I’m a dad!!

Brandon Tyler Rae was born today at 4:28pm.  He weighs 3.95kgs (which is quite big), and my amazing wife pushed him out with no drugs or any pain management at all.  It was gut-wrenching to watch, and something I’ll never forget, but am not keen to do again soon!!  She’s amazing.  Both are healthy and happy. 

 Brandon at 5 minutes old

I have an AXE to grind!!!! Rock On!!

Guitar Hero II was one of those games I really wasn’t sure about.  It did sound like fun for a while, but I had never seen it in action or played it myself.  Well, as luck would have it, a good mate of mine bought a copy but had to go away on business for a few days, so he loaned to me while he was away!  After hacking my way through my second song, and actually nailing my first good run, I was hooked!  This game is awesome!  I have since bought my own copy, and guitar (axe).

The Guitar controller feels very cool.  The buttons work nicely, it’s comfortable to use, and is a load of fun.  Lifting the neck high to activate Star mode is cool too.  After an extended session, my left hand does feel like it’s been slammed in a door, but that’s just my lack of co-ords more than any fault of the controller.  After a 10 minute rest, I’m ready to go again!  How well somebody who isn’t into music and had never tried to play guitar in real life would enjoy GH2 is debatable, but as for me, well, I’m majorly into Guitar Hero II!

I just wish my sister didn’t kick my butt at it so much!  Must go practise before she comes over again!!!!!

Windows Home Server Beta

I got into the Windows Home Server Beta, and have been doing quite a bit of testing and playing around with it.  The idea is fantastic, and in its current beta 2 guise, has certainly nailed a few excellent ideas. 

For anyone who doesn’t know, Microsoft Windows Home Server is a new product Microsoft is launching sometime near the end of the year.  It is essentially a file server for the home, and is built on Windows Server 2003 R2.  Most home users would have no idea how to set up a server, and the default Windows Server 2003 is way too complicated, and way too expensive to justify running at home.  Home Server aims to address these issues of complexity and cost, and open up the wonderful world of client server computing to home users.

When the product is released later on this year, it will be available in two forms.  The first is as an appliance with specifically designed hardware from PC manufacturers such as HP, Dell etc.  The second way is as a more conventional DVD, although whether you’ll be able to walk into your local PC shop and buy Home Server isn’t known to me at this stage. 

Home Server, as mentioned earlier, is a slimmed down version of Windows Server 2003 R2.  A lot of the management and features have been removed and replaced with a very basic configuration utility.  The server itself, whether you bought specific hardware or are running it on a PC you already have, is designed to run completely headless, i.e. there is no keyboard, mouse or screen attached.  All configuration after the initial install will be done remotely via the Home Server Management Console or via the web interface.  It is meant to be put in a cupboard or your attic or somewhere out of the way and just be a central location for all your media files, and any other files you would wish to store.  It is primarily designed for digital media, and comes pre-configured with shares for Videos, Photos and Music.  Each user account you create on the server will also be assigned a folder in which to store any files they may want. 

The real benefit of Windows Home Server for home users is found in the backup and file redundancy features of the product.  Each client PC on your home network gets a small piece of client software installed on it, and this is where the greatness begins.  Each machine on your network now becomes a managed device, something until now, was reserved for business and enterprise users.  Home Server keeps a constant eye on your PC’s health, and alerts you if any machine on your network has a problem such as Anti-Virus software not running, disk space low, whatever.  Also, Home Server automatically does a FULL system backup of your home PCs after you install the client software, and updates this backup every night with any changes that have occurred.  You get a bootable System Recovery CD with the product which can be used to resurrect a dead machine and get it back to the state it was a last backup.  This is a phenomenal step forward for home users in my opinion.  NOBODY I know backs up their home PC religiously, and these machines often contain irreplaceable information such as personal photos.  You can back up all your network machines to the Home Server, but the disk space used is kept to a minimum due to single instance storage.  This means that if you have 2 machines with exactly the same file, such as Windows system files, the Home Server will only keep one copy of this file on disk, but it can be used to recover any machine that needs it.

Another of Home Server’s real strengths is in the area of disk management.  Gone are the days of struggling with C: and D: on your server, and trying to manage space and who puts what where.  Home server uses the NTSF file system, but adds a new share mirroring feature similar to Distributed File System (DFS).  It doesn’t matter to the user where the file is, just so long as it’s available when and where it’s needed.  When you install Home Server, it warns you that it will completely wipe any disk currently connected to the machine, and it then proceeds to set up its new file system.  Once this is done, you can just start copying files to the shares it creates.  The management console shows you a pie chart of the current disk usage, and breaks it up into system, backup, redundant data, media etc so you can see exactly where the disk space has gone.  You can also add disk at any time.  On a normal Windows machine, adding a disk is a nightmare of partitioning and labelling with a drive letter, and then trying to decide what to store on the new disk to use the space effectively.  With Home Server, you can add a disk at any time, either internal or external USB or Firewire, and it will just be assimilated into the space pool.  Your little pie graph will change to indicate that you now have X amount of GB free, and you can proceed to copy more files to your server. If you want to remove a disk for some reason, you simply go to the management console and click remove disk.  It will then copy all the data that is stored on that disk somewhere else, and you can safely unplug it.

You can also specify certain shares you wish to make redundant.  This means that Home Server will always ensure that the files you specify are stored simultaneously on two separate disks, thereby protecting those files from single disk failure.  This is a very important feature, and for anyone who has taken a lot of photos, an absolute necessity.  Redundancy can be specified on a share level, so you can specify that all photos are redundant, but videos and music are not.  One problem I have noticed with this (at beta 2) is that you can’t make the system drive redundant.  This means that should your system drive decide it’s had enough, you lose everything.  Some data may still be stored on other drives, and I believe it’s possible to connect it to another system and recover the data, but I have yet to test that.  If you just rebuild your Home Server on a new drive, and then want to get the data off the older drives, you’ll struggle because Home Server will wipe the disk before it will make it available to be accessed.  I hope they fix this before the final version comes out, because having all the redundancy is kind of pointless if there is still such a glaring single point of failure.

Home Server also comes with a full web based front end.  You can connect to your server from anywhere in the world (provided you set up your router to allow this) and download files from it, upload files to it, check network condition etc.  Really nice if you are away from home and need to access files or photos.  You can also use this method to share photos etc with people who live a long way away by simply creating a user account for them to come in and get whatever they may need.  The web interface is still a little rough around the edges, but this is purely cosmetic and will be sorted out by final release.  Another nice touch is that if you need to download multiple files, you can select them, and when you click download, Home Server will create a ZIP file for you containing all the files you selected, meaning you only have to worry about downloading one file, and you can get some extra compression depending on the file, and save bandwidth.

The hardware requirements for Windows Home Server are fairly modest, and can easily be installed on an older PC you may have lying around.  It requires a Pentium 3 processor and 512MB of memory.  It will not install if you have less than 512Mb of RAM.  They also recommend you use your biggest disk you have available as your system drive.  It also requires a wired connection, and will not work if you only have a WIFI card in the system.  This is to ensure good network performance, since file sharing is this machines primary task.  Otherwise, installation is really simple and once it’s up and running, you connect via a PC on your network, install the Management Console, create a user or two, and that’s it.

I hope they price this product well when it comes out.  If it’s too expensive, I don’t think it’ll do well.  People like my father are ideal candidates for this sort of product since he has more than 1 PC at home and never backs anything up, but would be devastated if he lost everything.  However, he won’t pay a small fortune for this, and will have to be seriously convinced of its usefulness before he’ll part with any cash.  Everything is going digital and a central place in the home to store everything safely is a huge step forward for most people.  I’m very excited about this product, and look forward to seeing the final version.  I will be using it extensively over the next few months, and will add any other comments and discoveries to this article.

Happy Birthday to my Xbox 360 (well, almost)

I say almost in the title, since today is indeed my first anniversary of the joining of me and my 360, but alas, just a few short days shy of the great event, she decided to give up the ghost, kick the bucket, throw in the towel, buy the farm, whatever your favourite metaphor is for DYING.  She’s dead.  3 red lights.  The word “gutted” doesn’t describe how I felt the day she passed away.  But, I’m an impatient man, and didn’t waste a moment in running down to my local mall to buy a replacement.  Its not a waste of money really, since I was planning on getting another one anyway to use as a Media Center Extender, but only later on.  In an even crueller twist of bad luck, she died only a week after I had sold the premium bundle I won in the PGR3 competition for well less than they cost retail.  Anyway, what can you do.  No use crying over spilt milk or dead Xbox’s.

The story isn’t all bad though.  When Xbox 360 was launched in SA, the distributer made a deal with Microsoft to support imported consoles that were purchased before local launch.  No idea why they did that, but it was jolly decent of them.  Mine has been arranged to be replaced under this deal, which is fantastic, and not the kind of putting the customer first experience we usually get here in Africa.  I commend MI Digital / JNC on this move, and thank Waggy ZA for his part in helping me out.

Some stats about my first year of Xbox 360 and Live from MyGamerCard.net and 360Voice.com:

Number of Games: 62

Total Score: 17269 / 36165

Total Achievements: 519 / 1278

Rep:  5 Stars
GamerScore: 17269
Zone: Recreation

Completed XBLA: 0 / 9
Completed Retail: 6 / 30
GS Completion %: 47.75%
GS % (Non-Demo): 54.71%

Country Rank: 16/868
World Rank: 12240/982215

Most Played: Project Gotham Racing 3

Longest streak: 28 days
Play percentage: 84.5%
Largest achievement gain:10/21/2006 (13)
Largest gamerscore gain:1/16/2007 (550)

HD-DVD Review

I managed to get hold of an Xbox 360 HD-DVD drive via Ebay for the very acceptable price of R1080 including shipping.  It arrived last Saturday and I’ve been meaning to get my review done since then, and am only getting to it now.  Anyway, better late than never, so here goes.

The drive unit itself is about the size of a medium sized hardcover book, and follows the Xbox 360’s “exhale” design.  Sitting on top the console, it is the same length as the 360, and looks good.  Included in the box is a power supply (which is disappointing, but the USB interface obviously couldn’t handle the power requirements), a Xbox 360 Media Remote, some manuals etc, a USB 2.0 cable, a disk you must insert in the console BEFORE connecting the drive, and a copy of the King Kong HD-DVD.

Inserting this disk in the console seems to install some software to enable HDDVD playback.  Not sure why they couldn’t do this over Live with a dashboard update, as it seems pretty small, only taking a second or two to complete its process.  One possible reason is that they couldn’t assume all consoles using this peripheral would be connected to Live.  There was an update available over Live, which I got prompted for the first time I used it though.

The drive connects to the rear of the console (or the front, but it looks better in the back), which uses up your USB port back there.  If you happen to have the Xbox 360 Wireless adapter currently running off that port, fret not, as the HD-DVD drive includes 2 USB ports on the rear of the unit, and the necessary clips for attaching your wireless adapter, so you lose nothing.  In fact, you gain a USB port, so you can still connect your Live Vision Camera (review to follow soon) to the rear of the unit, and keep cables out of the way.

My 360 is connected to my Dell 2405FPW 24″ LCD screen via the Microsoft Xbox 360 VGA cable.  This screen has a native resolution of 1920 x 1200, and I have it set not to scale, therefore I have small blck bars at the top and bottom of the screen in order to keep the proper 16:9 aspect ratio.  My console is outputting 1920×1080. 

I eagerly inserted the King Kong HD-DVD disk.  As a quick aside, let me say that I really like the smaller cases HD-DVDs come in.  They do make any DVD racks you may have obsolete, but they are much nice and way smaller.  Anyway, back to King Kong………

I sit here struggling to think of how exactly to portray in mere words how good this movie looks in HDDVD at 1080p.  The jungle scenes are absolutely incredible.  King Kong himself is too good for words.  Every hair on his body seems to be moving individually, and the detail you can see on his face is down right scary.  I sat through the entire three and a bit hours in absolute awe, like I was watching my first ever moving picture.  I was literally, blown away.  The best analogy I can come up with is this:  DVD is like watching moving photograph taken with your average camera phone, and HD-DVD (in 1080p) is like watching a moving photograph taken with a good quality 5 megapixel digital camera.  It is mind-blowing!  The only downside to this kind of spectacular clarity is that there were some scenes you could clearly see had been green-screened.  The focus just looked ever so slightly wrong, something I very much doubt anybody would have seen in the movie theatre or on standard DVD.

After being stunned by King Kong, I quickly threw in Superman Returns.  Superman Returns is a hybrid disk, with one side HD-DVD, and the other side standard DVD, which can be played in any DVD player.  As mentioned in my HD-DVD vs Bluray article, this is one of the major benefits of the HD-DVD format, enabling people to purchase movies like this, and be able to use it as a standard DVD until they upgrade to HD-DVD.  One of the main differences between DVD and HD-DVD is that the movie starts straight away, without going to a menu.  The menu is available with a press of the Menu button, but comes up as an overlay while the movie continues to play.  From this menu, you can pause the movie, so you don’t miss any while you’re fiddling around, change the sound settings, see extras etc.  You can also activate the IME (In-Movie Experience).  This is basically the next generation of director’s commentary.  It brings up little picture in picture windows while the movie is playing to show special extras such as how they did the scene you’re currently watching, actor or director interviews etc.  It’s pretty cool, and not nearly as boring as director commentary!

I looked at Superman Returns playing for a minute or two, then ejected the disk to make sure it wasn’t playing the standard DVD side by mistake.  It wasn’t.  I put the disk back in the drive, and skipped to the scene of the airplane / space shuttle accident, where Superman saves people for the first time in the movie.  The picture was good, but not great.  People’s skin looked plastic and a little fake, there was a lot of noise (speckles) on the picture, especially in darker scenes.  Don’t get me wrong, it still looks MUCH better than DVD, but if I hadn’t just finished watching King Kong, I wouldn’t have been nearly as impressed with this whole HD-DVD thing.  I removed Superman, and put in Batman Begins.  Now this looked MUCH better.  There is no noise in the scenes, you can see the pores on peoples faces, making them look a lot less like plastic mannequins, and the sharpness in the scenes of Gotham City is excellent.  This not so super Superman made me do some thinking.  The director of Superman obviously wanted a softer look to all the scenes, and it probably does look great in the movie theatre, but on HD-DVD, it’s disappointing not to be able to see every pore on the actors skin.  Maybe it’s just me, and I am looking at the picture rather than watching the movie, but again I say, after King Kong, it looks rubbish.  As for the noise on the picture, I assume that came in during transfer from film to digital.  Not all transfers are equal, but Superman Returns looks quite bad.  Or, maybe King Kong was just particularly good, which is why it is included with the Xbox 360 HD-DVD drive as a showcase?  I don’t know, but I’ve seen what’s possible, so I now expect it everywhere!

I can’t comment on the sound of the movies.  HD-DVD includes Dolby Tru-HD sound, which is essentially a lossless compression algorithm.  This should allow much more detail in the sound track, especially in the bass, highs and little detail sounds you often hear happening behind you.  Unfortunately, only very high-end home theatre decoders support this right now, and only via HDMI, so the Xbox 360, since it doesn’t have HDMI for now, has to down mix the soundtrack to standard Dolby Digital 5.1.  It’s ok, but just ok.  I also had to crank up the volume of my speakers, as the sound output of HD-DVD is quite soft for some reason. 

In conclusion, I would like a new pair of eyes, as I think they’ll soon be the weakest link in my home theatre.  Once decent sized 1080p screens start to cost less than small countries, and Tru-HD decoders are mainstream, the cinema is going to become quite obsolete.  With HD-DVD, I get all the benefits of the movie house, and none of the sticky floors, people taking, blind projectionists who can’t focus the picture, cell phones going off etc etc.  And, I can pause whenever I want.  I LOVE the HD era.

I won Cape Town NuMetro PGR3 Competition

Nu Metro, one of the major cinema companies here in South Africa, and Microsoft held a PGR3 competition.  In order to qualify, you had to purchase a movie ticket and set a lap time on one of the PGR3 tracks in an Aston Martin DB9.  The top 32 qualifiers would then race in a split screen knock-out type tournament in one of the cinemas, on the big screen.  I ended up qualifying 11th, and went along to the final today.

It was awesome!!!  They used a really nice projector (looked like 1080p) and everything was set up very well.  The sound was excellent, and the picture was superb.  Several people who qualified had obviously not played much before, and only got a good laptime on the qualy track by doing tons of laps.  There were some really good players though.  It ended up with myself and another guy in the final, who was definitly the best player there (besides me, but I’m not going to toot my own horn…. toot.).  We had a good close race in the final but I managed to stay ahead of him.

I won another Xbox 360.  I’m really chuffed, because I was very nervous when the whole thing started.  I must congratulate Gerhard (my opponent in the final) for a great race.  Also, thanks to Nu-Metro and Cinevation for coming up with this awesome competition.  I really enjoyed it, and hope there will be more like it in the future.