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Name: Benoit Nadeau
Member since: 2002-04-03 17:23:09
Last Login: 2014-04-22 17:48:00

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Homepage: http://benad.me/

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I am Benoit Nadeau, jr. eng. in Software Engineering,
living and working in Montreal, Canada.

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The Mystery of Logitech Wireless Interferences

As I mentioned before, I got a new gaming PC a few months ago. Since it sits below my TV, I also bought with it a new wireless keyboard and mouse, the Logitech K360 and M510, respectively. I'm used to Bluetooth mice and keyboards, but it seems that in the PC world Bluetooth is not as commonplace as in Macs, so the standard is to use some dongle. Luckily, Logitech use a "Unifying Receiver" so that both the keyboard and mouse can share a single USB receiver, freeing an additional port. In addition, the Alienware Alpha has a hidden USB 2.0 port underneath it, which seems to be the ideal place for the dongle and freeing all the external ports.

My luck stopped there though. Playing some first-person shooters, I noticed that the mouse was quite imprecise, and from time to time the keyboard would lag for a second or so. Is that why "PC gaming purists" swear by wired mice and keyboards? I moved the dongle to the back or front USB ports, and the issue remained. As a test, I plugged in my wired Logitech G500 mouse with the help of a ridiculously long 3-meter USB cable, and it seems to have solved that problem. But I remained with this half-working wireless keyboard, and with that USB cable an annoying setup.

I couldn't figure out what was wrong, and willing to absorb the costs, until I found this post on the Logitech forums. Essentially, it doesn't play well with USB 3.0. I'm not talking about issues when you plus it the receiver in a USB 3.0 port, since that would have been a non-issue with the USB 2.0 port I was using underneath the Alpha. Nope. Just the mere presence of a USB 3.0 in the proximity of the receiver creates "significant amount of RF noise in the 2.4GHz band" used by Logitech. To be fair (and they insist on mentioning it), this seems to be a systemic issue with all 2.4GHz devices, and not just Logitech.

So I did a test. I took this really long USB cable and connected the receiver to it, making the receiver sit right next to the mouse and keyboard at the opposite side of the room where the TV and Alpha are located. And that solved the issue. Of course, to avoid that new "USB cable across the room" issue, I used a combination of a short half-meter USB cable and a USB hub with another half-meter cable to place the receiver at the opposite side of the TV cabinet. Again, the interference was removed.

OK, I guess all is fine and my mouse and keyboard are fully functional, but what about those new laptops with USB 3.0 on each port? Oh well, next time I'll stick to Bluetooth.

Syndicated 2015-05-03 21:48:04 from Benad's Blog

Electricity Savings: All Those Blinking Lights

As part of my "spring cleaning", and partly inspired by this "Earth Hour" thing, I did an inventory of all the connected electrical devices around my apartment.

I basically categorized them this way:

  1. Devices that are used all the time and must be connected: Lights, electrical heating, fridge, water heater and so on.
  2. Devices that are seldom used, but cannot be turned off completely or disconnected easily: Oven, washer, dryer, and so on.
  3. Devices that are on all the time, for some reason.
  4. Devices that are used enough to warrant leaving them in "low-power standby mode".
  5. Devices I should turn off completely or disconnect when not used.

While I can't do anything for the devices in categories 1 and 2, other than replacing them, my goal was to move as many devices to either standby or turned off as possible. For example, my "home server PC", a Mac mini, doesn't use much power, but do I really need to have to running all the time? So I programmed it to be in standby, and wake up only during the afternoons on weekdays.

For devices already in standby mode, are they used enough? For example, my Panasonic Blu-Ray player kept being warm, since it remained in standby mode, for what? About 10 seconds of boot time? Since my TV takes that much time to "boot up" anyway, I just need to power on both at the same time, and I'll save all the electricity of keeping it in standby all the time.

I am generally less worried about laptops, tables and other battery-operated mobile devices when they stand in standby. They are already quite energy-efficient, running on batteries or not, especially when not actively used. Still, unplugging them from chargers reduces risks if there's an electrical surcharge in the apartment's wiring.

Syndicated 2015-03-30 20:26:00 from Benad's Blog

Alpha: My First PC

The PC port of Final Fantasy VII that I recently completed was the first of many PC-only games I wanted to play, but queued up because playing PC games is inconvenient. I have a 2011 Mac mini that I can dual-boot in Windows, which is what I mostly used for FF VII, but rebooting was slow, the mini was noisy, and its graphics card simply unable to properly play games made after 2010. I have a late-2013 MacBook Pro, but I keep using it for work, it's inconvenient for playing on a TV, and its graphics card could have been better.

I insisted on using Macs, even for PC games, because "gaming PCs" are just too much trouble. Almost all small-form-factor PCs sacrifice graphics performance for size and quieter fans, including the mini. On the other end, even your average "gaming PC" is expensive, a bulky tower with neon lights and require manual assembly. Here's the thing: I can do all of that without problem, from building a PC server to maintaining Windows Server. But that's what I do at work. It's as if there is not such thing as a "casual gaming PC for your TV". Well, at least until the Alienware Alpha, essentially a small-form-factor gaming PC.

The Alienware Alpha is presented as a kind of video game console. While it runs Windows 8.1, its default user account is running a modified version of XBMC that replaces the Windows desktop, and lets you run Steam in "Big Picture" mode. The entire setup can be done (a bit clumsily) using the provided XBox 360 controller (oddly, with its USB dongle for wireless use). For me, though, I already had my wireless mouse and keyboard (and a USB mouse with a long USB extension of FPS games), because I want to play older PC games made for a mouse and keyboard, so I ultimately disabled that "full screen" account and set up a standard desktop Windows account.

And you have to accept that the Alienware Alpha is a PC that isn't that user-friendly and requires tweaking to play games. For example, the frame rate of "Metro: Last Light" was terrible because it was using outdated nvidia libraries; updating the library files made the game much faster. Or Geometry Wars 3 had terrible lag issues, until you run it in windowed mode or manually edit its settings file. Actually, the simple fact that the Alpha's nvidia card is "too new" to be recognized by older games is enough to force you to tweak all the settings. I'm still curious about dual-booting into SteamOS, a Linux distribution of Steam that has a proper "console feel", though most games I want to play are PC-only or not in Steam in the first place (from GOG, actually).

With all that said, the Alpha is a pretty good PC. I was able to plan all the games at maximum settings at at least 30 frames per second, and much more on games made before 2012. It's well optimized for 1080p, which is less than 4K support from current-gen 3D gaming cards, but is perfect for TV use. The hard drive is slower than my MacBook Pro's SSD, but the 3D card is so much better on the Alpha that I don't mind the extra load time. You can still easily replace the hard drive in the Alpha with a SSD, and you can upgrade pretty much everything else but the motherboard and 3D chip, with detailed service manuals. It has an HDMI passthrough, digital optical audio output, many USB 2 and 3 ports (and even a hidden USB port underneath, perfect for my wireless keyboard dongle). Finally, its price is competitive, meaning absurdly cheap compared to similar specifications from Apple.

What I'm saying is that the Alienware Alpha is a good "entry-level" casual gaming PC for use on a TV, without the hassle of a typical PC tower. That, and I now have a PC. I still feel a bit weird about that.

Syndicated 2015-01-14 00:33:59 from Benad's Blog

The Last Retro Final Fantasy

Going back to my previous post, I'm a bit relieved that Final Fantasy VII didn't live up to its hype. And what hype. When released in 1997, it was backed by the unprecedented weight of Sony making it the flagship game of their first foray in video game consoles. The game was marketed everywhere as a kind of "movie as a game", placing emphasis on the FMVs (part of a $100 million publicity campaign, including television and cinema, for 3 months). For many, Final Fantasy VII was their first video game experience.

Let's step back a bit and look at its predecessor, Final Fantasy VI (named "Final Fantasy III" on Nintendo platforms). Its setting was exactly halfway between "Dungeons and Dragons" style of fantasy and Shinto-style fantasy in the present day. It does so by making its setting a world where magic vanished for a thousand years and the world evolved into a "steampunk" style. It successfully explains, through its story, the source of magic in this world, including deep ethical considerations of its use.

The game presents the story through a large group of characters, without a clear, single "hero", and this is done deliberately so as an important theme later in the game. The dramatic elements are at times mature and dark, yet presented subtly (as if to evade Nintendo's sensibilities), dealing with themes of death and suicide unseen on a kid-friendly game platform before. For years I found the game to dark for my liking, the same way I disliked Zelda: Majora's Mask. The themes in Final Fantasy VI are perfectly integrated with the gameplay, visual art and music. Speaking of which, the game's graphic design and music are masterpieces of their authors, Amano and Uematsu.

But Final Fantasy VI was too weird. Being overly focused on its artistic statements, it doesn't please enough neither Western nor Japanese sensibilities. A cross between steampunk and Dungeons and Dragons, with multiple narratives and realism like Game of Thrones? That's not what kids want? And so with VII they started pandering to their audience, with anime-like effeminate "Japanese Boy Band" characters, over-the-top drama presented with in-your-face imagery that make Evangelion subtle, lots of FMVs and cool characters, and since they won't really like RPGs anyway, let's throw as many mini-games in there as possible.

Over time, they became niche of their own captive market anyway. But mass-market appeal pretty much died out with Final Fantasy: Spirits Within, meaning that people that never played any Final Fantasy are unlikely to even try the latest instalments. Still, the damage was done. A new generation of video game players didn't really cared about gameplay, but more the over-pretentious low quality movie experience that surrounds it. It's style over substance, and even if you focused on the art, it was superficial crap made for teenagers that didn't knew any better. The latest Final Fantasy XV trailer looks like an expensive car ad. Magical realism can only go so far before it becomes ridiculous (Zoolander, the game?).

Essentially, Final Fantasy VII and Sony started a movement that, by the mid-2000s, nearly destroyed the video game industry, temporarily saved by the Wii and morally questionable free-to-play games. Only with the recent raise of retro and indie gaming we are starting to see the market increase again.

All to say that I now hate Final Fantasy VII with a passion. Its predecessor is a timeless masterpiece, and I'm not saying this out of nostalgia or because I was influenced by marketing as a teenager. Final Fantasy VI is the best RPG I can recommend, and is now out on iOS and Android, also 50% off at $8 (Canadian Dollars) until January 5, 2015.

Syndicated 2014-12-31 01:49:20 from Benad's Blog

Final Fantasy VII, a Late Review

As I mentioned in a previous post, I started playing the game Final Fantasy VII so that I can, as objectively as possible, review it. I reserved my judgement until I complete the game, and 6 months later, or about 60 hours of game play, I finished it.

To be as fair as possible, I won't compare it to any of its predecessors in the series or its contemporaries in the genre, to see if it can stand on its own merits. I'll be lenient to what could have been caused by the technical limitations of the time (PlayStation 1), and even the problems introduced in the PC port of the game.

Story

Since the game makes its story front and centre of the experience, I'll start here.

It is difficult to summarize the story succinctly. On the one hand, it is a story of "eco-terrorists" that attempt to prevent this "evil corporation" from siphoning the "life energy" of the planet into power plants, for evil reasons. This is the same energy that is the source, in concentrated jewel form, of magical powers in the game, called "material". Of course, ecology + modern electrical technology + power plants + Japan = Godzilla. Also, for some evil reasons, the "bad guy" attempts to crash a comet on the planet so that he can harness all of that "life energy" to destroy the world or something.

On the other hand, it's the story of the immature man-children that compose that team of "rebels". It is mostly focused on the placeholder hero, Cloud, with a bad case of amnesia for anything other than his hate for the "bad guy".

It's bad. The characters are wholly unlikable, or laughably generic ("Aerith the flower girl" is an actual main character name in the game). The "amnesia" thing, which lasts almost the entire game, feels like a desperate mean to fill in plot holes in an otherwise uninteresting story. Character motivations are paper thin and selfish, surprising since that whole "comet will soon destroy all life" would have implied that the motivation could have been as simple as "saving the world", but no, it's only about revenge and selfish personal reasons. Twists and turns in the story are either caused by the characters complete emotional immaturity, or Deus Ex Machina that makes the plot of "Lost" well planned in comparison.

In any other medium except anime this story would be considered bad. But then, maybe this game is just some kind of anime with some RPG elements slapped on top of it.

Design

This game tries its hardest to mesh modern-day technology with fantasy elements, and it simply doesn't mix well. It also doesn't make sense why there could be such a world with modern warfare weaponry (automatic rifles, tanks, helicopters, planes) while magical items that allow anyone to perform magic is so commonplace. It's like Blade Runner with Japanese mystical elements of spirits and magic. It sounds really cool, yet this game manages to make it not work at all.

Oh, and the game never attempts to explain the impractically oversized swords of the hero, especially in a world with guns and magical powers.

Music and Sound

The sound elements are pretty bad in general.

The music has a few tracks that are quite good and memorable, but the rest of the time it's mostly a collection of fillers, even with repetition.

Gameplay

Let's start with the controls. In a battle, the camera's spinning makes it a challenge to properly target enemies. On the map, it feels like you're in a maze of invisible walls, with some that "slide along", and others that stop you in your tracks. Camera angles frequently change from one area to another, with little consistency in the controller directions, making simple movement difficult.

Before looking the RPG elements proper, let's look at the other "games": the puzzles, the "quick time events", and the mini-games. The puzzles are either too obtuse or easy. The "quick time events" are never good, in this game or elsewhere. The mini-games are completely different games than RPG, mostly racing, inserted into this game for some reason. You're forced to play each mini-game at least once, and each is horrible and would not stand on their own, so should be avoided as much as possible.

The RPG proper is fine, but not great. It is based around a "materia" system, those items that enable its wearer to perform magic. The materia items are placed into sockets in the weapon and armour of each character. Each materia has its own experience points, and when their reach higher levels they allow its wearer to perform more powerful attacks or at the highest level "spawn" a copy at level 1. Some materia can be paired with others to perform modifications.

Having only 3 characters in battles seems limited, and makes everything unbalanced if you lose a single one. This makes the game either a highly defensive one, or one when you want to defeat the opponent as quickly and safely as possible. You get a roster of up to 9 characters, but most of the time one of the 3 character choice is locked down to the "hero" Cloud, and there is little incentive to level up all the characters. At any rate, the characters are mostly interchangeable since their base stats and unique weapons are easily overwhelmed by the effects of the materia items. Given the emphasis on materia, setting up sets of materia on your characters takes a lot of time.

Speaking of time, the battles are too slow. Each attack takes several seconds to execute, and special attacks can take up to a minute. I avoided using the "summon materia" special attacks for that reason. Real-clock time became an important resource while playing this game, making "grinding" to level up characters take too much time.

Generally, the game as a lot of depth, but not enough to justify the 60+ hours of game time. Most of that time was stretched out from unnecessary long battle animations and unskippable cut scenes.

Conclusion

The game is fine, but not great. There are too many flaws and annoyances to merit playing it to the end. Its large budget is quite visible on screen, it has a lot of depth, but what was lacking was fun. The story was bad, the characters cliché and unlikeable, the battles slow, the controls poor, the mini-games horrendous, all atop of an average RPG.

Syndicated 2014-12-29 16:40:04 from Benad's Blog

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