Thursday, December 2, 2010

...Barnes & Noble Nook

B&N Nook
Quality: 4 of 5
Usability: 5 of 5
Features: 5 of 5
Battery: 3 of 5
Overall: 4 of 5
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WiFi + 3G | WiFi only
I read a fair number of books, so when the eBook readers started coming out some years back, I started watching them. They were all rather expensive at first, and most of them used black and white or greyscale LCD/LED displays which at the time resulted in extremely short battery lives. On top of these hardware limitation, was a lack of content. EBooks were common, but they weren't easy to purchase or move around and required various methods to utilize their DRM that made them difficult to use on eReaders. They just weren't a practical solution yet.

Then along came eInk. This new display technology is a bit like a digital Etch-a-Sketch, it moves pigment on and off a visible surface, only in this case each pixel is self contained rather than being a big box of metallic dust. The first few eReaders to use eInk were of course black and white, or limited greyscale, and there was still no solid source of reading material to put on them yet.

Then came the Kindle. started off as a book source, so they already had a huge library of books to work with, and by creating their own eReader they were able to get past the limitations of other readers and combine their resources with the eReader technology. Unfortunately, they were still expensive, and worse yet, the first few Kindle versions either couldn't handle public formats like PDF, or required conversion that often broke the formatting, jumbling the content.

But, the Kindle was a good device, and it became enough of a hit to cause a stir.

A few years and a few Kindle versions later, after seeing the success and potential in the market, a competitor steps forward. Barnes and Noble launches their Nook, an eReader utilizing their already massive library of books on top of Google's open platform, Android.

The Nook solved the remaining problems still suffered by the Kindle. Native PDF support, as well as support of various other open formats, without conversion, and without destroying the layout. The Nook features the same wifi and AT&T cellular capabilities as the Kindle, but also added a wifi-only web-browser and the ability to share books with friends. has recently added a 3G enabled web-browser to the Kindle as well. B&N's service also includes the ability to read books free of charge, provided you're connected to a B&N hotspot inside their stores, something is unable to offer currently. With a little work, you can even load custom Android builds into the Nook to add even more features (although doing so voids your warranty).

Unlike the Kindle, the Nook features a second display that grants it touchscreen capability, although I find their utilization of it to be minimal and not a significant gain over the Kindle's keyboard. One feature of the touchscreen I do like, however, is the ability to swipe my finger across the blacked out touchscreen to flip pages similar to a paper book.

The Nook's eInk display is nearly identical to the Kindle, with similar performance and battery life, although the touchscreen LCD does cause the overall battery life to suffer slightly by comparison. Setting a shorter screen timeout helps this.

B&N's book library has been fairly good for the material I read, although older books in certain genres (Fantasy for instance) are difficult if not impossible to find.

The PDF support is reasonably solid, allowing you to use the original PDF layout, or switch to an unformatted layout using larger, more readable, font sizes. I would like to see a true page zoom feature though, as currently the only way to "zoom" is to increase the font size, which turns off the original formatted layout and switches to the unformatted layout. Kindle has since improved its PDF support as well, although I have no first-hand experience with its functionality.

B&N has been really good about updating the Nook, and it's already on its fifth software revision. Each revision has improved performance, stability, and has fixed bugs and added additional features and support.

The cellular connection works fairly well, although I've run into many places, even inside larger cities, where AT&T's coverage is lacking and the Nook is unable to connect as a result. The wifi is handy in these instances.

Also unlike the Kindle, the Nook has a removable back cover with a user replaceable battery and a MicroSD slot for expanding its storage.

Aside from the slightly short battery life, the page turning buttons on the side of the Nook feel slightly flimsy and sometime have an audible snap sound as they catch the edge of the backing. The device is also prone to appearing to lock up when the battery is too low to operate; fully charging it before powering it back on resolves this issue however.

All told, both the Nook and the Kindle are very solid eReaders, and I would recommend either one to avid readers.

Friday, November 19, 2010

...Kodak "Fair Priced Ink" Printers (ESP series printers)

Kodak ESP Printers
Quality: 5 of 5
Value: 5 of 5
Features: 5 of 5
Overall: 5 of 5
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ESP 5250 | ESP 7250 | Black Ink 10XL | Color Ink 10c
Anyone who owns an inkjet knows how terrible ink costs can get. Kodak attempts to solve this issue with their "fair priced ink" printers, the ESP series of printers. The problem is, often times with cheap ink, you get cheap results, and noone wants to spend a hundred dollars or more on a printer to find out the print quality is trash.

I purchased a Kodak ESP 7250 at the beginning of the year for school, hoping it performed at least as well as my Canon and Epson printers previously.

I was very surprised, because it not only met, but exceeded my expectations of a photo printer. One of the common problems with printers that include the print head directly on the ink cartridge (as HP printers) is that the print quality for every printer in the series is identical, and often times lower than the quality of printers that the print head is part of the printer itself (Canon, Epson) but the Kodak ESP printers do a really excellent job with the print head on their ink cartridges. The advantage to this, is that you get a new, clean print head with every ink cartridge, helping prevent long term issues like clogging.

This particular model also features a built in scanner and wifi connectivity, as well as a color display and several memory slots. The printer handles the memory slots very well, and has nice direct printing options if you own a camera but not a computer (rare as that is these days).

It has two paper trays, one for small photo sheets, and a full size tray for regular or photo paper. It also sports a built in duplexer for double-sided printing, very handy for reducing paper. Another neat feature is the printer's ability to detect specially coded Kodak papers and adjust the ink flow, drying time, and color correction to get the best results. This works with any Kodak papers that have the grey or yellow bars on the back.

The print quality on draft is as good as I've seen on normal with all of my previous printers. The printer comes with economy cartridges which didn't last very long, but for replacement ink cartridges I recommend buying the large size instead of the economy size, they'll last a good deal longer and are quite affordable, in the $10-$20 range for each black and color cartridges.

The wifi was fairly easy to set up, although putting in a wifi key takes a bit of time, and both the printer and scanner work well over wifi or USB. The only downside I found was that the scanner over wifi requires using Kodak's utility, while over USB any scanning software works fine.

All in all, I'm very happy with these new printers. While the ink isn't lasting quite as long as the pricier inks, they're much more affordable even after considering the couple extra cartridges a year you may need.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

...Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit (2010)

Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit (2010)
Visual: 5 of 5
Custom: 2 of 5
Realism: 5 of 5
Controls: 5 of 5
Overall: 4 of 5
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XBox 360 | PS3 | PC | Wii
Received my pre-order of Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit (2010) today, and spent the entire morning and afternoon playing. This game lives up to the Need for Speed name and then some.

Although this is another game review, you'll notice that I'm using a different rating system. This is because I believe people look for different things in different game types.

I've been playing the Need for Speed games for a couple generations now, and this is definitely a rival for the most visually stunning, realistic and fastest I've played. The cars and terrain are rendered beautifully in photo-realistic detail with excellent visual effects and physics that match up well to everything that's going on.

The game truly feels fast, and while the ability to play as either the racers or the cops is inherent to the entire Hot Pursuit line, it really shines in this continuation of the series.

My only real complaint is the lack of vehicle customization. I understand it on the cops side, although I believe that could be done as well by allowing various styles to the paint jobs and various undercoats such as the Viper's dark green haze, but even the racers get almost no customization at all, a huge departure from other Need for Speed games. Basically, as a racer each vehicle has a set of factory colors to choose from and that's it. A few of the cars, like the Evo, are even missing a factory color or two.

The gamepad controls are solid, following the configuration of most other racer games and works well. The cars each handle uniquely and that translates into the gamepad feel as well. I really wish I could track down the official XBox 360 Wireless Racing Wheel since I play so many racers, but it seems Microsoft has discontinues it. Other 3rd party wheels have also been discontinued and are extremely difficult to hunt down, but I'd really like the official wheel due to various bugs reported in the 3rd party wheels.

The online Autolog feature is really nice for comparing stats and achievements with friends, as well as challenging them when you don't necessarily have time to be online at the same time. I didn't get to try the live multiplayer racing, so I'll end it here until I can find some more racers to join.

Overall, this game is a winner for racing fans. Both sides, cops and racers, have interesting and fun challenges.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

...Vanquish (Xbox 360, Demo)

Vanquish - Demo
Visual: 5 of 5
Story: 3 of 5
Controls: 2 of 5
Overall: 3 of 5
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XBox 360 | PS3
Alright, my first real game review, yay.

So, I downloaded the Demo of the XBox 360 title Vanquish and played through the tutorial and a bit of the game. In many ways the game is impressive, and in others it fell short pretty bad.

The game is visually beautiful, the model and textures look great and flow well together. The effects and sounds also work really well for the game, and the voice acting is reasonable, if a bit cheesy, considering it's just a game. The story starts off in a training room learning about your armor and weapons, which makes for a pretty nice tutorial that lets you get used to things without overwhelming you, and you're free to skip the tutorials and go straight to the game, which is always a plus.

The story itself is well put together, although there's complaints from the pre-release game reviewers that the game is very short; about 4hrs give or take. Personally, I don't mind short games as long as they're re-playability is high or they have good multiplayer. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to test either of these with the demo.

The game has a feature that lets you slow down time with a burst of adrenaline. It's kind of corny, and worse, you practically have to rely on it to hit targets at the normal distances the game has enemies at. I'm not sure it would even work during multiplayer because it slows down everything in the game to give you time to aim and make minute adjustments.

The controls for this game are extremely difficult to get used to. They're very non-standard, and the positioning of the buttons doesn't match up well with what you're doing. There's many places where I was struggling to crouch, move, aim and shoot at the same time (a necessity in this game) because of the odd controls. Hopefully the full version of the game will have options for customizing this, or have customization patched in quickly to fix the issue.

Overall, the game is pretty interesting, and if you can get past the bad control scheme and aiming difficulty, it's actually pretty fun. But you'd be just as well served with more popular titles like the Call of Duty or the Halo series.