Software Virtualisation Technology

Major Nelson mentioned in a blogcast a few months ago about Altaris Software Virtualisation Technology. I have been playing with this for a while, and it’s VERY cool. In simple terms, it creates a virtual layer on which you can install any piece of software you wish. The SVS (Software Virtualisation Solution) keeps all changes made to the OS, Registry and File system on this layer. While the layer is active, the program acts and runs as if it’s installed on the host machine. You can de-activate the layer at amy time, which completely removes ALL traces of the software from your system, which is excellent if you do a lot of testing of new pieces of software like I do. You can re-activate the layer any time you wish, which will return the software to full working condition (including any shell integration etc) within a second.

Another amazing feature of this software is that you can export and import the layer to another machine, which means the application you installed in this layer can run on another PC even though you didn’t actually install it there. Very cool idea.

Download SVS here.

Citrix are working on a similar application streaming solution which works in much the same way as I have described above, but it keeps these layers on a central file server, and they can then be deployed to various workstations on your netwrk in seconds. Citrix’s solution however, will cost a small fortune.

No Xbox Live support for 1 year

Telkom have done it again. What a bunch of “Proudly” South African idiots. MS was in talks with them about ensuring a good Live experience for the local Launch (which is scheduled for midnight on Friday the 29th September at Rage), and I guess they didn’t go so well. Telkom and Multichoice. Two South African companies completely messing up my life through pig-headed stupidity and greed! Proudly South African, whatever!

SA Live users will still be able to access Live, like I do currently, but we won’t have any official support. Doesn’t look like we’ll be able to pay for the Live subscription in Rands either, which sucks!

My Opinions on HD-DVD vs. Blu-ray

I have been watching developments in the High Definition arena for a while, and thought I’d write about my thoughts regarding the HD-DVD vs. Blu-ray topic.  I can’t help thinking back to the Betamax vs. VHS war of the eighties, which reminds us all the best technical option doesn’t always win.  Betamax was clearly the better technology, with better picture and sound quality, and smaller more elegant tapes, but that meant little when you went to video store and there were only 20 or so Betamax movies, and shelves and shelves of VHS copies.  My family used to have a Betamax top loader when I was a kid, but we eventually bought a VHS just so we could rent videos.  Sad, but true.

Sony’s Betamax format was eventually abandoned entirely, as the market decided which format would win.  I have read articles that say there is room in the world for two HD formats, but I’m not so sure.  I dread the day when I walk into my local video store and have to go to the Blu-ray or HD-DVD shelves and make sure I get the correct format.  It will be much worse for my mother or someone not as in-the-know about this technology who will get home with the wrong disc format, and will feel very frustrated.  I think one will emerge as dominant, but which one?

Here in South Africa, there is no issue as yet, since neither format is available, and very few people even have displays capable of true high definition, so we may be spared the initial fighting and eventually only have one format available locally.  I hope we don’t have to wait that long though, since the HD content I have seen so far, is awesome.

I’m not a big Sony fan, but I do admit that they do make good quality products.  I think that years of great success have gone to their heads, and now they think they can dictate standards and push consumers (most who know no better) in directions that aren’t in the consumers’ best interest.  This article ISN’T a Sony bash, so please don’t think it is.  Sony is the chief driving force behind the Blu-Ray format at the moment, but they are not the only ones responsible for it, and it is a great technology.  It has huge promise, but I don’t believe it will work in the film delivery market, which is where they are currently fighting.  Sony (and the rest of the Blu-Ray consortium) has made some strange decisions with regard to Blu-Ray, many of which I cannot fathom.  I will go into more detail on this a bit later.

I’m going to start with the technical specs of the actual disc format.  From a purely technical standpoint, I believe Blu-Ray is the better technology for the following reasons:

Capacity:

The capacity of the BD discs will be greater than that of HD-DVD.  BD supports 25GB per layer whereas HD-DVD only supports 15GB per layer.  Blu-Ray still has some technical difficulty getting reliable dual-layer discs, and none have been released yet.  The single layer discs seem to be working well though, although they only have 25GB versus HD-DVD’s 30GB dual layer format which is available now.  I’m sure they’ll sort these issues out soon though.

Speed:

Read speed (and I would assume write speed) of a 1x BD drive is faster than 1x HD-DVD drive.  It is fairly marginal, but with capacities of over 30GB, every extra MB/sec helps.

For the two reasons stated above, I believe BD is an excellent high volume data distribution medium.  Once 50GB per disc is available, and is reliable, there will be no cheaper and easier way to ship such large volumes.

The current controversy is not, however, about data distribution.  It’s about Movie and entertainment distribution.  In this arena, I firmly believe HD-DVD is the better option, by far.  I will explain why below:

Reliability:

Blu-Ray has the data layers of the disc much closer to the outer layer than is the case with HD-DVD.  This makes is very susceptible to scratching and being rendered unusable by careless handling.  Early BD discs were shipped in a cartridge, which nobody likes, but at least they were better protected. Herewith comes up the first of Sony’s unfathomable decisions.  Why oh why, put a Blu-Ray drive in the PS3 and insist that all PS3 games be distributed only on BD discs.  Kids are going to annihilate these fragile discs.  They better have a very good disc replacement policy when PS3 launches.  HD-DVD on the other hand, is about as fragile as a standard DVD today, since it is manufactured in much the same way.  Still not very hardy, but way more resilient than BD.  TDK developed a polymer coating called Durabis, which they claim toughens the discs substantially.  I’m sceptical; we’ll have to see how well this works.

Cost:

Blue-Ray is a completely different technology to current generation DVD.  While I fully support leaving legacy behind to pursue better solutions, I also can’t ignore that new technology is expensive.  HD-DVD is more of an evolution of DVD than a completely new technology.  DVD manufacturing plants can be upgraded to support HD-DVD production, which is relatively cheap, compared to the complete change of process and systems Blu-Ray is going to require.  This cost will have to be recovered somehow, and unfortunately for BD, it will be recovered from the individual disc cost.  Unfathomable decision number two.  Why increase the cost of PS3 games by putting them on much expensive media?  If any game coming out in the next 3 to 4 years needs more than 8GB of storage, then maybe the programmers should go on a “How to avoid Bloatware” course.  The only reason I can see is if they have actual filmed HD cut scenes that last an hour or two.

The other major cost factor is the devices that will read these discs.  In the USA, you can walk into a store and pick up an HD-DVD player for $500.  A similar Blue-ray device will cost $1000.  Whoa!  That is a lot.  Unfathomable question number three.  Why push the price of the PS3 way up by including a component very few people will actually use?  I bet most people buying a PS3 will do so so their children can play games.  Why force them to spend a lot of extra money on such a high end (and unproven) technology.  I personally think this is unfair of Sony.  It should be an optional extra.  Sony has admitted that the PS3 has been delayed due to Blu-ray problems.  Duh.  Drop it and give the Playstation fans a new console that just works and won’t cost the earth!

Backward Compatibility:

HD-DVD players can all read standard DVD’s as well.  As far as I know, Blu-ray isn’t compatible with standard DVD, but this may change as players get better.  However, HD-DVD has one more trump card up its sleeve.  Hybrid Discs.  Hybrid discs are dual sided HD-DVDs that have a standard DVD on one side, and HD-DVD on the other.  This is brilliant!  Now movies can be released and sold and consumers who have yet to take the HD plunge can know that these discs are 100% future proof.  This is brilliant, and a solution I am very impressed with.

MPEG-2 Encoding:

Both BD and HD-DVD players support 3 types of compression.  Uncompressed HD content at 1080p comes in at around 1 Gb/sec, which is a lot.  Advanced compression is obviously needed to fit this onto a 30GB disk.  Microsoft has developed the VC-1 encoding system, which is a brand new and highly advanced compression system which gives awesome quality with very high compression ratios.  HD-DVD content can also be compressed in H.264/AVC or the old familiar MPEG-2. HD-DVD uses VC-1 almost exclusively since it gives the best picture quality by far.  Blu-Ray, although the players must support all three codecs, went ahead and chose to use the 10 year old MPEG-2 codec.  Unfathomable question number four.  Why?  VC-1 is roughly twice (sometimes more) efficient than MPEG-2.

Perception:

Everybody knows about DVD.  It is a household word which nobody is confused about.  “HD-DVD is just like DVD but better right?  Never heard of Blu-ray.”  I predict this will be Joe Public’s standard thought pattern when faced with a format choice.  Things may work out differently, but I suspect the DVD name will hold a lot of weight with consumers.

iHD vs. Java:

This is more a personal dislike of all things Java based on my own experiences.  The interactive components of HD-DVD are based on a set of technologies called iHD.  Blu-Ray uses a Java based system called BD-J, meaning a Java VM is included in each Blu-Ray player.  I’m no fan of Java, but as I said, this is more personal than anything else.

I think the basic answer to all the unfathomable questions I posed above is money.  Sony wants Blu-Ray to succeed badly.  Very badly.  After losing the Betamax battle, maybe they are still a bit bruised.  By including Blu-Ray with the PS3 they are taking a big gamble that could push customers away due to the high price, but at the same time, they are guaranteeing good market penetration, which could be the blow BD needs to win.

The MPEG-2 question is also easily answered with money.  Since Microsoft own the patents for VC-1, they are getting licensing fees for every disc produced.  Similarly, Sony own over 170 patents on MPEG-2, effectively negating the effect of royalties.  BD will need the extra capacity to ensure competitive picture quality with MPEG-2 over VC-1, although early releases using only a single layer will be worse than the equivalent HD-DVD.

I have not seen HD-DVD or Blu-Ray movies on a true 1080p HD screen as yet, so these comments are based on my own research on this topic and personal opinions.  I would be very interested to hear any opinions and comments on this.

I’m getting tired of unfinished games…….

I’m seeing an alarming trend of games arriving on the shelves in a terribly unfinished state. This has been an issue with PC games for a while, with patches arriving almost immediately after release. The problem seems even worse on Xbox 360 however. Three of my favorite games so far have all had horrible problems out of the box, and releasing patches on Xbox Live takes a lot longer than for PC, where the developer can just post it on their own site for download. Everything has to go through rigorous certification etc before it will make it onto the Live servers, so in the end, the gamers (like me) suffer for much longer. It would be nice if part of this certification process included basic bug checking.

I’m not refering to small problems here that only a small percent of users will ever notice. The two worst examples so far are to be found in Call of Duty 2 and MotoGP 06. CoD2 was pretty much unplayable on multiplayer until the patch came out about 4 months after release. It was VERY laggy, there was no game lobby etc, it was aweful. Thankfully, the patch fixed all that, but this was a terrible problem. Maybe Activision thought everyone would be so involved in the single player campaign they wouldn’t notice that multiplayer didn’t work?? I don’t know, but that was just plain shoddy. MotoGP 06, which is also a great game, just locks up the console whenever you try to see your friends lap times. Full lock up. You have to cycle power. How did it get through QA like this? Apparently it only happens if you have more than 25 people on your friends list, but still! Really pathetic. This is made even worse because the actual game is so good.

I might have to start waiting until I see that Service Pack 1 is out for each game before buying it. Sad!

-EDIT- I sent an email very similar to what I wrote above to Major Nelson, and he said he would pass it on to some folks around his office. Hopefully this problem will get better in the future.

-UPDATE- A patch was released for MotoGP 06 which has fixed the Friends Lap Time issue.

No original XBox Extender Support in Vista

I’ve been hearing that Vista won’t support Xbox 1 Media Center Extenders, and that support of old HP and Linksys devices is also questionable. Whoa! That sucks. Obviously Xbox 306 will be supported, but I LOVE my Xbox 1 Extender. Not only was it cheap, but it works brilliantly, and the remote is probably the best I’ve ever used. Getting another 360 to be used as an extender is a possiblility after a price drop or two, but the remote isn’t nearly as good as the older black one, and it can’t run Xbox Media Center for playing Divx files. Oh well……. I’m bummed, but not bummed as I would be if I had dropped $400 on a Linksys or HP device!

-Edit- I wrote to Matt Goyer (who works on the Media Center dev team) about this, and he confirmed that there will be zero support in Vista for old extenders. He didn’t give any reasons, but it was nice of him to reply I suppose.