Category Archives: Cool Stuff

Oh, Google just turned my iPod touch into a free wifi phone

Today I noticed that Google turned my iPod touch into a free wifi phone. That’s nice of them.

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To turn your iOS device into a free wifi phone. Simply create a Google Voice #, and install the Google Voice and Google Hangouts apps on your device. You’ll be able to send and receive text messages with the Google Voice app, and read your Google Voice voicemail there too. The Hangouts app will let you make and receive calls to/from real phone #s, and instant-message with your friends.

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I’ve used Google Voice for several years. It’s great, because it gives you a free phone number that redirects to other numbers. I give people my Google Voice #, and when they call, it automatically rings several personal lines. Further, if I ever change or add a phone number, such as a new work #, I can always re-configure my Google Voice # to dial that #, without confusing everyone with yet another email about “delete this old #, add this new one”.

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Google Voice auto-transcribes voicemail as well, which is really nice, because you can eyeball skim/read a voicemail and click “delete” on a computer much faster than you can listen to your messages on a real phone. Bonus feature: you can text with google voice from a browser, or an iPod Touch – this is great for me, because I use a nokia brick phone with a t-mobile prepaid phone plan, and texting on 10-key is terrible.

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The downside to Google Voice has always been that it’s not actually a phone. When you dial someone with the Voice app, it dials your contact, then dials your real phone, and connects you together – you can’t just dial right out on a computer or non-phone smart device like an iPod touch and use a headset.

There have been several inexpensive or free “turn your iPod Touch into a wifi phone” gimmick apps or services over the past few years, but they’ve always been a hassle (listen to a 30 second ad before your call begins..) or short-lived – so, I’ve just always dialed directly with my brick phone, and told my contacts “my real number is the google voice #, ignore the caller id”.

That all changes with the latest version of Google’s Hangouts app on iOS. The latest version allows you to dial and receive phone calls right from your iOS device, for free. Dialing out will show your google voice # on your contact’s caller id, and when someone dials your Google Voice #, your connected iOS devices will receive an notification that you’re being called – and your real phones will still ring too.

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Hangouts is Google’s rebranded Google Talk service – their instant messaging service. It allows you to chat with your friends or groups of your friends, video chat, and audio chat with them. It’s basically Google’s competition to Facebook Messenger and Skype.

This is a great development for users like myself who don’t want to pay $70-$100 per month for a smart phone w/ a data plan. I typically pay about $100 for 4 or 5 months of service, because I primarily use audio/video chat on skype and email or facebook for communication. Now, I’ll be using even less pre-paid cell minutes when I need to make a call from my home or office, or anywhere else with reliable wifi. Cool.

Cool Stuff: Music & Audio (Part 1)

I recently discovered that I’m the son of an audiophile – suddenly I understand why I was encouraged to buy a decent amplifier/receiver at a very young age, suddenly I appreciate those old dads-college-days/hand-me-down kickass KLH speakers just a little bit more than I always have. I am definitely not an audiophile myself, but music is a huge part of my happiness in life. I’m also a geek, so over the years I’ve learned a clever thing or two about the hobby of collecting and listening to music, and I’d like to share a bit of what I’ve learned.

Required Reading

Before we get into the hardware geekery, I think it’s prudent to point you toward a few classic articles and books about the music industry.

First up is Steve Albini’s The Problem With Music. Albini produced classic pixies and nirvana records, but, to me, his no-nonsense approach to writing and putting it all out there is just as important. There’s also a classic no-bullshit letter from Albini to Nirvana before recording In Utero that’s fairly entertaining to read.

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Next, consider Courtney Love’s Courtney Does the Math article. It’s a financial deep dive that shows the money for a fairly successful act dwindling from $2 million up front to almost nothing for the actual band members at the end. Sombering stuff.

Another highly recommended read is David Byrne’s How Music Works. And, depending on your interests, there are some entertaining bios out there for various musicians, I’ve enjoyed a few: Marilyn Manson, Pearl Jam, Nirvana, The Pixies, The Smashing Pumpkins. There are also a few books I haven’t yet read, but will eventually for bands such as: The Cure, Jane’s Addiction, and Pink Floyd.

While we’re at it, music fans should also check out Sound City, Hype, It Might Get Loud, Pearl Jam Twenty, The White Stripes: Under Great White Northern Lights, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, Anvil: The Story of Anvil, The Other F Word, Almost Famous, High Fidelity, Empire Records, SLC Punk, and Spinal Tap.

Finding Music

Before you get yourself in too deep with discovering great music you want to hear, I’d highly recommend considering a monthly subscription music service such as rhapsody or spotify. Each of these services cost about $10 a month and let you listen to as much music as you’d like on a computer or on your iOS or Android device.

Years ago these services were a ridiculous pain in the ass in terms of portability, but the advent of the iOS and Android apps for the services simplify everything greatly. If you don’t have a smartphone, I recommend considering an iPod Touch and using the service’s download-for-offline-play feature.

One downside to the streaming services is that at times, it’s like netflix vs hbo go vs hulu vs whatever. That is – an artist can have a terrible exclusive deal with one music service or another, so the one you pay for doesn’t have that artist’s latest. And don’t forget that some of your favorite bands are stuck in the 20th century mindset, for example: you won’t find led zeppelin, ac/dc, metallica, the beatles, and a few other acts on these streaming services. Jerks.

The rhapsody/spotify services also have the ability to browse music by genre, often with features like “most popular track, album, artist for this genre” – find a genre, or obscure corner genre such as shoegazer or dream pop, and discover something new that way.

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Discovering music in the 21st century is super easy. Just plug a favorite band or song into an internet-radio/recommendation engine like pandora radio, (more indie acts, but less big-label acts), or itunes radio. The subscription services (rhapsody, spotify) also have social features and recommendations such as “acts similar to this one” or “albums similar to this one” or “influences for this band”.

Other recommendation sources to consider are your friends and family who enjoy similar music; online forums for bands you like (examples: nin, matthew good); and amazon’s recommendations listed with your favorite album (“people who bought this also bought..”).

Occasionally a band will mention bands they’re influenced by or listening to in interviews, and often the wikipedia page for your favorite band will have this kind of information readily available. For example, I probably would not have given The Cure a fair shake if it weren’t for James Iha from The Smashing Pumpkins going on and on about them every chance he got.

Indie and popular acts alike often upload tracks to soundcloud, and bandcamp, and there’s always random music blogs to consider, such as sound junkie soapbox, or mixed tape masterpiece. is sort of a music-central wikipedia/music marketplace. It’s often a better resource for websites and discography lists related to a band than wikipedia or an artist’s own site is. This website is especially dangerous for niche or vinyl fans, as you can find almost any album ever published for sale – sometimes very expensively.

Finally, for a little nostalgic trip, consider wikipedia’s album release lists, genre lists, and/or billboard lists.

Buying Music

These days the most popular way to acquire music is by buying it online. Keep in mind that when you buy something on iTunes you’ll run into insane DRM nightmares down the road, fun such as not being able to play music you bought on a non-apple device, etc etc. Basically, this:

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Instead, I recommend buying music through Amazon, bandcamp, or directly from the artist’s website.

Most music purchased on Amazon is forever-available to instantly stream or re-download in the future via Amazon’s Cloud Player.

If you’re still a fan of purchasing physical copies of music (a cd or vinyl), you should definitely consider purchasing new copies of your albums through Amazon when they have the “AutoRip” label on the cover.

With AutoRip, Amazon automatically gives you a forever streamable and/or downloadable copy of your album in their cloud player. A cool feature about AutoRip is that it’s retroactive, there’s a good chance you can insta-download mp3s of albums you bought 10 years ago on Amazon, right now.

For CD/Vinyl fans, It’s getting harder and harder to find anything you’re looking for in a local brick and mortar big-box such as best buy, target, etc. I’ve found fry’s electronics still has a halfway decent in-store selection, but really, these days, the physical media nerds will need to check out a record store. You can find a nearby record store by searching on yelp in your area. Here’s a short list of stores I’ve visited and highly recommend:

* Waterloo Records (Austin, TX)
* Pirahna Records (Round Rock, TX)
* Easy Street Records (Seattle, WA)
* Forever Young Records (Arlington, TX)

Vinyl fans should also consider the following:

* The Austin Record Convention – annual record convention w/ more than 300 vendors.
* Absolute Vinyl (Boulder, TX)
* Breakaway Records (Austin, TX)
* Austin Citywide Garage Sale – monthly convention, half a dozen vendors have vinyl.

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Choosing Test Music

Before you buy any music equipment, it’s important to understand that unless you’re paying many hundreds or thousands of dollars, the equipment you buy will most likely “color” the music. That is, the equipment will bias bass a bit louder, or treble, or feel more “open” (like a concert hall) or “punchy” (like a small room w/ carpet).

I recommend testing equipment before you buy it. To do this, you need to make a playlist of songs to demo equipment with. Put the playlist on your smartphone and a cd, and bring necessary wires to hook your device into whatever you’re targeting. Your playlist should have a couple or three songs that you are very familiar with and you know how you expect the song to sound. Everyone’s taste in music and sound balance differs, and you don’t have to be a music snob or genius to understand what you’re looking for – just pick some favorite songs that you will *know* when they sound “right” to you.

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For myself, I like a balanced sound that’s just a tad warm with super clarity. I love me some reverb/open sound, so what I’m looking for is something that sounds “wide open” with super clear mids and treble – with bass I can hear that isn’t overpowering the rest but instead is a subtle but powerful driving undercurrent.

There are more than a few songs that I considered that exemplify what I “like”, but here’s what I came up with: When I was test driving cars I used Sigur Ros’ Saeglopur, and when I tested PC Speakers I used Ulrich Schnuass’ In The Wrong Place and The Smashing Pumpkins’ Porcelina of the Vast Oceans.

Video for Sigur Ros’ Saeglopur:

Note that youtube compressed audio may not be the best representation of the nuances I’ll describe below.. but you get the idea.

Saeglopur was chosen because it has this beautiful super clear beginning piano w/ bells – right off the bat I can tell if a stereo’s halfway worth it if that section sounds enveloping and beautiful – or muddied. Later, the song builds into something roaring and huge and the moment of crescendo/catharsis is absolutely key. Right around 1:50 – 2:15 a huge swirl of spine-tingling warm catharsis fades in and ought to make me skip a breath or two – some cars had auto-volume leveling features that muddied or otherwise ruined this. Later, after the swell – the track is muddier than I’d like – to an annoying degree, I suppose there’s too much going on – but I find it bothers me less depending on the clarity of the hardware.

Video for Ulrich Schnauss’ In The Wrong Place:

The Ulrich Schnauss song has a similar super-clear intro with this little “springy/bouncy” sound on the kick sample – you’d be surprised how many sets of PC speakers we tried where the “spring” effect was completely muted and gone. Like Saeglopur, it quickly builds into a bed of lush instrumentation with more than a few distinct synths of varying tonal qualities running around. In particular there’s a very subtle but strong bass line going that was often absent on test equipment. Around 3:00 there’s a significant change to the tune and a new synth melody comes into the picture – but it’s subtle and hidden to some extent – I would fast forward to this spot and listen and on many speaker sets this driving melody would be completely hidden in mud and the song ruined.

Video for The Smashing Pumpins’ Porcelina of the Vast Oceans:

The Pumpkins’ track, Porcelina, is more or less Saeglopur with a better mix/balance IMO, it starts off with a long fade-in of guitars that either sound lush and full – like the music surrounds you in a warm envelope of comfort, or like little treble punches here and there – all depending on the quality of the speaker set. As the song builds to serious overdrive w/ the classic marshall sound there’s an edge to the guitars around 2:15 through 2:40 – again, a fullness of sound, that just can’t be lost – but often is. Finally, there’s a synthy/raspy guitar in the right speaker during the first verse that would often be completely lost on substandard sets.

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Purchasing Hardware

If at all possible, test your potential hardware in person – at a fry’s electronics, or (worst case..) a best buy, or a friend’s house.

If in-person won’t work, Amazon is the obvious choice, with a great return policy in place if you aren’t satisfied.

Other options to consider include Newegg, J&R, Musician’s Friend, and Guitar Center.

Also, seriously consider MonoPrice for all of your cable, adapters, and so on – you can occasionally find similarly priced quality ‘amazon basics’ items on Amazon – but MonoPrice’s prices and customer service in the event of a problem are awesome.

Decent Hardware (Home Theater/Computer)

As I mentioned earlier, your individual taste in music will affect the type of equipment you like. Price points are an important consideration as well, you may be able to purchase a $10 set of headphones that beat some $50 sets, but you will not find a $50 set that eclipses a $250 dollar set – and so on.

Before we start the hardware recommendations, keep in mind that I’m not an audiophile myself, but over the years I have cobbled together some audio equipment that is good enough for me. I have a even mixture of moderately expensive (more than $100 per part) and inexpensive hardware. Further, I have some hardware that’s more than a decade (or two) old, and still doing just fine – this works for me, but if you want stuff with the bells and whistles, I have a few more recent home theater builds from friends that I think sound amazing as well.

In our living room we have an ancient, inexpensive, but still kicking and awesome Sony STR-D615 receiver driving my father’s college KLH Twenty speakers, which are 40 or more years old. This setup was the configuration that I cut my teeth on and annoyed my mother to-no-end with as a teenager – as a kid there was nothing better than turning these up astoundingly loud and sitting not 4 feet in front of them – listening to porcelina repetitively. These days the KLH’s have a pair of MBQuart QLC104 speakers sitting on top of them as the “front” speakers – the MBQuart’s are better for TV and video games than the KLHs are, but the KLHs slaughter the MBQuarts for music imo.

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I’m not a 5.1 or 7.1 guy, as most setups I’ve heard sound like garbage or oddly balanced, and I generally enjoy friend’s setups with similar predispositions against the N.1 nonsense. A buddy of mine with much newer hardware has a beautiful sound emanating from Paradigm Studio 100 v5 for left/right and a Paradigm Studio CC590 v5 for center. He drives all of this with a Pioneer VSX-21TXH. If I were to upgrade our living room receiver/speaker situation – his would be the one I’d match.

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That being said, I do have one buddy with an amazing 9.2 (7.2 in reality, as nothing does 9.2 yet) setup that actually does the proper 3D surround sound effect. The trick seems to be to have a table with the rear speakers directly behind your couch, right behind your head. He drives his system with a Pioneer SC-1222-K. The speaker setup is two Polk Audio New Monitor 75T Four-Way Ported Floorstanding Loudspeakers, Polk Audio New Monitor 25C Two-Way Center Channel Loudspeaker, and 4 rear speakers poached from a Klipsch HD Theater 600 Home Theater System. He configures his system with the 3 polks in the front, 2 klipsch’s next to those, 2 subs up front, and 4 on the table behind the couch.

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Note: Both of my friends with the 2.1 and the 9.2 setups are fairly hardcore in their dedication to finding the best equipment for their price range – they both did extensive research to land on their setup of choice, and the research definitely paid off – both setups sound amazing.

In our kitchen we have a crappy little $35 iphone dock (iLive IBP181B) that sounds like garbage. The price is right, and for our needs, it work’s perfectly – we don’t exactly need crystal clear tunes when we’re making a bunch of racket in the kitchen cooking, doing the dishes, or cleaning.

For years we had a pair of unassuming – but *amazing* sounding – Harmon Kardon pc speakers setup in our bedroom, one speaker per nightstand table – with the audio jack floating around and easily pluggable into a laptop or portable music player. We purchased a pair of these for my father a few years later, and my father, the audiophile, liked them so much that he purchased 5 more sets for various places around his house – they’re awesome.

Years ago, a friend of mine had the Harmon Kardon space-bubble speaker set and it sounded excellent as well. One more thumbs up for Harmon Kardon: newer toshiba laptops in the $700 range (ie model P745-S4320) have Harmon Kardon speakers – and these little speakers absolutely slaughter other laptop sound systems, including macbook pro laptops with the speakers beside the keyboard.

My buddy has had a terrific pair of pc speakers forever, the original cambridge microworks model, but they were too expensive for my blood until recently. My wife and I tested pc speakers at fry’s for a nice set in the bedroom, and unsurprisingly we found the cambridge microworks ii to be the best they had to offer – important note: these were not the most expensive pc speakers the store offered!

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For our computers I have a Klipsch ProMedia 2.1 set – which for all intents and purposes is identical to the microworks ii set as far as I’m concerned. One downside to the promedia set is there’s no easy way to turn them off, the volume nob bottoms out at no-sound, rather than “off” – and there’s an off switch on the back of the sub, buried behind my desk – useless.

My wife’s computer has a set of Bose Companion 2 Series II speakers – these sound decent enough, but are a far cry from the microworks or promedia sets (as expected, they cost half the price, and have the label “bose” on them..).

A fairly solid inexpensive option for PC speakers or a small sound system in a random room, the Logitech S220 from a few years back retailed for about $20-$40, and they rival many of the $100-$150 options I’ve seen – a bit tinny, but functional.

Another inexpensive setup to consider is the popular LP-2020A+ Lepai Tripath Class-T Hi-Fi Audio Mini Amplifier, with a set of Sony SS-B1000 speakers. A small office I worked at had this setup for a conference room, and the sound was amazing – super clear, full, and defined. I was shocked that the speakers only cost $70, I was expecting a much higher price tag based on the clarity of sound.


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I have a love/hate relationship with headphones. I’ve spent probably $1000 in headphones over the past ten years, in $50 and smaller increments mostly, over and over. I continually bought cheap headphones b/c I thought there’d be a satisfactory pair that could match a $50 pair a roommate discovered in college – but I couldn’t. For me, the holy grail of headphones is a pair of Coby CV-670.

Coby’s stuff is generally average at best, but those CV-670s will always have a special place in my heart as the set to match. More recent models such as the CV-630 are decent enough, and they’ll be great for most listeners, but they pale in comparison (build quality, and sound is “super bass”/crap – as labeled) to the CV-670 model of 2001.

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A half dozen not-worth-mentioning $20-$50 attempts later, I finally put real money down for the Sennheiser HD598 open air model – my god. I spent a fair bit of time researching various models in the $150-$300 range and took a minor chance on this set after reading many comparison reviews on Amazon. The research and expense was worth it – I’ll never buy another ‘high quality’ set of headphones again until this pair wears out 10 or 15 years from now. The funny thing is, I spent well over $300 in $30 and $50 pairs of disappointing headsets over the past 12 years since the CV-670s – sometimes it makes sense to save, I guess.

I cannot begin to describe the experience of listening to music on those sennheisers – I think the best way to get the point across is to say – I’ve never had a piece of audio equipment that made me want to go back to all of my favorite music and hear it anew again – until I bought these. If you are a big music fan and/or listen to it while you work, do yourself a favor and save the money – your next decade of music enjoyment will be worth it.

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With this pair of headphones I can tell a significant difference between remastered and non-remastered versions of the same album, and as cliche as it sounds, I can truly hear nuance and bits of my favorite albums that I’d never heard before. The headphones are so good that they forced me to start buying CDs again, to rip a higher-quality version of the albums I love – because with this set I can hear a difference between that high quality rip and the “HQ” stream or download from a music service.

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For a long while I tried to find noise reducing headsets or closed ear headsets to use at work. The aim has generally been to not disturb my coworkers rather than the other way around – as I tend to listen to music very loudly.

A short history of sets to consider, but probably pass on: JVC HANC line – colors the music, tinny, muddy – decent on an airplane though; Koss QZ-99 – inexpensive, sound is passable, so heavy they gave me headaches; Bose QuietComfort® 15 – best noise reduction, colors sound quite a bit, not as bad as JVC but meh.

In the past year I settled on the Audio-Technica ATH-M50 – I’m not in love, b/c the sound color is not to my liking – I’ve read these have a very flat accurate response so perhaps I just like things a touch warmer than reality, but they’re better than everything else I’ve tried. One thing that’s surprising about the ATH-M50s is that they sound *great* on an Airplane – perhaps because you can’t hear the nuance as well at high altitudes, but it does feel like they sound better in the air in than on the ground. Another set to consider that’s much less expensive and with a minor test sounded better to me than the ATH-M50s, is MonoPrice’s Premium Hi-Fi DJ Style Over-the-Ear Pro Headphone – this pair costs about $25 and sounds like or beats the $100-$150 ATH-M50s.

If you’re not looking for $300 or noise canceling options, there are a bunch of inexpensive earbud type options I’d recommend. The Panasonic RPHV21BL earbuds run about $10 and easily sound the same or better than many $30-$50 range options. I was never a fan of the apple earbuds that came with their devices, but their newer EarPods line sounds really good – not much better than the Panasonics though.

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That about covers my long list of core music recommendations. In the next part for this series I’ll cover portable music, wireless hardware, a bit of vinyl trivia, and various odds and ends.

Finally on GitHub, you should be too.

I’ve finally started migrating/publishing code on GitHub. Coder cowboy git code will be here:

For starters, I’m migrating old World’s Worst Software code there, so I can retire WWS.

I highly recommend publishing your own open source code and projects on GitHub or SourceForge, or on a blog or website of your own.

You don’t need to be a coder to put something great out there (or even on GitHub), sharing your creative efforts with the world is almost always a good idea. Designers can share photoshop templates, writers can store and show their book writing/editing process, source control and sharing your efforts is truly for anyone.

When you share your efforts, you are doing the following: you’re saving other people time; you’re inspiring other people to share their own work; you’re building a portfolio of good deeds to cite on your resume; and you’re making the world a better place.

Git is a source control management (SCM) system, like Subversion (svn), ClearCase, Mercurial, Source Safe, and a dozen other such systems.

A source control system is a system that lets you store old and new versions of a file, and easily retrieve old versions of that file later. It’s basically a backup system, but it does so much more than backup. For example, source control systems can make it very easy for people to collaborate on a project, editing and changing files for a project together, from separate computers.

GitHub provides git repository hosting. They provide free hosting for open-source/publicly-accessible projects, and have reasonable paid hosting plans for private projects.

Git can take a little time to get used to, fortunately the official git website has some great tutorials to get you started. GitHub also has tutorials, as well. Though, I would say the easiest way to learn Git is from a friend or colleague. I’d highly recommend David Pratt’s quick tutorial, maybe someday I can con him into publishing something online.

If, like me, you’d rather just get-work-done and don’t care for command line source control tools unless absolutely necessary, I’d highly recommend downloading SourceTree, which is a free high-quality GUI Git client.

If you’re a Subversion die-hard, SourceForge is basically GitHub for svn, so you can share there instead if you prefer. Alternatively, many web hosts such as dreamhost (the host I use) now provide Subversion and/or Git hosting solutions.

I’d recommend Git over Subversion for a few reasons:

  • Sourcetree is an amazing tool, on par with many of the paid clients for Subversion for non-windows users. (If you’re on windows, tortoisesvn is a pretty amazing free tool as well.)
  • Git works offline, as the entire repository is cached on your local box. So you can commit piecemeal parts on your box, then “push” a bunch of commits home when you’re back online. Another major advantage of this offline feature is that you can almost-instantly revert changes or look at older changes without remote-server latency problems.
  • Git merges better in many situations.
  • Git allows you to work locally and micro-commit just like you would with Subversion, but you don’t actually have to push all of your work remote to work in git in small increments. If you want, you can even “squash” several commits into one.
  • Git stores all repository information in a simple “.git” file at the top of your repository tree, so manually cleaning repository junk is as simple as deleting that one directory if you need to, which is even easier than a svn export.

There are other reasons users smarter than I would recommend Git, and there can be some confusing aspects to working in Git that will be foreign to someone familiar with svn, but the change will be worth it after only a little while.

A really great time to consider switching to Git is the next time you hit some merge hell with subversion where you *thought* subversion would just figure it out, but doesn’t. In many of those cases, Git does what subversion will not.

I’d recommend publishing your open source code to GitHub if you don’t already have a better place to store it. For me, pushing to github is something I’ve been meaning to do for a long while. It’s just easier to push to GitHub than manually zip and prep code pages here on my wordpress installation on coder cowboy.

A quick word about my inspiration to finally make the leap, today I saw a thread on KLOV about Seattle arcades, and someone posted a link to this amazing site: Pinball Map. Pinball Map’s home page mentions that the site is open source on Scott Wainstock’s GitHub page, which means maybe I or someone else can make an arcade maps page fairly easily in the future, all thanks to Scott. Also, you absolutely must check out Scott’s amazing iHodor app.

Collecting Arcades: My very own NBA Jam machine for $350

I was 12 years old when NBA Jam was released in arcade form. I remember the first time I saw the game at showbiz pizza. It had unbelievable graphics beyond anything else at the time, and amazing forever memorable gameplay. Who can forget the first time they saw someone “On Fire”, or heard the snarky announcer’s “Boom-shaka-laka!”? I played the game rabidly when I could. Even when I lost, I wanted to jump right back in and play again. The game was an arcade sensation that was the first to have more than a billion dollars in quarters pumped into it.

The arcade version in action.

NBA Jam came out during the last few years of arcade bliss. Consoles were quickly catching up to and eclipsing the Arcade experience. NBA Jam, Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter 2, these were the closing chapters to a golden era of the arcade version of a game being far superior to the eventual port.

At the age of 12, I wanted that NBA JAM machine at home. I distinctly remember asking a local arcade’s employee how much such a machine costed. The employee looked at me like I was crazy, then dropped the bomb: $3500 on the low end, $5-$6K was the norm. I decided that I could settle for the home version of the game and put the thought of owning such a machine out of my mind for good.

The following year I played my game gear versions of NBA Jam, and NBA Jam TE every day after school for hours at a time. Years later my brothers and I would drain hundreds more hours into 4 player NBA Hangtime (a later sequel in the series) games on the Nintendo 64. To say that NBA Jam has a special place in my heart and memories would be an understatement, but I also never forgot that the machines cost $3K, so I let my 12-year-old dream fade and settled with crappy console ports and revisions that never quite lived up to the real deal.

The game gear version, not quite the same, but the SNES/Genesis versions weren’t much better.

Now, 20 years later, I own a NBA JAM arcade machine, and the machine did not cost $3000+. The machine (actually a NHL Open Ice cabinet) costed $300, and the NBA JAM game was a mere $30.

When you search around on Ebay or Craigslist, you will easily find arcade listings that confirm the $3000 price tag, and you’ll find suckers who pay as much just as easily. The truth of the matter is, as the arcade business winds down, the value of a machine is going down with it.

The trick to finding a reasonably priced cabinet is that you have to know where to look, and what to look for, and be patient.

Know the basics of the arcade business

Back in the day, when 1MB of on-board ROM was $1000, a NBA Jam cabinet with a fancy high quality 25″ monitor, and 300 pounds of 3/4″ plywood did indeed cost $3500 or more.

Arcade owners would buy arcade cabinets, and as games got old, the owner would simply switch an easily-pluggable game board out, put a new sign on the top of the arcade, and call it a new game. For example NBA JAM, NBA JAM T.E., the NFL Blitz series, and NHL Open Ice all use the exact same cabinet design.

It was not uncommon for an arcade owner to buy Mortal Kombat 1, then later paint over the cabinet artwork in black paint, stick the Mortal Kombat 2 marquee in the top of the arcade, put the MK2 board in, and call it a MK2 machine. This doesn’t mean Midway did not sell original Mortal Kombat 2 cabinets, they did, often times it was more cost efficient to simply buy an upgrade kit instead.

Today when you’re buying an arcade, the upgrade kit route benefits you. You can look for a completely original cabinet (called a dedicated cabinet) with the original game. Or you can piece together a gutted cabinet for $100, with a monitor for $150 and joysticks/buttons for another $100, and then just buy the board for the game you want.

In my case, I had no interest in restoring or otherwise fighting against technical issues with a half-working cabinet, so I searched for an NBA Jam compatible machine in good shape, and just stuck my NBA Jam board inside and called it a day.

Know where to look to research

Your research will start, continue, and end, at the Killer List Of Video Games website and forums. KLOV is the #1 arcade collecting community on the web. KLOV has an excellent index of arcade games, a great database of members looking for and selling machines, and a super friendly and intelligent community of people pouring everything you’ll ever need to know into the KLOV Forums.

Start by looking at the index page for your favorite arcade game, such as this one for NBA Jam.

Pay special attention to the parts of the page mentioning how common the game is, and the links to the KLOV member database listing KLOVers who own or want to own or want to sell their arcade. If you see dozens of owners, and the game’s pretty common, you can usually expect to pay less than $1000 for a good quality machine. There are exceptions of course, such as a fully restored top quality game from 1982, but common mid-90s stuff is fairly prolific and easy to come by, and thus: cheaper.

After reading up on your arcade’s index page, join the KLOV forums as a member, so you can search forum topics for your game. There you will find discussions of common issues with the game, and information such as what game cabinets work well for the game if you can’t find a dedicated (original) cabinet.

Know what to look for and what can go wrong

General Important Info:

  • Wikipedia’s great Arcade Cabinet page has some great starter info.
  • An arcade cabinet weighs 300+ pounds. That’s a 80-100LB monitor, and a whole lot of 3/4″ particle board to make sure the machine isn’t going anywhere. If you plan to fetch one, bring 3 strong friends along.
  • The back of the cabinet has a locked door on it, if you purchase an arcade you will need to have the keys to get into this door to get to the monitor’s adjustment controls, the game boards, etc.
  • The front of the cabinet has a coin door. Inside that door, there’s a collection of important diagnostic buttons and buttons to add free credits. The key for a machine (both coin door and back door) may be hanging on a screw peg in that coin door. You need that key or a good screwdriver and some muscle to be able to unlock the coin door.
  • The machines I’ve encountered have this 4-button panel inside the coin door. One of the buttons simulates coins dropping in (for free credits). Another puts the game into a diagnostic/setup mode where you can change game settings, calibrate light guns, adjust sound volume, set games to free play, and more.
  • Cabinet dimension information is available on the web, many are about 6’1″ tall, just tall enough to barely not stand up in a 10′ U-Haul truck.. so go for the 14′ 🙂
  • Generally speaking, a standard arcade cabinet can fit through a doorway, unless of course it has a really wide control panel on the front for 4 players, like NBA Jam, or Ninja Turtles. No worry in this case though, the control panel pops right off, assuming you can get into the back of the machine through the door to release control panel latches and screws.
  • When you go to pick up an arcade, bring along the following items: flashlight, notebook, pen, and a screw driver set with adjustable tips with crazy ends like hex tips (it’s mostly flathead/phillips, but you never know..). Don’t forget the transportation essentials: a pickup truck or u-haul 14′ rental, blankets for padding, ropes and tie downs, and an appliance dolly.
  • Don’t buy an arcade without inspecting it first. Turn the game on, try all the buttons, see how the monitor looks, adjust it a bit if necessary, make sure the game plays for a number of minutes, and so on.

About Game Boards:

  • A *LOT* of arcade games are basically little motherboards with a processor, and various ROM/RAM/sound/etc chips. These are called PCBs. Many arcade collectors own one or two arcade cabinets, and several PCBs. For example I have an NHL Open ICE 2 on 2 cabinet, and PCBs for NBA Jam, NFL Blitz ’99, and Police Trainer. All four games work great in my cabinet.

    NFL Blitz (w/ HD) on left, Police Trainer on right.
  • Later 90s games, such as War Final Assault, Police Trainer 2, and others are more like full on computers, with a full computer mother board, video card, hard drive, and so on. Some, like NFL Blitz and Killer Instinct are simply a PCB + a hard drive.

    WAR has a PCB, a sound PCB, hard drive, and video card.
  • Likewise, early 80s games and earlier may have a interesting assortment of circuit boards and wiring mess that you won’t see in the mid-90s era.
  • There’s a great standard connection called JAMMA that most games connect to. The JAMMA connector is basically a long strip with a standard pin configuration. Plugging the JAMMA connector to a game board is simple, and the simple act of plugging that in gives you the following: power, video, sound, controls. It’s as easy as plugging a nintendo cartridge into a NES… most of the time..
  • Like those old NES games or any computer motherboard, the games typically have a little watch battery on the PCB. This battery keeps saved data alive, and is a simple $5 fix if you find your game settings or high scores are not saving between power cycles.
  • Older games like Pac-Man, Defender, etc, may be pre-JAMMA, and require a great deal more research to understand how the wiring works.
  • Some games have a bit more than the JAMMA standard provides, for example JAMMA provides for 2 players and 3 buttons each. A game like Street Fighter 2 with 6 buttons per player will have another little place on the board to wire in a connector for each player’s extra buttons. My 4 player NBA Jam cabinet has player 3 and player 4 controls on a little wire harness that simply “just works” on all of my midway NBA Jam variant games (NFL Blitz/NHL Open Ice). Hooking that midway player 3 or player 4 harness up to a non midway 4 player game like The Simpsons or X-MEN may not be as easy.
  • Some game boards are notoriously finicky or will give you hell in various ways, especially early 80s and before type games. Tempest is one you’ll hear about often. Mortal Kombat 2’s sound board goes bad pretty quickly and often. Some capcom games had a per-machine encryption key stored in battery-powered memory, 5 years later when the CMOS battery (nicknamed the “suicide battery” on these boards) ran out of juice, the board was useless. Good stuff, and, fortunately, not the norm. In most instances, a PCB will work great for years to come.
  • Sometimes a board’s capacitors or chips go bad. People on KLOV know how to fix these issues. Heard of MAME and arcade ROMS? Those zip files for the roms contain digital images from physical ROM chips or Hard Drives from the actual arcade machine. If such a chip or HD goes bad, KLOVers have equipment to make a new ROM chip to sauder in, and some KLOVers even sell compact flash replacements with IDE adapters for certain games with aging hard drives.
  • Some games have more than one board. When a game has a seperate board, there’s inevitably a custom way to wire between the main board and that board. For example my NBA Jam sound board requires a rediculous harness that goes from one port on the main PCB to parts of 3 ports on the sound board. If you’re the enterprising type, you can make your own wire harnesses within reason. My buddy and I were able to decipher a schematic from the manual and figure it out (shown below). On the other hand, KLOVers, various online collectors (such as Bob Roberts), and retailers sell common replacement wire harnesses for popular games.
  • There are game manuals available, these manuals often sell on ebay for $10-$15 a piece, but KLOV members mention several online websites with scans of manuals. These manuals can be critical for things like understanding how to wire one game’s control wires to another game’s board, or knowing which switch out of a bank of 12 switches makes the game be in Standard video resolution rather than Medium resolution.

About Monitors (and how they can kill you, no joke):

  • There are a number of differing monitor types, but the two you will hear about most often are standard resolution and medium resolution. Many arcade games from the mid-90s and before are standard res or lower, some around that period are medium res. Often times medium resolution games have jumper switches on the PCB that’ll make them work with standard res if that’s what you have.. you don’t get the same luxury going the other direction, so if you want several games, consider sticking to standard res in the cabinet you find.
  • Some games use a horizontally mounted monitor, and others (especially older games) use a vertical mount. (thanks cdjump!)
  • The monitor is open-backed inside the cabinet and can hold a 25,000 volt charge that can kill you if you touch it wrong, even when powered off. Be aware of this, and be very careful to leave the monitor alone unless you know what you’re doing. The topic to search for is “anode discharge”, and this CRT Safety PDF mentions the problem in passing. Be aware that many KLOVers insist on doing the anode discharge several times in a row before messing with the monitor, and doing the discharge again before plugging the machine back in.
  • Monitors can go bad over time, often times needing either a capacitor replacement (called a ‘cap kit‘), or something called a flyback repair. If you’re looking at a machine with a crappy monitor, a new one can cost $150-$200 without shipping, they’re on KLOV for-sale forums all the time. Alternatively a local TV or arcade repair man may be able to do the cap-kit or flyback fix. I highly recommend having a professional do any monitor work, because, again, there are stored voltages that could kill you when screwing with the monitor.
  • Monitors are not the same as your 25″ $100 sharp CRT from a few years ago, there’s a reason the machines costed $5K when they were new, and a high quality monitor with differing hookups than your antenna TV from back in the day is part of that reason.
  • Most monitors have focus/brightness/contrast adjustment control panels connected to them, you can find this by getting into the arcade through the back door.
  • Arcade Monitor Repair and Arcade Repair Tips are great resources for learning about common problems with monitors.

About Controls:

  • Joysticks and arcade buttons are cheap. Like, $3 for a brand new arcade button cheap. You can find them online with aid from KLOV info. One way to find retailers is to search for “Happ” (a manufacturer of some common arcade control parts). Some popular choices are Groovy Game Gear, or Ultimarc
  • Not all machines are the same, and some quite old or rare machines have parts that are not easy to find. This includes controls parts. If your machine is 8-way joysticks and buttons and that’s it, you’re in pretty good shape. If it’s monkey ball with a custom joystick in the shape of a banana.. finding a replacement joystick may be a bit of an exercise.
  • If you’d like to have one cabinet and many arcade boards, consider getting something that has 2 joysticks and 6 buttons per player, like a street fighter cabinet. Most arcade games are 2 player or less, and use anywhere from 0 (bubbles) to 1 (joust) to 2 (many games) to 3 (nba jam and variants) to 5/6 buttons (mid-90s fighter games).
  • If you’re looking at light gun games, know that in general light guns have 4 wires, and depending on the arcade machine these wires may be configured in different orders than the arcade board expects, a simple trip to radio shack and a quick look at schematics will help resolve this. There’s a “Happ” wiring standard that’s fairly common, for example my Police Trainer uses this.. unfortunately my guns are non-HAPP, so another bit of wiring magic was required there..

Know what works for you

There are options. You can buy one arcade cabinet and switch out the game boards inside. You can purchase a $3500 MAME machine from an online retailer, or you can collect several cabinets for each game you’re interested in. Further, if you’re really handy, you can restore or convert a junked out cabinet into something much better, like this guy, or this guy. Arcade Cab is a great resource for do-it-yourself cabinet building.

Know how to search & what to pay

Finding arcades can be tricky if you don’t know the right tools to use. Here are some suggestions

First, I would recommend subscribing to these two RSS feeds from KLOV in your Google Reader:

Next, I would recommend setting up an Ebay saved search in the arcade/jukeboxes section with keywords for games you’re interested in.

Lastly, Craigslist has a pretty neat feature where you turn a search into a short-lived RSS feed, but their force-you-into-one-city-per-search UI from hell can be cumbersome. For example, I live in Austin and at one time I had to go setup the same 3 RSS feeds for 7 different craiglist subdomains: austin, waco, san antonio, houston, college station, dallas, fort worth.

It’s much easier to just setup some Google Alerts, which email you when new items show up in Google’s search index. Each alert’s settings should look like this:

And a little google kung-fu will go a long way.. instead of “NBA Jam Arcade”, try “NBA Jam Arcade” or “NBA Jam Arcade”. I’d recommend setting up such alerts for both Ebay and Craiglist, as Google’s better than either site at finding content in their listings.

With your searches in place, be prepared to wait. You need to wait so you can see how often your game or games become available. You need to wait so you can see how people price the game and how the price falls very quickly when they’re moving and don’t want to deal with the arcade.

Know that something in really great condition, like a restored Robotron cabinet in great condition from 1982 can be pricey ($2K or so). Similarly something relatively new like Mario Kart GP may still command a $6K price tag b/c it will still make money in an arcade. For common stuff though (NBA Jam, Street Fighter, Contra, etc), if it’s more than $1000 per cabinet, even in great shape, you’re probably getting ripped off. You’ll see numerous humorous threads on KLOV for sale pointing to ebay and craigslist listings with these rip-off prices.

Once you know the price range for your game, try to find it local. It can cost several hundred dollars to ship an arcade freight across the country, or u-haul it back home from somewhere hours away. Consider looking up the game on the KLOV index again and seeing if the DB has any KLOVers in your area looking to sell.

One last tidbit on buying: Auctions and liquidations are fairly common. Do some research on KLOV though about some of these auctions. Some recur fairly often, and some are run by some dicey liquidation companies where KLOVers have noticed the same shill bidders from the company itself artificially driving prices up.

Know when to stop

Arcade collecting isn’t for everyone. The machines are bulky, heavy, and can have technical issues beyond even super geek understanding. They burn a lot of power, put off a lot of heat, and if they’re in the garage and you live in Texas, like me, you basically don’t play them from the months of June through September 🙂

If you’re going to start collecting arcades, I’d suggest being a bachelor or having a really understanding wife as prerequisites to the hobby. I’d also seriously suggest checking out some of the more recent arcade collections available on consoles. Namco, Atari, Midway, Williams, and more publishers are releasing better and better ports of their arcade classics every few years. In particular the Midway Arcade Treasures on Gamecube and PSP are damn near perfect.

Consider this: Robotron on a new 50″ plasma TV with a gamecube controller in the comfort of your living room may go over better with the wife than spending double the money for a unsightly arcade cabinet that’ll take garage space for years..

About My Collection

Around the time I was considering the NBA Jam machine, my wife and I were considering moving to Seattle, so I canned the arcade machine idea for a year. Instead, I bought an a320 and felt satisfied with many nostalgic moments relived playing my Game Gear NBA Jam port.

We later decided Seattle wasn’t in the cards, so last summer, in 2011, after several failed attempts at NBA Jam or NFL Blitz machine acquisitions, I found someone in San Antonio selling an old NHL Open ICE 2 on 2 cabinet. I knew Midway made the cabinet exactly the same for all three games, so I went for it. $300 later, I had my NHL Open Ice Cabinet. That night Open Ice was ripped out of the cabinet, and a newly purchased $30 NBA Jam PCB from a KLOVer who lives nearby was in the cabinet.

The sound harness was missing, so my buddy and I fixed that, and there were some other little learning experiences as well, but the monitor is in great shape and only a few buttons needed repair. The machine isn’t exactly a looker:

..but, the fact that the cabinet’s beat up made it easy for my next acquisition. My wife’s favorite game is Police Trainer. The PCB typically runs for $100+, and Happ guns typically go for $50 a piece, but watching searches on ebay turned up a real deal where I got the PCB for $20 and a pair of non-happ guns for another $30. A few wiring adventures later, and a slight cabinet mod to stick the guns on the side.. my wife had a pretty good 33rd birthday surprise. To this day Police Trainer is the most popular game with anyone who visits (no love for the original NBA Jam it seems..).

This past spring I picked up a NFL Blitz ’99 PCB for $70 on ebay. Arguably the game is not much different than the Nintendo 64 and Gamecube ports of the series, but there’s something magical about playing 4 player games on the arcade with my brothers.

Another game I lusted after for years was even worse off than NBA Jam. In the late 90s the FPS genre was coming of age and there were only a few attempts at arcade entries to the genre. Atari’s WAR Final Assault being one of them. Like NBA Jam, WAR was fairly lenient on the quarter gobbling. For about $2, two people could deathmatch for 2 or 3 minutes, with loser paying another $1 to continue. WAR was being ported to the nintendo 64, and I was very much looking forward to the port, but the port was canceled before release, so the only way to own WAR is to own the machine.

Worse, the best part of WAR is the multiplayer, which requires more than one machine. I had google alerts running for about a year on the machine, and found a pair in really good shape this summer for $500, again in San Antonio. Now the garage has three cabs.

And the kitchen has a mini-cab. I purchased the iCade and various arcade collections on my iPad and I must say, for the past year the iPad has been a convenient browser for my wife, and a TumbleOn device and not much else for myself… that is, until I bought the iCade. Playing these classic arcade games with real arcade controls almost makes me think I’ll be able to hold off on purchasing a generic mame cabinet for a while..

Games Like Pikmin

Pikmin is the greatest game ever, I think.

For those unfamiliar with the game, it’s basically a simplified RTS game, with a focus on resource gathering and multi-tasking. That is, the enemies that you encounter are not consistently coming to demolish your home base with constant aggression, instead you take them on at will, taking your time building your army between battles.

The basic premise to the game is that you’re a spaceman, Olimar, who’s crash landed and needs the Pikmin to help him rebuild his spaceship so he can fly home. When Olimar crash lands on the Pikmin planet, 30 pieces of his spaceship are spread across 5 different levels in the Pikmin world. As you play through the game you encounter three different colored Pikmin species: blue, red, and yellow. Red Pikmin can survive flame, while blue can survive water, etc. A given piece of the spaceship may be behind a body of water, across a wall of flames, and to retrieve that piece safely you’ll need to alternate between Pikmin types.

Like all RTS games, the trick to the game is limited resources and micromanagement. Pikmin are weak little creatures by themselves, but you can have an army of 100 at a time. Numbers will not win the game though, a fair bit of strategy and timing matters a great deal in the game. You’ll use your Pikmin to attack enemies, break down walls, build bridges, and bring treasures home. You can break a wall down with 10 Pikmin, but such a task will burn 20 minutes, the same wall will come down much faster with 85 Pikmin. The same rule applies for other tasks such as attacking enemies or bringing treasure home.

The game is beautiful. The Pikmin and Olimar are about 1 inch tall, and the Pikmin world has a striking resemblance to earth. As you play, you’ll guide your Pikmin through lush green gardens, dreary underground caverns full of pools of water, and otherwise, and the eye candy never stops.

A major draw of the game that few knock-offs get right is the ability to multitask. That is, the game is very much non-linear. You can beat the original Pikmin game in some 5 hours or less once you’re familiar with it, because you can set one troop of Pikmin to do one task, while you travel elsewhere with another group working on another task. The challenge becomes attempting to fetch 3, 4, 5 pieces in a single “day” (15 minutes) of game time. Some days are best spent taking your army of 100 Pikmin to vanquish monsters and collect treasures that’ll spawn more Pikmin reserves, while other days could be spent preparing all paths to pieces, allowing a massive 5 piece day a bit later.

The downside to Pikmin? There are only three games in the series.

In the years since Pikmin’s release, there have been a few almost-as-good games released, and there doesn’t seem to be a consistent list of knock-offs anywhere else on the web, so, behold, the list of games like pikmin:

Games Like Pikmin

  • There are three Pikmin games.

    The original Pikmin game was released in 2001 on Nintendo Gamecube (amazon link). Later, a version with motion controls was released on the Nintendo Wii (amazon link). The Wii can also play gamecube discs, with a gamecube controller – and IMO the gamecube controls were a bit more precise when you become an experienced player.

    Pikmin 2 is a much larger game in terms of game time. Like the original game, it was originally released on the Gamecube (amazon link), and later with motion controls for the Wii (amazon link).

    Finally, the latest game in the series, Pikmin 3 (amazon link), released in 2012, brings the Pikmin series into the HD-TV era. It was released on the Nintendo Wii-U system.

  • Little King’s Story (Nintendo Wii version linked, a Playstation Vita port is available as well.)

    Little King’s Story is a great Pikmin clone on the Wii. You play a young king who directs his various subjects to do tasks. Like Pikmin, you can set various subjects to do a bit of work and go on to do something else with another set of subjects. I own a copy of Little King’s Story and have enjoyed it quite a bit, almost as much as I enjoy the Pikmin series. A sequel to the game is coming out on the Playstation Vita in Japan, and hopefully in the United Stats shortly after.

  • Eco-Creatures: Save the Forest (Nintendo DS)

    Eco-Creatures is the first Pikmin knock-off on a portable system. Like Olimar, the main character is fairly weak and cannot accomplish much on his own, but he has armies of squirrels and other creatures he can accomplish much with. Surprisingly, the game allows you to have 100 minions at once, which is an impressive technical feat on the DS. I wrote a in-depth review about the game years ago here: Yes, Eco-Creatures is like Pikmin on the DS. If you are a Pikmin fan, I would *highly* recommend this game. If you enjoy the first title, there’s a sequel that was only released in Japan, it will play on a US DS or 3DS (DS games are not region-locked, though 3DS games are). The sequel is titled Ecolis: Aoi Umi to Ugoku Shima, and appears to have a fair bit of Japanese text in it, understanding what to do in the game may be difficult if you do not know how to read Japanese.

  • Overlord (XBox 360, PC) (Released as Overlord: Raising Hell on Playstation 3)

    Overlord seems to be a direct rip-off of Pikmin, but a bit more linear in gameplay style. Overlord’s visuals are stunning. Overlord has been characterized as a mix between Fable and Pikmin. In the game you are an evil Overlord who reigns destruction via his minions (like Pikmin) and you can choose how much destruction you will cause as you make your way through the game (a bit like Fable). Unlike Pikmin, which seems to be a thinly veiled commentary on human nature wrapped in a cute package, Overlord is overtly, and humorously evil. There is also a sequel, Overlord 2, which many reviews indicate is not as good as the first game in the series. A prequel, Overlord: Dark Legend was released on the Wii. Be careful of the Overlord:Minions game for Nintendo DS, this is a Lost Vikings type game, not a Pikmin knock-off.

  • Army Corps of Hell (Playstation Vita)

    This newcomer from Square Enix was created by some of the same people who worked on the original Pikmin game for Nintendo. Reviews caution to not take the over-the-top style of the game seriously, it’s meant to be humorous. Reviews also caution that the game may not be “as great” as Pikmin, in that it’s a bit repetitive and not free-form / open-world style like Pikmin.

  • Adventures of Darwin (Playstation 2)

    Adventures of Darwin is a budget-level title that was released with a $20 price tag, when Playstation 2 games were normally $40-$50. I bought a second-hand copy of the game years ago and could not figure the game out, which reviews say is about par for the course for the game. Nevertheless, Adventures of Darwin is definitely a Pikmin clone, albeit a low-quality one.

Do you know of another game like Pikmin that should be listed? Please, email me!

Cool Stuff: Remote Desktop (VNC, RDP, etc)

See that? That’s my desktop this afternoon. If you look closely you’ll notice that a few of my desktop applications look a little odd. This is my mac mini’s OSX desktop, with Windows in the left application window, and another OSX in the right window. The trick here is that those two windows are my two other computers. This is what’s called “Remote Desktop”, and it’s awesome.

Remote Desktop is essentially a program for your computer that shares your screen and lets you control the computer from another computer. A few other terms for “Remote Desktop” that you may have heard of are VNC, or RDP.

Setting Remote Desktop up on your computer is easy, you’ll need to do two things: allow remote control on the computer you want to control; and install a remote desktop application on the other computer.

A word of caution: Enabling Remote Desktop on your computer means that anyone on your network (behind your router) can connect to, view, and control your computer. Most of the Remote Desktop technologies have password protection to prevent unauthorized access, but some Remote Desktop technologies do not protect (encrypt) the password or screen data as it passes over your network, so be careful not to use Remote Desktop on a network with untrusted users, as you don’t want someone to know your VNC password or snooping on your screen sharing session.

One important caveat about Remote Desktop solutions is that differing technologies dont necessarily mix well. Microsoft’s Remote Desktop service speaks a different language than Apple’s Remote Desktop service, and VNC is a third and different protocol altogether.

If you’re connecting from one OSX to another OSX, consider using Apple’s built-in Remote Desktop service and the built in Screen Sharing app (located on your system’s hard drive here: /System/Library/CoreServices/Screen Power users may be interested to know that you can enable and disable Apple’s Remote Desktop Service via SSH.

If you’re connecting from OSX or Windows to Windows, consider using Microsoft’s built in Remote Desktop service (Win 7/Vista instructions) (Win XP instructions), and a free Microsoft RDP client.

The built-in Windows Remote Desktop service is only available in Pro editions of Windows and higher, so if you have a home edition (such as Home Premium) of XP/Vista/7, consider the VNC alternative detailed below.

If you’re connecting with any other configuration, such as from Windows to OS X, or perhaps from your iPad or something, use VNC. You can enable the VNC service in OS X easily (it’s already built into the operating system), and on windows you can install something like TightVNC. There are a number of VNC clients for both Windows and OS X, I recommend these:

I’m especially fond of TightVNC. It has a reverse-VNC feature where someone can connect a client to your VNC server and you control their desktop instead of the other way around. Another great feature is the TightVNC web server that lets anyone with a browser run a Java VNC client that automatically connects to your VNC server.

If you’re helping friends and family with their computers, VNC and/or RDP setup can be a bit complicated for your non-I.T.-savvy family, instead consider something as simple as a Skype Screen Sharing session, or a VNC-in-the-browser solution such as LogMeIn or GoToMyPC, these have much simpler installation instructions than any of the RDP/VNC options presented earlier.

Remote Desktop is an amazing bit of power-user technology that makes managing and using multiple computers very simple. It will save you time, frustration, and help you make better use of your household computers, all without switching your keyboard and monitor or position back and forth between them.