Saturday, April 25, 2015

Bringing Back the XBox

I was recently happy to make the purchase of a used Xbox. No, not an Xbox One or even an Xbox 360. I'm talking about an original, black Xbox.

Original Xbox

If it seems odd to go back two generations, allow me to explain.

The Way It Was: XBox in the early 2000s

My history with the XBox starts when I lived up in Washington and worked for Microsoft. I won a contest testing employees' knowledge of EAI, and the prize was an XBox. I brought it home, along with several XBox games purchased at the Microsoft Employee Store. At the time, my girls were 6 and 4 and my son was an infant.

The games we found most compelling on the original XBox were Midtown Madness 3 and Indiana Jones and the Emperor's Tomb.

Our Favorite XBox Games

Midtown Madness became an instant family favorite. It has a lot more humor than most driving video games, and lets you drive around (or smash up) Paris or Washington DC in great detail, by yourself, with a second player, or with robot players. You can race, perform challenges, or just cruise around. It's a hoot.

Midtown Madness

Indiana Jones and the Emperor's Tomb is also great fun. Who doesn't want to be Indiana Jones? You go through a series of levels in the jungles of Ceylon, then in a castle in Prague, later to Istanbul, and finally to various parts of China. You fight, whip, explore, make discoveries, battle monsters, and have to solve puzzles. It's epic and captures the experience of being Indiana Jones very well. It took me 4 months of weekends to get through all of it, and I loved every minute of it.

Indiana Jones and the Emperor's Tomb

Aftermath: The Later Generations and No Backward Compatibility

As much as we loved our XBox, it eventually died. The logical thing to do was get an XBox 360, which is what we did. The 360 had some nice improvements, such as wireless controllers... but also one big, glaring flaw: it wouldn't run games for the original XBox! No Midtown Madness, no Indiana Jones and the Emperor's Tomb.

I was stunned. In the computer hardware industry, it's the norm to retain compatibility with earlier platforms so software applications will continue to work. Not doing so disrespects the customer's investment and doesn't give customers any incentive for brand loyalty. Microsoft certainly understands this principle well in general, but not at all in the XBox division.

There was some outcry about this, and Microsoft did institute a compatibility program where some games were updated to work on the XBox 360. But the games we loved were not included in this effort.

And so we bought some new games that worked on the XBox 360, but none that we liked as much as the original XBox games. The makers of Midtown Madness 3 did not come out with an XBox 360 version. The makers of Indiana Jones and the Emperor's Tomb had plans to come out with another Indiana Jones game title for the newer videogame platforms, but ended up scrapping those plans in favor of a Star Wars themed game.

Highly, highly disappointing. As years went by, my family continually reminded me of how they missed those original XBox games.

More recently, Microsoft announced their third generation gaming platform, XBox One. I paid much attention: would they change their tune about maintaining compatibility? No such luck: XBox 360 games do not run on the Xbox One, Microsoft had learned nothing. I decided then and there I wouldn't be getting an XBox One or any future Xbox platforms. It's bad enough to have been burned once.

Getting a Used Xbox: The Magic is Back

Recently, I had the opportunity to pick up an original first-generation Xbox -- and we love it. We're happily ripping up Paris again in Midtown Madness 3. I've been able to introduce my 11-year old son to Indiana Jones and we are now going through it together level by level.


Follow-up - 6/17/15:

It seems there's been feedback from enough people who feel like I do that Microsoft has decided to change its stance on backward compatibility. They have announced XBox 360 compatibility for the XBox One. This will only be for a select subset of titles, however, so whether your favorite 360 game makes the cut or not remains to be seen. There's nothing here for compatibility with original Xbox games.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

The Moto X Gen 2 Phone

I just upgraded to a new phone, the second-generation Moto X from Motorola.

Back in November 2013 I blogged about my experience with Motorola's first-generation Moto X phone. I've used that phone for the last 15 months, and like it a great deal (with one notable exception: the grass cracked just a month after I got the phone which has been a bummer. Then again it was probably my own fault for not being more careful with it.) I've really come to value many things about this phone. I especially like its size and hand feel, and its innovative active notifications feature, which updates just a few pixels of your turned-off screen to give you notifications in a super battery-efficient way.

Active Notifications

Recently, I decided to upgrade to the new second-generation Moto X, which I received one week ago. When I got the previous first-generation phone, Google had purchased Motorola which was one of the attractive features since I'm not a fan of carrier bloatware on Android phones. Motorola was since sold off to Lenovo, but I ultimately decided to stay with the Moto X family since I liked the first generation so much. Fortunately, the customer ordering experience, phone quality, and very-latest-Android aspects of the Moto X have not been impacted.

The ability to custom-design your phone remains a compelling feature of the Moto X. After ordering my new phone at my local AT&T store, I received a voucher card. At home, I connected to  the Moto Maker site at, entered my upgrade code, and proceeded to design my phone. There are some nice new options available, including several wood and leather back choices (wood or leather costs an additional $25, and you need to be careful where you put your phone to avoid stains). I ultimately chose a white front, bronze accents, and a cognac leather back with my name inscribed.

Lots of choices to customize your phone

Moto Maker online designer

Less than two weeks later, my phone arrived. After following a short online procedure with AT&T, my new phone was linked to my existing number. I did not have to relocate any SIM cards.

Moving to a new device always raises the question of how much work you'll need to do to get your apps and data and configuration replicated. I'm happy to report that not only is that well-addressed by the phone, but three different parties are all looking out for you. Google, Motorola and AT&T all provide software/services to assist in phone upgrade data transfer. My first inclination was to use the Motorola Migrate application, which moves apps/data/configuration from old phone to new over your WiFi network--and that's largely what I did. Since contacts are managed by my carrier, I also utilized AT&T's facility to move my contacts over. While I was doing all this, Android on the new phone automatically prompted me to restore backed up apps and data from my old phone. Motorola Migrate is easy to use: the new phone scans a QR code displayed on the old phone and they communicate over your WiFi network. All in all, it only took about 15 minutes to move everything over and it was painless - everything was done for me automatically.

Motorola Migrate

Hardware-wise, the phone has a powerful processor and a good camera, two areas for which the original Moto X was sometimes criticized. The processor is a 2.5GHz quad-core Snapdragon 801. The rear main camera is 13 megapixels (previously 10) with a circular dual-LED ring flash (previously single-LED). The front camera is 2 megapixels. There are a lot of nice features in the camera, and they have been thoughtfully engineered.  I don't know about  you, but it usually takes me some time to get acquainted with phone camera features and I often end up not using many of them because they can be cumbersome to get to. That's not the case here: camera features and settings are discoverable and easy to get to. Touch the camera to take a photo, or hold your finger down to capture photos in burst mode so you can select the best shot(s) afterward. You can take Ultra HD video and slow-motion video. You can even quickly summon the camera app with a double shake of the wrist.

Moto X Camera Settings

One concern I had was with the size of the phone. As is common right now, phones are getting larger and the Moto X is no exception: it's gone from 129.3 x 65.3 x 10.4 mm (gen 1) to 140.8 a 72.4 x 9.97 mm (gen 2), and the screen from 4.7 to 5.2 inches with a beautiful AMOLED display. Admittedly, a larger display would be easier on the eyes, but would the larger phone be more difficult to handle? The original Moto X was just perfect for your hand and allowed many things to be done with just one hand. As it turns out, I've had no problem with the larger size phone. It still goes in and out of my pocket easily and has not been cumbersome to use.

My favorite feature is still there, Active Notifications, along with a great new feature that complements it well called Attentive Display. The phone has low power IR sensors on the front and can recognize when you wave your hand or a face is looking at it. This means you can wake up the time and notifications display by simply waving your hand. When looking at the phone (for example reading messages or an e-book), the screen won't time out and go dark on you. It may sound a little spooky that the phone knows when it is being looked at, but this feature is really well-implemented.

Last but not least, there's Android Lollipop. Android prompted me to upgrade to the "L" release (Lollipop) the first day I had the phone, which I proceeded to install. I like the new Android release and its "material design" UI very much. Big UI changes are not always pleasant to adapt to, but this one was.

It's only been a week, but so far I'm loving this phone. It's really a pleasure to use, thanks to the features and little refining touches Motorola has added and the careful way they've been engineered for usability.