ArenaNet – Let me help you spend my money!

The following is a positive, sincere account of how I have spent money on MMOs in the past and what I personally find valuable in Guild Wars 2. My intent is to help ArenaNet (makers of Guild Wars 2) make money from gem sales and expansions, by telling them explicitly what I WILL purchase (not “might”, but actually WILL spend money on). Why do this? I like Guild Wars 2 and wish to see its continued success! 🙂

Personal Background (Demographics):
– Male, 37, Married, Kids, Canada.
– Started playing MMOs in 2002 with Everquest.
– Most hours played in: Star Wars Galaxies, Planetside 2, World of Warcraft, Everquest 1/2.
– Most subscriptions paid for: Star Wars Galaxies (multiple accounts)
– Most additional money spent on a subscription based game: World of Warcraft (character transfer fees, mounts).
– Most money spent in a “free2play” game: Planetside 2 (weapons > cosmetics > xp boost).
– Total different MMOs I have spent money on or in: 10+
– MMOs I have played in the last year: Guild Wars 2, Planetside 2, SWGEmu.
– MMOs I have played in the 3 months: Guild Wars 2, Planetside 2.
– MMOs I currently play: Guild Wars 2.
– MMOs I will play in 2016: Guild Wars 2.
– Game consoles owned: Wii
– Do I play or purchase other PC or console games: Pretty much never.
– Last PC or console game purchase: Torchlight II, 2013.

Approx Spent Since 2002:
– Games: $500
– Expansion Packs: $300
– Subscriptions: $1,000 – $1,500
– Optional Services (mostly character tranfer fees): $150

How I Allocated Currency I Purchased:
– Mounts: $50 (EQ2 / WoW)
– Game Play Variety (weapons, classes, houses, etc): $250
– Utility (storage, toolbars, etc): $100
– Cosmetics (camo, skins, etc): $50

Please don’t add all that up… I don’t want to know. No doubt it’s less than many spend on beer in a year though! lol…

Moving on to Guild Wars 2 specific information now.

Purchased GW2: December 2012
Year most played: 2015
Year least played: Honestly, I barely ever played before 2015.

Reasons for original purchase:

1. Open, “living world” design with down leveling to keep all content relevant.

2. Uncompetitive, co-op oriented PvE (harvesting nodes, loot distribution, no “mob tagging”, etc)

3. Class and combat mechanics tied to weapon choices and how that played into making underwater combat unique and interesting.

4. Fun combat style, with no-tab targeting and active dodging.

5. No monthly subscription.

Why didn’t I play much before 2015:

1. I was playing other games, mostly Planetside 2, and working on other hobbies in my available time.

2. I found the character personalities in Guild Wars 2 very hard to relate to and in some ways, actively annoying. The breathy Sylvari male, my first character past 20 (since deleted), was especially obnoxious. On the flip side, my main character whom I adore is a female Sylvari. Kudos to you, Jennifer Hale! 🙂

3. It was difficult to find a class that I enjoyed playing. I tried all but the ones I knew I wouldn’t like (Thief and Necromancer) to level 25 or so and the only one I really fun with was Guardian.

4. The mounts/vehicles, housing, and clothing variety that I was used to having in other games weren’t available in GW2, making GW2 feel less personal. This is where Everquest 2 shines – it has copious amounts of EVERYTHING! lol…

5. The GW2 crafting system isn’t as fun as Star Wars Galaxies system, but I like it. However, it ultimately feels a little pointless, given how everything you can make is already available for purchase on the Trading Post for the lowest possible price. This is, of course, excluding the highest level, most grindy-to-make items that I would never bother making anyway. I guess I will be forever spoiled by the SWG Beast Master crafting system… 🙂

6. My one friend who played kept changing servers, so I ended up deleting everything and starting over 3 times. The last time, I said no more! He hasn’t played in about a year, go figure… This undoubtedly had a negative impact on my level of emotional investment in the game, especially given I didn’t have any investment in the franchise as a whole (I never played the original Guild Wars or explored its lore).

Why I decided to play GW2 more in 2015:

1. “It’s a beautiful game and I really like a lot about it!”, so I have said a number of times over the years. It was time to give it a fair shake.

2. Despite spending thousands of hours in Planetside 2, a 100% PvP game, and many hours playing Counter-Strike “back in the day”, I’m not really into the whole Internet competition thing. I just like shooting doods and blowing stuff up (in a gore-free, laser-tag/computer game sense – gore/horror is not my cup of tea). What I actually REALLY enjoy is PvE exploration and that’s what I have spent the vast majority of my time doing in SWG, WoW, EQ/EQ2, GW2, Aion, SWTOR… and MANY other games. Guild Wars 2 has an amazing open world to explore.

3. I’m not really into the whole “online community” thing. Back before I got married and had a whack of kids of my own, I didn’t so much mind sitting down at the computer and interacting with other people and their kids. Now, however, when I sit down to play an online game the last thing I want to do is entertain or interact with children (or adults who act like children). I’ve always hated VOIP, with the exception of a handful of people I raided with in WoW. Why? Because I really don’t give a shit about how high or drunk you are pretending to be… People on the Internet, I can live without them.

And here’s the thing, with the original design of Guild Wars 2, a person could log in and have hours of fun playing with other people without ever having to deal with organizing groups, drama, demands to use voip, etc. Nope, instead of all that kruft, you could just log in, “do stuff”, and find that other folks are around doing that stuff too. As a person who just wants to sit down for a while, when time permits, and disolve into another world for a while, the original areas of Guild Wars 2 are a dream come true!

Purchases I have made in Guild Wars 2:
Gems: 800 Gems (USD, 1 in game transaction)
– Special Edition, when on sale
– 1 Bank Tab
– Missing Living Story, Season 2 chapters, when on sale (topped with Gold > Gems).

Why I have not purchased more in Guild Wars 2:

1. Game Cards are no longer available in Canada. BestBuy and EBGames used to carry them.

2. The Canadian Dollar is far too low justify purchasing ANYTHING in USD these days. For majority of the time I have been playing MMOs, the exchange rate has been alright, +/-10% (http://www.tradingeconomics.com/canada/currency), however, we’re now looking at roughly 35% surcharge on any purchase simply due to the entirely arbitrary exchange rate. I’m sorry, but that’s way beyond reasonable.

The bottom line here is that unless I can buy gems in Canadian Dollars, 800 gems for $10, I won’t be buying any gems, at all. Bring the gem cards back to Canadian store shelves, because earning $10 CND is a heck of a lot better than earning $0 USD.

3. The vast majority of the content in Heart of Thorns is stuff I don’t care about and will never use, thus it is simply not worth the $70 CAD price tag. Allow me to list everything in HoT that I won’t use:

– The 4 new zones, because they REQUIRE organized play at specific times. This is totally the opposite of why I play GW2.

– Personal Story. Still have yet to finish the original one on my main character… Just not my thing, I guess.

– Anything PvP related. I don’t PvP at all.

– Anything dungeon or raid related. I don’t do dungeons or raids at all.

– The entire guild system. Thankfully I was able to get 50 slots of storage in my personal guild bank before that was made impossible… Other than that, I have no use for guilds at all.

– Most of the Mastery system.

As you can see, the vast majority of the content added in HoT is stuff I am not interested in. Honestly, I doubt I would even get around to using the new class or most of the new class specs. Had HoT included 4 new maps like Gendarran Fields or Sparkfly Fen then that alone would have been enough to convince me to purchase HoT, as I would get many hours of use out the money spent.

And finally… here are the things I WOULD buy with Gems, if I can buy gems at 800/$10CAD:

Existing One Time:
– 4+ Bank Tabs.
– 1 Additional Crafting License.
– 1 Storage Expander
– 2+ Character Slots
– Musical Harp
– Magic Carpet
– Riding Broom
– Basic Harvesting Node Pack
– Basic Lumber Node Pack
– Basic Ore Node Pack
– Basic Cloth Rack

Occasional Purchases:
– Sale bundles! (I’m a sucker for a good bundle!)
– Banker Golem
– Merchant Express
– Heroic Booster
– Trading Post Express

Things I would buy if they existed!:
– Mounts! They’re fun and that’s all there really is to it…
– Bag slots account wide…
– HoT as piecemeal features
– New open original GW2 style world maps, 1000 Gems each.
– Additional “personal stories”, 800 Gems each. I would actually buy these, even though I likely would never get to finishing them… /shrug
– Personal housing or “more stuff” for the home instance.
– Instanced shops for each crafting profession, with upgrades/features/systems that add game play variety, but not power. 800 Gems each (account wide).
– Mini-games, such as fishing, that reward existing materials in different ways. 250 Gems each.

And finally…

Things I WILL NEVER, EVER PURCHASE:
– Lock boxes, lock box keys, “random dyes”, or any other sort gambling.
– Character transfers. You know what, server population management is just not MY problem. If a server is dead, YOU fix it! (Latent WoW related anger talking here lol… Arenanet’s mega servers are great).

Alrighty, I think I have laid that out as plainly as possible. I didn’t bother going into details about why I am not interested in things like raiding, pvp, and guilds, because ultimately the WHY doesn’t matter. All that matters is that I am not going to spend money on those things.

I will say this though, I played Planetside 2 because it was a Sci-fi FPS game with good gun mechanics and awesome vehicle play, not because it was a PvP game – I would likely still be playing it had it been a PvE game! Sure, I healed more than five hundred 5 man dungeons in WoW during Wrath of the Lich King alone, but… I’m just not really interested in doing that kind of content anymore. I’ve been an integral part of several nice online communities over the years and by no means am I actively hostile or totally indifferent towards other players in games these days, but the truth is that I just don’t have it in me to be committed to anything other than my family and “real life friends”. I play games to unwind, to have fun! Ultimately, my likes and motivations are what they are, just as yours are what they are. To each his own! 🙂

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$70 Canadian is too much for an expansion pack to an MMO Game

It really is.

In the past I have spent many hours on the forums of Star Wars Galaxies, Planetside, and other games that I have played, but for some reason I never really felt compelled to take part in the Guild Wars 2 forum. Today, that changed. At least for one post.

I thought long and hard about this issue over the last few weeks and I came to the conclusion that I really do have reasonable expectations for the value of an expansion and the content I expect it to provide. I’m not crazy. I’m not unreasonable. In fact, I think it’s pretty level headed to feel that an expansion pack shouldn’t cost as much as one paid for the original game and that it should, at the very least, offer content that is similar to what is already in the game. But that’s not what Arenanet is offering with their Heart of Thorns expansion to Guild Wars 2.

From what I have read, most of the content in Heart of Thorns is aimed squarely at “Raiders” and “PvPers”, of which I am neither. And honestly, that would be totally fine had Arenanet not chopped out, gutted, and devalued parts of the original game in the process of making the new expansion on top of making the open world area of HoT geared to the top 1% of players. What they have done to the “base game” comes across as little more than an underhanded way to “encourage” people to purchase their new, far too expensive, expansion – even if most of the content in that expansion doesn’t interest the player.

Finally, I felt compelled to post something on their forums:

I’ve had GW2 since (I asked my wife to buy it for me for) the Christmas after its launch and I’ve played it off and on. I’ve always said it’s a beautiful game, but hard to “get into”. Not that it’s a hard game, just that there is something inherently boring about it, such that despite really quite enjoying its mechanics and design, my GW2 game sessions seem to always be considerably shorter than other games I have played (EQ/EQ2, SWG, WoW, PS2, Aion, etc…). Coming back after several months to find entire systems changed or removed certainly didn’t help that any btw – some of the things that compelled me to purchase the game no longer exist and that’s… annoying.

Anyhow, i finally leveled a character to 80 earlier in 2015 and I’ve considered purchasing the new expansion. I appreciate that it’s an actual expansion of the game rather than a wholesale replacement of the game, unlike so many other MMOs. However, there are some factors about Heart of Thorns that are keeping me from purchasing it:

1. I am Canadian. The retail box is $70 on store shelves here. The CAD to USD exchange rate makes the $50USD online purchase roughly $68.

Look, Canada is not some third world nation with a GDP worth a box of donuts. Despite the ridiculous geo-political garbage that has driven our dollar to historic lows in the last year, the reality is that Canadians earn roughly the same wages as Americans and our time is every bit as valuable as anyone else’s. Time IS money; Asking us to pay $20 more for your expansion is inappropriate.

2. $50 USD is about $10 USD more than I am willing to pay for an EXPANSION PACK. $39.99 is the top end of what I feel is reasonable. Honestly, as a person who never played the original Guild Wars, I would get more new content and thus, “value for the dollar”, by spending $20 on the original game.

3. I don’t like what I am reading about how the open world makes soloing a bunch of boring drudgery and frustrating tedium. Jumping puzzles? Yeah, fine, if they are optional and I happen to feel in the mood to do one. Mobs so tightly packed and on such a fast respawn that getting places is tedious? Tedium is the opposite of fun folks – Opposite of fun. Dungeons, raids, and PvP? Don’t care, do what you want with them. However, the open world should be there for everyone to enjoy.

4. I’m actually quite pissed off about the changes to the Skill Point system, which magically means that I get exactly NOTHING for leveling up beyond 80 now, unless I buy your expansion! What the actual… really? That was, point blank, a deceptive and shitty thing to do people like me who bought the original game (collector’s ed no less…). I couldn’t care less that you “went free to play” – I bought the damned game – stop taking away parts of what I paid for!

In fact, that last point there is such a stinger that as a matter of principle, I’m really not inclined to spend any money with NCSoft again. If that’s the kind of treatment I get for my money, well… I’d rather give my “disposable income” to someone else, tbh. Certainly no shortage of places to spend money…

As it stands, GW2 is a very nice game with much to like about it, but I doubt I will purchase the Heart of Thorns expansion. Sadly, from what I have already seen, I can’t help but worry that even more of the “base game” will be knee-capped, removed, or left broken, in the interest of pushing the sale of the expansion. An expansion that, from what I can tell, was made for a niche market rather than whole player base no less. Hopefully I will have time to finish the “base game” before it’s entirely paywalled, despite the fact that I did indeed pay for it already.

/first post

(After 3 years I finally felt strongly enough to come here and post something. Take that into consideration.)

Will I continue to post on the Guild Wars 2 forum? Meh, probably not. It’s a fun game and I genuinely like parts of it, but… I’m still just “not feeling it”. This lack of emotional investment could be related to the game’s the lack of mounts (they are so fun in WoW and EQ2!), the generally snobish/hoity-toity feel of the characters/stories/clothing that “rubs me the wrong way”, and my general dislike of the whole “Steampunk” thing, but it just as easily could be the unfortunate reality that I simply went and “got old”. Probably a little of this, a little of that, but it’s not like I am really “into” playing anything else these days, so… yeah. /shrug … Lot’s of other things to do!

Daybreak Game Company is not simply “Sony Online Entertainment with a new name”

For many years I have played Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games (MMOs for short), with Star Wars Galaxies, Planetside 2, and World of Warcraft being the ones I have enjoyed the most. The first two of those games were made by Sony Online Entertainment, a Sony subsidiary which was sold in 2015. Since that sale, the SOE I came to very much appreciate ceased to exist. While I have taken a large step back from online communities in the last couple of years and not really played much of anything in that time, I do still play Planetside 2 occasionally and keep up with its news. After reading a misleading statement on Reddit about how the new company is the same as SOE, I felt the need to post the following.


Daybreak Game Company is not simply “Sony Online Entertainment with a new name”…

And saying as much is insulting to the hard work, time, attention, and caring that many people at SOE put into their jobs and the community for nearly two decades. Especially the community. If for some reason you don’t believe me or aren’t aware, please take a few minutes to look at the video histories of their Youtube accounts to get an idea of why I am saying this today:

https://www.youtube.com/user/soevideos/

https://www.youtube.com/user/PlanetSide2/videos

As a SWG vet, I know the norm was to hate on SOE for all their mistakes, trust me. However, as a guy who was an SOE customer since 2002, playing almost all their games at some point, I’ve also been lucky enough to take part in some really great times in MMO gaming, from having fun playing the games to getting in some serious dialogue with the developers of various games. It’s an amazing feeling to load up a game and actually use something that’s there because you discussed it with the developer and they added it to the game!

SOE’s community interaction was second to none and DBG’s is not up to that standard, not by a country mile. As an example, even Star Wars Galaxies was turned into a great game by the time it shut down, in large part due to the back and forth iteration on system designs that happened in the forums (the final weapon crafting revamp was pretty much a cut and paste of what community came up with, for instance). The nice folks at DBGs are around and while I am sure they care about their games and their communities, they aren’t doing so at the same level as SOE. That’s just reality.

I’m not “bashing on DBG” by saying this, I am simply taking a moment to give credit where credit is due.

SOE did a lot of things right and actually giving a damn about their communities was at the top of that list. Were the games perfect? Not by a long shot, but they were made with a lot of heart and that’s worth something. Did they talk the talk, but not walk the talk a lot? Yup, but we owe the very existence of franchises like Everquest and Planetside to that very same courage to not just dream, but actually try to achieve those dreams in the harsh realities of “the real world”.

Sure, I have been a grumpy and unappreciative turd at times over the years, earning myself some hate from Smed, Higby, and TRay in the process, but it was always because I care. I believed in the dream, I saw the potential, and for some reason, I cared. The folks who made these games cared too and many of those people are no longer at Daybreak Game Company and that matters, because it’s people who make dreams come alive. Just look at the hundreds of names rolling in the credits of any movie to get an appreciation for that fact.

SOE and DGB aren’t the same thing, for many reasons, so please don’t say that they are.

Thanks,

– Tatwi
http://www.planetside-universe.com/member.php?u=15312


Earlier in 2015, I decided to wash my hands of Planetside 2, deleting my characters and all the cruft I had cluttered my hard drive with over the years. I did this in large part due to the boring as crap manner in which the players choose to play the game. On top of the super annoying bugs and cheaters, the poor game play and toxic community made me feel like the original vision of what the game could be was gone forever. So I deleted my level 83 TR Engineer and moved on. However, this fall I felt like playing a shooter game with vehicles and variety, so I decided to play some Planetside 2. It’s still a zergy mess with an often toxic community and more cheaters/hackers than ever and it’s not worth playing. Life is better without Planetside 2.

Many thanks to all the folks at Sony Online Entertainment who genuinely enriched my life (often for the low, low price of free!).

Chromebook: Hmmm…. x86 or ARM CPU?

I’m just going to get this out of the way before I start going on about stuff that the majority of humanity couldn’t care less about…

CPU doesn’t matter! Buy the Chromebook that you physically like the best.

There ya go folks. You’re welcome. Now, if you’re interested in how I came to this conclusion, by all means keep reading.

Just as Mac OS is not Windows and Windows is not DOS, ChomeOS is not Linux or anything else either. It is important for the buyer to accept this concept going into their purchase of a Chromebook, because it sets the proper expectation. A Chromebook is not a desktop PC or gaming console crammed into a convenient notebook form factor. A Chromebook isn’t even a traditional notebook (aka “laptop”), but that’s OK, because it’s not trying to be one. Instead, Chromebooks are designed to do specific things that comprise their “core functionality”, such as:

– Browse the web in its full, standard format – for fun, research, whatever!
– Media streaming, such as Youtube or Netflix.
– Managing personal media and online storage.
– Simple content creation, such as documents, blogs, books, basic photo manipulation, etc.
– Video conferencing with Skype, etc.

When you think about the countless reasons why one would “browse the web”, from looking up a recipe to troubleshooting that strange sound their car makes in the morning, the browser functionality of ChromeOS alone makes a Chromebook an exceptionally useful tool. However, ChromeOS does have its own app market place, where Google and other developers offer programs for specific tasks and functions.

So what kind of processing power is required to do that stuff?

Not much, really.

A modern dual core x86 (Intel or AMD) or ARM (Samsung, Nvidia, Rockchip, and many others) CPU can handle all of those things without a problem. In Chromebooks made in 2014 and later, you’re most likely to find a quad core ARM or a dual core Intel x86 CPU. If you care about those choices enough to have read this far, I think the choice really boils down to two simple questions,

1. Do you plan on running an alternate Linux environment?
– If “Yes”, buy x86 (Intel)

2. Do I need the battery to last longer than 10 hours?
– If “Yes”, buy ARM

As I said in the beginning, neither of these things are important to the majority of people who would be interested in buying a Chromebook; They could pick either CPU type and be happy. A Linux user on the other hand would be much better off to use an x86 based Chromebook, simply due to the sheer compatibility between virtually all GNU/Linux (open source) software and x86 CPUs. As a Linux user, why jump though hoops to get the software you want to work on an ARM based CPU when you just don’t have to? And if you don’t care about any of that Linux stuff, but you really want the longest battery life possible, then you’re better off buying an ARM based Chromebook, because you will get longer battery life and you’ll most likely never notice a difference in CPU performance.


Let’s take a moment to have a look at some of the processors that I have found available in Chromebooks at various retailers in Canada. This should give you a better idea about how I came to the above conclusions. Of course, for more information on each chip and for benchmark data, hit up your favorite search engine! Lot’s of great reading out there on the web.

Intel Celeron N2830 / N2840
– Dual core x86 CPUs, with the N2840 having a higher standard and turbo speed than the N2830.
– Built using the power efficient 22nm (nm = nano meters) HKMG process.
– Turbo clock speeds over 2.4GHz make these CPUs significantly better than Intel’s older low power CPUs, delivering the kind of performance one would expect from a basic office desktop/notebook.
– Can run full versions of Windows XP/Vista/7/8/10, Linux, as well as ChromeOS.
– Graphics are good enough.
– Battery life is actually pretty good, comparable to quad core ARM CPUs when paired with a slightly larger battery.

Nvidia Tegra K1
– Quad Core ARM Cortex A15 CPU
– Also has a 5th hidden Cortex A15 core, which is specially fabricated to be extremely low power. It is used seamlessly to maximize power savings when system is idle, by shutting down the 4 main cores and using itself instead.
– Has a powerful Nvidia graphics processor that is useful for video and games.
– Can run ARM variants of GNU/Linux software.

Rockchip 3288
– Quad Core ARM Cortex A17 CPU
– Has some more advanced features than the Cortex A15 designs, but lacks the special low power 5th core.
– Built using the 28nm HKMG process, which is competitive in terms of battery life savings.
– Least expensive quad core ARM, while also benchmarking close to the competition.

Samsung Exynos 5250
– Dual core ARM Cortex A15 CPU
– The only thing this CPU has going for it is battery life, simply because it only has two cores to draw power.
– Built using the older 32nm HKMG process, which means every transistor inside the chip is a little bigger than on the 28nm HKMG CPUs, such as the Rockchip 3288. This means each 32nm CPU requires a bit more electricity. But… the Exynos 5250 only has 2 CPUs which actually makes it more power efficient in the long run.
– Graphics chip is “OK”.
– Definitely geared for modest use, such as reading, writing, low resolution Youtube (480p), and general internet browsing.

Samsung Exynos 5410
– “Octo-core” CPU, which in reality is a dual quad core design, because it only ever uses one group of 4 at a time. They refer to this as big.LITTLE.
– Quad Core ARM Cortex A15 paired with low power drain quad core ARM Cortex A7.
– Really smart design, but probably not as power efficient as the Nvidia Tegra K1 design in general use, because the Tegra K1 would definitely use less power while idle.

Intel i3 and i5
– Dual core x86 CPUs with Hyperthreading. They act as quad core CPUs in many workloads, but they use less power, because they achieve this with half the physical hardware as a true quad core CPU.
– Full sized or standard mobile processors, these are essentially low clocked desktop processors with strict power management features to maximize battery usage. You’re trading battery life for CPU speed, which may or may not provide tangible benefits to you on a Chromebook. It really depends on what you’re doing – devices with 1080p or higher resolution screens and folks who use 20+ browser tabs at a time might see some benefit.
– Offered only in premium priced devices (none of which I can actually find for sale in Canada at this time), usually paired with a high quality chassis and screen.

And that’s about it for what I can actually find on the market these days. There is a surpising amount of selection out there, with new Chromebooks ranging in price from $189 to $799. CPU choices seem to be evenly spread out over the whole price spectrum as well, which means it’s likely that you will be able hit your personal “sweet spot” of chassis quality, hardware features, cpu power, battery life, and pice. As far actual makes and models of Chromebooks go, suffice it to say that when I do buy one, I will tell you which one I bought and why I personally chose it, but no one is paying me to advertise for them, so… I won’t; This site is a resource for you and a creative outlet for me.

Personally, my priorities for a Chromebook are:

1. x86 – While I really love the concept and battery life of ARM based Chromebooks, I do plan on using additional Linux software, so I may as well make that as easy as possible.

2. A keyboard with a normal sized ENTER key and otherwise traditional layout/size.

3. Replaceable battery with 10+ hours life.

4. Chassis that won’t fall apart for at least a few years.

In a perfect world, I would buy a MacBook Air, but an x86 based Chromebook is sufficient for a notebook, while also having just the right amount nerdiness to be entertaining. Realistically, a Chromebook is all I need.

Macbook? Chromebook? Notebook? What’s best for me?

If you’re anything like me, you’re sitting there reading this on a 2007 era notebook running a dual boot of Windows Vista and a Linux distro of some kind. Maybe the hinge is loose, perhaps you’ve already upgraded the CPU and RAM, and I am willing to bet that the battery in your old notebook is as dead as the battery is in mine. So what do we do? It’s not like the old beast isn’t sufficient for browsing web, watching a video, and other notebook type tasks, but it sure would be nice to get back to having a truly portable computer, wouldn’t it?

In my case, I could pick up a replacement battery for my Dell Inspiron 1501 for around $40 or so, but the reality is that even when it was brand new and running only a single core processor, the battery life was terrible. $40 isn’t the end of the world and the o’l beast still works, so that’s a good way to go, right? Well… not really, no. Here’s why:

Issues with my old notebook:

  • It produces an uncomfortable amount of heat on the keyboard.
  • Battery life is poor.
  • The screen hinge is loose.
  • The ATi video adapter is no longer supported by the AMD drivers for Linux.
  • It’s heavy.

I actually really like this old “laptop”, mostly because it’s comfortable to type on and has proven to be easy to disassemble and work on. However, it’s 15″ screen on that loose hinge combined with the heat and necessity of being plugged in (all the time and frequently even with a new battery) make it less than enjoyable to use. So in a practical sense, it’s time to replace it. But… what should I replace it with?

Let’s get this out of the way upfront. There are only two reasons why I am not getting a 13″ MacBook Air:

1. It’s too expensive.
2. I couldn’t afford to replace it if got broken.

If those are not considerations for you, then by all means, buy a MacBook! They have a strong chassis, good battery, and good cpu/gpu. Even if you’re not an iPhone or iPad user, the Apple ecosystem is pretty nifty and given that MacBooks are built with standard PC hardware these days, one can still install Windows and Linux on them. When money is not an issue, it’s hard to turn one’s nose up at a solid chassis, nice screen, excellent battery, x86 cpu, and a polished *nix type operating system.

Moving on… there are plenty of affordable 15″ notebooks running Windows 10 these days, but finding the magic mixture of solid chassis, good keyboard, acceptable CPU / RAM / Video / Hard Drive, good battery life, and reasonable screen is a tougher than one would think. Compounding those issues, chassis quality and keyboard feel are, understandably, impossible to judge when shopping online. Issues one does not encounter when shopping for a MacBook! 🙂

Form my poking around, prices for Windows notebooks seem to range from $300 to $3,500, which should mean that there’s something in there for everyone. Indeed, HP, Dell, Lenovo, and Toshiba all offer notebooks in chassis that compete with the quality of the MacBook for similar price points and there are plenty of offerings in the low, mid, and insane price ranges as well.

When it comes to my portable computing needs, the performance of my current 1.8GHz AMD Turion64x2 with 3GB of DDR2 RAM is fine in Windows Vista (32Bit Home Basic) and Debian 8 (64Bit Linux). That being the case, the new “low power” CPUs from Intel, AMD, and various ARM-based manufacturers are attractive, because their performance is on par with my 2007 era dual core CPU, yet they are an order of magnitude more energy efficient. Power saving on a desktop isn’t a super compelling talking point, but in the portable space, the difference can mean 10 hours of use rather than only 2 hours! Not only that, but the low power processors end up achieving their longer up time while using batteries that are smaller and lighter than notebooks powered by traditional mobile CPUs. Given that the entire point of using a notebook is for it to be a portable, if not mobile, experience, then moving to something that is “good enough” while also having 10+ hours of portable up time is kind of a no brainer!

Maximizing one’s value for the dollar while purchasing a notebook with a low power CPU is a challenge! Spend too much and you may as well buy a notebook with a full mobile CPU/APU that will give you enough performance to play games, edit videos, and compile software in a timely manner. You can always buy an additional battery, right? But how much is “too much” to spend on a notebook with a low power CPU? See, even that question tough to answer, now that we have convertible devices!

Here in 2015 we can buy a Microsoft Surface Tablet or an Asus Transformer (examples off the top of my head) that have low power ARM or x86 processors for tablets, yet they come with a keyboard sufficient enough to allow them to fit the role of a traditional notebook. However, such devices tend to come at premium price that conflicts with the raw performance one can get for the same price in a traditional notebook. Do you want to use your notebook as a tablet? Do you mind paying a premium for such a feature? Personally, I am not interested, but I think it is a valid consideration for many people, particularly those who are buying their first non-smartphone computing device. In theory, for folks who are primarily content consumers, creating little more themselves than documents and the occasional image, convertible tablets are certainly more convenient than desktops and definitely handy in terms of managing one’s data (it’s always on a device that can be used anywhere). This device paradigm may well be worth the price premium for some (if not most!) notebook users. Microsoft sure has put a lot eggs in this basket, if that means anything to ya!

Setting aside convertibles and notebooks with traditional CPUs and limiting the price range to what makes sense to spend on a CPU that is just “good enough”, puts us into Chromebook and low-end Windows 10 notebook territory. But what does that mean?

Hardware wise, when it comes to the standard Chromebook or low-end Windows 10, here’s what you’re likely to get for your $250 (give or take $50):

CPU: 2.16GHz Intel Celeron N2830 or 1.8GHz Quad Core Cortex-A17 ARM
RAM: 2GB DDR
Storage: 16GB or 32GB Solid State Drive
Screen: 11.6″ 1366×768 resolution of modest quality
Keyboard: Standard notebook size and design
Chassis: Quality varies, but most are sturdy.
Battery Life: 6 – 12 hours, depending on CPU, battery size, and operating system.

Honestly, that modest setup is fine for browsing the web, watching videos, writing, and most general desktop/notebook tasks. And if you use online storage or an SD card or USB stick, the small and speedy solid state drives are a boon rather than a problem. I guess the downside comes along when you buy one of these low end Windows 10 notebooks and try to use it for software that it’s just not designed for, such as video editing and big games. Would it be better to have a notebook that could do more? No, not if you’re not actually going to do any of those things with it!

So it turns out that biggest considerations are ChromeOS vs. Windows 10 and chassis quality.

Most of the world is already familiar with Windows in general, but what is this ChromeOS thing all about? Well, to put it simply, ChromeOS is a heavily customized Linux based environment created by Google that is centered around their Chrome web browser. The browser handles most of the tasks one needs, but there are other “apps” one can download and use off-line as well. So… ChromeOS isn’t Windows, but it’s not trying to be and… that’s OK!

Another interesting aspect of ChromeOS is that (when it is set to developer mode) one can use a script called Crouton to install a fully functional Linux desktop environment, such as XFCE, that one can toggle to and from at any time with a simple key combo! This is made possible due to the use of a full Linux environment that is essentially the same as any other Linux installation (unlike Android, which is a Java runtime environment running on top of the Linux kernel). This means that stuff like the full LibreOffice suit, GIMP, and various other open source software can run on a Chromebook without much fuss. This solution isn’t without its drawbacks, but I have to say that it’s actually a really elegant solution that is a step ahead of the standard dual boot setup.

Speaking of dual booting operating systems, it can be done on most Windows 10 and ChromeOS devices, but ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS do your research on a device before making a purchase, because BIOS/Firmware for computers is not standardized and some products may actively prevent the user from dual booting. A Chromebook will usually allow you to dual boot when developer mode is enabled and a Windows 10 notebook may or may not let you dual boot operating systems. Keep in mind that storage space is at a premium and a dual boot on a Chromebook may require using a USB drive or SD card.

From what I have read, on the same type of hardware there isn’t much difference in battery life between Windows 10 and ChromeOS. Battery life is a little better in both operating systems on ARM based hardware rather than Intel or AMD x86 based hardware, but it’s no longer a huge deal thanks to the low power x86 CPUs. So with that in mind, I feel that the choice between a Windows or a ChromeOS device really boils down to personal preference based on these factors:

  • Do I need software that only runs in Windows?
  • Do I need software that requires an x86 processor? (Intel, AMD, VIA)
  • Do I mind the fuss of dual booting, etc?
  • Does the hardware meet my needs? (Screen, keyboard, ports, connectivity)

In my case, as a long time Linux enthusiast, I actually very much appreciate the setup of ChromeOS running a Crouton-installed Linux Desktop Environment. This is my kind of geekery! For many years I have dual booted Windows and Linux and if I have learned anything it’s that even if rebooting only takes a few seconds, it’s often too much of a pain in the arse to bother with. For instance, I wrote this in Windows Vista, because that’s what I booted up to use a particular program. Normally I would use Debian on this machine, but for managing the blog it really doesn’t matter what OS I use and I couldn’t be arsed to reboot.

Anyhow, another feather in Chomebook’s cap for me is its price. Without endorsing any particular brand or retailer, suffice it to say that I can pick up a new Intel based Chromebook with above average specs for about $100 less than a low end Windows 10 notebook with average specs. For a Linux user like me, the value built into some Chromebooks is as hard to ignore as a MacBook is for a person who has money to burn. However, you may find that the Windows or Mac ecosystems are more suitable for your needs and thus add significant value beyond what spec sheets, price tags, and good old physical prodding can determine.

For me, a Chromebook is more than “good enough” – it’s the portable Linux machine I have been waiting for. Now all I need to do is pick one… 🙂

Blackberry OS Version 10.3.2.2252 Brings BB10 back to Awesome Status

As I posted a few months ago, I was not happy with the direction Blackberry was headed with their Blackberry 10 operating system as of version 10.3. Apart from the fact it was buggy as hell, a first in my personal experience with Blackberry, it also had many UI changes that made the end user experience just plain bad. I dealt with it by rolling back my Q10 to version 10.2 and simply not using my Z10, which was a shame, because the Z10 made a nice “mini-tablet”.

When my carrier finally rolled out the 10.3.2.2252 update near the end of July 2015, I updated my Z10 and had a first hand look at what was different. By this point I had been using an almost stock version of Android 4.4.4 exclusively for a few months.

I liked the Android 4.4.4 user experience on my inexpensive 2014 Motorola Moto-E for the most part, but I did find it to be buggy, with program crashes, freezes, typing issues, stuttering scrolling, all manner of inexplicable weirdness I never experienced on my Blackberries. BBM, Skype, and occasionally Steam were the only social apps that I used on the Moto-E and I didn’t have any other background apps running after I removed the OneDrive app, so there was always around 300-450MB of RAM available and not much going on other than Google Play updates. I know the Moto-E is a much lesser device, hardware wise, than both my Blackberry Q10 and Z10 (especially the camera… omg, the camera on the Moto-E is abysmal…), but I expected a little more smoothness and reliability from it, given how little I actually did with it (compared to folks who run loads of social apps, games, etc). I didn’t even have a game on the Moto-E at all. Combine that stuff with my distrust and dislike of Google (not that I entered any personal data into the account I made to use the Google Play Store), I had ample incentive to give my Blackberry Z10 a whirl again.

The 10.3.2.2252 release of Blackberry 10 OS solves every grievance I had with the OS. It also works just fine with the few Android apps that I use (Netflix, WordPress, and ES File Explorer). There are some third party Blackberry 10 apps that are very good (Reddit in Motion, Evolution Browser, Rogers My Account) and many of the default Blackberry 10 apps (BBM, Calculator, Pictures, Videos, Music, Docs to Go, File Manager, Remember, Browser Story Maker, Weather, and Password Keeper) are better than the (often ad-laden) similar apps I could find for Android. Finally, the Z10 hardware utterly trounces the 2014 Moto-E in every respect, apart from battery life.

Here is “Where it Wins” for the Blackberry Z10 and the Motorola Moto E (2014).

Blackberry Z10

  • UI navigation and workflow on BB10 is FUCKING AMAZING! Once you learn how it works, you’ll cry when trying to use the cumbersome and disjointed mashup that is Android 4.4.4, because it’s so much easier and smoother and faster to use Blackberry 10. BB10 OS is so great it’s worth swearing about, yet so many people aren’t even willing to try it…
  • The screen quality is much better. Higher resolution and unlike the econo-model Moto-E, one can’t see the digitizer on the Z10 even in full sun.
  • The Z10 is a fast device with strong computing performance in day to day use. Android apps are slower than native Blackberry 10 apps, which makes it so sad that Android is more popular. Performance wise, the QNX and C++ roots of Blackberry 10 really shine given what they can do on older hardware. Granted, all but one BB10 device has 2GB of RAM and all have a dual or quad core processor with acceptable video chipsets.
  • Amazingly, Blackberry finally invested in really good camera software! The lens and sensor were always decent, but the software sucked, hard. Now the software is just as good as what is on my wife’s HTC One Mini.
  • Camera has a flash. And the built in flashlight app, which is a quick swipe down from the top of any screen, can use it!
  • Every app that I personally use, be they Blackberry or Android, work great.
  • Calculator is fantastic, with unit conversion, scientific functions, and tip calculation built into a UI that is simple and uncluttered. The old version was the same, except the buttons were 3D (which looked way nicer if ya ask me!).
  • Settings and quick settings are laid out and function in an intuitive manner. For instance, unlike in the Android 4.4.4 quick settings menu, to toggle a connection such as wifi on BB 10, one need only tap the icon to the left of the word “Wi-Fi”. On Android one must press and hold, which I found would often times result in opening the whole wifi settings menu. Minor thing to be sure, but it’s really the sum of all these better “little things” that makes BB10 OS so amazing to use.
  • Some nice ad-free apps we were given by Blackberry for Christmas over the years (Star Tracker, Need for Speed Undercover, Tetris, Angry Birds Space, Bejeweled 2, Doodle Jump, and Scan to Text Pro, are the ones I use, but they gave away a load of others as well).
  • No Google! (I used 1 Mobile Market to download the Netflix, ES File Explorer, and WordPress apps.)
  • Sharing on device media, be it from the web, camera, or file manager is done through a coherent, fluid, and identical UI. I can’t stress enough how great the workflow is on Blackberry 10.

Motorola Moto E (2014)

  • Battery life is considerably better, without having to do anything special.
  • Rounded back and sides and smaller size makes it feel great in the hand and not so bad in the pocket.
  • Call blocking actually functions.
  • Icons can be customized.

Well, that’s it for my rambling post about Blackberry 10 that I highly doubt anyone will ever read and that even fewer people will care about. 😉 It’s such a shame that people aren’t willing to give Blackberry 10 devices an honest try, because it is far and away a superior mobile operating system than Android. However, it is also extremely disappointing that “Blackberry” basically threw their native app developers under the bus in favor of using Android apps in the Android runtime, because Cascades based Blackberry apps have a coherent, fast/smooth, yet very flexible user experience – more so than what one finds in Android. From what I have read, WebOS and iOS also offered/offer such an integrated, coherent experience, which to me seems like a major selling point, but with all the folks out there choosing Android, I guess it’s not. “Live a mess, life a mess”, I always say!

PS. If you feel that I missed a lot of “Wins” for Android and that I am therefore being disingenuous, keep in mind that I really don’t partake in the vast majority of the stuff that other people tend to do with their smartphones. So, if I didn’t write about it, it’s because I don’t use it and thus, I don’t care about it. The entire range of Google anything would be a good example – do not want, do not care.

CPU Prices are Up Considerably in 2015

Update: The Canadian dollar has really tanked in the past few years, falling from parity with the US dollar to being $0.70 USD. I am sure this does not help the situation, but it does not entirely explain the rise in computer prices.

Geek that I am, I like to occasionally keep tabs on CPU, motherboard, and video card prices in Canada. I don’t know why, I just do… it’s interesting! 🙂 Anyhow, since my last parts upgrade I did in late 2013 I have noticed that in many cases prices have gone up considerably for CPUs, in price segments as well as for specific models. Using data from Newegg.ca, let’s have a quick look at a general break down of the best “value for the dollar”, broken down into price ranges (I consider the range to roughly +/- $5 or so, but I am not covering every single range).

2013 Price Ranges

  • $50 – AMD Sempron
  • $80 – AMD Athlon x4, AMD Phenom x4, Intel Pentium, Intel Celeron
  • $110 – AMD A8-5600k APU, Intel Pentium
  • $125 – AMD A10-5800k APU, AMD FX-4300, Intel Core i3
  • $140 – AMD FX-6300, Intel Core i3
  • $165 – AMD FX-8320
  • $185 – AMD FX-8520, Intel Core i5
  • $200 – Intel Core i5
  • $235 – Intel Core i5 3570k
  • $300 – Intel Core i7 3770k

2015 Price Ranges

  • $50 – AMD A6-5400K, AMD Athlon 5350
  • $80 – AMD A6-6400K, Intel Pentium G3258
  • $99 – AMD Athlon X4 860K, Intel Pentium G3450
  • $110 – AMD A10-5800K, AMD A8-7600
  • $125 – AMD AMD A8 7650K, AMD FX-4350, Intel Pentium G3440
  • $140 – AMD FX-6300, AMD A8-7670K, Intel Core i3-4160
  • $185 – AMD A10-7870K, AMD FX-8320
  • $200 – Intel Core i3-4130, Intel Core i3-4360
  • $225 – AMD FX-8350, Intel Core i5-4460
  • $235 – Intel Core i3-4350, Intel Core i5-4430
  • $300 – Intel Core i5-4690K

The basic trend here is that in all but the $50 price range, you get less processor power for more money. In some cases you’re paying a $10 premium, but in others it’s $40 or more expensive to achieve the same processing power. I know that PC sales are lower, but raising the CPU prices by 10 to 20 percent probably isn’t going to encourage sales growth.

It is disappointing to me that the price of the AMD FX-8320 and FX-8520 are so much higher than they used to be, because they are only great CPUs when the “value for the dollar” is there. I picked up my FX-8320 on sale for $135 in 2013 and at that price it was a no brainer of an upgrade, for my uses. In software compilation and media encoding the FX-8320 hung with the entry level 2013 Intel i5 and in every way it performed much better than the Intel Core2 Q8200 I was using, so getting it was a smart move. But at $185 I could not recommend the FX-8320, because you’re better off to buy a used Sandybridge or Ivybridge i5 for that price (better performance and electricity bill with the i5). The FX-8350 at $225 is just insanity and something I would definitely class as “bad choice”, because it is outclassed by every new or used i5 or i7 one can buy for the same price range.

However, what is truly shocking are the insanely high prices of the Intel Core i3 and entry level Core i5 processors. Since the Core2 days one could always get a quad core Intel processor from Newegg.ca for around $185, but now the only Intel CPUs in that price range are dual core i3s. Intel’s “Hyperthreading”, allowing for 4 threads on a dual core processor, does not equate to the same performance as having two real cores, so any way you look at it, you’re just getting “less for more” from Intel these days. And that’s a hard pill to swallow considering how their sales are still quite strong. The bottom rung of the true quad core Intel CPUs these days is the Intel Core i5-4460 Haswell 3.2GHz (3.4GHz Turbo Boost) for $225; Back in 2013 you could get an Intel Core i5-3470 Ivy Bridge 3.2GHz (3.6GHz Turbo Boost) for $195. Performance wise the two are pretty much identical.

AMD have done a good job infusing value into the sub $200 CPU spectrum and continue to do so on the lowest end of the spectrum despite the inflation of prices. A dual core AMD A6 or A8 APU may not be great when it comes raw computing power and floating point math (due to the single FPU shared between the two ALU “cores”), but for every day computing and playing games at modest detail and resolution, they’re viable, which is fantastic for the price range. The Intel Pentiums in the $80 price range are also excellent for every day computing, but the PowerVR based “Intel Graphics” (the same graphics tech used in cell phones folks) just don’t cut it for playing games, even old ones in many cases. That said, with an affordable $75 add in graphics card, like the Nvidia GT730 or the AMD R7-240, an $80 Intel Pentium will outclass any dual core AMD APU in everything.

If you’re still using a system based on an Intel Core2 or an AMD Athlon CPU or older and you’re looking to upgrade your CPU for less than $200, definitely spend some time shopping around for the best price. Keep in mind that you will also need to upgrade your motherboard and RAM (and add a video card too if you choose a CPU/Motherboard combo that lacks video). If you’re really price conscious and don’t mind buying used, you can safely buy an Intel Sandybridge or Ivybridge Core i5 from Ebay or the like and trust that you will notice the upgrade and be happy with it for many years. Current Intel Haswell CPUs aren’t really all that much faster than Sandybridge and Ivybridge and both Sandybridge and Ivybridge Core i5 and Core i7s still beat every current AMD FX CPU and A10 APU in computing power. If you’re buying new, the AMD A10-5800K is one of the best deals going at $110 – it was the top end APU in 2013, meaning it has a very good built-in “video card” and a good quad core CPU, which together make it a true value at that price.

The AMD FX-4350, at $130, would require you to spend an additional $75 on an add-in video card just to match the performance of the AMD A10-5800K, while adding no cpu computing improvement at all, making it a very poor choice unless you already have a compatible socket AM3/AM3+ board and are using a lesser CPU. For reference on what would be considered a lesser AM3 compatible CPU, FX-4350 performs about the same as an AMD Phenom II x4 965.

The AMD FX-6300 ($135) and Intel Core i3-4160 ($150) are the next worthy upgrades for old computers, but keep in mind the FX-6300 will need either on motherboard video or a cheap add-in card ($35 seems to be the lowest price for a new video card) and possibly a new power supply. The six core FX-6300 beats the dual core with Hyperthreading Core i3-4160 in video encoding and some other multithreaded tasks, but little else, believe it or not, so they share a similar value for the dollar based on your usage. Of some note is that some AM3 motherboards can support the FX-6300 with a BIOS update, but speed throttling may occur on lower end boards, due to power/heat issues. The Core i3-4160 performs well in many games and programs, with its Hyperthreading adding a considerable improvement to multitasking and gaming over the less expensive Pentium models that lack it. If you’re into running multiple virtual machines simultaneously, pick the AMD FX-6300, otherwise either CPU will do just fine.

Now on the other hand, if you already have a 6 core AMD Phenom or an Intel Sandybridge Core i5, the biggest thing you will notice in an upgrade are new features on your motherboard, like USB 3 and PCI 3.0. Your processor and RAM are already pretty quick and capable. Sure, the Intel Core i5-4690K at $300 will absolutely provide a noticeable performance increase in games, media encoding, graphics editing, and so on, but the most affordable Intel Core i5-4460, at $225, wont be an upgrade you’ll really “feel” over what you’re already using. Unless you’re spending hours a day working on your computer or playing games like Battlefield 4 multiplayer, then there’s really a level of diminishing returns when it comes to CPU power these days; Is saving 4 minutes creating zip file once in a while or knocking 15 seconds of a video encode really worth the money? All that stuff is up to you, of course, but it’s some food for thought!

Generally speaking, if you are a programmer or content creator using Linux or a modest gamer in Windows, the AMD FX-6300 is still a good deal when paired with an AMD R7-260 or Nvidia GT750 (get the Nvidia if you use Blender), but you are probably better off getting the Intel Core i5-4460 and using the built-in video until you save some money for a video card. If you’re into running multiple virtual machines, the AMD FX-8320 is still the best deal in town, even for it’s crappy price tag of $185, but do be warned that it requires a good power supply even at stock speeds. If you’re just a normal person who browses Facebook and watches Netflix and never partake in content creation or “PC gaming”, the honest truth is that you don’t really need a desktop PC anymore. A laptop or tablet will keep you happy and be portable too. PCs are pretty much just for “making stuff” on these days!