I Love Super Smash Brothers: Brawl

super_smash_bros_brawl_smallI was able to play in the GameStop Super Smash Brothers: Brawl tournament today. While other GameStop stores are holding the tournament tonight at 10:00 PM, the local manager here decided to hold the tournament a few hours early so that younger kids could enter.

Although I was eliminated in the first round, I really enjoyed playing the game. After the tournament was over, several of us played for a while longer, and I finally started to do well, winning several games in a row.

The game, which I’ve been anticipating for more than a year now, is as good as I had hoped it would be. I can’t wait to get it tonight when the store reopens at midnight!

Joe’s Goals

I’ve been trying out the Lifehacker-recommended Joe’s Goals for about a week now, and I’ve found it to be most useful.

Joe’s Goals Demo

It works like this: You give it a list of daily goals, which are listed on the side. Each day that you accomplish that goal, you click in the box, and it puts a neat little checkbox there.

You can also add logbooks, which are little tiny squares of text, rather than checkboxes.

The site also keeps stats, like the longest chain of days that you accomplished your goal and a point score at the bottom of each day. You can weight each of your goals a different amount, and you even track negative goals that deduct points.

So, for example, you can say that taking a picture once a day is worth 1 point, while working out for an hour each day is worth 5, and eating more than one snack a day is worth -2.

Overall, Joe’s Goals is a simple tool that I’d recommend to anyone trying to track their New Year’s resolutions.

My Shiny New Toy: The Nokia N800

IMG_0227I got a new toy today: A Nokia N800 Internet Tablet.

So far, I’m impressed with it. It has a lot of features that Nokia doesn’t publicize enough. For example, it has the ability to stream media from any computer that’s sharing media to the tablet, so you can listen to any of your music wherever you have the N800.

What’s more, it can even play media over the internet if you install their server software. So you could listen to music and even watch videos stored on your home PC while you’re in a hotel room far away. At least, that’s the theory; I haven’t tried this yet.

What I have tried is the browser. For a mobile device, the browser is excellent. It can handle Flash and Javascript, unlike most mobile devices (including the lofty iPhone). And since the screen is 800 pixels wide, most websites will fit onto the screen without any awkward zooming in/out functions like the mobile version of Opera.

The screen is beautiful on this thing. And the media player software plays videos very smoothly, even when streaming over the internet. It’s definitely better than my iPod. (I need to figure out how to get iTunes video files to play on the N800….)

It also has a camera that pops out of the left side which can be used for video chatting. At the moment, it works best calling from one N800 to another, but you can get a half-decent video chat to a PC using the Gizmo Project.

But the most exciting feature of the device is that it runs on Linux, and there’s a vibrant community of open-source software developers making some neat stuff for the machine. The weather widget in the photo above is actually an open-source project, not anything developed by Nokia, as is the maps program I’m trying out. The hacker community is having a lot of fun with this device.

My biggest disappointment with it so far is that I can’t get it to dial into the internet over EDGE with my Blackberry on AT&T, after about an hour of struggling with it. And Nokia made a couple of stupid UI design decisions which are a bit annoying. For example, there’s no way to lock those widgets you see in the photo above into place, so if you miss the scroll bar on the RSS reader widget by a pixel or two, you’ll end up dragging the whole box around the screen instead of moving the scroll bar.

But, these minor setbacks aside, I really like the N800. I think I’m going to end up finding a lot of uses for it in my everyday life.

Remember Everything with I Want Sandy

I Want Sandy is a new web service that helps you keep track of all the details of your life. The software takes on the pesona of an administrative assistant that you contact by email. This makes the service really easy to work with.

For example, lets say you want to remember to get a card for your mom’s birthday. You would write Sandy an email with the message “Remind me to buy a card for Mom on 4/23.” A minute or two later, you’ll get a response from Sandy confirming what you just sent. Then, on April 23rd, she will send you an email reminding you to get the card.

The feature I most use is reminders: it’s really easy to write “remind me to call my insurance guy next monday at 2:00 PM,” as opposed to the fairly clunky process of adding a task with a reminder to my Blackberry. And with Sandy, I don’t see that reminder again until Monday at 2 PM, which means a less cluttered to do list. In GTD terms, I use Sandy as my electronic tickler file.

Plus, I can contact Sandy through direct messages on Twitter. This is best combined with the Twitterbar Firefox extension. Instead of opening up my email, I just type “d s remind me to pay my credit card 12/1 @monthly —post” into my location bar in Firefox. When I type the last “t” in “post,” TwitterBar sends a direct message to Sandy. This way, I don’t even have to open my email to save a reminder.

You can even call Sandy through the Jott speech recognition service. After you get it set up, you call the Jott hotline, ask for Sandy, and then say what you want to remember. Jott will convert it to text and send it to Sandy. It’s really easy.

Sandy’s recognition engine is fairly robust too; there’s a handy cheat sheet that lists most of her vocabulary. You can say abstract things like “r my appointment next monday afternoon” or have repeated items like “r go running @bidaily.”

There are a lot of great features I haven’t even touched on yet, like tagging, list and contact management, and shared reminders with friends. It’s easy to use and it’s free. Check it out at http://iwantsandy.com/.

Where I’ve Been This Time: Starcraft

I’ve recently discovered an old classic RTS game, StarCraft. I had never played this before I saw the trailers for StarCraft II. Once I saw the trailer, I headed to the video game shop in the mall and bought the StarCraft Battlechest. I’m playing through the first game’s campaign now.

I had heard of people getting addicted to this game and dropping out of college back when it was first released. (Now that title has been passed to World of WarCraft, made by the same publisher, Blizzard.) I know that StarCraft is a huge part of the Korean professional video gaming scene. And I can see why, on both counts. This is an amazingly good game.

Of course, since this is an old game, the graphics are nothing special. But the core of the game is spectacular: the three races look and feel entirely different from each other, but they’re evenly balanced.

And the plus side of it being an old game is that I can play it on my tablet PC, which can’t handle modern games at all.

My only complaint: I can’t zoom in and out. I really want to be able to get a birds-eye view of the battlefield.

The other cool thing is that there’s now a StarCraft board game, which is as good as the video game. A friend of mine has bought it, and so my brother and I have gotten to play the game. Like the video game, it’s well-balanced and challenging. (And I’ve actually managed to win this game a couple of times, unlike most of our previous games.)

Blizzard Entertainment must have made a deal with the devil: everything they touch turns to crack cocaine. And I’m going to enjoy it while I can, the little junkie that I am.

MiniReview: Portal

Portal is the best computer game I have played in ages. You play a research test subject who uses a portal gun to navigate through a bunch of different levels, with the reward of delicious cake (and grief counseling) at the end. It’s fun and challenging, and it’s got this lovely streak of dark humor running through the whole game.

And at the end, there’s a great song by the incomparable Jonathan Coulton.

My only complaint is that I wish there was more of it. The main storyline will last 2-4 hours at most. But considering that it is only a $20 standalone title, its entertainment-time-to-cost ratio is about the same as a really good movie.

You should definitely see the trailer for the game if you haven’t already.

Unpaid Product Endorsement: Best Skins Ever

Full Disclosure: I am not being paid in any way by Best Skins Ever. I just love the product.

The iPod is a shiny, pretty device, but it is notorious for picking up fingerprints and scratches. As a result, a lot of companies are selling protective cases and other products designed to protect the iPod from minor damage.

The problem with most of these products is that they make the iPod "fatter." One of the selling points of the iPod is that it is so thin and small. If you have to put on a thick outer shell to protect it from damage, it loses that appeal; it ends up looking like a Zune.

That’s why I’m such a big fan of BestSkinsEver. They sell "skins," pieces of clear plastic film that you attach to a device to protect it from scratches. Unlike other products I’ve seen, they’re actually thick enough to prevent all but the most serious damage to a device, but they don’t significantly add to the width of the device.

I’ve bought two of their skins, one for my Blackberry and another one just recently for an iPod. Both are just fantastic. I just finished applying my new one to my iPod, but the one on my Blackberry has kept it completely free from scratches for months.

They are almost totally invisible. You have to closely examine the devices to see that there is a skin on them.

My biggest complaint is that they can be challenging to apply to the device. You have to use a little soapy water on each piece of the skin and then get it positioned just right and then squeeze the water and air bubbles out from under the skin. It’s a bit of pain, but it’s worth it in the end.

It also takes a couple of days for the adhesive in the skin to "set." Until then, the screen will look a little grainy.

The other minor complaint I had is that the skin that covers the click wheel on the iPod is exactly the same as the rest of the skin, so you lose a bit of tactile feedback. I would have liked it better if the click wheel skin was a slightly different texture from the rest of the skin.

Overall though, I have to say that the skins from BestSkinsEver are fantastic: nearly invisible, cheap ($7 each for my two skins), and durable. Considering how much the iPod costs, $7 for protection from the inevitable scratches and fingerprints of everyday use seems like a bargain.

Windows Live Writer

I’ve just downloaded the shiny new Windows Live Writer Beta 3, which I found on Download Squad.

Windows Live Writer Screenshot

I had originally shied away from Live Writer (considering Microsoft’s track record with web publishing, especially FrontPage), but since Download Squad gave them a fairly magnanimous review, I decided to give it a try.

So far, it seems really good. You’ll find a full review in the extended entry.

Continue reading

The Amazon MP3 Music Store Is Amazing

Until now, iTunes has been the only decent online music store. It made getting music as simple as possible, and their extensive library ensured that, unless you were looking for something really obscure, you could be sure to find the music you wanted. And since Apple made both iTunes and the popular iPod, they worked very well together.

Other stores have tried to compete, but they were dismal failures by comparison. On the one hand, you had stores like eMusic, which required a monthly subscription fee to download 50 MP3’s a month from their catalog of mostly independent musicians. On the other hand, you had stores like URGE or the Zune music store, which had extensive collections of popular music, but which crippled their music with DRM (software that locks music to a few particular players to prevent piracy), which made them incompatible with the iPod.

Finally, yesterday, Amazon combined the best of both worlds. They have an extensive collection of popular music, with everyone from Eminem to Luciano Pavarotti, from major labels like Universal Music, available as MP3 files without DRM. They can work on any MP3 player, including the iPod.

The other major advantage that iTunes had over its competitors was ease-of-use. In iTunes, all you have to do to get a song into your library is push the “purchase” button. It’s exactly the same for the Amazon MP3 store.

When you first start using the Amazon MP3 store, you have to install a tiny little client that will download your music and then put it into iTunes or Windows Media Player (whichever you prefer). After that, it’s just as easy as push the One-Click button next to a song or album. Amazon does have one extra step, where you confirm which credit card to charge with your purchase, but other than that, it’s just as seamless as using the iTunes store.

In fact, I’m willing to say that Amazon is better than iTunes in a lot of ways. First, you’re getting the songs in MP3 format, which means that you aren’t locked into using the iPod like you are with iTunes.

Second, you can browse for your music in your browser, rather than being forced to use the iTunes client. I’ve found that there are times when I want to go look through iTunes, but it’s ridiculously slow or plagued with network timeouts. I’ve never had that problem with Amazon’s website.

Third, Amazon tracks are often cheaper than iTunes tracks. Many songs in Amazon are only $.89, including popular songs on the top of their charts. iTunes tracks are always $.99, regardless of song popularity, and $1.29 for songs without DRM.

Overall, I’d have to say that Amazon is the first online music store that gives Apple a run for its money. I know that I’m planning to check Amazon before I check iTunes for my future music purchases.