Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Video hands-on: setup and testing of Google Chromecast

The Google Chromecast was only announced on Wednesday, but unlike the new Nexus 7, this product is already reaching consumers. Google does not have a good track record when it comes to the living room — Google TV and the Nexus Q have been failures this far. But maybe this is finally it. The Chromecast could be Google’s living room win.
Setting up the device is pretty straightforward. Plug it into an HDMI port, run the power cable into the back, and switch inputs. You can set up the device from the Chromecast app on Android, or from any web browser. You will need to be on the same local WiFi network as the Chromecast to set it up, and note that a VPN will also interfere.
The app should instantly see a new Chromecast on the network waiting to be configured. You can choose a unique name for each Chromecast, which is helpful if you have more than one in the house. Then you’ve got to input the WiFi password on your device. There is no interface on the Chromecast to interact with, so the app will push the wireless settings over to the device.
Your Chromecast will try to connect to whichever network your phone or tablet is on, but it doesn’t support 5GHz wireless N even though plenty of phones do. The app does not make this clear, so you’ll have to manually change it to the 2.4GHz band on a dual-band router. I’ve seen the connection step fail a few times for no apparent reason, but it always connects eventually.
When you are connected, all compatible apps will display the Chromecast button at the top. This will toggle the app into Chromecast mode, thus sending its media to the TV. Both audio and video are routed to your TV and don’t play on the phone or tablet itself.
At this point, your phone or tablet is simply a remote control. It can be asleep, running a game, or in another room, and the media will continue to play. The content is actually pulled down from the cloud by the Chromecast — not beamed from the device. That results in a slight delay when controlling the Chromecast, but allows your device to be more usable while you’re watching.
Netflix interactions are delayed by about a second when you pause, stop playback, or change the volume. YouTube is a smidgen faster, and Google Play Music is almost instantaneous. Everything that’s supported officially at launch is very stable.
The beta “tab casting” works reliably, but there is still a lot of delay — on the order of two seconds or more. You will actually have to click on things in the Chrome window to make use of this feature, so it’s a little more annoying than the lag in Netflix or YouTube. That said, it works and opens up a ton of possibilities for the Chromecast.
The only bug I’m seeing is showing up on the Nexus 4 (on Android 4.3) after Netflix has been used to access the Chromecast. Putting the phone to sleep for more than a few minutes seems to be causing it to freeze. A hard reboot is the only recourse at that point. I haven’t been able to reproduce this on other devices, so your mileage may vary.
Chromecast is only $35, and it already does more out of the box than the Nexus Q did. The device is sold out at various online retailers, and Google is estimating 3-4 weeks for shipping right now. Whenever you do get a chance to buy a Chromecast, it’s worth trying out.

What to expect from the new Nexus 10

nexus 10
At Google’s breakfast event the other day, a brand new Nexus 7was revealed. But what about the Nexus 10? Surely it’s due for a refresh?
According to Sundar Pichai, it’s coming soon. If Google’s current Android boss says so, you better believe it’s true. So what kind of changes can we expect in the new Nexus 10?
For starters, the processor should be getting a substantial upgrade. The original Nexus 10 runs a dual-core Exynos 5250 clocked at 1.7GHz. It’s an ARM Cortex-A15 chip, and still one of the top 5 chips on Android benchmarks. Samsung’s newer Exynos 54510 Octa, however, performs about 10% better — thanks to the two additional A15 cores it packs.
Certain versions of the Galaxy S4 run a 5410. The Nexus 10, however, might ship with an Exynos 5420. Pichai says the new Nexus 10 is coming soon, and Samsung says that it will start mass production of the 5420 in August. Why not ship it in a high-profile Nexus device right off the bat?
Like the 5410, it’s based on ARM’s big.LITTLE design, which means it crams in four A15 and A7 cores. The A7s kick in when maximum horsepower isn’t required, and should help extend the new Nexus 10′s battery life well beyond the original’s roughly 7.5 hours and bring it more in line with the iPad.
Clock speeds may be bumped slightly, from 1.7GHz to 1.8GHz on the A15 cores and 1.2GHz to 1.3GHz on the A7. The Exynos 5420 may also be able to utilize all 8 cores at once, which should yield impressive results.
The new chip will also include an improved GPU, which should have a much easier time pushing visuals to the Nexus 10′s display. Thethree Mali-T604 cores had some trouble manipulating those 4 million pixels, but it shouldn’t pose a problem for the six Mali-T628 GPU cores inside the Exynos 5420.
Other specs may not change much. 2GB of RAM should still be plenty for a high-end Android tablet, but internal storage could use a bump. 16GB and 32GB isn’t a ton of space anymore, especially when you’re talking about a device that’s perfectly suited to take advantage of Android’s multiple user profile abilities. While it’s hard to imagine Google — who wants you storing everything in the cloud and streaming it to your devices — countering Apple with a 128GB model, 64GB is a possibility.
Like the 2013 Nexus 7, the new Nexus 10 will be thinner ans lighter than the current model. But there’s also one thing you definitelyshouldn’t expect. Don’t count on the new Nexus 10 to ship with a micro SD expansion slot. Some rumors from earlier this year claimed that Samsung was going to sneak one in, but Google has never been keen on Nexus devices packing micro SD. The new Nexus 7 doesn’t have one, so the new Nexus 10 won’t either.

Nexus 7 LTE confirmed for T-Mobile

Nexus 7
We knew that there would be unlocked LTE versions of the Nexus 7 available form Google, but now it looks like there will also be a Nexus 7 on shelves at T-Mobile soon.
Google’s Nexus presentation yielded few surprises when it came to the Nexus 7 and Android 4.3, but the confirmation that the hardware would be hitting shelves soon gave the Mountain View company the opportunity to really show off what this new tablet would be capable of.
The next version of the Nexus 7 is significantly improved over the original when it comes to screen quality, overall size, and of course performance. The Qualcomm S4 Pro chip meant that LTE versions were going to be a given, and the Nexus 7 takes a unique approach with a single device working on three of the major LTE providers in the US. Carrier versions of Nexus hardware is nothing new, and it looks like T-Mobile will join the fold soon.
Nexus 7 T-Mobile
T-Mobile’s internal documentation system is reporting TBD for the release of the Nexus 7 on their network, but are confirming that they will be on shelves soon. LTE and HSPA+ 42 on board means that there’s no shortage of network for the tablet to grab ahold of, and as long as you are in an area with great T-Mobile service your tablet will want for nothing.
This is unlikely to be the only network we see a Nexus 7 pop up on, but for now it looks like T-Mobile shelves will have a new tablet soon.

Kobo Arc 10HD spotted with Tegra 4 and 2560 x 1600 display

Barnes and Noble might have pulled the plug on Android-powered tablets, but its competitors at Kobo appear ready to double down. There appears to be a high-resolution Kobo Arc 10 in the works, and it may feature Nvidia’s new Tegra 4 processor.
Based on data that popped up on a pair of benchmark sites, the Arc 10HD will match the Nexus 10 with a 10-inch, 2560 x 1600 pixel display. The Tegra 4 chip appears to be clocked at 1.8GHz, just like the one in Toshiba’s Excite Pro tablets, which just went on sale.
The benchmark results also peg the Arc 10HD as running Android 4.2.2, which would no doubt sit beneath Kobo’s own custom UI. And since the 7-inch Kobo Arc ships with access to Google Play, it seems like a safe bet that its 10-inch counterpart would, too.
Everything else about the Arc 10HD remains a mystery for now. The sites that captured this premature data weren’t fortunate enough to lock down how much RAM or internal storage the ARC 10HD includes.
At this point, however, there’s a good possibility that Kobo is merelytesting a larger Arc tablet. With specs that are so similar to the new Toshiba Excite Pro’s, Kobo may simply be tinkering with one — or with an Nvidia reference design — to see what a 10-inch version of its tablet might feel like.
Kobo still isn’t a household name when it comes to tablets, however, and right now it’s much easier to sell smaller tablets with proportionally small price tags. Kobo likes to price its products competitively, but it’s difficult to imagine the Arc 10HD selling for less than the $399 Nexus 10. Kobo will think long and hard before kicking off the mass production of something twice as expensive as the Arc.

Chromecast gets rooted, turns out to be more Android than Chrome OS

Google’s surprising little HDMI stick has been causing quite a bit of noise since its surprise announcement last week, and now that users are finally getting hands on time there’s some interesting things going on in the software.
There’s no other way to describe it, Google’s Chromecast is downright impressive. A $35 HDMI stick compatible with Android, iOS, and any traditional PC with the Chrome browser onboard would be a neat trick on its own, but this little stick is capable of streaming Netflix in 1080p using a system that is significantly more efficient than Apple’s Airplay.
The massive wave of early adopters over the weekend has ensured that we’ve only scratched the surface of this little single core Marvell stick. In fact, one group has already claimed root access to the stick, and has issued a call to arms for other developers to step in before Google plugs the hole they found.
The guys at GTV Hacker discovered a flaw in the verification of signed system images and have used that flaw to deploy a root shell on the device. This isn’t useful to the average user yet, and in fact by publishing how the exploit was possible they very well may have started a ticking clock to when Google issues an update to the hardware that fixes this flaw and renders part of their work up to this point useless.
Their hope by announcing so loudly what they have accomplished, is that others in the Android modder/hacker scene will step up and help them turn this root exploit into something useful for users by deploying features that are not currently available through the Google controlled Chromecast experience.
That’s right, the GTV Hacker team is calling on Android enthusiasts instead of Chrome OS enthusiasts. According to their research on the software deployed to the Chromecast, the OS powering this device is not quite the “stripped down Chrome OS” that Google claimed during their presentation. Instead, Chromecast seems to be running stripped down GoogleTV code, which places it squarely in Android territory. Because it is running GoogleTV code, you can’t just sideload an APK and install any app you please, which is why the GTV Hacker team is calling on the community to step up and lend a hand.
Given the limited nature of the hardware, it seems unlikely that anything particularly interesting will come from this exploit. You probably won’t be playing Angry Birds or flashing CyanogenMod to your Chromecast, for example.
While a $35 Chromecast is an interesting thing to have, $35 Android based HDMI sticks are pretty common now. They are never particularly useful, and are almost always not worth the trouble. What makes the Chromecast great is the dead simple UI and an intent to add support for more in the future.

Black Ops II designer receives death threats for altering weapon firing rates

Call of Duty: Black Ops
Gamers can be a passionate bunch, and especially so if they load up the same game each day and expect to play for a few hours. One such game where that is the case is Call of Duty: Black Ops II. Millions of copies have been sold, and untold thousands log on to play the online multiplayer on a regular basis.
On Monday, Treyarch released the latest patch for the game, which mainly tackled a number of issues the game was experiencing. However, a section of tweaks entitled “Multiplayer Game Balancing” has caused outrage. That outrage has been directed at Treyarch design director David Vonderhaar, and it even extends to death threats.
Such threats to him and his family are never going to be acceptable, but in this case they are ridiculous. The tweaks that have upset games are to three weapons in the game:
  • AN-94
  • DSR 50
  • Ballista
Both the DSR and Ballista had their rate of fire slightly reduced, where as the An-94 has had its damage slightly reduced. And by slight I mean really small changes, for example, the DSR fire rate is now 0.4 seconds instead of 0.2 seconds. The rechamber time is 1.1 seconds, up from 1.0 second.
On the one hand, it’s great to have such a passionate community of individuals taking an interest in and playing your games. On the other hand, threats of violence can really make individuals consider if it’s really worth the hassle.
You can bet the majority of individuals (kids?) making these threats are reacting to their favorite weapons being tweaked and effectively made worse. However, Treyarch wouldn’t make the changes unless the weapons had been found to be carrying an unfair advantage.

BioWare artist reveals Mass Effect could’ve been much, much better

Reaper Shep
In the first Mass Effect game, Shepard chases the antagonist Saren around the universe, much in the way Cloud once chased Sephiroth through almost every single in-game location. Saren was corrupted by the Reapers — the overall series’ main antagonist — and Shepard eventually put an end to him and saved the universe for a short while.
The series featured an alignment system, but people who paid attention realized that the games very clearly pushed you toward being a hero rather than a villain. In the various endings for the series, Shepard saved the universe regardless of how evil you tried to be. Canonically, Shepard is a good guy or gal.
However, BioWare designer Matt Rhodes revealed that a very early idea for the Shepard character was to eventually turn to Reaper technology to achieve the game’s goals, but it would slowly corrupt the character like it corrupted Saren. Eventually, Shepard would be confronted by another important in-game character, such as Kaidan or Ashley.
Whether you fall into the camp that thinks Mass Effect is god’s gift to gaming, or you fall into the camp that thinks it was fine but overrated, you can agree with the other side that this idea for the path the game could have taken was great, and we’re all worse off for it having been scrapped. Canonically, Shepard was a stock, run-of-the-mill hero, and this could’ve made the character much more complex.
Mass Effect concept art
Rhodes also disclosed that the team debated whether or not to reveal Tali’s face for a long time. As we all know, her face ended up being revealed if Shepard romanced her, which drew ire from MEfans because it was modeled after a stock photo model rather than being an original creation. While revealing her face was a nice addition for players that were invested enough in Tali to romance her, perhaps BioWare should’ve debated a bit longer in order to avoid modeling her after a stock photo.
After devoting however many hours to the Mass Effect trilogy, it’s a bit annoying to see that the character we spent so much time with could’ve been much more interesting. If we still can’t agree on that, though, I think we can all agree that ReapShep is a better nickname than BroShep and FemShep.
Rhodes posted a bunch of early concept art on his blog, which is well worth checking out if you’re a fan of the series.

New Eternal Darkness trademark and Kickstarter bode well for series

Shadow of the Eternals
Back in May, spiritual successor to Silicon Knights, Precursor Games, launched a Kickstarter campaign to develop a spiritual successor to Eternal DarknessShadow of the Eternals. Unfortunately for fans of the series, the Kickstarter campaign did not meet funding goals. However, Precursor recently relaunched the campaign in hopes of getting funded this time around.
Unrelated to that, news broke that Nintendo recently filed a trademark for Eternal Darkness, which includes language that makes it seem like whatever product it ends up being will involve downloadable distribution. Using the phrases “downloadable electronic game software” and “downloadable electronic game programs,” it would appear that the new trademark will relate to either a new downloadable game, or — more likely — some kind of remake or Virtual Console release.
A trademark for Eternal Darkness was filed back in 2010, while the new one was filed this month, with the difference being the downloadable content language.
The Kickstarter and Nintendo trademark are unrelated, but both show that some important people out there think the series is worth revisiting in various capacities. Though the original GameCube Eternal Darkness was not only released on a console that struggled against its competitors at the time, thus giving the game a limited audience, it still managed to capture the gaming industry. From its interesting sanity meter mechanics, to its time-spanning story wherein you control wildly different characters linked throughout time, modern gaming tech could certainly provide interesting ways to showcase the unique mechanics and story.
Hopefully, the Kickstarter campaign meets its funding goals this time around, Nintendo has something up its sleeve, or both!

PS4 and Xbox One performance compared using AMD PC hardware

Both Microsoft and Sony have unveiled their respective next generation consoles and we’ve got a fairly good idea of what the hardware is capable of. There’s speculation that the PS4has a performance advantage due to its use of a more powerful GPU and faster GDDR5 RAM. But we won’t know if that turns out to be a real-world advantage until both machines are available to purchase.
Eurogamer’s Digital Foundry team has decided they can’t wait to find out, though, and have come up with a best guess test. What they did was to create two PCs using AMD components that best match the internals of the Xbox One and PS4 hardware in terms of the performance difference. Then they loaded up a number of games, but focused in particular on Crysis 3 on both machines to carry out some comparisons.
It’s important to note that Digital Foundry setup the hardware to focus on testing the graphics performance and didn’t want a CPU or memory bottleneck. So they opted to use a Core i7 3770K overclocked to 4.3GHz and 16GB DDR3 RAM running at 1375MHz. As for the GPU, the best equivalent to the Xbox One was found to be the Radeon HD 7850, for the PS4 it’s the Radeon HD 7870 XT, both with 2GB of dedicated RAM and running at 600MHz.
While the GPUs chosen may in fact be more powerful than those in the consoles, the important thing to get right was the difference between the two, which is 50 percent more raw performance in the PS4. Check out the videos above and below to see the difference that actually makes for gaming:
The performance advantage just on compute power from a better GPU isn’t as great as you’d expect. Comparing several games the performance gain varies between 17-22 percent in favor of the PS4. The PS4 does have another ace up its sleeve, though: memory bandwidth, which Digital Foundry admits could be a huge performance advantage. However, it’s hard to decide how big because we simply don’t know how fast the Xbox One’s SRAM is and how easy it will be for developers to take advantage of.
Ultimately, it seems that any games initially released as multiplatform titles will end up playing equally well on both next-gen consoles. It’s only when we get to 3rd and 4th generation game releases, when developers understand the hardware platforms much better, that we may see one console start to show a real advantage. On paper that looks likely to be the PS4.
Of course, Microsoft may have actually turned around Sony’s performance advantage before either console has launched if the rumors that the Xbox One GPU clock speed having been increased turns out to be true.