Category Archives: Technology

The New Shininess

So, the Ipad 2 comes out on March 11th, and we finally got to see what the fuss was about yesterday, in one of Apple’s now-standard presentations scattered hither and yon across the web. Engadget has a good summary of the details, but there are really few surprises. It’s thinner, lighter, more powerful, has cameras (front and back) and costs the same. Oh, and it now comes in black and white.

Now, I don’t want to sound too jaded about these points. They’re actually really impressive from a technical perspective, and the promised increases in graphical power alone seem to hint at fantastic future uses. I feel like Apple has re-asserted its place of prominence in the market by once again being the price leader, something I still can’t believe I’m saying with a straight face. I still look forward to other tablets pushing the market as a whole forward (and I’m definitely looking forward to HP’s WebOS tablet – that excites me much more than Android or RIM at this point) but I’m also glad Apple keeps coming out strong, because i think that creates necessary pressure.

Still, as a well documented ipad enthusiast who makes rigorous, daily use of his ipad 1, is it worth the upgrade? Honestly, probably not.

A lot of this is because I’m still incredibly happy with my Ipad’s performance and form factor, so incremental improvements in both aren’t going to move my needle much. As a practical matter, I’m fairly certain I’ll need to buy an Ipad3 when it comes out, if only because developers are lazy, and we’re going to start seeing games designed for the more powerful engine that will slog on the ipad 1, but I think that threshold is a ways down the road. Similarly, the addition of cameras are cool, but not compelling. Facetime will excite me more when its more widespread and, honestly, when I can run a game over it. Until then, I’m fine using my laptop for such things.

It may be shallow, but I admit the element about the ipad 2 that I find most jealousy inducing is the cover. Man, they put some thought into that, and as someone who has tried many covers, it really looks like it’s a good replacement for everything short of an otterbox defender. It’s pretty awesome. Not “buy a whole new Ipad” awesome, but awesome.

I look at the ipad 2 release and what’s scary is that it’s all about new customers. For folks who carefully avoid Apple’s initial releases (due to their tending to be public betas) it’s enough of an upgrade to justify the wait. For others, it has just created the secondary market for Ipad 1’s at a diminished price point. That’s good positioning.

So, barring disaster or windfall, I don’t see myself buying an Ipad 2. Though man, you can bet I’m going to get the new Garage Band for the Ipad (which BETTER be compatible with the Ipad 1) because it looks like the program I always wished Garage Band was.

But the Crack Came Back…

So, Cataclysm dropped yesterday. For those unaware, this is the latest expansion for World of Warcraft, and it has successfully drawn me back in. I lost interest a little while after the last expansion (Wrath of the Lich King) and turned my account off for a while, but I turned it back on just before Thanksgiving in anticipation of Cataclysm.

In fairness, most of what I wanted out of the game came in the pre-release patch they issued in November that updated the world and introduced everything but the new content (The ability to level up to 85, opening new zones and so on). That may not seem like much, but it was actually quite huge. Basically, they rewrote the whole setting from the ground up.

In game, they have effectively moved the clock forward. How much is a bit of a question, as I have so far seen indications of it being anything from five to twelve years, but the net result is that the world has changed in ways that are _intensely_ satisfying to someone who paid attention to the lore. Important NPCs have died, boundaries have shifted, and as a result of the eponymous cataclysm, geography has been drastically altered in places.

At the same time, Blizzard has taken the opportunity to fix…well…everything. Virtually every zone has been scrubbed and rebuilt according to the lessons they’ve learned from running the game for six years. They’ve made travel easier, clustered quests more intelligently and removed a lot of the busywork of play without removing all of it. That last is perhaps the most brilliant of them – some busywork is necessary to help maintain the addictive nature of play, but striking just the right balance with it is essential. As an example, I will point to mining.

In play, there are little nodes of metal deposits scattered throughout the world. If your character is a miner, you can click on one of these and, after a few seconds of animation, you’ll get some metal. Originally, you did this once, got one piece of metal, and the node disappeared. The result was that metal was fairly scarce, and at some point Blizzard patched it so you could do this several times per node (usually 3) before it disappeared. This was better, but you had to do the click and wait 3 times. Now, you click and wait, and you get several pieces of metal – the same reward as doing it several times, but without the extended wait. It’s a small fix to a small minigame element, but it’s the kind of attention to detail that makes a game work.

Even if you never play WoW, there are lesson in Cataclysm that you can probably take back to your game. To my mind, the big three are:

Make Fun Easier With the Right Kind of Challenge – Cataclysm does this by restructuring quests by putting the guy who gives you a quest much closer to where you need to do the quest. Similarly, the game makes it easy for you to find where you need to go to do it. Now, this is not to say that you should start saying that your game should start collecting 10 wolf ears to give to Hornswaggle Beltbuckle, but you should look at the structure of it. Challenges which are difficult, but which have a clear course of action are FAR more satisfying than challenges which are frustrating because the course of action is unclear.

For example, if you are given a quest to kill goblins until you find 10 goblin beads, then bring those back, there are two ways you might be stymied (beyond the goblins’ objections): The goblins aren’t dropping[1] the beads fast enough, or you can’t find the goblins. In the first case, you might be annoyed, but you know what to do: just keep killing goblins. In the second case, you will quickly end up frustrated, maybe check an offline resource or otherwise completely break your flow (there’s an even worse version of this where you’re killing the _wrong_ goblins, but that’s a whole other thing). WoW has minimized the likelihood of this second kind of problem, which means that most problems that remains are ones you address by playing the game. Presuming the game is fun, that’s as it should be.

Immediate Feedback is Powerful – Feedback is a curious two-way street in MMOs, because it applies to both play and design. Blizzard mines data on play like mad so that they can judge the impact of changes they make, and while GMs might take a general lesson from this (pay attention!) we tend to lack the tools and sample set to apply that sort of rigor to our games. However, we can take a lesson from how WoW handles feedback to the players.

Characters in WoW level as you would normally expect in an RPG, but they also are progressing in dozens of other ways at the same time, between their faction with other groups, their profession skills and the assorted accomplishments and awards one can get throughout the game (such as for exploring a zone completely). Because there are so many of these in play, if you don’t pay attention to them, then the rewards they give when you achieve something come as pleasant, semi-random surprises that occour with fair frequency (more often early in play than later). That’s powerful by itself because it hits the same part of the brain that wants to give slot machines money. But what makes it more subtly potent is that if you _do_ pay attention to one or more of these, there are concrete actions you can take which will improve the one you pay attention to. It can take work and time, but the ability to generate immediate, measurable improvement triggers a feedback cycle that does not limit itself to paying out once per session or once per level, but rather, rewards the activity. So given that, how often does your game give rewards?

A Changed World is a Richer World – Bumping the timeline forward is incredibly rewarding both to players (who can appreciate the changes) and to GMs (who benefit from re-purposing old materials), and even if not done as a dramatic jump, it is incredibly cool to come back to the town outside the dungeon you cleaned out a few years back and see how its changed (for better or worse), especially when those changes tie directly back to the PCs an their actions. If you look at a lot of published adventures, they often depend on the backstories of the people involved which do not touch up on the PCs at all. Being able to make the PCs part of that backstory? Priceless.

As a bonus, this is a great way to take ownership of a published setting. Even if you started in Eberron as published, Eberron five years later is much more clearly YOUR Eberron. It’s perhaps not as dramatic a statement as killing Elminster, but it is more widespread.

Anyway, enough of that. I have goblins to kill.

1 – For the MMO ignorant, “drops” are loot. You kill something, loot the body, and find what it’s carrying, usually some coins and junk. If it has a bead, it is said to have dropped the bead.

Ipad Extravaganza

Another friend is getting an iPad (to which I say, “woo hoo!”) and I started doing a writeup of all the things that one should get when I realized that I do this often enough that I should put it in one place, so my plan is this – I’m writing and posting this blog entry and after it’s gone live, I’ll set up a page based on it that I’ll try to keep updated.

A Note on Usage
There’s no one way to use an ipad. It’s greatest strength is the sheer number o usage profiles it supports. I, for example, could not live without an external keyboard and have gotten just about every writing app I can get my hands on. My wife pretty much uses it for the web, twitter, reading books and watching videos. Other people use it in other ways. I try to keep this in mind as I discuss apps, and you should also keep it in mind as you read. Just because an app doesn’t work for me doesn’t mean it’s not going to be useful for you.


Cases serve several purposes for an ipad. Protection, certainly, but it’s also got an important role in how you use your ipad. Generally, you’re going to use it in one of 4 ways – you’ll hold it in your hand, you’ll have it laid flat with a slight incline (for typing on the screen), upright horizontally (for viewing video or possibly typing) or upright vertically (for typing or web browsing). It is hard for a case to do all these things, and if you find one that does there are probably other tradeoffs. Which functions matter to you are going to depend a lot on how you intend to use the Ipad.

The Apple Case – I started out with this case and, were it not for a gift from a friend, I would still be using it. It’s slim and light, and it’s excellent in the hand and at an incline, and it’s good in an upright horizontal position (just need to be careful not to knock it over). Upright vertical is pretty ad hoc. The incline is especially worth noting as this case is exceptionally well suited to typing on the screen in large part because the slope is comfortably elevated. A lot of the nicer looking cases have a very shallow incline, which is less good for typing. Given the quality and the price point, this is the case I would strongly suggest anyone get unless they have a specific reason to get a different one.

The Quirky Cloak – This is my current case, a gift from a friend for whom it was a poor fit. It’s got an ok incline and is notably good for horizontal and vertical upright, but it’s pretty bad in the hand. The slipcase fits loosely enough to feel awkward, and while the cover is admirably solid, it’s also pretty heavy. Despite this, I’m very happy with it because the upright positions are most important to the things I use the ipad for (which is to say, writing)

One thing I will say about this one – I had a part break, and that was somewhat frustrating since I was not doing anything that should have caused a break. However, this frustration was turned into satisfaction by dint of excellent customer service, as I was provided with a replacement with a minimum of hassle.

Apple Bluetooth Keyboard – Yeah, I live with mine. It’s an actual keyboard, but it’s slim and light enough that carrying it around in addition to the ipad is still smaller and lighter than carrying around a netbook. The onscreen keyboard is perfectly functional for day to day stuff, but so long as I’m writing things as long as, well, this, a real keyboard is incredibly useful. In addition, the extra function buttons for things like controlling music and brightness are pretty handy.

Apple Keyboard Dock– I admit that I dig the fact that this will hold the ipad upright on its own, but I did not end up getting one of these for two reasons. One, the shape of it makes it a little rough to slip into the kind of bag I use. Two, it doesn’t play nicely with cases, and I like having a case. (I’m sure it works with some, but I’m unwilling to invest in the trial and error necessary to find out.)

Folding Bluetooth keyboard – I have an old one of these from my days with a Nokia n800, and while it works just fine with the ipad, it’s also a little unnecessary – if you’re carrying something as big as an ipad, you can afford to carry an actual keyboard.

Keyboard Cases – I haven’t seen any of these yet, but they’re the next thing to be hitting the market. I’m intrigued, but I worry that such keyboard will be a little too cramped to be worthwhile. For reference, the apple keyboard is about 2 inches wider than my ipad case.

Wall Mount – Ok, you probably don’t need this, but for three bucks? It makes me want to find ways to use it.

So, this is the main thing I use the ipad for, and I’ve put a lot of time and effort into trying different options, and in doing so I’ve discovered a few generalizations. First, nothing is more important than how you get your writing out of the ipad and on to something else. At the very least, the app should be able to email the document to you, but the better ones will usually allow you to sync through a service (usually either dropbox or simplenote, though Pages uses Apple’s mobileMe service or WebDAV). Second, fonts and screen use are both a big deal, especially if you’re going to spend a lot of time writing. The ability to choose a pleasing font (or, barring that, the use of a decent default font) and the ability to write in full screen mode are both very handy.

As an addendum, Google Docs has recently announced a dramatic change which will probably make it much more app friendly, so the whole game may end up changing in the near future.

Notably – This is probably the prettiest writing app I have, and while it’s only moderately functional (no syncing, just email, no full screen) it simply looks so nice that it remains enjoyable to use. Lots of fonts, nice faux-wood look to it. The limits mean I don’t use it for actual writing, but it’s my go-to app for taking notes.

Simplenote – Simplenote is also the name of the service this app uses. It’s an interface for a free (or very cheap) online notebook that syncs whenever possible. No custom fonts (but at least it uses Helvetica) but it does have fullscreen mode and tagging (like in gmail). It’s not necessarily my favorite app, but I find myself using it a lot (including to write this). I admit I prefer Dropbox as a service, but the fact that Scrivener is going to use Simplenote for syncing is enough to draw me towards it as well.

My Writing – This was my go-to app before simplenote. It has most of the same features, and a nice full screen mode, but it uses its own service for syncing. I’ve never had a problem with the service, but its web interface is not as elegant as simplenote or dropbox, so it’s seen less and less use.

Elements – I got this because the icon looks like a composition notebook and the app description sounded like it would have a very clever interface. I was disappointed. It’s perfectly functional, even decent, but there’s nothing exceptional about it either.

Droptext – A text editor that syncs to dropbox the same way simple note does to simple note. In theory it was everything I wanted. In practice, you need to reconnect to dropbox every time you start it up (rather than it keeping a local copy and keeping it in sync). Annoying enough to see no use.

IA Writing – Just got this one, and it’s nice. Excellent interface, dropbox syncing (albeit manually). It has a weird feature that allows you to only highlight the lines you’re working on as you write. That seems like a very extreme approach to zero distraction writing, but I’m sure it’s good for some people. Thankfully, it’s optional. My sole complaint is that it doesn’t have a word count, opting instead for a much less useful character count. I anticipate using this one for writing in the future, but probably using something else for organization.

Pages – No one but Apple could get away with charging $10 for this. It is profoundly ok, but it does very little of what you would need it to and it’s a bear to get your data anywhere useful. If you MUST format documents for pages, it’s necessary, but otherwise either do your formatting on a computer or get one of the vastly more functional apps that is designed for Word docs. (That said, the latest update did at least add word count).

Office HD – Speaking of which, this is my app for handling the .doc format, which I almost never need to do on my iPad. I think I’ve used it twice. No complaints, but also not something I have a use for, since the functionality I need from word (tracking changes) does crazy things when bounced between versions.

Scripts Pro – I got this with the intent of using it as a bare bones text editor, as it looks quite nice with a typewriter font on a plain background. It actually works decently well for that, but other apps have overshadowed it. However, if you want to write actual scripts, this is pretty spiffy.

Index Card – Not a writing app per se, but useful for writers. It’s basically a cork board that can display about 16 small virtual index cards on a cork board at a time (scroll for more), allowing you to edit and rearrange them. You can type more data into a card than it shows, but the real advantage is for anything you’d want to spread and rearrange index cards for.

My Writing Nook – This is a cautionary tale. I loved this app – it had all the functionality I wanted from a writing app until the day it started randomly deleting my files. The loss of several thousand words of effort was enough to lead to a quick deletion.

Ok, I’m not going to break this down app by app. For books there’s the Kindle, the Nook and Stanza (oh, right, and Ibooks). Magazines have interesting things like Zinio (which needs to be seen to be believed). They’re all good, and the specific features are constantly changing. I mostly use Kindle because I also have an actual kindle, and I still use it for reading, because it’s smaller, lighter, has even more battery than the ipad and has no glare. In the interest of fairness, however, my wife vastly prefers reading on the ipad, especially at night since it requires no external illumination.

This is still a pretty wild frontier and there’s no telling how things are going to shake out in the marketplace. I feel comfortable betting on Amazon in the long run, even if I’m not entirely happy with all their policies, but the fact that the ipad can support all these readers and more means there’s no reason to choose. Pick your favorite and go with it, but know you have other options.

That said, I am going to single out one app as absolutely fantastic: Goodreader. It’s a PDF reader that can sync with almost anything (including dropbox). I have a great many RPG texts on my ipad, and good reader is what allows me to organize and read them all.

The exception to goodreader is very nerdy – I sometimes turn my game notes into pdf so I can read them in dicebook, a combination pdf-reader and dice roller. If you don’t know why someone would combine those things, it’s probably for the best.

Comics also deserve their own mention. The bulk of comic readers (Comics, Marvel, DC, Image) all seem to use the same technology, but have haphazardly different stores. I mostly just use Comics, but I have all the readers because each offer their own free stuff.

Get netflix and hulu plus. If you don’t have either service then don’t sweat it (though both are FANTASTIC deals and you should consider Netflix) but if you do, then just get them. Also, the VLC player just came out for the Ipad and you want that too – like the desktop version, it pretty much plays everything, and by everything it may well mean “DVDs you ripped rather than rebuying in digital format”

Internet Foo
So, the built in browser is pretty serviceable for me, enough so that I haven’t swapped it out. The mail client has made my yahoo mailbox into something useful, but it’s less useful than the gmail web interface. But for specific web material (social media and whatnot) specific apps tend to be useful.

Twitter is, of course, the big one, but this just took a left turn. There are lots of good apps out there like Osfoora or Twitterffic pro, but Twitter just released a free client which is, to be honest, pretty fantastic. It kind of sucks at handling direct messages and is weak on spam blocking, but it’s free and backed by the service, and that makes it the 800 pound gorilla. If you have strong opinions about twitter clients then absolutely shop around, but if you don’t must get Twitter and call it a day.

RSS is almost as important to me, and there are two ways to go about it. NetNewsWire is pretty solid if you want to work purely through an app, and I’m fond of them. However, I swapped over to doing all my RSS through Google Reader and I love it. The web interface for it is fine, but on the ipad I use Reeder which is just lovely. It has become my morning newspaper on most days. Times for Ipad seems equally pretty, but I haven’t shelled out $8 for it when I;m already quite happy with what I have,

Facebook and Tumblr only have iphone apps, which you can use scaled up in a pinch, but that kind of stinks. Sorry, no love there.

Instapaper is the software front end to what I can best describe as a web clipping service. You set up an account, set up a bookmarklet and then when you find a long article on the web that you might historically have printed out to read later, it clips the article (and just the article) and presents it in a very readable format. It’s one of those things which you will either use never or all the time.

There’s no Skype client for the ipad yet, but the iphone one works fantastically well. Between the quality of the speakers and quality of the microphone, the Ipad is pretty much a perfect appliance for skyping (though I still want an actual Ipad app).

The thing that is most noteworthy about ipad games is their support of asynchronous play. That is, rather than all players needing to be on line at the same time, you take your turn when it comes up and you’ll get notified when you have another turn. This allows people to play lots of games with lots of people at their convenience rather than need to be available all the time.

I probably play more Carcasonne than anything else. It’s technically I iphone game, but it scales up _beautifully_. Great game. Great app. Can’t say enough nice things.

Words with Friends is another great one, albeit one that I’ve totally slacked off on lately. It is not scrabble, but close enough.

Plants vs. Zombies is a classic for a reason. I’d beaten it on my desktop but still enjoyed it on the ipad. The interface is wonderfully suited to it. Popcap hasn’t put out an Ipad version of Bejeweled yet, but the iphone version scales up pretty well.

I have Galcon Fusion only because Galcon was probably my single favorite game on my ipod touch. However, I haven’t had a chance to play it yet.

Someone mentioned to me a game that was basically like playing solo EVE but I’ve totally forgotten what it was, so a reminder would rock. Edit: Eric kindly pointed out the game, it’s Warpgate HD, and I look forward to trying it.

Angry Birds is frustrating fun.

Days of Wonder’s Small World is fantastic and, I hope, indicative of the kind sof apps they’ll be producing. If they come out with a Ticket to Ride app, I’m all over it. My one concern with Small World is that if you haven’t played the board game, I’m not sure how easy it is to get an understanding from the app.

Lots of cool art apps for the Ipad – it so clearly gives itself to drawing that it’s unsurprising that there are zillions of them.

For straight art, I use Sketchbook Pro. It does everything I want from a paint program and the price is decent. I’ve also gotten decent use out of Sketchpad, Doodle Buddy and iDraft.

I wish I could justify spending $50 on omnigraffle because I have it on my Mac, and it is so good that I don’t doubt for an instant that the ipad version is worth it. But my need for powerful diagramming an illustration on the ipad is too small to justify the cost (though, man, when omnioutliner comes, I doubt I’ll be quite so strong). In the meantime, the much less expensive (and less powerful) Dabble does what I need when I need an ad hoc diagram.

Business and Productivity
Numbers – Another one from apple that I would kind of dismiss as overpriced – the functionality that I like in Numbers on the desktop translates poorly to the ipad. However, they added one fairly neat function that jazzes things up. Spreadsheets can more or less automatically generate worksheets for filling them out. That is to say, if you do clipboard work, it can more or less automate it. That’s pretty spiffy.

Keynote is probably the best of the iWork apps as it works pretty well on the iPad as an all-purpose display widget. You can use it to make presentations of course, but you can also keep your notes for speaking or the like. It’s fun but probably not a necessity.

There are a large number of apps for tracking lists of todo items and most are good, but few are truly fantastic. Todo, Taskpaper, Things and Informat HD are all solid, and I imagine that Omnifocus is pretty good too. But the problem is, of course, that either they’ll all do the job, or none of them will. If you’re not picky, they’re all great. If you’re picky, each one will lack in some small way.

The one thing to note is that, like the writing programs. the more useful ones sync up with a remote service. Taskpaper uses simplenote, but most of the others either use Remember the Milk or Toodledoo (Which also have their own apps). It doesn’t make a huge difference which service it is, but it’s a nice feature to have as it allows you to sync across devices and be able to manage lists from a desktop

One slightly specialized but interesting app is iAnnotate, which is designed to annotate PDFs. it’s one of those things you probably don’t need to do, but if you do it’s good to have the right tool for the job.

Showing Off
Some of these are useful apps, but mostly these are the apps you want to bust out if you want to show off (for others or yourself) the really cool things the ipad can do. By and large they’re hard to do justice with an explanation, but they’re well worth a look.

Flipboard is probably the best way to look at Facebook on the ipad. It’s effectively a magazine interface for any kind of feed, from facebook to twitter to random RSS. It makes the internet read like an issue of the Economist.

Uzu and Gravilux – Both of these are cool particle effect widgets. They just look neet.

– Imagine an infinite cork board that you can tack all manner of things to, including other corkboards. It’s the kind of physics-defying interface that only a tablet can provide.

Epic Citadel – This is a proof of concept of the Unreal FPS engine running on the Ipad. It looks unbelievably good.

Square – This, combined with a little free reader you can have mailed to you, will allow you to take credit card payments on you ipad with minimal setup. Again, this is one of those things which is either very exciting or utterly useless.

Starwalk – It’s a window into the night sky, very nearly literally.

Stuff that didn’t fall under any other category.
TED Mobile – An iphone app, but it scales up to the ipad fantastically. As an app it’s just an app, but the TED talks are totally worth it.

Evernote – I don’t really use Evernote, but I know some people swear by it. It’s a note-taking and clipping app that syncs to an online service. It’s a good all purpose repository of everything and the Ipad app is pretty good.

iThoughts – Solid mind-mapping software

Ipad Retraction

Posting out of sequence just to get this out there. I’ve previously suggested using myTexts for writing on your ipad, citing its excellent interface and features. Those benefits remain, but today I discovered an unfortunate downside – it also randomly deletes files. I encountered this bug twice today, and upon discussion, discovered that many people I know have encountered it as well.

If you have myTexts, consider just uninstalling it. For me, I’ve switched over to My Writing Nook, and am so far content. But I’m backing up more frequently too.