iPhone 6 Plus Review

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iPhone users have had it a little rough in the past few years, seeing all the large phones come out while Apple has pretty much kept the screen size at 4 inches. Apple has stated that they could have done a large phone years ago, but wanted to wait to do it right. They may have waited too long, as they ended up losing quite a bit of sales and market share to larger Android phones. Reportedly they worked for several years on this phone and many were excited when the rumors started circulating that Apple was finally making a large screen phone. I pre-ordered one immediately as soon as everyone was able to, the iPhone 6 Plus with the 5.5 inch screen.

I knew I would like a larger phone because two years ago I did a year with Android. I purchased several tablets, smaller handheld units and phones, specifically the Galaxy Note 2. I wanted to do a semi-scientific test to see how well Android stacked up against iOS. With the Note I really loved the screen, the size, and actually I thought the stylus was pretty handy. Samsung has a lot of bloatware (I much preferred the cleaner Google produced Nexus devices I purchased) but I could see myself really warming up to a larger device for daily use. At five inches and above, the phone becomes a computer that you can do a lot more on.

The year spent with Android left me liking the hardware but not really liking the software. Google created the Android operating system and the OS is very open, meaning you can really configure it in many different ways. Unfortunately being more open leaves the OS more vulnerable, Android has issues with malware and viruses, very similar to PCs. Added to this the fact that Google’s business model in general is eroding your privacy to collect more data on you, so it can serve you targeted ads. Much the same way that Facebook generates revenue.

They do this in many ways, some very obvious and some not. My concern was Android was built by a company who has this business model. The combination of virus/malware potential, privacy concerns and also the general wonkyness of the Android OS (crashes, flakiness, etc) ended my year of Android on a pretty sour note. Granted this was two years ago, and Android has been spiffed up quite a bit since, but most of my initial concerns are still valid. I sold all my Android devices and even my Galaxy Note, and continued using my Apple iOS devices. It is not worth arguing Apple vs. Android, both platforms have come a long way and both have a lot to love. I just gave Android a lot of testing and evaluation for the better part of a year and decided iOS was where I was going to stay.

So if Google’s business model is collecting information about you so it can target you with advertising, what is Apple’s business model? Apple’s is selling you expensive hardware. Apple’s devices are not cheap but they are well make and feature great design. They developed iOS 8 because they want the hardware to be more appealing and run as great as possible.

As much as Android is a very open and customizable operating system, iOS is quite the opposite, very closed and locked down. Some people see this as a negative, I see it as the main selling point. I don’t have to worry about viruses, malware or any other exploits. With iOS 7 you had limited ways to customize the phone, but now iOS 8 changed that. Now you can really alter things like installing new keyboards, flexible app extensions and dozens of other options, but it still remains a closed system. However now I do feel like I have the best of both worlds, the customization of Android and the security lock down of iOS, as well as the larger phone I have been wanting for so long. Finally!

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Design, Screen and Camera

Structurally the phone feels great in your hands. A lot of larger phones are made of plastic but this one is made of an aluminum alloy that feels like metal but weighs a fraction of that. They finally ditched the sharp/hard lines of the iPhone 5 and 5s and went back to the curved edges of the original iPhone. Picking up the unit you can really feel how much bigger it is, especially if you are used to an iPhone 4 or 5. But because it is more slender and amazingly thin, it feels very solid and comfy. I thought it would take me a week or so to get used to, but literally 15 minutes after I unboxed it, it felt completely natural. The largeness started to fade away as I started running my favorite apps on the beautiful screen.

And what a screen it is. I can honestly say I have used dozens of devices of all different sizes and this is the best screen I have ever seen. It has stunning color accuracy and saturation (not cranked up to ridiculous levels like some other big phones), amazing viewing angles and everything is sharp and vibrant. The pixels are now closer to the screen below the surface, so you really feel like your finger is moving around stuff.

Touch ID allows me to lock the phone via a fingerprint and that feature works great. As great as it did on my iPhone 5s. I ended up putting several of my digits in there so no matter what orientation I am holding it in, I’ll have a finger close enough to get me in quick.

Apps need to be tweaked for the bigger screen and new apps need to be written to take advantage of the 1080p display, also older apps are scaled up. However everything I have run looks stunning and performs great. Maybe I am just running apps that have been upgraded to work with iOS 8 and the larger screen, but everything works and looks great.

Games especially pop and taking photos and shooting video is a joy with the larger screen. The camera has been upgraded and the quality and performance under low light is fantastic. The iPhones have continued to be known for having the best phone cameras out there, even while other phones have desperately been trying everything from raising megapixels, to adding tons of software photo features, to increasing saturation into not-normal levels to blasting up the sharpness.

Take a few pics with the iPhone 6 Plus and you will become a believer.

The biggest feature with phone cameras is called dynamic range. It’s the level of grays in your images. For example, with most phones you can zoom in to a darker area, say under a shrub or in someone’s hair, and you see the blacks being “crushed”. Instead of subtle shades you see more blocks of black darkness. The good cameras, if you zoom in, you see lots of subtle shades and fine detail. This is how your eyes see, and a good camera recreates that. So other vendors try to ramp up megapixels and do all kinds of tricks with filters, but I can take one pic, zoom in, and immediately see the deficiencies in dynamic range. The iPhone 6 Plus has amazing dynamic range and hundreds of levels of greyscale. Long story short, it takes very impressive pictures in all kinds of light and stunning video.

Usability

The iPhone 6 Plus does have a few areas I need to get used to. First of all the power button is now on the side. I keep reaching for it at the top, where it has been on the last several iPhones. Also talking on the phone. With my iPhone 5s, it was so small that I put it up to my ear and I was right at the speaker. I could judge where to put it because I knew where it should be positioned. The larger iPhone 6 Plus, when I put it up to my ear, I typically have to tweak the position a little because I am not yet used to where the phone should be pertaining to the speaker. It’s the only odd dilemma I have faced, and I find that at the beginning of a call I am sliding the phone slightly to where the sound is the loudest. Not an issue when using earbuds, but it is something I did not expect. I am sure in another week I’ll find that sweet spot automatically. Other than that, using a large phone to make calls is not the odd scenario I envisioned.

Also because the sides are rounded now, and with the larger phone, I feel like the potential for dropping is higher. I got a case for it on day one and have yet to drop it, but while the phone feels amazing in the hand, some people would be better off with a case for a better grip.

Signal wise the phone just rocks. It uses faster wi-fi and locks to a signal in seconds. This past week I had LTE in many places where I would get 4G or no signal with previous phones. I had LTE in a movie theater! I know they have like a dozen antennas intertwining externally via bands around the back, but I have to say getting a strong signal, and keeping a strong signal, the iPhone 6 Plus does this without breaking a sweat. Both LTE and wi-fi are dramatically improved.

Battery life is a lot better as well. It is a much bigger battery of course because of the large size, and while I charge it nightly I could probably charge it every other day. This phone packs some serious juice.

The biggest surprise was how much my wife loves her iPhone 6 Plus. I assumed male geeks would gravitate towards the larger 5.5 inch phone, while females would choose the more understated, smaller 4.7 inch unit. Guess not. She loves the larger screen and probably has not put the phone down since she got it. Also at the Apple Store on launch day I saw many females walking out with the Plus. So I guess I will not assume in the future.

Did I ever consider getting the iPhone 6 4.7? Briefly. But after holding them I discovered that, for me, the 4.7 was a little too big for one handed use and a bit small for two handed use. So I would have stuck with my iPhone 5s for one handed stuff and my iPad for two handed. The more I thought about it, the more I realized I did not do that much phone stuff one handed anyway.

What has happened now with the 5.5 is I have basically replaced my phone and iPad with one device. Actually maybe 3, because I don’t use a Kindle anymore, because the iPhone 6 Plus 5.5 makes a perfect reading device.

Should You Get One?

Yes! If you want a new iPhone, I suggest this one over the regular iPhone 6 with the 4.7 screen. The 4.7 is not that much of an increase and while it is a great phone, the 5.5 Plus is the one to get. Apple allows a 2 week return policy if it does not work out. Anyone who “loves their iPhone” should spend a week with the iPhone 6 Plus and see what true love really is. Highly recommended.

FarmVille 2: Country Escape Review

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What am I doing in FarmVille? As a gamer I had to see how the other half lives. I’m much more at home on a PS4 or Xbox One, or on Steam on my Mac, and while I do play games on my iPad, I am not sure I am in the FarmVille demographic. Actually I am not sure who the demographic is for this game. All I know is I’ve heard so much about these type of free-to-play games, I had to give it a whirl.

FarmVille 2 starts off with a bang. You are given a farm and a supply of keys and virtual coins to purchase things like apple trees and wheat fields. You start buying, start planting and stuff starts happening…fast. Before you know it you start leveling up and doing really well. It’s a sly move to hook you in early. The tutorials gradually open up more of the game and they do an excellent job of leading you through everything. Like a good RPG game, there are missions and tasks, and you can keep grinding (growing and selling) to earn more coins. More coins can be used to buy more land, so you can plant more things, as well as raise sheep, cows and various animals. They go on to produce product such as milk and wool, which you can sell to make more coin.

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The key however is, actually, keys. Keys are more limited in supply, they are powerful in that they can make things go by quicker. Peach trees are taking a while to produce, add some keys to it. Baking pies, keys can make them all set to go in seconds. You are nudged in the game to use keys to speed things up, but once they are gone, they are gone. You can buy new sets of keys for actual money, $2 or $10 or $50. Keys make your farm and everything you produce grow fast.

Or you can be patient. See the angle of the game for many is not building a farm, but seeing how far you can go without spending any money. The game is a free download and you earn keys and coins (and other types of currency later in the game) from playing. But after the first hour or so the game slows down considerably. Everything takes longer to grow or produce. Right now I am cooking a loaded baked potato that will take a total of 4 hours to be done. I have some of my farmhands fishing, they’ll be done in 8 hours. Some things go much quicker. Wheat can grow in 30 seconds. Cows can produce milk in about a minute. Generally items you can get a lot of coin for take longer, things less valuable, much quicker. Because there are so many things going on at one time, as you expand your farm you’ll always have plenty to do. Eventually you have to make items that need 3 different ingredients. So you are constantly managing and micromanaging the corn fields with the pan-seared trout dishes. Trout dishes? Surprisingly much more involved than growing corn actually.

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There are lots of layers to the game, you can sell products to other players, accept challenges, send your farmhands exploring, buy prized animals for winning ribbons, perform landscaping, cook on stoves, weave on looms, do crafting, compete in timed tasks with deadlines, spin a daily prize wheel and much more. I was playing on my own and was reluctant to connect to my Facebook account, as much as the app gently kept suggesting it. But I did connect and it actually opened up a whole new world of helping others with their farm, them helping me, joining farm co-ops, buying and selling, trading crops and much more.

I am using the app on an iPad Air and I decided to try the Facebook app web version on-line. I thought it looked less refined, was not as polished (must be older) and was much more evasive in asking to invite friends at every turn. I’m going to pass on it. The very polished iOS app on the other hand can be played completely offline if you want, no internet or Facebook connection needed. The iPad app (it also works on iPhone) features beautiful graphics and animations, seriously this is a very polished presentation that looks, sounds and plays great. It’s got a lot of visual eye candy and as I mentioned there is always something to do, some new quest, new section of the game opening up and also plenty of farming. The games syncs to iCloud so you can play on all your iOS devices at anytime and everything is saved.

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So is it fun? Can you play without spending money? The game is a lot of fun. I am at level 17 so far and have played for many hours. I have not spent a dime of any real world money (so far) and part of the challenge has been to see how much I can get away with without paying. I think a lot! Now you have to be patient. Typically if you play and don’t pay you may eventually just dip in for some playtime a few times a day. It’s actually kind of relaxing, and it’s always a thrill to hear the audible sound of coins and levels building up. If you have a lot of Facebook friends, and connect the iOS app, you end up getting a lot of help from others which comes in handy. Helping them as well is pretty rewarding.

Now the game can get addicting. It’s actually pretty brilliantly constructed to keep you playing for just a little longer. During the day you’ll feel the tug, well let me just pop in to see how my peach trees are doing or what my farmhands have discovered during the adventure I sent them out on. It can also get a little complex as you level up. In the beginning you plant an apple tree, apples grow, you sell them. As you progress you’ll need to sell items made from multiple ingredients, cooked in different types of stoves and devices, manage your crops because your barn will only hold so much, and keep feeding animals so they can produce the ingredients you need to create higher priced items to sell. It’s spinning plates, in slow motion. These tasks are completed in seconds or hours, often you’ll be working on one recipe only to get sidetracked with another new task, challenge or even better (more profitable) recipe. Not to mention you are constantly looking to buy new land and shopping with your virtual coins to add new animals, plants and equipment, so you can make more money and level up. Even though you are always guided with help and tutorials to suggest how to keep things rolling, the game is flexible enough to let you focus on certain areas if you want.

Through it all you may also suffer burnout. There is great variety in the game but also great repetition. The game is not for everyone but it does reward those who are patient and who can play chess like strategy and keep several moves ahead of the game. If all else fails you can always drop a few bucks and get some keys to make (farm) life easier. I may consider it at some point, only because I actually feel a little guilty playing for hours for free. I’m just having too much fun trying to game the game, trying to get my way and advance without paying. So far I’ve been having a lot of fun approaching it from that angle.

FarmVille 2: Country Escape is available for iOS (iPhone and iPad) and is a free download in the app store. I recommend giving it a try, especially if you like time management games such as Sally’s Spa. You’ll know in the first hour if the game is for you, chances are, you may get hooked. If so, I may see you at a FarmVille co-op in the near future.

Top Posts of 2013

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switching from Gmail and outlook to apple icloud email

What were the top posts on my blog in 2013? Glad you asked. I went through my stats and here they are, in order from the highest traffic to the lowest, the ten posts that had the most visits in 2013.

#1 – Google’s Gmail vs. Apple’s iCloud Email: Here are the Top 4 Reasons to Switch
This has been the most popular post on my site this past year. I don’t think necessarily that people are fed up with Gmail, I just think that Apple’s email is starting to become a viable alternative. Especially now that more people have multiple iOS devices

#2 – iBooks App vs. Kindle App: Best E-Book Reader for Apple iPad mini?
A year ago when I wrote this I was somewhat on the fence. I now use iBooks fairly exclusively. Even though the books are sometimes a little most expensive, and I miss out on some ebooks like Kindle Singles, the ease of use and interface, on all my iOS devices, makes iBooks a keeper.

#3 – iCloud vs. Dropbox: The Final Verdict
OS X Mavericks was reportedly supposed to include an iCloud Drive, but it never happened. I do wish Apple would add a folder based iCloud drive for advanced users. Maybe at some point.

#4 – Roku 3 vs. Apple TV Review
Since I wrote this we’ve added a Roku 3 to a new TV we recently purchased. It’s not too bad. The interface still needs to be improved and it is not as bullet-proof as Apple TV, but it’s getting there.

#5 – How to Buy Kindle Books on iPad
Large spike around the holidays on this page. I do wish Amazon would allow purchases of Kindle books directly in their  iOS app for iPhone and iPad. They would lose some profit by Apple taking their cut, but would get a tremendous amount of sales. Amazon making people navigate to a website or computer to purchase a book seems odd in 2014.

#6 – iPad mini vs. iPad 4 with Retina Display Review
This review stands but is now out-dated as the iPad Air and iPad mini with Retina are now out. I was going to write a follow up battle but having the iPad Air and iPad mini with Retina, and using them for a few months now, they are both amazing in different ways. But if I had to choose only one, it would be the mini.

#7 – Logitech Harmony Ultimate Remote Control Review
With all the gadgets I own, this item is one of my favorites. If you have the budget, get one, it’s an amazing device.

#8 – New Facebook Redesign Concept
Basically just a link post, but it sure stirred up some opinions.

#9 – How to Buy Kindle Books on iPhone
Another popular post, especially right after the holidays.

#10 – 4 Secrets to Taking Great People Photos
I should do more photography blog posts. I have more secrets.

So that’s it, the top posts from last year. Have any questions? Contact me.

Here’s Why Your Next TV Will Watch You

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When you are surfing the web, it’s pretty clear you are being monitored. Using several technologies, most notably website cookies, your browsing habits can be tracked, and ads can be served up based on your interests. But what if your TV had the same capability? It will. The future is about to arrive, and it actually will happen this year. But are you ready to have your viewing habits and interests tracked in your own living room?

Digital sleuthing technology is a new form of tracking that monitors what you watch live or record on your DVR. Companies such as Cognitive and Gracenote, which create all the software for this to happen, track viewing information in real time and sync the information to a database through the web, via Wi-Fi or Ethernet. Marketers get a rich data mine to create tailored messages tying in to the likes and dislikes of the viewer. This technology, called video fingerprinting, extends to TV series, movies and commercials, as well as set-top boxes, streaming devices and Blu-ray players. TV sets from manufacturers such as Samsung, Vizio and Sony are in talks to incorporate this type of software, with some companies such as LG Electronics already displaying, at IFA in Berlin, the tech built in to sets about to ship. The technology and techniques will most likely also filter down to mobile TV. Right now, there are various app-based hooks in place to track what users are doing, but the advancements to mobile will ramp up the sync between viewing and real-time ads being displayed.

As Smart TVs get smarter, the one drawback is that they are still pretty dumb at accessing the needs of viewers. With the Internet and portable tablet devices, as well as smartphones, it has become easier to track mobile units, but living room TVs are still somewhat of a disconnected island. A lot of that changed with the Netflix button. As Netflix became standard on more and more TVs, viewers suddenly had a strong incentive to connect their TV to their home network. Once connected, they could get Netflix streaming, but it also allowed the TV makers to offer other apps, firmware updates and old school banner ads. These rudimentary ads that may appear when you access your TV’s internal menu screen are very reminiscent of the Internet 15 years ago. The landscape of banners ads for TV are very fragmented now, but its clear that this prime space is the next wild west that advertisers can stream into. The one drawback is that as slick (or as complicated) as these TV menus and screens are, they are almost always pretty disconnected from the actual TV sources plugged into them.

What about privacy? Who is going to want a TV to track their every move? Currently, this technology is opt-in, meaning that the viewer has to sign in for the tracking to begin. Of course, this could be tied in to features, so viewers will need to sign up as well as in to access some form of content. Tracking will most likely be described in a long scrolling terms of service that few will read. But once a viewer is in, the data will become extremely powerful and valuable. Imagine a 24/7 Nielsen box that tracks whatever is playing on the TV from whatever device. This is not too dissimilar to second-screen apps that rely on audio tracking currently out. Many apps on iOS 7, Android and Windows Phone allow “following along” with chats, message boards and info as you watch a program. The tablet or smartphone listens to your TV audio (much like Shazam) and figures out what you are currently watching via audio thumbprints. Video thumb prints take this to the next level and happen globally on your TV set, no matter what you watch.

Complexities arise once you start to think this through. What if you have kids and adults and visitors all watching different types of shows at all different times of the day or night? Will this new technology track all this intelligently and systematically, serving the right content to the correct person? This has been a struggle for many companies. Recently, Netflix tried to solve this problem with breaking out its one streaming account into multiple user accounts. So now, primarily and currently on the website version, before you go in to watch, you need to stop and click what user is going to be viewing. This allows Netflix to track recommendations on a more granular user basis, but it also causes an interface speed bump and user interaction. People just want to sit down and watch without designating users, or worse, having to log out of one user and into another just because some people left the couch or returned.

It’s fair to say that video tracking on a TV set basis is the next big thing. Ads have permeated so much of our life; the relatively calm waters of TV were bound to be disrupted at some point. Hardware such as the Kinect and Xbox One include technology that tracks, but it is (fairly) clear exactly what they are doing. With video thumb printing, advertiser tracking could be as murky and frustrating as online web ads and cookies have become. But be aware: TV tracking is not just coming; it is already here. The only choice we have to decide on is if we are ready for it.

How to Market Your Voice Over Services

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From the mailbag:

Hi Franklin. I came across your blog during my search for information on producing voice overs.  I’ve been a musician for 30 years have and also have been providing sound and recording for about 10. I’m looking to diversify into producing voice overs. The older I get the heavier my gear gets to haul around:).  My question for you is who should I be marketing my services to. I was thinking ad agencies but not too sure. For example who is creating the endless car dealer spots you hear on the radio? I really appreciate any advice you could share with me. On a side note I see you live in Portland. I work in Portsmouth and live near Rochester NH. – Respectfully Mike Galimberti / http://dtxdrummer.com

Who is producing those spots is a good question. It could be the local radio station themselves, it could be a local agency who handles the media for the car company, if it is a small dealer it could just be them doing it with a microphone and a computer. It’s hard to figure out, so don’t waste time trying to. If you want to market your VO skills, you need to go to the decision maker. In this case, say it is the car dealer. Pitch them to do voice overs for their commercials. Now they most likely have a place that does all their audio and video production. No problem, ask the dealer if they can introduce you to the production company. Could be something simple, like forwarding your contact info via email. Instead of finding and pitching a production company, you have their client introduce you. In marketing, try to look for creative paths to what you are trying to find.

When it comes to marketing and building your career, there are lots of strategies. You have to be different, market pleasure, keep clients engaged, rattle cages, be emotionally compelling, measure and manage it and most importantly, take it to the next level. You owe it to your audience to bring your craft to the masses, so keep the momentum going and continue to be a student of learning new ways to market yourself in fresh and engaging ways.

Have a question about anything? Drop me a note.

How Do I Move/Migrate from Gmail to Apple iCloud Email?

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From the mailbag:

I am a simple person. Retired, traveling with spouse, live quietly now and do not like solicitors, con artists, spams and tracking. Although, this is probably unavoidable in this tech age. Also, we don’t use Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook or any other social networks. Really, we just don’t have a need of any of that. We love our iPads and our MacBook Pro. I want to ditch my Gmail and use iCloud. Can I move all mail (saved in gmail folders) to the new iCloud email account so that I don’t lose them? It’s mostly travel info and various receipts and such. The only other option would maybe be a paid service like cotse.net or similar for more privacy. Thanks for your input on this. We will stick with Apple products. – Paul

The easiest way to do this Paul is to use your Apple Mail app on your OS X desktop. Just add your iCloud account and also your Gmail account. Once you have both set up you can move emails between the two. The trick is to use either drag and drop or select all, copy and paste. Drag and drop will actually move the emails, copy and paste will copy them. There are a few websites that have the steps to do this and it is a fairly straightforward process. After you set it up, you can arrange a forward in Gmail to make sure all new emails going to Gmail get forwarded automatically to iCloud.

Deciding to move from Gmail to Apple Email is not too big of a step, because using this method you can always copy the emails back if it does not work out.

Have a question about anything? Drop me a note.

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag Review on PS4 – The First 12 Hours – Graphics and Gameplay

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I played the first Assassin’s Creed and dabbled in the second one (I think I got it on Steam), but have mainly not been that interested in the series. The whole Assassin concept was not too compelling, I am much more into RPG exploring and leveling as far as adventure games go. I’ve been playing Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag on the Playstation 4 for over 12 hours and while I feel like I have only scratched the surface on the game’s entire story, I have seen and played enough to have some commentary.

First of all the game is gorgeous. I was ready to not be too entranced by the resolution of the next gen consoles because at 720p and 1080p, they are essentially the same resolution as the last generation. So it was a surprise to see such vibrant colors, wide dynamic range, excellent anti-aliasing and extremely high resolution textures. Dynamic range is the levels of greyscale in an image, the more levels you have the more detail you can see. When you take a picture with an older camera for example, if you look at dark areas such as shadows and people’s hair, you see the area is often “crushed”, basically a blob of darkness with minimal detail. On newer cameras, you can see a wider dynamic range, where shadow areas have detail and shades. It makes pictures much more vibrant.

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The next generation consoles have very wide dynamic ranges and along with the saturated colors, the imagery really pops. Ubisoft went full 1080p with this title and released an update that incorporates some excellent anti-aliasing. This technique smoothes out jaggies and makes for much more realistic scenery, especially when looking in the distance. The textures are the first thing you notice on next gen consoles. Typically with last gen consoles, if your character looked down while walking on a dock by the sea, you would see a rough approximation of wood texture, usually not too high res, and a murky, pixelated sea. But this game has very detailed textures, the wood grain looks great and the sea looks just about as it does in real-life, with deep blues, greens, sea foam, reflections and accurate and realistic waves. I often stop and just soak in the amazing visuals, especially if the sun is just rising on the horizon or a sudden wind and rain storm begins to brew.

Enough staring at water, how’s the gameplay? Fun, very fun. The game does not have a difficulty setting, but it remains a not overly hard game. Some segments are a challenge and take several tries (rescuing people or chasing someone) and it’s here where the game gets a little grating with running the player through repeated attempts. But overall I have yet to feel that the game was hard or easy, just a nice solid challenge. You go on various pirate adventures, exploring, fighting and going on missions, and most of it is very fun. Unfortunately the game producers assume you’ve played all the Assassin’s Creed games, instructions in some areas could use a little (or lot) more hand holding. Often a screen full of commands pops up as you jump into a new and dangerous scenario. Learning quickly is the key. I recommend the official game guide which you can get digitally via Apple’s iBooks. Speaking of digital, there is a companion tablet app to the game which syncs with your progress. I won’t get into a whole review of it, let me just say get it..it’s amazing how they’ve incorporated the tablet and PS4 game.

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All in all the game mixes a lot of different game styles and genres such as combat, questing, sailing, sea battles, exploration, treasures, leveling up and many more. It’s never boring and you can always take a break from the story and go explore the current open world for side quests and loot. One thing the game does right is it keeps the story in the cut scenes. Unless you are in a story-advancing segment, there is no dialog and no text to scan through. There are various text items you find through the world that explain more of the history, and you do have a progress and tracking screen where you can get more background info, but what won’t happen is endless text conversations with random people. The games sticks to action and adventure and it’s a much richer experience because of it.

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is a surprise, it’s a game I had low expectations for and it’s kept me busy for hours with exciting gameplay and adventures. The biggest bonus is the way it looks. It just looks gorgeous, colorful and vibrant on the PS4, with stunning locations and exacting attention to detail. The developers did a great job crafting a dense world with lots to see and do. The story moves along organically and the script never gets in the way of having a good old swashbuckling time. There is a distinct lack of role playing games for the launch of the PS4 and Xbox One, those will arrive in the coming year. For now, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, and living the life of a pirate in a beautiful open world, is the RPG game to get.

Assassin's Creed IV Black Flag walkthrough

Questions + Answers #1

I get a lot of great comments via the website, so I wanted to start answering them via blog posts. Let’s give it a whirl…

I am wondering if you are still enjoying all the iCloud services, especially the email? Any major problems? Thinking of making the switch myself. Thanks in advance.
– Brandan

I have not had any problems, in fact iCloud is working perfectly for me and has for months. The article I wrote, Google’s Gmail vs. Apple’s iCloud Email: Here are the Top 4 Reasons to Switch, seems to have struck a cord because it is one of the pages with the highest traffic on this site. One thing I did not mention is that I think Gmail will eventually only be available via the web and through a dedicated Google app. The way Google incorporates IMAP is different and many people have had issues with getting Gmail working in their dedicated email programs. I see this as a sign that Google is not that interested in creating a service that works with industry standards.

Twitter created an API that allowed developers to produce their own Twitter apps, and many great Twitter apps have sprung up because of this. But Twitter at the same time cut itself out of serving ads in these apps, and as Twitter becomes more focused on revenue, it has been pulling features from developers and making it much harder to develop Twitter apps. Eventually Twitter may just cancel allowing developers to create 3rd party apps.

I feel Google will head down this path as well.

Using a 3rd party email app cancels out the ad-serving element of Google, so I see Gmail getting more restrictive before it gets more open. It’s fine if you just read email in a browser. I just don’t want ads in my email. Plus as my article stated, Google scans through your email for keywords to serve ads. Most people would not be too comfy with this. This week they announced that they will now be caching all your email images. They are spinning it as an improvement, but it’s just more evasive tracking.

So I still highly recommend iCloud Apple Mail over Gmail. Also iCloud in general. I feel Google is always pushing me to give up more info (latest is forcing you to use real names in services like YouTube) and it’s just exhausting.

Can you have both ROKU and AppleTV on the same TV if you TWO HDMI ports on the TV? – Frank V.

Absolutely. Of the two I prefer AppleTV, but because of the price, there is no reason not to have both. Heck, if you have a third HDMI port, why not add Google’s Chromecast.

How come you don’t have comments enabled on your blog? – Amanda G.

I actually thought about this quite a bit. I wanted to try it through people (such as you!) sending a note in via the website and having me answer it in a post. Rather than have great comments buried different places on different posts.

So let’s try it..have a comment or question? Ask me anything. Drop me a note and let’s see if I can come up with a good answer. Thanks!

PS4 vs. Xbox One – Unboxing, Hardware, Interface and Graphics Review

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Yes I have had both for a week or so, and yes they are both powerful machines, but which one is better? Which one would I recommend? It may be too soon to create a final verdict, but here are my initial thoughts on both units, the pros, cons and what makes either machine outshine the other.

Unboxing

I ordered my Playstation 4 on Amazon and the Xbox One came via Best Buy, thanks to my lovely wife standing outside in the freezing weather for the midnight Day One launch sale.

Opening the PS4 box, you first realize that the unit is very svelte. It’s nicely designed with a very cool look. It’s also smaller and lighter than I thought it would be. The power button and disk eject button are a bit too hard to see and find, and they are also right next to each other, a design choice I would not have made. But the thing does look cool. It also sets up quickly, and uses the same cabling as the PS3, just a power cord (no brick!) and HDMI cable.

Before even opening the Xbox One box, just by lifting it, you get a sense of the heft. Where the Playstation 4 is slim with sleek lines, the Xbox is a big, heavy box that looks like a jet black PC. Since it comes with the Kinect motion and voice controller unit as well as a large power brick, there is a little more of a setup. My first instinct was, where am I going to fit this stuff in my entertainment center. But I managed to make room.

sony ps4 playstation launch details vs xbox one

Setup and Interface

The PS4 setup was pretty easy, just sync the controller and put in my PSN name and password. I was then off and rolling after downloading the latest update. The interface was clean, immediately accessible and understandable. I could quickly find settings to adjust, apps to download and the Playstation Store to download games. I could also see a scrolling list of all the activity of my PSN friends. Often it was a little too much activity, but I never felt like I had to scroll through it. The main drawback of the interface is that every app and game you install is blocked together on one long scrolling line. I could see in the future with many games and apps I would want some way to control and sort these things, and I am sure Sony will add some organization tools in a future update. I installed a few apps, such as Amazon, Netflix and Vudu and each had their own dedicated interface. Some look great like Netflix, and some like Amazon clearly have not been updated since it launched on the PS3.

Setting up the Xbox One was more involved, it just seemed to take quite a bit longer. Which makes sense because you are also setting up the Kinect. Speaking of the Kinect, I did try controlling the Xbox One using voice commands and found it hit or miss. Most of the time it worked, but when it did not, it was very frustrating. Not unlike using Apple’s Siri, when a command does not work, you try it again. Then you try it again only louder. Then it misinterprets what you are saying. Then you start to think, why don’t I just hit a button instead of struggling with voice commands? I feel like this will happen to a lot of Xbox One users. They’ll try it and when they hit a few speed bumps with voice commands not working, they’ll ditch it altogether. The problem is, Microsoft upped the price of the console by $100 and forced everyone to buy a Kinect along with the Xbox One, so ditching it so easily can be seen as a frustrating waste. I may give Kinect another try, since I have not even tried the hand motion commands. There is great technology there, I just don’t feel like wrestling with it.

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You can run your cable box into the Xbox One and see your live TV on the Xbox One screen. Not only is this pointless (who watches live TV in 2013?) but it’s again a lot of extra and pricey technology built in that perhaps many will not even use. Most people use a receiver to switch to different video inputs if they have a decent entertainment setup, Microsoft’s running the TV into the box would have been exciting ten years ago, but I don’t see the point today. Especially since it can’t function as a DVR and does not interact or control your existing DVR.

I installed some apps and was excited to see the YouTube app. Microsoft has a strict interface that apps adhere to (scrolling boxes) and I was sure that the YouTube app would look great on this next gen box. Unfortunately I was sad to see the horrible YouTube interface that the PS3 also uses. I played around with it for a few minutes and then gave up.

The actual Xbox One interface takes a lot of its design from Windows 8, which means its got miles of scrolling boxes, and it takes more clicks than usual to get anywhere. The interface does seem a bit more organized than the Xbox 360 version, but if this initial version seems a little cluttered, I can’t imagine what it will look like a year from now when so much more is added. Microsoft always slapped non-relevant ads in the Xbox 360 interface, and I anticipate that will happen more as the months roll on with the Xbox One. I also found the Xbox One interface a slight bit more sluggish than the PS4 interface. It is a lot speedier than the Xbox 360 one, but there is a slight bit of loading (represented by a spinning circle) going from section to section. Most won’t notice, and it is far from a deal breaker, but it’s not really what I would expect from a next gen powerhouse interface.

Controllers

The Xbox One controller has changed a bit, not much, but I think I prefer the Xbox 360 controller. Maybe I need to get used to it more, but the new controller feels slightly less comfy. It also has a slicker feel. It’s still grippy but the plastic is a little too smooth. Also the weight seems to be reduced a hair. Something about it seems off, and I can’t quite put my finger on it, maybe I just need to get used to it. The Xbox 360 controller has been the gold standard of console controllers, so changes to that may take some adjustment time.

The PS4 controller on the other hand gets an almost total redesign, and for the better. Where the PS3 controller felt blocky, lightweight and caused hand fatigue, the PS4 one is super comfy, substantially weighty without being heavy, and feels amazingly natural in your hand. Seriously, Sony took just about every lacking aspect of the previous controller and improved it. Since Microsoft’s controllers are so good, I would say that the PS4 controller is now in the same league. Both controllers are usable, with the PS4 getting a slight edge so far.

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Hardware

There are many articles on the specs of the two machines, but the summary is that the PS4 is a more powerful machine that requires a bit more power to run. The Xbox One is a less powerful machine, but is much more energy efficient. The thinking is that Microsoft anticipates people will use the Xbox One as a digital hub that is on all the time. I’ll go over how wrong they are in a minute, but the problem with going with a less powerful, but lower power device is that Microsoft may not be able to keep up with the PS4’s resolution and frame rate.

Microsoft’s last console, the Xbox 360, regularly had games that were 720p but upscaled to 1080p, just to hit the performance of no dropped frames during gameplay. They’ve been snagged again (via resolutiongate) with the Xbox One. As Xbox One games came out around launch, several websites analyzed the games and found several were running below 1080 res and being upscaled. Microsoft responded “it’s about the games, not the resolution”, which makes little sense.

I would counter with “it’s not about the resolution, its about the anti-aliasing”. Anti-aliasing is a process where HD graphics are smoothed out to reduce jaggies. Jaggies don’t often occur in a full screen character giving a speech, but way in the background, you can often see jaggies along vertical lines in some games. Last gen was full of jaggies, but now that is outdated hardware. Basically you don’t see jaggies in “real life”, and if games want to create ultra-realism, they need to use anti-aliasing.

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Actually both systems should be able to get 1080p and 30 fps, but the better looking games going forward will use various forms of anti-aliasing. However this process takes more computing power, and here is where the PS4 could spring into the lead. Since the PS4 has more horsepower to apply anti-aliasing, the games, all things being equal, may end up looking better on that platform. It’s still early to tell, but we do have one new example: Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag (my review is here). The game looks great on the Xbox One, but it looks amazing on the PS4. Why? Because the developer updated the game to add anti-aliasing. It now runs at 1080p, 30 fps and jaggies are just about nonexistent. This makes a huge difference to the look and feel of the game, and I have to say playing Black Flag on my PS4 looks very next gen. Trust me on this one, anti-aliasing will be a big topic and hot debate on both consoles in the coming months, once people get a taste of how it looks when done correctly.

Speaking of games, both consoles make games look great. Really great. From the sharpness of the textures to the vivid 1080p detail to the highly saturated colors, everything really pops on both devices. The first game I played was Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag and I was floored at how great it looked and how smoothly it performed. Also playing Need for Speed Rivals, Killer Instinct and others, it is a big step up from the PS3 and Xbox 360. When you stop to think about how launch games rarely scratch the surface of the potential of a new machine, we’ve got some pretty amazing gaming years ahead of us.

Conclusion

Who will win? Well both will do just fine. Both platforms have a built in fan base and both have enough momentum to keep rolling for years. Strictly as a gaming console, the PS4 does take a bit of a lead. At its core it’s a lean and powerful machine which is completely focused on games. Having a sleek device with a great controller, games look amazing and the controller is very much improved. Xbox One can play the gamer card just as hard, but the device is more expensive, includes the Kinect which is an expensive add on that not everyone wants, and its live TV based concept of being your digital hub seems a bit misguided. The Xbox One is too limited to be an actual entertainment room hub. It also has too much baggage, the Xbox brand being a gamer’s device for many years. If Microsoft thinks everyone, mom, sis and dad will be using the Xbox One like they do in the commercials, I think they may be in for a slight letdown. I appreciate Microsoft’s focus in wanting to take a bigger piece of the pie and make an all encompassing device, but it ends up trying to be everything to everyone, diluting its real strength, which is being an awesome gaming machine. Of course Microsoft has traditionally bypassed niches and went after the wider consumer market, to great success, so time will tell if their strategy pays off.

In the end it really is too soon to tell, consoles take a year or two to hit their stride, and these two are way too early in the game to make any definitive assessments. I have both devices, and will use both for the coming year, but so far I have to give the slight edge to the PS4. The Xbox One has a lot of features and has a great game line up, but the PS4 is more focused, and seems to be more powerful, with a clean interface and great controller. If I had to choose one over the other, I would head in that direction, but I can’t imagine anyone who would not be happy with either. These are two very amazing machines that we have yet to even see the enormous potential of.

My Last Apple iPhone Launch

apple iphone 5s launch lines waiting gold phone silver anger

Apple fanboy does not even seem that fitting. I should be more than that. I believe I have just about every Apple product currently out. I’ve been a huge fan for years. I’ve attended many iPhone launches. But today I attended my last.

Up at 5:00 AM, the excitement was building. Many don’t understand why anyone would stand in line for an Apple product. I think it’s like Christmas for adults. The marketing, advertising, the keynote…it all builds up the excitement. I went with my wife Karla and our friend Jen. We got to the mall shortly before 6:00 AM.

We were in a good position. We were about 10th in line. I breathed a sigh of relief. Our chances of getting the phones we wanted were golden.

Or so it seemed.

Karla and Jen wanted gold and I was on the fence, leaning more towards gray but also open to gold. Shortly after 6:00 AM one of the Apple employees came out and thanked us all for showing up. I think her name was Marge. She quickly dovetailed into a more serious speech letting us know of the “very limited availability” of the iPhone 5s. Because of the “overwhelming demand” the stock was “extremely limited”.

OK.

According to my watch, the iPhone 5s had not yet gone on sale in the U.S. No stores were open, and the 5s had not been available for pre-sale or reserving. So not one had been sold yet. But the dire speech kept going back to this incredible demand that had seemingly transpired.

We eyed each other and sipped our coffees and tried to remain as enthusiastic as we could while being at the local mall before sunrise.

Scanning the line I could see there was now close to 50 more people filing in. Some had worried looks. Some were on the phone conveying the “overwhelming demand” news. But most were just hanging out hoping for the best.

About an hour later Marge came back and wanted us all to get excited and start clapping. I mustered up the energy even thought I now know that this women had been designated the bearer of bad news.

“How’s everyone doing this morning?”

That depends on what you are about to say Marge.

“I just wanted to give everyone an update”

OK it’s been an hour, time for some good news.

“We wanted to let everyone know that we have no iPhone 5s gold or silver phones in stock today”

Excuse me?

It’s now about 7:15 AM. The store opens at 8:00 AM. We’ve been here since just before 6:00 AM. Now you tell us the phone we want is not even in stock?

“Due to overwhelming demand…”

Seriously Marge, you say that again you’ll be wearing a hazelnut coffee helmet.

“..we are out of stock”

Store still not open. Watch still says none have been sold.

It was not true that they had no gold phones. They actually had 3. The people at the front of the line, the first 3, got them. I turned around and saw dozens of people looking very let down. Christmas for adults had turned into Christmas for kids. Sad, disappointed kids. Kids who did not get that one toy that they so desperately wanted.

Karla and Jen said very little. There was some mild PG-13 swearing. Some guy near us kept eating a Boston creme donut. I kept thinking, how can you eat at a time like this? There was quietness. There was disappointment.

I was disappointed too. But then it turned to mild anger.

This is a yearly tradition. You set the alarm, get up early and most of the time if you get in line soon enough, you get what you want. But 3 gold phones did not even begin to cover the huge line that had been forming.

As I jumped on the web, I read that carrier stores like Verizon and AT&T actually did not get any gold phones. We checked over at Best Buy and Walmart. Nothing. Gold was nowhere to be found. Since we were at the only Apple Store in the state and carriers/stores seemingly did not have what we wanted, it seemed like a pretty crappy Christmas for adults just about everywhere.

Apple sent out a release within the hour that outlined how amazed they were by the “incredible demand” and some phones are “already out of stock”.

Yes the three gold phones in the state were purchased by three people.

My mind filled with questions. Why did they not level with us about the amount when we first arrived? Why were we kept in the dark for nearly an hour? Why with a week of global marketing were there only 3 chances for gold? Why is that Boston creme guy now staring directly at me? If there was such a dramatic shortage, why was the silver and gold iPhone 5s launch not delayed for a few weeks?

The store was opening. All the chipper blue shirt employees came streaming out and were cheering. Marge, bearer of bad news all morning, was getting everyone in the line to cheer and chant. She was whipping into a frenzy a group of clearly disillusioned Apple fans. Somewhere from the back of the line a large tomato whizzed over everyone’s heads and splatted right onto the Apple Store sign.

OK I made that part up. But that would have been a nice visual to film in slow motion. With a new gold iPhone 5s.

I am sure next year’s Apple launch will have enough phones. I am sure there will be an even larger line for the iPhone 6. The only difference will be that I won’t be in that line. I won’t be setting my alarm for 5:00 AM and chugging coffee and excitedly joining a group to purchase a little bit of magic.

This year’s Christmas for adults had Apple sliding down the chimney and landing with a coal-laced thud. Granted every year is a gamble. You get there and you hope for the best. But this year the odds were not stacked in our favor, even before our alarms went off.

As I was leaving, at the very end of the line, was a young girl about 20 years old. She was not so obsessive, or perhaps did not know the drill, to show up at the crack of dawn. Maybe she was dismayed at being on the tail end of a huge line. I bet she wanted a gold phone. I sorta felt bad for her. But I noticed she was smiling. She seemingly was just was having fun being there and enjoying the whole event.

I looked back and saw Marge, who seemed more excited then earlier, as she gleefully greeted everyone who entered the store with a firm handshake. I looked down at my new gray iPhone 5s. It looked sleek and beautiful and was super fast. I was happy with my purchase.

I began thinking that maybe I should relax a little and just go with the flow. Maybe just appreciate what I have instead of what was not available. Maybe just enjoy the process. Maybe go treat myself to a Boston creme donut.

Maybe I will see you next year.