Saturday, 28 January 2017

Of Things To Come

So a new year has begun and I feel it's time to take stock as to what is to come this year. Naturally, this year will involve some wargaming, with the aim of a Saturday game once a month, shows permitting. We actually have one today where we should hopefully have a good turnout for the delayed TWATS Tiny Tactica Tournament.

Show wise, I am hoping to get to the usual suspects, York (Vapnartak), both Partizans, Edinburgh (Claymore), Falkirk, Derby and possibly Newcastle (Border Reiver). Transport depending, the Battleground show in November is also a possibility, but we shall see. Last year's shows were mostly pretty good, though I have doubts about the Newcastle show this year. And Battleground for that matter. Both are medium regional shows, and last year, Newcastle seemed to follow a trend of being quieter than the previous year. Also take into consideration that Battleground's organisers actually release customer numbers for their show and it has been taking a 10% drop year on year. I get the impression that both shows have uncertain footing. Part of me really hopes they continue, but with declining attendance, how can you keep a show going if fewer people are spending money with traders? And let us not forget, without the traders paying for stands, the economics of a show are very dicey(!) indeed. We shall see...

When time permits (and the mood takes me), there are a couple of decent TV shows that have new seasons this year. Firstly, Sense8, which had a two hour special released over Christmas to tide fans over before the full second season arrives in May. I have written about the show previously and I am really looking forward the the new one.

Another show that gets a second season release very shortly is The Expanse. Based on the novels by James S A Corey, the show is set a couple of hundred years in the future in a divided Solar System. There is political intrigue, action and more than a little drama. Sort of a cross tonally between the Battlestar Galactica re-boot and Babylon 5, the show has a pretty good handle on realism and my good lady and I got through the first season in pretty short order. It even prompted me to buy the first three books of the series and they don't disappoint.

Gaming wise, the slate is a little bare - there is Mass Effect Andromeda coming in March and that's about it. I still have a ton of games to get through so that's possibly no bad thing. I am not even overly bothered about the release of the Nintendo Switch. It's a tad pricey for the two games I would want to play before the end of the year and not even the thought of portable Skyrim is enough to tempt a purchase. I am hoping the price either comes down or there are pack-in bundles that give a bit more value for money.

So that appears to be that for now. I shall, of course be adding to the blog on a more regular basis than last year, and be adding a few show reports as and when they happen. Toodle pip for now.

Saturday, 21 January 2017

Hold on again, I bought two of those!!!

Following on from the Tapwave Zodiac post the other week, it got me thinking about what was possibly my favourite piece of multi-purpose tech from the noughties - the Nokia N-Gage.

Now hold on there before you get pitchforks and flaming torches, hear me out. This was an attempt by the then biggest mobile phone manufacturer to combine said mobile phone tech with a games console, something that still alludes to this day (I am not counting smartphone gaming as  unless the rely upon simple touchscreen/gyro controls, actually playing them is a chore. I believe that physical controls trounce those options pretty much all of the time).

So what was it like? Well, Nokia took their then successful Series 60 software platform and stuck it in this:

The Nokia N-Gage - aka The Taco phone

Now I will be the first to admit that they compromised massively on the design, indeed, one of the key failures was the controls themselves, a phone keypad rather than gaming controller. It actually challenges the Atari Jaguar pad as worst design ever. Still, at the time, it was quite a piece of tech and yes, I bought one on launch day with a copy of Tomb Raider and I loved it. For a while...

Amongst the other compromises brought along on the phone side was the screen, a very (phone sensible) 11:13 ratio vertically orientated display. However, most gaming devices at the time followed the 4:3 ratio that copied televisions of the age. This was awkward and compromised the aesthetics of most of the titles. Another was the game card slot. This was inside, with no access externally. This meant that to change titles, you had to strip the battery out and re-boot the device. To be fair to Nokia, they did improve on a few things with the N-Gage QD but I'll get to that in a moment.

Despite the frankly obvious negatives above, I loved the machine. It allowed me to carry one device instead of several and even if you did look like a complete tool using it for a phone call, it ticked a lot of the boxes for me. Even the battery life wasn't too bad and it took a standard Nokia battery at the time so carrying a pre-charged replacement was easy enough. Plus pretty much everyone had a Nokia charger lying about.

Having said that, a quick check on YouTube shows that time is a harsh mistress and the titles that I remember playing and enjoying have not aged well, either by the technical abilities of the machine or that god-awful screen ratio. I ended up with about ten titles for the N-Gage over the two years I used it and it's follow up, the QD. Alongside Tomb Raider, there were Sonic N, Pandemonium, Super Monkey Ball and Call of Duty that stand out. Not necessarily for the right reasons, but I remember them well.

As per the market at the time, once the 12 month contract was over, I upgraded to the QD, a softer, more sensible re-design that slightly improved the controls, moved the speaker and mic so that you could hold the phone normally and placed the game card slot on the edge of the device. I sold the original which payed for the first five months of the new contract and held onto the QD for pretty much the rest of the following year. It was only when the software releases practically stopped that I turned my attention to newer devices and sold the QD and games off. As a collector, I wish I hadn't done that, but then YouTube is enough to remind me of the games and it's one less thing to clutter the house up.

The N-Gage QD - what the original should have been...

The N-Gage was a bold move by Nokia into the territory then (as now) dominated by Nintendo. That it didn't work, I put down to how the device was sold (this was long before children were given mobile phones as almost a human right - that's a discussion for a much later time) so unless you had deep pockets, a contract was the only way forward, the compromises brought about by trying to be master of all trades and the sheer strength of the competition. It also displayed the first cracks in Nokia's dominance of the mobile market. It failed and it failed badly. The coming of touchscreen smart devices would prove to be an even greater challenge.

The N-Gage was a technological dead end at the time, given that the hardware was probably too underpowered for gaming and the mobile networks were nowhere near capable of supporting the feature rich software we take for granted now, though the time of portable gaming and mobile phone synergy (minus physical controls) was only a few years away the form of Android and iOS devices. Am I please I owned two? Yes, as I said with the Tapwave post, they fitted a need that I had at the time. I do not consider the money spent a waste (what with selling the devices and games on, as well as having the phone contract which I would have had anyway). Would I seek out the hardware again for the sake of familiarising myself with it? No, that ship has sailed, and the rose tinted spectacles can do very strange things.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Hold on, I bought one of those...

Having a rake through a couple of packing boxes that hadn't been touched since the house move, I happened across this:

Tapwave Zodiac 2 with screen cover on

A Tapwave Zodiac 2. Part Palm PDA (Personal Digital Assistant), part games console, I bought this piece of tech back in early 20005. Common with the tech of the time, it uses a custom charging connector that is in another box somewhere, so unfortunately I can't power it up. I can, however, have a bit of a reminiscence about it.

Back of the Zodiac showing logos, charging/sync connector and stylus

I have always had a fascination about technology, and when the Zodiac was announced, it caught my interest as it combined the then popular PDA fad (almost entirely taken over by mobile phones and tablets these days) and gaming. Whilst I justified the purchase because it could replace my failing Palm 515, it was the gaming part of the package that intrigued me.

Looking at the specs now, they seem very anaemic compared to modern day devices, but by the standards of the time, they are respectable. A 200MHz ARM processor, backed up by 10Mb of RAM, the model I have has a massive(!) 128Mb of storage. It also has two SD card slots for additional storage and software. The screen is a not too shabby 3.8 inch half VGA type capable of displaying 65,536 colours.

With screen protector open

What I really like about the Zodiac is the design, rounded so very comfortable to hold and made predominantly of metal, so it feels solid in your hands. It is also just about the right size for my (not overly) hands. It's comfortable to hold for reasonably long periods and, ergonomically, it is as close to perfect as it gets, at least for me.

Still with Duke Nukem game

As well as the touchscreen (resistive, hence the stylus), you get two shoulder buttons, Home, Function, Power and four Action buttons. There is also an analogue stick, spring loaded so resets to centre when not under pressure. Connectivity wise, there's the aforementioned charging/sync connector, a headphone jack bottom left, Bluetooth, an IR beamer and the two SD slots on the top edge (neatly protected a bit by the screen cover when it's closed). So, for the time, not too shabby and it was well designed.

I used the Zodiac for well over a year, and it did a fair amount of travelling too. Indeed, by the time it was replaced, the battery had reached a point where it would be good for just a couple of hours of continuous use. Replacing that was a no-go as Tapwave themselves had wound up by then, so the Zodiac went into a drawer.

Incidentally, the Duke Nukem game that I bought with the Zodiac isn't a port of the classic 3d shoot-em up, rather it is just a generic shooter with Duke artwork. Disappointing as I think the hardware was more than capable of handling the real deal.

In general, use, the Zodiac was great fun, an extra memory card held enough music for the daily commute and back, whilst I would generally get a full days use before needing to charge the batteries. Gaming, however, was a battery killer. With the screen brightness turned up anywhere near maximum, you would be looking at three hours tops (and that was brand new out of the box!). As time went by though, I was using the Zodiac less and less for gaming and more for the core PDA functionality so it wasn't too great a loss when a Sony Ericsson K800i took on music/diary/calendar duties.

In hindsight, the Zodiac was a nice piece of kit that was technologically a dead end. PDA wise, it was up against the newer ranges of feature phones coming from Nokia and Sony Ericsson, whilst gamer's were being targeted by Nintendo's DS and Sony's PSP. Tapwave was in no way big enough to compete with any of those companies, and their target market was relatively tiny. It didn't help that the tech was caught between two stools and truly was a jack of all trades, master of none.

If I ever find the charging cable, I'll fire this puppy up and see if everything still works. Having written about the Zodiac, it has reminded me of another piece of kit I used back in the day, the Nokia N-Gage, but that's another post entirely...