Ubuntu Touch: first impressions and SCREENSHOTS!!!

Well that didn’t take long. First Mark Shuttleworth says we won’t be able to get all touchy-feely with Ubuntu until October, and then Canonical releases the Ubuntu Touch alpha for Nexus devices only, and then they host a full fledged port-a-thon. In what is the best display of underpromise and overdeliver I have seen in the tech world, Ubuntu Touch is actually out in the wild for over 25 devices.

I have to admit, after the ‘look with your eyes and not with your hands‘ first sighting of Ubuntu actually running on phone hardware, I was pretty skeptical of the emphasis and reliance on swiping and gestures as a replacement for the standard Android home, back and menu keys. After actually playing with it on my HTC Sensation via LaidbackNikez’ succinct guide over at XDA-Developers, those old buttons just feel like so much dead weight. 

Please keep in mind that this is a very early look at Ubuntu Touch and that much (most?) of what you see here is not final. While the main interface is demonstrated fairly well, this build includes a lot of stubs of apps and other features. I am also testing on a non-Nexus device, which means almost none of the hardware is working except for the power button and the screen. As such, I cannot test camera features or anything that connects to the internet. I will avoid commenting on functionality as much as possible and try to assess the intent of the designers, instead of complaining about the keyboard not having autocorrect. 

This is the lockscreen. At first you think, ‘Oh, it’s the Jelly Bean lockscreen. I’ll just swipe from the center of the circle out.’ Wrong. Swiping from right to left will sweep the lockscreen away to reveal the homescreen. Other than that, the lockscreen is pretty standard, except there doesn’t appear to be a quick shortcut for opening the camera and snapping a just-in-time pic. You actually can get to your camera from here, but that is through the left-to-right swipe Unity menu. More on that later.

Does anyone else remember TouchFLO 3D? It was the early version of HTC’s Sense UI that ran on Windows Mobile devices waaaay back in the day. Ubuntu Touch’s homescreen(s) is what I imagine TouchFLO 3D would have grown into had Android never come onto the scene. Seriously, I’m pretty sure those icons at the bottom of the screen are the same ones I had on my Touch Pro 2. There is a home panel that shows your recently used apps, recent and favorite contacts, and a selection of recent and favorite media.

There is a people pane, that shows all of your contacts. It’s actually kind of refreshing to have an entire section of Ubuntu Touch’s homescreen devoted to contacts, rather than burying the contacts list in the app drawer or pages of icons, as iOS and Android do. This is a UI built for personal communication devices after all.

The Apps pane is very interesting. At the top it shows little previews of the apps that are currently running, followed by frequent apps, and then all apps. At the very bottom there is an interesting section called ‘Available for download’ that shows popular apps or maybe apps that are targeted at you based on your usage patterns and search history. This is either really cool or really creepy, depending on how it works and your point of view. There have already been concerns over Unity search being spyware that gives you targeted ads from Amazon.

The music and video panes are on the far left and right ends of the homescreen, but they are almost identical in layout. The thing that I find odd is that the content seems to be exclusively from streaming sources. You have Featured, Recent, New Releases and Chart Topping/Popular Online. No mention of a library. This further supports the conspiracy theories of Canonical selling out the open source community to Amazon.

You can scroll horizontally through many of the elements on different panels, as well as scrolling up and down through the different sections of each panel. While this is very efficient with screen real-estate, situations arise where you will try to flip to the next panel, only to find yourself scrolling through your favorite contacts instead of going to the apps screen, for instance. While you can train yourself to only swipe in the title are at the top of the screen when you want to flip between panels, this still feels like a UI design issue that needs attention.

The philosophy of the Unity interface is clear in every panel. Here is your favorite stuff, then your recent stuff, then some stuff we think you might want (like ‘New Contacts’ in the People pane), and if you don’t see it right away, just swipe up to search for it.

Conspicuously absent till this point is the Unity bar that Ubuntu desktop users know and hate so well. It’s awesome. Full stop. Unity really does work on a touchscreen device, just like Canonical has been saying all along. It has taken them forever to prove it, but prove it they have.

Swipe from the left edge of the screen in a little bit, and the Unity bar pops up, giving you a jump menu with a home button, quick access to your camera, phone, twitter or whatever, all without lifting your finger. Instead of lifting your finger over the app you want, swipe past the bar into the center of the screen to be taken to the homescreen. This mechanic is brilliant. Think about task switching in Android or iOS. You have to double click the home button or hold the home button until a menu pops up, then tap on your app of choice. In Ubuntu, that takes a single motion of your finger, and the “home” gesture is still as easy as hitting a home button.

You can scroll upward through the bar if what you want isn’t immediately visible, although this task proves difficult one-handed. The bar is even available from the lockscreen, so you can still get to your camera quickly.

To crank your task switching speed up to cheetah (which is currently faster than SimCity can run), swiping from the right edge of the screen lets you switch directly between two apps. How many times have you thought to yourself ‘Aaargh! I wish I could get back to Angry Birds faster after feeding my dinosaurs in Jurassic Park Builder.’? Go ahead and insert apps that make you sound cooler if you want. Ubuntu touch has actually taken the classic alt-tab keyboard shortcut, and updated it to keyboard-less devices.

 

Swiping down from the top of the screen will show your notifications, which is nice and familiar for Android and iOS users. Tapping a notification brings up options, including Android-style quick replies to text messages. You have to tap on a notification and then tap on the icon for the associated app to make the notification go away, which is unintuitive and entirely too much work when you are actively trying to ignore something. You can also hit the Clear All button at the bottom, but I would still like an easier method for clearing individual notifications.

You can also swipe down on other parts of the top bar to bring up other menus. For example, swiping down on the clock shows an actual clock, which is pretty, but redundant, and upcoming events and appointments. This is nice for those of us who are anal retentive, and can’t stand it when persistent notifications like reminders and appointments clutter up the notification bar.

 

Tapping on the top bar instead of swiping brings up a quick settings menu, and also gives you buttons that take you to the other pull-down menus. At this time, these appear to be the only settings you can mess with.

 

There is a search button on the top bar that only seems to do anything on the Music and Video panes of the homescreen, and, to me seems entirely redundant because of Ubuntu Touch’s final swipe direction.

 

Swiping up from the bottom of the screen and releasing over the magnifying glass icon that pops up brings up the familiar Unity universal search function. Even though I am not connected to the internet, the search function seems to work well, providing instant results for even partial queries.

 

The upward swipe gesture also seems to serve a purpose similar to the menu key on an Android device, giving you context specific options for sharing or changing settings. Or at least that’s my guess. It doesn’t seem to be implemented everywhere, and sometimes if you swipe up from the bottom of the screen, but not all the way up to the search icon, you get a different set of options to choose from.

 

 

Other assorted musings about Ubuntu Touch

The search button on the top bar is redundant because of the upward swipe gesture.

Swiping up and from right to left doesn’t work on the home screen. Likewise, the Unity bar behaves slightly different when you are on the home screen. I don’t know if this is intentional or not, but if you are going to make an OS the relies on gestures, they need to work the same everywhere, or your UI will be confusing.

I can haz settingz?

You can really see the benefit of running software natively instead of through Android’s Dalvik virtual machine. Even though I am running this early release on an unsupported device, swiping around is nearly as fast as navigating around in Android. I can’t wait to see a native ARM app that can make use of the extra horsepower.

The size of items on screen is very easily scalable via a single text file. I imagine Ubuntu Touch with giant buttons could be popular for smartphones marketed at seniors.

There is almost nothing still here from desktop Ubuntu. One of the best parts of Ubuntu is the ability to just apt-get install whatever you want. Especially on a tablet, I would want to want to have access to that software. Right now, there is no terminal and there is no apt. Is it really linux without a terminal? 

Will they include Dalvik and provide a method for running Android apps, or will all apps need to be ported?

If there is still significant overlap with Android, and they don’t bring over very much from the desktop and server sides of Ubuntu, then wouldn’t it have been easier to just make a Unity skin/launcher for Android? Wouldn’t it be easier to just add some Ubuntu stuff to Android and let Google do all the heavy lifting?

What service will be selling the media that is featured on the Music and Video panes on the home screen? Based on their past partnership. I would guess Amazon. This has to be part of Canonical’s motivation to get into the mobile market in the first place. I just wonder what Google thinks of Canonical piggybacking off of their Android and Nexus efforts to get their mobile OS off the ground, considering they will be effectively stealing market share from the Play store.

Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn – Review

Welcome to the very first Loudifier Saturday Morning Movie Review. Last weekend I finally hooked up my Xbox 360 to the intertron. Holy cow! There’s a lot of stuff out there in Xbox Live land. I stumbled across a live-action Halo movie, Forward Unto Dawn, and, like a UNSC cruiser sucked in by a Promethean gravity well, I didn’t have any choice but to watch it, and I decided I had to do a review.

 

Forward Unto Dawn was a web series made as a promotion for Halo 4, designed to introduce the Halo universe to the uninitiated. After Halo 4’s release they took the five fifteen-minute episodes and squished them together to create a seamless feature-length (or at least almost feature-length) film. The funny thing is, if they had given the final movie a theatrical release it would have gone gangbusters at the box office. This is easily the best movie-based-on-a-video-game out there. However, you should take that statement with a large grain of salt; I actually kind of liked the Super Mario Bros. and Mortal Kombat movies.

The canon for the Halo universe falls into two major categories: games and books. The games give you the futuristic, fast-paced action, floaty physics and detailed, immersive settings that redefined the FPS genre when the original title was released. The books give you a window into the be-helmetted head of the Master Chief, and show you that underneath the half-ton of fusion-powered armor, John 117 is just a guy, trying to do his part to save humanity. Forward Unto Dawn falls very much on the book side of this division, although the action sequences manage to capture the feeling of the games.

If you have read The Fall of Reach, or Ghosts of Onyx, you will have seen this basic story already. Kid gets conscripted into the military, is subjected to training that pushes the limits of human endurance, brainwashed into zealotry against a merciless, mostly conceptual enemy, and then all hell breaks loose when something else attacks. The kid in this case is Cadet Thomas Lasky, son of the Grand Poobah of Something-or-Other in the UNSC. Tom is training at the Corbulo Academy of Military Science, which is like a ROTC on crack for the children of high-ranking UNSC officers. This is before the outbreak of the Human-Covenant war, so they play war games with other trainees, complete with cryogenic freezing, to train for battles with insurrectionists.

Tom doesn’t really buy into the whole “insurrectionists are evil and want to eat your brain” convictions that everyone around him has. Unfortunately, his almost-girlfriend is the person near him who is the most fervent in her hatred of the “innies”. Just as the Spartans did at the Reach training facility, he is struggling to keep his head above water with the brutal pace of his training, and is figuring out how work in a team and what it means to be devoted to a cause and to follow orders. And then the Covenant attack.

Cadet Lansky and some of his friends manage to survive, running and hiding from one of the Covenant’s iconic active-camouflaged lightsaber energy-sword-wielding elites, until none other than the Master Chief himself shows up to save the day. The conversation that ensues is very reminiscent of the Chief saving a group of marines just before Reach is overwhelmed.

"Why did you come for us?"
"You are the only survivors remaining."
"At the school?"
"On the planet."

The special effects are pretty good, with excellent CGI. The loping movement of the elites, the badass energy swords, and the projectiles from Covenant needlers are particularly frightening.

oh shit

The props, sets, and costuming are a cosplayer’s wet dream. The MA5B assault rifles are perfect, most of the sound effects are the same ones used in the games, and they built a warthog. An honest-to-god — sliding around corners, with wheels in the back that turn, and a chaingun on top of it — warthog.

 

The Chief’s armor is great, but I feel like the actor moved around a bit too much in it. He didn’t have the mechanical precision I would have expected from a cyborg of his pedigree, but that is really a small complaint, and is the only thing that doesn’t quite match the motion of the characters and enemies in the games.

Without getting too spoileriffic, I will say that we don’t get to see the Master Chief’s face (of course), but we do get to see both Kelly and Fred. It turns out that Kelly’s face is… intense.

just... please don't kill me, Kelly

She’s kind of a bug-eyed freak with scars on her face and a million-mile stare. I have to give them credit for not just sticking some hot blonde in a space suit. It would have worked well with the target market for a movie like this, but it wouldn’t have really fit in context of the antisocial, asexual Spartans. Oh well, maybe Linda’s cute. 

There are scenes where Cortana is rambling and yelling at herself, and threatening to kill the Chief, while he is frozen in a cryo tube and they are floating dead in space. For those who don’t know about Cortana being a “smart” AI, susceptible to rampancy, this won’t make any sense. This is important to the plot of Halo 4, so it is important when Forward Unto Dawn is used to promote Halo 4, but it doesn’t make much sense in the context of the events at the Corbulo Academy. It comes off as confusing and unnecessary, especially now that Halo 4 is out.

Overall, I am really surprised at the effort and attention to detail that was taken to make a silly web series as a promotion for a video game. The sets and action aren’t as grandiose as something like Transformers, but with less than a tenth of the budget, Forward Unto Dawn definitely comes close in production value. Considering how well this venture turned out, I would be shocked if Microsoft didn’t decide to bankroll an actual full-length film with a theatrical release to coincide with Halo 5.

Overall, I give Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn four terrifying invisible elites with energy-swords hunting you down out of five. Yes, fan service abounds, but it is remarkable how well the creators of Forward Unto Dawn were able to craft a story that stands on its own, but still fits perfectly in the Halo universe.

With youngsters being trained in simulated battle to fight for the future of humanity, and a protagonist that is conflicted about his position and his responsibilities in the military, parallels must be drawn between this movie and the upcoming Ender’s Game. As a die-hard fan of both the Halo series and the Ender’s Game series, if Ender’s Game is half as good as Forward Unto Dawn, I will be thrilled.

Some of the images for this review came from halofanforlife.com. If you’re the graphic novel type, screenshots from the blu-ray have been adapted into a graphic novel for all five episodes, so head over and check it out.

Macklemore x Ryan Lewis – The Heist – Review

Holy white hipster rapper, Batman!

The Heist

I have two warnings about The Heist. One: This album will blow you away. Be prepared to  sit down and listen to it from start to finish, because stopping halfway through is not an option. Two: This album is political. Not everywhere, but strongly in places. I have said before that I hate being preached at when I am just trying to enjoy some music, but this album is so good, that I don’t even care.

Six months ago my fiance said “Hey, have you heard this Macklemore guy? He’s some local rapper with this huge indie following.” She was right, but I didn’t get around to listening to him until now, when “Thrift Shop” is suddenly everywhere. You know, that goofy rap song you keep hearing on the radio with the funky saxophone hook. Actually listening to the lyrics, talking about shopping at thrift stores, and criticizing people who overpay for fashion, with lines like “Fifty dollars for a T-shirt – that’s just some ignorant bitch. I call that getting swindled and pimped. I call that getting tricked by a business” I am wondering who this hipster rapper is, and then I find out he’s from Capitol Hill. Ooooooohhhh. Got it.

For people who aren’t from Seattle, Capitol Hill is Seattle’s gay neighborhood. It’s a lot of other things, but it is generally a region of the city where indie theater, angry music, and the LGBT community thrive. So when I hear something like “The Tea Party is marching on Capitol Hill” I picture Sarah Palin in the middle of a Pride rally. Capitol Hill is a haven for hipsters. Really, it’s surprising that it has taken this long for Seattle to produce an artist like this.

So what do you get when you take an urban hipster, educated at Evergreen State College, and mix him with a vibrant indie music scene, powered by macbook pros and leftwing convictions? Macklemore x Ryan Lewis.

From the start, Macklemore’s rapping has a relaxed tone, with clever rhymes, and a crisp, frantic pace that sometimes matches that of Twista. It must be pointed out that Macklemore doesn’t suffer from Asher Roth syndrome; this white rapper sounds nothing like Eminem.

Macklemore’s lyrics throughout The Heist talk about some heavy stuff. Struggles maintaining faith with a religion that is out of sync with the community and the world he lives in, trying to maintain a sense of self in a homogeneous sea of consumerism (“apps this good, who has time to make friends?”), not selling out to The Man at the record label, relapsing while serving as a role model for other addicts.

Which isn’t to say Macklemore can’t party. “Castle” is all fun, with 80’s synths backing up random lyrics of wizards, pirate ships, and eating coyotes, asking “will you come party in my castle?”. “Thrift shop” is as fun a fun gets. I always find out how loud my stereo goes when it comes on.

I blame the whole speaker-blasting thing on Ryan Lewis, though. The Heist is full of real acoustic instruments, horns and strings and drums, perfectly layered with backing vocals, mixing with thick hip hop beats and sparing use of electronic sounds and effects. They say that the mark of great production is that you don’t notice it. The Heist doesn’t sound like anything else on the radio right now, but it also doesn’t sound out of place. They call that “classic”. Listen to “Harder than you think” by Public Enemy. It didn’t sound like anything else out at that time, but it didn’t sound out of place. It still doesn’t sound like anything on the radio, but it doesn’t sound dated. Ryan Lewis has figured out that formula. The Heist stands out from the mass-produced, electronic dance chip-hop of today, without being radical.

If political music bothers you, or if you lean to the right, you should just probably skip “Same love”. Macklemore is really genuine on this track, and the backing vocals of Mary Lambert are really great. Let’s just say that Macklemore is probably ecstatic that Washington state voted for the gays in the past election cycle.

The closest artist I can liken Macklemore to is The Flobots, considering the horns, the rapping, the convictions laid out in the lyrics. The Flobots have a more jazzy, soulful sound, while Macklemore is climbing the hip-hop charts.

When you look at The Heist on Amazon, you are informed that customers who bought The Heist also bought The Lumineers. When I reviewed The Lumineers, I said that The Lumineers were for people who were fans of music, and that holds true for Macklemore. If you like music, you will like Macklemore.

I give The Heist five pounds of fur out of five. You’re right, Wanz, this is fucking awesome.