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First thoughts on the new Apple Watch

Apple WatchApple revealed the much rumoured Apple Watch at their Cupertino keynote on September 9th. I previously predicted that they would use this device to start dropping the ‘i’ from their device names and I also expect future phones, tablets, computers and software to gradually become ‘i’-less too. Calling everything ‘Apple X’ makes far more sense from a brand recognition perspective and also significantly reduces their need to sue every ‘i’ product that someone else releases – which must cost them a fortune.

I’m going to go straight out there and say that unlike pretty much every previous keynote from Apple (at least since 2007), I feel unable to make a purchasing decision based on what I’ve seen before I physically handle the watch and indeed the new ‘super-sized’ iPhone 6 and 6+ (+? Not a lot of thought went into that did it!).

What I can say though is that my first impressions are that the watch may not be the game-changer that we were hoping for.

iPod Nano

One from the archives: Apple’s discontinued iPod Nano also worked as a watch when coupled with third party straps. Surprisingly similar to look at – some would even say perhaps the Nano had the edge?

It’s undoubtedly beautifully engineered and constructed – from an engineer’s perspective, but as a consumer I wanted to see different, future, uniquely Apple – in the way the original iPhone was. Let’s face it it’s pretty much a square block of round-edged steel (or aluminium if you go for the Sport version) with a high-res screen and a twiddly dial on the side. My immediate reaction was – oh, they’ve reintroduced the iPod Nano! Maybe that was a conscious decision – where most premium watches, and Android powered smart-watches, are circular. But imagine how much more eye-catching and mould breaking it could have been if the watch face was a much longer and thinner piece that melted into the strap? I can see that they are banking on making a killing from interchangeable straps as they did with phone cases – but as mentioned later I also think that was missing a bigger opportunity.

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How it could have looked. Did Apple dare to ‘be different’ enough with the design of the Apple Watch?

From a user perspective they have clearly put a lot of thought into how a wearer interacts with the device and this seems to have largely paid off. However Apple made a big play on the way two users can communicate with each other showing a very gimmicky emoji-like 3D smiley face which for me was a clear indication that Ives didn’t have total reign over the software on this watch, as that was almost straight out of the Microsoft Office bag of 80s clipart!

Not a great deal was said about battery life, although later comments imply a day if you’re lucky with a definite need to charge over night. This could be the one unsurmountable issue for Apple. It’s not untypical for people to surface around 6 in the morning, travel to work and be travelling home from work 10 or 12 hours later at which point the watch could be flat out of juice. For me, I was really looking forward to being able to keep the device on at all times, to monitor sleep patterns for example – but with the ‘mag-safe’ charging device needing to plugged into the rear of the watch, this is looking unlikely. A neat idea – but surely they could have come up with a solution that wouldn’t mean having to take the watch off to charge it? Why not build the battery in as part of the strap so that we can simply add a new strap to extend the watches life while another is sat charging? Apple have had years to design this thing – I’m thinking off the top of my head so I’m baffled as to why these obvious ideas weren’t considered.

It also looks as if Apple Watch is going to be not a lot more than a watch without being within a few feet of an iPhone (from a 5 to a 6+). I reserve judgement on how useful this makes it until I’ve had a chance to live with one – but I really hope it is more autonomous in function that it appears at first sight.

One other notable omission, particularly when compared to competitor’s offerings is a headphone socket! OK, if the device is to be joined at the hip with a phone it’s fair to assume that you may not need one – but what about listening to music when out on a run? One of the only reasons for getting one of these is to not have to carry a phone around at the same time. And as it goes music playing was not something that Apple mentioned or demonstrated at all (another tick in the box for the poor old defunct iPod Nano!) and therefore may not be part of its feature set. What if I don’t want to have Siri reply to me out-loud in public (and personally I hate talking to my devices at any time so Siri is useless in my use-case)? I’m sure a blue-tooth enabled headset will cure all ills – but a cleverly designed socket to enable both a device charger that doubled up for a headset with mic would surely have been possible (especially with something as thick as this) – so why leave it out?

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Shape shifter: Is Apple Watch distinctive enough to better the recent Android smart-watch offerings from Motorola and others?

Apple are launching with three different versions of the device. The main Apple Watch is constructed from a hefty chunk of stainless steel with a choice of straps and a screen cut from a a single piece of crystal sapphire. The Sport version is constructed from a ‘new blend’ of aluminium which is said to be stronger but lighter than any previous. It has a toughened glass front and only comes with a choice of garish ‘Swatch’ like straps which are apparently more resistant to sweat – but also good taste by the looks. And the final one is a blinged up version of the stainless steel model coated with 18 carat gold which I assume is in the line up to satisfy Asian and Middle-Eastern tastes as there is no other obvious benefit in the line up (the same reason why Apple brought out a gold coloured iPhone). I’m unconvinced that this was the right way to go. Personally I want all the functionality of both the general Apple Watch and the Sports one – without the garish strap and fail to see why they would go to the expense of separating them (different materials require separate construction lines).  Who would have complained if the device was made from aluminium and not steel? All iPhones and iMacs are aluminium – no steel option and sales haven’t suffered! Why is ‘toughened’ glass better than sapphire? I thought that was the toughest material available? Presumably glass is lighter? Not that I’ve heard.

The new Apple Watch is set for release at some point in early 2015. As there were no working models in Apple’s demonstration area after the keynote it’s fair to assume that this is still very much a work in progress. They probably launched this far ahead of roll-out to try and disrupt the Christmas sales for other manufacturers leaving a clear run-way for Apple Watch. Whether what they demonstrated was good enough to do that remains to be seen. My jury is currently firmly out.

Review: Battlefield Hardline (beta) and Destiny (alpha) on PS4

I’ve been playing the beta of Battlefield Hardline and Bungie’s alpha of their forthcoming MMO Destiny over the weekend (PS4).

Both are amazing – but the depth to Destiny, given the alpha is a tiny glimpse of what the full game will offer is astonishing. Even solo play/story levels can (and usually do) involve other real-time players and it’s this big investment in social game play which makes it the game equivalent of an ever-lasting gob-stopper.

Destiny is definitely a keeper (I rent games normally). Can see it lasting for years, literally!

Good review here: http://observationdeck.io9.com/forward-unto-dawn-impressions-from-the-destiny-alpha-1591028923

Battlefield: Hardline is a new spin on the normal war zones scenario of Battlefield. This time it’s cops vs robbers! Set in LA, the beta is only the multiplayer option and restricted to two game types. Reminded me of GTA-V, particularly as that is set in a parody of LA. Much better graphics though – and overall the feel is impressive. Look forward to taking the final game for a spin!
Forward Unto Dawn – Impressions from the Destiny Alpha
As announced at Sony’s E3 2014 press conference, the Destiny Alpha opened up for this weekend on PS4. I’ve taken some tentative steps into Old Russia, and come back with a few thoughts on Bungie’s newest Sci-Fi epic. Be Brave, Guardians, and pay attention: This is the part of the story that’s really…
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Sony Announce PlayStation Now – why I’m not convinced

Sony reveal PlayStation Now at CES 2014

Sony revealed the much anticipated PlayStation Now at CES yesterday. A game streaming service based on the Gaikai technology they purchased for $380m.

Initially for US only this will enable Sony PS3 games to be played on PlayStation consoles (and eventually TVs and mobile devices) across the internet without having to have the physical disk.

Sony will provide this on a pay per game or subscription basis with other territories live before the year end.

All sounds good. But here is why I will almost certainly let this pass me by.

In the UK I rent games from Boomerang Game Rentals (www.boomerangrentals.co.uk). They are the only dedicated game rental service left in the UK after LoveFilm pulled out and Blockbuster block busted!

For £10-£15 a month ($20) I can rent any game for as long as I want, in any console format, get an original disk with no limits on how long I keep it and they cover the postage.

PS Now is probably going to cost something like £10-£20 PER GAME to rent (why cannibalise their sales market by renting them out cheaper? Movies are typically rented for half to a third of sale price of DVD) or £35-£50 per month to subscribe (based on most people not being able to get through more than two games a month anyway).

It will be limited to a PS3 games library – which will suck for PS4 owners inside a year, will be limited to 720p but in (truth feel nothing like it), suffer from lag and compression artefacts and be Sony content only – which apart from a few obvious titles will contain a lot of dross (note what’s available on PS+!)

So in short I’ll take a look nearer the time but don’t anticipate moving from Boomerang any day soon! Having access to an extensive multi-platform library at a reasonable price makes a big difference. And although Sony or Microsoft may move to halt rental (as was originally mooted regarding sale of second hand games), user outcry will keep this at bay for some time to come yet.

Cinema is dead. Long live the game. Bioshock: Infinite and the rapid evolution of gaming.

Bioshock - Revenge of the JediI’ve just completed Irrational Games’ Bioshock:Infinite, the third instalment in the Bioshock franchise. It’s not obvious at first how this title connects with the previous incarnations, but stick with it to the end and all will become clearer. Well, maybe not.

This isn’t a review as I don’t want to give any spoilers away, I just wanted to write that the state of current gaming is such that the best games, this sitting right up there with the best, are now almost as good as the best Hollywood productions on a technical and narrative front, but with the added dimension of the viewer being able to take part.

Where cinema has been attempting to draw the viewer closer to the action with pseudo-3D, games on the other hand are able to give the gamer an actual part in the action. That said, for the most part these are still linear experiences, but this is changing.

With the advent of next generation consoles coupled with ultra-fast broadband access to streaming content, the next five years of gaming will, in my opinion, eclipse the best of cinema.

Purists (and don’t get me wrong I love cinema), will argue that the experience of being in a dark room with a large screen – effectively shutting off all but the senses of sight and sound, is incredibly immersive and can’t be bettered by a small screen. However, hyper-sensory technologies are shortly to arrive such as a system for the XBox that will project scenery from a game around the room fooling your peripheral vision into believing that you are deeper in the game environment.

Mass produced 4k resolution TV is also about to go mainstream. Apple are rumoured to have a set in the wings and those who have experienced the quality say that it is so real that the effect is even better than 3D (which really just feels like flat plains layered over each other in space in any case).

Picture then your gaming self in 2015. A large 80″ 4K screen with peripheral projection in a darkened room. A high quality multi-speaker sound system, a next-gen gaming console and a $200m budget game with limitless levels streamed via 100mb broadband and a full-time staff of producers and writers adding to the ‘script’ on a regular basis.

I predict, like the decline of theatre in the wake of cinema over the last 100 years, Hollywood will move its focus toward gaming. Multiplex cinema chains will close and the medium will most likely become the niche domain of art house productions and historical re-runs.

 

Scott Joplin – to Infinity and beyond

If you have played Bioshock: Infinite you will have found yourself humming a beautiful melody that plays while levels are loading throughout the game.

Although a familiar tune to me, I was keen to find out what it was and using the very helpful SoundHound for iPhone the answer soon came: Solace by Scott Joplin. A name as familiar as the tune, but in the same way I was annoyed that I didn’t have any actual knowledge to justify the familiarity. Further investigation was urgently needed.

Research called on two more of my favourite apps – Spotify and Wikipedia.

Spotify revealed a positive treasure trove of recordings – so many of them songs that have punctuated all of our lives through popular media, yet the origin had passed me by. Who was this genius? Surely a highly educated, classically trained musician – probably from an affluent middle class white background. How wrong could I be.

Wikipedia introduced me to a story that couldn’t be more different and incredibly inspirational.

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Scott Joplin was the son of former slaves, born in Texas less than a couple years after the abolition of slavery. Although from a musical family, their labourers income could not stretch to affording quality musical instruments but the young Joplin was fortunate enough to have access to a piano (owned by a local white family), with which he taught himself to play.

Through his life he perfected the early jazz ‘rag time’ style that is so evocative of the era, and arguably wrote the soundtrack to turn-of-the-century America, that went on to be featured in well known movies and TV shows such as the Oscar winning The Sting.

Although in his life time Joplin achieved reasonable success, it was not huge, and tragically before he eventually died from dementia in a mental institution in 1917 aged just 49, his biggest regret was that he felt he had not achieved his ambition to be the most successful African-American songwriter of his time.

In the decades after his death however his music was to become incredibly popular, achieving astounding success. Performed and recorded countless times across the world, literally woven into the fabric of popular culture and ultimately to make Scott Joplin posthumously achieve his dream by some considerable margin.

Listen to the oldest surviving recording of ‘Maple Leaf Rag’, recorded I’m 1906.