Archive for the ‘Rants & Raves’ Category

I was really hoping this would be a better version than AC3 was. Unfortunately, I have been let down again. If you haven’t already read my review on AC3, check it out. I go into great detail about why the game was ruined. AC4 is more of the same.

The fighting mechanics are now boring, and consist mainly of blocking an enemy, then pressing X to kill them. You can’t attempt to fight and block at the same time, because if you do, you’ll miss your opportunity to block the enemy’s incoming attack, and you will die. Period. This game is all about defensive fighting rather than offensive fighting. It leave a lot to be desired in comparison to the AC2 trilogy. They ruined this game by redesigning that.

Free-run is still broken. The fact that you can’t differentiate between run and climb mode, means that you are constantly climbing shit when you don’t want to. It’s stupid, and another thing that has ruined this game in comparison with the AC2 trilogy.

Bugs are still rampant. I took down a fort, then a ship outside that fort. I attempted to board that ship before going to the fort. Game got stuck, and I had to restart the mission. Had a couple other times where I Had to restart the mission because the game was totally lost. Bummer.

I don’t care what anyone says, I think the naval missions are stupid. This is not “Pirate’s Creed”. This is ASSASSIN’S CREED. I don’t want to be a god damn ship captain. I want to do what I did in the first 2 versions of AC. I want to kill people and climb on call buildings and stuff. That’s all gone now, and is hardly the majority of the game. It sucks that you can’t play the game without doing naval missions. I just want to be an assassin. Besides, the naval stuff is BORING, and extremely slow moving. Taking down ships takes forever, and you have to take down tons of ships to be able to upgrade your own ship to be able to continue to do missions. I think Ubisoft should make a pirate game. People would love it, but I wouldn’t buy it. I’m not dogging the gameplay itself, because they did a great job with the naval portion of the game… it’s just not my “cup of tea”.

Lots of great new things in this version of the game, and a lot of other great fixes compared to AC3. But the attention to being a pirate has brought me extreme boredom.

Windows 8 Review

Posted: January 10, 2013 in Rants & Raves, Technical

Windows8I’m a Windows application developer, and I’ve been playing a bit with the developer previews and betas of Windows 8 over the last few months. I’ve been working with the Windows 8 release version since its release, to consider upgrading. This is likely going to be an extremely negative review, with not a lot of positives, since all I’ve seen is everything that is negative in comparison to Windows 7. I suggest you get some popcorn, or maybe an entire meal, since this will not be a short review.

First, I’m an early adopter of Microsoft’s OS’s. Many people bitched about Vista, which I actually found to be a far better OS than XP, aside from its extremely obvious memory leakage. It was more stable, and overall a better UI than XP. But then, I tend to run a very specific set of 3rd party software. I run mostly Microsoft software that is designed to run properly in the current OS’s. Visual Studio, Office, etc. I use very little external hardware aside form printers, some bluetooth hardware, external hard drives, etc. All these items were very compatible with Vista, and therefore, I did not have the problems with Vista that many other users reported. Lastly, I don’t use anti-virus software. THE #1 item that causes the most issues with Windows, of EVERY version, is anti-virus software. IMO, anti-virus software, especially Norton software, is a virus itself. If users weren’t so lost and clueless, and they actually read messages before blindly clicking “YES”, they wouldn’t need anti-virus software. User Account Control (UAC) helped this in many ways, then they turn around and blame Microsoft for the OS problems from installing some stupid search bar into Internet Explorer. End users are generally oblivious, and will install anything onto their computers, because they just assume everything is OK to install. The fact is, the more crap you have on your computer, the worse it’s going to run.

Windows 7 then came out, and I was more than excited. It fixed all my issues I had with Vista, and finally brought us an OS that was far more stable, and wasn’t a memory hog. Also, by that time, driver developers had gotten past the hump of developing drivers for their hardware for the new driver structure of these Vista+ Operating Systems. Much more was compatible, and it was possible to use Vista drivers on Windows 7. I’ve run Windows 7 since the day it was released to MSDN subscribers, and have never been happier with any of Microsoft’s OS’s.

Now, on to the topic of Discussion: Windows 8. I have hated this stupid Metro looking (Modern UI) interface from the start. I’m annoyed by the loss of the start menu, and many other changes like GIANT buttons and other stupid stuff. Great concept, but some users don’t have any desire for that. I liked that in previous versions, I could disable the start screen and get the standard start menu, and I’ve wondered why they didn’t make that an available option in Windows 8. Now in the RTM, that ability is gone. You must use the start screen to do everything you want to do, which I find pretty stupid. I was so frustrated by trying to figure this out, that I actually went to Microsoft and opened a support incident to talk to someone well versed in all things Windows 8.

First, to educate all on proper terminology: The newer applications in Win8 are not called “Metro Applications”. Many people all over the internet are improperly educating people that they are called Metro applications, but they are not. Microsoft employees have been specifically told NOT to use the term Metro, when speaking of Windows 8 design. The proper term is “Modern Application” or “Desktop Application”. There are two types. What we know as a normal windowed application, is a desktop application, and these lame new full screen applications are known as modern apps. There are many arguments that these are or are not “tablet apps”, and the people at MS indeed confirm that the idea behind these apps is for “finger use”, or touch screen environments. That could be a tablet, or that could be newer touch screen laptops, and they also work fine on a desktop with a mouse.

Now, to explain the fine line between modern applications and desktop applications. Many applications that come with the OS that are on the start screen, are modern applications. One application that is both, is Internet Explorer 10. Personally I’ve hated IE for quite some time. I use it as a secondary for web sites that work better with it, but Google Chrome is my primary browser. I’m annoyed by the fact that I can’t start Internet Explorer as a desktop application from the start screen, without it opening up the modern application version of it. The only way to open the desktop version of IE is by having it pinned to the taskbar. I hate IE enough that I don’t want it pinned to my taskbar. This is easily solved by creating a shortcut to “c:\Program Files\Internet Explorer\iexplore.exe” in any location (i.e. the desktop), then right clicking that new shortcut and clicking “pin to start”. OR, you can go directly to: “c:\users\%username%\AppData\Roaming\Microsoft\Windows\Start Menu\Programs”, and create any shortcut you want, right in that folder. Coincidentally, going to the start menu\programs folder is how you also rename shortcuts within the start screen. There is no way to rename a shortcut on the start screen, from within the start screen itself. LAME!!!

What if you hate the modern applications from the start screen, and only want to use desktop applications? Just right click a tile on the start screen (make sure you have only right clicked ONE tile, since you can right click and check multiples at a time), and choose uninstall. This uninstalls the modern application version of that program. IE is an exception to this, as you can’t uninstall the modern IE without uninstalling the entire IE package.

When you bring up the start screen, you can just start typing on the keyboard to start searching for anything you want to use. A game, a file, an installed program, a news article, or whatever. This makes it easier than having to move to the right hand screen corners and click the search bar to start searching. However, this search routine is NOT capable of searching for the name of the program group in which a program is installed. So, if you install The “XYZ Program” and the “EFG Program” from “ABC Corporation”, and you know it’s in the ABC Corporation program, you cannot search for ABC. You must search for XYZ or EFG. Why they did this is beyond me.

Why the hell do I have to perform 132 different steps just to shut down the machine? Microsoft’s answer to this is that the Operating System no longer “shuts down”. Everything happens through hibernation, and sleep. When you click shut down, your computer actually hibernates. Microsoft’s shift in this area is to move towards leaving computers on all the time. They suggest changing the power settings to have your PC handle shutting down. If you want to have a way to quickly sleep or shut down your machine, they recommend setting your computer’s power button to perform that quick action, rather than having a shortcut to it on a menu somewhere. Another thing I find pretty LAME.

For those that aren’t familiar with what Aero is, it was an addition to Vista that caused window drawing to be offloaded onto a capable GPU, rather than being rendered by the CPU. This made windows operate more quickly overall. In Windows 8, Aero still exists, but they’ve scaled it back to become this 2D, flat, ugly interface with no transparencies, no rounded corners, and 2-tone lack of beauty. The explanation from Microsoft was that this is for lowering the number of GPU/CPU cycles needed to render windows elements. That’s great and all, and I get the idea, but I am working on an extremely powerful desktop computer with a somewhat powerful video card. I hardly need to save power in that case. However, I would love to have that option. If Microsoft had been smart, they would have tied these things to power plans, and allowed the user to select a power plan to change the look of windows. On a laptio, when I’m plugged in, it resembles Windows 7 Aero with transparencies, curved edges, shadows, highlights, etc. When I unplug and go to battery, it removes all these effects to gave GPU cycles, and give me greater battery life. Unfortunately Microsoft decided that it was better to NOT give people choice, and to give them what they thought was best… a disappointment in my eyes.

The start screen is definitely something that I love and hate all at the same time. I absolutely love the idea of live tiles, and at-your-fingertips information. The problem is, my name is not Michael J Fox (apologies for the tasteless joke), and I have exceptional mouse handling skills, and certainly can click on a tiny icon. I don’t need Duplo, infant sized blocks to start my programs. I was just fine with smaller versions of application icons within the old start menu. Why they would force this upon me, is confusing. Again, a lack of CHOICE from Microsoft. These tiles also cannot be resized if they are not a tile for a modern application. If they are, then they only get two sizes anyway. Large and small (rectangle and square). Even then, they are still tiles that are 4 times as large as my finger, no matter what resolution. I can fit all 5 fingers on one tile on my 22″ widescreen monitor at 1680×1050 resolution. That’s hardly an efficient use of space. Where’s my CHOICE to make them smaller? Very unfortunate that I have no options at all. But strangely, go to the all applications section of the start screen (right click a blank area of the start screen, and click all apps at the bottom right), and it’s small icons with titles next to them. Interesting change.

Live tiles are awesome, but why is it that ONLY Windows Store, Modern UI apps can have live tiles? Why can’t an application be a desktop version, and have a live tile? Why can’t I build an app for my end users, and give them a live tile, without it having to go through the windows store. My applications are, after all, privately developed and privately used only by employees of this company. I find it extremely odd that this requirement exists.

Modern apps can be shown to you in two ways: full screen, or docked. full screen lets you only see that application, and nothing else. You can’t put anything on top of it to see two things at once. You can drag it to the right of left of the screen (if you are using a widescreen monitor) and then run a desktop application in a square resolution, or another modern UI app, but that’s it. It’s like taking a step back to the days of DOS, and giving you the ability to switch back and forth between DOS applications. Wow, what innovation. Now, for a tablet, this makes perfect sense. For a desktop, it makes absolutely no sense at all. I would literally never use any of these modern applications. Even the new version of Skype is absolutely terrible in this modern mode. I prefer the desktop version of skype, and will never consider anything else.

What I want it CHOICE! I want the choice to use the start screen, or the start menu. To use only desktop apps, or modern apps. The choice to launch a desktop version of an app from the start screen, or the choice to launch a modern UI app from the taskbar. I have started using Start8 from StarDock Software, which is a fabulous solution for these problems, and a steal at only $4.99 for the full version. The only thing this application doesn’t give is the ability to better customize the Aero look of windows. This is nearly enough for me to consider upgrading my primary desktop machines to Windows 8.

Now, all of that terrible stuff said, most people are going to argue that it’s not that big of a deal. That I’m just complaining about a newer interface that I’m not willing to get used to. That I fear change, or something ludicrous to that effect. That couldn’t be further from the truth. I’m all for change, but this is one change that I really don’t care for. I’ve given it a chance, and every time I get back to my Windows 7 computer, it’s a relief that I don’t have to deal with that Duplo Blocks Windows 8 nonsense anymore. Windows 7 is prettier, cleaner, and just as fast. There are even many benchmarks out there that show games running more slowly in Windows 8 than Windows 7. There are no benchmarks showing a Windows 8 machine running better than a Windows 7 machine, aside from startup times, which is a joke since they are just looking at how long it takes to un-hibernate the machine. Do a true restart and there isn’t much of a difference between the two.

OK, time for some positives to Windows 8. I feel like this article has been loaded with shit talking, so now it’s time to point out the things I actually like about the OS.

I love that they’ve finally replaced MS Virtual PC with Hyper-V. This makes it easy for me to run smaller machines on my desktop machine, then move them off onto one of our servers that also runs Hyper-V. Hyper-V is more configurable, and a better overall setup than Virtual PC. Nice job Microsoft!

Multi-monitor support is definitely great in Windows 8, aside from a few flaws. I love that you can have multiple taskbars, and have each configured to have different programs, and then easily move the program from monitor to monitor, and it stays on that monitor. The annoyances I found were usually in animations. Click on an app icon on monitor, and the window animation comes from the start button location on monitor 1. But minimize an app, and it goes to the proper location. You also can’t run two modern apps on both displays, and due to this, when you have multiple displays, the start screen no longer scrolls left to right by simply moving the mouse to the side of the screen. You must click and drag, or use a scroll wheel. You can’t choose specifically which monitors you want the taskbars on. It’s either primary or all. In my case, I’d love to have it on monitor 1 and 2, but not 3 or 4. You can’t make the start screen span multiple displays. What in the hell is wrong with Microsoft? They definitely went half way on this multi-monitor support.

The new Task manager is pretty cool, adding the ability to see disk and network usage all in one place, rather than multiple tabs. I’m disappointed they took away the ability to see the activity of each CPU core. For this, you must use the more processor intensive Resource Monitor. The Task Manager also now adds App history, showing the usage levels of past running applications, including network usage amounts. You can now see windows startup items, and their impact on system startup. Processes are now better filtered by user, rather than just being sorted by a user. And you get an at-a-glance view of service status.

Reset and refresh is something I’ve wished Microsoft would add for years. I’ve always found it stupid that I must format and reinstall to get a clean system. Reset is the equivalent of taking a smartphone and resetting it to factory defaults, deleting all user specific data. Refresh removes all programs, but no personal data. This is a feature that IT departments will LOVE.

Windows to go is awesome, and it’s great to be able to have a small version of windows on a jump drive. Another feature that IT departments will love. Especially companies that use secure rooms for working on government projects. Long ago when I worked for Hughes Aircraft, they would install windows on Jaz (1GB) disks, and they would remove those disks each day and put them in a locked cabinet, in a locked safe, within a locked room. Each employee could use a different or same computer each day, and just drop in their Jaz disk. Now it’s all in a keychain. This even means you could have your own computer on your keys, and when you show up at a friend’s house, you can just boot into your own custom copy of Windows.

ISO disc images can now be mounted, and not just burned. This will save me tons of time by not having to extract an ISO file to disk just to be able to grab a single file off of it. Being an MSDN developer, MSDN stores EVERYTHING in ISO format, including something as simple as Office or even just Visio. Now I can extract a single file from that ISO without having to install winrar or something similar.

That’s it for now. If you are thinking about taking the plunge, I highly recommend not overwriting your Windows 7 install. There’s a high likelihood you will hate the new OS.

Assassin’s Creed III Review

Posted: November 27, 2012 in Rants & Raves

Where do I even begin with this review? I guess I should start with saying that I absolutely loved Assassin’s creed 2, Brotherhood, and Revelations. I couldn’t get enough of them. Evenwith their minor quirks in the climbing system, and the occasional frustration with some missions, I never grew tired of the games by the time I was finished. I was wishing the story would go on, and I would have paid money to download more DLC’s had they been available. They were fabulous games that had a gripping story, and even better characters even with the occasional cheese. I never played the original Assassin’s Creed, but my understanding is that it was also a very good game, just not nearly as cool as the following 3.

Now, on to Assassin’s Creed III. I pre-ordered the game the absolutely second it was announced and could be reserved at Game Stop. I knew that I would love it the second it came out. I was even crazy enough to go to the midnight release and stand in a line for 20 minutes to be one of the first to get home and play it before having to go to bed on a work night. Needless to say, I was excited. My wife too. She’s played the games since the beginning, and was the one who got me into them in the first place.

I had the understanding that AC3 would have many changes to it. Climbing would be different, combat would be different, and biggest of all, it would be set in the time of revolutionary America. That said, I will continue on to why I think AC3 is the WORST of all of the AC games that I have played.

First, the game is rife with glitches and bugs all over the place. There are so many, that I can’t even begin to name them all as I played the game. Once I had to restart a mission because I had assassinated 2 guys in a ship, and the game thought the 2 guys were still alive, which wouldn’t allow me to go incognito so I could continue. What frustration that has never happened in any of the previous games. While playing Sleeping Dogs recently, I kept saying how much fun the game was even though it was so glitchy. I constantly compared it to the AC games, saying how non-glitchy they were, and how I thought the Sleeping Dogs developers could have done better. I honestly now think that AC3 is as glitchy as Sleeping Dogs, if not more so.

Now, don’t let that distract from the fact that this is still a very great game, and a lot of fun. I finished it a few days ago after giving up to wait for their SECOND patch since release, which was supposed to fix a bunch of bugs, and it did. Now, on to all the rest of the crap that really pisses me off about this game.

Free run: Free run used to require you to hold the right trigger and A (Xbox 360) at the same time. right trigger allowed you to run, and A allowed you to do the climbing or jumps and other special moves in the middle of climbing. This was redesigned and replaced with a BORING, non-technical version of the free run system. Now you just hold the right trigger, which causes you to run and climb. There are numerous problems with this, including the fact that it now causes you to climb when you don’t mean to climb. Get too close to the edge of a building while chasing someone down within one of the cities, and the character starts to climb, causing you to lose your target, and having to restart the memory. There is no longer a way to run without climbing. And now while climbing, there is absolutely no interaction to climbing like there used to be. You just press up, and he climbs. No special tricks or moves to long jump. Also, their claim that you won’t jump to your death while holding the right trigger, is absolutely not true. It’s true maybe 90% of the time, but I killed myself many times by falling off of rock cliffs and not using the A button even once. This redesign of the free run system made things worse in this game, and made it less involved. It also created many situations where you’d be hanging on the edge of a roof, and he simply would not climb on to the top of that roof. You’d have to move around to the other side of the building to get on top. This made me give up on chasing almanac pages because often the climbing system just didn’t work as well as older games.

Combat: Combat is still pretty cool in this version, but has been seriously dumbed down much like free run. It’s no longer a button masher, like it used to be. In the past you could just mash X and still win a battle, but you also had the capability to be a bit more calculating and use your special “trained” moves. You were actually taught how to do certain moves with certain button combinations and timings, which made the game a ton of fun. Going back to training made it easy to re-learn the moves you had forgotten after long periods of non-play. AC3 combat is so lame, it’s pretty much just A, X, and B. You must hit X only when you actually are ready to attack, and you can’t press press press press to endlessly attack until someone is about to attack you. If you press X after the red icon pops up over someone’s head, you’ve already screwed up your opportunity to block, even if you are capable of pushing the B button to block, a thousand times before the character actually attacks you. This made combat very slow and frustrating. When 2 characters would attack you at the same time, pressing block took away ALL control from you, and would assassinate the two characters in style. The only problem was that you didn’t have any control over it. It was just cinematic joy, and nothing more. Often someone would attack you, but the little icon would not pop up over their head, giving you absolutely no way to block their incoming attacks. To be honest, this was a terrible change to the game, and made it less enjoyable than previous versions.

Health and armor: I seriously hate the regenerating health setup. It wouldn’t be so bad if you had the capability to carry around some extra health for those moments when you are in dire need, but that’s long gone. If you can’t do it with the health you have, then too damn bad. Try again. There are no armor upgrades that you can purchase from shops in the game, which makes upgrading your character non-existent. It’s 300 years after the previous games, and we have LESS than what we had back then. It simply doesn’t make sense. I would love to say that you can get armor by crafting it, but unfortunately I can’t say that I know that for sure since the artisan part of the game must be done at specific points, which I’ll get to later on.

Weapons: BORING, BORING and BORING. I honestly expected better weapons in this game, but I really only bought a couple through the entire game. There was no reason to buy new weapons as you progressed, because new weapons really weren’t much better than the ones you already had. Personally, I’d just kill a Jager, steak his axe, and run around killing people with that. It was one of the best weapons I had. Previously, you were excited to make enough money to finally be able to buy that $50k sword, or armor, or pouch, or whatever. In this game, not so much. Every time I went to a store, there was nothing worth wasting my money on. So I ended up with tens of thousands that I never used for anything other than ship upgrades for the Aquila.

Homestead missions and crafting: I spent literally hours after finishing Sequence 8, working on getting my assassins recruited and upgraded. Then trying to do all the side missions, and trying to understand how crafting worked. I had only done a couple homestead missions prior to this, but wanted to play more of the story first. After countless searching, and reading threads about this, it seemed most people didn’t understand how this was supposed to work, and why homestead missions wouldn’t always be there when you wanted to play them. Come to find out, that if you miss one of the homestead missions, and go on to the next sequence, there is absolutely NO WAY to go back and do those missions without either finishing the game, or restarting. I even resorted to calling Ubisoft and asking them about this, and I was told that even after finishing the game I wouldn’t have access to the homestead missions if I didn’t do them at the right time, during each sequence. This was not something explained by the game, and I think it should have forced you to do those missions before continuing on to the next sequence if they are so specifically time based. NEVER have I played any open world game that would let you do what you want to do, but penalize you for not playing missions in the order they determined, and not giving you a way to play those missions if you had gone too far. Come to find out that even the guy at Ubisoft was flat out wrong, and after finishing sequence 12, all of the homestead missions I had missed, started popping up. I am still working on finishing them, but damn they did a terrible job of explaining how to actually do the “Encyclopedia of the Common Man” mission, and that it had to be done at specific times. What a failure by Ubisoft.

Assassination contracts and delivery requests: In previous versions of AC you were given an assasination contract by someone telling you a quick story like “This one guy stole my stuff”, then you go after that person and kill them. Or One would say “Can you deliver this letter to my great aunt in another place?”. In AC3, this is slightly improved by allowing you to do the task whenever you happen to be in that area, rather than having to do it immediately. However, now when you accept each of these the person says nothing more than “Thank you”, then an icon appears somewhere else on the map, which could be even in a different city. However, the game doesn’t tell you where that new icon has shown up. You basically have no choice but to hit every single icon for deliveries and assassination contracts, because it’s difficult to tell what is the contract, and what is the task itself. It’s strange, and a huge loss from previous versions. Most people who have never played AC wouldn’t understand what just happened after a guy just says “Thank you”.

Connor: What a douchebag. It’s like watching Heather Graham in Austin Powers. Terrible acting and voice overs, and it’s as if the lines being said just don’t fit well with the intonation of the conversation. Other characters seem to have no problem with this, but Connor seemed lost and acted like he was better than everyone else all throughout the game. Altair and Ezio were undoubtedly not this way. Even Haytham was a FAR better character than Connor. They should have done a better job on his character voices.

Graphics: This game definitely looks much better than many of the past games, including people’s faces. They made a huge difference in the world, and made it look beautiful. My one big complaint about this game is shadowing. The shadows are the worst I’ve seen of any game I’ve ever played on the xbox 360, and I could probably even include the original xbox in that as well. The original Halo had better shadows than AC3. Shadows on people’s faces are grainy and extremely noisy. It really ruined many of the cinematics of the game because it made everything look so terrible. I don’t know how they got this one SO wrong.

Glitches: I ran across many glitches in this game. So many that it drove me nuts. The second update didn’t really do much to fix the game much. Here’s an example of one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q_3pRBvLJFo.

I know I’m forgetting something, but there are just SO many terrible things about this game, that I can’t remember ALL of them. I purchased the season pass when the game came out, so I’ll play all of them through to the end, as they come out. I hope they take the time to fix many of the issues with the game, because really it’s beyond terrible in comparison to the older versions. It’s as if a completely different development team worked on this team, and not one single person from the previous games was part of that team. Very sad. I know that this is likely the end of the Assassin’s Creed franchise, but if there is another one after this, I’m not so sure I’ll buy it without it returning to what made the older versions of the game so great.

Comments? Feedback? I’d love to hear it.

Just over 10 years ago, I bought my current townhome brand new, and wanted to have all kinds of automation in the house for lights and other stuff. I had a few X10 devices, which worked fine in my apartment at the time, so I stocked up and bought a few more before I moved into the new place. After moving in, I tried setting up X10 stuff, and it worked for awhile. After a bit, I started noticing lights randomly turning on and off. Then plug in switches started to fail, my fireplace started turning on randomly. Then suddenly, pretty much everything stopped. It seemed as if x10 items that are on the same circuit, work great, but if they are on different breakers, even if on the same phase, they didn’t work. For years I have used a simple X10 motion detector with the receiver used as an appliance module, to turn on my garage lights when I walk out to the garage. It works well because there’s no powerline usage. I was always disappointed, and I have a box with a few random X10 items that are brand spankin’ new.  Disappointing. So, I gave up on that adventure.

Several years ago, my boss came to me with a project to pick a home automation system for the new house he was having built. I looked at many systems from Crestron, to Control 4, to HAI, and other smaller names. Eventually, the pick came down to the HAI OmniPro II system, for several reasons. It can do most of what the super expensive systems can do, but at a much lower price point, and has the reliability of UPB. So, we chose the HAI system, and installed it in his new place. We integrated whole house audio, lighting on nearly every switch, security, video, motion detection, and blinds control. He has a button “Go to work” that will turn off all the lights and audio, open the blinds all the way so his plants get lots of light, and arm the security system. He had his basement done, and we wired in 2 outlets for a mirror ball, and a laser show. A button called “Dance” dims the lights very low, and turns on the mirror ball, laser show, and audio to a certain level. Unfortunately, we bought the system right before HAI came out with the OmniTouch 5.7e touchscreens which hook up straight to your ethernet network. He has a total of 6 5.7 touchscreens around the house, several scene switches, and audio in many rooms. I also have it st up so that when he sets the system to away, it automates the process of pushing his normally daily buttons… wake up, go to work, evening, go to bed, etc. Makes the house look very lived in.

Now it’s my turn…

Just recently, my girlfriend and I put a contract on a brand new house, that is being built as I write this. I don’t have the money my boss has. We spent nearly $15k implementing the system, including all the audio, and someone else doing the install in his house! So, I decided to look at other avenues for automation in our new home. After some research, I decided I would purchase an Elk security system, and couple it with an automation box line the Mi Casa Verde Vera/VeraLite, or the isy-99i. I ended up purchasing the VeraLite, and also a few insteon devices and PLM to communicate with the Vera. After over $500, and several days of tinkering, I came to realize that Insteon really sucks as much as X10. It was completely unreliable, half the time signals didn’t make it through. Even with a phase coupler installed, no signal would go across a phase. I had to have them on the same phase, and pretty close together. I even went around the house and unplugged both Plasma TV’s, and my UPS for my computer. No difference. While Insteon has dual-band capabilities, not all of their devices do. Specifically, find me a non-dimming switch for CFL or LED lights, that is dual-band. Sorry, doesn’t exist unless you buy a scene switch with a 15A relay in it. I was so frustrated, and jealous that my boss’ system works so flawlessly, I decided to abandon my project with Insteon, and set off for HAI land. I know the system well, and they are constantly doing updates that add new features. I returned all the Insteon junk, and sold the VeraLite on ebay.

After some more serious research, mostly to find the right vendor to buy from at the right price, I decided to purchase from http://www.discounthomeautomation.com (DHA). I shopped around on their site before I finally settled on what I would purchase for the system. Keep in mind, it’s currently March 2012, and the house will not be done until July 2012. I’m trying to not go overboard, but slowly collect until move-in day comes.

Here’s what I purchased from DHA:

3 HAI UPB Non-Dimming Wall Switch, 600W $175.56
1 HAI UPB Dimmer Wall Switch, 600W $58.52
1 HAI 8 Relay Module $55.86
1 HAI HLC Powerline Phase Coupler $49.88
1 HAI Extended Range Indoor/Outdoor Temp Sensor $42.56
1 HAI Omni IIe Controller with Enclosure $715.54
1 ELK AC Transformer with Ground, 24VAC 40VA $13.95
1 Interstate Batteries 12V 12AH SLA .187 FASTON $26.27
1 HAI UPB PIM to PC Cable $6.65
1 HAI UPB PIM & Cable $61.18
1 HAI Omni Console $111.72
5 Seco-Larm Enforcer Magnetic Contact $7.30
1 USP ST-1 Siren Horn Strobe $37.17

I also ordered a couple of garage door contacts from another place, and had the garage wired with 2 cat5 runs. One to the front, between the two garage doors, and one that goes where the garage door buttons are. That way I can sense if the doors are open, and shut them if they are open too long. I also plan on installing a simple on/off switch on a zone for turning on and off the auto garage function. The USP ST-1 siren/strobe will be on the wall with the buttons, to alert anyone in the garage that the door is about to close, if it’s been open too long. This uses 3 relays on the 8 relay board. A 4th relay will be used to control the fireplace, and the rest I have no use for yet. It was a $10 difference between the 4 relay board, and the 8 relay board. I figure it’s worth it if I need even one more relay.

Just the other day, I received the vast majority of my items from DHA, in an extremely timely fashion, with fabulous communication from them. Two of the items I ordered (one HAI switch, and the ST-1 siren) were backordered but would ship in 3-5 days. It shipped 3 days later, and should arrive today. Every item was brand new, in unopened HAI packages. Even the HAI system itself was factory sealed, and had the 3.10 firmware on it which has only been out for a few months. Bravo DHA! I highly recommend ordering from this place, and I know I’ll order all my stuff from them in the future. I considered ordering for surveillent.net because their prices are just slightly lower, but there are SO MANY negative reviews about them, that I didn’t want to take a chance. Even on ebay.

After hooking up the HAI system in a temporary place inside the house so I can play with it, program it, and more closely understand how I can use it, I decided to install one non-dimming switch in the kitchen to start testing. It was immediate failure, but I hadn’t yet installed the phase coupler. I decided to plug the PIM into an extension cord and plug it in at various places around the house. Failure again. I was becoming sure that the electrical system in my home was a serious problem. So, I did a bit of research, and looked into purchasing noise filters for certain devices, but it’s stupid to start buying filters without knowing what’s making the noise. There are many reports of people having a cell phone charger that destroyed their X10/Insteon communications, so I needed to test first. I found information on using UpStart software with the PIM plugged into the serial port of the computer. This is why I purchased the serial cable for the PIM. I started, then, by killing the power, and installing the phase coupler, and making sure it worked. Once that was done, I attempted to configure the kitchen light switch, from a plug in the kitchen which I had used the night before without success. Immediately it found the switch, and was able to configure it, communicate with it, and do whatever. I was excited! I started running noise tests, then ran around the house turning on computers, plasma TV’s, plugging in AC adapters, whatever. ZERO noise, VERY high signal. So, I moved the PIM back to the original outlet where the HAI system is. Perfect communication again, and even with all the electronics on. ZERO noise. I reset the PIM, plugged it back into the HAI system, and attempted to configure the kitchen light switch. First time it worked, and configured the switch! It seems that my entire problem was related to the phase coupler, and that UPB is definitely far more robust than Insteon and X10. I plan on hooking up a couple more switches in the house for the outside lights, but I don’t want to go overboard, as I have to remove all this stuff in a few months.

The new house will be pre-wired for a security system, which means all the windows and doors will have sensors, and there will be 3 locations for security pads, and a couple additional runs to other places. For now I just have one console, but I plan on buying 2 more, plus a few more switches, before we ever move in. The problem is, I don’t really know enough about what lights in the house I need switches for!

Additional things I plan on doing with the system:
-Doorbell monitoring and silencing (another relay output)
-Hot tub cabinet temperature monitoring for freeze protection
-X10 module for making use of some of the X10 stuff I have left, like motion sensors
-Garage door control through serial based RFID system
-HVAC control with HAI thermostat
-Carbon Monoxide detection

I’ll be collecting a bit more equipment in the coming months, and will be prepared to install this system in the house shortly after we move in.

Cobra iRadar Review

Posted: June 21, 2011 in Rants & Raves

I’ll admit, I occasionally break the law by speeding. I don’t generally like having a radar detector, but I do like having them for a long road trip. Last year, I bought the Escort 9500ix, and while it was a spectacular device, I thought it was a bit expensive ($500+) for what it could do, and I didn’t like that you have to have a subscription paid for each year for updates to their speed trap database. So, I eventually returned it and didn’t buy another.

This year, I decided to buy another radar, but I decided on a much cheaper one this time around. I purchased the Cobra iRadar after some reading. I bought it understanding that it’s not perfect, and that it has a ton of potential. I haven’t used it a lot, and I already have a lot of complaints. They are all items that can be fixed. Some are simple software bugs in the app. All my tests are done on my iPhone 4, or my iPad, but mostly the iPhone. I’m quite disappointed that there are no specifications for this device, as to EXACTLY what radar bands it is capable of detecting. Their web site just says it will detect “all radar and laser signals”. The only indication of exactly what it can detect, is in the app itself: X, K, Ka, VG-2, POP. Nothing related to laser detection.

I bought the radar and set it up in the parking lot of Best Buy. It paired right up with my phone without a single issue. I already had the app installed before I bought the device, so as soon as I opened the app, everything worked. Setup was literally 90 seconds. As I pulled out of the parking lot, I got my first warning. Right there was a cop with some radar. I also caught a speed trap on my way back to work. I don’t like that the blue light is on when paired with the phone. There needs to be some sort of indication that the detector is communicating with the app. This would be nice for having the app running in the background, and connecting to the radar from a pocket. This makes crowdsourcing work from a pocket.

After getting the device home, and really playing with it and the app, I started to find its problems. I have a simple K band radar gun at home that I used for some of my testing. When I pull the trigger on the gun, it can get speed within milliseconds. The radar takes at least 2 seconds to respond to my radar gun. However, I had it catch a cop using POP on the freeway, before I could see him. So it’s obviously got the capabilities.

My complaints are with the app itself. It’s nice, but far from perfect.

  • When receiving a radar alert, as soon as the signal disappears, so does the alert screen. A quick detection from a distant store disappears so fast that you don’t have time to mark it as false.
  • Even though you mark a location as false, it still makes the same amount of noise the next time it is seen. There’s no option to mute that specific alert. (i.e. a store, or a radar sign in your neighborhood)
  • The mute button on the radar alert screen of the phone, mutes the detector, but will not unmute it. The mute icon also does not reflect that it was touched, and that it has muted the sound. You must press the mute button on the detector to unmute.
  • It would be nice to have an option to only run in background when connected to the detector.
  • When on the map, every time you look at details for something, or leave the map, it turns auto-center-map back on, even if you turn it off. So every time you tap on a speed trap and look at details on one 100 miles away, it will recenter the map to your location when you return to the map.
  • When switching to City mode, the radar says “City, X”. Why the X?
    -ANSWER: This means the detector will only beep once when detecting an X signal. Not sure why that needs to be said, but whatever.
  • A speed trap known to me is on the map, but at a speed of 65mph, the phone didn’t warn me soon enough of the trap. If they had been there and using laser, I would have been caught. Detection should be sooner at higher speed.
  • It would be nice for the map to work in landscape mode
  • It would be nice to be able to browse the map and see traps in locations other than within your current location radius, like on the route for a 2500 mile road trip. I am about to take a trip where a leg of it will not have any data access, and it would be nice for that data to be cached in the app until the next time it gets data back.
  • What happens when I’m driving where I don’t have internet access? Do speed traps that are already downloaded in the app, still detected?
  • Severe lack of documentation. There is nothing out there that explains the features of the app. While many are clear as day, some are not. I haven’t been able to figure out if crowdsourcing is actually implemented and working, or not. I don’t know what the purpose of marking an alert true/false is, even though I know what it’s supposed to be in theory.

UPDATE July 20, 2011

Just got back from a nice long trip through Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and California. This radar detector is seriously awesome, though I did notice a couple of problems. I notice that compared to the Escort 9500, it’s not quite as sensitive, and therefore gives more realistic warnings of radar signals. The Escort would alert miles away from even the weakest signal, causing you to spend most of your time turning on and off the cruise control, or just ignoring the detector.

My trip was about 2500 miles, and I abused the speed limit the entire way. The iRadar detected every single cop I saw that was running a trap. And in most all cases, it warned me of the cop before I ever saw him. There was only one time that I saw the cop before he hit me with Laser.

I do have one issue with the detector now. It no longer talks to me to tell me what band it is alerting me to. Sure, I could memorize the sound, but I thought the idea was that the option to turn off voice is available in the app. Doesn’t matter what I toggle the option to, voice does not work the majority of the time. The first time I heard a VG-2 alert, I didn’t know what it was, because the detector didn’t tell me. But close to the end of my trip, one laser signal I got it actually said “laser” just like it’s supposed to. I will be calling Cobra about this issue.

Overall, for the price, I would highly recommend this device. Especially with its soon to come features.

UPDATE: 2-17-2012

Just got back from another road trip with just over 2000 miles. This radar detector continues to exceed my expectations, when out on the open road. It still goes off all the time like any radar detector when in the city, but when on the freeway, this baby excels. Due to it’s weaker detection capabilities, it tends to give fewer false alarms. 80% of the times the detector went off, we saw a cop eventually. In many cases, we were alerted in enough time to drop 15mph off our speed, and watch for another 15-30 seconds before we’d actually see the cop coming from the other detection. Likely about a mile. Not sure why anyone in the world would need more advanced warning than that. With the Escort 9500, it would go off several miles before we’d ever see the cop, and most of the time it would end up being a false alarm for whatever reason. Just because a radar detector can detect signals from farther away, doesn’t necessarily make it a better radar detector. It just means you get alerted 5 miles before you see the cop vs. just one mile.

UPDATE: 12-28-2012

I am still loving this radar detector. I actually just bought one last month for my wife, for her birthday. She loves it too. She really wants me to hard wire it into her car so she doesn’t have the stupid cord hanging down. Anyway…

There have been no updates to the app for a couple months, but honestly the app is now so good that the updates aren’t necessary. I swear, whoever wrote the app must have been learning Objective C as they went, because the initial version of the app was terrible, and today’s version is as if it was written by an experienced programmer. Well thought out, lacking massive bugs, and has tons of features that are actually useful. It even supports the iPhone 5’s taller screen. I love the detection capabilities when you enter an area where a cop has been recently.

My only issue I have noticed lately, and this must be due to the iPhone 5, is that when the detector is on and connected to my phone, it causes my car speakerphone to work improperly. I usually end up at a point where I think I’ve lost a call and can’t hear the other person anymore. They can hear me, but otherwise I hear nothing. If I turn off the detector, this seems to go away. Hard to tell if this is due to changes in iOS 6 or the iPhone 5 hardware itself. My wife has also said that she notices it messes with the bluetooth audio in her car when the detector is on and connected. But, she also has an iPhone 5, so again, hard to tell. I still wouldn’t spent 5 times as much money for a detector whose only additional capability over the iRadar is its ability to learn consistent radar signals based on geolocation, and mute them. I wish the iRadar app would give me the ability to mute radar signals in certain areas. Like places I drive with radar signs that I know the detector is going to go off, and it doesn’t matter whether or not there’s a cop there. Now, it would also be nice if it could mute a specific radar band in a specific location, so that if there is a different radar band in that area, you are alerted to it. Like laser vs. Ka vs. K.

I’ve been bashing my head for 10 days now, trying to get answers from apple about an issue with a new Mac mini I purchased. Now, I’m a techie. I come from the PC world. I’m not an idiot, and I’ve been doing this a really long time. I know my technologies, especially when it comes to something as simple as a SATA controller and its speed. As well as how to do the math to convert from bytes to bits and vice versa.

Within the Apple store, when configuring a mac mini, within the “learn more” link in the hard drive section, you come across this quote “All Mac mini models include standard Serial ATA hard drives with data transfers up to 300 megabytes per second” Now, if you’re a geek like me, you know that equals out to be about 2.4 gigabits per second. This is the theoretical limit of SATA II. If you were to look at the maximum of a SATA I controller, you’d see that it’s about 1.5 gigabit per second, or 131 megabytes per second.

Now that we have that out of the way, on to the problem.

I exchanged my 8 days old Mac mini for a brand new Mac mini 2010. In the system profiler, if you look at the SATA controller, in the window below you will see Link Speed, and Negotiated Link Speed. On my mac mini it is 3.0 gigabit link speed, and 1.5 gigabit negotiated link speed. Why? Because the hard drive in the Mac mini is a SATA I hard drive. I even called Hitachi to confirm this, AND Apple engineering has confirmed this. How can they get away with advertising it as something, then giving you something in the range of ‘half’? I’m waiting on a response from Apple about that.

Don’t buy a Mac mini. You’re not getting out of it what you should. And check any Mac you are about to buy, for any discrepancies between the Link Speed and Negotiated Link Speed, except optical CD/DVD drives. Most aren’t capable of those speeds anyway. Likely, I’m going to return this mac. I just know Apple isn’t going to fix it and make it right (replace the hard drive with a SATA II version), but I’m sure they’ll take the computer back and give me my money.Holy hell, and I was trying to give Apple a chance. I didn’t realize they hated me so much.

UPDATE: Apple’s response was “Sorry… you can return it if you’d like, but we can’t replace the hard drive”.

I recently decided to break down and buy my first apple product in a long time. I’m a PC, that’s for sure. I spend my days writing C# code, and designing windows applications.  But I like what the iPad can be, especially with its great battery life. So yeah, I bought an iPad.

So far, great device. Remembering that there’s no way you can do flash with it, there’s a good number of apps already out there that make up for the loss of capability compared to a PC.

Being the geek that I am, I am constantly looking at the app store to see if there’s anything new. I’ve started to notice lately how unbelievably horrible the app store actually is. Today I went in and saw the new urbanspoon app on the top lists. It says it’s in the travel category. But browse to the  travel category and look at all new apps and sort by release date, and there’s no new apps for the last 7 days. It makes no sense to me, especially from a programmers perspective. The other thing you can’t do is simply “view all” apps, and sort by whatever (i.e. release date, popularity, top grossing, etc). What’s wrong with that? I would love to sort by release date, and see all the apps released today. It doesn’t work that way.

However, I’ve turned to here: http://www.iphoneapplicationlist.com/Great reference for all applications for iphone and ipad. The only problem with it is that it is updated only once per day, so it seems.I tried to send apple support a simple email, but that’s not possible because they don’t have an “other” option when trying to contact support online. Pretty lame if you ask me.

UPDATE 6/22/2010: Apple has made several updates to the app store in the last couple months. They have added a bunch of ways to sort and filter apps. And an easy way to see the new daily apps. Great job Apple!