Monday, July 21, 2014

Google Now comes into its own while on vacation.

I and my family have just returned from a multi week vacation around the USA during which Google Now proved invaluable time and time again:

1. It became an essential navigation tool whether travelling by car, by public transport or on foot. Its accurate prediction of bus and train times was particularly impressive and it generally offered a choice of routes.

2. It proved invaluable for its ability to locate nearby services:  "OK Google where is the nearest Post Office" etc.

3. It magically extracted details of flights, car hire and hotel reservations from my email and provided updates and useful reminders such as "You should leave at such and such a time to get to this flight".

4. It provided weather information about our current location as well as our home.

5. It provided up to date currency exchange rates

6. It provided us with tourist information about popular sites near our current location the clicking of which would provide further information including reviews and navigation details.

7. It also provided regular updates on topics that I was interested in such as the World Cup well as updates on some of the blogs I follow.

Without a doubt the most surprising thing about Google Now is that it does all this stuff without any specific instructions. It just seems to know what information is useful to you at any given time. This is either very impressive or very creepy I cannot quite decide which but I will admit the first few times Google popped up flight reminders it had read from my emails was spooky.

Before this holiday I had been using Google Now at home for several months but it never really became an essential part of my life. I don't really need directions to the places I go every day of the week and Now's helpful suggestions cannot compete with years of local knowledge. When travelling however all this stuff becomes invaluable.

I use Google Now on an Android device so I got the full experience but there is a pretty good app for the Iphone which gives you most of the benefits. It helps a lot if you also use gmail and google calendar.  The Iphone implementation is not as slick as a native app but I would be surprised if Apple isn't working on their own equivalent. Whether Apple has data processing cleverness to pull it remains to be seen.

One minor niggle is that you really need to use the local name for services in order to get the best search results. In America you need to search for a "drug store" instead of a "Chemist" for example. This type of thing crops up surprisingly often but we have watched enough Holywood movies to generally know the correct American phrase and we got a few chuckles out of it. I imagine this would be a bigger deal in a country that speaks a different language entirely so it would make sense for google to include some form of local translation option for search terms.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Android Tip 3: Sharing a Folder between multiple users of an Android device

Android has allowed multiple user logins for quite a while now. This is can be very useful for tablets which are shared by family members. Normally Android erects strict Chinese walls between users preventing them from using each others apps and viewing each others files. This is a useful security feature and ensures your kids don't mess up your work spreadsheets when screwing around on the tablet and should also prevent them from buying €1,000 worth of Clash of Candy coins on your account. Sometimes however you really do want to share stuff with other users and this can prove surprisingly difficult. For example on a recent holiday I realised that I wanted to share a folder full of travel documents with my wife. Here are some ways to achieve this.

1. If you have guaranteed internet access  then you can create a shared folder on either Dropbox or Google drive. Either of these has the great advantage of being able to access the files on any device and the great disadvantage of being useless without an internet connection. Neither Dropbox nor Google drive keep offline copies of files on Android. PS in my opinion Google Drive is better for folder sharing than Drop box. It is slightly more fiddly to set up but if gives you more control - you can set up read only sharing for example.

2. If you don't have internet access then things get a lot trickier. You could share a folder in Dropbox and use Folder Downloader for Dropbox to create separate offline copies. this does work but if both users are on the same tablet you are using twice the storage space and the two folders will not remain in sync if anyone makes changes.

3. The holy grail of file sharing is a common folder that both users can access. Android doesn't advertise such a feature but am XDA contributor called BigJArm found one called android/obb. This is a system folder that every user has read write access to. If you stick a folder in there everyone using the device can use it. Here are some quick instructions on how to set this up:

1. WARNING: This is an unsupported, undocumented use of Android so use at your own risk. I have not encountered any issues myself but I recommend making sure that any files you put in here are duplicated somewhere else just in case that directory gets deleted or otherwise rendered inaccessible in any updates to Android. According to this post an OBB is an obscure binary blob, an encrypted package of files that some apps use for storing data.

2. You will need a file manager to do any work on files so grab ES File Explorer from the Google Play Store.

3. Navigate to sdcard/Android/obb.

4. Ignore all the stuff in there and create a new folder using the "+" button at the bottom of the screen. Why not call it "Shared Folder"?

5. Copy or move any  files and folders you want into this new shared folder and every user on the device will have read write access to them.

6. I recommend that each user creates a desktop shortcut to this shared folder using ES File Explorer as explained in this tip: How to put a folder short-cut on your home screen


Note: I don't have a good method of sharing apps between users on the one device even though I know this could be useful. For free apps you may as well just download multiple copies from the store. I do not recommend adding your account to someone else's log in just to share paid apps. This will give that person full access to everything on your account including email, calendar and Google drive. If you are going to do that why bother using a separate log in? One approach that might work to share paid apps like games with family members would be to create a brand new Google account for the family and use it to purchase apps you want to share. You could then add this account login to each family member's login via the Android accounts menu under Settings (edit: but don't because you would be breaking the terms of Google Play - see below) . Android is nice that way,  it allows you to be logged into multiple Google accounts at the same time. Of course this could leave you open to your kids racking up bills on your credit card and it may be contrary to Google's terms of service. I haven't tried it myself so I do not know.

EDIT: I looked for a reference to account sharing in Google's terms of use and it is pretty clear cut in the Google Play terms and conditions:
Sharing. You may not use Products as part of any service for sharing, lending or multi-person use, or for the purpose of any other institution (including, without limitation, libraries), except as specifically permitted and only in the exact manner specified and enabled by Google (for example, through "Social Recommendations").

Note this post is part of a short series of Android tips on working with files and folders. I will be travelling for a while with patchy internet and I needed to get more intimate than usual with the Android file system to make sure I can still access the stuff I need while I am away. I have decided to post the tricks I find for my own future reference and for others who may need to do the same. Separate posts used for each tip to facilitate searching:  Android Tips


Android Tip 2. Put a shortcut to a folder on your home screen

Apps are all very well but sometimes you just need a short-cut to a bunch of files in a folder. Android doesn't have any built in method of doing this so you need to rely on a third party app. The one most commonly recommended for this purpose these days seems to be ES File Explorer. This is a powerful file manager so chances are you will find lots of other uses for it but here are quick instructions on how to use ES file manager to create a short-cut to an Android folder on your home screen.

1. Grab ES File Explorer File Manager from the Google Play store.
2. Make sure you have place on your home screen for at least one standard size icon before you begin.
3. Run ES File Explorer and navigate to the folder you wish to create a short-cut to.
4. Long press the folder (it should highlight with a tick).
5. From the menu at the bottom of the screen select "More".
6. Press "Add to Desktop"   and you are done.
7. Go back to your home screen and the short-cut should be there. Pressing it will launch ES file explorer and display the contents of that folder.
8. Remember this is just a short-cut. You can safely move or delete the short-cut without affecting the files in the folder itself.

Note this post is part of a short series of Android tips on working with files and folders. I will be travelling for a while with patchy internet and I needed to get more intimate than usual with the Android file system to make sure I can still access the stuff I need while I am away. I have decided to post the tricks I find for my own future reference and for others who may need to do the same. Separate posts used for each tip to facilitate searching:  Android Tips

Android Tip 1. Download a Dropbox folder for offline access

Dropbox and Google drive are great for storing stuff if you have an internet connection but both of them use cloud storage and only download a temporary versions of files when you access them. Sometimes it is useful to keep a permanent offline version particularly if you are going to be without an internet connection for a while. The app Folder Downloader for Dropbox does exactly what it says on the tin.It downloads an offline copy of any Dropbox folder.  The app  is straightforward to use and does not require any dodgy permissions.

1. Grab Folder Downloader for Dropbox from the Google Play Store
2. Make sure you have Dropbox installed on your Android device and that you are logged in.
3. Run folder downloader. Initially it will ask for permission to access Dropbox so say yes.
4. Now Folder Downloader should be showing you your Dropbox files. Navigate to the folder you want to download and click "Download all to".
5. The screen changes to your Android device folders. Navigate to the folder you want the downloaded folder to appear in. If you are not sure then why not stick them in "My Documents".
6. The download may take a while if there are a lot of files in the folder and some files make not download if the internet drops or if the phone sleeps during the download. Don't worry - Folder Downloader will tell you which files didn't download and give you the option to retry.
7. Remember the downloaded copy of the folder is not synced in any way to Dropbox. Any changes made on another computer will not appear in your offline download and any changes made to the downloaded files will not be uploaded to Dropbox. 

Note this post is part of a short series of Android tips on working with files and folders. I will be travelling for a while with patchy internet and I needed to get more intimate than usual with the Android file system to make sure I can still access the stuff I need while I am away. I have decided to post the tricks I find for my own future reference and for others who may need to do the same. Separate posts used for each tip to facilitate searching:  Android Tips

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Witcher 2: The trouble with Nekkers

I am having a love hate relationship with Witcher 2 at the moment. I love the detailed world, the gritty characters and rich storytelling in many of the quests. I hate ... well let me give you an example of what I hate.

Last night I started playing the game in the hope of knocking off a few of the side quests that had accumulated in my log. An hour and a half later when I switched off the game to go to bed I was only half way through a single trivial noticeboard task called "The Nekker Contract". Here is what that task entailed:

I got a quest from a noticeboard which explained that the woods near the town are infested with  Nekkers, aggressive goblin like creatures who attack in groups.  Geralt decides to put an end to this menace by finding and destroying the Nekker nests. The nests aren't marked on the map so I had to wander around the very confusing forest until I blundered across one. Witcher 2's useless rotating mini-map was no help at all. Once I found a nest I had to kill the horde of nekkers guarding it and then click on the nest to destroy it. Only that didn't work. The screen said "Press X on your game pad to destroy the nest" but pressing X did  nothing. The nest seemed to be made of twigs but various attempts at burning it did nothing.

So .. what I was  actually supposed to do was navigate to an obscure sub menu of a sub-menu where Geralt stores all the information he has learned about various creatures. Then, providing I had killed enough nekkers to get 3/3 knowledge about them I could read a line that says "grapeshot bombs are the best way to deal with nekker nests".   I am not joking about a sub menu of a sub menu - the exact process is press left trigger then select meditate then select the character menu then select attributes then scroll over to the knowledge tab and then scroll down to nekkers. None of this is explained in the game.

Now I knew that grapeshot bombs were needed to destroy the nests but I didn't have any and I didn't know how to make them. You might be lucky and it might be the first merchant you visit or you might be unlucky like I was and not find them until the very last merchant I tried.

Eventually, equipped with grapeshot bombs I went back to the nest, fought off the newly respawned nekkers again and clicked X again. This time I got an animation of Geralt dropping a bomb down the nest hole and "boom". It was destroyed.

Unfortunately I wasn't yet finished. That was only the first of four nests I have to destroy. I wandered around the confusing forest for a bit longer and finally got a second one but after that it was late and I needed to go to bed with only half the quest completed.

The Nekker Contract is a long tedious quest with ambiguous and arbitrarily obscure requirements. Thankfully it is the worst example I have seen in the Witcher 2 so far but some of the other quests have come close. I find myself compelled to compare my Witcher 2 experience so far with Dark Souls. I loved Dark Souls and it had plenty of long obscure and ambiguous tasks.  However there are differences. In Dark Souls these difficult tasks are absolutely central to the challenge of the game. Completing such a task in Dark Souls brings a major reward such as rare weapon or access to a new area of the game. The Nekker Contract in the Witcher is a completely optional side-quest whose only reward is a handful of experience points.

To be honest at this stage after playing the Witcher 2 for about twenty hours I feel like I have been the victim of a Bait and Switch exercise. I was immediately hooked by an opening sequence that is worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster. Out hero is in chains and subject to interrogation, through his recollection we experience  rapid succession of dramatic events: a sexual encounter with a beautiful woman, a massive castle siege and subsequent assault, an encounter with a dragon. After that roller-coaster ride it is quite a comedown to get bogged down in a forest searching for vermin nests. Admittedly there have been some interesting side quests including a boss battle with an octopus creature and cleansing a restless spirit from a ruined asylum. Unfortunately these exciting scenes are gated behind a series of tedious errand quests. Overall the pace of the game feels slow and it is not helped by how much I have come to hate navigation in that confusing forest. Hopefully later areas of the game will be more open and easier to navigate.

EDIT: I finally completed the Nekker quest last night (after resorting to an online guide to help find those last two nests) and I did get a schematic for a pretty nice sword as a reward in addition to those experience points. I believe the sword schematic is only given if you complete both the Nekker Contract and its sister quest the Endrega Contract which I had done earlier.

EDIT 2: To be fair I should also point out that the sister quest "The Endrega Contract" was much better designed despite being apparently similar. In the first instance the Endrega Eggs that needed to be destroyed were closer together and easier to find than the Nekker Nests. In the second instance instead of having to figure out and then track down an obscure bomb to end the menace the Endrega Contract requires you to fight two spiderlike minibosses. These were very challenging fights but at least it was fighting and I felt a sense of achievement from finally overcoming them.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

What I have been playing

Alien Rage: Am old fashioned corridor shooter with up to date graphics and great meaty weapons. What is not to love? Well lots apparently because it got mediocre reviews but I really enjoyed it. There is nothing very original about the game but so what? It is great fun.

To the Moon: This is more of an interactive story than a game but it tells a good story and it tells it very well. Be warned it's a love story and a tear jerker at that.

The Witcher 2: Finally gotten around to installing this and starting it. Twenty hours played and still enjoying it but I am still in the first settlement. After a very action packed opening with a huge siege battle and and dragon the pace slowed down considerably. I did have one boss fight with a giant Octopus but I found it more annoying than epic.

Age of Wonders: An old classic that appears to be one of the inspirations for Kings Bounty. There is plenty of clever tactics required and the game-play quickly distracts you form the ancient graphics but from the few maps I have played it would be hard to recommend this to a modern player over King's Bounty.

The Incredible Adventures of VanHelsing: A Diablo/Torchlight like game featuring the famous Vampire Hunter. It looks great and the combat is fun but like all of this genre it gets very repetitive. Kill monsters collect loot level up an kill tougher monsters, repeat.

Wolfenstein: Not the new one but a replay of the 2009 video game. I liked this one but then again I like most shooters. It has a clever combination of magic and shooting that gives it a bit of variety over other WW2 games.

Gears of War: Replaying another old classic. This is a great game and if I recall it is largely responsible for the popularity of cover shooters. It is not without flaws however. They story is really bad, so bad in fact it feels like they just didn't care whether they player understands what is going on or not. The checkpoint save system is uneven and some of the boss fights are annoying.







Monday, May 19, 2014

Call of Duty makes me feel so special

Having enjoyed Black Ops 2 a few weeks back I am now sampling another Call of Duty title I missed first time around: Call of Duty World at War. The game is enjoyable so far and being a World War 2 game it feels closer to the series' roots than the Modern Warfare and Black Ops games.

My enjoyment of the game was initially hampered due to my foolishly selecting a high difficulty level. Missions became exercises in repetitive frustration as I died over and over at each choke point. Playing in such a frustrating fashion reveals several of the flaws that have existed in every Call of Duty game since the beginning: The games give you the illusion that you are fighting huge battles along with many of your colleagues but in reality the only person the enemy cares about is you. Every sharpshooter and machine gunner on the opposing side will aim directly at you  a split second after you pop your head up and there is little point trying to manoeuvre to a hidden spot because they instantly know where you are. This feeling of specialness is compounded by the behaviour of your squad mates who won't venture anywhere until you go first. On top of all that there are many choke points where enemies re-spawn endlessly until you and only you manage to cross  magic threshold.

Turning the difficulty back down to normal made the game a far more enjoyable experience for me. I still die occasionally but I am making more regular progress and the flaws mentioned above are not so obvious when you progress through the game at a normal pace.

Would it be possible to make an enjoyable first person shooter that didn't make the players specialness quite so obvious?