, they took that system and made it even more complex, with multiple bars, each with their own lists, and fullscreen sliding panels that take the user layers deep into the system with no obvious way to back out other than going one level at a time.

    The store, which should be simple and clear, is anything but. I had to search through several layers of store (all of which claimed to be a top level layer) in order to find a complete list of games offered that I could sort in the expected ways (price, release date, etc.). I can only assume Sony had done this in order to make the store look more “full” than it actually is.

    On top of that, when activating a game’s section of the UI, there are multiple options within the game. Say for instance, that I have The Last of Us: Remastered in the drive. The disc appears in what I think of as the Content media bar. If I choose the game, I can start it right from the bar or go into the game’s Page. There, I can see options for extra content, news stories, trophies, and so on. You know what I can also see? That I am able to buy the game for $49.99. And the game is already in the drive! Why would this still show? Even if I was, let’s say, borrowing or renting the game. I wouldn’t want the option to buy to be displayed while the game was in the machine, I’d want to see that option when I didn’t have the disc anymore. It’s small details like this that make the overall UI seem ill-considered and unfinished.

    There are two universally great improvements in the system software (well, both of them require the new hardware, but whatever). First is the Options button on the controller. No matter where you are in the UI, this button does what it says on the tin. It opens options for the game. Though Start was almost always the indicator for this function in the past, the system UI often had the triangle button covering a similar area. Now, Options gets you options. It seems straightforward and obvious, which is why it is a great change.

    The second unquestionable improvement is Standby mode updates. With the number of Playstation and PSN updates that I used to see on PS3, the purpose of a console (sit down, turn it on, play a game) was nearly ruined. With PS4, that problem is almost entirely gone. Now, if I want to play a game on my gaming system (go figure) I just sit down, put in the disc (if I even need to do that), and play. Just as it should be.

    Conclusions

    It would be easy to look at this review and see it as an attack on the PS4 console gaming experience. If you’re reading it that way, take this into account: I have pretty high technology standards. And even with those standards, I think the PS4 is the best all-around modern gaming experience. Of all the possibilities, the PS4 is the device that seems most attuned to “I’d like to sit on the couch and play a game.” Yes, I could get better graphics performance (and infinitely more configuration headaches) from a custom PC. And yes, I could get a more immediate “I want to play, and now I’m playing,” experience from a tablet or smartphone (though the GPU’s and general scope of games tend to be much smaller there, and the prevalence of free-to-play makes most games a crapshoot). Overall, the PS4 offers more of what I want, despite its sometimes bizarre UI.

     


  2. Recommended - Begin

    The last few days have seen quite a few posts unrelated to tech. When you’re publishing a book, that tends to happen. But, as it turns out, one of the tools I’ve been using during that process needs and deserves to be recognized.

    About a month ago, on a recommendation from Ben Brooks and at a sale price, I picked up Begin. Now, I have todo apps—probably too many of them. There are apps that work great for location-based reminders, apps that I downloaded years ago that have long since languished, Apple’s own reminders app, brilliantly designed list apps that just aren’t for me, and on and on. So why start with Begin?

    Number one is always the same: I like exploring new designs and writing about them. Number two is that I was deep in the publication process, a project that could benefit from its own set of reminders and todos, so I went for it.

    I already had a makeshift list in Scrivener. I just needed to port it over, and I was ready to go. Here’s how the experiment has worked out.

    Begin is great for specific, day-to-day todos. There’s one list. It has fields for today and tomorrow (and an uncompleted section hiding below the main screen). You can complete, delay until tomorrow, restore uncompleted items, and delete. And that’s pretty much it. It’s incredibly simple. And there, Begin shines. I needed a running list that I would address every day and throughout the day, for just one project. For that, Begin is almost perfect.

    Some apps deal with priorities on todo items, Begin’s way of managing that is by filing it in Today or Tomorrow and then allowing the user to drag and drop the order. There are no heat maps, no tiers to worry about, and no due date/times.

    Now, on the subject of due times, Begin again excels. The app provides a daily reminder system which sends a push notification at the same, user-defined time. If it is your preference, you can set a “last chance” notification for the app, upping the forced interruptions to a whopping two. I love this feature. For my ordinary reminders, such a system would be terrible. In fact, almost the entire point of regular reminders, for me, is to be notified at specific times throughout the day that I should be doing something that I was likely to forget.

    Begin sees its list (rightly) in a different way. There are things that need doing today, and you’ll be reminded of those at the start of your day (or your decided time). From there, it’s your responsibility to return to the app and check those items off as the day goes on. If you so choose, you get the second reminder before you leave the office or after lunch (or again, whatever time you predetermine).

    It’s refreshing to see an app that works hard to control the amount of times it interrupts the user throughout the day. And for an app that is strongest when users are focusing on a single project, the lack of buzzing distractions will hopefully keep users on task more often and for longer periods. I know it has for me.

    You can download Begin for yourself on the App Store. It’s free with a $0.99 in-app purchase (each) for extended features and bonus themes.

     


  3. Recommended - Overcast

    Much has been said already about Overcast, the new podcast player app from Marco Arment. Out of the gate, I’ll tell you this: I like the apps Marco makes. They tend to solve problems in a way that fits with my mental model, in a style that aligns with my sensibilities. Overcast is much the same in this regard. Additionally I’ve seen comments from people about the release cycle or release machine of big name independent developers like Marco. If this review makes me a cog in the machine, so be it. Think Critical exists as an outlet for me to share the things I like, dislike, find interesting, and think that others will find interesting. If you don’t, my apologies. I call it like I see it.

    First things first. If you listen to podcasts, go download Overcast and give it a try. There’s very little reason not to considering the app is free for its basic functionality—including quick trials of the headline audio features. If nothing else, it will help you to better see the design choices you like best in your personal favorite podcast app.

    Since I have already addressed the app’s pricing, that leaves just three specific design points I’d like to discuss.

    First Run Experience

    When you fire up Overcast for the first time, you’re treated to a smooth and personal setup process that is the second reason I recommend downloading it right now. Not only does it cost nothing but time, getting started with shows and subscriptions in the app is as seamless as I can imagine it being. Right of the bat, you set up an Overcast account, complete with the Skeptics FAQ which I found particularly entertaining. It’s a lighthearted take on the heavy privacy language that software so often presents to users. You can see the dense language if you prefer, but I for one was happy to see a realistically readable version.

    After signup the import process impresses. You get a list of possible podcast players that you might be using, then specific instructions for exporting (for me it was two taps) and you’re off with Overcast. All the imported shows show up, though as far as I can tell, the state of specific episodes (half-played shows start from the beginning) is not preserved.

    Once your subscriptions are imported, the main show and playlist selection screen appears. This is probably the most foreign screen for me as an Instacast user. The mix of text-only playlists and the all shows list with its thumbnails makes the screen seem a bit unfinished. It makes sense to have ended up with this look, but there’s still something about the playlist section that feels hollow.

    From there, most users are likely to end up in the playback screen.

    Playback

    So much of Overcast is (apparently) designed for use in the car. Almost all of my podcast listening happens in the car, and though I avoid using the phone (especially for any kind of messaging), features like play, pause, and skip ahead are welcome in Overcast where buttons are larger, better spaced from other controls, and kept to a minimum number. Some podcast apps fill the playback screen with myriad controls and options, horrible for in-car use. Overcast keeps it simple and clear. For that alone, I’ll be keeping it as my default app.

    Part and parcel of playback are Overcast’s headline features: Smart Speed and Voice Boost. The latter of these excels, again, in the car. Voices are clearer, more present, and more consistent than with the standard sound settings (or even with the spoken word EQ in the iOS settings). The former feature, Smart Speed, is a bit more controversial. Up until Overcast I rarely listened to podcasts with any playback speed modification. Voices sounded rushed, with unpleasing artifacts and an unnatural cadence. Only in the greatest of need did I use these features (though often with my own shows, where I mostly needed to listen for content concerns). With Overcast’s Smart Speed, I’ve tried to listen with the option both on and off, and I honestly prefer all of my favorite shows with Smart Speed on. It’s not that the shows play faster (though they do), they sound better. The feature tightens up dead time, but not by simply cutting it out, which is one reason that the stock speed options for podcasts sound so awful. Smart Speed shortens pauses, but takes into account that negative space is important in conversation. Personally, I’d love a podcast editing app that used the Smart Speed feature as a starting point, a sort of “Magic Edit” to highlight areas ripe for trimming and with suggested trim amounts (but I digress). Unless you’re an absolute purist, Smart Speed is great.

    Typography

    Overcast’s typography is clear while still retaining that Marco Arment personality. Generally it reminds me more of the choices in The Magazine than in Instapaper. The secondary heading used for dates on the main screen seems oddly angular and stilted, with letter spacing that sometimes makes it difficult to read. The primary heading used in show titles is clear and legibile, pleasant to read and quick to recognize. It’s likely that these are the same font, but that the uppercased and differently spaced dates gives them a contrasting feel.

    Overall, this is an excellent 1.0. I’ve noticed some bugs with playlist building (mysteriously vanishing items mostly) and organization, but when it comes to clarity and personality, I’ve yet to see a podcast app that balances the two quite like Overcast. And, more importably for me, it seems to be an app designed with my use cases in mind: mostly listening in the car, appreciative of sound quality and content, but not militant about applying tasteful effects. I’m very interested to see where things go from here. You might be, too. Try it for yourself.

     


  4. Guy English, a guy with some actual game industry experience, on Apple’s new graphics API:

    Metal and the investment Apple’s made in its development and support shows that the company’s now taking gaming very seriously, indeed.

    I hope he’s right. It’s no secret that I’ve been a big supporter of iOS gaming since the beginning. And while casual gaming is great, and keeps iOS in the gaming picture, the more traditionally graphics-intensive titles are what Metal is going to boost the most.

    One of my favorites, Republique, runs on Unity, so I’m hoping for some Metal magic in upcoming episodes. A guy can hope, can’t he?

     


  5. On this week’s Critically Speaking podcast: When does marketing become sheer deception? It’s one thing to manipulate the audience in benign ways, getting them excited for a product that the creators are equally or more so excited about. It’s entirely something else when he marketing dictates what will be included in a game or when a game must be shown in order to generate revenue.

    Check it out on ShoutEngine or subscribe in iTunes.