TDI.online Tech. Music. Games.

Surface

I own a Surface Pro 6 and I like it.

There’s a sentence I never expected to write.

When the Surface first came out it was intriguing (I use the term loosely), but it just wasn’t something I could ever see myself using. I had an iPad and, well, that was what a tablet was supposed to be.

Since then I’ve fallen out with Apple (well, technically I’d fallen out with them years ago). Don’t get me wrong, I’ve tried to find a continued use for my iPad, but it keeps getting sidelined, or just fucking frustrates me. So these days, at best, it’s not much more than a glorified PDF reader, and one that struggles to load a file off my NAS when I’m in bed. :(

So the Surface, then… How the hell did I end up liking something that runs Windows 10?

Windows 10 is an absolutely shit-show of a “touch enabled” operating system. Tablet-mode is broken in a host of ways. “Non Tablet” (normal) Windows, even more so. The gestures are poor, undiscoverable, and some times hit-or-miss. Touch areas are often too small, or just don’t exist because you’re using a Win32 app. Windows still struggles with HiDPI. It gets a little confused as to what to do when you change orientation. The Windows store… I mean, I can go on. Windows is, as Windows does.

But it runs everything

And I’ve grown to realise that, the Surface’s biggest weakness – Win10 – is actually it’s biggest strength. My tablet already has the full version of Photoshop on it. And ZBrush. And Modo. My tablet actually compiles my game, and amazingly, handles UE4 well enough to run it at a reasonable clip.

Of course, you need a keyboard for that list, but the Surface keyboard is excellent. The keys have travel and feel great. The trackpad is perfect. It’s easy to get on and off. Even the pen – which I’ll happily agree is not as good as the Apple one – is lovely to use. Especially in Krita, or Photoshop.

I have the Linux subsystem. I can connect to everything in my house. Battery life seems, even under reasonable use (like compiling my game), to be ample. Even the power adaptor is small and light. I literally cannot complain about the hardware, or the price.

So, fuck me. I really like my Surface. Even though it’s running Windows 10. This is a seriously compelling form factor that you can do a surprising amount of “real” work on. It’s even powerful enough to drive my DDJ-1000, so it’s probably going to be my travel DJ rig. Pretty damn impressive for 800 nicker.

Oh, it even reads PDFs well. Laters, iPad :D

Readly

DDJ 1000

DDJ 1000

Stupidly, I can’t remember when I started DJing. My late teens have merged into the sort of haze that’d be left over from the bongs I was smoking back then. It was the 90s though, maybe 93 or 94? Either way, back then it was all vinyl, and we scabbled around trying to save the money for basic belt-drive turntables that would get us going, learning how to beatmatch. I never managed to save enough, instead sloping off to friends’ houses to use theirs. Maybe taking over from them when the got too high at a house party.

When I left Uni I needed to consolidate my debts, so took out a loan, 1.5 grand of which I promptly spunked on two shiny, Technics 1210 turntables. I still have both, they’re so solidly built that the cockroaches will be learning to scratch once the nuclear winter subsides. They’re (still) super expensive, but they’re absolute fucking units.

I only mention this to frame my overly positive comments below, as I’m old and also a bit of a traditionalist. I didn’t move from vinyl to CD until 2005, for example. I was that guy.

That being said, I’ve not been completely shy of experimenting and, technically, I’ve been a digital / laptop DJ for a decade or so. I spent a couple of years with a controller and Ableton Live, but pressing buttons without the risk of failure (or just doing something drunkenly out of time) didn’t work for me. For the last few years I’ve been a Traktor Scratch user, two CDJ1000s and my trusty 1210s, driving it via timecode. The problem with this is basically space. Four decks, my Xone42, and a stack of vinyl just don’t fit in my current place. As for rocking up to a mate’s house for an impromptu party… Well, it’s not as bad as carrying boxes of vinyl about, but they better have a shit-load of plugs and a big table sorted, or it ain’t happening.

I’ve been looking for a solution to this since I got back to the UK. A few of my musical chums have been happily rocking out with some iPad apps (Traktor again, iirc) but the touch interface makes me die inside, so I’ve been looking around at control surfaces. There are a million of these on the market, but I’m fussy; I want four channels, something “full size”, so big enough to give me all the controls I’m used to, jogwheels that feel as close to CDJs as possible, and - preferably - something with a decent mixer and outputs built-in. I’m less arsed about weight, as the amount of time I’ll be carrying it is dwarfed by the time spent using it, but you know, it’s a factor.

That basically points me in the direction of Pioneer. I’ve been looking at their DDJ and XDJ range for a while. There are plusses and minuses to all these controllers, some steal features from the Nexus decks, some are tied tightly to Rekordbox, some are made for Serato, some are “big”, some are half-size, and until recently, none of them quite did it for me. Until I spotted the DDJ-1000.

Holy shit, not on is this controller a bit of a monster (in size, if not in price) but hand on heart, this is the first time I can say that I’ve enjoyed using a control surface as much as I do a pair of CDJs. Everything is laid out as you’d expect, the decks mimic CDJs, and the in-built mixer is basically a DJM 750, so you have everything from colour, to post fader single channel effects built-in. EQ quality is superb (although not quite as rich as my Xone) with great feel on the pots, and all faders have just enough heft that you’re not going to accidentally knock them anywhere. The only niggle with the mixer itself is that the crossfader curve can only be set in software, so if you want to jump from a linear, or soft curve to something with a hard-knee (for scratching) you’re going to have to fuck about in the settings. Not something you’ll be doing live.

The Jogwheels feel identical to a CDJ, being the same mechanical types found in Pioneer’s high-end gear and the displays are bright and sharp. The artwork display is basically useless, but the waveform and timers are all clear and easy to read, as is the cue marker, especially if you’re trying to scratch. These are by far the best jogwheels I’ve felt on a controller.

This particular unit is tied to Rekordbox. I’d not used the software before, but it’s already moving ahead of Traktor for me, thanks to the way it handles my music library. It digested 13k music tracks in no time, and the beat / key analysing seems to be just as accurate. The DDJ1000 has eight assignable pads, under each platter, and I thought these were going to be a bit of a novelty, but they’ve opened up a lot of possibilities for me. By default they can be used to assign hot-cues and loop points (which I use a LOT), or, flip them over to programmable effect presets. These are pre-fader effects (so will be affected by EQ) and they don’t have any ramp on, or off, but that being said, they’re super useful, to the point where I’ve not even changed the defaults yet.

Slip mode, reverse play and loop controls are all what you’d expect. You can run each deck in Vinyl or CD mode, match key, and have everything looked to beat quantisation, so again, pretty standard. Admittedly, quantisation is a bit lazy, but when you’re in a public situation with bad monitoring it’s nice to know that you can still get pin-sharp drops when you need them.

Build quality is great. It’s mainly plastic, but thankfully so, any more metal and it would have weighed a ton. Mine, in it’s flight-case, is what I’d call luggable. Better than what I’m used to, but not exactly light. Outputs are RCA and XLR, so once you have lugged it somewhere you can drop it straight into a booth and it’ll plug into whatever’s there. Whether there’s enough room in the booth is another question. It’s not exactly big, but it is about the same size as two CDJs and a standard mixer, so it’d be a tight fit in most places I’ve been.

I’ve only had one public airing with the controller so far – and I was, ahem, rusty to say the least – so although I have some more learning to do (especially this style of mixing) I can heartily give this controller two massive thumbs up. For the money (I got mine for 1000UKP) it’s an absolute steal. You literally couldn’t buy a single, proper CDJ or even a decent mixer for this money.

So, that’s the problem of how I’m going to mix in a house with no space for my gear, sorted. Keep an eye out, as I’m going to kick off a new podcast sometime next year.

Going Green...

The not so eagle eyed of you – those that still use RSS feeds and haven’t unsubscribed from this blog – have probably notice that this wee blog of mine has been dying on its arse for the last year or so. That’s partly down to me being busy, but also a conscious effort not to constantly stray into political rantings over Brexit.

As a Brit that was – at the time – living abroad, Brexit cast a long shadow. At worst it would prevent me from living and working in my country of choice. At best, well, there was no best.

As it turned out I had other reasons for leaving Finland and heading back to the UK, but that’s not made me feel the impact of Brexit any less keenly. I still work in Finland, and it’s a place I want to spend as much time in as possible. Friction-free, and ideally, with my rights intact.

I’ll set my stall out now. I’m a federalist. I believe the UK should be a federation. I’m, largely, anti-capitalist. I don’t think the system, or the corporations it spawns, are the best we, as a species, can do. But yes, I have my own company and I work within the system as best I can. I believe in the co-op, over the company, and try to work with people on that basis where I can. I don’t believe the EU is perfect, but I do believe it’s the best construct we currently have within the larger context of countries surviving in a capitalist world. I also believe the EU should be a federation, and that, until then, and until the monetary union also goes as far as being a debt union, the EU project will always falter. But it will survive, and at its heart it is a social democratic entity.

So obviously, as someone that lived abroad for more than five years, I deeply value the EU, and in particularly, freedom of movement, which is why it pains me so deeply to hear the current rhetoric from our main political parties. I have, basically, given up on Labour – in its current guise – while its so myopically determined to treat immigration as a vote winner. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back, so to speak.

I’m also quietly shitting it about climate change. They say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and I understand just enough about what’s going on to be very scared indeed. To that end I’m trying to get by without a car, I’m eating less meat, I’m much more religiously recycling, and doing what I can to make the house a bit more energy efficient. None of which will be enough.

Anyway, this is all a meandering way to clear my throat a little, try and avoid having to talk about Brexit here, and tell you all that I’ve joined the Green Party. As a Labour voter who feels the party no longer represents me, or my views, it’s refreshing to go through the Green’s pledges and see they had so much in common with my world-view. And Caroline Lucas is one of the few leaders that’s spoken any sense over the last couple of years.

I am part of the 48%, and when we leave the EU I will work, in what ways that I can, to help us re-join. Until then, I’m feeling pretty happy about adding my voice/cash/skills to the Greens in the hope it makes the tiniest bit of difference to the biggest issue facing us all.

Below Zero: 020

Below Zero: 019

Prince Of Persia: Sands of Time

Here’s the second of my WotR reviews. I think I might have done more stuff for them, but it’s probably lost to time…

Pop

There was a time when I was impressed by sexy animation alone - Saturday lunchtime to be exact - as I was playing the original Prince Of Persia as a prelude to a credit card-bending trip to Game.

What I can’t believe about Sands Of Time is how evocative it is of this original platforming masterpiece. From the first climb and jump (which is nicely presented with unobtrusive tutorial aspects) you know you’re The Prince. Or, in my case, MC Hammer. It’s the trousers.

So, there I am testing out the controls when all of a sudden the Hammer wall-rides 30 feet to a platform I’d barely noticed. Time to sit up and pay attention. And that’s what makes Prince of Persia so great. There are plenty of genuine attention-demanding moments in this game.

The cinematics, camera blurs and fixed views all bring out the vast scale of the environments, but there’s never a point where this daunts you. Need to get to a door four storeys up with only pigeon nests and light fittings to grab hold of? No probs. Hammer will probably slip in an extra backflip off the pigeon’s beak for good measure.

This is platforming goodness on a new scale. Everything from the past updated to the new. It never feels scripted, you never feel that you can’t grab hold of that ledge and you never feel like you’re playing a game.

And then there’s the combat. Ooooo, the lovely combat.

Initially, waving your sword about feels lacking in control - you don’t pick the combo for instance, you wave the stick in the general direction of where you want the kick-ass, leaving the fleet-footed 80s rapper to do his thing. But a few well placed text messages later and you’ve got the game Buffy The Vampire Slayer wished it was. I’m telling you now, there is no better combo than a 6-foot run up a wall, followed by a graceful backward flip with a mid-air slash and sand-sucking stab of death. Only takes three button presses, that.

So the sands, then… Yes, you can rewind time about 20 seconds - which makes every platforming mistake and fighting fuck-up a mere practice run for the crowd-pleasing display of joypad prowess that is to follow. Yes, you can slow down time as a whim for when you’re really showing off. Yes, you can stab enemies and force them into matrix-like bullet-time while the world around them continues at normal pace. Yes, you can do all of this whenever you want.

It’s a lovely, lovely feature and empowering to say the least. But it’s a minor thing compared to the goodness in this game’s heart. Everything about it oozes high production value and attention to detail. From the visionary moments at Save Points to the epic scale of the architecture. But, more importantly, for taking a cherished idea from yesteryear, supplying it with a new pair of baggy trousers, giving it a stern talking to about family responsibility (and how crap 80s rap really was), before throwing it out into the brave new world.

Lara Croft? You can’t touch this.

Metal Arms: Glitch in the System

A while back, Way of the Rodent, a short-lived ‘zine of sorts that blazed a glorious trail across the internet of the early ’00s launched a Kickstarter that unfortunately failed. Annnnyway, this lead me to save a couple of the reviews I did for them, which I’ll post here for posterity.

The guidelines for WotR reviews were: 500 words, and do what you want…

Metal Arms

I really, really like this game.

I like the way the intro has beeped-out swear words - for the same reason that I like the start of Four Weddings. I like the way the back-story is shown in flickering black and white, like some sort of piss-take of The Animatrix.

I like the tutorial and the way that two of the friendly bots carefully guide me through the usual double-jump and aiming malarkey, teasing, saying they’ll wait for me, egging me on, only to be blown to fuck at the first bridge.0

I like the levels and they way they subtlely encourage me to explore, begging me to point my little miner helmet and light into the darkest recesses of the designers mind, sniffing his drawers for that elusive secret chip - or four.

I like the way I can sneak up behind an enemy Mil, only to have him fart, right in my face. I like the fact I can repay such kindness by carefully blowing a couple of hot rounds into his right shoulder and watch him run around, screaming like a five-year-old girl.

No, really. He does.

I especially love the fact that, if I do this and Farty-Mil is in the middle of a big group of his mates, his rusty, panicking trigger finger will be glued to the spew hot-luvvin setting and my gaseous friend will scream around the level shooting the fuck out of all his mates. I like the mayhem this causes, even more.

I like the fact all my bot-mates are cute, that they say they’ll help me out, show me the way to the checkpoint, do what I tell them to and that they don’t run away in a fire-fight. I even like the fact that I nearly cried, proper-like, when in a panic I accidentally threw a core-charge into a group of eight of them that Id carried through all level only to be left knee-deep in springs, coils and the faint echo of a friendly scream.

I really like the guns the fact that they power up significantly and the way there’s a subtle technique to each of them. I like the fact I can snipe, from really high up, or wade through trenches, both arms active, leaving a wake of screaming Mils behind me. I really like the fact I can rivet the Mil in the turret-gun, mid double-jump, only to land in his seat and point the cannon at 10 of those Mil scum behind me same for that bastard Mil driving the six-wheeled buggy.

I love the platforming elements, the careful jumps, the use of scenery the sheer fucking panic that sets in when two Berserkers land on the same rickety walkway and I madly back-track, shooting everywhere but on target.

I like the fact that I’ve still not mentioned everything that’s great about this game, like the multiplayer or the speed chips and I’ve already hit 499 words.

Don’t like the fact I’ve not had more time to play it, though.

The Greatest Laptop Ever Made...

Marco Arment recently blogged about the best laptop ever made: the Retina Macbook Pro. That is, indeed, one of the best laptops Apple ever produced and it was good enough for me to replace my Powermac, a machine that served me amazingly well for years and a sku I wish Apple had given more love to. But it’s not the best laptop ever made.

The best laptop ever made is this:

Powerbook

The Titanium Powerbook G4.

In 2001 this machine was the fucking bomb. Running the first version of OSX, this bad boy gave me Unix on the go, with Photoshop, a permanent Bluetooth connection to my phone, meaning internet on the go, and THE nicest dev environment I’d ever used up to that point. It was the first insight into what life in a permanently internet connected world could be like, and I loved it.

At work it auto mounted NFS shares from our Solaris servers, at home it auto mounted drives from my home rolled NAS - amusingly enough, some of which was still hosted on my A1200 tower. Sure, the paint wore off it after a while, and the G4 never was as fast as claimed, but this really was the first machine that delivered everything we consider essential in a modern portable computer. And it was sexy as fuck.

Apple really should have been paying me, back then, as every time I pulled out this bad-boy, people lusted after OSX and sexy Apple HW. And logging into a mate’s router from the inside of a pub and mooching about through his machines was one hell of a tech demo.

I don’t use Apple HW for much anymore, but this laptop will always hold a special place in my heart. It was, quite simply, the best laptop ever produced.

The Thing

Paul Large, the ever amazing Art Director over at Ruffian Games, has put up some of the videos that were produced for The Thing, a collaboration between my old haunt - Ruffian Games - Microsoft & Universal Pictures.

I have mixed feelings when I watch these. I’d be lying if I said I was ever fully engaged in the project. I hated how we were being asked to make it, and I had absolutely no faith in Microsoft’s ability to, well, do fucking anything by this point. We were being shoved between junior producers that had barely scheduled lunch before working with us, and had a publisher side writer that spent longer arguing about the feelings of the NPCs than he did giving a single fuck about what the player might be thinking. It was rough and I was miserable, piss-whinging about it all the time. Although, we did get treated to a VIP jaunt around Universal Pictures in LA, which was a fucking hilarious day out…

As with anything to do with big companies, a lot comes down to politics. Despite having an EP over in Seattle who was extremely passionate about us, and what we were doing, he didn’t have enough capital inside MS to save it when the Xbone launch was a disaster. We got canned along with [practically] everything else that MS were doing at the time…

But the work that Ruffian did was easily the best we’d managed up to then, and there was a real enthusiasm and passion for the project. We all adored the license.

I learned a lot about how to tackle the design of a big project by watching the way Rich and the team carved things up. It was good, detailed work, and if we had of got it over the line I strongly believe it would have treated John Carpenter’s universe with the same reverence and attention to detail as Alien: Isolation did for the Alien franchise.

I moved to Finland to start up a little Ruffian satellite while this project was being worked on, so I missed the tail-end of the stuff that was produced in the studio. And I wasn’t there when the axe fell. It was a close call, the studio nearly went down, but it’s a credit to everyone there that it didn’t, and that it’s going from strength to strength.

AAA is brutal, even with the best of licenses. I honestly do not fucking miss it, not one little bit. But then, making games is brutal, even tiny projects on your own.

Below Zero: 018