GRID Autosport – Game Review (Xbox 360)

GRID Autosport - Race Start

So, you’re on the GRID, ready to race and waiting for the lights to go out. You cycle through the camera angles to get to cockpit view, and then… wait a moment, where is it?

THE RACE BEGINS – THE RETURN OF COCKPIT VIEW

That’s exactly the problem with cockpit view – it’s there, but it isn’t. If you’re new to racing games and can’t understand the importance of a cockpit view to a motorsport fan, think about this – would you rather ‘chase’ a racing car, or be the one inside it? Look no further than the original Race Driver GRID (circa 2007), where you had a fully working (albeit, simplistic) cockpit view; the same can be said for ToCA Race Driver.

With the announcement of GRID 2, which deviated from the previous games ToCA Race Driver 3 and Race Driver GRID (which were set around the world of circuit-based motorsports) towards street racing in exotic locations, somebody in the Codemasters office obviously woke up on the wrong side of the bed on the day they claimed that there would be “no cockpit view” in the upcoming GRID 2, based on their own research and knowledge that gamers mostly use chase view (excuse me, what gamers would they be? Although, no cockpit view in GRID 2 – sounds ironically poetic?).

GRID Autosport Open Wheel Cockpit ViewBig mistake – the reaction from GRID fans online showed that there was indeed a demand for the cockpit view, despite Codemasters’ claims that most of us just settle for chase view. Would that happen to be the entire clan of Need for Speed and arcade gamers? (Don’t get me wrong, I love OutRun, and found the thrill of racing while running away from the cops truly enjoyable in the recent NFS Most Wanted reboot. But was this what Codemasters meant?).

Therefore, when Codemasters announced GRID Autosport, they also heavily emphasised the “Return of Cockpit View”. But does it live up to expectations?

The short and blunt answer: No… it does not.

OpenWheel_2

GRID Autosport – TV Cockpit…

What you actually get, when cycling through the different camera views, is a blurred or blackened shot of what should be the cockpit view. In the open wheel category (see image above), it’s not too bad – you still get the feeling of sitting in a single-seater junior F1 car (be it GP3- or GP2-spec), whether you’ve selected the traditional cockpit view or TV-cockpit view (see image below, which is similar to the TV-cockpit view in the F1 2010 – 2014 games).

F1 2013 TV Cockpit

…versus F1 2013 – TV Cockpit

 

But sometimes, in Touring Cars for instance, all you get is the black outline of the windscreen, and a blurry idea of where the steering wheel should be and what it should look like – or have they inserted cockpit view, only to deliberately add a blur-filter (giving it to you in one hand, taking it out of the other) – but this is where your imagination and knowledge of cars is most useful!

GAMEPLAY – AND TIME FOR A PIT-STOP…

Away from the ‘it’s there but it’s blurred’ cockpit view, GRID Autosport is really great to play. While I’m not too sure about the handling of the cars (if you take a corner too fast, the tail-end of the cars tends to step out, forcing you into a drift), the excitement of a race weekend is brilliantly captured with the sessions you can take part in (practice, qualifying, warm-up, and Race), installing upgrades to the car, and loading and fine-tuning car setups.

Before you even drive, it pays to look through the contract offers you’ve received – while one team will offer you more XP and money, the other team might allow you to modify car setups in greater detail and install better and more powerful upgrades.

AI who think twice about letting you past helps to capture the thrill of racing, while a team-mate who responds to your commands makes the game feel more personal to you (commands like ‘defend this position’, ‘hold your position’, or ‘attack for a higher position’, can be given by pressing the LB & RB buttons on the Xbox 360 controller and, quite possibly, the L1 and R1 buttons on a PS3 controller).

OpenWheel_2 - team mate

Team-Mate Commands

 

Unfortunately, as it is you who is driving for different teams, it doesn’t feel as personal or thrilling as the original Race Driver GRID, wherein you were able buy cars new or used from eBay, select sponsors based on their rates of pay (sponsor contracts are completed via race objectives, such as: “You and your Team-mate Must Finish 5th or Above”, “No Damage to the car” etc.), and being able to select a team-mate to join your own team based on his/her salary demands and driving skills. Also, there doesn’t appear to be any audio name selection in the settings menu to customise how you’re addressed by your race engineer when he speaks to you during the race. (Codemasters, take note: if you’re ever going to make another GRID-style game for PS4 and Xbox One, please bring back this level of customisation!)

_big_gridworld22

Race Driver GRID – player’s team garage

Also, I really noticed the difference when Codemasters introduced the Flashback feature (now commonplace in racing games, with the Rewind feature in the Forza Motorsport and Forza Horizon series) in Race Driver GRID, Colin McRae DiRT 2 and F1 2010 – I was given the breathing room as an amateur/rookie to occasionally make a mistake and not pay too heavily for it.

While it is still here in GRID Autosport, when you press the rewind button (the ‘Select’ button on the Xbox 360 controller by default), you’re presented with a timeline at the bottom of the screen as the race retreats to an earlier point. You have absolutely no control over it, other than the obligatory button-press to select a point on the timeline.

GRID Autosport Flashback

There are no manual controls to rewind, pause, or fast-forward, or even the option to play the Flashback in slow motion by lightly holding the RT button (like in F1 2013) to find the precise moment from which to continue. In fact, far from being precise, it doesn’t even possess the segmentation of Forza Horizon’s Rewind feature (upon pressing the ‘Rewind’ button, the game rewinds until a given time and then stops – you can keep rewinding, or continue the game (allowing you redo that corner, knowing exactly where the big lorry was, patiently waiting at the traffic lights, before you sped around the corner and crashed into his trailer!).

Again, it’s just as annoying as the ‘is there/isn’t there’ cockpit view – it’s not something you really notice the first time you play the game, but it can become more annoying the more you need to use it.

CAREER MODE – A RACE TO THE CHEQUERED FLAG

While the features may leave you feeling disappointed with your purchase, the way the career mode works will rescue you. Career mode is divided into different disciplines for you, including Touring Cars (WTCC, ToCA tour, V8 Utes etc.), Endurance (GT racing & Le Mans-spec cars), Open Wheel (IndyCar/F1, and junior categories such as GP2), Tuner (drifting and racing), Street (high performance supercars on street circuits), and GRID Grand Slam.

GRID Autosport Disciplines

Unlike any other racing game, there is no obligation (other than your competitive nature to be the best at everything) to progress through every discipline, deviating from the almost-linear structure of GRID and GRID 2 where you must compete in every level 2 mode to progress to level 3.

Grid-Autosport-review-in-car-progress_thumb

In other words, you don’t have to compete in Touring Cars, Endurance, Tuner and Street in order to reach the next level of Open Wheel (phew, that’s a relief!). However, if you do want to compete in the GRID Grand Slam series (the ‘pinnacle’ series of the game), you must first have reached the overall specified level to unlock an event – the first Grand Slam event is Locked until you progress to Level 3 in each category.

IT’S THE LAST LAP

I think I understand the velocity of the issue – Codemasters wanted to release GRID Autosport (or, “GRID 3”) as a final hurrah to the GRID series on current-generation (PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360) consoles. I also understand, as a veteran gamer, the long-term battle between quantity and quality and how producers have tried to balance the two oppositions.

While the cockpit view may seem like an oversight and thus a last minute addition to keep the fans happy, Codemasters have instead focussed their efforts on making this game fantastic within its own right, and not just an update of the original Race Driver GRID.

Apart from the apparent stripping-away of features, and the questionable handling of the in-game cars which deviates from the car handling physics of F1 2013 and DiRT 3/Showdown (I seem to be endlessly drifting instead of turning into the corners, even after fine-tuning my car’s setup – but maybe that’s just me?), Codemasters have made a truly remarkable racing game.

Before I spent my money, I was worried that it would be just another pointless update and sequel (in the same way that you may, or may not, worry that Star Wars Episode VII will also just be another pointless sequel with no apparent reason for being made other than the money aspect). I heard many fans (via social media) speak about how this game was a must-buy for motorsport fans.

As I said before, I’m a bit concerned by how much they’ve stripped from the game in order to improve the gameplay, handling and graphics. I feel awkward comparing the game to Race Driver GRID and GRID 2, as GRID Autosport is a game in its own entity; but it is a GRID game, and therefore, I feel it should have lived up to its name. But, I suppose that is my problem with a lot of the video games made today – in order to improve graphics and playability, the developers also take something away from you.

Take these examples – Max Payne, Batman Arkham Asylum, Battlefield 3, and Forza Horizon. In the first two Max Payne games, the graphics were simple but the single player stories were huge, very detailed, and sometimes incredibly frustrating (remember the level in Max Payne 1, with the baby crying, where you enter a pitch black room from a corridor, with only a thin trail of blood to follow – deviate from the line and it’s game over?). In Max Payne 3, the story was a tad to short, but advanced gameplay physics helped to display this game as the defining concluding chapter of the Max Payne trilogy (not counting the awful 2009 big-screen adaptation, starring Mark Wahlberg and Mila Kunis).

Max Payne

In Battlefield 3, the single player campaign wasn’t very long and, in my opinion, the game suffered as more emphasis was given to the online Multiplayer modes.

Battlefield 3

In Batman Arkham Asylum, however, the map was small but the variation of levels was inspiring – from solving the Riddler’s challenges, to upgrading Batman’s weaponry, and through the hallucination levels where you control a tiny Batman hiding from a colossal Scarecrow.

Batman Arkham Asylum Scarecrow

In Forza Horizon, again the Colorado-based world was small, but greater attention was drawn to the graphics and gameplay, allowing you to (if you wanted to) free-roam around the world within a private Xbox Live party before competing against your mates in online, open-world racing (which had only been possible in games like GTA IV).

Forza Horizon Aston Martin Vantage K007 (2)

THE CHEQUERED FLAG

Following on from those games, in GRID Autosport, it feels like the developers have stripped away what makes a racing game so great, in favour of a trimmed-down arcade racing simulation with only the core essentials. But if they hadn’t, maybe I would be saying ‘it’s just a graphics update of the original’.

I was left a bit sour-mouthed and disappointed with the cockpit view and lacklustre Flashback mode, but when you appreciate the quantity of high-quality motorsport games that Codemasters have produced over the years, which all finely balance the need for speed of a fun arcade game with the gritty and hardcore nature of a pure thoroughbred simulation, you really start to appreciate the work that went into making GRID Autosport another brilliant racing game (including ToCA Touring Cars / TTC2; ToCA Race Driver / TRD2 / TRD3; Colin McRae Rally / CR2.0 / CR3 / CR04 / CR2005; Colin McRae DiRT / CR DiRT 2 / DiRT 3 / DiRT Showdown; F1 2009 for PSP and Nintendo Wii; F1 2010, F1 2011, F1 2012, F1 2013, F1 2014, and the upcoming F1 2015).

Therefore, it may not have the flair of the new F1 games, the thrill of managing your own team, or the hair-raising moments of hanging on as your car falls slowly to pieces, but it is a pedigree racing game, and if you’re a motorsport fan, despite its downsides, it will excite you, it will thrill you, it does put you in the mind of a racing driver, and it does place you in the race seat. What you do next, is up to you, Mr. Race Driver

My Final Verdict: 7 / 10 – a fantastic game, albeit slimmed-down and not as good as I’d hoped, but still worth it!

Chris Kenworthy.

F1 2015 – Paddock Headlines

Giedo Van der Garde versus Sauber F1 team

Sauber - Felipe Nasr and Giedo Van der Garde

The Australian Grand Prix was a race plagued for Sauber by their ongoing legal battle with former Caterham F1 driver Giedo Van der Garde, which had started in 2014 and only became public prior to the 2015 season opener after Van der Garde and his legal team “tried to force the team to accept the rulings of a succession of legal authorities and courts”.

In an official statement, the Dutchman revealed that he had mutually agreed with Sauber to suspend discussions, after Team Principal Monisha Kaltenborn showed no interest in working with him, and pursuing the matter any further “might have brought down the team, would certainly have wrecked the opening Grand Prix in Melbourne because the team’s cars would have been seized by the court, [and] it may have [also] ruined the careers of two young drivers – Marcus Ericsson and Felipe Nasr”.

German Grand Prix

F1 German Grand Prix - Hockenheimring Nurburgring

Another news story that has been hanging in the balance was whether or not there would be a German Grand Prix in 2015. For several years, the home of the German GP had alternated between the Hockenheimring and the Nurburgring circuits (Hockenheim in 2012, Nurburgring in 2013, etc.) to ease the financial burden of hosting a Formula 1 Grand Prix.

However, the German GP has now been pulled from this year’s calendar after discussions with Hockenheim to host this year’s race fell through – this means that despite the bold presence of German drivers in the sport (four-time champion Sebastien Vettel; Nico Rosberg; Nico Hulkenberg), and the Mercedes GP team, there will be no race in Germany for the first time since 1960…

Chris K.

F1 Australian GP 2015 – Race Review

“I’ll Be Back” – these may have been the words that race-winner Lewis Hamilton shared with Arnold ‘Terminator’ Schwarzenegger on the podium, but how else do you sum up an explosive season opener that only saw eleven drivers complete the race?

F1 2015 Australia Start

During winter testing, it was announced that the Manor Marussia team had exited from administration but would not be competing at the season opener. Despite turning up at the Grand Prix, the team worked on a modified version of last year’s car until Parc Ferme rules came into effect – not a wheel was turned for the team, who had already missed their contractual total of three races during last year’s penultimate rounds. It was also announced that Gene Haas had taken ownership of Manor’s headquarters in Banbury, UK, which will act as a European base for the Haas F1 Team, which is said to be entering the F1 grid in 2016.

Also during winter testing, a mysterious crash at the Circuit de Catalunya ensured that McLaren’s injured Fernando Alonso would not be racing in Australia, and would instead be replaced by Kevin Magnussen for the Grand Prix weekend.

F1 2015 - Alonso Crash at Circuit de Catalunya

Valteri Bottas would also be out of the race due to back problems during practice; the Williams team were unable to replace him for the Grand Prix, meaning Felipe Massa would be the sole Williams driver for the first race of the new season. Two further drivers were taken out on the pre-race formation lap; Red Bull’s Daniel Kyvat pulled over purportedly due to gearbox issues, followed shortly by McLaren’s Kevin Magnussen with smoke pouring out of his engine.

A field of 15 cars was reduced even further at the start of the race – as the drivers battled for position, a turn one incident sparked a chain reaction which resulted in the inevitable retirement for Pastor Maldonado as he spun into the barrier. Shortly after, and under yellow flag/Safety Car conditions, teammate Romain Grosjean started to lose power from his Renault-powered Lotus E23, and was told by his team to trundle on around into the pits.

With only thirteen drivers still competing, Massa was jumped in the pits by Vettel, and Carlos Sainz Jr suffered a pitiful disaster after the Toro-Rosso team struggled to remove a wheel from his STR10 during a rather long pit-stop.

The next retirees were Toro-Rosso teammate Max Verstappen who, after a pit-stop, reported on the radio that there was smoke in the car; and Kimi Raikkonen, who exited the pits with a wheel not being properly attached. Due to the new regulations for 2015, Raikkonen could receive a penalty in the next race for an unsafe release.

After the mid-field antics had taken its toll on the race, including a close-call between Button and Perez, Hamilton cruised home to take the win, starting off strong in a season of title-defending against his Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg who finished closely behind in second.

Hamilton has apparently never been starstruck on the podium, but that all changed when the Terminator himself stepped up onto the podium to conduct the post-race driver interviews:

Although Vettel was unable to close the gap to Rosberg, he managed to maintain the gap to Felipe Massa who strolled home in fourth position, showing for the second-year running just how close Williams really are to the Mercedes team.

But Vettel’s exemplary performance in his new Ferrari SF15-T, after a torrid 2014 season in a Red Bull RB10, begged more questions than it answered. Many fans and journalists believe that Alonso left the Maranello squad too early, and that McLaren are going to be out of the points for a while given the inevitable teething problems that are sure to come their way with the new partnership with Honda.

Ferrari - Alonso vs Vettel

The reason Alonso left Ferrari for McLaren was the same reason Vettel left Red Bull for Ferrari – a poor showing in 2014 caused both drivers to reassess their careers for the 2015 season. But, based solely on Vettel and Button’s performances in Australia (Button struggling home in 11th and thus failing to finish in the points), should Alonso have stayed with Ferrari for 2015?

Ferrari F14-T and Red Bull RB10

Finally, the success stories of the weekend must lie with the F1 rookies – Sauber’s Felipe Nasr, who finished 5th in his first Grand Prix (with teammate Marcus Ericsson cruising home in 8th), while Toro Rosso’s Carlos Sainz Jr, son of the great WRC driver, came home in 9th, losing only one place after an impressive qualifying run that saw him start in 8th place.

If the opening race is anything to go by, the action is far from over… see you soon for more F1!

 

Chris K.

My Career (or, lack thereof…)

Life – well, it’s boring. Why? Because I’m full of poisonous ‘self-doubt’…

I have no confidence in who I am as a person. It’s the thing that’s always held me back – both in my personal life, and my professional life. I cannot sell myself properly when light-heartedly flirting with women (thus ensuring 23 years without even a whiff of a girlfriend). Okay, maybe “selling” myself is the wrong word or phrase. Maybe what I really mean is that my lack of confidence when flirting stems from my inability to recognise my own personal achievements.

Also, I want as much as anything to write for a newspaper or magazine as my full-time job. But that’s just it – a JOB. I haven’t got one yet. Since finishing my university degree in June 2014, I haven’t even been motivated towards getting a job. Yes, I’ve sent out a few applications and been to a couple of interviews, but I have other interests too, like volunteering for CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale).

What I’ve done, is I’ve tried to ignore this indoctrinated expectation that when you graduate, you must then immediately get a job and start earning your way in life. I want to do that, and believe me, I do! But I also don’t want to be pressured into anything I don’t feel comfortable with.

Unfortunately, I feel this has now gone too far, and as a result of my volunteering for CAMRA and thoroughly enjoying it, I now feel left out – seeing my mates get a job straight out of university has made me feel depressed, and I’ve now lost all motivation to do even the simple task of getting out of bed every day so that I may complete yet another application to some godforsaken company to earn a wage.

I was over the moon (quite literally) when I learned that I had graduated from my English Literature degree with a Grade 2:2 Bachelor of Arts with Honours, but I am now facing the music and the harsh reality when it comes to job applications – in the real world, a 2:2 is just unacceptable.

According to all these employers, a minimum of a 2:1 is expected, as stated within the job descriptions… BUT I’m now getting sick of seeing “Minimum 2:1 expected/obtained degree in any discipline” – supposedly, a 2:2 (as in my case) means you’re thick, unmotivated, and not worthy enough for a position at their company. Even though “worthy” accounts for the latter half of my surname!

That’s why I’m stuck writing this blog, and volunteering for CAMRA, and writing articles for a beer magazine on a voluntary basis, and living off my parents’ retirement pensions until I can get a job of my own…

That’s not to say there aren’t ANY jobs out there – there are loads of jobs if you know where to look. I suppose I’ve just set my sights too high. I don’t see the point of working at the local supermarket with all the high-school dropouts I used to see on a daily basis at age 16. I’m now 23. If I worked there, I’m afraid that I’d then have no justification for going to university, enjoying life, studying a subject I enjoy, and accruing £20,000+ of student debts in my name.

But the more I send out applications and receive an email starting “on this occasion your application has been unsuccessful”, and the more time that passes, I get to thinking that it’s the hard life or no life at all…

 

Chris Kenworthy.

One Week with Windows Phone 8.1

Lumia Cyan

I’ve now spent one week with the Lumia Cyan and Windows Phone 8.1 update. My Nokia Lumia 820 has never felt so complete; yet with Windows Phone 8 installed it felt so empty and incomplete, like I was using an endless Beta test of the final product. I originally bought the Lumia 820 as it was the sibling to the flagship Lumia 920 and still had just as many flagship features at an affordable price. It was a future-proof, 4G/LTE-ready phone with built-in technologies such as NFC, an 8MP Carl Zeiss rear camera, and the ability to open and edit Microsoft Office documents (Word, Excel, PowerPoint) that I needed to do anyway as a university undergraduate.

Features and Review:

The new drop-down Windows Action Center brings the Windows Phone Operating System (OS) more in line with the notification drop-down menu’s of iOS and Android, while the overall feeling of the UI keeps that ‘metro’ look while seeming to be slicker and quicker at completing tasks and operations, even on a 2-year-old device which should be noticeably slower than current flagship models.

WP8.1 Action Center

What Microsoft and Nokia have done here is quite extensive – they’ve made newer phones eligible for Windows Phone 8.1 straight away and, once tested, given users of current WP8 devices the ‘okay’ to update to the new operating system. Whereas Apple, if I remember correctly, intentionally forget about older devices and render them useless without the most recent iOS update. At least, that’s what happened when I found I could no longer download any apps from the app store (even Apple defaults like iBooks) because I didn’t have iOS7 on my 4th Gen iPod Touch, meaning I also couldn’t access iTunes Radio or the supposedly superior Siri on a device which is forever locked to iOS6 (thanks Apple!).

Default Calendar app:

Calendar app

I never used the default calendar app in Windows Phone 8 as I found it too tedious to change from day-view to month-view every time I entered the app. However, with the update, the Microsoft team have finally rectified the problem and have also made some improvements – I find the week-view very useful and detailed agendas increasingly helpful, meaning I can now fully transfer all of my to-do’s over from my diary to my phone. Being organised has never been so great on Windows Phone.

Storage Sense with Windows Phone 8.1:

wp8.1 my start screen 3Another feature which has improved is the ability to transfer app downloads over from the internal storage to my micro-SD card, a utility which has featured in pretty much all Android OS’s I can think of (as far back as 2.3 Gingerbread, if I’m correct). This means there’s no worrying about the ever-growing problem of the ‘other’ storage items. Microsoft don’t seem to have resolved this problem, but at least now I can do more to create space on my phone rather than deleting almost every application, which makes life much more simple.

I’ve been able to download and install Microsoft’s own file management app called “Files”, meaning I can also transfer downloaded music, photos and videos from my phone to my micro-SD card without using my USB cable and computer. Battery life has also seen a major improvement, and I’m now able to keep track of what’s consuming all that power thanks to the helpful ‘Battery Saver’ system app.

Multimedia and Wallpapers:

wp8.1 my start screen 2Another thing which I found rather unhelpful was the separation of Music and Videos into two apps rather than one. While this improves the time between opening the app and playing your media, I felt I had to pin both apps to the Start screen. I normally like my Start screen to just be from the top to the bottom of my screen without any scrolling; sure, I could’ve enabled the three-column tiles feature, but on my (tiny) 4 inch screen, the live tiles seemed too small and almost impossible to read.

Meanwhile, the addition of the new scrolling wallpaper feature means I can look upon an everlasting pint of ale while executing everyday tasks. My theme colour is now used less often, which is easier on the eyes. All of the initial drawbacks of the Windows Phone 8.1 update did make me think about possibly downgrading back to WP8, but after a week’s usage I can happily confirm I’ll be sticking with WP8.1 for the foreseeable future; that is, until Microsoft release the newest update confirmed as the Lumia Denim firmware.

Cortana (Halo/USA version):

Cortana greeting

Probably the only thing I wished I had as default here in the UK was the ability to install Cortana during the WP8.1 and Lumia Cyan update, as I’ve found the Cortana PDA/app to be one of the best features of Windows Phone 8.1 (I ended up installing the USA version as I sadly discovered there was no UK option available after the major OS upgrade).

What does Cortana meanAs with everyone else, I found that I had to change BOTH the region and the language settings from United Kingdom to United States before I was even allowed to download the Cortana update. While this has enabled me to enjoy all the things my phone can do, when it comes to purchasing new music or apps, I’ve found I have to temporarily change the region setting back to UK to pay in my currency (GBP £), as my payment cards/Wallet options are also invalid outside the UK meaning I therefore have no method of payment!

But once the app or music track has downloaded, I switch the region back to USA and restart the phone – this is because Cortana isn’t available (even on Beta!) here in the UK, and we have still to wait for the British-sounding Cortana PDA. I have heard that it is possible to sign up for free as a Windows Phone developer (I already have!) meaning I would get access to the British version, but there’s just one problem…

will you marry meAfter a quick perusal on YouTube, I found that the British Cortana rather speaks like our Queen, and then it dawned upon me: wouldn’t I rather firt with Jen Taylor (the voice behind Halo’s ‘Cortana’), or would I rather flirt with Queen Elizabeth II? I suppose if the British PDA had sounded more like the Duchess of Cambridge, then I might more happily oblige, but where is the fanboy novelty in flirting with someone who sounds like my 80 year old grandmother?

Once the nerdy novelty had faded (of flirting with Cortana, asking her Halo-related questions, and then getting her to acknowledge my name as Kenners), which wasn’t long as I’ve noticed Cortana USA is still in Beta mode, I found the PDA had a humorous side to her, giving my phone the resemblance of any other human being; when I asked her if she liked Google, she replied ‘I like to imagine the “I’m feeling lucky” button in Clint Eastwood’s voice’, and when I asked her if she would marry me, she responded slightly sarcastically: “I know you know this, but I’m saying it anyway: I’m in a phone’.

Cortana settingsI have found that Cortana is only operational (or, awake) when both WiFi/Cellular Data and Location are turned on, but when she is awake, I didn’t feel like I was talking to a phone, as she can also sing songs when asked and has many a joke in her repertoire. I felt like I was conversing with one of my high-school crushes, which was absolutely fantastic!

Maybe the only thing which spoilt my rather ‘digital’ dating experience was having to repeat myself in some cases and holding my phone closer to my mouth when uttering words, but overall, and very remarkably, Cortana was able to recognise my British accent (having read that Cortana’s British language capabilities would come through in the official Cortana UK update).

Of course, there are certain things the American version of Cortana has difficulty with, most notably the difference between the NFL and English/European/World football (or “Soccer”, which shares no resemblance to the actual game of kicking a “ball” with your “foot”).

Cortana interests 2No worries though; the text entry bar in the Cortana app allows me to enter my favourite news items, meaning I can save ‘Ipswich Town Football Club’ as a news alert alongside ‘Formula 1′ and English pop music songstress ‘Pixie Lott’. This means every time I open the Cortana app or tap the physical Search button/key, there’s a series of news updates awaiting me if I scroll down from the welcoming Cortana greeting message.

The Good, The Bad, And The Helpful:

wp8.1 my start screenThere are a few things that have been taken away for good, like that massive, annoying, ambiguous ‘gap’ at the top of the screen between the Start Screen apps and the time and status bar that no amount of scrolling up or down could get rid of – this has now gone and I can finally have a ‘full’ Start screen. Meanwhile, there are a few things I wish Microsoft had kept, mainly in the department of social app integration; such as the ability to simultaneously post a status update to various social networks (Facebook, Twitter, Linked-In).

A feature that changed on my phone, and no doubt on other Windows Phones as well, was the button sequence in order to take a screenshot. Most of the time I used this feature to capture an image of the songs list at the end of the film, usually when I’d heard a music track but didn’t know what it was (and I’m not sure Shazam or Soundhound would’ve worked with characters talking in the foreground). Where I used to press the physical Start button and the Power button, I instead had to press the Volume Up button with the Power button. It’s a simple combination to remember, but one week on, I’m still doing it wrong…

people - groupIt also took me a while to get used to the new updates to the ‘People’ hub; where I was able to utilise the ‘Groups’ option in Windows Phone 8 to keep track of my best mates’ status updates across Facebook and Twitter whilst simultaneously filtering-down my main contacts list, I found that in order to see these individually-grouped status updates in Windows Phone 8.1, I first had to enable all contacts lists in the main People hub. This was slightly annoying as I then had over 500 names and unassigned email addresses floating around in my main Contacts list, meaning it was almost impossible to keep track of family members’ phone numbers without having to create a separate Group.

After a while, I found out that behind the ‘Phone/Calls’ live tile, lurked the Speed Dial menu (swiping left from the Call History view), which then helped with keeping those phone number-only contacts aside from the jumbled-up mash of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and email contacts (having linked five separate email accounts into my Linked Inbox app).

My Verdict on Windows Phone 8.1:

While I will admit that all these changes have overhauled the Windows Phone platform in a sort of ‘Pimp My Ride’ fashion, I have to be fair and say that Windows Phone still lags behind its main competitors in Apple’s iOS platform and Google’s Android OS. Nokia, under Microsoft’s belt, seem to be doing all they can to target the low-cost smartphone markets with phones like the Lumia 530, and I think by undercutting the rest of the market, Microsoft can at least rest assured that they’ll be back where they belong; fighting for custom against Apple and Google.

Android iOS Windows

Microsoft might be releasing a new desktop OS in the codenamed Windows 9 ‘Threshold’ to help regain a market loss after a terrible effort with Windows 8, but at least their mobile platform is gaining momentum. Windows Phone 8.1 shows what the Microsoft mobile experience should have been way back with the Windows Phone 7 OS and Windows Phone 8 OS – slick, simple, easy to use, and daringly fast with loads of features to keep your attention. WP8.1 may not be as slick or as developed as both Apple’s and Google’s efforts combined, but I think I can accept a few rough edges, because I know that whenever I go out with my mates, I’m not someone who melts into the crowd. I’m someone who stands out.

My Score: 8.1/10 ;)

What was that phrase going around a few years ago? “I am a PC?”

No. I am a Windows Phone…

Chris Kenworthy.

Buyer’s Guide: Galaxy Tab Pro 8.4″

Recently I was browsing for a tablet (a name which I still cannot get used to), to expand my computing capabilites outside of the house. The search started when I was trying to view a film on my phone when my battery died, forcing me to sit on the sofa with a portable but still uncomfortably awkward 15-inch laptop. I realise Tablet PC’s have been around for a while, but I guess I never really needed one, and the question that would always have to be answered was, “can a Tablet do anything that my mobile or laptop don’t already do?”

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Ultrabook

Invariably, I was looking for something that I though didn’t exist; a cheap and fairly small device with the capabilites of my laptop but at half the price (sub-£200 GBP). My budget immediately ruled-out the cheaper iPad mini (currently at £249 GBP) and also the cheapest Microsoft Surface/Nokia Lumia tablets (around £400), which would have been an ideal candidate to merge into my already-growing ecosystem of Windows devices (Windows 8.1 laptop, and Nokia Lumia 820 running Windows Phone 8). That left me with just a handful of options: an Android tablet, a tablet running a limited Android UI (such as Amazon’s Kindle/Fire range), or a cheaper tablet running on an older operating system.

Android iOS Windows

I’d set my sights on an Asus/Google Nexus 7 (2013 version), a tablet which I had been looking at for a while, even as far back as a year ago when my father was making a similar purchase. I liked the idea of a small 7″ screen, which was still an upgrade from the 4″ screen on my smartphone, and the idea of holding a device which was low in weight, as I would be holding the tablet for long periods of time to watch films and television shows. That meant battery life and pixel resolution were also key factors – I didn’t want to be viewing a Full HD film on a device that could only output at a standard definition of 1024 or 1280 pixels.

Nexus 2013

Although mobile data (3G or 4G/LTE) is a standard feature in mobiles and features in some tablet models, I wasn’t concerned with connectivity other than Wi Fi, as I would mostly be using the device in the comfort of my own home. The Nexus 7 2013 seemed a viable option, but poor ratings and reviews across multiple shopping websites and online forums discussing both Asus’ “appalling” customer service, and, in some cases, the screen appearing to form cracks for absolutely no reason whatsoever made me think twice about purchasing the Nexus 7 2013.

TabPro

As I started looking around for another tablet that could match the Nexus 7 on specifications, I discovered the Samsung Galaxy TabPro; my father had purchased a Galaxy Tab 3 8″ and had recommended Samsung tablet, although past experience with a cheap Samsung flip phone (E250) was tempting me otherwise. However, the technical specifications listed the 8.4″ version as having a pixel resolution of 2560 x 1600 (with a pixel density of 359 PPI), which was far more superior than the Nexus 7 2013 which has a resolution of 1920 x 1200 pixels and a pixel density of 323 pixels per inch.

Galaxy TabPRO 8.4

Another feature I found more appealing about the Galaxy TabPro was the ability to externally expand the storage; the Nexus had 16GB of internal storage and no card slot, whereas the Galaxy TabPro has 16GB of internal storage and also a microSD-card slot offering an extra 64GB of external storage if I needed it. As it happened, I had a spare 16GB microSD card, meaning I now have 32GB of storage; I mainly use the internal storage for apps, games and Google Play Books downloads,  and the external storage for music and videos. Plus, the Galaxy TabPro has got an 8MP rear camera, which is a nice feature although I’ve rarely used it alongside my mobile phone and Canon digital camera.

 

tabpro84cam

Some of you, no doubt, will still be asking why I so readily rejected the iPad mini – the main reasons being the price, the superior specifications of a cheaper Android tablet, and potentially having to use the incredibly slow and prone-to-crashing Windows version of iTunes to load music and video onto the device (I have had a bad experience with iTunes in the past, endlessly syncing music to my 4th-Gen iPod Touch 64GB). If it wasn’t for these reasons, I probably would have considered the iPad Mini.

ipad

Overall, I have had a very pleasant experience with my Galaxy TabPro. Battery life hasn’t been a concern (in contrast to various customer reviews on Amazon and a critical product review on CNET suggesting a poor battery life), and I’m able to surf the ‘net, Facebook and watch a couple of movies before the battery runs out of juice.

TabPro8.4

However, shopping for a tablet case has been rather difficult due to its unusual screen size at 8.4 inches, meaning most universal cases don’t actually fit the bill and I’ve had to resort to browsing on Amazon for a case. I wouldn’t recommend Samsung’s own range of cases; I’ve held a few of them in stores, and retailing at around £35, they seem rather flimsy for the price. I’d much rather have a more hard-wearing, independently-made case from one of the many offerings on Amazon, and I’m now moving towards a case that includes a detachable wireless keyboard, as typing this blog entry on my tablet has prompted many autocorrections that I care not to discuss at great length (though it did just replace “autocorrections” with “autocorrelation stock”).

Also, I’ve since gone back to the shops to look at a Nexus 7, and honestly, the 7 inch screen does look a bit too small…

-Chris Kenworthy.

Why I chose Nokia Lumia 820 (WP8) over iOS and Android

Nokia-Lumia-820

The main reason for my purchase of a Nokia Lumia 820 was because of my financial circumstances and budget. I’m now a graduate and still looking for a job, but when I was looking for a new phone last year, the most I could afford was around £26 per month due to my low income as a student, and thus my options were pretty limited. An Apple iPhone 5S, iPhone 5C, or even an iPhone 4S on £35 per month was too much.

iPhones Banner

I guess I could have settled for a mid-range phone such as a Blackberry Curve model or a Samsung Galaxy Ace, but I already had a fourth-gen iPod Touch and a perfectly able feature phone on Pay-As-You-Go, and really wanted an upgrade of the two for relatively low cost. I really liked the Blackberry Torch, a sort of slider phone with its combination of touch screen and physical Qwerty keyboard, hidden underneath the screen, but the keyboard buttons were way too small (and I’ve got paper-thin fingers).

BlackBerry_Torch

I had considered the LG Nexus 5, the official ‘Google/Android Phone’, but my past experience of Android wasn’t great; I’ve still got a HTC Wildfire, which I managed to wreck by not using the Nandroid function to back-up a copy of Android 2.3 Gingerbread, before I confidently installed CyanogenMod 10, a Custom-ROM flash build of Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich.

HTC-Wildfire-Rooted_1

The Samsung Galaxy Ace seemed like the ideal option, available on a cheap £7.50 per month contract, although when I gave the phone a test-drive in the store, it was just too slow and incapable of executing simple tasks quickly, like opening an app.

Samsung_GalaxyAce_black_multiview

While customization was something my iPod touch lacked on iOS6, even though I subsequently Jailbreaked it, I wanted a phone that was capable of making calls and sending texts and emails, and one that was different and fresh. That was when I stumbled upon the Windows Phone operating system.

new-ipod-touch-4

At the time (February 2013), I had seen three Windows Phones around my £26/month contract budget; the Nokia Lumia 800 (WP7), Nokia Lumia 820 (WP8), and the HTC 8X. I liked the tile-based Start Screen (similar to the Start Screen on Windows 8), and cosmetically I preferred the HTC 8X, but after some initial research on the Windows Phone platform, I had found that Nokia were developing apps themselves that were only being released for their Lumia phones.

Lumia-820-vs-HTC-8X


Having been impressed with the reliability of my feature phone,  a Nokia X2-00 with a 5MP camera (I still keep it as a spare), my attention was drawn straight to Nokia. Both the Lumia 800 and Lumia 820 were availabe for around £26/month, but unlike the Lumia 800 which had a smaller screen and ran on an outdated Windows Phone 7 OS, the Lumia 820 had a large screen, 8MP camera and ran on the latest Windows Phone 8 OS. I’d been used to using the 3.5 inch screen on my 4th-gen iTouch and, certainly, the move up to a 4.3 inch screen was a noticeably large one, but once I’d gotten used to it, I was able to utilise the phone and its features.

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Obviously, price wasn’t the only thing I had considered, and as I have already mentioned, my attentions were drawn to Nokia’s own apps developed for the WP8 platform. While WP8 lags somewhat behind iOS and Android in terms of features and number of apps on the Windows Store (compared with Apple’s App Store and Google’s Play Store), I’ve been impressed with Nokia’s Panorama app which has allowed me to capture many panoramic photos over the past year, something I could do (but not very well) on my basic Canon Powershot camera. Here’s a panoramic photo of Ipswich Waterfront that I captured using the Nokia Panorama app:

Waterfront Panorama 13-2-2013

Hopefully I’ve given you an insight into why I purchased a Windows Phone. While I will agree that there are those of you who don’t like Microsoft, I’m pleased with what they’ve achieved lately, given that the age of Desktop PC’s is drawing to a close and they’ve been forced to enter the mobile market to stay in competition. There have been problems along the way for my phone, such as the mysterious growth of ‘Other Storage’ on my 820’s internal storage, but a simple backup and reset has always solved these problems. Although Windows Phone 8.1 has already been released to developers, when it is ofiicially released this summer, I shall compose a review of Nokia’s Lumia Cyan and combined WP8.1 updates, and how the system has been improved.

Nokia Lumia 820 red & yellow

Chris Kenworthy.