Review

Out with LiqudSky, in with @Paperspace 1

Those who follow me on Twitter know I have, in the past, been a big fan of LiquidSky for cloud gaming. What I’ve found over time, however, is that I can no longer support that platform. I’ve officially cancelled my subscription and been using a new platform – Paperspace and Parsec – for several months now. The reasons for the change are straight-forward, and could have been addressed by LiquidSky before I jumped ship, but were not.

First, a note on what cloud gaming is: Basically, cloud gaming is simply a desktop hosted with a cloud provider close enough to you physically to provide a very low latency streaming experience. Streaming allows you to see the video and hear the audio of the desktop in much the same way as you watch movies and TV online. Low latency allows your clicks and keyboard input to happen on the remote desktop in close enough to real-time that it feels real-time. Both are required for cloud gaming because you need to react to what’s happening on the screen as it happens (you see an enemy, you react and shoot, or hide, or dodge, etc.). This is insanely difficult to accomplish, as most streaming systems like Netflix are designed for one-way communication. They send the data to your browser or set-top box and that’s all they’re worried about. With gaming, input matters, and therefore latency is a both sending and receiving input is something that must be dealt with. Just having a remote desktop connection doesn’t work – latency might be low enough to stream the desktop to you, but not anywhere near low enough for quick reactions to be recognized by the desktop itself in enough time to be useful.

Another issue is that most cloud platforms are geared toward commodity compute – basic CPU and RAM functions – and not for graphics. This means that while some games will run, those that require dedicated graphics cards (GPU) will not – ruling out the use of nearly all major games you’d want to play. GPU-focused cloud instances exist, but at a huge premium in price, and latency is still a massive issue with those.

Cloud gaming works to solve both issues by accelerating networking to allow for reasonably low latency, and offering GPU-enabled cloud desktop instances with sufficient resources to play the games you want to play. It’s a balancing act, and tricky to get right, but a few companies have managed to do it. For a Mac person who likes to play big-name games (which are typically Windows only), cloud gaming is a dream that’s just now starting to come true.

So less address why I made the switch:

1 – Mac Support: LiquidSky originally had a great Mac client. It wasn’t perfect, but they were working on correcting the few issues that there were there and making it better. Then LiquidSky 2 launched without a Mac client at all. Over the remainder of 2017, we Mac users patiently waited for the next-generation Mac client, but to no avail. Update after update of the Windows client came, and an Android client finally launched, but the Mac client continued to be listed as “coming soon.” As one of the major uses of cloud gaming is allowing Linux and Mac users to play these games, this is inexcusable. The Windows client can be used on a Mac with virtualization or emulation (things like vmWare Fusion and Wine), but this requires a level of technical expertise that is beyond the majority of users – and doesn’t provide a pleasant user experience at all.

Paperspace has had a Mac client since day one of their GPU-enabled gaming desktop services. It works, and it works very well, and they’re continuing development of the platform as they move forward to make it even better. They partner with Parsec to minimize latency and maximize the gaming experience overall, and they provide complete and easy-to-follow instructions on how to install and use these tools that anyone can follow.

2 – Latency: LiquidSky has continued to get worse and worse on this front as it gets more popular. While I’m happy they’re getting more users, they’re not scaling properly to allow for the increased user base to get a good experience when they play. Overburdening of their systems is taxing their networks, causing lag that makes playing many games impossible, and most games just plain unpleasant. Even using Wine to jury-rig their client into working on a Mac, visuals are “muddy” and reaction is sluggish and painful most of the time.

Paperspace keeps their networks and platform robust as it grows. It’s not perfect – there are periods of peak activity that definitely cause hiccups, lag, and some muddiness; but they’re far fewer than I ever experienced on LiquidSky and seem to be kept short. You’ll get a few seconds of sluggishness and stutter, and then you’re back to the great desktop experience you want.

3 – Billing Experience and Support: LiquidSky just doesn’t seem to care about its customers. It pains me to say that, as this is completely different than the experience I had when I started using their service. Customer support used to be fast, efficient, and friendly. Now, it seems that they respond when they feel like it, if at all, and basically always answer with “we’re working on that.” While this answer is perfectly acceptable when a new platform launches or a major overhaul has been rolled out – that period of acceptability ended several months ago and the attitude has continued nonetheless. Billing is painful, as it is handled by a 3rd-party entirely now and not even visible on the LiquidSky site. The shift from the ability to use unlimited accounts to everyone using a points system to rent access by the hour is even more confusing; and poorly explained. Let me be clear, they needed to raise their rates – no one could hope to grow and expand with the numbers they were offering – but make it easy for people to figure out what they’re paying for. Use real-money for the per-hour fees, not a conversion first to points and then to different amounts of points for each of the sizes of machines that can be run.

Paperspace has two billing options: per-hour fees in real money and unlimited plans at a fixed amount of money per month. They do charge far more than LiquidSky for unlimited accounts, but they are available and a decent value indeed for those of us who spent a lot on our Mac or Linux desktops and do not wish to buy a Windows machine with that much horsepower just to play games. Billing is handled by Paperspace and all options are available from their own website so I can manage my account quickly and easily. Support is stellar! Paperspace requires the use of a 3rd-party service called Parsec to play games (it mitigates many of the latency issues and handles things like controller support). I have been able to get help on Parsec from Paperspace directly, even though it isn’t their code or product. Paperspace always replies quickly and in a friendly manner.

All-in-all, LiquidSky seems to have totally lost the plot when it comes to cloud gaming. They shifted their focus to gaining more users as fast as possible by offering free credits for watching ads, but didn’t plan well to handle the influx of users that brought. They lost focus on their customers and service and support suffered. They’ve outsourced their billing to a 3rd-party and detached themselves from that process, and made the new purchase plans confusing and complex. Finally, they’ve stabbed their Mac customers in the back by focusing so heavily on Windows. I do understand that the vast majority of the gaming market is Windows, so this isn’t an un-sound business decision on their part. That being said, they had a fanatically loyal user base of Mac folks, who are now abandoning the service due to neglect. They did so as several well-known names like nVidia jumped into this space to compete for those same Windows and mobile users. So they’ve given up one advantage (a dedicated and untapped market) to maximize their effort in a crowded space against major household names. That’s not the best business plan.

Paperspace, with the help of Parsec, offers the total package. High quality services, ease of use, native clients on Mac, and reasonable prices. Note that cloud gaming is currently a very expensive proposition, with monthly fees averaging about US$200/month for unlimited use and per-hour fees being higher than for commodity compute uses. It is, however, worth it – especially for occasional gamers who just want to play one or two games that are Windows-only and therefore don’t need a monthly unlimited plan. It’s not perfect. Setup can be challenging, and not all hardware is fully supported (especially USB devices like gamepads and microphones for chat) – though that’s also the case for LiquidSky and not a Paperspace-specific issue. There are instances of network congestion, and minor nitpick issues, etc. Compared to their competition, however, they’re showing themselves to be leaders in the space of cloud gaming – giving big name brands like nVidia a real challenge and proving that they know what they’re doing and will get it done. They’re also proving themselves savvy businesspeople by targeting users who want the service and have found other platforms don’t get the job done. Mac and Linux users who want to play Windows games exist, and they spend money with companies that remain loyal to them – and Paperspace is going after that loyalty while retaining Windows customers – a recipe for success.

So give Paperspace a look if you’re gaming and not on hardware that can support those games well. No matter if it’s Windows, Mac, or Linux on your desktop, they can make your experience a lot better. Start with an hourly GPU instance and see if it meets your needs. You can always graduate to a monthly plan later if that will save you money. The Paperspace team will indeed be there to help you choose, help you get set up, and help you get back in the game.

Outlook for iOS just plain sucks 0

Recently, I joined a new company that uses Office365 – Microsoft’s cloud-forward platform that they believe will eventually replace the traditional licensing models for the Microsoft Office Suite, Exchange Server, SharePoint and several other products. The idea is good, as it opened the door to Microsoft finally brining its signature office applications (Word, PowerPoint, Outlook, etc.) to more platforms, like iOS devices. Word, Excel, and several others made the jump to my iPhone rather nicely. I’m pleasantly surprised at how well they translated from the big screen on my desktop to the small screen on my mobile devices.

Outlook fell out of the WTF tree and smacked into every single dumb-ass branch on the way down.

First, let’s talk about the interface. On a computer, with a keyboard and mouse, the interface for Outlook for PC and Mac is manageable and useable. I’m not a huge fan of the “put all the menu buttons in one tiny corner” school of UX design, but with keyboard shortcuts it’s a very workable solution for maximizing screen real-estate. Even Outlook for Mac – long the whipping boy for how not to port an application from Windows – the interface is clean, effective, and works. On iOS, the interface is horrible. There are no keyboard shortcuts to jump from mail to calendar to contacts, and some features like the task list are just plain missing. To be fair, tasks sync to the Reminders app in iOS – but only if you also set up your Outlook/Exchange account as an internet account on the phone.

All right, I know what you’re all saying, “It’s a scaled down version for just the essential stuff like email!” Great, let’s look at email:

No font sizing. So basically you’re going to see a set amount of info on each screen, no exceptions. Got an iPhone SE and need a bigger scale to avoid going blind? Too bad. On an iPad Pro and want to shrink stuff down so you can get more on the screen? Sucks to be you. To clarify, I am not talking about the fonts IN the emails – Outlook has little to no control over that if the email has its own formatting. I’m talking about the interface itself and the message previews in your mailbox lists.

No red squiggles. In nearly every other iOS application, when you mis-spell a word that autocorrect doesn’t murder for you (AUTOCORRECT SICKS!); you get a helpful visual indicator that something just ain’t right – the infamous red squiggle underline. It happens in the native mail app, and Airmail for iOS, and honestly every other 3rd-Party email app I’ve tried since iOS 4 was a thing. Outlook can’t get it to happen – or on the few instances they do get it to work it almost immediately stops working again. I’ve changed my keyboard settings, fiddled with autocorrect settings, etc. Nothing gets it to work reliably. Now I do a quick proof-read of emails before I hit send whenever possible because… well… AUTOCORRECT SICKS! but sometimes it’s easy to miss a spelling errer, and the red squiggly lines (like the one that’s glaring at me from that purposeful mistake in the last sentence) are extremely vital to not letting them get sent out.

No S/MIME support. What were they thinking? Outlook on the desktop has supported S/MIME in one form or another since Office 98, and done it reasonably well. Even Outlook for Mac has supported the use of signing certificates since it changed over from Entourage years ago. The native mail app supports S/MIME just fine, so the phone itself is capable of it; and other 3rd-Party mail apps seem to offer at least basic support for it, so it’s not an “Apple locked this feature away for their own use only” issue. But, alas, Outlook for iOS cannot use certificates to sign or encrypt emails, or even recognize that one is in use in an incoming email.

Not all bad news

There are some good points to Outlook for iOS as well. It’s not all doom and gloom. While the sizing is an issue, the interface is at least intuitive enough that I didn’t have to go searching through a knowledge base to figure out where things were. Not having the keyboard shortcuts as on a Mac or PC is annoying, but not something that will completely hobble you. Having email and calendars in one app is a much simpler method than downloading the .ics attachment, opening it in the Calendar app, and finally accepting it (or more often then not, finding out there is a conflict and starting the process over with the updated invite). Direct interoperability with other Office for iOS apps right out of the box is also a strong feature in Outlook’s favor. And having the licensing included in my Office365 subscription – which is handled by the iTunes App Store natively – makes things a lot simpler to manage.

I hope that Microsoft hammers out the kinks in the system. I would personally love to use Outlook for iOS for all of my work-related email; as I always keep work email and personal mail in different apps to avoid confusion and mistakes between accounts. For now though, I have to stick with Airmail for iOS. It doesn’t support S/MIME either, but can talk to Exchange online and does everything else I need except Calendars. For those who are interested, I went with BusyCal for iOS on that front.

Outlook for iOS is a flawed, half-baked product. It shouldn’t be part of the Office for iOS suite, and only serves to drag down what is otherwise a great set of apps that we’ve all been waiting for since Microsoft started looking at mobile devices. Get it together, Microsoft, and give me what I’ve had on the desktop and in other 3rd-Party email apps for years now!

Fixing Stubborn Default App Issues With RCDefaultApp 0

RCDefault Usually, you can set default apps for certain file types right through OS X features directly. Email (in El Capitan) is done by going to the preference pane in Mail.app, most file types allow you to set the default by going to Get Info, etc. However, sometimes things go awry, and that’s where RCDefaultApp comes in handy – big time!

For example, I had been trying out several email apps to find a good “second app” that I could use exclusively for corporate email messaging. This seriously screwed up my default mail app settings, and nothing would convince OS X to not use Mail.app for everything email no matter what. I tried many suggestions found online, but most fixes either no longer existed in El Capitan (repair permissions) or were simply ineffective at fixing the problem. Then one of my Tweeple – @bynkii – suggested I check out RCDefaultApp.

I had used it some time ago (Snow Leopard days) and it worked well, so I hunted around and found it again. First off, make sure you download it from RubiCode’s site only. Other sites seem to only have the non-universal, PowerPC versions which will not work on anything past the Leopard family. Once you have it, open the dmg and then open the Preference Pane file. This will launch a mini-installer that lets you decide if you want to install it for all users or not. Note: one component (“DoesNothing”) will not run, as it is not signed, but apparently it does exactly what it says on the tin, and doesn’t actually do anything necessary to the software itself.

The app is simply a Preference Pane, so open System Preferences, and you will see a new pane called “Default Preferences” under Other at the bottom. This brings up the main window, which lets you set your default apps for a wide variety of file types, sub-types, and more. In my case, I had to change the default email handler, but also the extension for .eml – which is apparently what was causing all the problems for me. Once I made those changes, Airmail became my default email client for the entire system as expected.

So if you have files opening in odd applications, and the normal methods for changing the default apps don’t work, check out RCDefaultApp from RubiCode. It’s free, and worth far more than you pay for it =)

Review: Amazon Prime Streaming iPad App 0

Photo Credit: PicJumbo
IMG 7422I was an early adopter of Amazon’s Prime Video service. They’ve offered tons of free content and a massive library of purchasable content for years now, and some time back the Amazon Streaming Video App for iPhone/iPad was released to allow folks to take the show on the road – literally. I’ve been a user of that app for about two years now, and the latest update brought a LOT to the table to make it even better.

First things first, if connected to WiFi, you can stream anything in Amazon’s catalog. Search for a show, tap the movie or episode in question, and away you go. Granted, this takes a lot of bandwidth, and you can be sure it’ll be blocked on public and in-flight WiFi services. Many are even getting smart enough to block it through VPN’s, so good luck with that.

However, one of the most interesting functions of the app is to let you download anything you’ve purchased for offline viewing. Get on a good connection, download whatever your device and hold, and you can watch it any time, even without a live connection to the Amazon servers. There was one issue with this feature, however, until recently you could not download anything but paid episodes and movies, no Prime shows or movies at all – that was streaming only.

The latest version of the app changed that to now allow any video in the service to be downloaded for offline viewing, with only a periodic re-connect to the service to verify your continued Prime subscription. Details on how often this happens is scarce, but I have gone several days without being online and had no problems at all. This opens up thousands more TV shows and movies that you can now take with you for anytime viewing.

All in all, if you’re looking for an alternative to iTunes video for long-haul, disconnected travel, Amazon has you covered. Happy viewing!

First Look: Plantronics BackBeat Pro 0

BackBeatPRO plus Spill print cmyk 28MAY15 I finally decided to join the 21st century and get a bluetooth stereo headset for my mobile devices. Up until now I’d been happy with a wired headset and a bluetooth earpiece for when I just needed to make phone calls and nothing else, but with a recent job switch that focused a lot more on my mobile phone, and all-in-one device was going to be a better fit. Looking through the available options, I found a massive choice in products, and a ton of different feature sets to pick from. Luckily for me, several co-workers had gone through this process in the recent past, and helped me narrow down the choices to about 4 selections.

My required feature-set was pretty small:

– Long battery life, a minimum of ten hours of real-world use.

– Ability to activate Siri so that I could voice-control the device.

– Complete compatibility with iDevices (including volume, play/pause, all phone commands, etc.)

– Micro-USB charging. No adapters or other widgets that I’ll lose.

– Customization. Let me choose which features I actually want to use.

– COMFORT. I had experienced some headsets that were horrific on the ears over the years.

– Voice quality. Whoever I call has to be able to clearly understand me.

– At least a little style. This wasn’t the most important feature, but one I wanted on the list.

The combination of these features narrowed the choices down to two, and from that I went with the Plantronics BackBeat Pro headset. One quick browse of Amazon later and I was waiting for the package to arrive. A few days later, and the fun began.

So, how did the headset rank against my list of requirements?

— Battery Life: I never trust the battery specs on web pages and/or box copy. Every manufacturer lies. So when I saw “up to 24 hours of playback time,” I took it with a grain of salt. However, to my surprise, these cans do seem to go for quite a long time on a 3 hour charge. I can’t attest to the claim of 24 hours, but I have run them with music on constant shuffle for 8 plus hours and they didn’t seem to be anywhere near running out of juice. My guesstimate – based on the battery stats voice prompt and my use pattern, is that they’ll clear at least 10 hours with moderate phone use and constant music playback. About the same run-time as the phone itself, so that works well. Verdict: PASSED

— Voice activation and control: The BackBeat Pro works with both Android and Apple devices, and is configured to properly activate Siri on iDevices with a long-press on the Phone button on the headset itself. What I found interesting (and sorely missing from some other wired and wireless headsets I’ve tried) is that not only do you get an audible beep when you press the button, but a second beep to alert you that you’ve held the button down long enough to initiate voice activation. That second beep is critical for me, as otherwise I tend to hold the button down too long and end up confusing the phone or (if you pair two devices) switching to another device. Voice commands were clearly picked up by the phone, and Siri had no issues with my request, beyond it’s usual foibles that have nothing to do with the headset. Verdict: PASSED

— Complete iDevice compatibility. Nearly every headset I looked at has this nailed, and the BackBeat Pro was no exception. Various buttons and dials on the headset properly and correctly activated the associated features on the phone without any issues. This included full control over the audio playback (Play/Pause, Forward, Back, Fast Forward, Reverse, volume, etc.) and phone operations (answer, hang-up, redial, etc.). Verdict: PASSED

— Micro-USB charging. A lot of the headsets required charging stands/bases, or used a proprietary charger (even in this day and age), or otherwise made life for a guy who has a habit of losing chargers on business trips a living hell. The BackBeat Pro uses a standard micro-USB plug to charge, no issues. Verdict: PASSED

— Customization. Most of the headsets I looked at were multi-function, and have so many bells and whistles they could qualify as orchestras. The problem is, some features become downright annoying, and there’s no way to disable them. Case in point, the BackBeat Pro uses Plantronics’ motion-sensing technology to do things like pause the music when you take the headset off and lay it down. I find that unnecessary and possibly even totally annoying if moving the headset out of the way to pick up the phone triggers automatic call answering. Luckily, the BackBeat Pro comes with both Windows and Mac software that communicates via the USB charging cable to enable/disable features and install firmware updates, so you can just shut that stuff off if you don’t want to use it. Verdict: PASSED – plus easy firmware updates!

— Comfort. This is a mixed bag. The headset is big, and even a little heavy. It’s very well cushioned, so you don’t really feel it, and balanced well so that everything sits properly on your head, but it’s noticeable. The cushioning itself is well done, and in all the right places, and the headset isn’t a pain (literally or figuratively) to wear, but the size/weight could be an issue for some. Verdict: MIXED – I found it very wearable, but some will definitely feel it is too heavy.

— Voice Quality. I made several test calls with the headset, and the people on the other end of the line said I sounded clear and understandable. The BackBeat Pro has noise reduction and other features, so this wasn’t a major surprise, but since there is no boom-style mic I was a bit worried. There were no complaints from my callers, though, so I’m going with Verdict: PASSED

— Style. Another mixed bag. While not being ugly, they’re also not beautiful. Aesthetics aren’t my main concern when reviewing tech, so I was ok with it. Those looking for the streamlined style of a Beats headset or the ostentatious appeal of a Sennheiser kit won’t find much to love here, but they’re definitely wearable in public without fear of attracting too many stares. Verdict: MIXED, but passable.

There were some downsides to the BackBeat Pro, however:

They come with every feature enabled, so unless you use the software to turn off the annoyances, plan on learning how to properly handle/move the things without triggering stuff. Additionally, they did NOT play well with my desktop. Audio was choppy and unreliable when attempting to stream music from my 2014 iMac, which is a problem I’ve found with many different wireless headsets. It got even worse when I had the BackBeat Pro multipoint paired (paired with two active devices simultaneously). Although Plantronics claims that multipoint isn’t a problem the headset often had a hard time figuring out which device had “right of way” at any given time.

Finally, the audio tends to pull a bit to the treble side of the equation whenever the Active Noise Cancelling is turned on. Not so much that it really impacts casual listening, but there’s no bass boost, and if you are a connoisseur of very high quality audio you will definitely notice it.

Overall Verdict: PASSED

I’d recommend this headset for anyone looking for a true mobile headset to control, talk with, and interact with mobile phones and tablets. While the audio could be a bit better with the addition of a bass boost function – especially with Noise Cancelling enabled – the audio quality for the speakers and microphone is quite good – better than many other headsets and ear-pods I’ve used over the years. They’re not cheap, but they’re definitely not overpriced for what they do, and a solid choice for mobile stereo headsets.