January 2006 Archive

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January 26, 2006

Google Web Authoring Statistics

@ 4:35 PM

As part of their work with the WHAT (Web Hypertext Application Technology) Group  (external link), Google have released the results of an analysis of a billion HTML documents  (external link) in the wild. It makes interesting reading, and there are some horrors and surprises in there - the widespread use of class names like 'smalltext', 'white' and 'link', for example.

I hope this is a baseline for the start of a longitudinal study which will let us see how the web is evolving over time. There's no analysis of doctypes, which would have been useful, and of course with every element taken in isolation any generalisations made from such stats are wholly invalid. My suspicion is that the web standards:tag soup ratio is still pretty darned small, but that matters are improving, but I can't prove it. Yet.

January 22, 2006

Accessites.org

@ 9:02 PM

This is a somewhat tardy announcement, but I'm delighted to be involved with Accessites.org (external site), a new site showcasing the best of accessible websites and proving that accessible != rubbish design. Sort of a StyleGala for accessibility, it's the brainchild of Mike Cherim (external site), and an excellent job he's done, both of the site and of the scheme of ranking (external site) sites.

I'm still toying with the idea of creating an accessibility hall of shame - a showcase of those sites who singularly fail to live up to the standards they claim to have achieved. There's still no shortage of sites who proudly display their WAI badges, and provide flowery accessibility statements rendered in 8px text, and they should be made an example of if you ask me. So, AAA Shame - good idea or not?

January 12, 2006

GP2X Review

@ 9:12 PM

GP2XI first heard about the GP2X back in September when Mike 'Isofarro' Davies mentioned it in a Sony PSP thread on AccessifyForum  (external link). I'd been toying with the idea of buying myself a portable device with more grunt than my worthy-but-dull Loox PocketPC, but wasn't sold on anything in the marketplace. The GP2X sounded too good to be true - this handheld would play DivX movies, had an mp3 player, e-book reader and photo viewer built in, ran the Quake engine, and had the promise of a raft of emulators including Commodore 64, Sinclair ZX Spectrum, and Sega Megadrive. It used AA batteries and cheap SD cards, had TV-out, USB and support for external power supplies, and cost just 125 quid. In an unusual display of impetuosity I pre-ordered one, sat back and waited for the launch.

The first units were expected to be rolling off the production line in late October, but with Gamepark Holdings (the producers of the GP2X) being a small company, there were inevitable delays as firmware and hardware issues were ironed out. I eventually received my unit on 22nd November, one of the first batch from UK supplier GBAX  (external link).

In this review I'm going to concentrate on my personal experiences with the device, which have been mostly positive. There are plenty of other views of the GP2X on the GP32X forums  (external link), both positive and negative, so if you're interested in reading more I'd recommend heading over there after you're finished here.

So, 8 weeks on what do I think of my new toy?

Hardware

The build quality is pretty good for the price. The unit is black plastic, with a substantial feel in the hand, not at all flimsy or cheap. It features two shoulder buttons, four thumb buttons, a thumb stick, a volume control rocker switch and select and start face buttons. The thumb stick is also clickable, which is a nice touch. I've fairly large hands, but the GP2X is comfortable to use, and the buttons are all easy to reach and easy to use accurately. The thumb stick is the weakest part of the setup - unlike some other users I have no problem with the dead-zone or the travel distance, but the convex shape of the cap combined with its hard, slightly shiny material makes it very difficult to get a good grip, and consequently precision movement can be a problem. Fortunately the cap is detachable and there have already been several modified caps tried and tested, and someone is now selling a nice looking concave cap in a grippier material.

This demonstrates nicely one the major strengths of the GP2X - the community around it is already incredibly active, thanks largely to its predecessor the GP32. There is a core of developers and enthusiasts who are dedicated to supporting the GP2X, evidenced by the incredible quantity and quality of software already available, less than 2 months after the first units were shipped. More on that later.

One of the most important elements of a quality handheld device is the screen, and for me the GP2X's 320x240 pixel LCD display is a winner. It's bright, clear and has a wonderful colour range. Running Megadrive or PC Engine games shows its talents off to the full. There have been some gripes on the community forums about scanlines and interference, but I've found neither problem seriously compromises the screen, while the former will be improved in later firmware releases, and the latter is fixable with a simple hardware modification (which does involve opening the unit), which will almost certainly be fixed in later hardware releases (it may be even now, it's such a simple fix).

As mentioned above the unit runs on 2 AA batteries. I'm using Uniross 2100mAh 15 minute rechargables and getting up to 4 hours usage per pair. This will improve with future firmware releases from Gamepark, since the unit is currently drawing full power at all times regardless of the task. Even so 4 hours is fine for me, and long enough to watch any extended LoTR film uninterrupted. The shutdown is somewhat sudden though, with no warning - a promise for a future firmware fix is for the battery light to shine once power is getting low.

USB connectivity is somewhat flaky at present, but SD card support is improving after some initial problems. The best option currently is to use a card-reader attached to a PC to get stuff onto the SD card, bypassing the need for USB. The 3.5mm headphone socket is annoyingly located at the top of the unit, so headphones with a fairly long lead are recommended.

One final gripe you'll hear elsewhere is the boot time, which is currently 20-odd seconds. My solution is to turn it on 20-odd seconds before I need to use it, elimnating all that waiting around at a stroke, but then I'm a certified genius.

Software

Here's a quick summary of the software included as part of the unit's OS:

Movie Player

Based on the highly-rated mplayer  (external link), it has all the basic features you'd expect. The unit has hardware DivX support, plus some other codecs. Xvid support is reported to be flaky, but I've only used DivX files and they've worked flawlessly. It's a comfortable watching experience, and I've enjoyed a good few episodes of Home Improvement in the bath already.

MP3 Player

As with the movie player this is a basic package. I haven't used it much, it's really just a bonus feature for me and not something I expect to use often.

eBook Reader

Erm, a bit of a misnoma, it's really just a very crude text file reader.

Image Viewer

Don't know anything about this, haven't tried it yet. Specs say it supports JPG, BMP, PCX, GIF, and PNG files, which is nice.

As well as these packages there's a very basic file explorer, a utility installer, and some info screens for battery level, hardware version, USB and TV-Out settings.

More details of all this and the GP2X technical specs can be found on the GP2X Wiki  (external link).

So out of the box, provided you have an SD card, you can watch movies, listen to music, look at images and read text files - not bad at all. But the real action is to be found in the homebrew scene - emulators, games and utilities from the community.

It's incredible just how much software has been released for the GP2X in just 2 months. I'm only going to list my personal highlights here, for a fuller picture visit the excellent GP2X file archive  (external link) - at the time of writing there are around 250 distinct pieces of software to download, all free, all increasing the fun you can have with the device.

Emulators

The way things are going you can expect fairly accurate emulation of most 8-bit and some 16-bit consoles, handhelds and home computers on the GP2X within a matter of months. Below I've detailed some of the best releases so far, but also well on their way are OutcaST (Atari ST), SquidgeSNES, Stella (Atari 2600), NES, PC Engine, Atari 800, Gameboy Colour, Gameboy Advance, Fuse (Spectrum) plus many others.

Commodore 64 - Frodo

A top-notch, almost perfect C64 emulator and includes a virtual keyboard, save states, 1541 emulation and a speed limiter. So we're talking mobile Space Taxi, Hero, Jumpman, Paradroid, Kickstart, Archon, Beach Head, M.U.L.E., Blue Max, Elite, Impossible Mission, and so on and so forth. I owned a C64 when I was a kid, so this is a great nostalgia trip, but some of the games hold up surprisingly well despite their age.

Sega Megadrive / Genesis - DrMDx

An incredibly polished package, with more options than you can shake a stick at, and again with near flawless emulation, this time of Sega's 16-bit console. Before using this I'd only played on a Megadrive once, many years ago, so I had no idea of what to expect. But there are loads of sites out there with top xx listings for the console, and I've been pleasantly surprised to find some real gems, mostly arcade style games but some strategy and RPGs too. I've completed the classic ZeroWing, of 'All your base are belong to us' infamy, and am now working my way through Shining Force, a nice RPG, with a game or two of Populous thrown in for good measure.

Arcade - Mame

When you've got 10 minutes to fill there's nothing quite like Mame - just long enough for a quick game of Carnival, Bubble Bobble, Galaxian, Dig Dug, Scramble, Pooyan, Phoenix, Time Pilot or whatever takes your fancy. Being born in 1969 I'm just the right age not to care that this release is based on Mame 0.34, and so only supports older arcade games. I can remember playing pong at the local swimming baths when I was about 7, and for the next 10 years or so I avidly followed the steady progress in arcade technologies, with firm favourites like those listed above securing a place in my memory to this day. Ah, please excuse me while I wipe away a tear.

Anyway, it's a solid emulator, and apart from a bit of jiggery-pokery to get the romsets to work with 0.34 it's a doddle to use.

Interpreters

Slighly different to emulators, interpreters are complete rewrites of game engines which can make use of the game's original data-files. There are two notable releases I want to mention, but other than these we've got Quake 1 & 2, Duke Nukem 3D, Frotz (for Infocom text adventures), Another World, Flashback and Hexen:

Exult

An interpreter for Ultima VII, one of the best games ever produced, a hugely involved RPG in Origin's famous and successful series. It's a fine piece of work, is very playable and supports the original Black Gate and its expansion the Serpent Isle. Unmissable if you're an RPG fan, or like a good story.

ScummVM

LucasArts produced some of the most engaging and funny point-and-click adventures of all time - Sam and Max, the Monkey Island series, Day of the Tentacle and so on. ScummVM provides access to these fantastic pieces of work on your GP2X. It's not close to perfect yet - there are sound-synch issues, some interface weirdness and doesn't yet have scaling for games with higher resolution than 320x240 (e.g. Broken Sword), but hopefully these will be ironed out in due course.

Homebrew

If the thousands of games exposed by that little lot aren't enough for you, you'll be pleased to know that there are a good few freeware games available too already. Check out the file archive for a full list, the quality is variable as you'd expect but I've nothing but admiration for the developers who are learning to code for the GP2X and making the fruit of their efforts freely available. The only game I want to mention here is TileMatch, a very impressive Zoo Keeper variant, well worth checking out if you like challenging puzzle games.

It's so encouraging that I've got my Dev-C++ environment all setup to do a bit of game coding, all I need now is to stop playing the bloody thing and make some time to get started!

Conclusions

The GP2X is a fantastic, high-value, multi-functional device, which isn't for everyone, but then everyone isn't GPH's market. Let's be clear, this is not intended to be a direct competitor to gaming platforms like the Sony PSP or Nintendo DS, or to other mainstream handheld multimedia devices like the video iPod or Creative Zen. It's aimed squarely at those of us who like to have raw access to our technology, get our hands dirty and still have some fun at the end of the day. There are some rough edges, and reports of bricked units due to unsuccessful firmware upgrades do put some people off, but in reality it just adds to the fun (big tip - don't upgrade your firmware until you've read a few success stories!).

As it stands today it's already hugely useful to me, and the promise of future firmware improvements and more refined software means things will only get better.

The GP2X retails at £124.99 including postage. If you're interested in buying one I'd recommend using the official distributor (and yes, I do get commission): http://gp2x.co.uk/go.pl?A696  (external link)

Buy the GP2X from the official UK distributor

January 5, 2006

@media 2006 yadda yadda yadda

@ 9:42 PM

Gosh, @media 2006  (external link) announced. Cue multidinous, gushing blog posts extolling the virtues of a conference not even one year old.

They'll be right though, 2005 was top-notch, and the line-up for 2006 is shaping up nicely. Eric Meyer is going to be speaking. I'm so excited (and such a fanboi) I think I feel a song comin' on. If you can only get to one web standards conference at the QEII Centre in London in June in 2006 make sure it's this one.