When i was a kid, the MT-32 was the bee's knees of computer audio. At the time, you were limited to the Adlib FM (an 8bit ISA FM synthesis affair) or if you had parents that could shell out $900, the Roland. Unfortunately, I could afford neither at the time and eventually waited nearly a decade before I found this one at a garage sale for cheap.
So I've had this neverending quest to concentrate the embodiment of every geeky goal i had as an equally geeky child into a single space. Some of you may know this as a "man cave".
Here are a few pics of the Dos Attic in various states throughout the years:
- If you're a hardcore geek, the Droid is for you.
- If you're a java developer, the Droid is for you.
- If you like having absolute control over your device and don't care that the experience isn't quite as smooth, the Droid is for you.
- If you're anyone else (including the slightly less hardcore), the iPhone is by all means for you.
- If you like gaming, the Iphone is for you.
- If you need your mobile device to live harmoniously with your corporate network, the iPhone is for you.
Apps / Android Market vs. Apple App Store
Bottom line, the applications experience on the droid doesn’t come close to touching the iPhone with Apple’s App Store. Not. Even. Close. This is the take home point.
The main reason is quality. Apple’s stringent nature (approval Nazis at the App Store, closed hardware, closed OS, a single maker of all devices, etc) ensures a quality mobile application experience. Apps must adhere to certain rules, are rigorously tested, and for the most part work the same on every single iPhone in distribution.
Apps on the droid are a crapshoot. For one, not all applications will run on the droid (or any other android device, for that matter). The Android marketplace is a haphazard collection of apps that seemingly make their way in with very little in the way of review. The apps that do run will either crash (prompting you to force close the app) or look positively awful – as if they’ve been designed by children – from fifty different countries. Think of the first generation of iCrapps that showed up in the Apple App Store, and roll it back a notch or two.
Since Google does very little to regulate the apps being submitted, the Android Marketplace is experiencing the iFart syndrome – only 10x worse. The categories are dominated by stupid little craplets that do little more than play back soundclips from popular movies or show stolen pictures of scantily clad women.
Quality games are pretty much nonexistent. All the large big-name developers with dollars and talent publish almost exclusively on the iPhone. Don’t let anyone fool you – the game development effort does not even come close to 1% of the effort being poured into the games that run on the iPhone. The droid has the hardware to go toe-to-toe with the iPhone in the 3D gaming arena, except that few developers are writing any worthwhile games. And by few, I mean NONE.
The problem is three fold. 1. It’s hard to publish games that run on all android devices. 2. There’s no money in android gaming. 3. It’s difficult to sell and collect money for your software.
Believe it or not, the Android ecosystem has splintered. You’ve got android 1.0, 1.5, 1.6, and 2.0 devices floating around. You’ve got different levels of hardware capabilities. You’ve got vendors with specialized versions of their own handsets. A developer making a game would need to bake into their code enough logic to run under all the various phones, at various resolutions.
Recently, popular mobile game publisher Gameloft has indicating they are scaling back their android development efforts – indicating that iPhone game sales are over 400x greater. I took a brief look at some popular titles in the Android Marketplace and did a little math. There is one, single, solitary hit in the games section – a title called Robo Defense (a tower defense clone) by Lupis Labs Software. This game has sold 50,000-250,000 copies, and currently sells for 3 bucks. This translates to $150k to three-quarters of a million dollars at best. Doesn’t sound too bad, does it? Scroll down the list of the most popular paid games however, and you quickly find that most the other “bestselling” titles only have 1000-5000 downloads at best, with the majority of them clocking in at 100-500 downloads. Looking at popular applications are even worse – with most apps pulling under 50 downloads. You’ve got a lot of developers that have invested good time in writing software only to make a few hundred bucks.
Which leads me to my next point – its harder to purchase software in the Android Market. With the exception of T-Mobile which is starting to have app charges show up on monthly wireless bills, the only way to buy is with a Google Checkout account. This makes it cumbersome because not all users have a Checkout account nor could they be bothered to set one up should they actually want to make a purchase. Apple, on the other hand, enjoys a huge installed base of iTunes users already, making purchasing apps a snap on the iPhone. Not only that, users have the option of purchasing apps on their desktop and synching with their phone.
To be fair, the Android market does have one small thing going for it. You don’t have to enter any password when you download a free app (unlike the iphone), and after you tell it to download, it takes you right back to where you were prior to making your selection instead of dumping you back to your home screen (like the iPhone).
Which is not to say that apps are a lost cause on the Droid. There are good apps, even some equivalent apps to those that have been published for the iPhone. Popular mainstream software is well supported. You’ve got Facebook, Youtube, Twitter along with their ancillaries covered. There are also a lot of apps that you would never be able to find in the App Store. Obviously there is a lot of support and integration from Google – including Google Voice which was removed from the app store and not available for the iPhone. Also, there are already several emulators available – letting you run classic Nintendo, Super Nintendo, Gameboy, or Sega Genesis games on your phone. With 16gb of micro SDHC storage, it’s conceivable that you can walk around with every Nintendo, Sega, and arcade console game ever made loaded in your pocket – something Apple would never allow on the iPhone. In time, I would wager that DOSBOX and WinUAE (commodore amiga) emulators would make their appearances as well.
Mobile Safari continues to be the gold standard in mobile web browsing. Its faster than the browser on the Droid, it renders more accurately, and it supports multi-touch. Side by side, even with the faster network the Droid will serve up pages slower. To zoom, you have to double tap on an area of the page you wish to see in greater detail, or click on one of two onscreen zoom buttons.
The Droid browser does have two particular advantages, however. First is the bookmarking system. It will organize screenshots of the sites you have bookmarked very much like Google Chrome on the desktop. Second, the Droid will support Flash come 2010 – opening up a huge variety of sites (and Flash apps) that won’t run on the iPhone at all.
The email application on the Droid is functionally equivalent to that on the iPhone, though I am disappointed that it doesn’t make better use of the screen real estate given the massive resolution advantage. At a glance, it doesn’t give me any more information without scrolling than the 3GS. Like with the calendar, there is a separate Gmail application and a separate Email application (which presumably stores your corporate and other POP 3 email).
The 3GS contacts list scrolls quickly and smoothly. The Droid does not. Both have ways of skipping alphabetically through your list to minimize the time it takes to find a contact. Since the Droid contact list is synched with Gmail, avatars are automatically imported.
Contrary to what some people would tell you, the Droid does support integration with your Corporate Exchange server with the basic $30/month data plan. Email, contacts, and calendar synch without a hitch. Unlike the iPhone, the Droid has two calendars – one for Google Calendar and one for Exchange. This keeps your appointments separate and makes things a bit less confusing.
However, the Droid does not support Exchange Activesync policies (while the iPhone does). These policies allows your enterprise to dictate certain rules when connecting to Exchange – such as requiring full disk encryption, limiting use of the camera, or even issuing a remote disk wipe command should your phone fall into nefarious hands. In most cases this won’t cause a problem – unless your organization enforces these policies at which point a Droid would not be able to connect.
Media & Sync
Love it or hate it – if you’re on the iPhone you’re stuck with iTunes. While some see it as a pleasant unifying experience that ties all your media together and provides a seamless way of purchasing said media, others find it restrictive.
Case in point - 6 months ago I attempted to load an album onto my new 3GS that I had previously purchased on iTunes. I plugged my iPhone into my mac and immediately it wants to backup. That process takes the better part of 20 minutes. Once that was finished, I found my album , checked it off, and told iTunes to sync it.
Fast forward to earlier this evening. I managed to copy half a dozen albums onto my Droid without taking it out of my pocket. By running an FTP server on the phone, I was able to connect via my PC over my local WiFi network and just copy the albums over. Took a little bit of configuration but that’s well worth it when you can load wirelessly.
An hour ago I realized there was another song I wanted from my PC, but I was too lazy to get off the couch. Not a problem. Using an SMB (Samba) client on the Droid, I browsed over to my PC and copied what I wanted – all from my phone.
The media player on the Droid is functional and works fairly well. Everything is accessible via artist, album, song title, and playlist. Controls are easy to navigate. The iPhone, however, has the edge in this department as it has Apple’s iconic iPod interface baked right in along with all the goodies that entails (coverflow, genius play, etc).
The Droid’s integrated Google powered navigation system is every bit as good as a dedicated GPS. It supports voice commands and will issue turn by turn instructions. Since its all running on a smartphone on a data network, you have access to traffic data as well. To navigate, simply press the voice command icon and say “Navigate to xyz”. The phone will automagically launch the navigation app, plot a course and start telling you what to do – in the span of about 4-5 seconds. The Droid supposedly caches the map in the event that you drive through areas with sketchy network coverage. I can't verify this because I have yet to drive through any areas that don't have good Verizon coverage!
There are quality navigation apps on the iPhone but they a) cost money and b) are not as well integrated since they are after all, 3rd party applications. At the end of the day, either one will get you home (except you’ll need to spend $99 on a navigation app for the 3GS).
Moving from the iPhone, I left behind the enormous third party accessory ecosystem. The Droid on the other hand has two – a multimedia dock (which has no a/v inputs or outputs) and a car mount. Both mounts utilize a strategically placed magnet to trigger the Droid to switch into an alarm clock style display with the multimedia dock, and the car mode in the car dock (which limits your options to basic navigation and voice command input).
This comparison is insignificant. Phone cameras aren’t any good to begin with and both the Droid and 3GS persist the stereotype.
Output in full daylight is pretty even, though the Droid sports 5 megapixels vs 3 megapixels on the 3GS. I suspect that the difference in resolution is determined via software interpolation and really meaningless. Low light sensitivity is better on the 3GS, but the Droid has a built in flash. That automatically makes any flashlight application for the Droid infinitely better as you can trigger the dual LED flash rather than just light up the main screen at max brightness.
That said, I found the camera to be much more responsive on the 3GS. Switching between photo and video was brief, while it could be laggy at times on the Droid. Focus speed on the Droid is below par as well – I’m hoping a future firmware fix will improve this.
Video is captured at a full 30fps vs 24fps on the Droid, and is editable on the 3GS. I’ve found this to be a huge bonus in the past because it let me grab a 30 second clip from something I just shot and upload directly to YouTube.
My switch to the Droid was largely influenced by the desire for a physical keyboard. During my sordid mobile phone history, I’ve owned several Danger Sidekicks which remain (to this day) one of the best mobile devices for email and instant messaging due to their brilliant keyboards. Naturally, two years of iPhone usage left me yearning for little physical buttons to press.
The Droid’s keyboard is adequate, but still sub-par. The buttons are completely flat, making it difficult to distinguish one key from another from touch alone. The d-pad is handy, but is pretty much useless for playing games. Overall it’s still faster than typing via a virtual keyboard, but only just so.
Speaking of the virtual keyboard, I’ve found the 3GS to be easier to type on because each key seems ever so slightly wider. The predictive text on the Droid is better, and provide intuitive word completion choices. The keyboard is slightly laggier on the Droid.
Both devices allow the user to issue commands via voice control. The 3GS voice commands are limited to the scope of making calls or playing music. The Droid is limited to making calls, searching, and navigation. Essentially, both Apple and Google are sticking to their respective strengths.
I’ve found the voice recognition to be slightly better on the Droid, as it understands what I am saying the majority of the time. Perhaps if I enunciated better?
I’m not an audiophile so I find it impossible to distinguish between the two phones when listening through a pair of headphones. However, the built in speaker on the Droid is significantly louder and more pronounced than that on the 3GS. In the past, I never gave much credence to alarm apps on the iPhone because no matter how good they were, the iPhone’s built in speaker was never loud enough to wake me up. Using the built in alarm app on the Droid, I managed to wake myself up and EVERYONE IN THE HOUSE.
Volume control on the 3GS is a streamlined affair. With a few slight exceptions, it is a single volume setting by and large. The solid volume control buttons on the side of the phone let you set it and forget it. If you’re not sure, just put it in silent (more on the silent switch in a moment).
The 3GS like all the iPhones before it has a wonderfully simple silent mode toggle switch. It’s a physical switch that has two positions – on or off. Brush your finger along this switch while it’s in your pocket and you can tell right away if the phone’s on silent prior to going into your meeting.
The Droid, on the other hand really fails in this area. You’ve got a main volume setting but that doesn’t prevent the phone from making all sorts of noises. Several apps have their own notification sounds, which don’t necessarily turn off when you think you’ve put the phone on silent. The ringer volume is separate. The media playback volume is separate. Honestly, setting the droid to complete silence prior to a meeting is impossible short of smashing it with a hammer.
I would lean in favor of the iPhone UI. It’s true when they say a child can operate an iPhone – the user interface is that intuitive. Swiping, multitouch, and key navigation options make it a breeze to navigate around the phone. Like all iPhones before it, the 3GS really only has one physical button to interact with the UI (not counting the volume and power buttons) – and it really doesn’t need any more. Single handed operation is easier as well.
Scrolling and transitions is considerably smoother on the iPhone. There is almost never any lag. All animations (swipes, scrolls, zooms) are extremely fluid. On the Droid, everything seems to stutter once in a while and run at half the framerate when animating. I spent a week on the Droid and after powering up the 3GS I found myself missing how smooth and instantaneous everything is. There are times when you rotate between landscape and portrait on the Droid and it would either rotate slowly or sometimes not at all. All this is definitely a much better experience on the 3GS.
The droid has four “touch” buttons at the bottom of the screen that let you navigate back, show additional options, go to the home screen, or bring up a search dialogue. Along with other functions on the phone, these four buttons support haptics – they will buzz when you click on them so you know your button-press was registered. These four buttons can be annoying at times because they are very easy to press accidentally. There is nothing more annoying than typing a few pages of text in landscape mode and accidentally clicking the “back” button.
The Droid is limited to three application pages while the iPhone has eleven. These three “panes” are reserved for your most commonly accessed apps. On the middle app pane there is a drawer you can slide open to reveal all your apps. Unlike the iPhone which only has app shortcuts on its application pages, the droid gives you the option of having app shortcuts AND widgets. Widgets can vary in size and display interesting information such as weather, stock prices, battery/memory levels, and even # of pageviews from your Google Analytics account. I’ve got one particularly useful widget that lets me toggle wifi/gps/Bluetooth/sound/brightness all on one of my home screens without drilling through a mess of settings submenus.
On the iPhone you hold down on an app shortcut and select the “x” to uninstall. On the droid you have to hold down the app shortcut until it buzzes and then drag it to a trashcan at the bottom of the screen. However, this does not uninstall the app – it merely trashes the shortcut. To remove an app on the droid you have to find an applications screen under settings, select your particular app, and then select uninstall – way more steps than are necessary.
The Droid UI's shining star is the notification bar which goes across the top of the screen. At first glance it looks like an icon soup. If you hold down on it and drag it open, it all becomes clear. The notification bar is really a queue of all the notifications that your phone has issued. Meeting reminders, new email messages, text messages, google chat messages, and even the weather all queue up. This is infinitely more preferable to getting popup push messages that interrupt the context of whatever app you're in.
For those who require a passcode to use the phone, the Droid makes it easier by having you swipe a particular pattern across a grid of 9 dots vs. having to punch in 4 numbers on the iPhone. This makes it trivial to unlock the phone while driving.
Multitasking / Stability
The Droid is built on Linux and it shows. With several 3rd party task management apps you can keep an eye on what’s running, switch between applications and kill applications. For the most part, the Droid will handle memory management – you can leave multiple apps running and theoretically not experience slowdowns.
The operative word is theoretically. Due to the low amount of quality control given to apps that make their way into the Android Marketplace, I’ve had a few apps that have caused issues. I had one weather app in particular that runs in the background and updates a widget to display the temperature. One day the server that app pulled data from was down, and it ended up locking up the app – which in turn locked up the phone. I took the opportunity to call my phone and to my surprise the phone application was still running and I was able to answer the phone even though the unit was pretty much unresponsive. In the three weeks I’ve had the phone, I’ve had maybe 3 or 4 instances where the phone got unresponsive for several minutes, and one or two times where I’ve had to remove the battery to reboot the phone. Pretty much every time I was able to trace it back to a small handful of apps that were giving me trouble.
By now you might think that multitasking is more trouble than its worth. In some ways that is true; certain apps really don’t need multitasking. There are, however, tasks that make a lot of sense when you can run them in the background – such as an FTP server, AIM, Google Talk, etc.
The 3GS as we all know does not really multitask at all. Much like the copy & paste debacle, Apple is still refining that particular feature and won’t release it until its ready. However, in the time I’ve owned it, I’ve only had to reboot the handset a small number of times. Occasionally I’d receive a call and the phone app would lock up, which proved to be pretty irritating – however this happened very rarely.
There's nothing quite like taking 320x200px images and blowing them up to poster sizes. What began as an abundance of blank, unadorned wall space in my Vintage Sierra Cave (more on my unwholesome Sierra On-Line fascination in future posts) has exploded into all out 8-bit nonsense in 24x36 scale - prompted by a 40% off poster print sale at WinkFlash.
It was a little tricky getting it right. I took screencaptures out of DosBox of the title screens from Kings Quest 3, Leisure Suit Larry, Space Quest, and Police Quest - the low res AGI versions, of course. The key is to use zero anti-aliasing throughout this whole process. From the get-go, I set DosBox at native resolution with no scaling.
I then took them into Corel Photopaint and resized the screencaps to some unholy resolution that works out to 24"x36" at 300DPI. After making sure to save them in some loss-less format (I prefer PNG), its off to the printer they went.
Walmart has some pretty decent frames under $20. Will have to pick some up once these come in the mail.
Labels: sierra |
Back in the day.. way back before the advent of the MPC standard, those of us in PC Land were relegated the beeps and bloops of the charming yet limited PC speaker. Of course my friends with their Amigas and Apple IIGS's were light years ahead of the curve.
Technically not my very first sound card (that was an Adlib unit that sported 11 FM channels with very faux-sounding instruments), the Soundblaster (which was fully adlib compatible due to the Yamaha OPL2 chip it packed) was my first sound card with a DAC. I bought this from Sierra Online direct back in 1990 for $200 of my own hard earned cash that I had made putting PCs together at minimum wage ($4 at the time). This was the very first Soundblaster 1.0 they ever made, and hadn't really caught on when I had purchased it. It was truly an eye opening experience when I was able to record and play back digital audio at 22khz mono. Long before MP3s became mainstream, I dreamt of storing a digital library of all my music. Using a patch cable from my CD player, I was able to record songs onto my hard drive through the Line-In on the sound blaster. Unfortunately, with a whopping 40mb of hard drive space (and zero audio compression codecs available at the time), i could store 1 or 2 songs at any given time. Still, it was pretty fun demoing it for my Amiga and Apple II friends who lacked enough drive space to keep an entire song on their computers.
The first board bearing the Sound Blaster name appeared in 1989. In addition to Game Blaster features, it had an 11-voice FM synthesizer using the Yamaha YM3812 chip, also known as OPL2. It provided perfect compatibility with the then market leader AdLib sound card, which had gained support in PC games in the preceding years. Creative used the "DSP" acronym to designate the digital audio part of the Sound Blaster. This actually stood for Digital SOUND Processor, rather than the more common digital signal processor, and was really a simple microcontroller from the Intel MCS-51 family (supplied by Intel and Matra MHS, among others). It could play back monaural sampled sound at up to 23 kHz sampling frequency (approx. FM radio quality) and record at up to 12 kHz (approx. AM radio quality). The sole DSP-like feature of the circuit was ADPCM decompression.
The original card lacked an anti-aliasing filter, resulting in a characteristic "metal junk" sound. (This was rectified with the addition of two user-selectable filters in the later Sound Blaster Pro card.) It also featured a joystick port and a proprietary MIDI interface.
In spite of these limitations, in less than a year, the Sound Blaster became the top-selling expansion card for the PC. It achieved this by providing a fully AdLib-compatible product, with additional features, for the same, and often less, money. The inclusion of the game port, and its importance to its early success, is often forgotten or overlooked. PCs of this era did not include a game port. Game port cards were costly (around $50) and used one of a few expansion slot PCs had at the time. Given the choice between an AdLib card or a fully-compatible Sound Blaster card that came with a game port, saved you a slot, and included the 'DSP' for not much more money, many consumers opted for the Sound Blaster. In-game support for the digital portion of the card did not happen until after the Sound Blaster had gained dominance.
My latest sound card is a Razer Barracuda AC-1 that I scored for a princely sum of $50 off of Woot. At a glance, this thing boasts:
- Razer Fidelity™ gaming audio engine
- Razer Enhanced Sonic Perception™
- Integrated 24-bit / 192KHz S/PDIF receiver/transmitter
- Dolby® Prologic IIx surround processor
- Dolby® Digital Live 5.1 encoder
- Dolby® Headphone technology
- Dolby® Virtual Speaker
- DTS® NeoPC
- DTS® Interactive real-time encoder
- 7.1-channel digital audio playback
- Supports EAX™ 2.0, Aureal3D™ 1.0 and DirectSound
- Signal-to-noise ratio (output): 117dB
- Frequency response (at 24-bit / 96KHz): 20~20,000Hz
- Dynamic range: 116dB
- Total harmonic distortion + noise: -97dB
- Simultaneous voices: up to 128
- PCI 2.2 interface (burst modes and bus mastering)
- Razer High Definition-Dedicated Audio Interface™ (HD-DAI™ connector)
- S/PDIF in/out Toslink connectors
At 1/4th the price, the Barracuda delivers the same basic functionality some 19 years later. Yes, it does it better and cleaner but functionally they're pretty similar.
Here are a bunch of other cards I've had. From left to right - Soundblaster 1.0, Soundblaster 64, Soundblaster Live, Razer Barracuda AC-1. Not included in the photo (but I've owned in the past) are the Soundblaster Pro, Soundblaster 16, Soundblaster 16:ASP, Soundblaster AWE32, and Soundblaster Audigy that i've owned.
Labels: soundcards |