New Consoles

PlayStation 3 Slim Model

Computer gaming these days tends to be split between console gaming and PC gaming. Those two system tend to be used in different ways, for different games, and have very different economical models. Gaming consoles are typically in the living room connected to something like a big TV with reasonably low resolution (full HD), and used with joystick like controllers. PC games tend to be played at a desk, with mouse & keyboard on a monitor that can display much higher resolution. Technically you can always connect a keyboard to a console, or a joystick to a PC, but the default controller defines the assumptions of the games.

While the two models are pretty different, they are competing for the gamer’s money, and the attention of game developers, a game build for a console often does not feel right when ported to PC, and reciprocally. What system is winning out? It really depends how you look at it, because this week saw news that are in appearance contradicting each-other.

Ars Technica had an interesting article about mouse and keyboard loosing the First Person Shooter market. First person shooter have historically been the privileged domain of PC gaming, but some new FPS games are now designed for the console first, and maybe not even ported to Windows. Sony also announced the Playstation 4 and gave an overview of the technical specifications : an x86 machine designed to work in the living room. If you frame the gaming world as a war, the natural question is, who is winning, but as often the real question is, who is loosing, and what.

Console have lost their hardware model. When the PS3 came out it had very powerful, custom CPU and a blue-ray disk which was very expensive at that point. The general expectation was that the hardware would be top notch on the release day and be able to stay in the market for a long time: the PS3 came out in 2006 and is still sold. The problem of this model is that consoles have become very expensive, and despite this, manufacturers have to sell their console at a loss and make money back on the price of games. This also pushes manufacturers to make sure that people who buy their system also buy games, and there is little incentive to make the console work well as a general computing device, as that usage is brining no money. If you look at the hardware specs of the new PS4, Ars Technica describes the machine as a honest mid-range gaming PC, but it is doubtful that this machine will shop shelves in 2019.

The PC side is loosing the deployment war. While game installation on PC has certainly improved from the days when one was asked to configure the interrupts of the sound-card, game writers still have to grapple with an extremely heterogenous set of target machines. Games therefore need to be designed in a way that gracefully degrades for machines with lower performances, but this introduces complexity. Each different hardware variant can cause new bugs, which requires additional engineering and support.

Of course, the elephant in the room is phone and tablet gaming, which has stolen both attention and money from both PC and console games. Phone games are generally much cheaper and moved the attention from impressive graphics back to gameplay. Fun has never been a linear function of the hardware capabilities, so improving the hardware is giving diminishing returns.

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Crashing the PS3 Browser

Playstation Logo

I doubt that anybody still want to hack the Sony Playstation 3 at this stage: all its defences have been broken down. Still if anybody is interested, it seems by blog post on HTML for old geeks manages to crash the PS3, hard: the whole console freezes, and the only way to unblock it is to forcefully shut it down, only to be greeted at boot time with the message that the system was not shut-down properly, that a file-system check is needed. If feels a lot like Mac OS 20 years ago. I don’t know if this could be exploited, but given the general health of Sony corporation, I doubt we will see an updated firmware soon.

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Meanwhile on planet Sony

Playstation Logo

So there was another update to the Playstation 3 firmware. This was kind of expected as Sony is preparing the launch of another version of the PS3, slimmer than the slim model I have.
In the world of technology, hardware tends to evolve fast, and buying, six years later, the same hardware is generally impossible, yet this is what Sony is about to sell: a device with mostly the same technical specifications as the original Playstation 3; there are basically two differences besides the size between the model that will launch and the one from six years ago: the size of hard-drive and the lack of the emotion engine, which offered Playstation 2 compatibility in the. That compatibility system disappeared with the slim model.

This is all fine, while the PS3 is certainly not a speed demon by today’s standards, it still has usable hardware, basically similar horsepower to a newer iPhone, so it should be capable of doing the same class of stuff as an iPhone or a tablet: games – of course – but also light web-browsing, e-mail reading. For this one simply needs a web browser (a local e-mail client would be nice, but let us not push it). This spring Sony did something surprisingly reasonable, it replaced the integrated web-browser with a webkit one, sufficiently advanced to pass the Acid3 test, and even some HTML5 features like the canvas tag.

This was update 4.11, the update for October was 4.30, and guess what it improved? The trophy UI is now compatible with the Playstation Vita. I have a computer which Sony thinks is still good enough to sell, is powerful enough to compute protein folding, Sony removes the protein folding client and improves the trophy showcase. Besides this, nothing was improved or even fixed, Facebook photos are still broken in the gallery, there was not the slightest improvement to the web browser, no new utility program, nothing, nada, just trinket compatibility with a gaming console nobody is buying.

To put things into perspective, Sony sold 2.2 millions Playstation Vita between its launch in december 2011 and end of June 2012. Apple sold more than twice this number of iPhone 5 units in a week-end. In fact if you look at the technical specs, the devices are really close (I have added the new Nexus 4 for comparison).

iPhone 5 Playstation Vita Nexus 4
CPU 2 × custom ARM7 (A6)
1.3 Ghz
4 × ARM7 (Cortex-A9)
0.8 – 2 Ghz
4 × ARM7 (Snapdragon)
1.5  Ghz
GPU 3 × PowerVR 325MHz 4 × PowerVR 200MHz Adreno 320
Screen 1136 × 640 960 × 544 1280 × 768
Memory 1 GB 512 MB + 128 MB (VRAM) 2 GB

The iPhone is much more expensive, and has no gaming buttons, on the other hand, it is much smaller and can do useful stuff: make phone calls for starters, web-browsing, light e-mail reading, plus it has a lot of apps – iOS also has much larger user-base: there are around 250 millions iOS5 devices. This in turn is dwarfed by huge volume of android devices: 400 millions.

Two single purpose devices built by Sony – portable gaming consoles and point and shoot cameras – are being replaced by phones that are more versatile, and it takes no genius to realise that single purpose devices in the living room are bound to have the same fate, yet Sony’s strategy seems to be doing nothing…

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Vidzone

Vidzone screen

Sony has recently added a video-clip viewing service to the Playstation 3, and yesterday it upgraded itself to version 2. While it is always nice to get new software on my PS3, and to see that Sony is still trying to improve the system (it also added a movie service called Mubi), the result is really disap­pointing.

Vidzone suffers from two core problems: awful usability and limited content. While the interface in version 2.0 felt really different from the previous, both versions felt like they were coded in a hurry by people who did not understand the Playstation user-interface at all. In fact if you go to the Sony website, the presentation clip never shows the UI.

The keys behave in completely unexpected ways – there is one key on the pad that looks like a pause button, what should it do? Full screen, of course – and the whoever designed the organisation of layouts and menus was either drunk or a very large committee or both. The application tries to do the modern thing and leverage the web browser, but there is not much to leverage. There is no embedded web engine so it calls the anæmic version of opera that is present on the PS3. Of course this means showing a dialog box, leaving the app, and then coming back to the app once the web interaction is finished.

Assuming said interaction takes place, because in my case, Opera was sending error messages because of misconfigured SSL certificates. The UI shows a huge Facebook icon (not the standard one mind you) all over the place, but the app cannot use the system wide Facebook integration, of course, trying to authorise the application brings up the old Opera browser and the wrong SSL certificates. Ah, yes, security, Sony…

At the core, this application is just a video player, with a play queue and a search engine. It is just perversely complicated. Which helps hide the fact there is not so much content. Sure there are video-clips from Beyoncé or Britney Spears, but for instance no trace of the newest Girl Panic Duran Duran clip that came out six days ago. And of course, there is nothing else, no remix, no people playing at home, in short, none of the interesting things.

So while it is nice for Sony to realise that people would like to watch stuff on the computing device hooked up to their TV, the result is a unusable application with limited content.

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Meanwhile, Sony…

PlayStation 3 Slim Model

This spring, Sony’s Playstation Network got thoroughly hacked, it lost the personal information of millions of people. It took multiple weeks to fix the system, during which Sony’s security practices, or lack thereof appeared: many servers were left unpatched and there was no standard channel to report security issues. This did not really come as a surprise, as Sony’s understanding of security was to install root-kits on audio-CDs.

So what initiatives has Sony taken since this spring to fix security issues on the PSN? It did what any large and stupid corporation would do: hire somebody that sounds important and put more lawyers on the problem.

Sony hired some executive from the Departement of Homeland Security, probably one of the few organisations worldwide that treat their users worse than Sony, and with basically a zero track record in actual computer security (forcing people to give out their password at border checks does not count). The lawyer based solution to the problem was to rewrite the end-user agreement to prevent class-action lawsuits.

But at least there are no more security issues on the PS3, right? I doubt it, there is a least one issue that I know off: the gallery program that runs on the playstation cannot access your pictures on Facebook if https is enabled. Facebook enabled https support more than a year ago but Sony still has not fixed the issue: the gallery cannot display any picture, just some blank icons. This shows that either the Sony people do not run regression tests with https enabled, or that they don’t have any regression tests at all.

So what else are the Sony engineers doing? Basically here is the sum of all functionalities that have been added to my PS3’s firmware during this year:

  • Blueray 3D support
  • Mubi client

That’s it. No HTML5 web browser, no Skype (available on the PSP), no Facebook client, no Youtube client. Nothing. Pathetic.

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Playstation 3

PlayStation 3 Slim Model

After buying a television set, the next logical step was, I suppose, to buy a gaming console. So I bought myself a Playstation 3. I would hardly call myself an expert on the subject, as I have never owned a gaming console. My parents owned a Phillips Videopac G7000, an early 8 bit console, but from there on, I only played on computers. The good point is that this means that any console is going to be much better than what I’m used to.

Installation was a breeze, as both the monitor and the gaming console are produced by Sony, they interoperated very well. Both use the same interface (the crossbar) and I can control the console using the TV’s remote, which is really nice and convenient. The console also detected the music and the movies stored on my NAS using DLNA, photos don’t work, but I suspect there is something wrong with the file’s permissions on the NAS. A sign that the difference between computer and gaming console is getting slim, the first thing I needed to do was update the software of the console. Still I appreciate having a device that just works, where games don’t take hours to install and where I don’t have to worry about complex compatibility requirements.

I have only played with one game I bought, Soul Calibur Ⅳ, which is always fun, although Darth Vader feels slightly out of place. I also bought Mirror’s Edge, and got Uncharted 2: Among Thieves in the bundle. I am also looking forward to Brütal Legend, I’ll post about that later on.

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Sony TDM-iP50

Sony TDM-iP50

Cela fait des années qu’on nous parle de convergence multi-media et tout ce genre de choses, finalement cette convergence voit le jour. J’ai reçu avec un peu d’avance mon premier cadeau d’anniversaire, un dock qui permet de connecter mon téléphone à ma télévision. En termes plus techniques le dock connecte un iPhone ou un iPod au port Digital Media de mon moniteur Sony Bravia. Cela me permet de faire deux choses: recharger le téléphone et jouer le contenu sur le moniteur. Toute l’interface se fait par le biais du moniteur. Le point positif c’est que toutes les fonctionnalités sont accessibles via la télécommande du moniteur, donc on peut paisiblement contrôler le tout depuis son canapé, ou un pouf confortable.

Le point négatif c’est que l’interface est relativement sommaire, et n’est pas sans rappeler le télétexte de mon enfance, j’aurais bien aimé que le système utilise l’interface en crossbar qui est devenu le classique de Sony ou affiche les couvertures de disques, mais ce n’est pas réellement un drame. Le support Unicode est aussi partiel, il y a une certaine ironie à avoir un appareil d’une marque nippone incapable d’afficher des caractères japonais. Mais ce sont des détails somme toutes mineurs surtout que l’interface honore au moins l’ordre de tri défini dans les chansons (ce qui évite de retrouves «The Beatles» sous la lettre «T». Le contrôle se fait au moyen des touches du contrôleur de menu et des touches classiques (▶,◼, ▶ ▶, ◀ ◀) et l’écran affiche les informations sur les morceaux joués. La vidéo est aussi supportée, mais je n’ai pas pu juger de la qualité vu que je n’ai pas de fichiers en HD dans mon téléphone. Une capacité important que je n’ai pas pu tester encore est la gestion des appels téléphoniques. L’avantage d’avoir la musique jouée depuis le téléphone c’est qu’en cas d’appel la musique est interrompue. La gestion de mise en veille est par contre bien supportée, avec un économiseur d’écran qui se met en route (je soupçonne que cette fonctionnalité vient de la télévision, pas du dock).

En conclusion ce dock est un petit gadget qui pourrait être plus perfectionné, mais qui rempli bien son rôle.

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The Sun Always Shines On TV

Bravia Screen

One of the things that I had some trouble explaining to people in the US was the fact that I had neither car or TV. I finally have one, or more precisely an LCD screen that holds a tuner. I was getting fed up in watching DVDs on my laptop’s screen, and some of my guest would probably have like to be able to watch some television.

After some looking around, I had decided to buy a Sony Bravia, my brother has one, and I really like the colors. My first though was to buy the plain 50Hz model, but Sony has a cash-back program on the 200Hz models, making the Z4500 fall into my budget. So I ended up waiting for a taxi to carry that monster home while fending off Cablecom idiots salespeople who could not understand that I do not want digital TV. It is kind of weird having the shop sales-guy help you avoid the sales people of cable companies.

The laser printer I bought last year was also under one of those cash-back programs. Basically, when you fill in the registration forms, the manufacturer send you back some cash. While this ensures that people fill in the registration forms, this seems quite complicated to me, as this adds transactions and processing costs. I wonder if this is also an accounting trick. The inventory owned by the shops is higher, and the manufacturer gets some cheap credit. As the offer is time limited, this could also ensures that the products are sold within a given time-frame (the cash back is limited in time).

To come back to the TV, it is basically a black slab with a one meter diagonal. It has a many connectors: three HDMI, two SCART, one VGA, one one S-Video, one USB, one optical out, and one Ethernet. There is also a PC-Card slot for decoder cards. It is basically, a big LCD monitor with a small computer attached. You know that you are in the twenty-first century when you have to set-up the IP address of you TV set. My local network has ten addresses in use only with the various devices I have. The interface is the same as most newer Sony devices, what they call the crossbar, I’m not convinced that this is optimal, but it is usable and has the advantage of being know even by me.

My plan was to connect my mac mini to it and use it as a media center using a DVI to HDMI connector. This worked out of the box, the only setting I had to do play with was the width of the video signal. By default OS X sends data in overscan mode to the screen, and the screen was trying to zoom into the picture, resulting in cut of top and side of the screen. But this was simply a configuration in the screen. I had to use HDMI port 2, as it is the only one with an auxiliary audio port. It would really be nice if there a way to have the computer’s sound output go directly into the HDMI cable, but well. Using a wireless keyboard, the computer is still usable as such. For DVD playing the Apple remote control is sufficient.

I also ended up rewiring my stereo installation: previously the auxiliary input of the my stereo was connected to my Airport express access point, now I wanted to be able to play the screen’s sound on the stereo. The solution I found was the following, I connected the TV to the stereo, and the airport express’s output to one spare audio input of the TV (the S-Video one). I still have to figure out if I can play the sound of that input in picture frame mode.

Being a computer, the screen is also able to display pictures on the USB mass storage device. It can also store one picture in its memory buffer and simply display that one. The result is an expensive picture frame, but I must say the colors are gorgeous. Another esoteric feature is DLNA playback for music and pictures. Basically this means that the screen can connect to a server and download JPEG and MP3 files and play them back. Of course hardware manufacturer could not just use HTTP, they had to devise a weird variant of UPnP to do this. It comes as no surprise that a mutant of a network protocol designed by Microsoft does not work that well. My NAS supports UPnP but is not yet certified for DNLA. I tried running a DNLA server on my laptop, with no success. Still has the computing power of the screen seems insufficient to play back movie files, this would be a nice feature, but limited to either audio files or pictures. We will see how things work with the next firmware version of the NAS.

What about watching TV programmes? I really felt like Crocodile Dundee: I turned the set on, saw a movie I had seen ten years ago, and turned it off.

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sony ericsson z610i

Nouveau pays, nouveau mobile…

sony ericsson z610i

Une des choses auxquelles je me suis habitué au Japon, ce sont les téléphones mobiles. Alors qu’en Suisse, je ne prenais que rarement mon téléphone mobile, au Japon c’est devenu un réflexe. Je n’avais pas de ligne fixe et toute la vie s’organisait par téléphone (et généralement au dernier moment). J’ai aussi pris l’habitude d’utiliser mon téléphone comme agenda avec les adresses et les rendez-vous synchronisés avec l’ordinateur. De fait, j’utilise même mon mobile comme montre…

Si mon téléphone japonais fonctionnait encore ici, les coûts de roaming sont prohibitifs. J’ai donc cherché un remplaçant à mon Sony Ericsson 802SE. Comme tout le monde, je suis une créature d’habitudes, donc j’ai cherché à avoir un téléphone similaire: un téléphone à clapet avec un écran externe. J’ai fini par prendre un Sony Ericsson Z610i. Évidemment, ils ont changé les connecteurs, et le format de la carte mémoire (qui n’est toujours pas standard, on parle de Sony là), mais les menus et la configuration sont similaires. Le nouveau téléphone est naturellement beaucoup plus petit avec un prime un écran externe très sympa.

Mon but était d’intégrer complètement le téléphone avec mon laptop, voici donc les notes pour le faire fonctionner avec Mac OS X.

  • iSync ne reconnaît pas directement le téléphone, mais le problème peut être réglé avec un plugin de feisar qui coûte £1.5.
  • Pour utiliser le téléphone comme modem avec Swisscom, il suffit de télécharger les scripts Sony/GPRS de l’excellente page de Ross Barkman. Les images suivantes donnent la configuration pour le réseau.
Swisscom GPRS configuration 1

Swisscom GPRS configuration 2

Swisscom GPRS configuration 2

J’ai aussi réalisé que le mobile fonctionne comme point d’accès via le câble USB (qui sert aussi de chargeur), dans ce cas, le mobile prétend être une carte ethernet et tout fonctionne dès que l’on ordonne au mobile d’activer USB internet. C’est beau la technologie quand ça marche!

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