November 28, 2008

Black Friday: Best Blu-ray deals

Been waiting for prices to drop before going Blu? Judging from today's Black Friday Blu-ray sales, now's the time.

First up: Blu-ray decks for less than $200, including the BD-Live-capable Sony BDP-S350 (which I've tried myself; thumbs up) and Samsung's BD-P1500, both selling for $199 at Amazon, Best Buy, and Wal-Mart (or go to Dell.com, where you'll find the S350 for $179). If you don't mind missing out on BD-Live features (don't worry, you're not missing much), you can go even cheaper with Insignia's Blu-ray player ($149 at Best Buy) or this $128 Blu-ray deck from Magnavox (at Wal-Mart). Looking for the best rather than the cheapest? I'm still recommending Sony's PlayStation 3, an excellent value at $399 (for the 80GB version).

Of course, you'll need some Blu-ray movies to go with the new player. Amazon's doing its part with an impressive Black Friday Blu-ray sale, with many new releases going for 60 percent off. Among the top picks: The entire "Band of Brothers" mini-series for $49 (down from $99), the new Indiana Jones epic for $14.99 (from $39.99), Disney's (recently restored) classic "Sleeping Beauty" for $19, and 1987's "The Untouchables" ("What are you prepared to do?") for $8.99. Get 'em while they're hot.

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November 25, 2008

At home for review: SlingCatcher


Finally got my review unit today (didn't it start shipping more than a month ago?) and looking forward to giving it the once-over. For those who aren't familiar with all things Sling, the SlingCatcher grabs video from either remote Slingboxes or your PC (via the new SlingProjector app) and slings them onto your TV. So, for example, you could sling video from a Slingbox in one room your living room to a SlingCatcher-connected HDTV in the bedroom, or you could set SlingProjector to send a YouTube or Hulu Web video (or anything on your browser, for that matter) to your TV set. Hoping to get the review up next week, so stay tuned.

Related:
Sling.com video portal set to launch Nov. 24

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November 24, 2008

Hands-on with Aurora Feint: Real-time multiplayer for the iPhone, almost


I blogged late last week about Aurora Feint: The Arena, a fantasy role-playing/puzzle game that delivers something of a first for the iPhone: "asynchronous" MMO (or massively multiplayer) online gaming. I bought the game ($7.99) over the weekend, and I've been having a blast ever since.

Here's how it works: Once you create an account and a player (easily done over the iPhone itself), you head for the Mine to earn crystals (think money) and resources, which you can cash in for weapons and powers. The "mining" and battle sequences in Aurora Feint consist of Tetris-like puzzles, in which you slide multi-patterned tiles into groups of three or more. Sounds boring, but thanks to beautiful graphics and a brooding, pulse-pounding soundtrack, it's anything but.

Anyway, once you've spent some time building up your character, you're ready to jump into Aurora Feint's ingenious multiplayer system. First, you summon a "ghost"—that is, you play the game solo, wielding weapons (which work similar to the weapons in Guitar Hero duels) as you go. You then upload the ghost (basically a recording of your real-time gameplay) to the Aurora Feint servers; once that's done, other players can do asynchronous battle with your online ghost, or you can match yourself up with someone else's ghost. It's quite clever—and, when you think about it, it's the perfect answer to the challenges of real-time multiplayer on the iPhone (bad connections, incoming calls, lag, etc.).

I've been playing the game all weekend, and it works great; some players have complained of crashes, but I've haven't encountered any so far. And as for the asynchronous battles … well, they're surprisingly gripping.

Now, here's my challenge to iPhone gaming developers—how about adding asynchronous multiplayer to your games? Just imagine: a version of Need for Speed in which you race against, say, four or five "ghosts"? I'd buy that for $10.

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November 21, 2008

Before CinemaScope and IMAX, there was … Cinerama!



… and with the help of a specialized form of letterboxing, called "Smilebox," you can experience Cinerama in your own home … well, sort of.

Only two feature-length dramatic movies were produced in the classic three-camera Cinerama process, and one of them, 1962's "How the West Was Won," recently arrived on Blu-ray. The two-disc set delivers two version of the movie: a flat version letterboxed at 2.89:1 (as described by High-Def Digest) on Disc 1, and a "Smilebox"-ed version, designed to better replicate the deeply curved Cinerama screen, on Disc 2.

Hoping to check out the Smilebox effect for myself, I ordered the Blu-ray of HTWWW on Netflix. Unfortunately, I (stupidly) didn't bother to check which disc I'd be getting, and I ended up with Disc 1—the flat version. That said, the disc does include a fascinating documentary about the development of the Cinerama process, along with some cool Smileboxed clips (pictured here).

What's so fascinating about Cinerama (many more details here) is that it arrived on the scene at a time in cinema history—the late '40s and early '50s—when movie attendance was in steep decline, all thanks to a new little box with rabbit ears and a screen. Clueless movie execs frittered about, wondering how to draw viewers back into the theaters. Sound familiar?


But then "This is Cinerama," the first big Cinerama blockbuster, debuted on Broadway in 1952, and audiences were bowled over by the massive curved screen and seven-channel sound. It was virtual reality for the masses (as one of the talking heads in the Cinerama doc put it), and "This is Cinerama" became the top-grossing movie of the year. (The original Cinerama process didn't last long, but if you're a fan of widescreen movies, you've got Cinerama to thank.)

Fast-forward to today, when movie execs and theater chains—freaked out by declining attendance—are hoping that digital IMAX and 3-D presentations will put butts back in the seats. It's a tall order—personally, I rarely go to the movies anymore thanks to my 46-inch Sony Bravia and Blu-ray player. That said, watching "The Dark Knight" in IMAX—complete with those eye-popping sequences when the screen opens up for full-on IMAX action—was well worth the (gulp) $16.50.

In any case … I now have the correct "How the West Was Won" Blu-ray disc in my Netflix queue, and I'll have a full report on the SmileBox version next week. Stay tuned.

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November 20, 2008

YouTube gingerly testing the HD waters


So notes Wired's Epicenter blog and Ars Technica, both of which have instructions on how to view the smattering of HD-quality videos available on YouTube (including the "Where the Hell is Matt" clip that's been making the rounds; it even made a brief appearance on "Daily Show" the other night). Wired says the videos appear to have a resolution of 720p with "stereo surround" soundtracks.

Of course, YouTube wouldn't be the first site to offer streaming HD video -- ABC.com, Hulu, Vimeo and others beat it to the punch some time ago -- but it would certainly be the biggest, and given that YouTube just inked a deal with MGM for streaming its movies online, well ... this could be interesting.

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Now playing at a club near you: "Lost" Season 4, via "recap-rock"


Who needs to watch "Lost" on TV -- or on the Web, for that matter -- when there's "Previously on Lost," a Brooklyn-based rock band that performs nothing but songs based on "Lost" episodes? I just spotted a flyer for their Season 4 "recap-rock" marathon (songs include "This Island Won't Let You Die," "Ballad of Sayid Jarrah," and the haunting "All My Friends Go Back") posted near my office in Noho, and apparently the group plays regularly in the tri-state area (next show: Saturday the 22nd at the Terrace Club in Princeton, according to the band's MySpace page).

Meandering Entertainer went to a show at the Knitting Factory back in June, and reports:

The show began with a cardboard plane being carried from the back of the room and crashing into the stage. The two singers of the band then came out and mercilessly pummeled aforementioned plane, and went right into the first song.

Nice.

November 19, 2008

"New Xbox Experience" arrives, and it's smooth sailing (so far)


As promised, today's system-wide NXE rollout for the Xbox 360 appears to be going without a hitch—and I've gotta say, the gorgeous new dashboard (not to mention Netflix streaming) was worth the wait. And the old dashboard blades I'd been worried about losing? Don't miss 'em.

I updated my console early this morning, and the process was a cinch. The download itself took less than a minute, and within five minutes I was designing my new Xbox Avatar (gamertag: peking2). Don't worry, it's easy—you get enough choices (body types, eyes, noses, clothing, accessories, and so on) to build an avatar that'll look at least something like you, but not so many choices that it becomes overwhelming. Once your avatar is all set, you'll be able to join parties with your avatar'd buddies and even play community games as your avatar (can't wait to try that out).

The new Xbox Dashboard takes its cues from the Zune interface; basically, you get a column of headings (My Xbox, Events, Video Marketplace, Game Marketplace, etc.), with a row of info panels under each heading. It's easy, intuitive, and—I never thought I'd say this—better than the blades on the old dashboard. (You can read all about the other new features right here.)

Of course, the feature we're all been waiting for—Netflix streaming movies—is also here, and it works great (despite some earlier reports to the contrary). Syncing my Netflix account to my Xbox was a simple matter of entering a five-digit code on the Netflix Web site and installing a quick software update; after that, I got my instant streaming queue and started watching. SD movies look fair—some light choppiness and softness—while HD movies looked razor-sharp (if somewhat softer than Blu-ray-quality). As I noted yesterday, Sony movies are indeed blocked from streaming over the 360—ugh.

Still, I'm mightily impressed with what Microsoft and the Live team have managed to do with a simple (well, simple to install, at least) software update. It's like having a whole new console, along with thousands of free streaming movies as a bonus. Bravo.

November 18, 2008

Sony movies pulled from Xbox 360's streaming Netflix player


That's the word from the gamers at Joystiq, who noticed that a good chunk of the movies in their Netflix instant viewing queue were suddenly "not available" for Xbox 360 streaming. Upon further inspection, the enterprising bloggers realized that the missing movies were all from Columbia Pictures, which so happens to be owned by Sony—maker and champion the PlayStation 3, and therefore mortal enemy of Microsoft and all things Xbox.

So, what's the story? When asked to comment, Netflix PR told MTV Multiplayer that "titles regularly come in and out of license," and that as far as the 360 goes, "a few hundred titles are temporarily unavailable," although "we hope they'll be licensed for Xbox 360 shortly." But is there a Sony connection? No comment on that one. As Han Solo might say, I've got a bad feeling about this.

On deck: BlackBerry Storm review


The first touchscreen BlackBerry is set for release Friday, and I'm getting my review unit later today; expect a full review later in the week. Early word on the Storm was mixed, at best, but after spending some time with the top-notch, envy-inducing BlackBerry Bold, my expectations are creeping up again. Also, the Storm's "clickable" display—which, among other things, allows for easy cut-and-paste—might be a game-changer as far as touchscreen phones go. Anyway, stay tuned, and feel free to sling any questions my way. Update: Here's the full review; nice display, but way sluggish.

Google voice search for iPhone: Cool, but only so-so useful


Finally got my hands on the much-anticipated update for the Google iPhone app, which now adds voice searching to the mix. My reaction? Mixed feelings.

Yes, it's simple enough: Just speak into the phone (either hold it up to your ear, or press a virtual button and talk) and within a few seconds, you'll get a list of nicely formatted Google results. Say, "Barack Obama," and you'll get search results for our next president. Or say "News about Donovan McNabb," and you'll see headlines about how the 10-year pro football veteran didn't know there were ties in the NFL (ugh). And if you have location services enabled, just say "Mexican restaurant" to find the nearest taco (although, sadly, you get the results on a Web page rather than on the iPhone's map application). [Update: You actually can get search results to pop up on Google Maps for iPhone, as long as you first set the Google app to work with the Map app; that said, I wish iPhone Map hits were better integrated with the standard Google app search results.]

Sounds cool, but in practice, Google voice search is a mixed bag. Voice recognition was hit-and-miss; no matter how many times I tried to call up "pictures of yoda," I got yoga images instead. "Movie showtimes" worked well, but when I said "nearby restaurants," I got the Web site for a theater troupe in Virginia that happened to have a "nearby restaurants" page. I tried calling my wife by saying "call Susan," but instead of getting her phone number, I got a search listing for Susan Brown, Nashville's top relocation specialist. (I know, no one ever said the new Google app would do voice commands—but isn't that a reasonable expectation, given how many other phones do the same thing?)

Overall—yeah, the technology here is pretty cool, but I'm not sure how much I'll be using the new Google search app in real life. When I want to find a nearby restaurant, I want my results on a map, not on a Google Web page. If I want movie showtimes, I'll use the Flixter for iPhone. In short? Nice, but not a life-changer.


November 17, 2008

Does the new Xbox 360 intro really need to be 45 seconds long?


The original, five-second start-up animation for the Xbox 360 is as it should be: short and sweet. But the revamped animation for the "New Xbox Experience," which is due in just two days, manages to sail completely over the top. Now more than 45 seconds long, the animation (which you can find here at GameStooge) starts with the familiar 360 logo, then morphs into garish, swirling cluster of liquid metal-looking globes and trailing, multicolored streamers (accompanied by the goofy strains of an electric guitar); we then zoom in on a pair of black race cars before soaring toward a towering, brown ... well, maybe it's a tree, maybe it's a big ol' turd, hard to say. More music (triumphant "Lord of the Rings"-type orchestrations now), lots of little digital patterns flying into and out of frame, before finally ... the Xbox 360 logo, and the end. Apparently, someone at Live had a little too much time on their hands. (GameStooge reports that the intro is skippable, thank God.)

Update: OK, so after successfully installing the NXE, I can report that the new intro -- while indeed lengthy -- only plays once, just before you launch the new dashboard for the first time. After that, it's back to the old, brief intro. Looks like someone (yes, me) overreacted a little bit.

November 14, 2008

Posted on Y! Tech: Holiday HDTV shopping guide


Got a new HDTV on your holiday shopping list? Check out my shopping guide before braving the crowds at your local big-box retailer. Among my tips: Bigger isn't always better (get the right size set for your living room), check out those black levels (you don't want a dull-looking HD image, do you?), the benefits (or lack thereof) of 120Hz refresh rates, and pointers on what kind of HDTV (LCD, plasma, rear-projection) is right for you.

And that's all for this week -- time for me to go scare myself silly with "Dead Space" on my Xbox 360. See you Monday.

November 13, 2008

Netflix pounds a final nail in the HD DVD coffin


Who knew there was another nail? Anyway, Netflix announced today that come Dec. 15, it'll stop renting out its last remaining HD DVDs. The news shouldn't come as a surprise -- I blogged about it months ago (and I even used the old "nail in the coffin" cliché back then, too) -- but that said, another sad day for old HD DVD fans. I still have a few HD DVDs in my collection -- "Blade Runner," "2001," "The Shining," and "Zodiac" among them (as well as a working HD DVD add-on for my Xbox 360) -- but I'll probably end up replacing them with Blu-rays at some point.

Still in the hunt for HD DVD bargains? Check out Amazon's ongoing fire sale -- some good bargains to be had (if you can call movies in an essentially obsolete format a bargain), with many discs going for south of $8.

November 12, 2008

Travel tip: Wi-Fi-equipped BoltBus from NYC to D.C., Boston, Philly


Got this tip from Dave Zatz of Zatz Not Funny!: BoltBus, a new bargain bus line with routes from Manhattan to Washington, D.C., Boston, and Philadelphia. Buses are reportedly new, comfy, and roomy -- and best of all, you get free Wi-Fi (more than 600Kbps down and 180Kbps up, according to Dave) and power outlets in the seat backs. Ticket prices range from about $25 one-way to -- wait for it -- a buck (if you're lucky). Some reports of spotty service, but overall, sounds like a great deal. (I was thinking of taking BoltBus down to D.C. for Obama's inauguration, until I learned that every last hotel in town is already booked. Oh well.)

Image credit: flickr

November 11, 2008

Behold: The Samsung Behold


This just in: The $149 Samsung Behold for T-Mobile, which is (if I had to describe it in four words or less) the Instinct, but worse. Sure, it's got a gorgeous, slim shell, along with a relatively pretty touch interface -- but the Behold's UI pales in comparison to the Instinct's fluid, iPhone-like menu screens. Also: Web browsing is clunky, no Wi-Fi (to be fair, the Instinct lacks Wi-Fi as well), no streaming videos or music downloads. On the bright side, there's a light sensor that locks the display while the phone's pressed against your cheek (similar to the iPhone), the 5MP camera (with flash and auto focus) takes relatively sharp pictures, and slick music player is easy to use and plays tunes in the background.

That said ... not sure why you'd get the Behold when there's the impressive T-Mobile G1 for just $30 more, or the Instinct on Sprint for $20 less. Stay tuned for the full review on my Yahoo! Tech blog (which is on the fritz at the moment -- CSS, anyone?).

November 10, 2008

Blockbuster: Set-top box coming for the holidays

We first heard word of a Blockboster set-top box back in April -- and frankly, I promptly forgot about the whole thing. But NewTeeVee reports that Blockbuster execs told investors last week that a set-top box is indeed coming -- and in time for the holidays, as it turns out. Still no details on exactly when, or for how much -- or whether we're talking à la carte rentals (the Apple TV/Vudu pricing model) or a subscription service (the Netflix model). Personally, I'm amazed that Blockbuster's taken so long to get its streaming movie business off the ground, given that it snapped up Movielink more than a year ago.

So anyway ... can Blockbuster (which has been falling behind in its war with Netflix) still make a go of the set-top business? Maybe -- but only if it goes the Netflix way and gives subscribers free run of its online catalog. Or, how about this: Charge a nominal monthly fee, but hand out the boxes for free. If Blockbuster decides to charge for individual rentals, though, I think it'll be fighting a losing battle (if it isn't already, considering Netflix's sizable head start).

November 07, 2008

Xbox execs promise: No Live meltdown during NXE rollout

Well, let's hope so. In an interview with Eurogamer, "New Xbox Experience" manager Jerry Johnson says that the Xbox team learned its lesson after Live crashed and burned in a crush of new users last December. "Many things have changed since then," Johnson told Eurogamer, "and we realized the kind of growth trajectory we were on and had to prepare for it." I'm assuming that means the Live servers will be ready come Nov. 19, when the massive, top-to-bottom Dashboard revamp (a.k.a., the New Xbox Experience) goes out to millions of 360 gamers. Will the servers be able to handle the load? Guess we'll find out.

November 06, 2008

Sling.com video portal set to launch Nov. 24


Great news (from WaPo/Paidcontent.org). Sounds like deals are struck with a variety of big TV/movie companies (save Viacom, for now) -- but more importantly, Sling.com will let you watch your Slingbox over any Web browser, no software SlingPlayer required. Of course, the killer feature would be the ability to "sling" streaming movies and TV episodes from Sling.com to the Slingcatcher or SlingPlayer Mobile, but it's not clear if that's going to happen yet. Anyway, I'm planning to post more details tomorrow on my Y! Tech blog, so stay tuned.

November 05, 2008

BlackBerry Bold: My first (and only) BlackBerry crush


As I wrote in my review of the Bold earlier this week, I've never been much of a BlackBerry fan -- I hate the dull, bare-bones interface, the HTML-free e-mail viewer, the lame attempts at multimedia, and the cheap feel of the hardware itself. But the Bold? Well ... color me impressed. Gorgeous new interface, e-mail that arrives with HTML formatting intact, stellar video and music playback, eye-popping display ... great stuff. And now, I have to admit -- I've been looking at my iPhone 3G with a little ... disdain lately, especially as the wait continues for a fix to its fetch e-mail problems. And yes, $299 with service is pricey, but something tells me AT&T might have a hit on its hands with the Bold. You heard it here first. (And get ready for the touchscreen Storm, due later this fall.)

November 04, 2008

Streaming video: Easy, instant, and (often) free, but discs still win the image-quality battle


Going to see the big Hollywood blockbusters was thrilling when I was a kid -- especially the ones presented in full-on 70mm. Sure, most of these prints were 70mm blow-ups of 35mm negatives, but still -- you could tell the difference, and I reveled in it. That's what the movies were all about (for me, anyway): Big, crisp images, projected onto giant wide screens.

That's why I'm such a big fan of Blu-ray, expensive though it is. Combined with my 1080p 46-inch HDTV, Blu-ray video looks thrilling close to the image quality you'd expect in a movie theater. Indeed, I rarely go out to an actual theater anymore, unless it's for something like Indiana Jones, the latest Bond flick, or Batman in IMAX. Upscaled DVD is a close second.

Lately, though, everyone (well, it feels like everyone) has been trashing Blu-ray and even the old, reliable DVD and going with streaming video, either over the likes of YouTube and Hulu or Netflix's "Watch Instantly" service, which is expanding to TiVo and the Xbox 360.

Now, I'm all for the convenience of Net video -- I love the fact that I can order movies on Apple TV and start watching them right away. But here's the thing: Streaming video looks, for the most part, like absolute shit. It's soft, blocky, choppy ... I mean, we're talking VHS quality or worse. In terms of image quality, it's a huge step backward. I'd much rather go to a theater and cough up $20 than watch, say, "The Dark Knight" on a Web browser.

Not all streaming video looks terrible. I think the streaming HD feeds on Apple TV, Vudu (especially its new HDX format), and Hulu look pretty good, even if they're not quite Blu-ray quality (more like somewhere between HD and DVD). Netflix is also due to offer HD streams on the Xbox 360, although apparently you need 8MB downstream to get it (and good luck with that, unless you've got Fios at home).

But from what I've been hearing, it seems like many viewers -- even those with brand-new HDTVs in their living rooms -- would rather go with instant, streaming SD movies, especially if they're free. In the battle between convenience and quality, convenience appears to be winning out.

Maybe I'm just being stubborn here, but ... no way am I giving up on by-mail discs from Netflix. For me, the better image quality is worth the (short) wait. Online video is OK in a pinch (say, if you're traveling with a laptop) and may eventually reach Blu-ray quality (Vudu's HDX is almost there, although a two-hour movie takes hours to download), but for now, in terms of image quality? No contest. I'll stick with my DVDs and Blu-rays, thanks.

Anyway, that's my rant. I'm not the only one who feels this way, right?

November 03, 2008

In the office: Ooma (free phone calls for life)


Before last week, all I knew about Ooma was that it was some kind of Net-calling service and that Ashton Kutcher (yes, that Ashton Kutcher) was involved somehow. (Hmmm ... shades of Tom Cruise and Helio, perhaps?) Anyway, the folks at Ooma reached out to me (no, I didn't get Punk'd) and sent me a review unit, which I've just now hooked up in my cubicle; all I need now is an old landline phone to start testing. 

The deal with Ooma? For $250 (used to be $400), you get free domestic calling for life. Interesting. My first question to Ooma execs: What happens if (and when) Ooma goes belly-up, and I'm out $250? Well, the Ooma folks note that they got a big round of funding back in September (about $16 million worth), and that if you consider the cost of a standard landline, the "payback period" for an Ooma unit is about a year.

I'm not planning on reviewing Ooma this time around -- the current box is about a year old -- but I'll be familiarizing myself with the system in preparation for Ooma 2.0, which is apparently on the way (think wireless). Stay tuned.