Revised Thoughts on the 3DS

By the time this post is live, the Nintendo 3DS will be available for purchase in the United States. I thought this would be a good chance for me to revisit my thoughts on this device to see if anything has changed. For the most part, I feel as strongly opposed to the direction that Nintendo is taking as I did a couple of months ago, but I do have to admit that I kind of wish that I was buying one at launch, even though I wouldn’t really have anything to do with it at this point.

Let’s start with the negative stuff. First of all, I still think that the 3DS is way too expensive. $250 is a heck of a lot of money to spend on a portable video game console. Maybe if the 3DS was more powerful, or had really high resolution screens, or had some sort of killer feature that wasn’t just a gimmick (like 3D is), or if there was at least some awesome, must-have launch title, then maybe I could justify the price. But as it is, there is no way I would ever spend that much money on this thing.

Secondly, it’s kind of ugly. This is especially disappointing to me because the last DS, the DSi, was a very nice, very well-designed device. Very pleasing to the eye. The 3DS, by contrast, looks bulky and kind of like it was slapped together at the last minute. It makes me wonder if perhaps Nintendo made it a little ugly on purpose, so that in 18 months they can release a 3DS Lite or 3DSi or something that looks nicer and has some useless new feature. Then they can make some extra money. I think I’ll hold out for that model.

The games are too expensive, as well. As I suspected two months ago, 3DS games cost $40 a pop, which just seems so overpriced to me in this day and age. When I can get quality video games from the iTunes App Store for less than $10, or the Xbox Live Arcade for $15 or less, $40 is just too expensive, unless it’s a really freakin’ awesome and deep game.

Of course, none of the initial games fall into this category. The general consensus seems to be that Super Street Fighter IV: 3D Edition is the best of the bunch, but even that game hasn’t gotten spectacular reviews. Besides, it’s a fighting game, and I don’t particularly enjoy fighting games. I certainly don’t enjoy them enough to spend $40 on one.

But with all this said, I kind of want a 3DS. And now that it’s actually available for purchase in the United States, I want it even more. Obviously I don’t want one enough to buy it on Day One (I couldn’t afford it even if I did) but this device has enough potential that I almost wish I could buy one right away.

There are no really stellar games available for the 3DS on launch day, but there are really stellar games coming. A remake of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time with redone graphics and extra content is probably enough in and of itself for me to buy the 3DS. (Ocarina of Time is generally considered to be the greatest video game of all time. It’s certainly one of my favorites.) A revival of the long-dormant Kid Icarus franchise certainly intrigues me, as do remakes of Star Fox 64 and Metal Gear Solid 3. A brand-new Super Mario game is also in the works, which is always very exciting.

But you don’t buy a device based on its potential. (Or at least, I don’t. Maybe other people do.) You buy a device because of what it can offer you at the moment when you buy it. And right now, if I went out to the store and bought a 3DS, I would take it home, unbox it, play around with the built-in apps… and then I would put it on the shelf and it would sit there until a decent game came out for it. There simply isn’t any game worth playing on the 3DS right now, and since the 3DS is a device that’s designed to play games, that means the 3DS is just not worth buying right now.

It may, in fact, be quite a while indeed before I get one. First of all, I want to wait until there is a large number of great games available before I get one. If only one or two awesome games ever come out for this system, it’s not worth getting. (Example: I once owned a Virtual Boy. There were two good games for the Virtual Boy. It was not worth owning.)

Second, the current 3DS is quite hideous. And Nintendo has developed a habit of releasing new versions of their handheld consoles every couple of years or so. Therefore, I’m going to hold out for the 3DS Lite or whatever they call it. It’s bound to look much nicer than the current 3DS.

Third, and probably most importantly, there are just other things I would rather buy than a 3DS. For one, even though I just bought a new laptop, I’m already thinking ahead to what will someday replace it. I’d love to buy a MacBook Pro someday, and frankly, I’m gonna have to start saving now if I want to buy one of those in 3 or 4 years. But even if I don’t get a MacBook, the Sony NGP that’s coming out later this year sounds like it will be a nicer handheld than the 3DS. I wouldn’t mind owning a Kindle someday. Heck, I’d rather buy a DSi right now than a 3DS, cause the DSi looks nicer, there’s more good games for it, and it costs 100 dollars less.

I will enjoy owning a 3DS someday, I’m sure. But for right now, I’m quite content with NOT shelling out almost $300 for a device I have no use for at the moment.

A Lament for a Fallen Friend (Or Something)

It’s starting to look more and more like I abandoned Zune at just the right time. More and more rumors are starting to come out that Microsoft has all but given up on the Zune platform. Most recently, Bloomberg reported that Microsoft was ceasing development on new versions of the Zune hardware. This wasn’t exactly shocking news (the most recent Zune, the Zune HD, was released over 18 months ago – an eternity in the world of consumer electronics), but it still seemed highly significant that a major media outlet was reporting this (it must be noted that Microsoft themselves have so far declined to comment). In addition, Paul Thurrott has stated recently that his sources within Microsoft tell him that the Zune brand will soon be discontinued, although the software services that use that name will continue under a different name.

So Zune is, for all intents and purposes, dead. Does it matter? I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I abandoned Zune before I knew that Zune’s death was imminent. I bought an iPod Touch intending to use it to supplement my Zune HD, and it ended up replacing it. But on the other hand, there are few consumer electronics brands out there that I have invested as much interest and emotion into as Zune.

I really do try not to be a fanboy. And I think I succeed for the most part. I own a Wii, a Playstation 3, and an Xbox 360, as well as a Nintendo DS and a PSP. I also own approximately the same number of games for each system. I have a Windows PC, but I use non-Microsoft software on it regularly (Chrome, iTunes, Firefox, etc). I would buy a Mac if I could afford it, but I’d probably install Windows on it even if I did. My point is that I don’t really get all that attached to particular devices or operating systems or whatever. But there was something special about the Zune.

When the original Zune first came out back in 2006, it got fairly positive reviews, but it also got a lot of flack for its bulky design and the fact that it really offered nothing that the iPods of the day didn’t. It’s only major distinguishing feature was built-in Wi-Fi, which was a great feature in theory, but for the first year, all it was used for was “squirting” songs to and from individual Zune devices, which had to be within 30 feet of each other. Pretty lame.

And yet, there was something about it. I hesitated for a long time, because it had so many flaws. But every time I tried out the demo unit at the local Target, I fell in love. The user interface (UI) that Microsoft had crafted for this device was perfect. At the time, I had a Creative Zen Sleek Photo. A fine device for listening to music with, but the actual process of scrolling through menus and selecting items was clumsy and frustrating. Using the Zune was like paradise in comparison. And so I finally decided that I had to have one.

All told, I ended up buying 5 different Zune devices over the course of its lifespan. (Never let it be said that I didn’t do my part to keep the Zune alive!) I owned one of every kind of Zune model that was released over the course of 4 years, and I had two original Zunes. So there is definitely an element of sadness to the news that Zune is meeting its demise.

But at the same time, it’s hard for me to care. When I got an iPod Touch last year, my only intention was to use it for the things that the Zune HD either couldn’t do, or didn’t do well. However, much to my surprise, I found that the iPod Touch did virtually everything better than the Zune HD. The first step in severing myself from the Zune ecosystem was cancelling the Zune Pass subscription that I’d had since November of 2007. But once I no longer had a Zune Pass, I realized that I no longer had any use for my Zunes. So I sold them.

To be perfectly honest, I do have some slight regrets, at least about selling the Zune HD. It was a nice little music player. But, what’s done is done. I’ve officially abandoned the Zune platform, and there’s no going back. Especially not now, since Microsoft is also abandoning it.

I knew when I signed on that this platform was probably not long for this world. Microsoft was going up against a massive juggernaut in Apple’s iTunes platform. Despite the confident-sounding rhetoric coming from Microsoft’s bigwigs, there was never really any chance that Zune was going to make much of a dent in Apple’s dominance of the market.

The ironic thing is that I lived in fear of Microsoft pulling the plug on Zune the whole time I was actively using Zune. But now that they really are pulling the plug, I don’t care, because I no longer have any Zunes.

Not that they’re pulling the plug entirely. As far as I can tell, all of the Zune services, such as the Zune Pass, the Zune software on PCs, the Zune player on Windows Phone 7, and Zune on Xbox will still continue to exist. However, it seems pretty likely that they will now be called something else. There have been rumors that Microsoft has been working on something called “Ventura”, which sounds like it might be a new version of the Zune service. I just hope they take the whole “Zune as a service” thing to its logical conclusion, and release a Zune app for iOS, so I could use a Zune Pass on my iPod Touch. That would be sweet.

Still though, the day that Zune finally dies will be a sad day for me. For at least a little while, I had more loyalty to Zune than I’ve had to any consumer electronics device/platform since the Super NES back in the early 90s. Zune was great while it lasted, and it’s a shame that it didn’t last very long. Anyway, I’m gonna go download some apps on my iPod Touch.

John Boehner Is an Ignorant Old Man

I’m afraid that this post might make me come across as a bit of an uninformed idiot, but I need a topic for this week, and this one is timely. Feel free to flame me.

A hot topic these days among people who follow technology news is something called “net neutrality”. This is a complicated topic, so it’s entirely possible that I have this whole thing all wrong, but basically net neutrality as I understand it refers to the idea that internet service providers (ISPs) should not be able to prioritize one form of internet traffic over another. For an example of why this is important, let’s say that Comcast, which is the largest ISP in the United States, wanted to introduce a streaming video service. And let’s say that they wanted to bundle this service with their internet service subscriptions, and charge extra for it. One way they could get people to pay for this service is if they deliberately degraded other streaming video services, such as Netflix. Even if Comcast’s service cost more and didn’t provide as good a selection of content as Netflix, people would likely pay for it if Netflix barely worked over their internet connection.

Now, clearly since I’m a consumer, I’m biased in favor of consumers, so you’ll probably have to take everything I say here with a grain of salt, but doesn’t this sort of thing seem considerably anti-consumer? So on what grounds would you defend such a practice? Well, if you were John Boehner, you’d probably just rail incoherently against the government trying to usurp “freedom” and “rights”. Whose freedom, do you ask? That’s exactly what I’d like to know.

John Boehner, in case you don’t already know, is the Speaker of the House of Representatives in the United States. One of the things that he is trying to accomplish as Speaker is to eliminate or at least defund the regulations that the Federal Communications Commission recently passed regarding net neutrality. These regulations are a bit of a joke in and of themselves, since they only apply to landline-based ISPs, like Comcast and Time Warner Cable, and not wireless ISPs like AT&T and Verizon. (Amusing side note: Verizon apparently doesn’t care that these regulations don’t apply to them, since they’re suing the FCC to get the regulations overturned anyway. This is even more ironic when you consider the fact that Verizon and Google jointly issued a policy proposal last year that was very similar to the regulations that the FCC eventually adopted.)

My problem with John Boehner’s views on net neutrality are kind of a microcosm of my problem with almost all of his views, as well as those of the Republican party as a whole. It seems to me that the Republican party’s entire platform is to oppose things that Democrats want, simply because Democrats want them. There’s no logic at all to Boehner’s reasoning for why net neutrality is bad.

Boehner gave a speech on February 27 outlining his position on net neutrality. Essentially, he stated that net neutrality is tantamount to a “government takeover” of the internet, and declared that he was “protecting our most basic freedoms” by opposing net neutrality. I have to wonder, whose freedoms is he talking about? The freedom of consumers to use the internet in any (legal) way they see fit? Or the freedom of ISPs to restrict what their customers can and can’t do on the internet?

Some of what he said in that speech makes me wonder if he even knows what the internet is. At one point he states that “freedom and free expression are under attack by a power structure in Washington populated with regulators who have never set foot inside a radio station or a television studio.” I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure what radio stations and television studios have to do with the internet.

Soon after this he made another bizarre statement. “The last thing we need, in my view, is the FCC serving as Internet traffic controller, and potentially running roughshod over local broadcasters who have been serving their communities with free content for decades.” Where do I even begin with the problems in this sentence? First of all, I, and I presume most people in the United States, don’t get my internet access from a “local broadcaster”. I get it from Time Warner Cable, which is a huge corporation based in New York City that made almost 19 billion dollars last year and provides internet access to over 9 million people. This is hardly a “local broadcaster”, and they’re not even the largest ISP in the US. Second, my internet access is not even remotely free. I pay $55 a month to access the internet. How is this “free content”? And third, it seems a little ridiculous to speak of these “local broadcasters” providing “free content for decades” when the internet has been widely available for less than 20 years.

Statements like these make Boehner seem hopelessly out of touch with the way the internet actually works. And if he doesn’t understand what the internet is or how it works, then how is he in any way qualified to even have an opinion about how it should or shouldn’t be regulated? And more to the point, how is he qualified to be in a position to shape the way that the internet is or isn’t regulated?

I shouldn’t ignore the flip side of the coin, though. There is a genuine reason to fear what the government might do if given too much power over the internet. And I would agree that the government telling people what they can and can’t do or say on the internet is potentially a much worse problem than ISPs throttling or outright blocking Netflix. But I would have a lot more confidence that John Boehner was really trying to do what’s best for the American people if he actually sounded like he knew what he was talking about. Instead, all his speech really did was give me another reason to be irritated with the Republican party. Good job, Mr. Speaker.

An Introduction to the Microsoft MacBook

As I alluded to a couple of weeks ago, I just recently purchased a new laptop. One of the unique things about this laptop is that it was purchased from the Microsoft Store, which means that it is part of something known as Microsoft Signature. Normally, when you buy a Windows laptop, it’s loaded with crap. I’m not exactly sure why PC manufacturers feel the need to load their products with crap. But they do. I think it has something to do with software makers paying PC manufacturers to include demo versions of their crappy software. Or maybe PC makers just hate their customers. Either way, anybody who has ever bought a Windows PC knows exactly what I’m talking about.

Fortunately, Microsoft has come to realize that PC makers selling PCs loaded with crap makes Windows look bad. All of that crapware and bloatware slows down the PC and makes getting a new PC a much less pleasant experience then it should be. So that’s why Microsoft created Microsoft Signature. Basically, Microsoft takes PCs made by other companies, like Dell, HP, Acer, etc. Then they take all of the crap off, and add applications that are actually useful, such as Microsoft Security Essentials, which is Microsoft’s free anti-virus software.

As soon as I heard of this service, I realized that I would be a fool to ever buy a PC from any other retailer. Things that make no sense make me anrgy, and crapware makes no sense. Why would a PC manufacturer deliberately add software that is useless and slows down the computer? Basically, they are purposefully making their product worse than it could be, and that’s just stupid. And even though I probably know quite a bit more about PCs than the average person, I still find that crapware is hard to get rid of, because there are a lot of programs that seem to fit into a gray area. My wife and I just recently bought a new Gateway desktop (right before I heard about Microsoft Signature, of course), and I removed as much crapware as I could, but there are definitely several programs on that PC that might be crapware, but they might also be necessary. I just don’t know.

But thanks to the Microsoft Store, my new Acer laptop does not have the same problem. Booting up this laptop for the first time was refreshing. Just a few quick setup questions, and then I was free to do whatever I wanted to do. The desktop was (and still is, in fact) completely empty, except for the Recycle Bin. Clicking on the Start menu revealed a number of different programs (more than I expected actually), all useful. No 60-day trials of Norton Antivirus or superfluous DVD burning software here.

Performance has definitely benefited from the lack of crap. Despite somewhat middling specs, this laptop is plenty snappy. One of my biggest pet peeves when it comes to computing is when I click on something and then have to wait a few seconds for anything to happen. That definitely hasn’t been a problem with this laptop. I can’t say that it is blazing fast or anything like that. But it’s fast enough for everything I want to do with a computer, which is definitely nice.

Obviously I’ve added various apps to this computer since I got it. I had to download iTunes so that I could sync my iPod Touch. I also downloaded Internet Explorer 9 (Microsoft Signature PCs come with IE8, since IE9 is technically still in beta.) In addition, I downloaded all of the other major browsers (Chrome, Safari, Firefox, and Opera) because I’m a nerd and I like to use a lot of different browsers. But it’s a lot easier to add new apps to a computer than it is to remove unwanted apps.

So, some of you are probably wondering about my title. Anyone who knows anything about computers knows that Microsoft has nothing to do with the MacBook. For those of you who may not know, MacBooks are laptops made by Apple. MacBooks are known for their quality of construction and design, as well as for their clean interface and simplicity of use. None of these things are generally thought of in association with Windows.

My point is that Microsoft Signature is Microsoft’s attempt to give computers running Windows that same clean feel and sense of simplicity that MacBooks have. Since these computers are still made by other companies such as Dell and Acer, there is no difference in terms of hardware between a Microsoft Signature laptop and one that you’d find at Best Buy. (Disclaimer: I have absolutely no complaints about the hardware quality of my laptop. That said, it’s definitely not as nice as a MacBook.) But in terms of software, I would argue that Microsoft has definitely succeeded in their goal of making Windows 7 as clean and simple to use as Mac OS X.

Microsoft Signature, simply put, is Windows done right. After using this laptop for a week, I think I can safely say that the biggest problem with Windows is the PC makers that feel the need to cram their PCs full of crap. This crap is of no benefit to anyone, except for the PC makers who profit from the subsidies that crapware makers pay them. I, for one, have no interest in ever promoting this sort of behavior again. I’m totally sold on Microsoft Signature.

At the risk of sounding like an advertisement for Microsoft, I wholeheartedly recommend buying a laptop from the Microsoft Store. This is the first time I’ve owned a computer that feels like it’s mine. When I look over the list of programs installed on my laptop, I know what each one is and I know why it’s there. It really is a wonderful feeling. The next time you need to buy a new computer, I strongly urge you to consider buying it from the Microsoft Store. It’s the best way to get Apple-like quality without paying an Apple-like price.

Whatever Happened to Windows Phone?

There was a time, not that long ago, when I was obsessed with getting one of Microsoft’s new Windows Phones. But smartphones are expensive, and so I ended up getting an iPod Touch instead. I found that I loved it even more than I thought I would, so I’ve never had a second thought about turning my back on Windows Phone. But it turns out that not jumping on the Windows Phone bandwagon was an even better idea than I thought. The way Microsoft has handled this OS post-launch has been less than satisfactory, and I’m pretty sure I’d be less than satisfied if I was paying $55 or more a month for a Windows Phone right now.

First of all, there was the mysterious data leak bug (scroll down to the bottom to find the relevant info). A couple of months ago, it became apparent that Windows Phones were using a lot more data than they should have been using, and they were using 3G data when they could have been using Wi-Fi. This was a big deal, because 3G data is expensive, and generally not unlimited (i.e., the more you use, the more it costs). Microsoft stayed silent about this issue for as long as they could, which obviously didn’t make many Windows Phone users happy. Eventually, they were forced to spill the beans. I have no idea if this issue has been fixed yet. But even if it has, as a relatively poor person, this situation made me glad that I didn’t pony up for a Windows Phone. Although I don’t get 3G coverage where I live, so maybe it wouldn’t have mattered anyway.

The real kicker is the fact that Windows Phone 7 hasn’t really been updated yet. At the end of January, Microsoft expert Paul Thurrott wrote about how in the first three months after Apple released the iPhone in 2007, they released 4 updates for it, one of which was a fairly major update. Microsoft, on the other hand, did not release a single update for Windows Phone in the first three months after it’s release. And now it’s been over four months since Windows Phone 7 came out, and the first update is just starting to appear. There’s two problems with it, however.

First of all, this update doesn’t really do anything. All it does is fix a problem with the update mechanism so that future updates can happen without any problems. Important, for sure, but not all that exciting. But the second, and bigger, problem is that this update has actually been bricking some phones. As Paul Thurrott mentioned last Friday, this is a BAD THING. And it must be mentioned that Paul Thurrott is just about the biggest Windows Phone fan there is. I mean, he wrote the book for crying out loud. So if Paul Thurrott says something about Windows Phone is bad, it must be pretty bad.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love Microsoft. I’ve been a fan of the Xbox platform since before the original XBox came out in 2001. I was one of the four (or so) people in the world who bought a Zune, and not only that, I bought FIVE Zunes. I didn’t just like the Zune, I LOVED the Zune. I just bought a Windows laptop instead of an iPad, partially because I’m enamored with Windows 7. I saw a screenshot of Windows 95 the other day on Wikipedia and got warm fuzzies. I am about as close to being a card-carrying Microsoft fanboy as I can be (and please ignore the fact that I own an iPod Touch and a Playstation 3). The point is, I am not trying to bash Microsoft just for the sake of bashing Microsoft.

It just fascinates me how something can start off with such promise and then end up turning into something of a disaster. I mean, Windows Phone 7 is still a great mobile OS, but the fact that it has these problems and the fact that Microsoft is being so opaque about them doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. Especially when there are very compelling alternatives out there, i.e., iOS and Android.

That really is the crux of the problem. Microsoft isn’t used to having competition. If Microsoft makes a major blunder with Windows, people might grumble and complain about it, but what are they actually going to do? Switch to a Mac? (Which is actually a pretty compelling option now, but that’s a recent development.) But if an average consumer hears about all the problems that Microsoft is having with Windows Phone, why would he or she buy one? Especially when everybody that person knows probably has an iPhone or an Android phone already?

Microsoft needs to wake up and step up their game. People just don’t necessarily think good things when they hear the name Microsoft. Their core product, Windows, has a reputation as being slow, bloated and buggy, and that doesn’t translate to success in other markets. They also seem to think that because Windows is successful and makes a lot of money, that it’s also something that is popular and well-liked. So they have a tendency to slap the Windows name on everything, even things that really have nothing to do with Windows, such as Windows Phone. Unfortunately, people don’t use Windows because they like it, they use it because they have to, or they’re just used to it.

Now, I’m not saying that I agree with that assessment. I don’t think that Windows, especially Windows 7, is particularly slow, or bloated, or buggy. But perception is definitely important. And unfortunately for Microsoft, that is the popular perception.

As usual, I don’t have any answers. And I’m not sure that it would matter all that much if I did. It just would be nice to see a company with so much potential figure out how to get itself out of the doldrums. But it probably doesn’t really matter all that much in the end. It’s not like I own Microsoft stock or anything. I’ll just buy what I like, and that will be that.