Thursday, September 18, 2008

And now for something completely different: Zune

This post is a followup to a post I made way back in March, 2007 about the iPod. Let me warn you that it has (almost) nothing to do with games and it'll probably sound like a paid advertisement. It's not.

First let me give you a little bit of background. I used to use an iPod. My first iPod broke several years ago after being dropped roughly three feet onto a cement stairwell floor. I replaced it with a lovely shiny black iPod with more space and a really nice color screen. I was happy with my iPod. I even occasionally purchased songs through iTunes. Life was good.

Last Christmas I received an 8GB Zune as a Christmas present. I played with the device a bit. I liked it but not enough to want to leave my iPod behind. Still, I kept it around since it was solid state (no hard drive) which makes it a little more resistant to drops than my hard-drive-using iPod classic. I figured it would be a good choice to take skiing or to the gym. I was less afraid to drop the thing you see. But I still much preferred my iPod. See that previous post for some of the reasons.

Then a few months ago a sad thing happened. My iPod broke. Somehow it developed a short circuit in the adapter port that caused it to stop functioning reliably. That left me with a difficult decision. Should I buy a new iPod? Should I upgrade to an iPhone (super cool device but damn that's one pricey toy if you factor in the monthly fees)? Perhaps get a Nano or an iPod Touch?After weighing all of my options, I eventually decided that I'd be better served to just switch to using my Zune. Sure, the software wasn't quite as good and it only had 8GB of storage, but the hardware was very nice and I just couldn't justify spending another $300 or more when I already had a device that, when all was said and done, was probably more than good enough for my needs.

So, I reinstalled the Zune player (the PC software that's Zune's version of iTunes) and was pleasantly surprised to find that they had finally gotten around to putting in an auto playlist feature. It's not as full featured as the iPod's. In fact, it's really limited. But at least it's there. The software has some other annoying limitations as well but then iTunes has its set of limitations too. Neither of them does exactly what I want. I will say this though, the Zune player is very pretty.

Next I went out and got the latest Zune car kit and, while it isn't perfect (no FM system is since the FCC doesn't allow them to broadcast with enough juice to come in perfectly clear) it isn't too bad and it's actually kind of attractive. It's more than adequate for my morning commute.

But things really started getting good when I decided to go ahead and buy into the Zune Passport service. For a reasonable monthly fee, I can download almost any track from the Zune Marketplace, which is a considerable amount of stuff. Now there are subscription services for iTunes too but none of them is as tightly integrated and slick as Zune's. Sure I don't actually own any tracks I download this way but I have the option to buy them if I really feel the need and as long as I keep up my subscription it's just as if I did own them. I've downloaded HUNDREDs of tracks this way; way more than I ever did through iTunes. This is an audiophile's dream. It's like being a kid in a candy store with a blank check.

But wait! There's more! Two days ago Microsoft released their version 3 Zune update. Not only did they add a bunch of cool new features to the Zune player, a pile of new features also got automatically downloaded to my Zune device too. Unlike Apple, each time Microsoft updates the Zune, they update everybody's Zune with all of the new features; not just some of them; all of them. It's as if I had just gone to the store and bought a brand new player. Very cool! And they added some very cool features. For instance, any song that you hear on a radio station (provided the station broadcasts a RDS signal - which almost all do nowadays) can be tagged for download through the Zune service (even wirelessly if you're set up for that). Like what you're hearing on the Zune's built-in FM radio? Just a couple of clicks on the pad and it's yours. And they also added a couple of games, which is cool.

One of the cool new features you may have heard about is called Mixview. Listen to a song in the Zune player on your PC and click on the Mixview button. You'll be presented with a really attractive screen with the album you're listening to in the center and a cluster of squares all around it. Some squares will be other albums from the same artist. Others will be albums by artists who influenced or were influenced by this artist. You'll also get a couple of icons representing other Zune owners who listen to this artist a lot. Click on any of these other icons and that icon will be moved to the middle and other icons will be placed around it. You can explore various relationships like this for hours. It makes it super easy to find new stuff that you might like. I've found all sorts of new songs and artists this way. It's way more attractive than the new iTunes feature that does the similar thing and since Zune has placed an early emphasis on keeping track of what their customers listen to (if they opt-in) they have a huge database they can draw on to help them build these relationships.

And there was one more little surprise which I really didn't expect. When I plugged my Zune into my car kit for the first time after the latest release it upgraded the firmware in the car kit! For instance, now when I play a song with my Zune attached to my car kit, it broadcasts the title information on the RDS sideband! Pretty nifty!

So what about those playlists that I ranted about in that earlier post? Zune's playlists still aren't nearly as full featured as what I had on the iPod. For one thing, they don't update on the device itself. Also, you can't build playlists that use other playlists as input. This still disappoints me a little bit. However, since my Zune is only 8GB I couldn't put my whole music library on it anyway so I've changed my paradigm a bit. Now I use only two auto playlists. The first contains a random selection of 1000 songs from my collection marked "like". The second is a list of the last 2000 minutes worth of songs that I most recently added to my collection. Both of those playlists are set to sync to my Zune so that every time I dock my Zune I get a different mix of songs I like and I'm sure to have all of the stuff that I recently downloaded (and therefore am interested in hearing more often). Putting the Zune on shuffle gives me an experience that's almost as good as that carefully crafted mix I had on the iPod. In fact, it's close enough that I'm quite happy with it. It's enough music that I'll never play it all between docks and it leaves enough room on there for my podcasts and the occasional movie as well. All good.

So there you have it. I've moved to Zune and I've actually learned to enjoy it; perhaps even prefer it! Does this mean that I've been assimilated?

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Game Night in Jamaica Mon!

Fore me, last night's games started off with a game of Stone Age. I've only played this game a couple of times now and my results showed that. I came in dead last by a large margin. Still, I enjoyed myself.

Stone Age is a very nice little game. The artwork is great and the game seems pretty well balanced. There is a fair amount of luck involved with the die rolls but there are enough of them that things tend to even out over time and a good strategy should allow you to mitigate the luck quite a bit. I did not have a good strategy this time but I did enjoy myself.

Next I played a couple of games of Jamaica. I'd heard a bit of buzz about this game and it seemed like something I might like so I was pretty interested in giving it a try. I'm glad I did.

Jamaica is a very light and relatively chaotic little race game. Players race their pirate ships around the island, collecting booty, firing canons at one another, and making a general piratey nuisance of themselves. The game reminded me a lot of another light race game I like: Detroit Cleveland Grand Prix. It's a similar experience but with much, much better artwork (this game is really pretty) and a pirate theme.

Now this is definitely not the game for people who want a deep thinking, highly strategic game where they're always in control, there is a LOT of luck in this game; but it plays very quickly and there is enough strategy to provide at least some illusion of control. We had a blast with it and I actually played it three times: once with 6 players, once with 3, and once with 2. I'd happily play it many more times.

The other game I played last night was To Court the King. I've talked about this one before so I won't go into it other than to say that I still enjoy this light dice-fest. It's been called "Yahtzee the Gathering" for it's mix of dice rolling and special abilities granted by the cards you collect each round. I find it to be a very enjoyable filler.

Other games I saw being played last night include Tomb (initial reactions seemed pretty negative), Agricola (comes out every single week now), and Rails of Europe.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Game Night: Let's all go to Kobol!

Wow. It's been a while. Sorry. I could give some lame (but very true) excuses about how I'm super busy and life is a little stressful at the moment (deaths in the family, vacations, surgeries [not mine], just to name a few) but I won't.

That doesn't mean that I'm not going to game night every week. When I'm in town, it's game night every Tuesday night. And last Tuesday night was no exception.

This time I played only two games all night. I finished with a nice game of Tichu. Christopher and I got off to a fine start against Mike and SCoy but I'm afraid that luck turned against us in the end. Still, I do love me some Tichu.

But the biggie for the night was an early release copy of Battlestar Galactica that someone in our group picked up at Pax the other week.

This game was described to me as "Shadows Over Camelot in Space" and that description isn't far wrong. It's a cooperative game, like Shadows, where (most of) the players play the humans, trying to flee to Kobol. If they get there before the Cylons overwhelm them and before they run out of fuel, food, and morale then they win. We didn't win.

In this game there can be multiple "traitors". In this game the traitors are Cylons disguised as Humans. One thing I liked about this game is that the Cylons seemed to have more to do than the traitor in Shadows Over Camelot.

All in all, it was a very enjoyable experience, despite the long playtime and the cheesy still shots taken from the TV series. I look forward to this game being released in a few weeks. (Fantasy Flight says that it should be in stores in October or November.)