Thursday, October 29, 2009

Nokia E55 first impressions

The built quality on this is great, but not as great as the E51. For one the amount of metal has been cut down to just the battery cover and applications keys. The rest are just plastic. This may have to do with cost cutting as well as to reduce the weight of the phone. The E51 has survived many drops on concrete and I occasionally even use it when it is raining (not advisable as it isn't certified as a rugged phone). The E55 feels solid, but fragile because it feels too light and I would not dare it abuse it as I have done with the E51. Here's hoping Nokia will see sense and the successor to this model will feature a stainless steel body. I am sure many would gladly pay more for one.

The E55 is Nokia's first phone to feature a half-QWERTY keypad, and it does take some getting used to. I had to unlearn everything I ever know about the standard 12-key numerical pad to get to grips with half-QWERTY. This is hampered by the fact that I have growned used to the standard 12-key pad for the better part of a decade ever since I got my first mobile phone.

The GPS fix on this little thing is quick! I fired up Ovi Maps for the first time today and it took less than 10 seconds for the application to show my exact position! I even had Assisted GPS and Network-based positioning disabled. 10 seconds for a cold fix! This may just be down to luck and may be purely a one-off, but it still made an impression. I've decided to keep my SIRFstarIII equipped Navman B10 external Bluetooth GPS receiver just in case, but if the E55 can consistently get a fix under a minute, the Navman may never see action, ever again.

The camera on this is pretty good for a fixed focus lens. I dislike the fact that I can't disable the shutter sound. I am not into snapping people's fine bottoms, but it is irritating to hear the shutter every time I try to snap something. This isn't something I would use in say, a library or museum. I may have to download a software that suppress the shutter sound (anyone knows a good one?). Like the E75, the shutter button is located half way on the right side of the E55, a very awkward position. I wish that Nokia would allow people to use the d-pad as a shutter button like on my old E51. It makes for a more pleasant experience having not being forced to turn the phone sideways just to take a quick snap. It also makes it difficult to use the phone one-handed.

Finally the E55 is a speed demon. The only application that suffers is the built-in Gallery application, but Gallery has always sucked anyway (download a third party picture gallery and you will be fine). Feature Pack 2 on this is just wonderful. Coming from the trial N97 where it crashes about 5-7 times a day (that was before applying the V20 update) and is slow despite having not a single background application running, I can't tell you how much a relief it is to have something that is to have something that works out of the box and has yet to require a reboot despite more than 12 hours of installing, testing and customisation.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Nokia E55 unboxing

While the current trend and talk of the mobile phone industry is the touchscreen, here is one unit that does not feature one and that I am generally very very excited for. It is Nokia's first ever half QWERTY phone. Instead of a standard 12 numerical keypad, the Nokia E55 has a Blackberry Pearl-esque 20-key keypad. RIM calls theirs the SureType, Nokia calls it the half-QWERTY. Whatever the keypad is called, I have had my eyes on this device since it was announced early this year.

You don't get much with the E55's sales package. Just a microUSB AC charger, a stereo headset for hands-free calling, a microUSB data cable and some usual bits and bops of papers with legalese stuff and the odd manual. Well those and the phone, with a large 1500mAh BP-4L battery and 2GB microSD card already sitting inside the device's sole microSDHC slot.

One of the reasons why I am genuinely excited of the E55 - it has battery slot that is capable of accepting a standard BP-4L in a body that is smaller and lighter than the majority of none-smartphones. It is an engineering marvel. I can't see how Nokia has managed to get a 600Mhz ARM11 processor, 3.2 Megapixel camera, quad band GSM, dual band 3G with HSDPA, GPS receiver, digital compass, acceleromer, WiFi, Bluetooth and microSDHC slot into a device that is smaller and lighter than my trusty old E51, but they did.

Look out for a review sometime next week as I put it through my usual pace.

Nokia N97: the good things

After my initial bashing of the N97 you may think that the N97 is a lost cause. Not entirely as there are a couple of good stuff going for it. Whether or not they will sway your opinion on whether to buy one is entirely up to you. As is, because the N97 Mini has already been released, it is probably best to just get that if you are dead set on getting some kind of N97.

The reasonably high resolution screen is on the N97 is just lovely. It is legible under strong sunlight and has good response (the slowness you feel is due to the processor, but the screen itself is very responsive). The upside of using a resistive screen is the ability to use your fingernails, stylus and anything you have to tap it. During winter you won't have to remove your glooves to select. Having said that, I am more or less bored with touchscreens now. This coming from a guy who used to own loads of Palms, Sony Clies and HP iPAQs.

As said before the build quality is brilliant. Don't let all the plastic fool you. I dropped my trial N97 a meter on hard flooring yesterday and the the N97 remained undamaged. Even the battery cover stayed in place and that is easily the flimsiest component of any mobile device. The hinge mechanism is solid and I am sure it is capable of withstanding countless amount of sliding action.

The 32GB storage space is really great. This is what sets it apart from the N97 Mini. However unless you are planning on using the N97 as a replacement to your DAP and PMP, the N97 Mini's partly 8GB should do fine. Both comes with microSDHC expansion slots. With the N97 you could have a theoretical maximum storage capacity of 64GB. That is more than what notebooks used to ship with just a couple of years ago. But unless you are going to use the multimedia abilities of the N97 to its full potential, don't bother. You would be better off getting a N97 Mini.

It is nice to see Nokia shipping a large BP-4L battery. The 1500mAh battery also powers the E71, E90 and recently the E55 and E72 as well. It is Nokia's largest battery in its inventory. unfortunately the N97 is riddled with such an awful power management system. Unless you are a very conservative user, you will be lucky to go a day without seeing the battery die out on you. It is unknown yet whether the new V20 firmware improved power management but I hope it does.

The camera here is good (for a phone). The 5MP sensor is I believe the same one (or similar) that graced the N95 and N96. Personally I have no issues with having having 'just' 5MP, as fitting in more pixels on a small sensor and trying to gain those via an extremely small lens is just a futile effort. Instead of getting more details, you will just get more noise. Still expect to see the Megapixel race continue to ridiculous amount. 12MP camera phones are starting to flood the market, which is the same amount as my Canon G9 with its larger sensor, and even it is struggling with noise issues. I will post some sample pictures tomorrow, but as a summary the N97 is capable of taking good photographs as long as there are plenty of natural light.

Finally the sound quality is brilliant. The N97 is very much capable of replacing your average DAP. It won't touch high-end DAPs like Sony's Walkman X-series, but don't let that put you off either. With my IE 8, the N97 was just bliss. The sound is warm, with good extension on the low-end frequencies. Bass isn't too empowering, though there is a 'bass-booster' if you are a bass head. The equaliser is a standard eight-band frequently seen in newer S60 devices. Other enchancements includes 'loudness' and 'stereo widening' but those settings do alter the sound frequency significantly. I suggest leaving them alone. There is even a FM transmitter which allows you to transmit your music to a FM radio. Brilliant for those with vehicles. It is a bit weak though.

The new V20 firmware should be a boon to those who have decided to stick with the N97. You can't blame those who have sold off their N97 whilst waiting. Nokia does take a long time to issue firmware updates, which is very frustrating. The N97 is a brilliant kit let down by the poor decision by whoever who decided to ship a beta firmware with it. I have been using an updated N97 for the past eight hours and it is a massive improvement over the V12 firmware that came with this trial unit. It is still a slow unit (no firmware updates can change the fact that the N97 is shipped with a lowly clocked processor).

Should you get the N97? No. Unless you really really do want that 32GB of flash memory, get the N97 Mini instead. Is pretty much the same device with a similar keyboard layout and hinge design but with only 8GB of storage. It retails for less and comes in a sleek aluminium body - a far improvement over the plastic case used on the vanilla N97. If keyboard isn't important to you, then consider the 5800 XpressMusic which can be had for under £200 sim-free, wait for the 32GB equipped X6 or get the brilliant Sony Ericsson Satio. Finally if touchscreen isn't that important, then consider getting the now bargain of the century E71 or wait for its successor E72, which is due next month.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Symbian Exchange and Exposition 2009 showroom report

Had about an hour of free time to check out the first ever SEE09 in Earl's Court, London. Unless you are a developer there isn't really much to see that may interest the average person. Still in interesting event and one that I hope will continue as the now open source Symbian platform grows.

Sony Ericsson's Satio is a much quicker and polished product than the N97. It runs on Symbian^1 (Series 60 5th Edition) but with Sony Ericsson's usual custom UI sitting on top. The XMB UI used in the media section is just brilliant, about as smooth in speed as you will find in a standard PSP and PS3. There is no slow down despite the special effects used. If only the Satio had a bigger battery and native 3.5mm headphone jack - that would make this the perfect modern touchscreen phone currently available on the market.

The Nokia X6 is the sucessor to the popular 5800 Xpress Music. According to a rep, roll out will begin in November and will only be available initially with Come With Music (meaning that it won't be as cheap as the 5800XM). It feels much more solid than the 5800XM - not that the 5800XM is anything bad though (it is a bargain in today's money). Definitely something to think about if you are keen into getting a year's worth of unlimited (legal) music download.

The X6 in landscape mode. I can't say I am fan of U2 at all, but the sound quality is brilliant as usual for a Xpress Music product.

The Nokia N97 Mini is what the N97 should have been. Smaller size, better materials used and the new V20 firmware that is less buggy than the one initially shipped with the N97. Downside? Less flash memory, same slow processor and smaller battery. If you are dead set of getting a N97 forget about it and get the N97 Mini instead.

The Nokia Booklet 3G is just a standard Atom-based ultraportable or what the media like to call as 'netbook'. Still the built quality is miles better than the average Asus EEE or Acer Aspire One. I would say that it is closer to the built quality of a Sony VAIO or Lenovo.

The Nokia Bluetooth BH-905 stereo headphone is pretty expensive for what it does. The sound quality is ok, definitely not worth the money IMO. Get a mid-range to high-end IEM instead. Sure there is a microphone here, but you will look like a tit talking through that anyway.

Finally, this Fujitsu f09a device runs on the NTT Docomo's FOMA Symbian platform with MOAP UI, has a fingerprint scanner down the back and has all the usual goodies that Japanese consumers are accustomed to (GPS, 1Seg digital TV, 8MP camera); including a spanking 480x960 touchscreen display. All in a package that weighs less than the N97. Exactly the type of device I had hoped to have seen more on display at today's event but sadly this was the only one of its kind on display (that I've found). Such a shame you can't buy it here...

SEE 2009 kicks off today

The annual Symbian Exchange and Exposition kicks off today at Earls Court, London. This will be a very interesting event as it is expected that more details of Symbian^2 will emerge, as will the mobile phones that will be running them by key exhibitors Nokia, Samsung and Sony Ericsson among others. A host of devices running on the mature none-touchscreen S60v3 platform are also expected to be announced. In fact Nokia has just announced the Series 60-based 6788, a phone designed for China proprietary 3G network.

Other exhibitors will include ARM Limited, the designer of the popular RISC processors; the Edinburgh based Wolfson Microelectronics, whose audio chipset are found in popular DAPs and Texas Instruments, maker of the ARM-based OMAP processors.

I had no plans to attend, but depending on the time, I may just nip in tomorrow to have a look. In the mean time check out Varun (my Ovi Good Things treasure hunt mate)'s blog for more coverage.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Nokia N97: the really bad things

I have been playing with a trial N97 device from WOMWorld for a couple of days and despite very much wanting to praise it, I can't help but admit that it is a pretty huge disappointment with Nokia's supposed N-series flagship.

WOMWorld provided the device as part of an Ovi Maps 3 The Good Things event (I'll write about it eventually but you can check out my twitter feeds with the #ovigoodthings hashtag in the meantime) in London that I attended on Thursday and Friday. The N97 has a GPS receiver, so it made sense to have a device that was capable of helping us on Thursday when we were made to run around London treasure hunting! And it failed to get a GPS fix for the whole couple of hours we were outdoors!! On a sunny clear day no-less!! Instead, I had to use my own E51 and the brilliantly accurate Navman B10 running the now outdated Nokia Maps 2 (Ovi Maps isn't compatible with the E51) to help with the tasks. I've never had problems getting a sub-one minute GPS fix with the E66, E71 and E75 - so I really had no idea how the N-series people can get it so wrong when it came to designing the N97's internal GPS aerial.

The N97 also reminded me of another N-series phone I was utterly disappointed with. You can probably guess it. Yes, it was the N80. Like the N97, the N80 was a tech geeks dream phone. It had everything. But Nokia screwed it up by giving it a small battery, slow processor and very little RAM to play with - pretty much the same mistake it made with the N97 a couple of years later. The processor is slow, not only by today's standard but also by Nokia's own standard! In fact the Nokia E55 I'll be getting next week is clocked 166Mhz quicker than the N97. Quite why Nokia is pimping their Series 60 3rd Edition phones with 600Mhz processors but only a 434Mhz processor with their S60v5 flagship I can't quite understand yet. The 46MB of available RAM is even lower than the E51, and finally despite having a 1500mAh battery and slow processor, it chews up battery very quickly when using Wireless LAN.

The hardware design is nice, if a bit none-iconic. It could do without that bulky 'lens' protector protector for one. Over complicated design for such a trivia thing is just silly - the lens protector protector probably takes up more space than the whole camera module (lens + sensor and whatever else is needed in getting a modern digital camera to work). Nokia isn't the only manufacturer guilty here though. Samsung with their obnoxious attempt at masking the tiny lens with a couple of huge over-engineered rings and bumps on the Omnia HD is one fine example, and the Sony Ericsson Satio another. Personally I think the lens protector protector probably costs more than its actual worth.

The keyboard is ok, but won't beat even my old HTC Wizard and Universal devices. Whoever decided to put the d-pad and space bar in their current locations is clearly someone not clued up in the importance of user ergonomics. Four lines of keys is a bare minimum for QWERTY keypad of that size, so it was disappointing that the N97 only has three lines. I do hope that the E-series team busy designing the successor to the E90 take note at user complaints regarding the N97's keypad. Other than that I have nothing much to complain about the N97 hardware design wise. The built quality is just as expected from a Nokia N-series device, sturdy and well built if a bit plastiky.

Series 60 5th Edition is nice and I really like it, but it is hampered by bugs - at least the one running on the N97. Why can't I copy and paste with the keyboard? Why am I forced to access the on-screen keypad to access copy and paste? Why does it crash and freeze all the time when I try to switch between opened applications or even when losing WLAN signal. Really, here you have a lovely piece of operating system but they gimped it with that lowly amount of RAM and processor speed. Half the issues I've encountered would probably be solved if Nokia would just fit in a better processor and another 64MB RAM module, the other half through quicker firmware updates. Stop with all the red tape and release the new firmware today.

The problem isn't with S60v5, as I have seen it running really well on the 5800XM, but it is Nokia's software team for not doing a good job tailoring it to the N97's specs. Why can't I disable the widgets homescreen when I can have the same fast active standby homescreen of the 5800XM? There is a reason why I do not use widgets on my PC and Omnia i900 - they are slow and resource munchers and more often than not. Yes, I am a widget hater. I understand that we are in a web 2.0 era of mashups, live search and social networking. But at least don't force it down out throat. Still I guess I must be the only one demanding active standby on the N97, but I am like that. I love speed more than anything else and not having a clean active standby screen with optional plug-ins (similar to Windows Mobile today screen plug-ins) is kinda pissing me off a little bit.

So that is my rant for today. There are plenty of things to like about the N97 as well and I'll get onto these eventually.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Shin Megami Tensei: Persona (PSP) review

The original PlayStation Revelations: Persona was a great game but sadly very rare. The localisation was actually pretty awful as well, so it was great to see Atlus finally making do for their western fans (well America anyway, no idea yet as to when this will be released in Europe - so as usual hit the usual import stores). The PSP version of Persona is basically an enchanced port of the original game with some new features added on that makes an already compelling game even sweeter.

There is a new soundtrack for one. Personally I prefer the original soundtrack more, but Shoji Meguro's new 'modern' score isn't too bad. I guess they wanted to invite the new fans, those who are more familiar with Persona 3 and 4. The models used for characters does not seem to have received significant upgrade, if at all. On the other hand, the remake does feature new FMV cutscenes, a far improvement over the original clunky CG video. Also, unlike the PS1 localisation, Persona for PSP features the Snow Queen Quest, an alternative storyline to the main plot - something I have always wanted to play but could not bother with the Japanese version.

Unlike the slow build up seen in the later games, Persona storyline begins almost immediatelty, which was kinda disappointing. I was hoping Atlus would have modernised the storyline and dialogue a little bit (still cheesy as ever), but at least the localisation is more faithful (no longer is the game set in America for one). The game begins with the silent main characterand his friends in a classroom playing a game called 'Persona' when they find themselves knocked unconsious. Whilst still unconsious, they were visited by a masked man called Philemon, who bestowes them the ability to summon Personas.

In the meantime strange things has started to occur throughout town. This is caused by a machine, invented by a stereotypical evil corporation SEBEC, that allows for creation and passage into other alternate dimensions. Demons soon start to appear and it is up to you and your party to stop these evil geniuses from causing further mayhems and reverting the town to its original self before the dimensional rifts. It may not seem at all original, but trust me the game is worth playing for its storyline.

Persona for PSP has three difficulty levels, a new feature not seen in the original game. Seasoned RPG gamers should probably start with the high difficulty setting, as normal setting is pretty darn easy. There are more save points than before as well. Each characters can hold multiple Personas (summons) as well, unlike the recent games. As before the characters and their Personas earn EXP independently, so levelling up depends on how much the gamer uses each characters. Combat and general chit chatting takes place on an isometric 3D field, where as exploration is via a first person 3D field map. Unlike the original, where the city is rendered in untextured polygons, the remake features a lovely looking easier to navigate 2D rendered map.

The visuals has been upgraded, but only slightly and pretty much resembling the original PS1 visuals. The 3D rendered dungeons looks significantly smoother, with slightly better textures. The interface during combat (a pull down menu now) has been updated, and does not look as clunky as it was. Atlus has unfortunately left the sprites alone. Even the character cutouts are seriously outdated. It isn't a pretty sight to be honest, but it will do. Getting a definitive Persona game is better than the botched PS1 version, so I guess we all should be thankful that Atlus bothered to bring this over in the first place.

The game also features a demon negotiating system where you can earn demon spell cards. These spell cards can then be traded with Igor in the Velvet Room(s), who will then fuse a new Persona (two cards are needed). This works by conversing with the demons (contact). Each demons have their own unique personality and depending on the demon's reaction, it will offer you rewards such as EXP, loots or spell cards. Piss it off, or scare it and it may attack back or just bugger off.

The random encounter rate can get annoying. At times taking just two steps would trigger an encounter. It gets annoying, and this is from someone who played plenty of Japanese RPG in his lifetime. As I said earlier that Persona is pretty easy, but getting ambushed isn't something you would like. There are moments where it would be better to restart the game than continue attempting to save your party. Thankfully save spots are plentiful. Regardless K.O.'ed party members are automatically revived after each successful encounter.

New fans of Persona series will find the lack of social links a disappointment. Instead this is a pure dungeon crawler like those older Shin Megami Tensei games. Exploring mazes through first person mode is a huge chore and the mini map helps a little. Thankfully Persona 2 ditched the first person mode. Combats are random though the encounter rate will depend highly on the moon phase. The moon's phase may also have an effect on the creation of a Persona demon.

The game's replayability is high due to its multiple endings. As previously mentioned, there is also the alternative Snow Queen Quest. Also like before you will have the option to pick from a list of four, the fifth member of your party. Getting Reiji (Chris in the PlayStation localisation) is still a lengthy process, but probably worth it for first timers who do not want to miss out when doing the main SEBEC quest.

All in all, Persona for PSP is a brilliant game, one worth the attention of veterans of the old classics as well as those introduced via Persona 3 and 4. It is a definitive upgrade over the old classic, and best of all, you get to play it whenever and wherever you want. Now if enough of you buys this, Atlus will see that there is a market out there and will hopefully remake both Persona 2 titles as well.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

WOMWorld's NokiaThe Good Things press stuff

DHL dropped off press pack for Nokia/WOMWorld's The Good Thing event today.

This isn't the first time I have played with the Nokia N97, but it is the first time I have handled one that isn't tethered to some anti theft device or for longer than 10 minutes. After a day of playing around, I find that it is not as horrible as I imagined it to be. It is running on firmware v12 which fixed many of the bugs reported in the first couple of months it was out, but it is still pretty slow, though it does not feel as slow as my old Win Mob devices like the HTC Universal.

It isn't a match for my quick and trusted sidekick (the now classic E51) that is for sure, but then again the E51 runs on a pretty darn mature and stable platform, and also comes equipped with an unbeatable keypad. S60v5 does have some potential to evolve into the future Symbian Foundation platform, but Nokia really ought to have fitted the N97 with their 600Mhz processors that exists on their new none-touchscreen devices. Regardless an okay first impressions - not something deserving the title of a flagship device (that probably belongs to the E72), but not too bad either.

I am currently filling it up the 32GB of storage with my music collection. Transfer speed is similar to the Walkman X-Series, so it may take a while. I will comment about audio quality once I have the chance to listen to it properly. After all Nokia markets this as a multimedia device and audio quality is an important equation to that.

Also included in the presser is the first clue with a coordinate that points to a secret location somewhere in East London. Hmm...

Monday, October 19, 2009

More on Nokia's not so hush hush event

So I have just received my itinerary from WOMWorld for Nokia's The Good Things event. I will be joining nine other bloggers/twitterers(?) in having the chance to do touris'y stuff in London (one of the rare chance where one becomes a tourist in a city he or she lives in) and chatting with a Nokia product manager ("Is Nokia developing the successor to the E90?" will be my first question).

I will be posting updates via Twitter. You can follow me @jonchoo. The other nine attendees are:

Michael Hell – @xmichaelsfx
Taimas Arbabi – @dailymobile
Roman Schweigler – @S60inside
Glenn Letham – @gletham
Varun Krishnan – @FoneArena
Jerome Parkin – @mapperz
Christian Haslam – @chaslam500
Jay Montano – @jaymontano
Ibrahim Jogee – @thenokiareview

I am expecting a parcel to arrive tomorrow with some clues as to what the event will be about. I have also been promised a surprise, and though the surprise has already been spoilt by DHL, I won't reveal it here just yet. ;)

Friday, October 16, 2009

God of War Collection HD trailer

God of War and God of War II, two of the better PS2 games out there, will be released on Bluray as a PlayStation 3 game. The cynics will undoubtedly accuse Sony of reselling old games, but remastering is nothing new in the music and film industry. Still I hope Sony would not attempt to just remaster everything they have and commit more resources on new games and IPs. Except Ico and Shadow of the Colossus - those deserves to remastered (with a demo to The Last Guardian) if only to get more people aware of these Team ICO masterpieces.

Still as a fan of SCE Santa Monica's finest, I urge you to watch it (in HD) and then pre-order it.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Some not so hush hush Nokia event in London

Well, I have been invited to participate in a 'secret' Nokia event. The event itself isn't a secret, but I am hardly the person to cruise for mobile device news these days, preferring not to be bombarded by information overload (this is from a person who is a keen twitterer). So it caught me by surprise when Katie of WomWorld contacted me a couple of days ago.

In my e-mail exchange with Katie, I initially guessed that this may have something to do with a new N-series, but with the N900 and N97 Mini already announced I highly doubt Nokia would announce the successor to the N97 just yet. The annual Symbian show kicks off the week after so this is nothing to do with this either. I did tell Katie that I strongly suspect that it has something to do with Ovi Maps, due to the location of the event (on an empty plot of land next to City Hall). She confirmed nothing but later I found this page here via another blog which all but confirms the event (the date says it all).

So a slight disappointment that it would not be an announcement for mythical N98 with Symbian^2 or perhaps the successor to the brilliant E90, but I am still curious to see well integrated social media services is with Ovi Maps, and how well it works in real life especially from a pedestrian point of view (I do not drive). I have already ditched TomTom (of whose products I have used since the old CityMaps for Pocket PC days) due to the lack of development in favour of Nokia Maps, but I have not tried the latest Ovi Maps due to compatibility issues with my E51.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Gran Turismo (PSP) review

Announced in 2004 as Gran Turismo 4 Mobile, Gran Turismo was initially pegged as launch title for the new PSP. A couple of years and three PSP revisions later, Polyphony Digital has finally shipped the game early this month. Is it worth the wait? Well read on.

To be honest with you I have never been a huge fan of Gran Turismo series. I am more of an arcade racer, preferring something like OutRun or MotorStorm, than a full driving simulator. Gran Turismo for PSP is still a driving simulator, but has elements that makes it such an arcade-fan pleaser. For one the career mode has been scrapped. Many has moaned about the lack of career mode, but as a portable pick-me-up title it makes so much sense to allow gamers to pick up the game and do a quick lap or two, rather than spend an entire bus journey fiddling around with the suspension, tyre pressure and what-nots.

The gameplay has been simplified. There are no upgrades, no career/campaign mode - just quick race, challenges and drifting. Cars are bought using credits, that are earned in quick races. To purchase a new car, the player has to wait for the appropriate manufacturer dealer to appear on the day. It isn't random, though it appears so at first. A small number of dealer appears every other day with a small selection of car models for sale. Miss it and you will have to wait for the cycle to repeat itself - which can be a frustrating experience. Fortunately credits are easy to obtain and you can always spend a half an hour or so on the test course farming a million credits. Tuning is available in a simplified form, which includes aerodynamics and customising the tyres. Controls are dead simple, d-pad and analog pad for steering and the rest can be customised to suit each player's need.

Car handling varies greatly among all the vehicles, as they should. A.I. opponents are a hit and miss, most will tend to stick to the racing line though some will attempt to use your vehicle's slip stream to gain advantage. The leaning curve of the game obviously depends, and with practice, is easy to get with grips with though mastering each and every vehicle would be quite a chore. A.I. opponents are selected based on your vehicle or choice as well as tyre selections. Bizarrely the game is truly inconsistent in this area - at times selecting vehicles that are dog easy and at other times truly competitive. Slip streaming opponents is crucial to winning most races, but this isn't something unique to Gran Turismo. As usual driving aids can be turn on or off.

Visually, Gran Turismo is beautiful, though not nearly as stunning as MotorStorm: Arctic Edge or WipEout Pulse. The graphics, which could have been better but at the expense of frame rate, is pretty darn close to Gran Turismo 4, though with obvious downgrades in a couple of areas. The screenshots here may look bland, but they do look good in motion. Cars reflect and shadows are where they should be. Four camera modes exists - chase view, roof view, cockpit (yes, it does exist) and bumper. There is one downside - only four vehicles per race. Even the more hectic MotorStorm: Arctic Edge managed eight!

There are 830 cars in Gran Turismo. I have yet to see a tenth of them, but those of which I have seen are beautifully modelled, and are very close to the real thing. Supposedly players will be able to transfer their car collection to Gran Turismo 5 when it gets released next year - we will see. There is nothing wrong with the design of the 35 tracks, but I do wish for a bit more detail. They just look bare when you compare it to MotorStorm: Arctic Edge, and also suffer greatly from aliasing. This is more apparent with the cockpit view as well as during the replay scenes. I also did not care much for the cardboard spectators. So yeah, I do think that Polyphony Digital should have paid the same amount of attention to detail in creating the environment as they did with the cars.

The sound effects, something I do not normally care about, are pretty good. Cars often sound completely different depending on tyre selection, camera viewpoints, as well in different locations (like tunnels). The soundtrack however isn't to my taste, so it was fortunate that I was able to turn them off. This is something I tend to do anyway with most games, with its The Fast and the Furious-like soundtrack (I blame EA for the trend). Whatever, you will be pleased to know you can customise the soundtrack to your liking by way of installing music on the Memory Stick, but only after completing a couple of challenges first.

So all in all, a lovely game with great polished production values throughout. It isn't perfect though. Track detail could have been better, and the number of cars (lack of) per race is just disappointing. People keen on a career mode and upgrades will be disappointed, though I personally believe that the removal of the features is for the better considering this is a portable game. It also appears to suffer from slight graphical glitch where pixelated white dots appears randomly on the tracks. Not the end of the world, but it can be annoying.

The lack of online (infrastructure) is also a bummer, though hardly surprising considering that the majority of PSP games do not take advantage of infrastructure mode anyway. As a flagship PSP title however, there is almost no excuse not to have infrastructure. Owners with a PS3 console can play online via Adhoc Party, but not everyone has the luxury to do so. As for those content with Adhoc, players can trade/share cars with each other as well as racing each other (no game sharing).

The PSP version of Gran Turismo may be stripped down, but it is still a game worth considering particularly if you enjoy the simulation racing part of a Gran Turismo game, but dislike the hassle of maintaining a virtual garage, adjusting suspension and other such nonsense that some of us just do not have the time for. If you are expecting a portable Gran Turismo game with some features tailored for short sessions of quick gaming, you will get it here. Just don't foolishly expect the full console experience.

Gran Turismo for PSP is out now, available from Amazon UK and

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Westone UM3X IEM review

The UM3X is Westone's flagship universal fit IEM designed for musicians and replaces the much liked UM2, as well as a cheaper alternative to the custom high-end ES3X. It isn't aimed to replace the much hyped Westone 3, which was designed for consumers and audiophiles. This is the first universal fit ear canal headphones that contains contains three balanced armatures with a passive three-way crossover - the same technology used on their flagship custom ES3X (which incidentally costs more than double the price of a UM3X).

Specifications and stuff:

Frequency response: 20 Hz – 18 kHz
Sensitivity: 124 dB SPL/mW
Nominal impedance: 56 ohms
Transducer: Three balanced armature transducers with passive three-way crossover

I have been listening to it for the past week, on and off in between sessions with my Sennheiser IE 8 and Denon AH-C710. These three comes at a completely different price point with the C710 costing the least, IE 8 around £180 and UM3X about £300 in the UK. I'll share my thoughts about the C710 in another review, but right now let's get to business regarding the UM3X. The UM3X sounds good, but the sound signature is an acquired taste. The sound quality here isn't disputed - it is great if you can afford the entry price - but as usual, try to borrow one or seek a test unit to hear it before buying.

As before, my tip of choice are the Klipsch gels that can be found on their Custom and Image series. They fit the UM3X perfectly, has the same bore diameter and are very very comfortable (at least for me). Beware that the sound signature will be dependent on your choice of tips. They come with Comply tips, which isn't something I would normally prefer to use. Another tip that can fit the UM3X is the Shure foamies (black olives).

Both Comply and Shure black olives offer superior sound isolation, and in theory should offer improved bass response. I do not like using them because I find them 'muffled' and hate the icky ear wax that tends to hang on to the surface. They also cost more in the long term, though people with no issues spending £300 on a ear-canal monitor will have no issues with spending £13 every couple of months on new Comply tips.

The built quality is excellent. I can't judge its long term durability, but they do seem tough enough. I have my doubts on the cables though. The braided cable has its uses - it remains supple and kinky-free throughout - though I did manage to get it tangled once. Even better the cable is microphonic-free (the echos you hear when walking and cable rubbing is due to microphonic cables - an example would be the popular CX 300 and EX71.

Unfortunately despite the cost, the cables are not modular - meaning you will have to send it back to Westone should the cable gets damaged. Also the length between the earpiece and the Y-splitter seems a little too short (in comparison the C710 is too long, and the IE 8 about perfect). I didn't find a braided cable brushing my neck to be extremely comfortable.

The UM3X is smaller than I thought. Considering that they have managed to cram in three balanced armature transducers inside each ear piece, the UM3X is an example of the technical achievement of the engineers at Westone. They fits well in my ears and I never had a problem with seal. Isolation is better than the IE 8 (with standard single-flange silicon tips), though this could be both positive and negative. The lack of isolation with the IE 8 is one of the reason of its airiness and vast soundstaging.

They seem to be as comfortable as the Klipsch Customs (easily the most comfortable IEMs I have ever had the pleasure of sticking inside my ear canals). Also, the UM3X sits flushed inside my ears, so I guess most will not have any issues sleeping with them. I wouldn't recommend sleeping with it though, considering the cost and the lack of replaceable cable.

Because of the higher than usual impedance (most consumer IEMs has 16 or 32 ohms), the UM3X suppressed most hiss that comes from lower-cost DAPs. I find that the UM3x is a bit more forward than the IE 8, particularly in the mids and vocals. They sound great with vocal-based performances and genre, though at the expense of bass and treble. It also sounds warmer than I initially expected it would be and I experienced no fatigue despite long sessions with it (two hours or longer). There are no issues with sound quality and music output was clean and clear throughout.

They are definitely bass-light and has very little impact, not surprising considering the use of balanced armature transducers, but should be sufficient for most people. If bass quantity is something you seek, get something with a moving-coil dynamic driver like the IE 8 or Denon C710. Regardless the bass is deep and controlled and does not interfere with the music. Treble quality is brilliant, and I detected no sibilance. They have some sparkle, but lack the dynamic of the IE 8. Soundstaging is pretty decent, but is tighter than the IE 8. In any words, the UM3X offers a more head-staging experience, particularly the vocals. I feel at times if the singer was right next to me, where as with the IE 8 I tend to feel like an audience a couple of seats from the front stage.

Westone's flagship universal is definitely one of the more boring IEMs I have heard, with its flat presentation. I love the dynamism and in-your-face all-around performance of the IE 8, which seems to be designed for people keen on listening to music. The UM3X is a high-end stage monitor designed for musicians, where as the IE 8 and other alternatives (like Westone's own W3) are geared towards us consumers and listeners.

Do not get me wrong, these are brilliant IEMs, but as I said earlier, they also cost significantly more than the IE 8 (in the UK - in the US and some other countries the pricing gap is smaller). The issue of sound preference is definitely a subjective one. I know of people who would love the UM3X where as some will dislike it outright.

If you are a budding musician who is keen on getting a quality in-ear stage monitor without the budget for moulded custom IEMs, then perhaps the UM3X will be great for you. I don't know since I don't know squat about making music. For consumers who tend to listen through a portable digital audio player, try out the Westone 3, Sennheiser IE 8 and Shure SE530 first. Those may be better suited for you.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

MotorStorm: Arctic Edge review

Evolution Studios's MotorStorm was one of the few PS3 exclusives that truly defined the console's early life. The off-road arcade racer threw out realism for all out mayhem and my gosh they succeeded. The franchise comes to the PSP courtesy of BigBig Studios - the developer behind the two Pursuit Force PSP titles. They know a thing or two about racing games, and they should considering they were established by a couple former members of Codemasters.

MotorStorm: Arctic Edge eschews the desert and tropical environment in favour of the harsh Arctic climate. This, I am guessing, was chosen first to spread the three different environments across many different titles as possible, as well as improving performances. The lush vegetation from Pacific Ridge for example would be too difficult for the PSP to handle. Still while the environment has changed, it is still instantly recognisable as a MotorStorm game, and best of all it plays just as well.

Little has changed with the gameplay. Before each race, the player chooses a vehicle type and a track. Like the previous titles, each track has multiple ways of racing through - with different terrains suited for different vehicles. Dotted around are obstacles as well as a variety of jumps, cliffs and canyons. The environment is destructible (avalanche for example can be triggered), though not as obvious as the previous games. Another feature that has been retained is the Nitrous Boost, where the player uses them to boost the engine at the expense of increasing engine heat. Do so long enough and the engine explodes. Use this wisely and the player can gain an upper hand by rocketing forward the finishing line.

The controls are of typical racing game with the d-pad or analog pad used to steer the vehicle, and are very easy to master. Due to technical reasons, only eight vehicles are allowed in a race - though this seems to be technically good enough (Gran Turismo only manages four). There are plenty of unlockables to be had, and each vehicles can be customised (unlike the previous titles). Each vehicle type (eight of them) has its pros and cons, and controls slightly differently. For example the snowmobiles are quicker than rally cars and control better but the fragility means you have to watch out for even the smallest obstacles. The snowploughs are tough, but slower (but still pretty competitive) and has a crappy acceleration. Well you get the gist - different vehicles control differently (duh).

Despite the lower polygon count, the game is very pretty. Visually, this is the most stunning PSP racing game I have played. Considering how the gameplay requires multiple paths, numerous on-screen mayhem, snow and rain effects, wide-spaced environment and distance vistas - I believe BigBig did good here. The vehicles - being the off-road types - tends to have more details than a traditional flashy car racer like the Ferraris in OutRun 2006. So it is even more impressive when they can fit eight of those vehicles in a race, with damage to boot. The screenshots posted here are all from the game, using the built-in Photo Mode. Like WipEout Pulse's Photo Mode, I see no form of touch-ups - so what you see here is what you see in the game.

The AI of opponents highly depends on the difficulty setting. In the early stages of the career mode (and easy setting), they prefer to stay on the racing line and so are mainly none-intrusive. As the player progress through, their AI and aggressiveness will ramp up pretty significantly Bumping other vehicles off course or into an obstacle is pretty normal at such difficulty. Snowmobilers will attempt to grab hold of other drivers. Get too close and they may try to boost away or, even worse, attempt to veer or crash the player out by any means possible. It makes for a hectic race, and one that made the original MotorStorm such a brilliant title.

The soundtrack is made of some popular music. I can't remember them as I prefer to play the game sans-music. Playlist can be imported as long as there are tracks on the Memory Stick. Arctic Edge also features an online multiplayer mode (infrastructure) as well as local (adhoc) allowing for multiplayer racing with other PSP owners around the world. BigBig has pretty much tick every possible box in their checklist. Impressive considering that this title was being developed alongside a PS2 version (due out in the next week).

I am quite surprised by Arctic Edge. To be honest I was expecting much less. I was expecting a much less stripped down game, especially considering that the title was being developed simultaneously with the PS2 version (which incidentally does not have multiplayer support, though it does have split screen support). Some compromise has been made (eight vehicles, graphical fidelity obviously no where near the PS3 version), but this is still a pretty darn MotorStorm racer, and one that deserves a look even by owners of the two other PS3 titles. Strip away the branding and this is still the best arcade racer on the PSP out there. A perfect portable pick-me-up.

MotorStorm: Arctic Edge is out now in both UK and US.