Game resolution issues

This morning I fired up Mario Galaxy 64 on my new Wii for some early-morning platforming. I happened to sit closer to the screen than I normally do. Yuck! The jaggies were suddenly very apparent and very distracting. But when I moved back to my normal viewing distance, the jaggies were gone, blurred out by my poor vision.

It’s no wonder that HDTV and HD gaming in general is not taking off as quickly as consumer electronics companies hoped – the benefits are just not that apparent to normal eyes at normal viewing distance.

Jaggies aside, Mario Galaxy 64 is great fun! A very smooth difficulty curve, and gorgeous graphics. Right now I’m working my way through the candy level. (I have seven stars.)

My initial Wii impressions

I finally got a Nintendo Wii this weekend. Wii’s are in fairly short supply right now, so I couldn’t find one at a reasonable price on-line. If you live in the Seattle area, here’s my Wii-finding tip: Fred Meyer stores get deliveries on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays, meaning that calling a Fred Meyer store at 7am on Sunday morning to check if they received a new shipment is a good way to find a Wii.

The total cost, with tax, an extra controller, and a component video cable was around $350.

I’ve got Wii Sports, Wii Play, and will be picking up Mario Galaxy this week. The primary users will probably be my kids, although I am very interested in trying out Mario Galaxy.

As a former Xbox 360 developer, I couldn’t help comparing the Wii to the Xbox 360. So far I give the Wii high marks for:

  • It’s small and quiet.
  • It starts up quickly.
  • The dashboard UI is very clean and pleasant.
  • The low-res (480p component) graphics are quite good. I did occasionally see jaggies, for example on the edges of the bowling pins during close-ups in Wii bowling. But the Wii encourages you to play fairly far away from the screen, which masks the lower resolution.
  • The Wii remotes are great! I love the new gesture “verbs” that are available for game play, and I found it much easier to enter text with the Wii than with an Xbox controller.
  • The TV station metaphor for the top-level UI is a good metaphor. It makes it easy to take in the available options at a glance. And the Wii remote makes it low-effort to pick the channel you want.
  • Having built-in wireless was a nice touch.
  • The Mii avatars are pure genius. Both the fun of designing them and then having them appear in the sports-style games. This is something that the other consoles should copy, and I’m surprised they haven’t. Maybe it’s patented in some way that makes it difficult to copy.
  • I thought it was a nice touch that I could name my console, but I didn’t see the name used anywhere.
  • My two three-year-old daughters were strongly attracted to the Wii dashboard and games’ graphics and sounds, saying things like “pretty!” and “I like it!” They never said this about the Xbox 360 dashboard or games.
  • My five-year-old son really got into acting out the moves in the baseball game. And he has not yet played real-world baseball. It will be interesting to see how he does when he starts playing real-world baseball next spring.
  • The UI of the Wii online store is very good. The Mario themed downloading bar is pure genius – you know you have a good UI when people enjoy watching the download progress bar.

Some things I didn’t like about the Wii:

  • The UI for pairing a second wireless controller to the console was hard to discover. (I will give Nintendo big props for pre-pairing the in-the-box controller with the console. I’m sure that adds cost to manufacturing, but it makes for a great out-of-box experience.)
  • The network connection UI gave very little feedback on why the network connection failed. When you test network connectivity you get a 20 second “testing” animation, followed by a cryptic five-digit error code. I had to make two changes to my router configuration to get networking to work. I would have preferred the Xbox 360’s UI, that gives more step-by-step information about network connectivity issues.
  • My three-year-olds can’t handle the Wii controller very well. There are too many buttons to accidentally press, and the required gestures are too complicated for them.
  • No downloadable games demos. And very few downloadable games at all.
  • The walled-garden Internet channels are pretty weak, especially the Everybody Votes channel.
  • Not many current or upcoming games that I want to play. After Mario Galaxy, I don’t know what my next purchase will be. Luckily, the current games should keep my kids happy for quite a while. (My son’s been working his way through Cloning Clyde on Xbox 360 for the past year, I can only imagine how much fun he’s going to have with Mario Galaxy!)

In conclusion, I’d have to rate the Wii as a much better “family” console than either the Xbox 360 or the PS3. And by family I mean “small children”. I’m lucky that I like the Wii’s UI and game style, because I have a feeling I’ll be hearing and seeing a lot of it over the next few years. As for my trusty 360, I suspect it will be mostly relegated to “Media Center Extender” status. (Although I am definitely looking forward to Alan Wake and I have high hopes for the next Banjo game. And I might get “The Orange Box” – Portal and Team Fortress 2 look like a lot of fun.)

Macbook Ubuntu Woes, back to OS X

Well, for what it’s worth, I’ve switched my MacBook from Ubuntu Linux back to OS X. Ubuntu Linux worked, but had lots of little problems:

  • The wireless driver worked, but it’s range and speed was much less than under OS X. For example, sitting on the couch in my living room I got 4 bars with OS X but just two bars with Ubuntu. (Now, of course, the two operating systems could be reporting the same information in different ways. But actual network activities OS X seems faster and more reliable.)
  • The connectivity to Windows file shares is much more reliable. With Ubuntu I could not reliably use VLC to play AVI movies off of a Windows Vista file share. The AVI movies would always timeout sometime in the first few minutes of play. With OS X I have no problem.
  • I couldn’t figure out how to get suspend and resume to work right in Ubuntu. As a result, battery life was not as good.
  • The trackpad never felt good. And a single-button computer will always be a second-class citizen in Linux.
  • The Linux UI experience wasn’t as solid. (The fit and finish, and how much flickering went on.)
  • The UI quality of add-on applications was somewhat lacking. And the use of three or four different UI widget sets was downright confusing. To be fair, OS X and Vista have issues with this as well, but in OS X and Vista the issue is a generational one, while in Linux the issue is a civil war: there are three competing UI widget sets.

So it’s back to OS X for me, for now.

A Paper Leopard

I am disappointed by the new version of Apple OS X that was released this weekend. The UI has gone backwards in several areas. In particular, the translucent menus are hard to read, and the default “space theme” wall paper is ugly. So far it feels like a service pack with a bonus backup program.

I suspect that Apple is suffering from the same problem that Microsoft was with Vista, namely  ”How do you improve on a very good existing product?” In addition, I suspect the company’s attention over the past year was focused on developing the iPhone, and perhaps not enough attention was paid to Leopard.

Still, I’m not sure what they could have done better – Desktop OSs are pretty much of a solved problem.  But I suspect that as the hype wears off people will start to question whether Leopard is a significant improvement.

Ubuntu Studio - nice idea, poor execution

Ubuntu Studio is a nice idea in theory, but the execution is lacking. The goal is to create a version of Ubuntu optimized for media creation by:

  • Bundling the best available open-source media creation tools.
  • Using the real-time Linux kernel, for reduced latency when mixing audio.
  • Using a desktop color scheme that doesn’t make artistic people ill.

The problem is that there are a lot of rough edges:

  • By using a non-standard kernel, the release has problems supporting wireless hardware, such as the wireless hardware present on my first-gen Intel Macbook.
  • By using a cool-but-low-contrast color scheme, the UI is difficult to read on a screen-dimmed laptop.
  • Some of the bundled free content creation tools are pretty weak compared to the commercial equivalents. (I’m thinking of GIMP and Blender in particular.)

The wireless hardware support issues make this a non-starter release for me, but I enjoyed giving it a whirl.

Never trust a Doctor on how easy it is to use Linux

I recently read a positive review of Linux by a man who said he was a doctor, not a programmer, and that he found Linux very easy to set up and use.

That’s great, but you have to take recommendations like that with a grain of salt. I’m not a doctor, but three of my siblings-in-law are doctors, and a fourth is a nurse, and one thing I’ve noticed is that medical professionals are extremely good at following technical directions. I think it’s a skill that comes from how medicine is practiced – you diagnose the patient, then apply a recommended treatment. Just like debugging a computer problem!

Maintaining Linux, like maintaining a patient’s health, requires researching a scattered body of knowledge and deciding how to apply a mass of conflicting advice. Both tasks reward careful study, and exact replication of the recommended treatment. For doctors this way of working is second nature, but I don’t think laymen will find it so easy.

Customizing Ubuntu 7.10 on Macbook

I’ve been tearing down and reinstalling Ubuntu 7.10 all weekend, trying to get wireless video playback to work well. Here’s my list of tweaks, all of which are unrelated to wireless video playback:

  1. I personally like the Edubuntu 7.10 distribution more than the stock Ubuntu distribution. Edubuntu has a nicer default visual theme and some nice educational games.
  2. Apply customizations from the MacBook Ubuntu Forum
  3. I just set up my keyboard so that the lower Enter button acts as the right mouse button.
  4. Make text better:
  5. System:Preferences:Appearence:Fonts:Subpixel Smoothing
  6. The Google Toolbar for Firefox has a bug where bookmarks won’t load. A work-around is to use the Synaptic Package Manager to install libstdc++5 and its dependencies.
  7. In order to get the keyboard “Mute” button to work, open System:Preferences:Sound and select all the channels in the “Default Mixer Tracks” list. (Hold down the Control key while clicking on each channel.)

I've Installed Ubuntu 7.10 Final on my Macbook

I was up early this morning to get the Ubuntu 7.10 final release. I used the Ubuntu torrent (1700 downloaders) to download the file, and had the ISO image within an hour. Pretty neat!

In theory I didn’t actually need to install Ubuntu 7.10 final. In theory it would be just as good to start with a late release candidate and apply patches. But I wanted a clean start.

I did run into an odd glitch during the install: the Macbook LCD display was corrupted when I first booted up off the LiveCD. I did a cold reboot and all was well. Go figure.

Comparing the Microsoft and Google tool chains circa 2007

About six months ago I left Microsoft for Google. One of the big differences between the two companies is the tool chains that they use. Microsoft mostly uses its own tools, many of which they also offer to sale to third parties, while Google uses mostly open-source tools. I thought people might be interested in seeing the differences.

Note that my experience may not be representative of most Microsoft or Google employees, because I was not working in the main-line part of Microsoft (I was in the Xbox team), and I am not currently working in the main-line part of Google. So in both cases I am not familiar with the specialized tools that each company has developed for doing its mainline work.

Here’s a comparison of the tools I used at each company:


Visual Studio vs. Eclipse 3.3

I give Visual Studio the edge on debugging UI and IntelliSense. But Eclipse has some nice features, such as showing errors in the scroll bar


C++, C# vs. C/C++, Java

Microsoft C++ is better than Gnu C++, and C# is better than Java. But it’s a 10% difference, not a 100% difference.

Build System

NMAKE vs. GNU make

GNU make’s better – at least it seems to take less code to implement fancy build rules.

Source Code Control System

Internal tool (similar to perforce) vs perforce

It’s a wash - they’re both very similar to each other.

Bug tracking

Internal tool “Project Studio” vs. Internal tool “Buganizer”

Google’s system has more integration into email. For example, if a bug is opened against you, you get an email, and if you reply to the email your reply is automatically appended to the bug report. Also, Google’s system is web- based, which makes it more convenient to use.


Outlook 2007 vs. gmail

Overall I like gmail, but Outlook does have one feature I really miss: I set up a special folder for all the “checkin mails”, that was sorted by name. This made it very easy to scan through people’s checkins. gmail only allows mail to be sorted by time, which is less convenient for scanning checkin mails. I’m pretty sure that Google gives employees more email storage space than Microsoft does, but I don’t remember the exact numbers at Microsoft. I do know that after 6 months at Google I’m at 1% of my quota, whereas at Microsoft, after 10 years, I was always bumping up against my quota limit.

Web Browser

Internet Explorer vs. Firefox

Firefox has some great plug-ins, such as Ad Blocker Plus. but IE had the edge on printing and stability.

Office Suite

Office 2007 vs. Google Docs

Office 2007 has a superior UI and far more features. Google Docs is “good enough” for programming docs, and I like the web integration very much.


Vista Ultimate vs. Mac OS / Ubuntu Linux

I like Ubuntu a lot more than I thought I would. I like Mac OS a lot less than I thought I would. And Vista is fine, too.


Dual-Proc Xeon x 2, no laptop vs. Quad-Proc Xeon, Dual Proc Xeon, Macbook Pro laptop

Google is more generous with hardware, especially in giving most employees their own laptops. And of course Microsoft only gives Mac hardware to people who write Mac apps.


Dual 1280x1024 21” CRTs vs. Single 30 inch 2560 x 1600 LCD or two 24-inch 1920 x 1200 LCDs

I love the large LCD screen. Actually I disliked the Microsoft CRTs so much that I went out and bought a 20 inch 1600x1200 LCD with my own money. For $800 (that was a few years ago, when they first came out.)

Office Space

Large private office with a window vs. Small desk in shared 8-person interior office. No window.

Having a private office is nice, but there are advantages to sharing an office with people who work on the same project. Google issues noise-canceling headphones to help reduce distractions. I’d have to say that Microsoft has the edge here, but Google is not nearly as bad as I thought it would be.


Overall I’d say the two tool chains are roughly equivalent. I found it pretty easy to transition. I was productive at Google after just a few days of training. By far the biggest qualitative difference is due to the giant HP 2560 x 1600 LCD monitor I’m using now. It’s wonderful to have so much contiguous desk space. To be fair to Microsoft, I believe that new employees at Microsoft are now being issued 20” 1600 x 1200 LCDs, and many programmers manage to scrounge a second LCD. But Google’s much more generous at outfitting programmers with hardware than Microsoft.