Archive | May 2012

Go Go GO!

Sony’s recent annoucement about the forthcoming Xperia Go certainly generated some excitement in the Test Lab camp, and not just because handsets have been ordered for everyone!

Coming equipped with a dual-core processor, 8GB of onboard storage (4GB available to user) and 5MP camera, it’s got very similar specs to the U…though the Go does have more going for it. Not sure how the 3.5inch screen will compare to the same screen on U, but if it’s similar quality to the Ray, it’s gonna be no slouch in the visuals department.

First off it features MicroSD support (hurrah!), which is always useful in a phone with such a limited amount of user-available storage. More importantly, it’s the succesor to the Xperia Active and comes waterproofed to 1 metre for at least 30 minutes immersion. It’s also dustproof and apparently shockproof, as the team at Sony Mobile have reportedly been bouncing theirs against the wall!

Added to that it’s got the highest specification possible in terms of near-indestructibility. Anyone who’s seen videos on YouTube and revelled in images of Active owners running their phone over with a jeep and attacking it with a compass will no doubt be thrilled the gauntlet has been thrown down to more daring attempts at handset demolition.

It’s a little disappointing the Xperia Acro HD isn’t coming to UK shores, as that handset features specs similar to the Xperia S AND has the protection offered by the Go but heck, who needs a phone that big in your pocket when you’re pitting the handset against the most imaginitive scenarios the mind can conjure.

Personally, I’m planning to my phone in the dishwasher for a couple minutes, then possibly indulge in a game of Pooh Sticks in the nearest available stream. It’ll be a one-horse race, but it’ll still be fun! Another member of Test Lab managed to attach his Active to a remote control helicopter so that could be a very interesting experiment indeed – the sky’s the limit!

Max Payne

Boosting the bank balance for the final development push for Grand Theft Auto 5, the long-delayed, highly anticipated threequel to the hard-boiled Max Payne franchise has finally arrived.

The years have not been kind to Max Payne. Still mourning the loss of his wife and child following the Valkyr situation from the first game, Max is still a pill-popping drunk, only now he’s a pill-popping drunk working as a private bodyguard for a wealthy family in Sao Paulo, Brazil. It doesn’t take long for trouble in paradise to brew and explode into a story of intrigue, deception, action and despair that makes this game far more involving than your standard run and gun entry.

It’s interesting to play a game with this sort of depth that’s not a sandbox release. MXP3 is definitely a game on rails, like Call of Duty etc. but you’re so firmly entrenched in the story and action it’s easy to forget you’re being guided how Rockstar want you to play the game.

It’s obvious Rockstar are learning from every release; L.A. Noire introduced highly complex facial graphics for emotive purposes. Here they’ve been boiled down slightly, but still retain a certain air of realism and they certainly haven’t been utilised to a point where it affects the actual game environment, as everything looks highly detailed. More on this later.

MXP3 features the same control system as GTA4 and Red Dead Redemption so it should be familiar to anyone who’s played these games and it is very similar to the controls from the previous Max Payne games. Though if you’ve not played these (and why not -where’ve you been for the last decade?!) The game benefits from the cover system used in GTA4 and RDR and you can make excellent use of the blind-fire system too, something which was lacking from the previous games. The control system is fairly simple; point, shoot, etc., though it’s not without the occasional glitch when moving to/from cover.

Speaking of glitches, be wary when the game autosaves. The game autosaves as you progress through a level, though it’s somewhat disappointing there is no facility to save your progress yourself. However, make sure the circular save icon has completely vanished before quitting to XMB; my save file for Chapter 5 corrupted itself ever so slightly – I’ve no idea how as I waited for the icon to disappear – and would only load into Chapter 5 (the docks) thinking Max Payne had died.

Three times I got the death screen and three times the console CRASHED. Fourth time was the charm, though it’s something to be aware of and again, it’s somewhat disappointing you don’t get the option to save your progress yourself as you go as autosave obviously cannot be trusted! Whether this has been patched in the two patches that have been released I’m not sure as Rockstar haven’t yet released a changelog for the 1.02 patch.

Rockstar claim there are no loading screens, though they have cannily worked around this by providing extensive and sometimes over-long cut scenes which, surprise, surprise, can’t be skipped (at times) as surprise, surprise, the level the cut scene leads into is “still loading”. Six of one, half a dozen of another. It’s a sly trick that is irritating at times, dull at others and, at all times, gets in the way of the raucous fun that is to be found at the heart of this shooter.

Which is really what this game is about; shooting. And fun. And shooting! Though the Max Payne franchise is over a decade old, Bullet Time has still lost none of its awesome charms. MXP3 takes Bullet Time and runs with it – in the final killcam you can continue to riddle your foe with bullets long after the kill shot. It’s wanton violence, it’s lingering on injury, it’s disgustingly good fun, never gets dull and it’s exactly why MXP3 has got a proper BBFC ’18’ certificate as it’s stuffed with bloody mayhem.

You get the option to carry a two-handed weapon such as a shotgun or assault rifle, but there’s so much more fun to be had dual-wielding a 9mm pistol and 9mm micro sub-machine gun, for example, that I rarely use anything else. The dual-wield was introduced in the original game and of course its seed lies with fabulous Hong Kong action cinema,which was then brought to a wider audience in films like Face/Off and The Matrix – but over a decade on, it’s still effing cool. Seriously cool – PS3 has been waiting for a third-person shooter like this since launch!

Walking into an open plan office filled with filing cabinets, desks, computer screens, wooden cubicles, glass, paper and bad guys, when the proverbial hits the fan, things go off in style. Choose your cover carefully as the environments are now destructible too, but stuff the cover and watch as the room erupts into a spectacular orgy of shredded paper, shattered glass, splintered wood and blood…coupled with a stunning aural cacophony of gunfire, spent casings tinkling on the ground, screams, paper shredding, glass shattering and wood splintering…Nowhere is safe.

Oh yes, Max Payne 3 brings out the vicious killer in us all make no mistake. It’s stirring stuff, gleefully violent even, and there’s nothing more satisfying than the kill-cam at the end of a shootout where you can, as mentioned above, riddle your final foe with as many rounds as the clip in your weapon(s) will carry.

I’ve not even finished the game yet and there are memorable sequences a-go-go; surfing a collapsing water tower, hanging upside down from a helicopter shooting rockets from the sky, a Live and Let Die-inspired speedboat chase. It’s all inspired mayhem and makes for tremendous fun, which offers an interesting juxtaposition with Max Payne’s miserable, cynical character.

He’s a wordier, grumpier, lazier John McClane – always in the wrong place at the wrong time and with a glib answer or pithy retort for everything. He really can’t be arsed with anything (or anyone) so would much rather be slumped at a bar, stoked to the gills on painkillers and booze.

The game also has an excellent multiplayer, which adds tremendous replay value. It also brings over the original New York Minute arcade-style feature and a new Score Attack feature which is a lot of fun.

Looking to the future and GTA5, if that game offers the immersion and action of MXP3 alongside the sandbox features if the illustrious GTA4 I suspect I’ll be barricading myself in my games room for a considerable amount of time.

A return to form for Rockstar after the dull dud that was L.A. Noire, the lack of a save facility and overlong cutscenes aside, MXP3 comes out guns blazing (pun intended) and delivers thrills, spills, a decent story and plenty of longevity for your £39.99 investment.

Tablet S and ICS

The evening of Thursday 26th April 2012 brought forth a flurry of activity in the Sony Tablet community and on the XDA forums too, as Sony’s fabled update to Android 4.0.3 – Ice Cream Sandwich – finally, after a couple delays and false starts, saw the light of day.

Naturally this wasn’t a global rollout, targeted instead at American and Japanese markets. Thank goodness then for the XDA forums’ Tablet saviour that is Condi. This wunderkind provided us with a copy of the U.S. software and the means by which to install it to ALL machines, regardless of region.

His guide, though relatively straightforward, is not for the faint of heart but the results yield a far greater return compared to the time invested – it’s a largely automated process. If you don’t want to wait for Sony to release the update in the U.K., where I’m based, point your browser HERE for Condi’s awesome All-in-One tool for Sony Tablets plus a handy dandy guide to installing ICS on your machine.

There was a slight glitch with his installation tool, but dig deep enough in the posts and you’ll be able to find hints and tips for a cleaner (i.e. working) install from yours truly. Look for TheHurf and ye shall be rewarded! Hopefully Condi will have updated the AiO tool to fix the glitch, as this was bricking some machines. Errors aside if you take the plunge, but you’re a bit of a noob, make sure you read everything thoroughly before beginning anything. A poor workman blames his tools – unless it’s someone else’s fault! – so read up, read it again, then in case of problems, read it some more!

The upgrade itself takes very little time and is very nice looking. Very nice looking – which isn’t to say Honeycomb is hideous, as that was very good looking too, but ICS has got a much better feel to it; it’s cleaner, it’s smoother, it’s faster. It looks better – the grey and blue finish I’ve currently got running looks the biz on the HD screen of the tablet.

Live wallpapers are much better – Bubbles is great fun. The App draw has been improved upon and now has proper pages, as opposed to an endless scroll, and the animation for jumping between pages has improved as well. Very pleasing!

ICS brings a whole host of optimising features as well – from native external SD card reading to a useable task manager that actually lets you close apps you’re not using – this is an OS that’s looked at the last 18 months of Android development through the last stages of FroYo 2.2 in 2010, Gingerbread 2.3 in 2011, Honeycomb 3.0 AND 3rd party development throughout the Market and amateur developers, incorporating many of these advances into a cohesive whole.

For example, the Tablet comes with an external SD card slot, but Honeycomb didn’t have the ability to read the card ‘live’. In order to use this feature, you had to root the tablet then install and run init.d support and a custom script. Not too difficult but very annoying! ICS supports external SD features out the box and resolves the issue.

I believe WiFi connection has been improved – repairing the notoriously finnicky ‘never disconnect’ feature from Honeycomb and GPS location has been improved as well.

It still doesn’t come with a file manager, which is a little strange when the 2012 Xperias come bundled with Astro, but that’s something which has long been a personal bugaboo of mine. Reading up about it though, Jelly Bean 5.0 is rumoured to come with a proper, native file manager. Only taken 4 years!

It’s difficult to say whether battery life has improved as I’ve basically ragged the tablet all weekend, but it does appear to be lasting longer, despite endless fiddling! Watch this space!

EDIT: Condi’s All in One Tool has been updated to fix the ICS error and AiO 2.9 can be found on XDA.

Funny 5 minutes

My Liveview had a funny 5 minutes this morning. After misplacing it for almost two weeks, I was pleased to have it back on my wrist. Fired it up, connected to the Xperia S phone without any problems. Received the first of my usual half-hourly bulletins, checked the device and the Liveview was convinced the date was 9th December 1976!

I’m fairly sure the Liveview has compatibility problems with Ice Cream Sandwich as I had the occasional problem when using the device with the Arc S and the 4.0 beta back in February. It’s always worked well for me on the 2011 Xperias and Gingerbread 2.3.x.

I guess with the 2012 handsets being on 2.3.7 and the Liveview Manager from the Market not being updated since August 2011, it was inevitable something had to go wrong somewhere. Plus now Sony have wheeled out the SmartWatch the Liveview is sooooooooo last years gadget and won’t receive any more updates to the software on the phone or on the Liveview itself.

A pity in my view as though my colleagues in Test Lab have had a series of problems with their Liveviews, bought ridiculously cheap from play.com in March, this is the first glitch I’ve had. And in the Liveview’s defence, a quick reboot restored it to full working order within 20 seconds and gave me the correct time, year, day and date!

That Yellow Bastard

It is with some disappointment I write this post, but in the spirit of reporting the rough with the smooth, I shall continue.

Unfortunately it seems even the mighty Xperia S is not beyond the touch of the dreaded ‘Sony Launch Curse’ that afflicted the launch of the Arc last year, in the shape of an audio sync glitch when recording HD video.

Starting about two weeks after launch, stories appeared on the XDA forum and the Sony Mobile forums, telling tales of piss-yellow patches appearing in the middle of the lower portion of the screen. Inspection of my handset showed I too had been struck down by the curse. Woe is me.

Further woe was added when reading these forums again; it seems the company response to this issue had initially been inconsistent, with replies ranging from:

* Return the handset for a free replacement
* Return the handset for repair
* Return the handset for a fee of £/$300 to replace!
* It’s a software issue – (Erm, yeah, ok… And monkey’s will fly out my butt! Although….)

Fair enough, it could be a software issue as it’s affecting a number of handsets and that’s one thing they have in common. The other common factor is they’re all made from the same components; could this be an issue?

The simple answer is yes, it’s a hardware issue. Any time the phone is heated above 30C i.e. when it’s in your pocket(!) the glue used to manufacture the screen starts to heat up and causes discolouration in the display. Doing something that is quite intensive like playing a game, watching a film, browsing the t’interweb or running StabilityTest to really push the phone, the sides of the screen heats the phone further. Checking my own handset once I’d gotten to 37C, after running StabilityTest, the yellow bastard had spread up the sides of the screen.

Cooling the phone down to below 30C the colouration does indeed dissipate, however this doesn’t negate from the fact it will happen again and laughs in the face of the beauty of this otherwise impressive screen. Even ‘repaired’ handsets have had similar problems so it’s not simply limited to a specific batch of phones. I’m starting to wonder if perhaps running StabilityTest for an extended period of time may well cook off the imperfections in the glue – but this may well warrant further investigation before giving the dual-core processor the hammering StabilityTest delivers.

EDIT: Further reading has revealed a user who fired up StabilityTest then wrapped the XS in a blanket to really fuel the furnace and heat the handset to over 40C, effectively curing the problem – and the glue, boom boom!

The most astounding thing is how this slipped past QC – are these phones only tested in an hermetically sealed, temperature controlled vault? Surely the handset would’ve been road-tested ‘in the wild’ i.e. travelling around in someone’s pocket getting warm and sweaty? Obviously not in this case, but this is another excellent example for getting handsets out and about a month or two early for real-world testing BEFORE they launch with another embarrassing problem!

It’s not really doing any damage to sales figures as it’s proving a very popular phone, and it is an amazing phone, but it’s such a shame for early adopters to be tarnished with a slightly dodgy display!

More is more? Or too much?

Sony’s saturation of the mobile market continues this week with the global release of the Xperia P, Xperia U and the Xperia Sola.

Having previously talked about the P and the U handsets in *this* post, I shan’t dwell too much on their details, other than the P offers 16GB of onboard storage, a 1.5GHz dual-core processor and a qHD screen. The U offers none of this, coming instead with a dual-core 1GHz processor and a measly 4GB onboard storage.

Early rumours about the U coming with microSD support to compensate for the miniscule onboard memory now appear to have really been just rumours as the handset doesn’t feature this facility, proving quite neatly how useless this handset is when compared to other phones in the NXT range.

Quite how Sony are expecting this handset to cope with the resource dependant ICS installation due in the summer is anyone’s guess as even the Arc S, with an overclocked processor running at 1.89GHz, has problems. Maybe it’s not really a fair example as the Arc S is single-core after all, but even so running the Arc S nearly twice as fast as the U and still encountering problems is troublesome.

The devolution continues with the Tapioca and the Tapioca Pro (name TBC). Coming with a single-core 800MHz processor it’s aimed at cheaper entry level markets and a huge step backwards in some ways. And how.

If this device launches with ICS I hope and pray it’s a slim and lite version of the OS as my 2011 Xperia Ray, with a 1GHz single-core processor, struggles to cope with ICS on a bare bones install. Other than music, there’s nothing else on the phone and it’s painfully slow at times. It looks nice, it’s good to say “I’ve got ICS on my phone” but that’s about it. All glory, no guts.

But anyways, enough of the grumbling. Onto the good stuff, of which there is plenty to talk about too.

The Sola slightly sidesteps away from the NXT design in that it does away with the notification strip, making it look more like the Ray, and brings the digital voodoo of Floating Touch.

The Ion sticks a little closer to the NXT design aesthetic and adds expandable memory. Yes! MicroSD returns and is still useful, despite being absent from the P, S and U. Latest news suggests the phone will be bundled with a 32GB card (at least that’s what’s on a pre-order in Hong Kong) which, when combined with the existing 16GB of onboard storage, makes for a LOT of available media storage. At least 5000 songs @ 192kbps. And still leaves ample room for some HD movies and photos.

Avarice towards the low end handsets aside, the Ion offers a slew of features that any phone owner would be thrilled to own. I think of it as the Xperia S Plus – and any improvement on that already masterful handset is surely only a positive!