Of mice and men, and trackballs, too

All the mice tested
Top: Aukey, Steelcase (wired gaming). Bottom: Anker, EV, Logitech, Kensington (from the left, seen from the back)

Late last year, I purchased another laptop to separate my work and recreational uses. After a long search in stores, and a lot of online reading and comparing models, I decided to get an MSI gaming rig (an entry level in their pantheon, admittedly). That process got me thinking again about how we buy and sell computers.*

Computers are, for the most part, sold like muscle cars: what’s under the hood gets the attention. The processor, ram, speed, drive capacity all get writ large in ads and promoted in stores. But it’s all a bit misleading. For most uses – surfing the web, email, some word processing or spreadsheet work, non-graphics-intensive games, shopping on Amazon, that sort of thing – any modern computer or tablet will do.

Today’s smart phones and tablets have bazillions more processing power in a single handheld device than a room full of bulky, freezer-sized IBM 360s had a few decades back. I ran games, word processors, spreadsheets and more on Atari and other eight-bit computers that couldn’t out-compute a modern digital watch, let alone an i3 laptop (and that’s a weak sibling to the i5 and i7). Those seemingly limited Chromebooks and bargain-priced laptops are really monsters of computing muscle compared to what we used only a couple of decades back.

Yes, the hardware specs matter if you have processor-heavy work such as graphic design, video or music editing, 3D animation or graphics-intensive gaming. But for the most part what should really matter when you’re choosing a computer are where you interact the most: the input/output devices: the screen, the keyboard and the mouse/trackpad. That’s where you’ll spend the most time and get the most sensory response from.

All the mice tested
Top: Aukey, Steelcase (wired gaming). Bottom: Anker, EV, Logitech, Kensington (from the left, seen from the front)

I recently decided to change my mouse. Or mice, rather, since each laptop has its own. In part it’s because after many hours a day spent with one, my wrists and fingers can be tired and sore. I only use the inherent trackpads when I don’t have access to a mouse because I find them inefficient and clumsy.

Arm twistingI’ve favoured wired, gaming mice in the past for several reasons. First, a wired connection is consistent where a wireless might be susceptible to interference (and gaming mice have excellent but often long cables). Second, a gaming mouse usually has a lot more features than a regular mouse, including programmable buttons, more levels of speed and sensitivity. Third they offer better (longer lasting) buttons and scroll wheel, built for constant clicking and wheeling. And fourth, from long experience, I’ve learned not to buy the cheapest mice: they are generally less durable and less accurate than those from recognized companies.***

Traditional mice have the same basic problem for me and many other users: they force the user’s arm to be held for long times in a position that can encourage strain and wear. Part of my work includes graphic design that needs precision control, and part includes copying and pasting text and links from one monitor to applications on another, so the cursor travels a fair distance. More standard uses include document processing in word processors and spreadsheets. I’m on the computer many, many hours every day. And I find my arms/wrist hurting all too much these days.

I decided to look at something different: ergonomic mice, including vertical mice and trackballs. Here’s what I discovered, and my review of each.
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Microsoft killed solitaire for me

Solitaire – also known as Klondike and Patience – is a very popular game on computers. So popular, in fact that a version of this 200-year-old card game has been included by Microsoft in every version of Windows since 3.0 (1990), aside from a brief hiatus with Win 8 (which gap was filled in by third-party versions). Microsoft has even launched a version for iOS, playable on the Mac, iPhone and iPad.

And according to some reports, it is the most widely used program by Windows users by a long shot. More than Word, Outlook, and PowerPoint and Explorer. Writer Luke Plunkett called that statistic “frightening.”

But for millions of us, solitaire fills the time; it occupies our brains during long travel times, in waiting rooms, in between loading, downloading, burning to disk or compiling experiences. Not just the one game: there are a whole raft of solo card games under the name solitaire – freecell, spider, Klondike, pyramid and tri-peaks among them – that people play regularly. And sometimes obsessively. Many is the time I have stopped writing this blog or some other piece, trapped by writer’s block or simple exhaustion, to while away a few minutes recharging with a simple game of solitaire.

As Plunkett wrote:

You mention Solitaire and—after the amazing end-game card haze—the first thing that pops into your head is that it was once seen as the single biggest threat to office productivity facing this planet’s workers. And in many regards, that’s correct.
Most people who have worked in an office can testify to the lure of the game, and could name one or two colleagues who spent a little too much time cutting the decks when they should have been filing reports. Some even take it too far; in 2006, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg famously fired a city employee he caught playing the game while at work.
This addiction can even spread beyond the workplace and into people’s homes. My father has spent more time playing Freecell over the past decade than he has doing housework, for example. Things can get even worse for some: in 1996, Dr. Maressa Hecht Orzack opened the world’s first clinic for computer addicts as a response to her own chronic Solitaire addiction.

In May, 2008, Slate magazine ran a story titled, “Solitaire-y Confinement: Why we can’t stop playing a computerized card game.” In it, author Josh Levin wrote:

The game’s continued pre-eminence is a remarkable feat—it’s something akin to living in a universe in which Pong were the most-popular title for PlayStation 3. One reason solitaire endures is its predictability. The gameplay and aesthetic have remained remarkably stable; a visitor from the year 1990 could play the latest Windows version without a glitch, at least if he could figure out how to use the Start menu. It also remains one of the very few computer programs, game or nongame, that old people can predictably navigate. Brad Fregger, the developer of Solitaire Royale, the first commercial solitaire game for the Macintosh and the PC, told me that his 89-year-old mother still calls regularly to brag about her high scores. The game has also maintained a strong foothold in the modern-day cubicle.

So with its widespread popularity, a game beloved by millions and maybe even billions, you have to wonder why Microsoft seems bent on destroying the experience in Windows 10. Levin calls solitaire the “…cockroach of gaming, remarkably flexible and adaptable.” Perhaps Microsoft wants to stamp it out.
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Digging and dying

MinecraftAbout an hour after I started playing Minecraft for the very first time, I died. As game experiences goes, that sucked. Not exactly a “thanks for your purchase” ingame welcoming message from Mojang

Not that I’m unaccustomed to dying. In most computer games I’ve died: Call of Duty, Medal of Honor, World of Tanks, World of Warcraft, Ghost Recon, Diablo, Borderlands, Left 4 Dead, even in Civilization. Dying is part of gaming.* But most of the time, I know why. Sure, I may not have seen the sniper who nailed me from a distance, or the elite dragon that snuck up on me from above, but I understand why I died.

Not this time. It probably had a reason but it sure seemed like an arbitrary process. I had survived a short while, built a small shelter in which to hide a night, gathered a few resources, made a craft table and taken my first steps crafting a very few items – planks, sticks, slabs and a precious wooden shovel. It was all tickety-boo, or so it seemed.

About an hour after I started, I died while climbing a hill. Don’t know why. I wasn’t attacked. Didn’t fall. Was it lack of food or sleep? My political views? An in-game virus? All I know is that one minute I’m merrily whacking stones, and the next I’m dead.

That kinda sums it all up, doesn’t it? Be on my gravestone, if I have one: He died. Didn’t know why. Well, after reading a bit online, my first guess is starvation. Which I don’t think I should have suffered, given that my character was ingame for only perhaps three virtual days. A week, 10 days, maybe I’d understand.

Damn, I wish it came with a manual. There are, of course, books you can buy… but for now I’m referring to online guides (some of which are very good… like this one)

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The WOW Factor

WOWAfter two years away from the game, I was recently convinced by a friend to return to World of Warcraft again and play in the fantasy universe of WOW. At 10 years old, WOW remains the biggest, most-subscribed, most popular MMORPG, with around 10 million subscribers.

By technology’s rapid-aging standards, WOW is a grandfather game; maybe even a great-grandfather. It has certainly spawned a lot of offspring, although not all are legitimate.

I started playing WOW back in 2005. although I didn’t play it seriously and attentively until a little later, after the first expansion. Then I got heavily into the game, so that for a long stretch, barely a day went by without at least doing the daily quests for one or more characters.

I dutifully paid my monthly subscription fee for years. I upgraded to the first expansion set, The Burning Crusade. Then the Wrath of the Lich King. And also the third, Cataclysm, coming out in late 2010. When the fourth expansion set, Mists of Pandaria, was released, in the fall of 2012. I was already losing interest and the corny fighting pandas the expansion threw in just didn’t make me want to shell out another $50 plus the $15 a month.

WOWI slogged on for a few more months, but in December 2012, I finally gave up. I wasn’t enjoying the way the game had evolved. I wasn’t having fun any more.

I had long stopped being obsessed with finishing pointless quests, running back and forth collecting useless items for some NPC. And running was what I did most of the time. You can’t get a mount to travel faster until level 20. Flying mounts at level 60. A lot of the grind is spent running. My fingers were getting stiff.

My game time had dwindled from hours a day to hours a week. Then a month. Finally, I simply didn’t care any more.

I was tired of the repetitive canned responses from NPCs. The voice acting was old and stale. The cartoonish scenery and characters no longer amused me. I had had a small boost to my enjoyment when they added flying mounts (Cataclysm?), but that soon became tired, too. Questing and collecting and making things became a grind, not fun.

I was never big on some of the game’s aspects, even from the start – battlegrounds and raids weren’t attractive to me. Nor was PvP. I preferred questing, often solo or with a single friend, and the occasional dungeon crawl with a mixed party. But after I reached the pinnacle – level 70 at first, then cranked to 80 –  with most of my characters, it simply paled. Wash, rinse, repeat.

The expansions added territory to explore, new quests, new opponents, but generally they seemed to be a kind of kitchen-sink approach: stuff was added, changed, removed with seeming arbitrariness. The new races, the new enemies didn’t seem to match the logic of the original game series. Sometimes it felt like the whole WOW universe was designed by 14-year-olds with lots of passion but lacking a solid background in fantasy.
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Banished: Sandbox Gaming at Its Best

Banished 01Banished is a medieval-style city building game, along the lines of SimCity, but with several significant differences. While not as slick or comprehensive as SimCity, it still provides a compelling, addictive gameplay.*

It’s slow and cerebral, true, not your basic action-filled RPG or FPS, but it’s one of those games that demand ‘just another fifteen minutes’ that easily stretch into the wee hours. And with infinitely variable maps and a wide range of community-made mods that enhance and change the dynamics, it promises a lot of repeat play for fans of the genre.

First difference between the two city-building sims is in goals: Banished doesn’t have any, aside from simply surviving. That’s tough enough. No goals for growth, population, buildings or the like. It’s a sandbox game in which you do whatever you want, but there are clearly strategies that work better than others. Careful attention has to be paid to the details; resources, housing, jobs, education, food, weather game, trade and so on.

Second is the size. In SimCity, it’s pretty easy to get big cities with large populations fairly quickly. In Banished, after 20 in-game years in four different games, each town I built was still around 100 population. Growth is slow. I’ve built cities in SimCity that cover almost the entire map. In Banished, terrain and modest growth have kept my towns small. I’ve seen screenshots from other players showing larger towns, so I know they can be built, but it takes more time and patience than I have yet put into it.

Banished 02Third is the detail level and type. SimCity focuses on modern infrastructure and technology. Banished doesn’t concern itself with water, hydro and sewage or the trappings of modern civilization. Technologically, it’s somewhere between 1500 and 1700, so the detail is limited. The number of building types is minimal compared with SimCity, too.
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World of Tanks

Battlefield view
Tanks are a long distance weapon, you know. They are best used in concert with one another to provide cover and overwatch fire, and are best placed in a covered or hull-down position where their profile is reduced to the minimum. Tanks should never travel alone; they should always advance with supporting vehicles on their flanks.

That’s pretty much what I said to my teammates that Saturday morning. However, I may have typed it a little more tersely. Something like, “%#$&@ idiots. Y R U in the open w/o support?

I watched as the majority of them rushed across the field to be picked off in the open by well-placed enemy tanks, and turned into smoldering wrecks that dotted the battlefield. Don’t these people know anything about basic tank doctrine, I wondered? Well, probably not. This is the internet, after all.

Firing
Still, I want to shout out. Tanks are not close-range weapons. Or rather, they weren’t intended to be. This isn’t paintball. You can’t exactly sneak around in 25 or 30 tons of metal. But you can be clever and use the terrain to your advantage: peek carefully around corners, over rises, and stay hidden in bushes while you wait.

But there they were – half the team racing towards the enemy flag like heavy-metal Rambos, ignoring terrain, elevation, cover, overwatch or even one another. And paying the price. Boom! Another teammate in flames. You might have heard me swearing as you walked by the house that morning.

That left me with three others out of an initial 15 to guard the base; trying to cover all possible paths of approach, stay hidden and stay alive. And pick off the enemy, now bold enough to move forward. An enemy which still had nine intact vehicles, including a very active artillery and two tank destroyers, each with two kills each already. A team that seemed to understand how to play much better than our side.

We lost that one.
Defeat!

Good thing it’s just a game and the losers merely have to wait it out until the match ends, then come to life and play again. When there’s no other penalty for dying except to wait, you won’t learn anything.

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