First impressions of Google+

So here’s the thing … I was until very recently a big time Facebook addict. I am useless at staying in touch with people and frequently get so into whatever project I am working on at the time that I completely forget to communicate with humans other than the ones I physically run into in the course of a day. Since 2006, Facebook has been solving this problem for me, and it has done a pretty good job.

I keep my friends list quite short (about 200) and by being reminded that people exist outside of my immediate vicinity I am able to at least keep up the illusion that I am a real human being and can function properly in life, without being constantly reminded to call / email / text message my friends and family.

But recently I have noticed a problem with Facebook. People are getting bored of it, and rather than seeing a constant stream of updates and photos, the tide is turning and I seem to be getting hit with more marketing material than ever before. Businesses are finally starting to understand how to operate on Facebook to get the attention of users, and sadly it is working. What used to be a site based on community, sharing photos and stitching up your mates by tagging them in photos where they are being sick off the back of a boat in Tenerife – has now become a constant stream of updates from my favourite websites and tech companies. Sad times, I’m sure you will agree?

Until last week, when wafting into the online world like a complete breath of fresh air comes Google+, a new social “project” from the dark overlords at Google. I’ve traditionally kept new Google products (and projects) at arms length, and made the best use that I can of their core offerings Gmail, Analytics and Search – but Google+ caught my eye. My feeling of apathy towards Facebook has been growing for some time, and by the time I eventually managed to get an invite to Google+, I was ready for something new in my online social calendar.

Google aren’t pitching G+ as a self contained social tool, but rather they are “adding some new stuff to Google to make sharing online more like sharing in real life.” – a pretty interesting approach to the online social world. The idea of augmenting all of the Google services with a “social layer” is one that is significantly different (at least in theory) to any of the competition, who seem to approach it in the opposite direction (closed community first, adding features as it develops).

So how good is Google+? Well the simple answer is – not bad. The interface is far superior to Facebook (IMHO) and the speed and performance of the site is certainly improved. In all fairness to Facebook, Google+ has far fewer users at this time and so you really would expect them to be able to make performance better. We shall see over time how this changes as more users sign up, if at all. At the moment, Google+ is exclusively filled with what the eloquent gents at the Angry Mac Bastards podcast would refer to as ‘New Media Douche-bags’, and although this has been noted by many, I’m inclined to agree. Only time, and real users, will tell if Google+ will be any good in the long run. At the moment it is far too much of a tech blogger sausage-fest for anyone to make any real judgements.

Also key to this will be the handling of business / commercial presences on the site. This, for the moment at least, is still being thrashed out at Google HQ – as no commercial entities are allowed to be a part of Google+ for now. At least everyone on there is a real human (if you class Robert Scoble as a human – I’m convinced he is a Rackspace cloud powered AI designed to make me want to spend more money) and the level of interaction and overall conversation seems to be pretty good. There are also some neat features (which have been covered to death on blogs far better than mine) such as Hangouts, Circles etc that give a fresh look and feel to the online social world.

So, Google+ has potential, let’s see what the real people think before we all jump ship. For now, I’m living in Facebook, Google+ and Twitter. So please come and say hello, I’ll probably get back to you but then again, I might forget.

OnLive UK Review: Game Service & OnLive Micro Console

With the gradual, creeping and painful march towards decent broadband speeds in the UK now well underway, the innovative cloud based gaming service OnLive has finally made its UK debut.

“The OnLive Game Service is a groundbreaking on-demand video game platform capable of delivering the latest and most advanced games instantly over a broadband connection. You can play on your TV via the OnLive Game System or on virtually any PC or Mac via a small browser download. The OnLive Game Service creates an entirely new way to play, watch, share and demo premium games from the world’s leading publishers.”

“Founded by noted technology entrepreneur Steve Perlman (WebTV, QuickTime) and incubated within the Rearden media and technology incubator, OnLive spent seven years in stealth development before officially unveiling in March 2009.”

Drawbacks to Cloud gaming in general

The system works very well, however, there are some obvious drawbacks which can’t be avoided and are not in any way the fault of the OnLive service:

  • If your Internet connection has a draconian traffic management policies applied to it – you are going to be out of luck. Initially, I had some problems with connectivity during the hours of 6pm – Midnight. Following a quick Google search I discovered that my useless ISP TalkTalk (soon to be changed when the contract runs out) was applying traffic management within those hours in order to cut down on the network stress caused by illegal file sharing traffic. As observed by some posts in another forum, this leads one to the assumption that OnLive uses a proportion of P2P (Peer to Peer) traffic in order to make the service work. Thankfully this situation has now been remedied following lots of abuse from myself and others directed at the official TalkTalk Facebook and Twitter profiles.
  • If your internet connection is poor in terms of speed, or has an unusually high ping time, you are going to have serious problems maintaining a solid connection, and in turn a good user experience.
  • If you are using the cheap wireless router that was supplied by your ISP, you may well struggle to maintain a solid connection over WiFi. Luckily there is a fix for this, simply use a cable and you will be back on the road to gaming nirvana before you know it.

Playing via Mac

Playing OnLive games on a Mac provides an excellent user experience. The OnLive software is a free download which provides your point of entry for the cloud based service. The software also acts as a driver, allowing you to use an XBOX 360 controller, rather than the more traditional mouse and keyboard.

Simple shortcuts allow the user to switch between windowed and full screen modes, and there is easy access to the various menus for switching between games and accessing the options available.

If none of the above listed issues are likely to be a problem, chances are you will have an excellent experience playing on a Mac. Connecting controllers for a more console like experience is simple, with OnLive handling all drivers and configuration seamlessly and without fault every time I tested it. Performance over a decent Internet connection was excellent, with barely any noticeable lag, fantastic graphics and almost instant loading times for games.

The OnLive cloud servers do an excellent job of rendering the games on offer, and visually they look almost as good as running them on a well specified PC, sometimes even better. Certainly the visuals are far in excess of what you would hope to achieve on the lower hardware platforms supported by OnLive. For example, trying out the service on the Mac Mini on my desk at work, which only has minimal on-board graphics, was a breezy and enjoyable affair – once again with little or no lag and excellent overall performance.

Playing on TV using the OnLive Micro Console

The OnLive Micro Console is a cheap and simple way to get cloud gaming on your TV. OnLive describes the device as “delivering instant-play, high-end, new-release video games to TVs. Now players of all skill levels can enjoy games from the comfort of their living rooms—instantly and on-demand—without ever having to bother with discs, downloads or updates. Whether you are checking out a demo, joining a premium multiplayer game or watching live gameplay from around the world, with the OnLive Game System it’s as effortless and as fast as changing channels.”

The presentation of the console is excellent and not at all what I was expecting. I think somewhere along the line I had convinced myself that OnLive was a plucky upstart company looking to change the way we game by disrupting the industry norms – because of this I was expecting a hastily thrown together device with plain brown packaging and the bare minimum of time and effort spent on it. I could not have been more wrong!

Right from the moment of beginning the unboxing process it was apparent that this was a high quality, well thought out offering. The box itself appears like a presentation case for a high-end luxury device, the inset areas of the packaging are perfectly molded to hold everything securely in place, the product itself is fantastically well thought out and the fit and finish is perfect. Attention to detail continues with the supplied accessories, where, unlike many more traditional competitors (Sony, Microsoft) the bottom layer of the box was carefully and thoughtfully packed with everything a player is likely to need. Included in the box was a HDMI cable, Network Cable, UK power block, USB charging cable for the controller, a rechargeable battery pack for the wireless controller and even the fallback if you forget to charge your battery pack in the form of an XBOX 360 style AA battery pack and 2x AA batteries to fit inside it. Every angle is covered and carefully thought through, and this is a huge change of direction in an industry where costs and margins are so sensitive that you are lucky to receive a demo disc in the box with a new console these days, let alone a HDMI cable.

The console itself is exactly what I wish all consoles were like. Diminutive in size, silent in operation and low on energy consumption – the Micro Console is a revelation. In an industry where cooling fans roar and competitors seem to start huge and gradually refine their industrial design over the lifetime of their products, finally culminating with something that a mere mortal can lift without the help of someone else, the OnLive Micro Console achieves a simple (Apple-esque) elegance that has been missing from the games industry for a long time.

This is perhaps an unfair comparison to draw, as the vast majority of processing occurs miles away from your front room in the OnLive server room. This means that the MicroConsole has the simpler task of interpreting controls from the user and relaying them to OnLive, and receiving them back in return and displaying video, and passing rumble commands back to the users controller. It performs this job admirably, particularly when you consider that the console only retails for £69.99! I managed to get hold of it for even less than that as OnLive were running a promotion giving the console away for FREE (£6 postage) to those who pre-ordered Batman: Arkham City. The hardware really is excellent value whichever way you get hold of it.

The controller will be familiar to anyone who has used an XBOX 360 controller before (it really is a homage to the XBOX design), legally different and with a few extra buttons thrown in for controlling the OnLive experience and menus, I found it to be very comfortable to use for extended periods of play. It does its job simply and effectively and I couldn’t fault it during my testing phase.

Negative points for the Micro Console are few and far between, with the only drawback being the lack of WiFi connectivity (likely to be fixed in a future release). This isn’t so much of an inconvenience, unless you live somewhere that makes running a cable completely impossible, and the connection over a cable is hugely more reliable than connecting via WiFi.

Game Selection

There are various options for users to purchase games through OnLive. The first game purchased (at time of writing) is only £1 – I chose Batman: Arkham Asylum as my first game, one that I had truly enjoyed playing on the XBOX 360 (from start to finish), as I thought that it would allow me to compare the performance of the two systems more evenly.

Following your first game purchase there is a choice of approaches:

  • Subscribe at a price of £6 per month and receive unlimited access to 100+ titles of various ages and qualities including the likes of Homefront, Borderlands, Batman: Arkham Asylum, Just Cause 2, BioShock and Deus Ex. This is a great deal, and something that is a lot easier to commit to for casual gamers than paying £50 per game for a traditional console. Subscribers also receive discounts on purchases from the store in return for their loyalty, bringing new releases under £30 in most cases.
  • Purchasing games on a one-off basis may suit some users, and there are plenty of selections available in the store to keep most gamers happy. New releases often arrive a little after their PC counterparts, so fans of 0 day releases need not apply, however – with a little patience “normal” gamers will get their hot little hands on games within a short enough period of time.
    OnLive Marketplace.

Wrap-Up

The OnLive service is seemless, similar in approach to XBOX Live in a lot of ways, often better and more responsive, with easier access to configuration (not that it is ever really needed). You can genuinely open the box, sign in and play, no loading times, no updates to download to games – this is a refreshing and enjoyable service that simply must have a future in the industry.

Negatives are thin on the ground, with limited support for multiplayer chat (at the moment it is in Beta) and the lack of WiFi on the micro console currently top the list. These are massively outweighed by the innovation of the product and service, with unique features such as the ability to view other gamers whilst in play, combined with future developments such as iPad and Android apps for viewing and one day playing games.