June 2017

The KeyOne, and a reviewer who can’t think beyond himself

I don’t mind carrying an iPhone 6S for work. It’s a good phone. I have maybe a dozen apps, all of which could be websites just as easily, except maybe Swype. Given that I’m not using it as a daily driver, I’m pretty happy with what it does and how it does it…but when I caught wind of the Blackberry KeyOne, I wasted no time pestering my boss about it.

It’s not a phone for everybody, nor is it intended to be. It is, however, intended to serve a niche. That fact eludes David Pierce, the individual who wrote the phone review for Wired Magazine. Go ahead, give it a read. The rest of the review will make less sense if you don’t, but not as little sense as his 4/10 score.

You know what a BlackBerry says about you now? …It says you probably still have an AOL email address, carefully curate your MySpace Top 8…It says, above all else, that you bought the wrong phone.

David starts his review by indicating that people who desire the Blackberry are caught in the past, but provides no basis for this claim aside from alluding to Blackberry’s fall from corporate dominance. It’s an ad hominem attack that indirectly contradicts his next paragraph, indicating that TCL, the real manufacturer and licensee of the Blackberry name and software, makes excellent products. Am I left to assume that a “TCL KeyOne” would have avoided the ‘stuck in 2006’ tone?

The only problem is that physical keyboards are a bad idea. They’re not more efficient, no matter what your nostalgic brain tells you. Touchscreen keyboards are faster, more versatile, more usable.

David might be at least somewhat accurate here, but it also sounds like he’s never dealt with some of the frustration. They’re faster, until you’re entering a password. They’re more versatile, until you’re in a Remote Desktop session that’s expecting a regular keyboard. They’re more usable, until you’re in a remote SSH session cycling through the different sets of symbols. Are these common things? Of course not…but the KeyOne isn’t targeting the Swiftkey crowd.

They can do swipe-typing, change size and shape to your liking, and switch languages at will. They go away when you don’t need them.

Swipe-typing is great, but it’s only needed to keep typing on a virtual keyboard somewhere on par with a physical keyboard. David does make a valid point that the keyboard can be removed from the screen when non-typing tasks are happening, and I do need to give credit for that. I will similarly concur that users requiring multiple languages are indeed better served with on-screen keyboards.

David calls the KeyOne’s 4.5″ diagonal screen “small”, but my iPhone 6S has 3.5 diagonal inches of viewable space with the keyboard present. Moreover, it wasn’t until the iPhone 5 that Apple had a phone with a screen north of 4.5″ diagonal. iPhones sold by the millions with smaller amounts of viewable screen size (and an on-screen keyboard taking up nearly half that when typing), so it definitely seems to be a double standard. 

There is a clear confusion between ‘available features’ and ‘necessary features’. The fact that the KeyOne wasn’t customized to best meet David’s workflow isn’t a shortcoming of the phone. He writes:

You can map each key to a shortcut…but I miss being able to just start typing and launch straight into search. You can swipe up and down to scroll through webpages or apps…But you can also do that, you know, on a screen.

I am certain the shortcut keys can be disabled, or a key could be mapped to open Google, or David could perform one whole tap on a bookmark saved to his home screen; a tap is required on any phone to cause the keyboard to come up anyway. Swiping on the keyboard for scrolling sounds incredible. Not only is your hand not blocking content as you’re scrolling (a huge feature in itself), but I’ve lost count of how many times a “scroll” swipe has been confused with a “touch”, and ended up tapping a link erroneously. Just because it’s possible to do on a screen doesn’t mean that the use of a keyboard can’t improve the process.

Most of the phone’s security work happens in the background, only alerting you if something goes wrong.

How is this a passing comment and not seen as a massive improvement? How many Android users get multiple prompts every time they install an app? Lookout, the ‘security’ software that ships on many Android phones by default, provides more nags and notifications and annoyances than actual positive function. If a phone can be kept secure with virtually no false positives so that alerts can be assumed to be legitimate and worth addressing, that is an incredible improvement for many users coming from the Android ecosystem.

Really, everything about the Keyone other than the keyboard is good enough—and sometimes even great.

David gave a 4/10 rating for a device that, according to this statement, has one drawback?

My point is that you do not want a phone with a hardware keyboard.

A phone with a hardware keyboard is not going to take the world by storm. TCL knows that, Blackberry knows that, Google knows that, and the carriers know that. What the Blackberry does deliver, though, is a phone that serves the needs of those who have always felt Autocorrect was a compromise. A virtual keyboard may be a bit faster if Swype or Swiftkey is frequently accurate, but “out”, “or”, and “our” will always problems. Autocorrect is great for common phrases, but terrible for command line use. Sure, MS-DOS isn’t used by most people today, but I use it more days than not in my line of work.

The most ironic part of David’s rant is the fact that he probably didn’t type this on a virtual keyboard. In all likelihood, it was typed on a desktop or a laptop, with a physical keyboard. I have no proof of this, but even if he did, he would have had more screen space to revise the article while typing if he had used the KeyOne over an iPhone.

Now, if David really wanted to dissuade those of us who believe that a renaissance of Blackberry is a good thing, he could have pointed to the fact that a whole lot of the book 50 Shades of Grey was written on a Blackberry.

Mass Effect: Andromeda. My Review

It has taken me 13 weeks to finally get enough time to finish the game…but I finally did. I wanted to complete the game before writing a review. There is no shortage of reviews to be found, including the usual angry folks. So, I’ll provide one more to the mix, just because.

A whole lot of the criticism thrown at the game has at least some merit. The first hour is confusing if you’re coming straight from replaying the last game. I ultimately grew to like (and depend on) the jump mechanic, but the initial key bindings were terrible. I didn’t run into nearly as many bugs as other players have, though I’m sure a decent amount of that had to do with the fact that by time I’d finished the game, there were three or four patches to fix them. Once I got used to the “profile” system, I consider it far superior to the “pick your class at the beginning of the game, and you can’t change it later, even though you’re not entirely sure which one you like because you haven’t started playing yet” paradigm of the others. Conversely, it did take quite a while to deal with the “three abilities at a time, you can’t expand them, but you can have four sets of ‘favorites'” method of ability management.

I think one of the fundamental problems with Andromeda was that it was clearly an attempt to embrace the ‘open world’ style of game that made Skyrim so popular, giving players the ability to ‘go wherever, do whatever’, but on a planetary scale. I agree that ME1’s ‘drive around a square mile to find some random debris at best’ wasn’t the most fun thing ever (and against which, MEA’s planetary exploring was much better), but the handful of sections that involved linear missions seemed fewer and far between. ME3 was more linear than the first two, admittedly, but there’s always been the freedom to choose the order in which missions are played. I think the sandbox design took away from the ability to write a good story. I would argue that this change caused the tepid reception. More so than the bugs or facial animations, I believe the single biggest reason MEA got the tepid response it did had more to do with the open world setup and endless number of fetch quests that was a massive departure from the more balanced, story-driven level sets that were present in the original trilogy. Even at that, the planets visited were straight out of Star Wars. I visited totally-not-Hoth, totally-not-Dagobah, and four totally-not-Tatooine planets. They weren’t outright terrible, and to be fair the Remnant sections were interesting and had a nice balance, but the requirement to do a mountain of fetch quests on half a dozen planets leads me to be of the persuasion that there should be some differences on more than two planets. Then again, the “drive around and flail for the one mineral deposit you actually need” was no picnic; I was shocked to find that they somehow managed to make resource mining even more tedious than ME2.

The draw to the original Mass Effect trilogy was primarily the story and characters. In the original, we got to watch Liara go from adorkable adolescent scientist to the Shadow Broker, from barely using her biotics to being formidable and confident. Tali went from a young woman on a pilgrimage who joined the crew out of convenience, to a loyal squadmate who would follow Shepard anywhere…almost. Mordin went from a strict scientist who saw existence through a microscope and a spreadsheet, (spoiler warning) to someone who would sacrifice his own life to atone for his crime (well, unless you’re a complete jerk). There’s a reason I bought a friend of mine this T-shirt as a graduation gift, and the Honest Trailer sums Garrus up well when calling him “the best alien bro since Chewbacca”, and it’s moments like these. Jack went from a rage-fueled ball of anger to a teacher who cares deeply about her students. I could go on and add Thane, Wrex, EDI, Legion, Samara, and a dozen others, but I don’t have time to come up with all the Youtube links. To be fair, I will at least concede that most of those comparisons involved at least two games’ worth of character development, if not three.

The characters of the original series clearly had personality and development. While Peebee was a highlight this time around and Cora had backstory that was at least somewhat interesting, I thought the rest of my squadmates were generally bland. Jaal was okay, but primarily because of his role of being de facto ambassador; virtually any other Angaran could have stood in his place. Vetra was the most stoic Turian with a paint-by-numbers loyalty mission. Gil wasn’t half bad, but I couldn’t take him anywhere, and Liam? He was so annoying, I nearly shot him myself. Drack had some humorous banter with Peebee while driving around, but if it wasn’t acting exactly like Wrex, he was complaining about getting old. My sibling spent the whole game in the med bay and was generally a plot device for a forced sense of stakes, rather than someone I’d actually like to spend time with.

The other direct comparison I’ll make is in the decisions and how they worked. 90% of the dialogue choices seemed to change the immediate follow-up line, but the response after that clearly was written to be addressed no matter which option was chosen. I didn’t seem to get a ‘better’ or ‘worse’ reception for choosing one response over another. The Paragon/Renegade mechanic may have been a bit limited to continue, but it didn’t seem like there was any similar method of aggregating a personality. The original games gave different side missions and characters interacted with you differently depending on where you landed on the paragon/renegade scale. While virtually every player of the original game remembers the agonizing decision of whether to save Ashley or Kaiden, and whether or not to save the Rachni Queen, later about what to do about the heretic Geth. Later still players got to decide whether to save the Geth or Quarians, though the highlight of my gameplay was being able to make peace. I remember two decisions that were even close. One of those decisions seemed like a forced attempt to implement such a choice, while the other was more nuanced, but primarily political posturing. 

While I’ve spent the majority of this review berating it in one way or another, there were some things I absolutely did like about it. The Nomad solved literally every complaint that had ever been made about the Mako. Once I got used to the combat changes, it was overall an improvement. I didn’t like having to micromanage my rare resources, but it was definitely nice to be able to build whatever guns I wanted, rather than saving up all my credits and trying to remember which merchant sold the one I wanted. I can carry two sniper rifles and two shotguns if I want?!? Awesome! My squadmates actually participated in combat, the Kett enemies were varied and responded to different tactics, and though the story wasn’t well-developed, I thought the rebellion subplot added a point of conflict that made sense under the circumstances and was a great idea. The Angara were a cultured species, with a well-developed history and great interactions. I was expecting to meet more, but if they were only going to do one, they did it right. The ending was excellent, in that it was a good length, had great interaction with the different groups interacted with during the game, felt satisfying, and had an excellent epilogue.

Overall, I’d give the game a 6/10. It wasn’t a bad game overall, I felt that my interest was basically held, and I think there’s room for its sequel to advance the story and redeem the shortcomings. I do, however, think it will take far longer for me to have the desire to replay it, as I tend to do with the original trilogy every 18 months or so.

One last thing: the origin story of leaving the Milky Way should have been a part of the initial exposition, not hidden behind finding dozens of maguffins over the course of the game.

TJ-Maxx is the most bizarre store, when you think about it

So, I had a little time to kill tonight, and I decided to walk around TJ-Maxx for a few minutes. I have gift card that needs to get used, and a little retail therapy wouldn’t be the worst thing ever.

TJ-Maxx is a store where you can go and purchase clothes from designer brands (albeit from last season or less-than-trendy colors), fragrances, Bluetooth speakers, olive oil, hair care products, small furniture, yoga mats, beard trimmers, dried apricots, children’s books, wine glasses, carry-on luggage, chocolate, knockoff Swiss Army knives, a small charcoal barbecue grill, low-grade jewelry, and boutique hand soap. 

Now, before you get all upset because you can buy all those things at Target, the difference is that Target is intended to have a wide range of items, and you can reasonably expect to find a specific item in stock, with a specific spot on the shelf, and have that item ordered if they’re out of stock. At TJ-Maxx (and its cousins, Marshall’s and Ross), it’s either in stock, or it’s not…but it’s not like Big Lots or other liquidation stores where they’ll stock basically-whatever ends up on the truck. There’s no guarantee *what* olive oil will be on the shelf, but there will be olive oil. If you like a children’s book, get it, because it’s going to be a trip to Amazon to get it if it’s gone by the next time you get there.

On the one hand, I’m having trouble imagining the episode of Shark Tank where someone pitched the idea of the set of items described above and having it work. On the other hand, apparently TJ Maxx has less trouble getting foot traffic than Macy’s does, and with half the overhead of Nordstrom, each individual sale is more profitable.

Ultimately, I don’t think it would be wisdom for me to tell them to cease carrying chocolate.

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