Keith’s Anime Reviews: Puella Magi Madoka Magica

Madoka Magica

“Anything is possible if you make a contract with me!”

Puella Magi Madoka Magica (or just “Madoka Magica,” for short) is a very surprisingly deep, somewhat dark, and very thought-provoking series – especially given that at first glance it looks like “just another magical girl anime.”

For those not familiar, the idea of “magical girls” is sort of a staple in anime – it’s a bit of a twist on the more traditional “superhero” story you see more often in western media. The basic idea is similar: person gains some sort of super-power and secret identity and has to fight bad guys/evil while trying to balance a normal life.

The basic premise of a magical girl story has the potential for a lot of interesting development, character growth, and so on – although it can also be used as just an excuse to have characters dress up in cute costumes.

Madoka Magica is… not like that. At all.

This is a series that is very hard to describe without spoiling things – A LOT – but I’ll do my best, because it really is worth watching without knowing the spoilers.

The basic premise here is that our main character, Madoka (and her friend, Sayaka) are suddenly asked if they want to become magical girls by the weirdly cute (but also somewhat creepy) talking cat-like creature Kyubey. In exchange, he will grant them any one wish they desire.

Getting any one wish you want granted in exchange for magic powers, a secret identity, and the duty to battle evil sounds like a not-too-bad trade, but this series really explores the depths of this seemingly inconsequential plot device.

Consider: should you be “selfish” and make the wish for yourself only, or use it to grant someone else’s desire – someone you care about? What if your wish turns out to not be what you want – or what the person you care about wanted? The price of your wish may turn out to be more than you can bear.

The characters in this series are very well developed – each one has a very interesting back story and motivation (which for the most part is filled in slowly with hints and suggestions, rather than being spoon fed to you), and they all grow and change over the course of the series.

This is an extraordinarily well put together and well thought out series, with lots of attention to detail and subtlety, which benefits from a second (or third) viewing. You will absolutely notice things the second time through that you didn’t notice before, and you’ll go “ah-ha!” or “oh, so that’s what that means!”

So if you’re a bit tired of the usual fare in this genre of anime, or if you’d just like to see something that really twists your mind (and your heart!) and explores some very deep concepts in a new and interesting way, I’d highly recommend that you give Madoka Magica a try.

A Third (and Final) Look at Windows 8

windows 8So I’ve been living with Windows 8 for a full 6 months now, on both my main desktop computer and my laptop, and now I think it’s time for a third (and final) look at the pros and cons of Microsoft’s latest Windows incarnation.

Where Windows 8 gets it right:

Trying to delete a file and getting notification of what program has it open: This has been a long time coming. It is so nice to finally know why you can’t delete (or move) a file, so you can just close that program and move on with your day.

Multi-monitor taskbar: FINALLY. Something that power-users have been using 3rd party programs to provide for years is now built into the OS. The ability to customize how application buttons appear on the different taskbars (on all monitors, or only on the monitor where the application’s main window is) is also a nice touch.

Connected accounts & settings: This isn’t that big of a deal, but with people replacing computers more and more frequently, it’s a real nice touch to log into a new computer and have it automatically bring over your desktop settings, backgrounds, and other customizations. Although it’s not a totally perfect solution, it is very nice to have, and a welcome addition.

“Reset” Windows option: I know a lot of people think you need to reinstall Windows every so often as a matter of course, and while I disagree with this concept (I’ve talked about it before), I will admit there are cases where you need to “reset” everything back to factory defaults. Since each PC manufacturer tends to have their own way of doing this, having a way to do it in the OS itself is kind of a nice touch, and will certainly be handy for a lot of people.

Ribbon in Explorer: This is a welcome addition in my opinion, although I know some people hate the concept of the ribbon. Still, I think the ribbon is a useful UI tool (when done with care and thought), and in the case of Explorer, it works, and it works well.

Improved boot speed: This is always nice to see in any new version of Windows. It is especially noticeable with an SSD, although even computers with ordinary hard drives should see some improvement. It’s not much, but it’s still nice.

Lock screen: Again, this may just be a little thing, but for the longest time the Windows lock screen was just a boring “Press CTRL+ALT+DEL to unlock” window. Now though, not only is it a customizable screen (separate from your desktop background), but you can add other information on there, such as your unread email count, the weather, and other info – which can be handy!

Where Windows 8 gets it wrong:

The Missing Start Button: I think I’ve harped on this before, but it bears repeating – the Start button should not have been removed. I know that “technically” a corner is “easier” to hit with a mouse (or with a finger), but you could have still left the button there for the visual reminder and just to make it that much of a bigger target. Removing it was just plain silly.

Horizontal scrolling: I know many screens these days are widescreen, but it still feels terribly, terribly wrong for the screen to move side to side when you scroll up or down on your mouse or trackpad. (Not to mention that far too many things require this kind of scrolling.)

Hot Corners aren’t that hot: The idea is sound, but the execution is poor – especially if you have multiple monitors, where the corners are hard to hit on the border between screens.

Splitting search up between files/apps/settings: This is a change I just don’t quite understand – in the past two Windows versions, searching on the Start menu searched your files AND shortcuts on your Start menu AND some basic system settings. But now in Windows 8, you have to click to choose which are you want to search, and sometimes it’s not easy to know which one to use. Some system settings can be found under “apps,” for example. At the very least there should be an option to search “everything,” which can be set as the default should the user wish.

Windows 8 “Modern” (formerly Metro): I understand what Microsoft is trying to do here, I really do – but they need to re-think their UI guidelines for “Modern” apps. There seems to be too much of a focus on avoiding UI entirely and just displaying things as big as possible. This is OK for certain types of applications (e.g., a video playback app), but when your UI across an entire range of apps is “hidden,” it just invites confusion.

Too much inconsistency: This is perhaps my BIGGEST gripe with Windows 8 – there is simply a terrible lack of consistency across the OS. It is very much like using two separate operating systems, and it always seems to be a surprise which one you will end up in when you try to do something new.

If you noticed that most of the good things I’ve pointed out about Windows 8 are aesthetic or basic performance improvements, you’ve seen right to the point I’m trying to make here.

Windows 8 was a very ambitious project – one effectively forced on Microsoft with the rapid increase in popularity of tablet devices (or, one that Microsoft had been planning all along – but who knows). Nevertheless, there are just some things about Windows 8 that should not have been done, or that should have been fixed or changed before it was let out the door.

For the power user, it is not at all a “bad” operating system – but then again, power users are the ones most likely to be able to puzzle their way around the problems (or find workarounds or alternatives).

Ordinary users, on the other hand, are going to be frustrated. There just is no avoiding it. Windows 8 is going to drive a lot of ordinary people away from Windows – or at the very least, it will leave a very sour taste in their mouth.

I can only hope that Windows 9 improves upon the shortcomings of Windows 8, and that the lessons of this version of Windows (don’t mix UI conventions, keep conventions consistent, don’t hide too much of the UI, etc.) are well-learned and heeded by Microsoft and the Windows team.

New Laptop

Back in October of 2012, I was stuck without power (and thus, unable to work) for the better part of two weeks in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. During this time, I tried to keep up with my job using my little 10 inch Acer Aspire One netbook, Ryo-Ohki.

Unfortunately, even with a SSD to help speed things up, this little netbook just couldn’t keep up. With only 1 GB of RAM and (perhaps worst of all) just a tiny little 10 inch screen, trying to work all day on this was… difficult, to put it mildly.

So once life returned to normal, I decided it was time to upgrade to a newer, better laptop – one with a decent sized screen that I could actually use to get work done, should I ever need to be away from my desktop computer.

The landscape of portable computers has changed a lot in the intervening years since I bought my little netbook. For one thing, netbooks have basically disappeared – that niche instead being filled by tablets and low-end (but normal-sized) laptops.

My criteria for a new laptop were pretty simple:

  • 14 or 15 inch screen – big enough to get work done and for most modern web pages to fit on the screen without having to scroll too much.
  • Lightweight – one of the main reasons I have a laptop is so I can use it when I travel, and I don’t want to be lugging around a big heavy laptop.
  • Good battery life – as a portable computer, it wouldn’t make much sense if it didn’t last a while when unplugged – especially since I plan to use it while traveling (i.e., on a plane).
  • Good keyboard – I can be a bit picky about keyboards – but really all I want is one that is easy to type on and doesn’t mess with the standard placement of important keys like some laptop keyboards do.
  • Decent, relatively modern CPU – basically, something that won’t be obsolete in a few months, and can handle playing video with ease.
  • Not too expensive – my budget was basically “less than $500.”

After doing some research (and a bit of price-stalking), I settled on another Acer – specifically, an Acer Aspire Timeline X 4830T-6682 (geez Acer, what’s with the ridiculously long model names?).

Acer Aspire Timeline X 4830T notebook

This laptop hit all the right points for me – the 14 inch screen was just the right size, it’s not too heavy, has a very respectable Core i3 CPU, a good-sized 6-cell battery, and a nice keyboard that reminds me of the keyboards used on Apple’s Macbook Air computers.

To make things even better, I swapped out the SSD I bought for my old netbook and put it in this new laptop, which took this from being a relatively decent laptop to being an absolute speed demon.

I’m not even kidding here – from the GRUB boot loader (I still dual-boot Windows and Linux, of course) it boots up completely in just about 12 seconds.

Oh, and have I talked about the battery life yet? The battery life on this laptop is pretty good on its own – easily reaching 5 or 6 hours with light usage – but when you throw an SSD in (which uses less power than the traditional spinning-disks hard drive), along with Windows 8 (which is really good at conserving power), I easily find myself getting 8 hours of battery life with light to normal usage. Even my old netbook couldn’t approach that kind of life, not even with the extra-big 9-cell battery I bought for it!

Of course it also has all the other standard features you’d expect from a laptop these days, including a very handy USB 3.0 port, HDMI, a DVD/RW drive, a memory card slot, and even an option to let one of the USB ports remain “powered” even while the laptop is turned off, so you can charge something off of it (a handy feature, though one I’ll probably never use).

As usual for me, I dual-boot both Ubuntu Linux and Windows (Windows 8 in this case, but I’ll talk about that in another post), and both operating systems are just great (although for some reason, Ubuntu still can’t use the built-in webcam microphone – a problem I think is particular to Acer computers).

Naturally, as with all my computers, I had to give this one a name as well – and since this one happened to come in a dark-blue color, which happened to match this particular wallpaper picture I had handy very well, I ended up going with the name “Luna.”

luna desktop (windows)
Luna (Windows 8)
Luna desktop (ubuntu linux)
Luna (Ubuntu)

All in all I’m quite happy with this new laptop – I’ve had the opportunity to take it with me when I traveled recently, and it was both great for entertainment use on the flight, as well as occasional work-related stuff while I wasn’t at home.

So if you are looking for a nice, inexpensive but well-balanced laptop, something along the lines of the Acer Aspire Timeline X series of laptops (combined with a SSD, if you can swing it) is not a bad way to go!


The Quest for the Perfect Media Player – or, Why I Love my Apple TV

I’ve long struggled to find the perfect media device for my home – something that can bring together the vast collection of digital media that I have saved mainly on my desktop computer.

For a while, I thought Microsoft’s Windows Media Center Extender idea was going to be the answer. So I bought one (made by Linksys) and tried to use it.

Linksys Windows Media Center Extender

In the end, the Media Center Extender was… just OK. It was a little rough around the edges when used with Windows XP Media Center (the OS it was originally made for), but it got a lot better in Vista and Windows 7.

Still, this little device could only play media that my desktop computer knew about and had saved locally. It couldn’t play YouTube videos (or any other kind of on-line video, such as Netflix or Hulu), and it couldn’t play music I’d purchased through iTunes. It wouldn’t work at all if my PC was turned off, and it had difficulties with certain types of files – sometimes crashing the entire device, or even the Media Center service on my PC!

The final nail in the coffin for this little device though was that Microsoft eventually abandoned the idea, and manufacturers stopped making and supporting them.

It was around this time that I started looking for an alternative. For a long time I thought my only option would be to buy a very small slim PC and just hook that straight up to the TV – but I really didn’t like this idea, for a number of reasons.

As it would be a fully-fledged Windows PC, it would have all the problems of a Windows PC – needing to reboot for updates, needing to have a keyboard and mouse around, driver issues, etc.

Also, it would be rather expensive to buy an entirely new PC just to play back media – after all, the media itself would be stored on a different computer.

I briefly toyed with the idea of using an XBox or XBox 360 to do the same thing – after all, they function as Media Center Extenders as well – but buying a game console just to play back media seemed rather silly to me.

Eventually I narrowed it down to some sort of stand-alone device, specifically, a Roku or an Apple TV.

I decided to try the Roku first, as it was the (slightly) less expensive option – I got a refurbished one for just $75.

Roku 2 XD

The Roku was a neat little device, but I quickly found that it was not going to do what I wanted:

  • It had absolutely NO provision for streaming media from a local source (e.g., my computer), something that was infuriatingly difficult to determine from the online information (it was never made clear if it could or couldn’t).
  • The UI for the device was a bit clunky, sharing that sort of slowness/lagging that the Windows Media Center Extender had – you’d press a button, and there’d be a slight delay before anything happened (especially noticeable if you tried to pause a movie).
  • The remote was a special non-infrared device unique to the Roku, which means I could not use my universal remote with it.

In the end, I returned the Roku after just one day.

At this point, I wondered if I’d ever find something that could do what I wanted, and I seriously expected I’d have to buy a computer just to hook up to my TV. So it was with some trepidation that I walked into my local Apple store and bought an Apple TV (the 3rd generation model).

Apple TV with remote

As with the Roku (and other similar devices), you just plug it into the power and into your TV (and, optionally, into your network – although it has wireless built-in) and you’re good to go.

Right away, I was very pleased with what I saw. If there is one thing Apple knows how to do, it’s design a simple, elegant, useable user interface – and the Apple TV is no exception.

The remote is a bit hard to get used to, as it looks like the scroll wheel from an iPod nano, but it isn’t – it’s just a 4 way controller – but this was a moot point for me, as the Apple TV works beautifully with my universal remote.

The Apple TV does exactly what I wanted it to do – it can play remote media, such as YouTube, Netflix, Hulu, or Flickr, and it can also play music, movies, and pictures from my local computer – all in full 1080p HD quality. And all this for just $99 – what a deal!

Of course that’s not to say the Apple TV doesn’t have its downsides – because it certainly does – but they are at least much more bearable than the downsides of the other options.

The biggest downside (at least for me) with the Apple TV is that in order to stream media from a local PC, you have to use iTunes – that is, you have to leave iTunes open on your computer all the time (or, whenever you want to be able to stream media to your Apple TV). And sometimes, even if iTunes is open, the Apple TV won’t connect to it.

On top of that, iTunes is very picky about what types of files it will play, especially when it comes to videos. If you’re a Windows user and you have a lot of AVI files (as I do), be prepared to have to re-encode all of your videos into MP4 format, because iTunes (and the Apple TV) pretty much will not play anything else.

Also, iTunes is… not that great about letting you organize videos (not surprising, as it was originally designed as a music program, not a video program). It can be done, but it’s slow and awkward – pretty much par for the course when it comes to iTunes, though.

That said, the Apple TV is a nice little media device, and it also has a few neat tricks up its sleeve – for example, if you turn on AirPlay, you can use your Apple TV as a remote set of speakers, so you can stream something from iTunes or your iPod Touch/iPhone directly to your Apple TV. Since I hooked up my home stereo (via optical cable) to the Apple TV, this means I can now fulfill part of my childhood dream to have music playing throughout my home.

You can also use “AirPlay Mirroring” to mirror your iPhone’s screen to your TV through the Apple TV – although you do need to be using at least an iPhone 4S for this to work, otherwise you’ll only be able to display some things (videos and photos). If you have a Mac and the latest version of OS X, you can use this to make your TV a remote second monitor – which is a pretty neat trick, if you ask me! (Sadly, there is no ability to do this from Linux or Windows, although for Windows there is a 3rd party program that can kind-of make it work, although there is some very serious lag to the display.)

Still, of all the media playback devices I’ve found and tried, the Apple TV is the best balance of function, form, and price… so much so that after a few months with it, I went out and bought a 2nd one for my bedroom TV!

These days, every new TV or DVD (sorry, Blu-Ray) player seems to have some sort of media playback options built in – but oftentimes these are afterthoughts, poorly executed and with horrible UI that is never updated or improved. The Apple TV, at least, is purpose-built for what it does, and has a typically Apple-ish polished UI that actually is updated (and even if it isn’t, it’s so well done to begin with – it’s like the iPod; if you get the basics right the first time, you don’t need to keep “fixing” it).

The Apple TV’s combination of (almost) perfect function, small size, good UI, and low price, make it the perfect choice for home entertainment – or, at least they do for me, anyway. If you’re looking for a media device, you might want to give the Apple TV a try… you might just be surprised.

A Second Look at Windows 8

Not too long ago I took the final RTM (release to manufacturing) edition of Windows 8 for a spin and shared my thoughts about it. Well, just the other day I took the plunge, ensured my backup was up-to-date, popped the DVD in and upgraded my computer. (Yes, upgraded – I did not do a clean install.)

So this is technically my second look at the final release version of Windows 8 – and this time I’ve been using it legitimately, all day long, doing all the things I normally do with my computer, and I now think I have a much better “feel” for things, to the point where I’m ready to share them.

Don’t Use Metro – Just Don’t

Yes, I know it’s technically not called “metro,” but honestly, who cares what it’s called? Just don’t use it. Unless you have a touch screen, avoid using metro apps entirely. There is absolutely no reason for you to use them on a desktop PC (or anything that uses a mouse/trackpad/etc. and not a touch screen).

None of the built-in metro apps are very useful, and with so few 3rd party apps, there’s not much else you can do here. And as we’ve already established, metro apps were made for touch screens – if you don’t have a touch screen, using metro apps is going to be frustrating and awkward.

Corners are Fun

In my original review, I thought that the new “hotspots” were limited to only on the primary monitor, but it turns out this is not true – you can use any of the 4 corners of ANY monitor! This means that technically you can use the lower-left corner (where the Start button used to be) of any monitor to bring up the Start page. Pretty sweet!

Above: The new “charms” bar can be brought up on either monitor by pointing to the upper-right corner of either screen, and the same is true for all the other corners of the screen.

I Miss The Start Button

Start button, come baaaack! I miss you!!

This may be nitpicking, but I really do miss having an actual “button” to click to bring up the Start menu (or Start page, or whatever the correct term is for the new full-screen Start screen). Not having a button there just makes the desktop look “unfinished,” and although technically speaking the corner is a much bigger UI target to hit with the mouse, years and years of training have conditioned me to hit a big button in the lower-left corner, which is now… gone.

Well, that’s not quite fair – it’s sort of still there, but it’s hidden, and will only appear once you slam your mouse cursor (or your finger, if you’re using a touch-screen device) into the bottom-left corner of your screen (any screen, if you have more than one).

Not really a “button” so much as it is a hidden, pop-up Start “tile.”

Still, the Start button is not something that should have gone away. I mean, Mac OS still has the little “Apple icon” system menu in the top-left corner, and that’s been there since version 1.0!

But I Do Like the Start Page!

I admit it – I like the new Start page. But one thing should be absolutely clear – I am not your typical user. Most “average” users have about 4 or 5 programs they use frequently. I have… a lot more.

Still, the new Start page is basically an over-sized, full-screen version of the old Start menu’s MRU (most recently used) program list.

The bigger “tiles” are obviously meant to make it more touch-friendly, but a side effect of all this is that you have a lot more room for shortcuts as well – and I like being able to have all my programs within easy reach.

And if that’s not your thing, well you can still search for programs the same way you did before – just start typing when the Start page is on the screen, and it’ll start searching for applications, just like it used to do in the Windows 7 Start menu.

“All Programs” Still Sucks Though

In earlier versions of Windows, you could arrange your shortcuts on your start menu (under “All Programs”) into folders to keep things organized. In Windows 8, you… can’t do that. Instead, you have “All Apps,” the equivalent to “All Programs,” and it is… well, just look:

The horror, the horror!!

It is a mess, to be sure. Everything is laid out in one big grid, and nothing is hidden. In my case, because I upgraded, things are still in folders (hence the sub-headings you see), but I have no idea how you’d create these headings or organize things.

On the other hand, I don’t really see a need to worry about it. Searching apps is simple and easy, just like it was in Windows 7 (just start typing when the Start screen is displayed), and this is honestly a faster way to find the program you’re after, no matter which OS you’re using.

Searching still works just fine – it’s quick, it’s easy, and for once, it kind of works for both touch and mouse interfaces!

Hate Metro? Consider the Alternative

I see a lot of vitriol out there for Windows 8, when really what people don’t like is the new metro-style apps and interface.

This is fine, and in case you can’t guess, I don’t exactly like the metro-style interface either. It really makes the OS feel like it’s got a split personality, and more than a few people have suggested that it might have been better to split off into 2 separate OSes, instead of trying to awkwardly combine them.

But consider the alternative – what if Microsoft had done exactly that? What if they had made an OS (the Metro OS) for tablets, and one for desktop PCs?

Keep in mind that the benefit of an OS is not the OS itself, but the programs and applications that the OS lets you run. So to begin with, a new Metro OS would have been worth… nothing. Because there would have been NO apps for it. If Microsoft had done this, the Metro OS would have been a complete failure.

Microsoft had to include compatibility with existing Windows apps in the new Metro OS, and if they were going that far, why not just merge the two OSes together, instead of re-inventing the wheel and wasting a lot of effort maintaining them?

Oh, sure, you can argue that this is exactly what Apple did with OS X and iOS – but keep in mind that iOS was in a unique position when it started out, since it had the first-mover advantage. There was no other big smartphone OS to compete with it (well, not really), and also Apple included some really great starter apps to make up for the fact that no other 3rd party apps existed.

On top of that, iOS got its start on phones, which are useful even without apps (you can still use them as a phone, after all) and they also had the famously popular iPod music player capabilities built-in.

Our hypothetical Microsoft Metro OS would have none of these advantages – it would start on tablets instead of phones, and tablets are nothing but very expensive paperweights without lots and lots of useful applications.

This is why it had to be merged with the regular Windows desktop OS, and it kind of explains why we ended up with the OS we ended up with in Windows 8. Sure, Microsoft could have shipped a “desktop only” version of Windows 8 without metro… but if they did, people would instead just be demanding to have some new “Pro” or “Ultimate” version of Windows that had both, and we’d be right back where we started.

An Acceptable – but Uninspiring – OS

The bottom line is, the whole metro apps thing in Windows 8 is a bit of a gimmick – at least as far as I’m concerned. I have no idea if Microsoft’s marketing might can make this last into the next version of Windows (or even past the next service pack), or whether it will quietly fade away and die, much like its spiritual predecessor the Zune did (remember the Zune?).

But the good news is, you don’t have to use metro apps. In fact, beyond the big Start page, you never need to see any “metro-ish” stuff in your day-to-day use. You can use the same programs you’ve been using all along in Windows 7, and aside from some slight UI tweaks, you’d almost never even notice the difference 99% of the time.

So my verdict on Windows 8 remains much the same as before (although for slightly different reasons) – it is a perfectly OK, average, and uninspiring update to a popular operating system. While I wouldn’t exactly rush to upgrade, I wouldn’t go out of my way to avoid it, either.

Update: After using it for even longer (6 months now), I’ve posted my (final) thoughts on Windows 8.