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Tainted Vista Review #1: Game Development Called on Account of Vista

The Tainted Vista Review

Welcome to the first installment of The Tainted Vista Review, an ongoing series of blog entries documenting my experiences with Microsoft's latest operating system, Windows Vista.

For those of you who've been following the tech blogosphere for the past couple of days, the “Tainted” in the title will be an obvious reference: I was one of the bloggers to whom an Acer Ferrari 1000 laptop pre-loaded with Windows Vista Ultimate — the most decked-out edition of the OS — was sent by the troika of Microsoft, their PR firm Edelman and Acer. This giveaway has resulted in controversy; for details, see this blog entry.

Consider this your disclaimer: I took a freebie. Or at least it was a freebie until they backpedalled.

That being said, I don't feel beholden to Microsoft other than having to say “thank you”. I haven't signed any agreements of any sort with Microsoft, Acer or Edelman. Like the optics of the giveaway campaign, the laptop and my opinions are out of their control.

It is my intent to review Vista honestly and without deference to Microsoft, but you've got to know where my Vista and the platform on which it runs came from.

And now, the first post…

Game Development Called on Account of Vista

Although I am not a game developer by trade, it's always something I've wanted to dabble in, even if only as a hobby. Hence, when I heard that Microsoft was developing an IDE that would allow you to write games for the XBox 360 — I won one of these at the recent Ajax Experience conference in Boston — I was very interested. My interest was doubly piqued after watching Rory Blyth's hour-long video posting at the launch of XNA game development framework and the XNA Game Studio Express IDE.

XNA Game Studio Express runs on top of Visual C# Express Edition, so I downloaded that first and installed it without a hitch.

The download page for XNA Game Studio Express says that it's “Only supported on Microsoft® Windows® XP SP2 (all editions) at this time.” Having trudged up the Microswoft OS upgrade path before, I know that this could mean one of two things:

  • It will either fail to install or fail to run on anything other than Windows XP SP2, or
  • It just hasn't been fully tested on Vista, but will run, although with some possible glitches.

At this stage in the game, I could live with some glitches, so I downloaded the installer. The installation process went smoothly up until near the end, when the installer froze near the end of the process, stuck forever at the part where the status dialog box says “Status: Registering project templates…”.

I took a screenshot at this point; it's shown below…

Progress dialog box for the XNA Game Studio Express setup program, which reads 'Status: Registering project templates'.

After a little waiting, I cancelled the installation, which led to this dialog box:

dialog box for the XNA Game Studio Express setup program, which reads 'Microsoft XNA Game Studio Express Setup Wizard ended prematurely'.

I suppose that I can wait until that future unspecified date when XNA Game Studio Express gets released for Vista, or I can use PartitionMagic and set up an XP SP2 partition so I can try it sooner.


Blogger Don't Preach (I'm Keeping the Laptop)


Acer Ferrari 1000 laptop.

If you've been following the technology blogs over the holidays, you've probably heard about Microsoft's latest “guerilla marketing” move to promote Windows Vista: give some bloggers a free Acer Ferrari 1000 or Acer Ferrari 5000 laptop pre-loaded with Windows Vista to try out. The bloggers were given the laptops and had the option of sending them back once they were done with their review, given them away or keeping them.

This giveaway had an unintended consequence: a ruckus on tech news sites and blogs along the lines of Microsoft is bribing bloggers! What didn't help are cases like Brandon LeBlanc, the blogger who failed to immediately disclose that Microsoft had given him his shiny new laptop in his initial post about it. (“I had intended to explain where this laptop came from in a more in-depth post,” he later wrote, but by then, his credibility was gone.)

In response to the kerfuffle, Microsoft is asking the bloggers to whom they sent laptops to either return them or give them away once they're done with their reviews.

To which I respond: “Sure, but did you know I like to review things for a couple of years, just to be thorough?”

Full Disclosure

Yes, I am one of those bloggers.

A Ferrari 1000 laptop arrived at the office yesterday. I picked it up and thanks to the prior obligation of the deVilla extended family Christmas party, didn't even to unpack it until late last night. Only this morning did I get a chance to fire it up and take it for a test spin.

(For the benefit of those of you who are hardcore fact-checkers, you can go to the DHL site and enter this tracking number — 7995316991 — to verify that it did indeed arrive only yesterday.)

A Quick Overview of the Ferrari

In the age of sub-$1000 notebooks, the Ferrari 1000 is a luxury model. It boasts some pretty decent tech specs:

  • AMD Turion 64 X2 processor
  • 1GB of RAM
  • 160 GB hard drive
  • 12.1″ WXGA glossy screen
  • ATI Radeon Express 1150 graphics chipset
  • Separate DVD-RW/CD-ROM drive
  • 802.11 b/g WiFi
  • Integrated 1.3 megapixel camera
  • Bluetooth
  • Bluetooth optical mouse
  • Bluetooth VOIP handset thingy
  • A black chamois that comes in its own little black case, for keeping the laptop nice and shiny

Like Porsche Design products — non-automobile items that have been styled following the automaker's designs that allow you to overcompensate, even if you can't afford their cars — Acer's Ferrari laptops have been styled after the designs of Turin's most famous export. Its glossy carbon-fiber top looks like a Ferrari interior panelling and the bright yellow Ferrari logo smack dab in the middle says “Hey, I paid a premium for this machine”, which is probably right — at the time of this writing, it retails at Tiger Direct for US$2000.

How I Got It

The laptop was sent to me by Aaron Coldiron, a senior product manager at Microsoft and manager of the community and blogger strategy for Windows Vista. I met him back in October at an invitation-only event in Toronto where he an a couple of guys from Redmond showcased some of Vista's features. They handed out Release Candidate 1 of Vista at the end of the presentation, and I attempted to install it on my desktop computer at the office the following day. The results weren't so hot, and I chronicled them in the following blog entries:

You'd think I'd be the last person they'd send a laptop pre-loaded with Windows Vista, but that's what happened. On December 13th, I got an email from Aaron offering me one. Here's the key excerpt:

It was nice meeting you back in October at the Windows event in Toronto. I was chatting with Claire Rankine on the Microsoft team about getting some hardware out to key community members, and we wanted to include you in this. I'd love to send you a loaded Ferrari 1000 courtesy of Windows Vista and AMD. Are you interested? Hopefully you'll have a much better experience with this pc than you did with the upgrade experience.

This would be a review machine, so I'd love to hear your opinion on the machine and OS. Full disclosure, while I hope you will blog about your experience with the pc, you don't have to. Also, you are welcome to send the machine back to us after you are done playing with it, or you can give it away to your community, or you can keep it. My recommendation is that you give it away on your site, but it's your call. Just let me know your opinion on Windows Vista and what you plan to do with it when the time comes.

I wrote him back, saying:

I'd like to try the Ferrari and Vista and try it under what I call “Tech Evangelist working conditions” — that is, my day-to-day routine. That involves:

  • Maintaining three blogs — the Tucows blog, Global Nerdy and The Adventures of Accordion Guy in the 21st Century
  • Helping maintain Tucows' web sites
  • Writing technical articles and accompanying demo code, such as the “Duke of URL” (currently in PHP, but I'll be expanding to C#)
  • Doing developer relations with Tucows' partners and vendors
  • Doing work with TorCamp, ICT Toronto and other organizations who a promoting Toronto as a live/work/play hub for technologists

One of the first things I'd load on the machine are the Visual Studio Express kits and XNA Game Studio Express, which has really piqued my curiosity (especially the XBox 360 dev kits, as I am both a developer and an XBox 360 owner).

And in response, he wrote:

I haven't read any reviews like what you've suggested so it should be fun. I'll get this out to you next week.

And hence I got the machine.

Give It Away, Give It Away, Give It Away Now

As of Christmas eve, the mail server at work has been rejecting my email password, so I haven't received the mail that Aaron has apparently been sending out in response to the flack about the giveaway. According to Marshall Kirkpatrick, it goes likes this:

No good deed goes unpunished, right? You may have seen that other bloggers got review machines as well. Some of that coverage was not factual. As you write your review I just wanted to emphasize that this is a review pc. I strongly recommend you disclose that we sent you this machine for review, and I hope you give your honest opinions. Just to make sure there is no misunderstanding of our intentions I’m going to ask that you either give the pc away or send it back when you no longer need it for product reviews.

I'll email Aaron from my GMail account and see what he's got to say. But like I said, I can review a product for a very long time.

A Dirty Little Blogger Secret

Okay, it's not so dirty, and it's not so secret either: one of the things that keeps me blogging are the perks. A little name recognition here, a couple of books to review there, free passes to wine-and-cheese events, pricey conferences and so on. I simply say up front that so-and-so is giving me free stuff or a free pass and to keep that in mind when reading my review or recommendation.

I'm with Hugh McLeod on this one:

Having both received and given out free stuff in the blogosphere, I'm not sure if I see what the big deal is. I certainly don't have trouble with it ethically, as long as all parties are being upfront about it. And it seems like they are to me.

My experience with blogger product campaigns tells me that, if you're just trying to turn bloggers into product pimps, you will fail. But if you see it as a way of starting interesting conversations with equally interesting people, your chances of succeeding are far greater.

While I've had Vista installed on my office PC for the past couple of months, it's been second banana to my PowerBook. For the most part, the Vista-PC combo at work has been relegated to web browsing on another screen while I've been using the Mac to do all the real work.

By sending me a laptop with Vista pre-installed, Microsoft has actually managed to get me interested in Vista and giving it a thorough look-see to see if “there's really a there there.”

So, in summary:

  • I have in my possession a Ferrari 1000 laptop that Microsoft gave me to review.
  • In the original email, I could keep the laptop, return it to Microsoft or give it to the community. It was recommended that I give it to the community.
  • I have not signed any agreements with Microsoft, legally binding or otherwise. There are no strings attached
  • I plan to blog about my experiences with both Vista and the Ferrari laptop.
  • I hear that Microsoft is asking us to now either return the machine or give it away once we're done reviewing it.
  • I plan to review my machine for a good long time.

If Microsoft reeeeeally wants me to send the machine back, I will — if Aaron can beat me at an accordion-playing contest, Devil Went Down to Georgia style, to be judged by audience applause. I'd be cool with giving away the machine if I lost in such a competition.


Satchell and Molyneux on MS Gaming Efforts

Yesterday, I pointed to part one of a two-part interview with Chris Satchell, General Manager of Microsoft's Game Developer Group and revered game design guru Peter Molyneux, who's now working for Microsoft.

Today, I give you the link to part two of the article. In it, Satchell talks about Sony's missteps with making console development available to the masses (anyone remember Net Yaroze?) and if XNA Game Studio Express will turn into “a monster out of their control” and Molyneux tells us a little bit about the importance of the demo scene and his focus on the 360.


Adobe's New "Periodic Table" Icons

The beta versions of Adobe's Illustrator CS3 or Photoshop CS3 have simplified icons — a gold square with the white letters “Ai” for Illustrator, and a blue square with the white letters “Ps” for Photoshop:

Adobe's new icons for Illustrator CS3, Photoshop CS3, Bridge and Adobe Reader.

It was generally assumed that these were interim icons for the CS3 beta period, but that's not the case. As part of the rebranding effort following the merger with Macromedia, they came up with a new white-letters-in-colored-squares icon design that will be applied across most of their suite of products. The end result, which is based on a color wheel, looks like one of those modern reinventions of the periodic table when viewed as a group:

All of Adobe's new product icons, placed on a color wheel.
Adobe's Wheel-O-Products. Click the picture to see an annotated version of Flickr.

Note that a few applications with very well-known icons that haven't changed much through their lifecycle will retain them. Acrobat, for instance, will retain its familiar “triangle” icon.

These new icons stand out, given the current design trends towards a more complex, rendered, 3D look with a “rotated slightly counterclockwise, seen from above and to the left” viewing angle. They'd be easy to pick out from the Mac OS X Dock, Windows XP's Start menu or Windows Vista's Windows menu.

For more on the design rationale behind the new icons, here's Adobe Senior Exoerience Designer Ryan Hicks:

Taken in isolation, the individual icons are in no way spectacular – that was never their role. Their elegance comes from how the entire desktop brand system works as a whole. The more Adobe apps you have, the better the system works. Adobe's icons stand out instantly in the visually-dense world of user desktops because of their simplicity; complexity ≠ information.

(I don't know about you, but I don't buy lots of software from a vendor with the intent of making their branding system work better.)

The general reaction seems to be negative. Here's what Jason Santa Maria has to say:

When making icons, you usually try to design something simple and recognizable to identify things. At the expense of creating a family of icons, you’ve watered them down so much as to be unrecognizable at a glance. The variety of color, while great in theory, does little to help matters because of the sheer number of icons. The plain facts that monitor variations kill the subtle differences, and there are quite a few color blind people out there who can’t distinguish certain shades from one another, should have led you towards a backup plan. That may be what the periodic letters are for, but in choosing to go with one font, and one orientation, you’ve created enough noise that none of them would be recognizable among the others. Plus, baking in the action of having to read the icon just to decipher it adds an unnecessary step.

This is an utter design failure.

Veerle Pieters seems to like them:

When I first saw the splash screen and application icon of Adobe Photoshop CS3 my thinking pattern was that Macromedia had its influence in the branding process: the idea of using different colors for each application and the way the splash screen is organized.

The color association that is carried throughout the product's desktop brand and primary imagery makes total sense to me. The absence of illustrative elements as we saw in previous versions needs really getting use to. If you look in the Dock, most icons are like pictures and visually very detailed so it's like they are all shouting “choose me, me”. Adobe's new icons are so basic and stand out instantly even in a crowded Dock. That's a thing Macromedia always had with their icons, you could immediately tell they belong together.

Here's what Scoble has to say:

Using ASCII characters in an icon? Come on Adobe. You’re the king of using graphics and photos. Put a freaking photo onto the icon. It’s “Photoshop” remember?

But, icons are branding opportunities and tell me one thing. Will this “brand” do well in, say, China? How about Japan?

I remember when I was in China at a computer show and I needed to demonstrate NetMeeting. I could do it cause I knew what the icons looked like.

But, even better, look at how Firefox uses its icon to market itself. It’s on Tshirts. Stickers. Posters (one was hanging in a company I interviewed at yesterday).

For the final word, take a look at Dave Shea's mockups to show how the new Adobe icons would look on the Mac OS X Dock and the Windows XP Quick Start bar:

Mockups of new Adobe icons in the Mac OS X Dock and the Win XP Quick Start bar

In the article that accompanies these mockups, he writes:

Hey, they probably looked great through a projector’s lens during the meetings. And placing them on top of the ultimate designer’s emblem, a colour wheel… maybe that Kool Aid wasn’t too hard to swallow. I just can’t imagine an actual icon designer was involved in those meetings, or maybe they simply got voted down.

Because when you actually look at them in situ, it strikes me as glaringly obvious how poorly these work in the view that designers will be seeing every single day. I wasn’t overly impressed with the new Office 2007 icons, but they’re a world apart from these paint chips.


New Game Dev Tool: XNA Game Studio Express

Okay, now that I've made my crack about the statement of Chris Satchell, General Manager of Microsoft's Game Developer Group, let me get down to more serious posting.

XBox 360.

Don't let my habit of Microsoft-bashing fool you: there's some neat tech coming out of Redmond that I'm interested in. I've been rather pleased with the XBox 360 that I won at the Ajax Experience conference in Boston back in October, and I have been given the opportunity to give Vista another chance on some nice new hardware (more about that later). These two are about to meet in an interesting new way thanks to XNA Game Studio Express, which I'm dying to try.

As the XNA FAQ puts it, XNA Game Studio Express, which was released only a few days ago, is “a new game development solution targeted primarily at students, hobbyists, and independent game developers”. Based on the Visual C# Express 2005 IDE, XNA Game Studio Express is an integrated development environment built specifically for indie game developers who want to build games for both Windows and the XBox 360. It comes with the following:

  • XNA Framework, a set game development-specific libraries.
  • XNA Framework Content Pipeline, a set of tools for more easily incorporaing 3D content into games.
  • A full set of documentation, how-tos, and starter kits that demonstrate how to use the framework and content pipeline.

XNA Game Studio Express is free-as-in-beer, but in order to develop and play and games for the XBox 360, you need an XNA Creators' Club membership, which sells for $99 a year. (Perhaps I can use some of my blog juice to get one for free.)

It looks as though I should get started on my reading, and one of the things I'll check out the first part of a two-part article titled The DNA of XNA, in which both Chris Satchell and game design guru Peter Molyneux talk about XNA and offer advice to budding young game coders.



MS Exec's Statement Confirms Long-Term Potential for Nintendo Wii

If ever there was an argument for buying Nintendo stock, this headline from is it:

MS exec questions long term potential for Nintendo Wii

Consider their track record in any field where they've gone up against real competition.