Monday, September 16, 2013

Windows 8 impressions from an old old timer.

A side consequence of getting a new computer for my wife is it has given me my first opportunity to look at Windows 8. Of course I have read and heard lots of things about Microsoft's latest operating system.  I have been using MS operating systems since the original IBM PC Dos back in the early 80's so I have seen bad ones and I have seen good ones but Windows 8's attempt to marry desktop and mobile interfaces has spawned more controversy than most so it was good to finally get a chance to make my own mind up.

Having played with it for a week or so I think I can sum up my opinion with a car analogy: Brilliant Engine, Schizophrenic Dashboard. 

Brilliant Engine: This is definitely the slickest, fastest, most stable version of Windows I have ever used and after the brilliance of Windows 7 that is saying a lot. Everything pretty much just works and works well. It also seems to be highly compatible with legacy programmes and I haven't discovered one which doesn't work yet.

Schizophrenic dashboard: The juxtaposition of traditional desktop with touch screen focussed Metro is quite bizarre and at times downright confusing. Although it is very easy to swap from one mode to another it is not always obvious which mode you should be in order to accomplish certain tasks and basic functions like viewing files or even shutting the machine down are very confusing. Microsoft's decision to include two versions of Internet Explorer adds further to the confusion because it never seems obvious which browser you will get.

Let us talk about the elephant in the room: Do I hate the new Metro interface? No I don't, it is sleek and fast and quite pleasant to use. Do I think it is ready to replace the traditional desktop?: No I don't. It has clearly been optimised for small screen mobile devices and is missing a lot of basic functionality that users of large multi screen desktops expect. Multi monitor support is non existent as far as I can tell and the configurability of the metro interface is poor. Do I think that Metro will eventually replace the desktop?: Yes. Yes I do. It is pretty clear that this is what Microsoft intends. You cannot opt out of Metro. Removal of the start button was a clear indication that MS wants to force users to engage with Metro even if they are using legacy windows applications. I think there is a lot of work to be done to make Metro really useful on desktop computers but I am sure that these things are in the works.

I cannot help thinking back to the transition from MS Dos to Windows back in the late 80's / early 90's. There are many similarities. Back then Microsoft wanted to transition folk from a nerdy command line interface loved by techies to a more visual graphical interface that appealed to the general public. This move was also inspired in part by developments from Apple. The early versions of Windows were in fact much worse and much less useful than this early incarnation of Metro but then again you weren't forced to use it. Computers still booted into command line DOS and you actually had to run Windows as a separate overlay. Forcing users to engage with Metro is a much more aggressive approach on Microsoft's part particularly at this early stage when Metro is not yet a complete replacement for the old desktop. It remains to be seen whether this will speed up adoption of the new standard.

Aside: One peculiarity of using a Windows 8 machine is that this all new all singing all dancing touch screen enabled interface has brought a very old concept very much back to the fore. Keyboard shortcuts have become absolutely essential once again. Windows has always had keyboard shortcuts but it is many years since I regularly used anything more than the most basic ones (alt-tab for example). It has quickly become clear that the easiest most straightforward way to cut through the schizophrenia of the Windows 8 interface is to learn and use the many keyboard shortcuts. Simple key combinations will swap from desktop to metro and back again for example and many other handy functions can most easily be found using a keyboard shortcut. Here is Microsoft's own list:

Pro tip: Quickest way to shut your machine down is to press Alt-F4 while on the desktop.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Lotro: Revisiting Urugarth, alone this time.

When Lotro was first released (Shadows of Angmar) the six man Urugarth and it's sister instance Carn Dum were the "End Game". Level 50 Players used to  run them repeatedly to collect the class items which dropped only from the instance bosses. Nowadays those items can be more easily obtained from soloing skirmishes so Carn Dum and Uru' are neglected even by players levelling alts. Howeevr when I decided to try and get those class items for my level 47 Loremaster I had a mad notion to try it the old fashioned way (albeit using my level 65 Champion Throg to solo the instances) and it turned out to be a lot of fun.

The elite and elite master mobs hit surprisingly hard despite Throg's 15 level advantage. It took multiple attempts and several hours to clear the place out. The Champions AOE abilities proved very useful at burning down mobs as did the ability to switch to tanking mode when more survivability was required. I will admit to cheating on the "nemesis" bosses by using a stack of cash shop morale potions. These heal for less than standard potions but have a much shorter cooldown so they are more likely to be available when you need them. 

What really struck me during the solo run was that I never really understood how the instance worked before despite running it many times in groups back in the day. I tagged along on several kin runs while we amassed class items but I always found group instances to be rushed and frenetic affairs. Some folk clearly knew the way and knew what to do but I was never one of them. I followed along and hit what I was told to hit. Going solo you get to see everything and you get to do everything. It is a very different experience to tackling content in a group and I think I actually prefer it which is an odd admission to make about an mmorpg.

Aside: It has been a while since I played Lotro and a lot of skills have been adjusted. This exercise proved a great way to relearn how things work. I discovered that the Champ's old favourite "Fervour" stance is even better than it was at maximum dps, minimum defence and I used this for most of the instance. "Glory" mode which emphasises tanking and defence over dps has become much more useful for solo survivability because it now reduces the cool-down of a Champs main self heal: Bracing Attack. I used glory when tackling three or more elites and on elite master bosses where the increased survivability outweighed the lack of dps. "Ardour" has obviously been re-purposed as an aoe stance but I couldn't really get it to work. I found that I did more aoe damage in fervour mode despite ardour's bonuses. Perhaps it would work better if I were traited differently. Also worth mentioning is the small but significant change of making Second Wind  a "use any time" skill rather than "only after defeating an enemy" as it used to be. It has become a bottomless source of power and means the Champion never runs out even in Glory mode.

Second aside: The reason for my return to Lotro is that I have signed up for Prof Jay Clayton's course Online Games: Literature New Media and Narrative. The course is hugely impressive so far. Hopefully I will blog about it later.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Perhaps Reddit can save me from awfulness of Buzzfeed.

About a year ago I added Buzzfeed to my reading list in order to try and keep my middle aged self even marginally connected to the Zeitgeist of popular culture.  To be fair it has more or less served that purpose and I no longer feel completely clueless when everyone on the internet suddenly starts talking about "Gangam Style" or  "Sharknado" or "Twerking". Unfortunately in order to glean these precious nugget of knowledge you must endure an awful lot of truly dreadful content on Buzzfeed itself. Stuff like this for example: The sad part is I am not sure that article was even supposed to be tongue in cheek.

Anyway the good news is that I have been lurking on Reddit for a while and I have come to the conclusion that Reddit, despite its somewhat murky past appears to have become respectable and extremely topical. Prime Ministers even use it and the murkier bits are well hidden if they are even still there. Better still Reddit is extremely current. I have noticed that many of the better articles on Buzzfeed seem to appear on Reddit a day or so earlier while the really crappy stuff comes directly from Buzzfeed's own editoral staff.  Sure you still get some dire stuff on Reddit but the "many eyeballs" filtering system seems to bury the really objectionable stuff pretty well.

I signed up for a Reddit account today moving from  lurker to a participant but I have yet to figure out how the whole contributing and voting system works. In any case I think Buzzfeed's days on my reading list are numbered. There is only so much more of this  that I can take.