Wednesday, September 30, 2009

I read The Lost Symbol so you don't have to

I wasn't expecting much of The Lost Symbol, but it surpassed even my wildest expectations. It was awful. I mean dreadfully bad. I read this book in one day, not because it was so compelling, but because it was so ridiculously bad I wanted to get it over with and write this little rant. You would think that after four books, Dan Brown would learn to write or at least aim to change his formulaic approach to writing mysterious thrillers, but no...

This has all the hallmarks of a 'Robert Langdon-series' book: predictable plot, tedious pacing, "it can't be that simple" code cracking, a cast of inept law enforcement agencies (in this case the CIA and a bunch of idiot security guards), cardboard characters, psychotic villain with family issues well versed in religious icons (with a predictable big 'reveal' at the end) and a geeky but fine scientist sidekick. Oh, and the usual tangled cliffhangers at the end of every fucking paragraph. Then we have plenty of pseudo intellectual nonsense by characters who are so dumb they frequently decide to hang around solving puzzles whilst being chased. The characters here are so dull and uneventful you just do not know just who to root for, though to be honest I was rooting for Sato, the willy CIA boss, to stick a spork inside Robert Langdon and wail "this is national security priority, away with you and your cryptic nonsense".

Hope briefly materialised about two third through when the hero nitwit Harvard professor was presumably killed off. There was I thinking that the author has broke out of his predictable rut and did something decent and unexpected for once, but then he goes and bring the renowened symbologist (the true field here is semiotics) back to life leading to a scene where Langdon lovingly kisses Katherine (what, the heir of Jesus isn't enough for you?). The plot makes absolutely no sense, with the victim attempting to protect a secret that wasn't a secret anyway, thus causing plenty of unnecessary deaths along the way! Still CIA bungling their way through the story were some of the pretty funny moments, you can even excuse the death of that lone field agent sent to investigate the bald tattoo villain's home. But seriously, nothing here is original. Even the villain is lifted straight out of Red Dragon, whose hell bend desire to 'transform' reminds anybody who has ever read a good book (or watched the bad film) about Francis Dolarhyde.

I don't mind bad writing per se as long as they are entertaining. It is like watching some crappy Jerry Bruckheimer film - they are crap but for that one moment you are at least entertained. This however takes the award for being utterly dull, poorly written and just plain crap (like the film Transformers), padded to the core with useless Wikipedia trivia. It reads like a bad TV series that gets cancelled after a season. It even has product placements (who gives a flying fuck what phone Sato uses, what elevator Langdon take or car Katherine drives?). It isn't even original. It is a remake of da Vinci Code, which was a remake of Angels and Demons which itself was a remake of Digital Fortress or something.

Gosh, even National Treasure wasn't this bad. Avoid this book is my suggestion (don't buy it - borrow it from a library if you want to suffer). If you want to save what is left of your brain cells read Frederick Forsyth or Robert Ludlum instead, and leave books like this and Twilight to the X-Factor generation.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Westone UM3X first impressions

This is it, the Westone UM3X. In my hands (or should I say... my ears!). Thanks to @mark2410 for loaning me his. I've only managed to listen to it a couple of hours, but I am deeply impressed by it. I will eventually compare it with my IE 8 (of which has close to a thousand hours on it). Both offers completely different sound signature. It is just a matter of pinpointing your preference. The UM3X is likely to appeal more towards owners of other balanced armature IEMs like the Shure SE530, but I only have the IE 8 here to compare with.

My tip of choice are the Klipsch gels that can be found on their Custom and Image series. They fit the UM3X perfectly, has the same bore diameter and are very very comfortable (at least for me). Beware that the sound signature will be dependent on your choice of tips. Impressions and the following review (next week?) will be my own, so please do not flame me for stating my opinions. I also would not comment about multi-flange ear tips, as I do not find them as comfortable. This is due to my shallow ear canals (one reason why the IE 8 with default single flange silicon tips are perfect for me).

The UM3X fits well in my ears and I never had a problem with seal. Isolation is better than the IE 8 (with standard single-flange silicon tips), though this could be both positive and negative. The lack of isolation with the IE 8 is one of the reason of its airiness and vast soundstaging. They seem to be as comfortable as the Klipsch Customs (easily the most comfortable IEMs I have ever had the pleasure of sticking inside my ear canals). Also, the UM3X sits flush inside the ears, so you will not have any issues sleeping with them. I wouldn't recommend sleeping with it though.

As I only have had a couple of hours with them, I won't comment much about the sound quality. But they do sound good, and even more importantly, do they sound £120 (price difference in the UK) better than the IE 8? I can't say for sure yet. They are a bit more forward than the IE 8, particularly in the mids. The bass is just a bit behind the IE 8, and has some impact, though not quite there. Just a note here that I am no bass head and I never found the bass on the IE 8 (mininum dial) to be overwhelming. Because the UM3X are fitted with balanced armatures, bass impact will definitely depends on seal and tip type.

Westone's flagship is definitely the more neutral (and thus 'boring') phone of the two, but right now I am leaning more towards the IE 8 in terms of sound preference because I just find it to be more musical. Having said that I can't yet reach a conclusion (especially with so few hours with it). All I can is for sure is that the UM3X are very good IEMs (there are no such thing as poor performing high-end IEMs - they all depends on your preference), but they also cost significantly more than the IE 8 (in the UK - in the US and some other countries the pricing gap is smaller).

Look out for my review sometime in the next week or two once I have a bit more time with it, and then another one for Denon's flagship AH-C710.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Tutorial: Creating playlists on Sony Walkman (and other MTP devices)

I recently received a comment critical about Sony's apparent lack of will to create a music management software for their Walkman DAPs, and the difficulty in getting playlists on them. Whilst I understand that Sony is a bit foolish for suggeting people to use Windows Media Player to manage their music and playlists when they are tons of better and free alternatives out there, transfering music (including embedded album art) and creating playlists is actually pretty easy.

All western bound Walkman DAPs (designated NWZ) has been MTP/UMS compliant for the past two years. On a modern Windows machine (running XP SP2 and up), the Walkman will show up as a MTP device. Here, dragging and dropping your music files is the easiest way to get music inside. Using a software like MediaMonkey or Songbird is also another alternative. I personally use MediaMonkey as I love the amount of features it offers to power users. It may lack the glossy facade of iTunes, but it works just as well and you do not have bloat to content with! It will even send any compilations you have with the proper tags/album art, putting them in the 'Various Artists' folder whilst also retaining the individual artist tag.

Creating a playlist on a Walkman (or all MTP compliant DAPs like those made by Creative, Samsung, SanDisk, iRiver, Cowon etc.) device is even easier. No Windows Media Player, MediaMonkey, iTunes or any third party software are needed. Just right click on a track or album folder, and select 'create playlist', then drag it (it has a *.pla extension) to the playlist folder. Open it and then just drag and drop any music you already have on your device to the playlist, no matter which artist, album or genre they are from, as well as removing or reordering them. It would not create any duplicates files as the music files are already on the device, it merely creates a link to the file (with embedded tags and all). I have been using this method for the past year and never had any problems with it - it is that simple.

Another thing I want to add is Sony does have a music management software. It is called SonicStage and Sony made it a requirement to use the software (like iTunes and Zune Desktop) to transfer music to their Walkman devices. Unfortunately it kinda sucks, causing crashes and whatnots. Basically SonicStage was a PR disaster for Sony, and their market share fell further. This is why all western-bound NWZ Walkman DAPs for the past two years do not work with them, even when SonicStage has improved tremendously. Not many people wanted to buy a Walkman with it (including me). We like it when we can choose how we transfer music onto our DAP.

Note: I do not work and has never worked for Sony or any of their subsidaries. This is just a tutorial for those who has trouble creating playlists for their Walkman. Thanks for reading.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker demo impressions

Despite its clunky controls, Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops was one of the more impressive PSP games released so far, so I was dying to see how Peace Walker takes portable Metal Gear Solid to the next level. Peace Walker for those who has been living under a rock, takes place ten years after the events of MGS3: Snake Eater and follows an event in Central America that will eventually lead to the creation of the Outer Heaven mercenary force. The Japanese TGS 09 demo is available for download here. The demo features a tutorial as well as a playthrough where Naked Snake has to infiltrate an enemy complex via a jungle (similar to MGS3).

Visually, Peace Walker is an absolute stunner. If there ever was a game that could give God of War: Chains of Olympus graphical fidelity a run of its money, it would be this. And unlike Chains of Olympus, Peace Walker has fully working player-controlled camera. Peace Walker's visuals are so impressive, they look close to their PS2 cousins, and MGS2: Sons of Liberty and MGS3: Snake Eater were some of the best looking games on a last generation console. Despite the limitation in storage, textures are detailed and are only pixelated when looked at a short distance. MGS5-class title indeed. If there is a problem, it seems to suffer from long loading. This despite the demo running from Memory Stick. Still, once the game loads it seems to run just fine, with no framerate issues. This despite more enemy combatants on the screen at the same time.

The control scheme of Portable Ops has been ditched in favour of a more wholesome and intuitive mode. The analog stick is still used to move Naked Snake. The R shoulder button is used for CQC moves, such as punching and kicking enemy combatants, or grabbing them and throwing them. Pressing the L shoulder button will switch to shooting mode, with R triggering the shot. The face buttons controls the camera, as well as aiming (Auto aiming can be turn on). The d-pad acts as a menu system - allowing Snake to select weapons, crouch etc. Like Portable Ops, controls can be customised to suit your need, though I am liking the default controls enough not to bother experimenting yet.

Unlike Portable Ops 'bite-sized' portable friendly missions, Peace Walker features from the get-go full size missions. This is evident by the demo where Snake has to make his way from the beach to the enemy hide-out via a series of jungles. The jungle is divided into 'zones', similar to how MGS3: Snake Eater and other full-size Metal Gear games are structured. In Portable Ops, moving from one area to another is as simple as going to the menu and selecting the area from a map from which then Campbell would just drop Snake off in his jeep - which works well as a portable title, but it isn't the full Metal Gear experience that many were seeking for. Peace Walker will definitely offer a fuller MGS experience, but whether this will translate well as a on-the-go portable title remains to be seen.

The gameplay is a mixture of Portable Ops and MGS4. An acoustic radar is available on the top right. Players of MGS: Portable Ops will be familiar with the radar. For those who has not played Portable Ops, the radar tracks noises, with the middle circle representing the noise created by the player and the outer ring for enemies. The distortion on the radar will indicate the level of noise made as well as the direction the noise is coming from. I like it as it is far more challenging than relying on the visual radar commonly found on other Metal Gear titles. There is also a camouflage indicator. Unfortunately you can't crawl in the demo. A plethora of weapons and items can be found, including sniper rifle, Snake's standard tranquiliser and his famous cardbox.

The dialogue cutscenes are in the same mould as Portable Ops and Digital Graphic Novel, using the same classy comic book style scenes. They are once again drawn by Ashley Wood, whom some has derided but I actually find pretty nice and refreshing. Short cutscenes are still rendered in real time. It is early days and we may yet see more cutscenes being rendered in real time rather than in comic panels. The demo also contains a local multiplayer co-op mode. Unfortunately I am unable to test this yet. Early impressions on the co-op mode by other gamers seems to indicate that the feature is quite a feat. It should be, considering how much of it was highlighted with the last trailer.

If the finish article has the same quality to attention and more to the demo, then it is safe to assume that Peace Walker will be a great game and one so deserving of its Metal Gear Solid 5-class tag. It is a shame that because it does not have a '5' in its title, many will assume it is strictly a side quest (which was the assumption wrongly applied to Portable Ops). If the people at Konami has any sense, they better stick that MGS5 branding ASAP, because I truly believe it has earned it. Go ahead, download the demo and play it. It even features a certain Master Miller.

If you have no means to access demo, then check out the epic TGS 09 trailer embedded above, of which highlights includes the MGS4-scale of the game as well as Naked Snake still lamenting the death of The Boss.

The Last Guardian TGS 2009 trailer

Interview with Fumito Ueda and a new The Last Guardian trailer from TGS 2009. Nuff said.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Whining video games retailers

Retailers has been attempting to boycott the launch of the PSPgo. As many of you would know, the PSPgo will eschew physical distribution in favour of downloads. This has its pros and cons, of which I would not go into today - but you can understand why some retailers are upset about it. Still their excuse don't wash with me. Plenty of retailers like John Lewis sells products like Walkman and E-book readers but do not have the means to distribute the content and they have no issues with it. I also suspect part of the reason why the PSPgo is so expensive is because a larger revenue would go towards retailers than other consoles anyway. Regardless, here is one genius's (ShopTo) take on it:
Sony has decided to cut publishers and retailers for the software of the PSPgo and deal direct with developers, giving them a 70 per cent margin for any items sold on Sony PSN. I believe if they had lowered that to 50 or 60 per cent, and given the opportunity to online retailers, it would have enjoyed greater success and retailers would attempt to promote the console to the market. (source)
Statements like this makes me angry, and yet news that Sony is giving them developers a higher profit margin is brilliant - for everyone. I love physical copies of games, but recognise that there is plenty of advantage in moving towards a digital distribution platform, and if it meant that developers (the people who worked hard to make the games) earning more than soulless retailers - then so be it. For ShopTo (who I never heard of outside of its affiliate partner Eurogamer) to even suggest that developers should get a lesser cut to prop up their backward business model is ludicrous and downright insulting.

What I find amazing here is that video games retailers are unwilling to adapt despite the lessons from the music and automobile industry. This is a free market and yet they complain when things change - much like the idiots who run certain financial institutions to death. Silly people really, and I hope they shrivel up and die a slow horrible death. If retailers like ShopTo can't take it, then I suggest exiting the market as nobody will be bailing them out. These days Amazon or is all that matters anyway, and if they do not have a problem (even GAME does not), then I do not see any reasons why Sony should be worried.

The PSPgo is due out next month. Register early and you will get a free copy of Gran Turismo as well.

Opera Mini 5.0 Beta

Opera Mini 5.0 is simply the best Opera Mini yet. I've used it for half a day now and it has only crashed once so far - which is impressive considering this is merely a beta version.

The installer is quite a bit bigger than previous Opera versions (and it will download more during installation), but with data cost cheap these days - and the fact that most phones comes with WiFi - this isn't a huge issue as it was a couple of years ago. The increase in size (almost double) can be attributed to the new and slick UI.

Desktop Opera 10 users will immediately recognise the new Speed Dial. Instead of a list as in previous version of Opera Mini, you will be greeted with a thumbnail grid. Here you can assign your favourite websites as shortcuts. Like the desktop version, Opera Mini 5 will capture a snapshot of the site (well a part of it anyway).

On the top you will find the address bar and search bar. Underneath it is the navigational toolbar including access to the settings and Speed Dial. The top right plus icon is the 'new tab' button. Yes, Opera Mini 5 allows users to create tabs. Stability is fine even on my now aging Nokia E51. I tend to open more than five tabs at any one time with no sign of slowness or RAM leakage.

Press down on a link until a pop up appears. This gives you the option of opening the link on a new tab. Very useful. As you can see from the screenshot, copy and paste functionality also makes a debut. Selected text can be copied and then pasted onto the Opera's search field. You can also paste the copied text outside the browser, but doing so requires you to use a trick that forces the standard Series 60 text entry field to pop up (as documented here).

Plenty of settings are available for advance users, including the usual (image quality, font size, landscape mode) and nifty new additions such as the password manager. (Edit: turn off inline editing to gain access to your phone's standard text entry field - essential to get T9 working)

Rendering was never a problem with Opera Mini, so the results here are pretty standard to seasoned Opera Mini users. Still they are fast to load. I expect Opera to have beefed up their server too in anticipation to the beta release. Fonts are smoother due to the use of some form of Clear Type technology as well. Anyway you will have no problem browsing the web even with a small QVGA display. Here are a couple of examples on how websites such as this look like (high quality image, smallest font setting):

One downside I found is it has its own text entry system, overiding the standard Series 60 text entry field pop-up. For example with their system, I have to cycle through a bunch of symbols manually to get the appropriate symbol I want (@ for example), but with the old Opera Mini, I can press the * key and select the symbol I want quickly. Predictive text does not work here either, again due to the lack of access to the phone's standard text entry field. (Edit: Ok, turning off inline editing in the settings allows you to enter the S60 text entry field - phew!!!)

It's early days for the Opera Mini 5.0, but judging by the quality of the beta version here and the amount of new functionalities, Opera has yet another winner on their hands. Despite being only a beta software I am so impressed by the stability on my E51, so impressed in fact that I have already uninstalled Opera Mini 4!

Access the beta by steering your mobile phone's standard browser to

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Spotify for Series 60

Brilliant news for Spotify subscribers and Series 60 users. Spotify will soon be releasing a S60 client! Even better, due to the smartphone nature of Symbian OS, you will be able to listen to it while performing other tasks like, oh you know, composing that SMS or whilst hill walking with ViewRanger. Ah, multi-tasking, who would have thought that such a basic OS feature would be useful!

The video demo highlights plenty of useful features that makes Spotify such a great application, including offline playback. Hopefully Spotify will iron out the bugs and release this soon (with integration to boot - please!). My pending new S60 phone (haven't decided yet - but the E52 is a possibility) demands it.

Sony Walkman A840 (OLED, 64GB) announced

Readers of this blog will be aware of how much I admire Sony's line of Walkman DAPs (MP3 players to you simple folks). They just sound so darn good. If you are like me (a music lover) and want the best possible sound quality without resorting to a separate amp, then do check them out.

I am pretty excited by the announcement today of the new high-end S-series and A-series Walkman. First, the S-series (pictured above). The S640 series (which replaces the S630) and S740 series (replaces the S730) will be bundled with the EX300SL in-ear canal phones. These, I have read, are pretty good headphones though obviously no match with high-end IEMs like the Sennheiser IE 8 or Klipsch Custom 3. But I am sure they will make do for the majority of people. The S740, like the S730 before it, will also have built-in Active Noise Cancellation. Not something I would bother personally, but it's there for people who do. Both will also feature TV-out abilities (720x480 resolution). Battery life is rated at 42 hours for audio - which is what you would expect from a Walkman. They will be available in capacities up to 32GB.

So that's the new S-series out of the way. Will I get it? Nope. Only because I have already set my eyes on the new A-series. The A840, which replaces the Bluetooth equipped A820-series, features a 7.2mm thickness profile and will come equipped with a stunning WQVGA OLED screen. This is the same screen that powered the gorgeous X-series. It will also have TV-out and comes bundled with a pair of EX300SL variant headphones. Now the most important bit - it will feature the same(?) S-master amp that powered the X-series! Brilliant isn't it? The same sound quality and the same OLED screen, in a package smaller than the X-series! No WiFi here (not that I care honestly - the web browser was rubbish) or touchscreen (the buttons make up for it). Best of all? It will be available in capacities up to 64GB capacities (A847)!

Knowing the way Sony numbers their Walkman series, I am curious as to why they designated the 64GB model as A847... A 128GB A848 model in the works perhaps? ;)

All of these models have yet to be announced for the Western market, but I am sure they will eventually arrive here. In the mean time while away by reading my reviews of the A818, S639, S739 and X1060 first.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Persona 3 Portable gameplay videos

Persona 3 and its FES expansion was one the highlights of PS2 gaming, so you will excuse me if I sound a little too excited about the title being remade for the PSP console. The game, due to be released this November in Japan, will provide the option to play as a female protagonist - the first among the three Persona 3 games. The video below demonstrates the RPG gameplay with visuals pretty much comparable to the PS2 version, but with lower polygon and slightly different character design (they have a more 'chibi' like proportion now). The gameplay is also being revised to incorporate battle elements from Persona 4 - which allows you to control every character rather than relying on the individual character's A.I.

Interesting if anyone has the Art of Persona 3 book, check out page 2 where you will find a concept art of an unknown female character. Apart from some slight changes, she looks similar to the new playable female main character in the PSP remake. Incidentally page 13 of the book will also reveal a sketch that is even more similar. And here I thought FES was the director's cut... Can't wait!

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Lewes to Eastbourne via South Downs Way

Did a walk yesterday from Lewes to Eastbourne via the South Downs Way. The weather was brilliant for most of the day - warm with light breeze and clear sky, until later in the afternoon.

Normally most people who start at Eastbourne, but I was planning on ending there to catch the sunset at Beachy Head (plus there are more trains from Eastbourne back to London). Alas, I arrived at Beachy Head at 4.30 pm. Not really looking forward to waiting a couple of hours for the sunset, I decided to leg it to Eastbourne to catch the earlier train. Just as well as it was getting colder and the clouds were kinda ruining the view...

The route itself is straight forward and well marked. The hills can get windy at times and there are no trees to shelter from rain or the sun. You can begin at Southease (saving you a couple of miles as the railway station is right on the South Downs Way) or Glynde. I chose to start at Lewes because I didn't want to wait half and hour for the train to either stations.

At Alfriston, the South Downs Way divides with one taking you to Exceat (and Seven Sisters) via the Vanguard Way and another through Jevington and the Long Man of Wilmington. Both routes will end at Eastbourne, with the coastal route (Seven Sisters and Beachy Head) a couple of miles longer. This route is actually more scenic and worth the extra couple of miles on your precious knees.

Distance: 23.5 miles (37.8 km)
Height gain: 3862 feet

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Notting Hill Carnival 2009

Pictures from Monday's Notting Hill Carnival. Last Day of Summer (really!).