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Tuesday, April 28, 2015

A Mighty and Magical Humble Bundle

It's Tuesday, which means it's the day that Humble Bundle updates their main offering. For the next two weeks, you can pick up potentially a bunch of games at a great discount, benefiting charity in the process. This time the bundle is one that holds a special place in my heart: you can pick up the majority of the Might and Magic and Heroes of Might and Magic games in one fell swoop.

The games were mostly created by New World Computing in the late 80s and 90s, though some of the more recent releases are after the bankruptcy of NWC and the buyout of the rights by Ubisoft, with development coming from Nival Interactive. I played most of these back when they were new and cost $50, and I even have discs (and in some cases, disks!) floating around somewhere in storage. But to get all of the games again in a digital distribution format is enough to seriously tempt me. Let's talk games, though.

Pay What You Want

Might and Magic I through VI Collection: This is probably the weakest part of the bundle, simply because as I mentioned in the last update to the Humble Origin Bundle #2, old games rarely stand the test of time. User interfaces have improved dramatically, and while great graphics don't inherently make for a great game, poor and low resolution graphics can certainly make for a poor gaming experience.

The first two games in particular are painful in today's market -- 320x200 graphics, 16 colors, and you wander around grid-style maps (90 degree turns and move forward/backward in 10' steps) fighting many battles. The original Secret of the Inner Sanctum game was released in 1986 while the sequel Gates to Another World came out in 1988. I played these on a Commodore 64 way back in the day with "Uncle Dan". Hahaha.... The third installment, Isles of Terra, bumps to VGA quality (256 colors, huzzah!), and it was the game that for me finally made the series "fun". I remember running into a problem on my old 386 where the game crashed if you stepped on a square where you would fight a Minotaur, so I had to skip that battle but I did actually complete the game. Plus, it ditched random encounters and added an automap -- thank goodness!

The next two installments actually served as two parts to a single large game, the World of Xeen. Clouds of Xeen launched in 1992, using essentially the same engine as M&M3, and then Darkside of Xeen cme out the following year. If you had both installed, there were additional quests and such to fill out the story. The final game, Mandate of Heaven, didn't come out until 1998 and was the first "made for Windows" game in the series. It also moved to a real 3D engine, though I recall thinking at the time that in many ways the 3D engine almost made the game worse. Anyway, most of these games are now 20+ years old, so don't let nostalgia get the best of you. YMMV.

Heroes of Might and Magic II: The Succession Wars: The "Heroes of Might and Magic" games were a spinoff first launched in 1995, taking the game world and turning it into a strategy game (and ditching the sci-fi stuff that often crept in at the end of the RPG games). The seeds of the Heroes games actually came from an early game, King's Bounty, released in 1990.

This second installment built on the core engine of the original, came out in 1996, and consisted of two campaigns -- "good" and "evil" (with The Price of Loyalty expansion following in 1997 and adding four more campaigns, which comes in the Gold package of this bundle). You roam the overhead map, fighting for treasure and creature spawn points (who would join your army), conquering the towns of the map. The battles are a different view, featuring a tactical turn-based fight. Great stuff back in the day... but questionable in many ways today.

Heroes of Might and Magic IV Complete: Four years later, New World Computing released their final Heroes game, with upgraded graphics and larger battle maps allowing for more creatures/armies. The battles in particular were quite a change from the previous three installments, and the core game included a lengthy six campaigns. There's at least 60 or more hours of gaming time included just in this single compendium, and the gameplay is still reasonably decent.

The problem is that in becoming "bigger" the game wasn't always "better" -- I remember the later maps in campaigns taking a very long time to complete, and the fun factor often went missing. The maps follow a standard pattern: start with one or two heroes fighting smaller armies, grow them, increase your number of heroes, and eventually build a gigantic army to crush the final enemy positions. Lather, rinse, repeat ad nauseum.

Might & Magic Heroes Online: Angel Starter Pack: The last item in the core bundle isn't really much to speak of, as it's just a free starter pack for an already Free 2 Play game. You play Heroes Online in your web browser, and it looks as though there's only one server still active (which might be overloaded due to interest from the Humble Bundle right now -- all I'm getting is the loading screen at least, after 10 minutes, though after 15-20 minutes it seems to be working now). The game seems a bit slow from what I experienced (when it finally did load up), and it has the usual F2P hooks (get armies now for money, or wait several hours). Pass.

Beat the Average

The above three packages (I'm not counting Heroes Online, thank you very much) already provide plenty of hours of gaming, but I'm not really convinced the gaming is worth having other than perhaps the two Heroes games. Beat the Average (currently sitting at $10.40) and you unlock four more titles -- with more to come next week.

Heroes of Might and Magic V: The first game in the list to come after New World Computing, Heroes V features a fully 3D engine. It's also new enough (2006) that you can find a ranking on Metacritic: a moderately good score of 77%. It's also the last Might and Magic game I ever played -- the series had finally lost its charm I suppose, or I was simply too busy. There are six core campaigns once more, providing for many, many hours of gaming. At present the two expansion packs (Tribes of the East and Hammers of Fate) are not included in the bundle, though that may be a good thing as both received relatively poor reviews.

Heroes of Might and Magic VI: We're not done with Heroes yet, though, as there's still the final installment (at present -- HOMM7 is currently in development). As with the previous installment, this one was developed initially by Limbic Entertainment for Ubisoft, but it was completed by Black Hole Entertainment and then passed back to Limbic when Blackhole filed for bankruptcy. Ouch. The game has five campaigns telling an interlinking story, and there are two expansions. The original game was horribly buggy, but after 20+ patches it seems okay now. Also included are the Danse Macabre and Pirates of the Savage Sea expansions. (Note that the standalone Shades of Darkness expansion is not included in this tier of the bundle.)

Dark Messiah of Might and Magic: The Dark Messiah game was perhaps intended to be another Might and Magic spinoff, only this time as a first person shooter. It didn't do so well, with an average score of only 72%, so a sequel was never made. To tell you just how forgettable the game was, I beat it back in 2006 when it was new, but I couldn't even tell you about it's plot without looking it up. Mediocre FPS games don't usually hold up too well over time, but at least the Source engine should allow this to run well on even low-end current GPUs (e.g. Intel's HD 5500).

Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes: This isn't a game I've tried yet, but it looks pretty ho-hum considering this was originally a Nintendo DS game later ported to iOS/Android and then eventually the PC. It's basically a lite RPG with puzzle elements, with an average rating of 76% (so not that bad). Graphically, it looks a lot like some of the indie RPG games you see, which can be fun for a retro style experience.

Pay Donate $15 or More

This bundle has a high average price probably largely thanks to the $15 tier, which nets you five additional titles -- though a couple are not too exciting. The Heroes VI Shades of Darkness standalone expansion for example is available here, along with a Duel of Champions Starter Pack (another F2P game). Here are the other three more interesting titles (IMO of course).

Heroes of Might and Magic III HD: I would argue strongly that of the Heroes games, the third one was the best overall game. I remember spending countless hours playing the campaigns back in college, and the expansions helped keep me going for much longer (though sadly those aren't included). With updated graphics and gameplay but before the 3D makeover, this was NWC at their best. There's a reason this one got stuck on the $15 tier....

Might and Magic X: Legacy plus The Falcon and the Unicorn DLC: Wrapping things up, the final two games/expansions go back to the RPG roots of the series. Legacy is set in the new Ubisoft world of Might and Magic, carrying on from the story in Heroes VI. It's the most recent game in the bundle, though it didn't receive all that great of reviews (71% average). The big surprise here is that the game is a throwback to the earlier grid-based games in the series, so even though it has a 3D engine all movement is done on a grid similar to the first five games. If you loved the earlier titles and want something of a modern remake, this is as close as you'll get -- and like the final Wizardry title, this may be the end of the series (outside of the Heroes games, that is).

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Humble Origin Bundle 2 - A Nostalgic Update Brings More Games

It's one week since the Humble Origin Bundle 2 first launched, so naturally it's time for the final games to unlock. Those of you (like me) who bought the bundle and beat the average already will find the games automatically unlocked for you. And if you haven't already jumped at the bundle (seriously, what's wrong with you!?), the price is still under $5 for the entire collection ($4.93 at the time of writing). So let me quickly cover the new additions, and then I have some feedback on the already unlocked games.
Colonel Blair, this HD thing didn't do us any favors, did it?

Monday, April 20, 2015

Overview of Laptop Processors, April 2015

Recently I've had a few people come up to me asking for advice on buying a laptop. The problem with asking for advice on a laptop is that many are looking for a good budget laptop, and the term "budget" is rather vague. I've spoken with many people over the years, and for some when they say "budget" it's almost the equivalent of saying "free"; others are a bit more sensible in that they're looking at $400 or less, while at the higher end of the definition a budget laptop could go as high as $750. And of course there are plenty of non-budget processors to consider as well.

Given the range of options at the various price points, I wanted to take some time to dig deeper into the laptop market and talk about what processors are available and what sort of performance you can expect from each. The reality as usual is that there are compromises you'll have to make, either in spending more money or giving up performance or features. But since it's important to lay the groundwork for laptop performance before getting into any specific recommendations, I wanted to post this in a separate article.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Acer V3-572 Review - Budget Laptop with Upgrades

Acer V3-572 Review and SSD Upgrade

If you've ever tried shopping for a new budget laptop, it can be a bit maddening. Nearly every one will come with one or two serious compromises, either to the build quality, battery life, display, keyboard, touchpad, or storage -- or in some cases many of these areas. With new models now coming out, the questions of which budget laptop is best can be a bit difficult to answer. More than anything however, laptops can live or die by their storage subsystem; finding a decent budget laptop that doesn't completely botch the storage system is virtually impossible.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Repairing and Replacing the Nexus 5 Screen

Anyone who has ever owned a smartphone knows the horror that strikes when you drop your phone. The split second as the phone goes air-born and falls towards the ground elongates, your muscles refuse to respond fast enough, and you watch in despair as your $400 piece of electronics falls towards the hard ground. Sometimes it lands on the back and you breath a sigh of relief; other times it lands on the glass but you get lucky. But unless you buy a good case, you will almost certainly eventually end up with something that looks like this:
My Nexus 5 After a Fall
Depending on your smartphone, the difficulty of fixing the display after such a fall varies. In the case of the Nexus 5, unfortunately, the Gorilla Glass is bonded to the digitizer and LCD beneath, and while it's in theory possible to replace just the glass, in practice that can take hours and result in a less than ideal result. After researching the process of trying to repair just the broken glass, and finding a lengthy video documenting the process (which required more than a few specialized tools), I did the sensible thing and ordered a complete screen and case assembly.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

$500 Budget PC Guide

If it's been a while since your last PC upgrade, chances are good that you stand to benefit from a refresh to your hardware. While in theory anything with a Core 2 Duo / Athlon X2 (the later variants at least) or newer is still "fast enough", gains in efficiency not to mention system responsiveness are definitely worth pursuing. And if you're having any sort of stability problems on an older PC, trying to fix things can often end up costing just as much time and money as simply starting anew.

While picking out parts for a new PC is relatively simple on one level, the trick is in choosing parts that provide a good combination of price, performance, reliability/stability, and features. Despite advances in technology, the reality remains that going out and buying the cheapest motherboard often means you get exactly what you paid for: a cheap motherboard. That might mean things like compatibility issues with certain devices (e.g. DIMMs or PCIe cards), instability, and/or other issues. Troubleshooting such problems is no fun, so saving $20 at the cost of hours of lost productivity isn't something I'd recommend.

For other parts, however, the choices are pretty straightforward. CPUs/APUs rarely cause instability or other problems on their own, so the only real factor in selecting a processor is how much performance you want and how much you're willing to spend. I'll be listing several potential processor choices below. Storage and memory are for the most part compatible with any good motherboard and are largely interchangeable -- again, the decision mostly boils down to performance and capacity versus price.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Graphics Card Guide, April 2015

I mentioned working on some other articles, so this is going to be my first real non-cryptocurrency article in some time. Given my background, it's only fitting to start with graphics cards. So you're thinking about buying a new graphics card (GPU), but not for cryptocurrency mining or anything serious -- you want to use your PC for something useful! You want to play games.

I enjoy games as well, and with a long history of benchmarking and testing games, I've been exploring this realm for a while. But what's different is that I'm not going to try and benchmark everything under the sun on a regular basis -- I have a separate site for that sort of thing. Instead, I want to talk about the bigger picture and focus on what's important and what ends up being marketing fluff.

Use your PC as intended: for gaming!

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

How Low Can You Go, Bitcoin?

Wow... I know a lot of people like to point at charts, talk about the cycle of investor emotions, etc. but I generally don't follow those too much. If a technology is good, it will (or at least should) eventually rise to the top, short of a catastrophic failure of marketing. Bitcoin is such a technology in my book, so I don't think it will ever fail and go to zero. The time for that was back in late 2011, and most people were saying, "See, BTC is over -- it was a con from the start. Let's move on." Those that sold at $20+ were patting themselves on the back and those that didn't were feeling sad. Except, there were others accumulating coins at a rapid pace, and just three years later if they're still holding they've reaped nearly 100X returns.

But that's all history now. What's going on today with the BTC price? I was surprised to see us go much below $300, and I figured $250 would be the likely bottom. Now we're sub-$200 again, and some are predicting an even bigger fall yet to come. I'm still skeptical, because for a huge panic to occur you would need the biggest supporters of BTC to start dumping. If they didn't dump at $500+, why would they dump now? We're still heading down, however, and until the trend changes those who like to draw lines on charts and talk about SMAs will continue to make guesses on the eventual bottom, and some of the guesses are bound to be correct.

I wrote in the post two days ago that halted their cloud mining, and that was when the price was still at $265. At sub-$200 prices things are even worse. Consider this: ZeusMiner just sent out a newsletter about their latest "no limit bid" on the new Antminer S5. This is supposed to be one of the newest and most efficient SHA256 ASICs around, capable of 1155GH/s with a power draw of 550W -- so basically just over a 2:1 ratio. But how much would you pay for such a miner in today's market?

At the current price and difficulty, you would net about $30 per month (depending on the cost of your power). Think about that: it could take well over a year (500 days) to pay for an ASIC that only costs $500 for 1.15 TH/s. Ouch. The interesting thing is that the prices of ASICs have dropped a lot with the drop in BTC pricing, so really the manufacturers were making a killing and they've had to cut into their profit margins because obviously no one would want to pay $1000 for a miner that could take years to -- or potentially never -- reach ROI.

Of course I don't expect BTC prices to continue down indefinitely. The very reason we have the term "bottom" is because at some point the institutional day traders and investors expect it to rebound. The SNP500 is often cited as a great example of the cycle of investor emotions. Twice it reached ~1500 before dropping to half that value, but now it's at an all-time high of ~2000. Bitcoin could very well mimic that sort of behavior, just on a vastly accelerated time scale.

And here's the thing to remember: Bitcoin is not a stock, bond, or even a commodity (though it bears the closest resemblance at times to the latter). When you try to predict BTC price movements based on tools used for stocks, you will encounter problems. And even when you apply the best technical analysis possible, you are still guessing. I always love seeing TA posts on BTC, as they end up presenting three possibilities: up, down, or stay the same. Rarely do they actually state unequivocally the direction they expect BTC to move, but a week later when there's a big change, rest assured they had that possibility covered the week before: "We were right! BTC went way down!"

Fundamentally, then, nothing has changed. BTC is the same technology today as it was last week, last month, and (mostly -- a few updates have undoubtedly occurred) last year. If it was a killer idea five years ago, it remains a killer idea, and nothing has yet been able to usurp BTC as the top cryptocurrency. The market cap is now down to $2.5 billion, sure, but that will change. The same people profiting from the drop in prices will eventually read their tea leaves and decide it's time to be bullish, and we'll see the inevitable reversal.

When will that happen? No idea, but I can't see any way BTC prices get much lower short of another major hack. $150 is a likely bottom, and double digits seems ludicrous to even consider. In a few years, I still plan to be holding onto the BTC I have, and by then I expect to be back into four digits. In the meantime, enjoy the roller coaster ride.

Monday, January 12, 2015 "Suspends" Cloud Mining

It's been an interesting day to be sure, with PayBase announcing ways to improve their price and profitability long-term on the one hand while cloud mining services have been going belly up at a rapid pace. With the falling Bitcoin prices and continued high difficulty, it was inevitable that one of the biggest cloud mining services,, would run into problems. Today in a blog post, states that they are "temporarily" suspending their mining services. I put "temporarily" in quotes because there are really only a few scenarios that will lead to resuming mining:
  1. The price of Bitcoin climbs to the point where it's profitable again.
  2. The difficulty of Bitcoin falls to the point where it's profitable to mine again.
  3. gets more efficient hardware that makes it viable to mine even at the current price/difficulty ratio.
I actually noticed the problems with over the past month, when I saw that my BTC balance would sometimes drop, and the past week in particular has been bad. Now, I have long since pulled out of, so I only had 0.5GH left on the service, but over the past week my balance dropped about 5% (maybe more?) due to maintenance fees. Even worse, selling all hashing power still seems to have only partially stopped the hemorrhaging, as referrals can still result in fees. Nice, isn't it?

The real question is whether the maintenance fees are even reasonable, or if they're just high in order to secure a profit for I've looked at quite a few cloud mining options over the past couple of months, and without fail those focused on Bitcoin mining have looked like they would never come close to ROI. Even the best ASICs are looking rather questionable right now, as the initial cost is too high to justify.

My prediction this round is that we're due for the first real drop in difficulty in a long time for BTC. We finally reached the point where all that hashing power was using too much electricity to sustain, and with falling BTC prices suddenly everyone is in the red. Note that we did see a few small drops in December (-0.73% and then -1.37%), but these were followed by a 3% and 8% jump in difficulty on the next two cycles -- and that last one coupled with a falling price really pushed things over the edge. People who own their own ASICs can keep running them, effectively paying extra in fiat power bills to avoid the trouble of buying BTC directly, but for cloud mining this is a complete loss: you pay maintenance in BTC and you receive rewards in BTC, so effectively it's like paying 1 BTC per day to get 0.9 BTC back (whatever the exact amount is). There's no reason to continue, period.

This is also part of the bigger problem with Bitcoin: ever increasing hashing power is only possible with ever increasing price. If the latter falls, the former must eventually follow. Assuming things get bad enough, we could actually see difficulty and network hashing power drop so far that a 51% attack would be possible, though I think that's unlikely as anyone with any sort of interest in Bitcoin doesn't want that to happen. Not surprisingly, this flaw is what has driven so many alt-coins -- including Paycoin -- to adopt a Proof of Stake distribution mechanism, as there the total power requirements are relatively minuscule in comparison to Proof of Work.

Long block confirmation times and large amounts of "wasted" power are two real issues in Bitcoin. Could we actually see the cryptocurrency collapse? Well, I doubt it, but nothing is certain. If BTC does end up failing, something else will end up taking over, and more likely than not that something will not use a Proof of Work hashing algorithm. Far more likely is that we're at the point where difficulty is going to become a lot more stable. I don't think Bitcoin prices are likely to drop too much further, but if they do you can rest assured that some big ASIC farms will pull the plug while they wait for the next difficulty adjustment to see if it's worth mining again.

Worst-case, we could actually see a huge number of ASICs shut off in the near future, causing a large drop in difficulty that might take a month or more to happen. Then we'll see a huge jump in hashing power for the next cycle thanks to the difficulty drop, and suddenly all the problems alt-coins have experienced with too-long difficulty adjustment cycles will rear their ugly head in a big way with Bitcoin. There are probably enough "believers" that will keep mining come what may that Bitcoin won't have quite the roller coaster that we've seen with alt-coins, but this could definitely open the door for other cryptocurrencies to gain ground on what was once an unassailable position. It could prove to be a very interesting quarter or two....