Unless you have have a lot of gaming friends it can sometimes seems like you're the only person who spends a lot of time with your portable system. Portable gaming systems are like Backstreet Boy albums. Bear with me here, this is going to make sense. See, we keep reading about millions of people buying these things, but you almost never see one out in the wild. Luckily, at this weekend's Indy Ars Meet, a number of attendees whipped out their DS Lites for some drunken Tetris.
I haven't spent a lot of time playing the DS Lite in multiplayer, and it's amazing how well the single-cartridge multiplayer works. We played Tetris, New Super Mario Bros. and Point Blank. The gaming was great: Jacqui has some pretty decent Tetris skills, and even though we only had one copy of these games, everyone was able to play. Nintendo's system for getting the data to other systems and then playing is simple, quick, and painless. We had a great time and talked a ton of trash. Tetris remains a great time and the multiplayer New Super Mario Bros. can turn nasty quickly.
As Nintendo and Sony go ahead with their portable systems, it's worth noting that as more people get interested in portable gaming, the multiplayer aspect of these systems are going to become an important selling point. We've certainly come a long way since we hooked up our original GameBoys using cables in the school cafeteria (what, you didn't do that?) and Nintendo really seems to have multiplayer nailed on the DS Lite. It was great to see how many games only needed one cart to let other people get in on the fun. This is a trend I want to see a lot more of.
It’s been so long since I’ve seen something move out of the infamous “three to five years away” category and into actual volume production that I can’t actually remember the last time it happened. But Freescale is making it happen now with magnetoresistive RAM (MRAM).
Freescale just announced that they’ve gone into volume production of a 4Mbit (256K x 16-bit) MRAM chip. The newly announced MR2A16A MRAM part, which has been in development for a decade and which sampled back in 2004, already has attracted a number of buyers and should start showing up in products before too long.
Back before Freescale was spun off from Motorola, we covered a couple of Motorola demonstrations of working MRAM chips. At the time, IBM, Infineon, Motorola, and the legion of twenty or so other companies that have been working on this technology were projecting that the first MRAM products would hit the market in 2004. Freescale has beat the rest of the pack, albeit two years behind schedule, and I expect to see a steady march of MRAM product announcements in the next year as the rest of the memory industry begins bringing their own products to market.
The big picture for MRAM
I went fishing about for datasheets on NAND flash, and for devices organized as 16-bit words I found access times (read cycle) in the 50ns to 90ns range. This makes the new 35ns MRAM part quite a bit faster than current NAND flash. However, it’s nowhere near the 3ns to 5ns access time of DDR2 DRAM; 35ns is more on the order of old EDO SDRAM.
So while MRAM’s current access time and capacity won’t make it an immediate replacement for either DRAM or NAND Flash, both of these numbers will scale to make it a major long-term player in the storage market. For large categories of devices that are more sensitive to power than raw performance, MRAM will replace DRAM and Flash altogether. For the longer-term performance picture, MRAM well replace DRAM in all but some niche applications. IBM’s research shows that they can get access times down into the 3ns range, and a paper from earlier this year shows that they expect to see MRAM access times between 5ns and 20ns.
As for hard disk technology, I think it’s pretty clear that MRAM isn’t going to become the default medium for mass storage any time soon. I imagine that many types of portable devices, from laptops to media players, will eventually use a combination of MRAM and hard disk technology. A single large MRAM pool could combine the functions of both main memory and the kinds of backing store/caching technology that’s starting to make its way to market in the form of Intel’s Robson. This fast memory pool would be coupled with hard disk-based mass storage.
MRAM’s biggest medium-term impact will be on the Flash market. MRAM is superior to Flash memory in pretty much every way—it’s faster, and unlike Flash, it can take an unlimited number of reads and writes. As the rest of the industry starts to move into volume production of MRAM, the new technology is going to start moving into niches currently occupied by Flash and begin squeezing it out in some places.
Nearly everyone has been affected by Google and its sheer ubiquity—to the point where “to google” has even become an officially recognized verb. Google gained this dominance by providing the best web searching service, which required the ability to quickly “crawl” the web, finding and indexing all the content it could get its hands on. Anyone who has set up a web server and peered at the access logs know that the Google spiders come quickly and often.
One thing that most people weren’t aware of, however, is that Google is indexing more than just text and images. The search engine is also capable of indexing and searching binary files, a feature that the security firm Websense has been taking advantage of to uncover malicious and hacked web sites all over the world.
The company utilized a little-known feature of Google to search for binary strings representing Windows-based worms such as W32.Bagel and W32.Mytob. “They [Google] actually look inside the internals of an executable and index that information,” said Dan Hubbard, senior director of security at Websense.
Websense plans to share the code they have developed using the Google APIs with other security researchers, but does not plan to release it to the public. Hubbard fears that would-be virus authors could use the tool to jump start their activities. “Instead of buying them on the black market [an attacker] could search for them and download them on his own,” he said.
Hubbard isn’t the only one concerned about the possibilities of searching for binary patterns on the web. Claudiu Spulber, of the Homemade Computer Tutorials blog, pointed out that hackers could embed common search terms into the binary, and then hope that users looking for a particular page would find a link to the program, click on it, and run the executable. The blog post includes an example of this, an illegitimate version of the shareware “Backup4all” program, but interestingly the malicious version no longer shows up on the results page. According to a spokesperson for Google, the company continues to keep an eye out for this practice.
Should Google continue to index binary files, despite the potential drawbacks? The company’s position is that the more things on the Internet that are searched, the better things are for everyone, and that people shouldn’t worry too much about any possible misuse. Still, the more powerful a tool becomes, the more the potential for abuse increases. This applies not only to Google, but to the Internet in general. As always, skeptical computing is the best defense.
Mike Shaw, ABC’s President of Advertising Sales, said this week that he would love to have the opportunity to shut down the “fast forward” button on users’ DVRs. Though he did not claim that commercial-skipping TiVo owners were thieves, Shaw is clearly unhappy with how easy it is to skip his network’s ads.
Shutting down the fast forward feature on DVR isn’t an easy proposition, though; ABC would require support from DVR makers, who could build their devices to recognize the presence of a broadcast flag. The flag would tell the DVR whether fast forwarding should be allowed during any particular show. But what DVR maker would want to do this? Shaw told MediaDailyNews that he “would love it if the MSOs [cable companies], during the deployment of the new DVRs they’re putting out there, would disable the fast-forward [button].” It doesn’t require a great leap of imagination to suspect that ABC is in such talks with cable companies right now.
From the network’s perspective, this is probably the best way to neutralize ad-skipping, which has taken its toll on network ad revenues over the last few years. Trying to talk a company like TiVo into disabling features that consumers want is probably a hard sell, but cable companies might be more receptive to the idea. Most cable operators also make money from local ad revenue, and would stand to gain revenue by making it harder for their customers to skip ads.
What about a customer backlash? In Shaw’s view, this is unlikely, as he believes that most people enjoy their DVRs simply because they can time-shift video content like a high-tech VCR; commercial skipping is just gravy. Take away the gravy, and customers should still be happy to eat their mashed potatoes.
“I’m not so sure that the whole issue really is one of commercial avoidance,” Shaw said. “It really is a matter of convenience—so you don’t miss your favorite show. And quite frankly, we’re just training a new generation of viewers to skip commercials because they can. I’m not sure that the driving reason to get a DVR in the first place is just to skip commercials. I don’t fundamentally believe that. People can understand in order to have convenience and on-demand (options), that you can’t skip commercials.”
The majority of DVR users do skip commercials, though, making this a potentially risky strategy for the cable companies. So long as competitors like TiVo and HTPCs exist, unhappy customers can always go elsewhere. Should TiVo, especially, ever fold, most consumers would no doubt settle for whatever is offered by their local cable provider.
Even as ABC pushes to halt fast forwarding, customer anger at TV advertising is growing. Though Shaw notes that “we’ve had the exact same commercial load for three years in a row,” he’s been hearing more complaints from customers about these intrusions into stories they are trying to watch. While no doubt irritating to consumers, who would skip commercials if they could, there’s no denying the fact that network TV shows are only free because of that advertising. Finding the right balance is proving to be tricky.
In Europe, by contrast, some television services are actually encouraging more use of DVRs. While ABC seeks ways to restrict DVR functionality, satellite provider BSkyB wants to offer more of it to its European customers. The company just announced a plan to allow remote recording of TV shows by using one’s mobile phone. Users can set their home DVRs by texting to a special number or by accessing a program guide right from their handset.
Have you tried installing Windows Vista from DVD yet? If so, have you been successful in getting it to install? I ask because some Vista beta testers haven't had very good luck installing the recent CTPs. Apparently, some users have been setting their burner speed to "Max" and letting 'er rip. The final outcome? A botched install.
For most of us, burning disks at slower speeds is a no-brainer, at least if we want to ensure that all the data has been copied properly. Then again, with blanks being as cheap as they are, I'm always one to give Alcohol's "Write Speed: Maximum" setting a click and hope for the best. However, Microsoft is warning speed demons, myself included, to lay off of the gas. In the release notes of the latest Vista build, 5456.5, the company makes the following suggestion:
When burning your DVDs please do so at 1x or 2x and CRC them when done using the CRC utility posted on the Connect site. The customer experience improvement telemetry that we’ve been getting back on Beta 2 shows that not quite three quarters of setup failures are the result of a failure to read from the media. Testing shows that burning at slower speeds greatly increases the chances of a good burn.
Burning DVDs at 1x is like watching paint dry and 2x isn't much better, but if around three quarters of failed installs occur because of a bad burn, then the company should not only include the passage, but it should also place the words in big bold letters on the download page as well. As for myself, I haven't run into any of these problems because I have been using VMWare for all of my Vista installs. It has worked perfectly for every build, and I highly recommend it to anyone that can spare the resources. For those that have no choice but to install from the DVD, you might save some time in the long run burning at 1x (it hurts me to say it) rather than getting 95% done with the setup and having it hang.
The ability of the newer consoles to play next-generation media, from Blu-Ray to HD-DVD, is a big selling point to the more A/V focused early-adopters. If you have a nice HDTV and don't want to drop US$500 or more for a new DVD player, the 360 add-on is attractive. If you want Blu-Ray, the US$600 PS3 may even look affordable. There was a lot of talk about the HD-DVD add-on giving the XBox 360 an HDMI port, and now there's a rumor going around that newer 360s may have the port standard.
You could say that early adopters would be upset, the same way you could say that space is pretty big.
There isn't much to the rumor right now, just a fuzzy picture and some emails sent out from an unnamed source. There could be meat here, or there may not be; at this stage it's not really worth worrying about. The bigger question is how Microsoft would handle the complaints if tomorrow they announced that all new 360 systems would have the HMDI port on them. Would they allow those of us who bought the system on launch day to send ours in and get the upgrade? Would that even be feasible? It's one thing to do a revision, but if they added such a nice feature to the system this soon after they launched it, you're going to have a lot of angry hardcore gamers on your hands. These are people who hold a grudge, and spend a lot of money on product.
It's clear that Microsoft is watching Sony's multimedia plans closely, but I think they would be shortsighted to think of launching such a big update without a plan to deal with the millions of people who have already purchased systems. To repeat: I don't think we'll see an HDMI port added onto the 360 any time soon, but if they did, how angry would you be if you were stuck with your current system and new users got the goods?
Musical instruments are generally a product of excitation and resonance. For instance, a violin relies on the slip-stick action of the bow to excite the string. However, the string and the box select the tone, thus you can think of the musician as exciting all possible tones and the instrument choosing the right tone. Now, a new type of instrument has been discovered; the common sand dune. As far back as Marco Polo, Europeans have known about singing sand dunes. It appears that some sand dunes under the right conditions will emit tones with a constant frequency for a few minutes. However, no one has really been able to explain why they generate the pure tones they do, or even why they generate any tone at all instead of noise.
Lets start with what was already known. The sound that a dune makes depends only on the size of the grain. Thus, the sand dune must have big patches where the grains are all about the same size, which happens naturally due to the different flow rates of the large and small grains. The sound only occurs during sand avalanches. Finally, when the pitch is very low, they can be felt for quite some distance before they are heard. Now some new research has thrown some uh… light on the physics behind the singing sand dunes. What they have discovered is that if the grains are all about the same size, then in an avalanche the speed of the grains varies in a particular way with depth. In fact, the way the speed of the grains varies means that the relative speed between grains that are likely to come in contact with each other is constant. Thus, they bang together at a constant rate, which produces the tone. However, this is not enough because even if all the grains bang together at the same rate, they are not doing it together (i.e., the grains don't all come together at the same time), which means the sound should be just be a rustle. Again, the speed profile of the avalanche comes to the rescue. Associated with every flow is a shear force that creates the speed profile. A side effect of this is to provide a coupling mechanism through which the bouncing of the sand particles can synchronize. The synchronization means that the effective pressures reached within the avalanche become very large, indicating a very loud sound wave. However, the disturbance on the surface is often quite small so the sound in the air is quiet compared to the internal sound, explaining why it is felt before it is heard.
Some researchers have all the luck. Not only did they get to build a very cool sand box with a mechanical bucket and spade to produce experimental verification of their models, they also got to travel to many different locations around the world to measure the sound properties of various singing sand dunes. I think I'll go hide in my windowless, basement lab for a while…
Phill Ryu's blog was one I had not heard of until his interview last week with Adam Bets. Well there is good reason for this: his blog is only in the second week of existence. Frankly, if Phill continues to create content like this, he is going to have quite the traffic bill at the end of the month. This week, Ryu has announced a contest with real winners, losers and prizes. Intrigued? We thought you would be. The contest, entitled the Fake Leopard Screenshot Contest, comes from his desire to see better fake screenshots.
Ok. iTunes style metal UI? Sounds good. Multiple desktops support? Sweet. Virtualization of Windows apps? I’m hoping for it. But let’s be honest, Leopard could be sooo much cooler, and so could the fakes.
The contest's tagline: "A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a fake one is worth nearly a thousand bucks of software!" describes not only the contest fairly well but the boatload of prizes that are available for the winners. Oddly enough, first, second, and third place prizes are the same (except for the virtual trophy) bringing the winners' licenses to almost US$1,000 worth of software licenses. Included in the prize package are such popular applications as Delicious Library, Shape Shifter, News Fire, App Zapper, CSSEdit, and a nice little package from The Iconfactory among others. Oh and there is the coup de grâce, the virtual hardware:
The contest runs through July 22nd and submissions can be viewed here. The Ars community is full of mad talent ("mad" having a multitude of meanings in this instance) and we love to see one of our own bring home the "hardware," so have at it!
Raise your hand: who here has ever booth-squatted for hours in a Panera, nursing that bottomless cup of coffee, using the restaurant’s free WiFi connection the entire time? It’s a common enough scenario that cafe and coffee shop owners, long used to offering free WiFi as a way to get customers in the door, are fighting back.
The Boston Globe has an interesting piece on these “WiFi wars.” Cafe owners have found that WiFi brings customers, but also a host of problems. Some people purchase nothing at all, some buy the cheapest item on the menu, and most stay for hours at a time, tying up tables that are especially needed during the lunch rush. Others park outside and surf the Net from the comfort of their vehicles—for months on end.
But the issue is not just an economic one; it has a cultural side as well. Cafe owners and traditional patrons are concerned that the shops are becoming offices. Confronted by a sea of laptops and hard-working coffee sippers, other guests may feel less able to talk, laugh, and be sociable. The forest of raised laptop screens might also keep patrons from talking with one another, and that social element has long been a part of cafe culture. It was this problem that led one Seattle coffee shop to start shutting off the WiFi on weekends last year. Not only did revenue go up, but the atmosphere in the cafe changed as well.
Coffee shops raise, in miniature, the essential political question: what sort of society do we want to create? Not surprisingly, there’s a difference of opinion. Customers who use cafes to meet others and to socialize with friends are disappointed by the many laptops and by the shortage of tables. Those working on laptops find themselves wishing that the retired friends at the next table could talk about their golf game in lower tones. And each owner has a vision of her own.
Personal experience suggests that most laptop users who work at coffee shops don’t do so because they are too cheap to rent an office. No, people whose work involves the solitary punching of laptop keys enjoy being around other people, and coffee shops and cafes provide a comfortable and inexpensive environment where one can feel less isolated while working. Looked at in this way, the “WiFi wars” are less over Internet access and more about the type of jobs that we do—jobs that require little human interaction but do require the constant tether of a network connection.
Firefox has become quite a popular browser, quickly eclipsing its older brother Mozilla and gaining a 10 percent market share on the web. There is much anticipation for version 2.0, and the Mozilla organization has released a candidate for Beta 1 on their FTP site. Versions are available for Windows, Mac OS X (Universal Binary), and Linux.
The beta candidate is code named Bon Echo, after Bon Echo Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada. Mozilla is hoping that users find this release to be a “good echo” of what they have gotten used to. Firefox 2 hasn’t changed much, interface-wise, from the original. Existing users will be instantly familiar with the standard button bar, links bar, and the row of tabs. One minor change is the ability to scroll the tab bar horizontally when it gets too large. Tabs also have small “X” boxes attached, making them easier to close. Under the hood, however, there have been numerous bugfixes and improvements, in addition to some welcome new features.
One of the new features is a built-in antiphishing filter, which we reported on earlier. It automatically checks sites against a locally-stored blacklist of known phishers, although an option to “ask Google” to check is also available. The ability to use remote antiphishing sites other than Google is planned but not currently implemented (the dropdown selection list is grayed out).
Firefox 2.0 Beta Candidate 1. Click for larger version.
A very neat feature is an integrated spelling checker for web-based text input forms. This is a boon for anyone who posts on a lot of forums. There have been other add-ins that check spelling in browser forms, such as IESpell for Internet Explorer and GNU ASpell (which I currently use with Opera) but these require user intervention to start the spell check for each field. Firefox 2’s checker automatically highlights misspelled words with a dotted red line. While this is nothing new for OS X users, who have been able to use the system-wide spell checker in this manner with web browsers like Safari and Omniweb for some time now, it is a welcome addition for people browsing on other platforms.
As with earlier versions of Firefox, when you install the beta of 2.0 it checks to see if you have any browser extensions that are incompatible with the current release. There is an option to search for updates for any extensions that have been broken, but it was not able to update any of the extensions I had installed. Fortunately, Firefox has been integrating many useful extensions (like the ability to drag and drop tabs to new locations) along its development, so this is not as big of a problem as it might seem.
The browser seemed quite fast and stable, although I did not perform any benchmarking tests. I found one really obscure bug, where if the user clicks on a help link when a preferences dialog box is open, a new copy of Firefox will load without the user being able to switch back to the original either through Alt-Tab or the Windows task bar.
Is the new release really deserving of the 2.0 moniker? It’s hard to say, given the fact that it looks and feels very much like 1.x. Is it a better browser than 1.x? Definitely. The spell checking feature alone makes it a must-have upgrade. While personally I’m very happy with the new Opera 9, it’s good to see that there is such healthy competition in the browser market.