10 February 2011

dot exe: PDF substitutes

This icon is a headache for many people
dot exe is a section that covers software. Mostly software for PC as that is what i own and am fluent with, but i'm sure i'll throw in a bone to the MACs every now and then

Most of you out there know what a PDF file is. Which means most of you know what Acrobat Reader is. Now those of you that use Acrobat reader have started to realise that with all those updates and sluggish loading times, Acrobat Reader can be quite a pain in the neck.

Luckily for us, there are substitutes out there that do the job Acrobat Reader does, only better.

First i would like to introduce Foxit Reader. This is a fantastic alternative for all those that are willing to try something new. Its a particularly small piece of software that loads in a fraction of the time that Acrobat Reader does. In comparison, Foxit needs a download of 7mb versus Acrobat Reader's 46mb . But what does this mean for you, the user?

Well, a smaller package means that its a "lighter" piece of software, using up a lot less resources on your PC. Also because its not hugely popular, hackers target it less which in turn means that there is no need to keep on patching it, keeping it lean and fast.

Another huge advantage is that it kept up with the times and introduced "tabs" for viewing PDF's. Instead of opening a separate window for each PDF, it will keep the same window but open a new tab just like most modern web browsers do. This reduces clutter on your taskbar, and makes it easier to find the document you're looking for if you have multiple ones open!

PDF, making documents Read Only!
Now I tend to get asked a lot for software that can turn documents to PDF. Those of you that would like to send out documents that you would rather not have anyone tamper with, PDF is a great solution. I'm not saying its impossible to edit PDFs, but most people don't have the knowhow. And luckily for us, there are also free alternatives to create PDF's!

I tend to use Cute PDF Writer. Its tiny and incredibly simple to use! Just download and install it, following its very simple instructions. To create your PDF's all you need to do is select "Cute PDF Writer" in your printer list, and print your document to that. It will then ask you for a Name and Location, et voila! All done!

There are many other alternatives out there, but i find these two do the job just fine. I suggest you give them a try and see for yourself :)

thanks for reading!

15 November 2010

Monday Blues - DOGFIGHT!

So its Monday

For those of you who are at work and would rather be somewhere else...

Here's something to take your mind off things :)

WARNING: This is pretty addictive!!

11 November 2010

Looking from the inside out.

This is going to be a bit of a difficult post to get right. The best way for all of you to really understand, is to start from the beginning. It might get long, but it is necessary to get the full picture.

As most of you know by now, I'm a gamer. I really love games. I love the challenges they put forward, I love the intricate story lines they have, I love the fact that I'm not just spectating, but I'm there making a difference in a plethora of  virtual worlds. And last but definitely not least, I love how today's games are all about the social aspect. Long gone are the days when most games were a single player experience. From terrible Facebook games like Farmville, to the constantly growing and evolving market of MMOs, social gaming is all around us.
Typical small LAN Party setup

Now, I recently got a house mate to stay with me, lets call him Mark We've been friends for quite a while, and have a lot in common. One of these things is the love of games. He might not be as avid a gamer as yours truly, but he still enjoys playing the big titles on his console. Mark, also has a lovely girlfriend that I get along pretty well with. We knew each other for a while before my house mate moved in. She knew I loved games, she knew I played games.

Around the end of October I had to travel to the UK for a week to take care of some work. It was a lot of hard work, and I was glad to get back home. My mates were also pretty glad I got home as my house had become the new place to meet up and game together. I have 3 pc's permanently set up, so quick LAN sessions are easily organised. The weekend after I got home had been set as a "welcome back" LAN Party. I was excited, they tend to be a lot of fun. Saturday morning, the first couple of guys show up. They knew I had pc's already set up, so they didn't get anything except drinks and munchies. The gaming began.

At some point, my house mate's girlfriend - lets call her Sharon - came over to visit her man. My mates and I were already deep into some dungeon, slaying baddies and co-ordinating  with what seemed to be a foreign language for Sharon. She just stopped in the doorway of the room we were in, and stared at us, confused. I smiled at her, she nodded and walked away trying to understand what was happening.

This is the sound of game talk...
 to non gamers
An hour or so later, a female friend of mine (we're calling her Velly) , also a gamer, showed up ready to join us. Unfortunately, she didn't bring her pc with her, so she spent the first 45 minutes staring at us, and giving tips and calling us names when we made mistakes. At this point Sharon was watching the usual Country's got Talent, Country's next Top Model etc etc with Mark. Occasionally I'd notice that she would be looking at us with the face of someone who had just seen a six armed monkey making sweet love to a pink crocodile. Then when Velly got up and announced "Fuck it, I'm off to get my pc" Sharon's jaw hit the floor. She looked at Mark with what I can explain best as an incredibly confuzzled look, and asked "did she just leave to get her pc?", "to join them?", "to play games with them?", Mark nodding as she asked each question.

The weekend went as planned. We all got our fix and had a great time together. But that look on Sharon's face has been stuck in the back of my head, and has made me think. First of all, how many people are completely ignorant to the fact that games even exist? Or what a LAN party is? And why is it that she was most shocked by a girl gamer? I do understand that I live on a tiny island where most people fit into the same box, but with all the media coverage games have been getting in the lately, I would think that at least people are now aware of this increasingly popular aspect of modern society!

This is where the argument starts to get difficult. You see, during that weekend, we, as gamers, were being judged. We were being looked at as if we were strange animals at a zoo. This has happened to me before, on multiple occasions, but for some reason I only started to think about it after seeing Sharon's reaction to it all. I tried to see what it looked like from the other side of the fence, and started to compare activities on either side.

So in my eyes, what happened was that I spent a great weekend, with great friends having a great time together. Working as a team to pass hard obstacles thrown at us. Learning how to better ourselves by constantly trying to tweak and perfect our method and style. All in all, a fantastic team effort that only made our friendship stronger. Now if you had to look at the last couple of sentences you could easily mistake it for a corporate "Team Building" session that people pay a lot of money to organise. Yet, adding the term "video game" suddenly makes it incomprehensible?

This is bad for your soul. Avoid it at all costs.
Ask your friends to help you stop playing it.
Last night I decided I would stand in their shoes for a while and see what its like on their side of the fence. I joined Mark and Sharon on the couch, and we started watching a movie which turned out to be not too great. We stopped it and changed to a Series that they watch regularly. I hadn't seen it before and I was open to new things. 10 minutes into this series and suddenly it dawned on me. I am watching, a staged Reality TV show. A show about mundane real every day life, that is not real. At this point I voiced my slightly harsh opinion about watching mindless TV and said that I'd rather be gaming.

This is when Sharon said "your games are a staged reality as well, so what's the difference?" Unfortunately I could only come up with some gibberish about gaming being interactive. I wasn't happy with that response and it kept on ticking in the back of my head, when it dawned on me that besides the interactive part, the whole point of gaming is  to break out of the of the mundane, real, and ordinary parts of life! ( This does not count for games like Farmville, where the whole idea of the game is to do the most mundane and shitty repetitive parts of life, perfect for people with addictive and compulsive personalities. I don't really consider software like that to classify as a game.)

Games are all about adventure, magic, exploring the unknown and in many cases, better yourself as a human being! Many studies have been done about this topic and now gaming is being used in medicine, teaching, and even physiotherapy. What I'm trying to say, is that there needs to be a little education here. The gaming community needs to start reaching out, beyond its comfort zones and showing that real gamers are everyday people. The stigma that the word "gamer" has picked up over the years, always associated with the zit-faced pre pubescent teenager with no life and no girlfriend, staying home alone to play some game all night is not correct.

If you haven't played it,
WTF are you waiting for?
Today gaming is a ridiculously ludicrous business. It is out selling the music industry, and also making big blockbuster movies change their release dates not to coincide with video releases. (Grand Theft Auto 4 seriously dented Iron Man's opening weekend box office income). When it comes to value for money, there isn't much better than gaming. Case in point: A game called Fallout 3 , you buy for 20-30 euros, and have at least 100 hours of gameplay! Never getting bored, never ceasing to feel that sensation of you being out there making a difference.

To try and conclude this longer-than-usual ramble, I want to send an open invitation to all of you non-gamers. There isn't any need to stand outside the window peering into our strange world, you are welcome to come inside. You don't need expensive gaming rigs, you don't need to go out and buy a console. You can start small and work your way up. Gaming is a great experience that deserves to be shared with others. There is a game for everyone, and I'm sure that once you find that game, you will wonder why it took you so long to realise! I'll gladly give out as many hints and tips you need to get started, all you have to do is ask :)

Thanks for reading!

*names are obviously all changed so i wont get a black eye from anyone ;)

13 October 2010

Augmented Reality and Head Mounted Displays

We're living in a pretty exciting time when it comes to technology. The line between real life and digital life is blurring. We are constantly using technology to improve the quality of our lives and helping us make more informed decisions about whatever we need, right there and then. There is now more computing power in the palm of our hands than there used to be in a whole office building 15 years ago. It creeps up on us, and I think sometimes it really needs to be pointed out to appreciate it.

The latest smartphones on the market, be it an Android powered phone, an Iphone, a Blackberry or a Windows Mobile, as different as they are when it comes to style, design and feeling, they all have one thing in common. You have to hold them in your hand, and look down at them. At this point i guess that there are a lot of you thinking "well, duhh!", and I don't blame you for it. But I honestly think that in today's day and age, that is a really unpractical way of doing things. Let me elaborate.

Layar, its like having a personal guide! This might be
how we look at our surroundings in the future. 
As smartphones get more popular, so do that apps that come along with it. The first thing people ask me when they get a smartphone is if there are any apps they should download and try. And the best way to show off a smartphone, is by using the apps! Its useless having a fancy phone if you can't do anything with it. In all honesty, most apps are pretty useless, but there are some really good ones that can make a difference. Applications like Layar are brilliant when exploring a new city and you need to find out where everything is without buying a map or stopping every few minutes for to ask for directions. Just punching in what you're looking for, be it specific like "museum of fine arts" or a general search "restaurants", and holding up the phone to the horizon, will trigger the GPS on your phone so that it finds out where you are and shows you the way to your options! I've used it abroad (not much use in Malta unfortunately), and its amazing. Does exactly what you want it to do with pinpoint precision. The only problem is, that you constantly walk around holding your phone up in front of you, looking at it's screen, rather than what's in front of you.

The only reason to look down,
is to check your shoelaces
This tends to lead to embarrassing moments as you step into a huge pile of shit, walk into a knee hight bollard, kick some little puppy in the jaw etc etc. So do we really need to trade our dignity for this functionality? Luckily, some mad scientists have already picked up on this, and are working on it. Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome the first Head Mounted Display for the average consumer. Now I can imagine how the more fashion concious of readers would cringe at wearing something like that, but bear with me, this technology is still in it's infancy, and has a long way to go to becoming an integral part of our life, but once it's there, there is no going back. These tiny projectors mount up on any pair of glasses, and project information directly into your field of vision creating a perfect augmented reality. No more looking down, no more holding the phone in your hands, no more stubbing your big toe in a step. This is definitely the future. With these little gems, you would theoretically be able to walk upright, staring directly at what you want to look at, and getting all the information there and then. The possibilities of this device is truly unlimited. Be it for the average Joe walking around a city seeing the sites, be it a professional architect looking at a building, relaying the information back to the office by means of a tiny camera mounted on the glasses, and instantly getting information back from the rest of the team. All without pulling out any laptops or any other bulky device.

I think that as the technology is refined, it will get smaller, and probably hook up to your smartphone wirelessly. I also envisage that the display will become an integral part of having glasses, dropping the projector completely.  Today transparent flexible displays are already being tested in various scenarios, so I wouldn't be surprised to see this a reality within 5 years. The only technology that really needs to step as I see it falling behind, is battery technology, but thats an article for another day.

Thanks for reading!

13 September 2010

Surface Computing - A glimpse of what is to come

Sorry for the inactivity lately, been real busy with house!

Ok, so i'm not going to say that it always happens to be the case, but i'm pretty sure that they're somehow related. Sci Fi movies have a habit of making some very creative people come up with some amazing things. Old shows like Star Trek have inspired some pretty cool stuff! And a lot of these technologies that were not around a few years ago, are very much taken for granted today - cell phone? computer? Google?

Today i want to talk about surface computing. Most of us remember Minority Report, and those who have seen it must remember the "computer" that they used in the movie. A completely transparent multi touch interface device that wasn't restricted to a keyboard and mouse, but instead flowed freely with movements from your hands and fingers. It looked so futuristic and incredible, everyone spoke about it, everyone imagined a future with it. But in reality, people knew that it was just something out of a movie, and we would never really see it in real life. Please keep in mind that in 2002 (when the movie was released) we barely had flat screen monitors, let alone touch sensitive transparent displays!!

Only the wine glass, frame, and text areas are being rendered by the panel.
Everything on the cloth is sitting behind the screen and being shown through it.
5 years later, along comes the Iphone (as much as i dont like Apple, the Iphone set a standard and really pushed the envelope when it came to mobile / touch technology). In spite of the fact that touch screens had been around for a while on Point of Sales systems, some arcade games and some expensive computer peripherals, the multi-touch input of the Iphone was revolutionary. A mobile device with just 1 physical button and the rest was controlled by touch. It was the beginning of the touch revolution. Since the iphone was let loose, more and more multi touch devices are being launched, flooding the market with different shapes, sizes, operating systems and functionality. Besides this, a large number of display manufacturers are racing to be the first to release transparent displays. Although we are a bit far off Minority Report standards, it is going to be a reality pretty soon.

A tangible step forward has been Microsoft Surface. This has been in the works for quite a while, and to be honest, I thought it would be mainstream by now, but I guess they have had some setbacks, There are always new videos and snippets popping up on the net, and the one that inspired this article was someone playing Portal and a flight simulator. Although you can see that the controls and response are not yet quite as fluid as one would want, its a work in progress and will only be improving as time goes by.

At this point, the non-tech people might be asking "how does this affect me, and why should i care?". Well in layman's terms: Thin transparent multi touch displays. These will be displays that can be placed on any surface, actually these displays will become the surface. Picture this: you go to a restaurant and as soon as you sit down at your table, instead of having to wait for someone to bring you a menu, you just browse what the place has to offer using the display on your table! You can order your food, drinks and whatever you wish for without making any human contact whatsoever. You could be in a foreign country and with a simple tap of the screen, everything is translated to something you can understand making the language barrier obsolete. Once you're done with dinner, you wont even have to ask for the bill but effortlessly pay through the surface itself. There is no untrained impolite waiter getting everything wrong, there is no delay waiting for someone to take your order, it is you that controls your experience.

Coffee tables will never be the same again
This is truly just the beginning. Once these surfaces evolve and learn to incorporate current technologies, you will be able to view and transfer contacts from a phone, photos from a camera,. documents from a laptop, all through the surface itself. So your coffee table at home could be set so that as soon as you place your camera onto it, the recent photos taken will automatically be opened and displayed on the surface where you would be able to view / edit and even share them with another device by simply dragging them to the laptop or phone you have sitting next to your camera. Add the transparent factor to all of the above, and you can have your bedroom windows dim automatically letting a certain amount of light in, while telling you the temperature and weather forecast, or your bathroom mirror showing you the news as your brush your teeth in the morning.

The possibilities are truly endless and before we know it, we are going to be surrounded by this amazing technology. In the next couple of years we will start seeing more and more of these large touch screen computers (they were used in every US news show during the last US election), and as that happens they will slowly creep into our homes. Before you know it, we'll be taking them for granted too :)

So next time you see a futuristic sci-fi movie, never take it too lightly!! :)

thanks for reading :)

24 August 2010

Tech Up!: DLNA

Everyday from every side, you come across hundreds of adverts about things you "should" have. From chocolates and ice cream, to the latest perfume from some designer company. But how many of these products do we actually need? How many of these products have you bought and shelved after a few hours use? (Nintendo Wii anyone??) 

Well, Tech UP! will have examples of technology that actually comes in useful, allowing you to be more mobile, more productive and possibly more relaxed

This is the logo you want to be looking for.
First of all, sorry for taking so long to write something else, been a hectic week! Today on Tech Up! we're going to talk about DLNA. I had mentioned this when we spoke about NAS but I think it needs some further explanation. 

When it comes to what technologies to use in our house, the main thing we want to look for, is something that is compatible with a multitude of devices, and is scalable. The idea is that we don't want to get tied down by some manufacturer's own software and end up having to buy every piece of equipment from now on from Sony or Samsung (nothing against them!). We want a "universal" communication language that can speak to any manufacturer's devices as it is a worldwide standard. There are about 250 companies that are using this DLNA protocol, and according to wikipedia by May 2010, there were over 8000 devices working with it. 

So what does DLNA do? Why do we need it? And why should i look for this functionality when i'm shopping for new technology?

I think its fair to say, that for most people, technology is always an afterthought when it comes to buying a house / planning where to put stuff. Noone seems to think about where to pass network cabling, where the computer should go, and how it would connect to your TV / Entertainment system. Actually, most people don't even know that a computer can be hooked up to an entertainment system in the first place! So when the afterthought happens, its usually a case of passing as little cabling as possible to do as much work as possible. But as your computer is next to the kid's room on the second floor and the TV is on the bottom floor on the other side of the house, a direct link between them, or a simple TV-Out cable from the pc's video card wont do it. 

A typical DLNA Setup
This is when DLNA devices come in handy. First of all, I hope you all remember when we spoke about the NAS. If you dont have a NAS yet, a computer running Windows XP / 7 / and if you must, Vista, (Vista is shit, if you have it, get rid of it) you can easily create a media server. Apple took the usual holier-than-though attitude and refused to work with a worldwide protocol, making MAC users have to install 3rd party software (that isn't free) to get their devices to talk to DLNA products. Once your media server is set up, then your DLNA stereo / TV / and even printer can all hook up to it to see your shared media. So from a completely different room in the house (as long as it is networked) you can access your music, photos, and movies that are shared by your server. This also means that you don't need multiple copies of the same media on different machines, but you can have 1 machine that is your media "server" and everything else can connect and share with it. 

So those movies you downloaded? You don't have to burn them to DVD anymore to watch them on your TV. Those mp3's you have, you don't need to run around with your ipod & speakers anymore to have some music in the other room. The bigger the household, the more people make use of digital media, the more sense it makes to invest in a similar system. Just make sure your network can keep up with all the traffic, and no, wifi CANNOT stream 1080p movies comfortably to multiple sources at once.

But we'll speak about networking another day.

Thanks for reading

12 August 2010

DRM - The reality

DRM, also known as Digital Rights Management, has been around a long time. And because most people start a business to make money, i think its here to stay. But what has history taught us about prohibition? 
...this is not the Heimlich maneuver

Back in the early 20th century, Piano Player rolls were the new big thing. It was this amazing technology that worked with the most basic of elements - air. Air is free, but the time and effort that it took to make one of these rolls was definitely not. And this is when someone decided to make sure that no one should be able to just "copy" these rolls of perforated paper. The idea of DRM is born, and things have gotten ugly ever since then.

Most people over 25 should remember what a cassette tape looks like, and if you do, then you probably also remember how to press play & record at the same time. Since the digital age really kicked in, piracy has been flourishing. Mp3 technology, high internet speeds and huge capacity hard drives has made it very easy for people to copy and share their legally or illegally downloaded music & film. Some companies like Apple ( to be expected ) implemented an incredibly strict regime of anti piracy through their Itunes / Ipod platforms, but people have found a way around them too.

As the digital age evolved, so did technologies to create DRM, and obviously to break through DRM. The games industry has also been doing their best to make sure their IP is kept safe and makes them as much money as possible. But this is a cold war between corporations that want to make the money, and the millions of people that want the product to be theirs to do what they want with it. 

The problem with DRM is that in most cases, it becomes incredibly difficult and frustrating for the legitimate user to be able to use his / her digital media comfortably. Does anyone remember the Lenslok? A simple example: I have a pc and a laptop. My pc is my main machine, but i use my laptop to run around. I legally bought a game / mp3 with DRM on my pc. I installed / played it on that pc. I would like to put it on my laptop so that i can go wherever and do whatever i want with it in my own time. DRM says i cant. But, i paid money for it, and in most cases, quite a lot of money. But yet it feels like i don't actually own the product as I have to use it within incredibly tight restrictions. 

Scare tactics, used way too often
The latest example of horribly thought out DRM for a video game was Ubisoft's approach (this is after their Starforce fiasco). The concept is quite simple: if you want to play a Ubisoft game, you had to be online all the time. The game will only save if you have a connection to the Ubisoft servers, and if this connection is lost, so is your game progress. WTF were they thinking?? I know that today, most people have an "always on" internet connection, but what about occasional drops, what about people who want to take their laptop to some hut in the woods powered by solar energy and play a game over there? What about the fact that if your internet connection is down for whatever reason, you cant play a single player game?? What happens here is that the person that has forked out a lot of money is really and truly getting the bad end of the stick, but the people that pirated  the game and managed to hack it to prevent the DRM kicking in, are actually having a better experience. 

So what should be the motivational factor - besides wanting the game - for people to go out and buy it original? Why should someone hand over their hard earned cash for something that is going to make their life more stressful, especially when it is so easily available from multiple sources! 

Then on the other side of the spectrum you have Blizzard Entertainment which thinks about DRM in a very different way: “We need our development teams focused on content and cool features, not anti-piracy technology.” And i honestly think that this is the way forward. Blizzard know that their development team is extremely limited compared to the gaming community as a whole and even if they spend all their time and effort on DRM, it will be cracked anyway. They decided to look at the problem in a completely different manner as they saw the complete failure of pretty much all video game DRM systems (except the PS3). 

Instead of restricting and wagging their finger in your face as they take your money, they make you want to pay the price to be able to use all the cool features that come with having an original game. Its not about restriction and prohibition, its about incentive and reward. Luckily, Ubisoft have already decided to scrap their current form of DRM and stick with activation over Steam, which makes a lot of people hate Ubisoft a lot less. 

Personally I like trying before buying. I have downloaded games before I bought them, the same way i would take a car for a test drive or try on a pair of jeans before buying them. But if its a game you like, especially if its from an indie developer that probably doesn't have any DRM technology, its only fair that you buy it.I think that Blizzard's way is the way forward, but this is a completely new approach and it might take a while for all publishers to come onboard with it. 

In the meantime, i'm saving up for Fallout: New Vegas ;)

thanks for reading