Steam Controller Review

So for Christmas I got my brother a Steam Controller.  Of course, that also means got a Steam Controller for Christmas.  Sort of.  Anyway, we’ve both been really enjoying it, and it’s definitely far and away the best controller I’ve ever used.  That being said, I want to talk about why it’s so good.

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The Hardware
First let’s talk about the controller itself.  The controller has a big Steam logo button in the center to bring up the Steam overlay, which is especially nice in Big Picture Mode (Big Picture is the view designed for TVs – everything is laid out so that you can navigate without a mouse.  The Steam Controller really is made for use in Big Picture.)  There are two more buttons in the middle as well as a standard A/B/X/Y.  Then there are the triggers.  There are two main triggers, and they’re beautiful.  They’re incredibly smooth and responsive, and also two-step.  There are two bumpers above the triggers (also standard) and then two “grips,” which you press with the three fingers you’ve got curled around the controller.  It’s different but actually quite nice.  The differences get bigger from there.  The Steam Controller only has one stick, instead of a conventional two.  Those two circular areas are touchpads.  Simply put, these are fantastic.  Even before you plug the controller into your computer, they’re almost awe-inspiring.  Moving your finger across the pads activates haptic feedback.  It feels like the pad is a moving trackball, and it sort of “clicks” as it rolls.  Flick your finger across it quickly, and it has inertial and keeps giving you feedback as the “ball” keeps spinning and then slows to a stop.  It’s pretty cool, and it only gets better in-game.  One of the things I hate most about playing a first person shooter with a controller is how the camera works.  You have to push the stick to move the camera, and then pull the stick back to stop moving it.  Compare this to a mouse, where you just push the mouse where you want to look and then just stop.  Stop moving the mouse and the camera stops moving.  It’s more intuitive really.  The touchpads recreate this experience beautifully.  Moving your character with the stick and moving the camera with the touchpad is a great experience.  And that’s not even the coolest part about camera control.  The Steam Controller also has a gyroscope, which means you can also aim simply by pointing the controller.  This sounds confusing, but trust me, it becomes natural quickly.  You use the touchpad to look around and the gyro to fine tune your aim.  Still not sold?  You can set it so the gyroscope is only activated when you’ve got your finger on the right pad (or the left pad, or the trigger, you decide), so you’ve can only activate the gyro when you’re all zoomed in and ready to snipe someone.

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The Software
Talking about customization brings me to the software for the Steam Controller.  Steam wanted to make sure that you could use this controller for any game, which means the configuration is stunning.  Many games have controller support built in, meaning you can assign buttons to in-game actions, like “Attack” or “Jump.”  If your game doesn’t have support, you can emulate any button on the keyboard, mouse, or controller, like “Left Mouse” or “Space.”  Or you can configure a combination of controller and keyboard commands, to make sure you cover everything.  It takes a little bit of effort to set up, but then it’s amazing.  If you don’t feel like configuring it all yourself, you can browse configs that other Steam users have uploaded, and then customize from there.  It’s pretty awesome.  In addition to being able to customize each button, the triggers, touchpads, stick, and gyro are all unbelievably customizable.  Things like sensitivity and haptic feedback can be adjusted, and that’s only the beginning.  You can set the stick to automatically hold down the sprint button when you press it all the way forward.  Or you can set the touchpad to act as a stick when you’re in the game, but as a mouse when you press the other touchpad, for navigating menus.  You can set the trigger to activate walking (as opposed to running) when you pull it down halfway and crouching when you pull it all the way.  The possibilities are endless.

So long story short, the Steam Controller is an incredible piece of hardware, and the software behind it is just as good.  The good folks at Steam have clearly put an astonishing amount of thought into everything about this controller, from the hardware to the software, and it shows.  I’m thoroughly impressed, and I would recommend this controller to anyone.  ••

My Tech Changes in 2015

If I’m being honest, 2015 was a really good year.  Graduating high school is always a plus, and I’m loving college.  2015 was also a good year in the technology department for me.  Looking back, there’s been a lot of changes to the devices and apps that I use on a daily basis.  Here are the biggest three.

First up, I finally got an iPhone!  I’ve had an iPod Touch since 7th grade, but I didn’t get an iPhone until just last January.  My iPhone is the device I use most often, for the most things, and it’s absolutely an integral part of my life (maybe a little too integral, if I’m still being honest).  It’s so nice to not have to carry around two devices anymore (a dumb phone and an iPod), and obviously it’s also nice to have a data plan.  Getting an iPhone was definitely the biggest tech event of the year for me, and I’m still loving it.

Next up was photos.  iCloud Photo Library launched way back in October 2014, but, to me at least, it wasn’t useful until Photos for Mac happened last April.  iCloud Photo Library is really great; it’s so nice to just have the Photos app sync on all my devices, instead of having a Photos app full of photos from that device and another app full of Dropbox photos.  Not only that, but Photos for Mac has great support for facial detection, geotagging, and smart albums, so all in all it’s just a great way to organize all my photos.  Thanks to Apple upping their iCloud pricing tiers, I’m still only paying 99¢/month, and I now get 50 gb.  Totally worth it.

Finally, Apple Music launched last June!  I discovered Spotify in December 2014, and I used it religiously for the first half of 2015.  However, when Apple Music came out, I just had to try it.  After the three month free trial, my family decided to keep paying for it.  We ended up on Apple Music mostly because the family plan is actually usable (unlike Spotify’s), but in generally I’m happy with Apple Music.  Since honesty is, apparently, a theme in this post, Apple Music still has a long way to go to be as good as Spotify.  Frankly, Apple Music is still pretty buggy.  However, there are things about Apple Music that are better than Spotify will ever be, like built in Siri support.  Being able to use Siri to control music in the car is definitely my favorite feature of Apple Music.  And as far as the bugs go, I have confidence that Apple will continue to fix those too.  I’ll be patient.

So that’s my 2015 technology year in review.  As I said, it’s been a good year.  What’s your year been like?  Get any cool new gadgets?  Find that perfect cloud service that you’d always hoped existed?  Let me know what kinds of tech you love in the comments below, or hit me up on Twitter @NickFoster56.  Thanks for reading, and Merry Christmas!  ••

KSU WiFi Testing

Thank goodness this semester is almost over!  I mean, it’s gone really well and everything, but it’s about time Christmas got here.  I’ve been busy with finals and end of semester projects lately, and one of those projects was actually pretty fun and interesting.

I’m an electrical engineering student, so for my first semester as a full-time freshman, I had to take Intro to EE.  Our final assignment was to write a research paper in IEEE format.  The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers is the professional institution for EE, so the point of this assignment wasn’t really to write a paper, it was to learn how to use this format, since every paper I’ll ever write as an electrical engineer is going to have to be in this format.

Even though the real point of the assignment was the format, we had to pick a topic that answered a non-trivial question about electrical engineering.  As the professor was talking about the differenet types of research papers, I was thinking I’d take the easy way out and just do an “archival” research paper, meaning I just find other sources and put stuff together.  But then I got an idea.  What if I tested the WiFi on each campus of KSU?  This would not only be really interesting for me, but it would also put me into the “experimental” research category, which would get me some extra brownie points on the assignment.

So I started testing.  I used the SpeedTest.net app, testing three spots in five different buildings on each campus.  For those of you who don’t know, Kennesaw State University recently merged with Southern Polytechnic State University (the engineering school where I go).  The two universities are now both technically just KSU, but they’ve been dubbed the Kennesaw Campus and the Marietta Campus, respectively.  I tested each campus’ student center, dining hall, library, and the two buildings with the most classes.  I then averaged all the data and… the Marietta Campus has better WiFi!

But even though Marietta’s average was better, speeds varied wildly across the board.  I guess that’s just what happens when you have a network covering that large of an area with that many people connected to it.  The entire paper (which I did in a group with three other people) goes into more details about how the testing was conducted as well as the logistics of large-scale networks like that.  I’ve uploaded the paper here in case any of you are interested in reading it.  If you really couldn’t care less about the more boring part, you can just scroll down to the charts and see all the data as to how each campus stacks up.  Enjoy!  ••

Tesla’s Self-Driving Software Update. SOFTWARE UPDATE.

As of last week, Tesla Model S and Model X owners woke up to a bit of a surprise: their cars could now drive themselves.  Now let me qualify that statement a bit.  This isn’t full autonomous driving, it’s really just for the highway and other fairly-predictable driving situations.  But it’s still a cool step forward.  Self-driving cars are perhaps one of the most exciting things happening in tech these days, and I think they’re awesome.  So again, even though this isn’t full self-driving, we’re making leaps and bounds at this point.  But I don’t want to talk too much about the actual self-driving here, though I think that’s super cool.  What I want to talk about is the fact that Tesla was able to add self-driving as a feature to cars retroactively, after they’d been purchased.

Teslas have always gotten software updates automatically over the internet.  Up until now, however, they’ve mostly been, well software upgrades.  Think navigation system improvements here.  However, Tesla has now pushed a huge new hardware feature onto all their cars, and I think it’s fascinating how they did it.

To be clear, it’s not like any car can self-drive with software alone, there has to be hardware sensors.  But what’s awesome is that Tesla began building that hardware into its cars a year ago, knowing that they had this feature coming.  Talk about foresight!  I also applaud them for their respect of the consumer here.  Most companies say that in order to get new features, you have to pay up for the new version.  Not here.  Tesla could have released a new car with self-driving, and expected everyone who already owned a Tesla to pay up for a new one.  Instead, they rolled out this new feature to their entire fleet.

To be fair, it wasn’t entirely free.  There was a $2500 “self-driving” add on package that many owners simply paid up front on their car, in order to get the features when they arrive.  Owners who didn’t will have to pay up for that now.  But if you think of that $2500 as simply part of the cost of the vehicle, then those customers are now getting this update for free.  Pretty awesome.

More than anything, however, I just love Elon Musk’s vision of cars.  Despite the fact that cars have loads of on-board computer systems, most companies treat them as dumb objects.  They’re made with a certain software package and then left to sink into obsoleteness.  Tesla looks at things radically differently.  To them, cars are smart, connected devices, just like your phone or laptop.  This means that should be constantly improved through software updates (both bug fixes and new features).  This idea seems obvious, but not many people thought about it.  Until Tesla.

I’ve written about Tesla before, and I think they’re an awesome company.  I’m excited to see what they do in the future.  I’m really excited for their Model 3, supposed to be unveiled in 2016.  The Tesla Model S (aimed at the luxury market) starts at around $65k before government tax credits; Tesla’s target for the Model 3 is $35k.  This puts it well within the range of regular consumer cars.  Tesla can change the world for the rich all they want; when they make a car anyone can buy is when they’ll really change the world.  And I get the feeling “world changer” is a label Tesla is gunning for.  ••

Should I Get Windows 10?

It popped up in my system tray a few months ago.  Not on my Macbook of course, but on my Windows 7 desktop down in the basement.  That was my only computer for years, and it’s served me well.  I finally got around to putting an SSD in it a few weeks ago, and now it’s running better than ever.  And that’s the idea.  I hardly ever use it anymore, basically just to play games (which is rare), and the thing is working perfectly.  After years of fiddling with it, I’ve finally got everything set up correctly and working smoothly.  When I first saw that little thing about Windows 10, I scoffed.  I never even use this computer, why should I risk messing it up?

Let’s back up a little bit.  Windows 10 was announced last September, and then it was announced that Windows 10 would be a free update for those running Windows 8.  That was a smart move.  Lots of people don’t like Windows 8; the whole thing about forcing a touch interface on desktops didn’t go so well.  Microsoft seems to have fixed that in a big way in Windows 10, bringing back the start menu and allowing one to run Windows apps in, well windows, on the desktop view.  Everything that made Windows 8 cool for tablets is still there, but they backpedaled a bit to make things smoother for desktops again.  Well played.

So obviously they want to get people upgrading.  (I also suspect that Microsoft wants to generate excitement about their software updates, much like Apple does with iOS.)  But then Microsoft took it a step further: Windows 10 will be available as a free upgrade for Windows 7 machines as well.

I think there’s some strings attached.  You have to somehow reserve your copy by a certain date, or something like that.  But whatever it was, I must’ve done it just clicking around in the about page of that Windows 10 popup, because my computer is telling me I’m all ready to go.  So do I do it?

Again, at first I didn’t want to.  Like I said, that computer’s working great, and I don’t want to spend a bunch of time fiddling with it.  I used to love fiddling with my computer, breaking things and then fixing them again.  But as time has gone on (and my school load has increased), I’m just not interested in that as much anymore.  That’s one of the things I like about the Mac, it really does just work most of the time.  So at first I had no intention of getting it.  But…

…the last month or so I’ve started to get intrigued.  I’ve seen a lot of people, a surprising number actually, on campus who have upgraded.  Just seeing people with their laptops out taking notes during lecture, a good portion of them have Windows 10 (of course, I go to a nerd school, so I’m sure that doesn’t really represent the population as a whole).  But it’s got me interested.  But maybe I should let someone else be the guinea pig first.

Like my Dad.  Actually, he upgraded a week or two ago, but then some things didn’t work right.  Fortunately, Windows 10 has a revert feature that lets you go back to your old OS.  This is genius.  Microsoft is making sure that they don’t make anyone mad this time.  Dad ended up going back at the time, but now he’s got it installed on a separate partition. Maybe I’ll go mess around with it sometime. 

So will I get Windows 10?  Probably not.  Or if I do, I’ll get it on another partition like my dad did.  There was a time when I would recklessly upgrade the day something came out (um, so maybe I still do that for my Apple devices), but I’m not sure I still have that philosophy anymore.  At least, not on this computer.  ••

The Back to School Dilemma

This past week was my first week of real college.  I dual enrolled last year, meaning I had a few college classes and a few high school classes, but this year I’m an honest-to-goodness full-time freshman.  I’m excited.  Having dual enrolled, I already know what to expect, where everything is on campus, and all that stuff that makes freshmen nervous.  This semester’s going great so far.

Last spring, I wrote several different pieces on using my iPad instead of my laptop at school.  Last fall semester, we did lots of in-class writing in English, so I always brought my laptop.  But spring semester wasn’t like that, and so I opted for an iPad and a bluetooth keyboard instead of my heavier, less convenient laptop.  I really liked this setup last year; it worked well for me.  This semester is different, however, and I’m faced with a bit of a dilemma: do I bring my laptop every day, or my iPad?

I had originally planned for sure to bring the iPad.  I don’t have an English class at all this semester, so the only writing I’d be doing is this blog, which I did on the iPad no problem before.  However, the first day of class made it apparent there’d have to be exceptions to this rule.  My communications class tests will take place online, but will be proctored in person.  This means I have to bring my computer and take the test on it in class.  The teacher said you could bring a computer or a tablet, but I’m definitely opting for the computer.  Using the web on a tablet is great, but sometimes it gets a little wonky, and that’s not what I want during a test.

So no big deal, just bring the laptop on the days that I have communications tests.  It seemed like the rest of the semester I could just use the iPad.  Then I got to my Intro to Electrical Engineering class.  This class was going to have pop quizzes.  I don’t know whether they’ll be online, but if they are, I’ll have to bring the laptop to that class for sure.  Also, looking at the syllabus, it looks like we’ll be doing quite a bit of computer aided design and other stuff like that, so I’ll have to have the laptop there too.  (At first I was worried that whatever software we need wouldn’t work on my Mac.  Fortunately, it turns out that the professor used to work at Apple and is an even bigger Machead than I am, so I’m sure we can work something out.)

So it looks like I’ll have to bring my laptop on Mondays and Wednesdays, if only for the EE class and the occasional communications test.  Tuesdays and Thursdays I only have history class, and Friday I only have calculus class, so I can definitely get away with the iPad those days.  In fact, I may not need to bring anything at all.  I probably will, though, just in case.  I’d hate to be stuck at school and need to do something that really needs a computer, but all I have is my iPhone.  I’ve had to do that before; it’s not a pretty sight.  ••

The ABC’s of Google

Last Monday, Google made a surprise announcement.  They’re going to be doing a bit of restructuring, changing things around on a corporate organization level.  What this means is that Google isn’t the head of everything done by Sergey Brin and Larry Page Co. anymore.  A new company, called Alphabet, is.

What is Alphabet?  Basically it’s a new company that now owns Google.  Google’s founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, are this new company’s CEO and President, respectively.  This seems a little odd at first; Google’s doing so well these days.  Why change things around?  But when you look a little closer, it makes a lot of sense.

Google does a lot of things under the Google name – things like Google Maps, Gmail, and Google search.  However, Google also owns a lot of other companies, like the smart thermostat company Nest.  These companies don’t really make a lot of sense under the Google name.  Now I’m not saying Google shouldn’t have bought them.  On the contrary, Google has always had the mentality that it’s better to try something even if it fails, because eventually you’ll try something that succeeds.  This is where Alphabet comes in.

Alphabet is the parent company.  Under that is a newer, slightly smaller Google.  According to USA Today, this includes Google services like Maps, as well as things like YouTube.  Android and Chrome also remain under the official Google banner.  Now a part of Alphabet, and on an even plane with Google itself, are companies like Nest, as well as projects like Google Fiber.  I think this makes a lot of sense.  This way, Google can focus on what it does best (providing web services), while the people in charge of Google can focus on what they do best (taking crazy risks and innovating).  It’s a win-win.

And the people at Google seem to think so too.  In the official blog post on abc.xyz (Alphabet’s clever URL), Larry Page says, “Alphabet is about businesses prospering through strong leaders and independence. In general, our model is to have a strong CEO who runs each business, with Sergey and me in service to them as needed.”  This allows Brin and Page to let go of some of the day-to-day business activities of all Google entities, and instead focus more on the big picture.  And I say that’s a smart move.  ••

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A very helpful organization chart of Alphabet and Google, from this video on USA Today.