Friday, July 27, 2007

Friday Freebie - There's Something To Be Said For Compatibility

I'm sure at some point during your travels of the interwebs, you've come across a video (pr0n related, no doubt) that just wouldn't play on your system. Blame codecs - there's too damn many of them out there to keep up. There's Xvid, DivX, HuffYUV, and those are just some of the more popular among the internets 1337. Wouldn't it be nice to create a video that you knew would work on any PC running Windows? Sure would, and the solution is at hand:

Now, I'm no Microsoft fanboy - I'm a firm believer in the fact that Bill Gates and Google are in a race to take over the world. But I have to admit that using the Windows platform - while frustrating at times - does offer some convenience. And to that end, we have the Windows Media Encoder. This little guy is designed to take a wide variety of video files, or live capture, and transcode the file into the Windows Media Video (WMV) format. This will ensure compatibility with any PC running a modern copy of Windows, as WMV files are natively supported in Media Player.

Of course, MS is quick to tout numerous other supposed "benefits" of the WMV format, but honestly, these are no different than what any other codec creator will tell you. Nonetheless, with this program you do get a full featured interface for transcoding your files over to WMV. There are even numerous preset options for bitrates and other variables, broken up into categories based on what you plan on doing with the video (saving it to your hard drive, internet streaming, etc.). This is nice for all the noobs out there who haven't had that much experience working with video files.

Unfortunately, there are no provisions for editing video files, so you'll need to do that elsewhere. But that's not really the point of this tool. After all, if you wanted to edit and save a video in the WMV format initially, you could just use Movie Maker, which ships with every copy of XP. Instead, this tool is best for converting older files over to ensure compatibility.

Do I suggest that you convert your entire video library to WMV? Hell no. Unless you're streaming videos to an Xbox 360 or something, there's just no point. But when you need to make sure that a video will play on another machine, this is a nice way to do it.

The Windows Media Encoder homepage can be found here, and the download is right here (there's an alternate version for those of you on 64-bit OSs right here). Also, for you Vista guys, MS has noted some possible compatibility issues, so be sure to check out this Hotfix. Man, if Microsoft can't build apps for Vista, what chance to third parties have...

And for those of you wondering about a tool for audio files and the WMA format, don't bother. Despite their best efforts, Microsoft has yet to derail the MP3 train, so that's your best bet. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Tuesday Trainwreck - I Remember When Jim Carrey Was Actually Entertaining

Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. Dumb And Dumber. The Cable Guy. These are all really good Jim Carrey movies. And it's not just a case of looking at the past through rose-colored glasses. Go back and watch any one of them, and I dare you not to laugh out loud at some point. Go ahead, watch one right now. I'll wait. I've got two hours to kill.

So, what did you think? Funny, right? I know! Now that you've enjoyed a good movie, how about some more Jim Carrey goodness, but this time in television form? Just fire up an ep of In Living Color, and bang, Fire Marshall Bill and Veracosa are taking you on a journey to comedy town. Good times (for the record, Jim was never on that show - I'm just using it as an expression). So all that begs the question - what the hell happened to Jim Carrey's career?

Oh yeah - he stopped being funny. Old Jimmy boy seemed to have more misses than hits in his recent comedy attempts (*cough* Grinch *cough*), so he finally decided to just stop trying. Can't say I blame him. I imagine that being a failure is tough. But instead of just giving up acting all together and spending his days swimming in his giant Money Bin, Jim decided to give serious acting a try. Lucky us:

The Number 23 stars Jim as a man who becomes obsessed with a book detailing all the strange coincidences having to do with the number 23 in the world. Crazy stuff basically, like when people say that the 13 stripes on the American flag signify the 13 original colonies. We all know it's for luck! Anyway, convinced that the book was written about him, Carrey slowly descends into a world of paranoid delusion, aiming to solve the fictitious mysteries put forth on its pages.

This movie isn't supposed to be a comedy, but some people do seem to find comedic undertones in Carrey's acting. I'm not convinced it's intentional though - like it or not, Carrey is a comedian at heart, and his acting style reflects it. Even when undertaking a serious role, his true nature shines through. Truth be told, that aspect does make this movie somewhat watchable, but its poor story and overall cheesy tone relegate this disk to Trainwreck status.

If you're desperate for something to watch in 10 years, and you happen to come across this one in the $2.99 bargain bin at Best Buy, you could do worse. But watching Jim Carrey in his current state is almost too painful to endure. The good old days of funnyman Jim may be gone, but I'd rather relive them through the magic of DVD than subject myself to his current offerings. Time to throw in the towel, pal, and head back to Canada - the moose will have more love for you than we will.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Friday Freebie - Ditch The Ribbon Toolbar Forever

Let's face it - we all need one of those "office suite" programs every now and then. Maybe you need to write a letter to the collection agency, explaining why you're 11 months behind on those credit card payments. Or maybe you need to put together a spreadsheet so you can figure out how much crack you need to sell every month before you can afford those new rims. In any event, an office suite will be your ticket to success.

For the past hundred years or so, Microsoft Office has been the standard. It's gotten bulky and bloated over the years, and can be a real PITA sometimes, but it's fairly powerful and usually has the right tool for the job. But, it's from Microsoft - strike one. It also will cost you the price of a kidney on the black market for the all singing, all dancing version - strike two. And now, in the latest version, they did away with the familiar toolbars that everyone loves, in favor of a hip new interface called Ribbon. Yeah, nothing says hip, cool, and productive all at the same time quite like ribbons do.

But what's a boy to do? If you head down to your local Best Buy, you'll find that Office is the only game in town. Bill Gates, the 800 lb. gorilla that he is, has successfully muscled almost every other player out of the mainstream office suite market (Corel doesn't count since they're Canadian). Well, you're just looking in the wrong place. As usual, the internets delivers:

OpenOffice is a fully featured suite of programs, and it has the ability to do just about anything you can do with Microsoft's Office package. Featuring a word processor, spreadsheet, database, presentation creator, drawing tools, and an equation editor, OpenOffice can effectively cover all the needs of even the most die hard consumer, and even some smaller businesses. These aren't some cheap knock off programs either - these are fully featured, developed, and tested programs.

And, the best part of this whole package is that it's free (I'm sure most of you figured that out by virtue of it being featured as this week's Freebie, but I just wanted to be clear for the glue sniffers among you). That's right, you get an entire Office replacement at no cost. And this isn't just shareware or adware - the programs are completely free and open.

Of course, Microsoft Office does offer more than you get here. For instance, there's no email client or HTML editor, but you can easily find great free versions of those types of programs on the web if you bother to look. And at least one of those has been covered in a past Freebie.

Honestly, there's no reason not to check this program out, even if you have a newer version of Office. The two programs will happily coexist, and you may find that you prefer the sleeker, simpler offerings of OpenOffice. And if you're still rocking Office 2000 or earlier, you owe it to yourself to upgrade to something more powerful. Uncle kilroy thinks you deserve it.

You can check out the OpenOffice homepage here, and the download page can be found here (another one for the FreeBSD guys out there). So go check it out, and then write me a thank you letter using your new found set of programs. Be sure to put a nice border on the letter too - maybe something with kittens.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Tuesday Trainwreck - The Reason Why Elizabeth Berkley Doesn't Have A Career Anymore

1995 was a crazy year. The European Union was still forming, the Space Shuttle docked with the Mir space station for the first time, and people were setting off bombs in Oklahoma City. And there was also some court case about an ex-football player named O.J. But all that was trumped by a singular motion picture release. One film that changed the world as we know it. A mere 128 minutes that redefined everything that we thought we knew. That film - that epic - was none other than Showgirls:

In case you hadn't figured it out by now, that was my sarcastic voice. I know, it sounds a lot like my regular voice. Anyway, some genius decided that it was time to re-release Showgirls on DVD - again - so here we are, with cannon fodder.

For those of you that were living under a rock back in the year of our Yahoo!, let me break down the movie for you. Showgirls tells the story of Elizabeth Berkley trying to find work after Saved By The Bell came to a close, and she was passed over for The College Years. Undaunted, Liz bravely makes her way to Las Vegas, desperate to prove that it doesn't take a huge rack to make it in Sin City, as long as you're willing to show off what you've got. Her efforts are stymied by the incumbent slut on stage, but after pulling a Tonya Harding on the competition, and with a little help from that guy from Twin Peaks, she becomes the next big thing. Take that Tiffani-Amber Thiessen!

For some unknown reason, this flick has actually become a cult classic over the years. Personally, I think that a lot of people just have really bad taste, or haven't discovered how much more entertaining other diversions can by, like watching paint dry or needlepoint. Or maybe it's just all those guys that grew up watching SBTB can't enough of seeing Jessie's knockers on screen, and thinking about what might have been if only they had been cast over Mario Lopez as her high school love interest. Don't worry guys - he didn't touch her either. He was much too busy rubbing suntan lotion on Mark Paul Gosselarr to notice her.

Besides, everyone knows that the first season of SBTB was the best, before Jessie and Kelly showed up, when Hayley Mills taught a young Zack and Screech how to be men in this dog eat dog world. Wait, what were we discussing again?

Friday, July 13, 2007

Internet Radio Lives To Fight Another Day - And It Will Have To

Many of you probably get through your day at work with a little help from internet radio - I know I do. But what you might not have known is that come Monday, there was an excellent chance that your favorite site or station would have been silent. That's because a few months back, the Copyright Royalty Board raised the costs that internet stations have to pay to SoundExchange, a rights organization that collects royalty fees for musicians and record labels. In other words, the jerks that the idiot record executives pay to rake in the dough.

One of the things that makes internet radio so popular is its diversity. Most broadcast stations occupying the airwaves today are owned by Clear Channel, which controls the playlists nationwide to make sure that "popular", big label music sells. So if your tastes differ from that of the popular kids, you're out of luck. And even if you find a station you like, odds are they'll play a lot of the same artists over and over again. I swear, every classic rock station plays at least one Led Zeppelin and one Rolling Stones song every hour. Haven't they ever heard of too much of a good thing?

Satellite radio is a little better. First off, there are more channels, so there are more opportunities for diversity. Second, the company doesn't control the playlists as tightly, so the DJs are allowed to stray from the mainstream a little more often. But, your choices are still limited, not to mention that you have to buy a new radio and pay a monthly subscription fee.

That brings us to internet radio. In contrast to broadcast and satellite, the variety is almost endless. Like bluegrass? You're covered. Jazz? No problem. Hip-hop folk? You're weird, but I'm sure it's out there somewhere. And to top it all off, most stations are free. There are always banner ads on the webpage, and sometimes there are commercials or trailers to listen to, but there's no separate subscription. All you need is a computer and an internet connection, which you already have if you're reading this. Seems like a good deal. However, this free model means that stations can't pay the same royalty rates that broadcasters with big name sponsorships can. This wouldn't be an issue, except for the fact that music labels are beginning to demand higher royalties from internet radio, since it is seen as a threat to the traditional means of delivering media.

On the downside, the sound quality isn't always top-notch. Thanks to broadband connections, this has gotten better over the years, but some smaller sites still broadcast at a low bitrate. If you're listening at low volumes in the office or through an average set of computer speakers, this won't be an issue. But there are plenty of free sites that offer high quality streams as well, though they usually don't cover quite as many of the smaller genres. Still, you'll find a more varied list of songs than you will on your local stations.

Another shortcoming is the fact that you have to be tethered to a computer to listen to the music. Sure, you can also access the sites through WiFi hotspots, but unless you live in a wired city, you won't be listening to these stations in your car or while out jogging anytime soon.

But these downsides aren't enough to deter thousands of people from logging on to sites like Pandora everyday and enjoying great music. And thankfully, that will get to continue, at least for a little while longer. Earlier this week at a Congressional hearing, SoundExchange agreed not to enforce the new royalty rates, which would have gone into effect this Monday, and instead agreed to renegotiate the rates with the internet broadcasters. What's best about this story, however, is the fact that this was made possible in part by the thousands of internet radio fans that contacted their elected representatives and spoke out about the new royalty rates.

No one wants to deny musicians and record labels their fair share, but that share shouldn't be so large that it puts an entire industry out of business. The labels need to remember that without listeners, their music would be worthless. It's also great to see that when people work together to support something they believe in, real change is possible. The fight isn't over, though. To stay updated, check out the blog by Tim Westergren, the founder of Pandora Radio. Today, internet radio. Tomorrow, the world!

Friday Freebie - Do People Even Know What Usenet Is?

When people these days think about the internets, they usually just think of the world wide web. Those www addresses have become so ubiquitous, even your grandmother has one. But there's actually a lot more out there on the tube system, and it's all free for the taking. In fact, you're probably paying for access to it with your monthly broadband bill, and didn't even know it.

I'm sure most of you frequent a message forum or two on your favorite websites. These are great, but if your tastes are varied, you may find yourself browsing to a dozen sites to post all your thoughts on the moon landing hoax and that photo of Bigfoot you took on your last camping trip. Not to mention, those forums tend to be moderated pretty heavily, so you have to watch your language and what you post. Too bad there isn't a place you can go and speak your mind, not to mention break a few laws. Well, guess what - there is. It's called Usenet.

Usenet was created long before the web, and it's essentially nothing but forums. These forums are called newsgroups, and there are literally thousands of them, covering almost any topic you can imagine, and people communicate by posting messages or data. That's right, you can get pictures, music, even software from newsgroups. All you need is access to a newsgroup server, which you're probably already getting from your ISP, and a news reader program:

When it comes to Usenet programs, Xnews is the best around. This tiny little package, which is free for the taking, let's you access all the newsgroups you want to visit. Not only can you post and read messages, but uploads and downloads are quick and easy. The program also automatically recombines multipart messages, making them simple to retrieve.

I'm sure you're now asking, what the hell's a multipart message? Well, remember when I mentioned that data could be uploaded to newsgroups? This is done by storing data inside the post, not by attaching to it. The thing is, each message has a size limit, which by today's standards is fairly small. This means that a multi-megabyte file can span tens or hundreds of messages. And that's why it's important to have a robust program to download them. Xnews fits that bill nicely.

Now, concerning those downloads. As I mentioned earlier, you can find almost anything posted on newsgroups. And if you don't see what you want, you can always ask. That being said, many of the things that people get from newsgroups are not legal downloads. In other words, you can find pirated music, movies, and software rather easily. Legally I can't encourage you to go get your fill, but now that you know what's out there, I certainly can't stop you from putting that knowledge to good (bad?) use. Just be smart about what you're doing. Oh, and before I forget, there's also tons or free pron out there. TONS!

Another word of warning for you. Usenet is kind of like the wild west, meaning there's the potential for danger around every corner. There are lots of viruses and spyware out there, so make sure your scanners are up to date. Also, do not, under any circumstance, give out your personal information on these groups. This is where the real crazies live online. Of course, without risk, there is no reward.

The Xnews homepage can be found right here, and the download is right here. There's also a brief online manual, which can be found here. So have fun, but be careful. You never know what you're going to find on Usenet.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Nothing Enhances Your Gaming Experience Like A Cheap Piece Of Plastic

If you're any kind of gamer, odds are you've owned numerous consoles over the years. And each of those consoles had a specific controller. But that wasn't all - it probably had some specialized controllers as well, that either came with the main unit, were bundled with a game, or were sold separately. Some of these controllers were useful, like the NES Advantage - one of my personal favorites. Some, not so much.

Light guns usually fell somewhere in between. The were hella cool, and worked pretty well. In fact, to this day, light guns are still sold for consoles in Japan. That being said, they weren't very popular. This wasn't due to a problem with the gun itself, mind you, but with the lack of software for it. When you think of light gun games, one instantly comes to mind - Duck Hunt. But can you name five? I didn't think so.

There's another problem with light guns - they only work with direct view (or CRT) televisions. This means that they're not compatible with all those fancy flat screen HDTVs that the kids are buying these days. So whatever is a game company to do? Easy - release a piece of plastic that looks like a gun. And that's exactly what Nintendo is doing. Currently dubbed the Wii Zapper, this piece is actually just a controller shell that your Wiimore and Nunchuk snap into. Essentially, it adds no functionality to a game, since it is just a hollow piece of plastic. But it looks like a gun, sort of.

The fun doesn't stop there, folks. The big N has also announced that a new version of the venerable Mario Kart series would debut on the Wii soon, and it will include a plastic steering wheel to help ease casual gamers into the driving experience. Again, the piece will just be a plastic shell that the Wiimote plugs into, and adds no actual functionality to the game.

Now I'm all for enhancing game play, but are cheap plastic accessories the way to do it? I want good games, not gimmicks. I don't see myself ever holding a toy plastic steering wheel to play Mario Kart - I've managed just fine on every other version of the game without it. And sure, I could see the Zapper being somewhat useful, but for how many games? Are people going to buy this thing just so they can download Duck Hunt and Hogan's Alley (there's #2 for ya) off the Virtual Console? I guess history really does tend to repeat itself.

If we've learned one thing throughout the years in the gaming industry, it's that software is king. It doesn't matter if you have the most expensive console or the cheapest console. If you don't have any good games, you're doomed to failure. And no accessory, no matter how cheap or cool, is going to change that.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

If You're Reading This Article Out Loud, You May Owe The RIAA Some Money

The digital age has presented consumers with more entertainment options than anyone could have imagined twenty years ago. Video on demand, MP3s, and the internet mean that you can watch or listen to almost anything you want, anytime you want. For the consumer, this is fantastic. But for content owners like the RIAA (headed by old Mitch up there) and the MPAA, this is hell on earth.

In the analog days, there was little that could be done about people recording songs off the radio or copying a cassette. And as we transitioned to the computer age, that process only got easier. However, that digital transition also made it possible for content owners to begin flexing their muscles and restricting what the consumer could do with the content that he or she legally purchased. (For those disputing the historical accuracy of this, I concede that Macrovision was around long before digital downloads. But I'm making a point here, so pipe down.) More and more severe DRM has meant that songs purchased from internet music services, videos purchased from places like iTunes or the Xbox Marketplace, and even computer games and software, are now crippled, and can only be used in the limited scope that the content owner deems fit.

For some time now, satellite radio has found itself in the RIAA's crosshairs. This has become even more true since the XM/Sirius merger was announced, with the RIAA accusing the companies of selling equipment that infringes on the copyrights of their artists. That equipment? Digital recorders that allow you to save songs played on the air. Something you have been able to do legally with terrestrial radio for years. Of course, in the old days, when you did this using a blank cassette or music CD (different from the blank CDs for your PC), a portion of the purchase price of that blank went to the RIAA, to "offset" the loss from the sale of an official recording. So, even if you bought a blank cassette to just record some funny answering machine messages, the RIAA still got a piece of it. Sound fair? I didn't think so.

Right now, the RIAA is lobbying Congress to force the satellite radio companies to pay higher royalty rates on the songs that they play, to again "offset" this loss of a sale. Personally, I think this is nothing but extortion, as the RIAA can't prove that the song I save on my satellite radio would have translated into a sale, had I not had a satellite radio recorder. It's the same argument the movie and music industries have been using for years with regard to online piracy. When they speak about the billions of dollars lost to piracy, they're assuming that had the content not been available online, you would have bought it anyway. That's just plain ridiculous.

Not surprisingly, the RIAA already has the support of some members on Capitol Hill. In case you haven't heard, laws are generally for sale to the highest bidder. Thankfully, nothing has really been made of this yet, but it's only a matter of time before these devices are crippled further and/or taken off the market.

I know I've said it before, but if we don't do something about it, we're going to lose what little fair use rights we have left. Take a stand - contact your congressman, the FCC, and the EFF (they're the good guys in this), and let them know what you think. Together, we can make a difference. Okay, that was a little too "public service announcement" for my taste, but you get the point.

And the most ironic part about this story? I'm posting it on Fair Use Day. Don't be surprised that you've never heard of it - this isn't one of the man's favorite holidays. I had hoped to have a little celebration for it, Atomic style, but anything fun that I do here could end up getting the website shut down. So, you'll just have to celebrate on your own. Make it a good one!

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Tuesday Trainwreck - Freaky, Even For A Scientologist

Today's Trainwreck took a little digging to find. Usually, the weekly load of trash that is the new release bin is overflowing with junk just ripe for the picking. But this week, the disasters were few and far between. This is not because everything that was released was great, mind you. This is because almost nothing was released at all.

Blame the summer doldrums, blame E3, blame that homeless guy who lives outside of Best Buy and freaks out the delivery guy - it was just a slow week. I started in the DVD section, and try as I might, I couldn't even find a disk worth using as a coaster. I briefly moved to the hi-def DVD rack (there's just one), and almost found something worth writing about, but it just wasn't worth it. Next up was the video game section, which was so empty I could swear I heard crickets chirping within the shelves. I finally made my way to the CDs, only to find that the few new releases this week were decent. You wouldn't believe my level of disappointment. I felt like a fallen warrior - my sword broken, my horse dead, and my blood about to spill forth from my armor. But then, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a glimmer of horror that is John Travolta in drag:

Hallelujah!, I shouted to the heavens. From out of the weeds, fate smiled upon me this day, and brought forth a CD so rotten, so putrid, so stinking of death, that it was the perfect candidate for a Trainwreck. Amongst the piddling crap that offered itself to the ignorant consumer, this wretched disk burned bright with the fires of despair. Hairspray - The Motion Picture Soundtrack, was just the ticket I needed to ride on this Trainwreck.

What is there to say about this disk that can't be imagined from just listing the performers? You've got John Travolta, Ricki "Go Ricki, Go Ricki" Lake, Brittany Snow, Queen Latifah, and, the King of Rock, Christopher Walken. Nothing says dance party like a little Chris W. pumping from the speakers! Most sane people don't even want to hear these people talk, let alone sing. Anyone who buys this disk is instantly off my Christmas card list.

Honestly, I don't know whether to advise the readers to take up arms and storm the offices of New Line for putting out this filth, or to thank them for saving my column this week. Let's just call it a draw and do nothing. Laziness is easier.

And might I recommend using the above for your wallpaper this week? Hear me out - just put it on your office computer. Then, when you start to feel like you have the worst job in the world, just look at your screen and the image of John Travolta in a wig. Not only will you feel better about the work you do, but you'll lose your appetite. It's a way to feel good and lose weight! Drop me a line if you want a high-res version - that one will make you skip dinner as well.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Cheaper, But Still Classy

For weeks now, Sony has been doing its best to deny the rumors about a potential price cut on its flagship console, the PS3, in order to save the good news for this week's E3 conference. But to paraphrase Wham!, their best wasn't good enough, and the rumors continued. It got worse, in a sense, when adds for a price break on the PS3 started to leak online.

So, now it's official - the PS3 isn't quite as expensive as it used to be! Confirmed by Sony, the 60 GB version of the PS3 will now retail for $499, one hundred dollars less than its previous price. Crazy Kaz had something else up his sleeve, as Sony also took the opportunity to announce a new console variant at the now vacant $599 price point - an 80 GB version bundled with a copy of MotorStorm, one of the best games released on the PS3 to date.

Most believe that this is just the beginning of the good news from Sony. The company has been talking about a rush of new games that are set to come to the console this fall. Up until now, we haven't had too many details on some of them, but that should all change at E3.

This type of news is just what Sony needed to give its failing video game business a desperately needed shot in the arm. Only time will tell, however, if it's enough. Sony has been banking on the value of the PS3's Blu-Ray player this whole time, and so far, that gamble doesn't seem to be paying off. This price cut and a handful of new games may not be enough to pull the PS3 out of last place in the console wars at this time, but it's a step in the right direction. So start saving - sooner or later, you're going to want that black beauty.

Friday, July 6, 2007

The Nintendo Wii: Dumbing Down Video Games Since 2006

In this current generation of video game consoles, there's no doubt where each box stands as far as technological prowess is concerned. On the top end, you have the PS3. It's sleek, sexy, high tech, and very expensive. It's basically that girl in high school that wouldn't give you the time of day. In the middle is the Xbox 360. It's got some looks, it enjoys a lot of activities, and doesn't mind you playing with your friends. It's the college sweetheart of consoles. And on the bottom, there's the Nintendo Wii. It's hot, cheap, and loads of fun, but definitely not something you'd want your mother to see you playing with. The Wii is that girl in the alley you gave $20 bucks to for a good time.

Now I'm not saying that the PS3 is the best console on the market - it's simply the most complex and most expensive. And as such, it doesn't exactly attract the "casual" gaming market. That's where the Wii comes in and cleans up. Everybody and their grandmother are literally playing this thing. The problem is that grandma begins to get confused when she has to start pressing a bunch of buttons. And that's when EA's Family Play comes to the rescue.

It appears the guys at EA think that, at ten buttons each, the PS3 and 360 controllers are too much for a casual gamer's mind to master. So they've solved this problem by creating games that work with the mere 6 buttons offered on the Wiimote.

EA Family Play, to be implemented on Madden NFL 08, NBA Live 08, and FIFA 08, is a control scheme that gives the player only the most "essential" controls in a game, and let's the AI do the heavy lifting. This allows grandma, the foreign girl, and that kid who fell off the slide in second grade the ability to play games that would otherwise be too complex for their feeble little minds to handle.

Now, no one is saying that sports game are easy. Indeed, there are a myriad of controls that one needs to master. But that's the point of a game like that - to give the player the type of control that they would have in the real world. Otherwise, you may as well just watch a game on TV, since you're really not in control anyway. And I'm sure this tactic will upset a lot of serious gamers at first, but to them I'll only say this: you wouldn't be caught dead playing one of these games on the Wii anyway due to the crappy graphics, so get over it. And I'm sorry to break the news to you, but if the only console you have right now is a Wii, you're not a serious gamer.

Obviously, EA is just looking for a way to get more people to buy titles that are viewed as intimidating to the casual set. But honestly, the casual gamer has no business playing this type of a game. There are plenty of games on the Wii that suit casual players, like Wii Sports and WarioWare. And I just can't see the old folks gathering round the tube at the home to play a rousing game of NBA Live. Don't you know? Grandmas can't jump.

Have A Dead Xbox 360? Don't Worry - The Boys In Redmond Will Pick Up The Tab

Everyone that owns an Xbox 360 knows about the dreaded red rings of death. It's a fear we all must live with every time we fire up a game on the console. Despite this knowledge, though, Microsoft has never admitted that there's a problem with the console's design. And, that hasn't changed. What has changed, however, is what MS is doing about all those dead consoles. They're fixing them, free of charge, for three years.

In a letter posted on the official Xbox website yesterday, Peter Moore, head of the video game division at Microsoft, announced that MS would be retroactively extending the "general" hardware warranty on all Xbox 360's sold in the U.S. to three years. This is up from the current one year. What this means is that any Xbox suffering from a three red rings failure, even those purchased on launch day, will be repaired under warranty, free of charge. Even shipping will be paid.

It's important to note that this enhanced warranty only covers the three red rings problem. So, if the DVD tray mechanism in your launch console breaks tomorrow, this extended warranty probably won't cover it (try anyway - it's worth a shot). That being said, this is still phenomenal news that is long overdue.

Also, just to be clear, this warranty is fully retroactive. That means that any console owners who paid for repairs on this problem (or even just paid for shipping) will have their costs refunded. It's great to see Microsoft going the extra mile on this one.

But as I said previously, despite this announcement, Microsoft has not stated that there is a fundamental flaw with the design of the console. Instead, this was simply billed as a way of improving the customer service experience associated with 360 repairs. Moore was also not specific on the "improvements to the console" that have already been made. However, it's safe to assume that the additional heat sinks we reported on earlier are part of that package.

Whatever the reason, and whatever the spin, kudos to Microsoft and Peter Moore for stepping up to the plate and doing something about what has seemed to become an epidemic of console failures. I'll be gaming with more confidence knowing that MS has my back should my 360 decide to have a meltdown. Of course, with my luck, that meltdown will happen 3 years and 1 day after my purchase...

Friday Freebie - Access Your PC From The Far Reaches Of The Globe

Assuming the far reaches of the globe are equipped with PCs and internet access, that is. But who doesn't have high speed internet these days? Hell, compared to the rest of the industrialized world, U.S. broadband isn't really the broad. But that's a rant for another article. Today, we're just looking at a little piece of software that will let you browse your photos, email, or anything else on your computer from a distance:

RealVNC is software that runs on your PC at home, and also on the PC that you are using to connect to it. VNC stands for Virtual Network Computing, which is just a fancy way of saying that you can control every aspect of your home PC from the remote computer. RealVNC creates a secure connection as well, so your data will remain private even though it's going over the public internet.

VNC software is also a good choice for remotely fixing and monitoring other computers. For instance, let's say there's a problem with your parents computer. If you installed RealVNC on it, you could access it from the comfort of your own home and possibly fix the problem, all without ever hauling your lazy butt out of the chair. Pretty slick. More experienced users also can use VNC to install updates on multiple PCs in their home, all from one machine.

There are some downsides to VNC, however. The refresh rate on the screen of the viewing PC can be poor at times, depending on the applications that are running. Also, you can watch video (though it's choppy at best), but there's no audio over VNC. Finally, you'll have to do some port forwarding on your router to access your computer from outside your local network, so if you're a networking noob, the initial setup can be a bit tricky.

Fortunately, there's an abundance of information about VNC software and configurations on the net, so the answers to most questions are just a click away. RealVNC's site also offers documentation to get you up and running.

RealVNC is available for a variety of operating systems, so you can grab your copy right here. The install is quick and easy, and before you know it, you'll be accessing all types of files from the road. Now it's up to you to find some files worth accessing.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Dear Guitar Hero, Pwnage! Sincerely, Rock Band

At some point, we've all dreamed of becoming a rock god, and thanks to Guitar Hero, gamers everywhere have been able to live that dream. But now, the stakes have been raised.

We've known about Rock Band, the game that would allow you to play more than just the guitar, for some time. To be specific, it gives you lead guitar, bass, drums, and vocals, all in one package. But now we have the first game play footage, and let me tell know, it kicks some serious Guitar Hero booty.

Posted by the guys over at Destructoid earlier, this video shows just how much rockin' you and your clan of misfits can really do. The guitars are similar to what we already have with GH, but the vocals and kick ass drum set really make this package a must have.

No official prices have been announced, but early rumors are that the game and all its peripherals will run you about $200 in a single package (items should also be available separately if you don't have three friends yet, but they'll cost you more that way). That's fairly pricey, but when you consider all that you're getting, it's a good deal. Hell, you're willing to pay $130 bucks for a Spartan helmet, so stop complaining you cheap bastard.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

No Metroid Prime 3 For You! At Least, Not Until August 27

It's fairly common knowledge in the community right now - the Wii is in a bit of a software slump. It's cool, it happens - the PS3 has been going through it...well, forever. And now it looks like you'll have to wait even longer for a quality title to show up on the baby white box.

News broke earlier today that Metroid Prime 3: Corruption would be delayed until August 27, a week later than its previously announced release date. Not a big deal by any means, but that wasn't all. It was also confirmed by Nintendo that Metroid would not feature any type of online play. This wasn't a huge shock, but it's still a blow against a title of this potential caliber. It also begs the question - if they're not tweaking the multiplayer, what's the cause of the delay?

The big N also stated today that Super Smash Bros. Brawl would not be playable at E3 later this month. Along with Metroid Prime 3 and Super Mario Galaxy, Smash Bros. is one the more anticipated titles of 2007 for the Wii. This news doesn't bode well for the franchise, as it implies that either the controls are far from perfect, or general development of the game is behind schedule. The ominous "Planned for 2007 Release" blurb on the official website doesn't exactly fill me with confidence about the release date either.

While the Wii may be currently crushing the sales figures of all the other next-gen machines, a console cannot survive on hype alone. Sooner or later, an anemic library is going to catch up to it, and when that happens, no amount of motion control will make up for the void left in your gaming schedule. I guess there's always the Virtual Console in the meantime...

Tuesday Trainwreck - Ghostbusters? Oh, Those Ghostbusters

Before you start sending those angry emails or leaving some flaming comments, read the article first. It's not about the Ghostbusters that we all know and love. Those were the four guys living in the firehouse, battling the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, and watching the game with Slimer. No, these are the "other" Ghostbusters. You know, the "fake" Ghostbusters, also known as Filmation's Ghostbusters:

Filmation's Ghostbusters tells the tale of two dudes and their pet monkey (look at the picture if you don't believe me) charged with temporarily ridding the world of ghosts and goblins. They hung out in some wacky headquarters, and drove a car that could not only fly, but talk. I think the monkey talked as well, albeit in a primate accent. They battled the forces of Prime Evil, a half robot/half ghost creature bent on taking over the world with his demon army. Sounds like someone I know.

The Filmation guys were essentially the jobbers to what were billed as The Real Ghostbusters, the animated series based on the movie from the 1980s. In reality, though, Filmation's Ghostbusters (previously known as The Original Ghostbusters) was not a direct ripoff. It was based on a 1970s live action TV series. Much like most TV in the 1970s, it was terrible, which is why no one remembers it.

Though the TV series that Filmation adapted did predate the movie, and wouldn't have technically infringed on its rights, they did make one change. The original series was called The Ghost Busters - Filmation made it one word and released the series on the heels of the movie, in an attempt to capitalize on its supernatural success. They even beat the movie-based cartoon to air. Of course, all this didn't sit well with the laywers, and an expensive, pointless legal battle ensued. In the end, we were still left with two series, but they had specific names - Filmation's Ghostbusters and The Real Ghostbusters.

Nauseating legal battles aside, this series was awful. The comedy was slapstick at best, the plots were thinner than ecotoplasm, and the characters were annoying. In retrospect, though, I don't recall liking either series that much, but this one is definitely the worst of the two.

At the end of the day, this series was just a lame attempt to cash in on a franchise no one remembered by playing off a currently popular franchise that everybody loved. The truth is, had this cartoon had the opportunity to stand alone, it may have held up to the test of time a little better. Then again, a talking monkey and a robotic ghost a rarely a recipe for success.