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VAGUE SPOILERS AHEAD FOR PREY, BIOSHOCK SERIES AND SYSTEM SHOCK SERIES.

It’s hard sometimes to go back and remember what it felt like when you were first playing a game you loved. The memories tend to grow on us and also subsequent playthroughs and press coverage change the way we view the game later. I can however, remember almost exactly what it felt like to experience the major plot twist in each Shock game. Whether it was revelations about Shodan in the original series, or the secret of “would you kindly?” in the Bioshock series inspired by System Shock, they always leave an impression.

So anyone going into the very Shock-like Prey would expect a major twister in there somewhere. The game does not disappoint, well actually it does. Prey completely drops the ball on timing, if not content of the major plot twist. I’ll get back to this later, but first I want to explain how important the timing has been for each past game. If you think back to the final act of each Shock game, then remove the story parts, you will probably realize something: on the surface they’re kind of weak. It’s really hard to come up with good challenges for the player once they have all the best upgrades. So the final acts of these games often just involve throwing lots of the toughest enemies at you, in difficult situations. Since you are just trying to chase the plot at this point, it totally works. Then at just about the point where you would get sick of it, some amazing revelation happens, followed by some mind-blowing cutscenes.

This is pretty much the final act of every game ever ending with Shock, as well as the similar Deus Ex series. We expect it at this point. I guess Prey does not end with Shock or Ex, so maybe it’s just me that feels it carries this heritage. Regardless, Prey totally botches its late-game reveals. The plot twists taking place at the end are really predictable and accompanied by some awful room-clearing segments that feel straight out of Aliens: Colonial Marines (no, that is not too harsh). The boring, kill waves of enemies gameplay is actually not that different from the end of the previously mentioned games. It’s just that what is happening to drive you forward is nowhere near as interesting.

And then, after you have spent 10 minutes watching the credits and debating with yourself if you just wasted your time, the post-credits scene has a totally awesome plot twist. Like, after many people probably pulled the disc out and returned it to the store. As cool as it was when it finally happened, that is almost tragically bad placement. Making me play through a nearly worthless 2 hours at the end that almost made me hate a game I was loving, then finally, if I watch the credits, blowing my mind. Makes no sense at all to me.

I often wonder what games looked like in the minds of their creators, at various stages of development. I wonder how many huge cuts and changes completely altered the final experience. Prey made me wonder this intensely. In the end, the alarming and exciting twist came too late to save my experience of the game. I would have almost preferred to have a shorter game that didn’t include the extra tedium.

Regardless of how it happened, the timing of the major plot twist made all the difference in my gaming experience. It took Prey from what I would have called the next Shock game, to something I will probably move on from quickly.

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“This, is the arm. We made it out of the money the studio sent us.”

I recently got around to watching the new Twin Peaks episodes and while I loved the raw David Lynch on display, they added to a sinking feeling I’ve had recently. I’m also going to lump Alien Covenant and the recent X-Files continuation in as well, since I saw them recently and contributed as well.

You see, I’ve had this growing unease while watching the rebirth of some of my favorite series and it can be summed up pretty simply; I don’t think these guys can tell a story anymore to save their lives. While they expertly show us the beauty of the camera, they seem to struggle to fit even 10 lines of meaningful dialogue into a scene. What’s worse, when they do get heavy on the exposition, it seems to range from creating holes in their own canon to outright breaking the mythology of the series (that’s you X-Files). As a fan, I haven’t just been hanging on all these years to see more of your amazing cinematography. I WANT TO KNOW WHAT WAS GOING TO FUCKING HAPPEN. That is why we have been buying your DVDs and keeping those royalties flowing all these years. Not to give you time to find ways to build steadycams out of bamboo.

As an amateur writer myself, I generally take the side of the creator and say “it’s their thing, they can do whatever they want if people buy it”. We can come to an extreme though, especially in the case of the Alien prequels or the X-Files, where you basically just throw out the window everything the fans loved about the story. That isn’t good in any sense of the word. It’s just kind of selfish and egotistical and makes me want to remind them that creation is a life of sacrifice and selflessness. You give everything of yourself to influence people’s hearts and minds for what you hope is the better. Even if your purpose is just entertainment, you need to at least deliver that. Art that is entirely selfish has no place being paid for by others.

Now I don’t want to be too harsh and say ‘how dare they’ or some such other entitled crap. It is their thing and they can do whatever they want with it. As a fan though, I have to just ask why? Why not just tie up the loose ends people want resolved in a manner that is reasonable, while still being unexpected?

I started this article talking about Twin Peaks and I do want to mention that I think it’s the least offensive of these examples. While it is true that I’ve seen about 10 minutes worth of plot in 4 hours of screen time, what filled the other frames was often breathtaking. David Lynch has not only wowed me with some unconventional film-making, but also an unexpectedly excellent performance in the cast. I never would have imagined that the creator’s silly character on the show would deliver my favorite scenes in front of the camera as well. His awkward compassion is 4th wall breaking and makes me appreciate the depth of the man on yet another level.

That being said, I think he’s being pretty damn lazy moving the plot forward and it makes me wonder if the cause is stubbornness, delusion or just plain lack of story ideas. I wonder that much, much more so with the other two examples. With Ridley Scott’s recent films, I often wonder if a bunch of producers are trying to wrestle him to the ground and failing, as he crawls to the mail slot to dump his demented final cut. Covenant was another breathtakingly beautiful film, that made absolutely no sense, even to someone who has also read the novelization and seen every theory video. With the X-Files, I often wonder if Chris Carter just passionately hates us all and wants us to stop liking the X-Files. It’s just that awful (except the Lizard Man episode of course).

I really do want to say that I feel terrible even writing this. These guys literally built my childhood and it’s really difficult being so critical of their work. It’s also really difficult to watch their work recently though, so I kind of feel obligated. Like a friend that doesn’t want you to drive home drunk anymore. Maybe the creators of these properties are just playing on some higher level that I am incapable of comprehending. Maybe these films will be like the works of Nicola Tesla, unappreciated until decades after his time. It kind of feels like they are just screwing around though and blowing millions of dollars to do it.

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If you haven’t played the new Prey yet, I highly recommend it. Especially if you are a fan of Bioshock. This should come as no surprise, as Arkane Studios developed Bioshock 2. They also developed Dishonored, which is a lot like Bioshock as well. So it shouldn’t seem strange for the game to share a sort of central DNA at all.

There was this one moment though, when they made the ol’ “door code is 0451” reference. It could just come as a nod, as it appears in several Warren Specter games and most of the games inspired by them. It started (as far as I know) with System Shock and has been in Deus Ex and several other games in series Specter started or inspired. So it’s kind of like the Warren Specter fan in-joke at this point. It’s originally a reference to Fahrenheit 451, System Shock is full of sci-fi references.

It got me thinking though, that Prey is a LOT like Bioshock. I mean, sure, so is Dishonored, but Prey is A LOT A LOT like Bioshock. Not just gameplay, but pacing and plotting as well. It made me wonder a bit if 2K was originally planning to go a Call of Duty route and have two different internal studios make alternating Shock games. After all, Arkane had already made the well-received Bioshock 2 and the sleeper hit Dishonored, so it makes perfect sense. Then whatever happened at Irrational Games, causing them to be dismantled. Somehow that resulted in the death of the Bioshock series (at least for now) and suddenly there was a Prey remake in development that had nothing to do with the original Prey.

It may all just be coincidence, but it seems a bit too well-timed. Right about the time you would think a new Bioshock game would have gone from planning to production, the Bioshock brand dies and there’s suddenly a very Bioshock-like game going from planning to production. It worked out perfectly timing-wise for Bethesda, as their prolonged struggle developing Prey 2 had just resulted in cancellation. Since the game we now know as Prey suddenly bust onto the scene as an in-development game, it seems odd that they would have been writing and designing it alongside Prey 2 as a plot reboot of the series. The original Prey 2 was intended to continue the plot of the first game, so another game coming out a few years later and undoing all that would be total nonsense.

This is just my newest industry conspiracy theory, but I have a strong sense about this one. Not the least bit because I was part of a very active thread on the Bioshock forums, right before the collapse of Irrational, where we fans suggested the moon or a space station as the location for the next game. The title Lunarshock was floating around and I personally was pushing for it to be a secret Russian station abandoned on the dark side of the moon. Prey is on a space station and not exactly following the most popular ideas on that thread, but the connection is unmistakable. Everything from an alternate history where JFK survived, to a more System Shock like gameplay was discussed at length between developers and fans. This was in 2013, right about the time the seeds for Prey would have been planted.

Believe what you will dear readers, but you read it here first.

Hellpoint: there is life after Dark Souls

Posted: April 25, 2017 by ryanlecocq in Features

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For many of us, the conclusion of the Dark Souls series left us, for lack of a less punny term, feeling a bit hollow.  Personally I would search constantly for new games that would scratch that itch for a complex, difficult, dark and cryptic game.  Every time I would end up disappointed, finding nothing but games that took all the most basic aspects of From’s seminal series, but none of the genius.

Then, last Sunday afternoon, I discovered the answer to my muttered prayers to dark deities: Hellpoint.

The thing that sets Hellpoint apart from the many pretenders to the abandoned throne, is its dark and mysterious tone and lore.  I don’t want to imply it’s just a ripoff of the approach taken by From either.  CradleGames had developed their own dark mythology, with complementary gameplay systems to match.  Hellpoint has a new and unique approach to spooky NPCs, creepy locations and obscure lore.  What’s more, it doesn’t steal Dark Souls’ gimmicks, just its basic gameplay style.  The Quantic System used to determine timed game events and enemy behavior is similar to, but completely more interesting than Demon’s Souls’ soul attribute system.  It has the potential to suddenly unbalance gameplay, but not in a poorly designed way like Breath of the Wild’s blood moons that broke the game at launch.

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The most important thing that Hellpoint nails absolutely perfectly, is the give and take of Souls combat.  I think most of us can agree that other Souls pretenders, like Lords of the Fallen, fail at that absolutely essential thing.  Hellpoint pulls it off effortlessly, even in the current pre-alpha state.  Combat has that same frenzied, give and take feel that is not unlike real fencing.  Although the gameplay is not an exact copy (and features a dedicated jump button!), I felt immediately at home.

While the currently available demo is in a very early state, I honestly had more fun playing it than all of the From Software betas I have participated in.  One of the biggest reasons for that, I saved for halfway through the article to share.  This game has drop in couch co-op.  Yes, that thing that only Salt and Sanctuary has managed to bring to hungry fans.  You may have to steel yourself for the horrors of the singularity, but you don’t have to do it alone.  CradleGames even has all sorts of mischief in mind for PvE and PvP features that are inspired by, yet unique from what we are used to from Souls games.

The final main thing that Hellpoint does that others don’t, is creep you out with quality dark art design.  Everything in the game looks like something that crawled out of a Clive Barker movie or the equally evil black hole in Event Horizon.  It’s definitely reminiscent of what a mix between Dark Souls and Dead Space would look like, but still with a horror all its own.

Hellpoint is currently a little over halfway through their Kickstarter and a little more than halfway funded.  They already have a demo up, that has swallowed almost 20 hours of my life.  If you have a giant, black, Dark Souls sized hole in your heart, you owe it to yourself to check it out.

Hellpoint Kickstarter:

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/hellpoint/hellpoint-a-dark-sci-fi-rpg/description

Hellpoint Steam Page:

http://store.steampowered.com/app/628670/

I have created a petition for an Armor movie.

Posted: March 8, 2017 by ryanlecocq in Off-topic

Change.org petition for Armor movie.

I’m pretty much out of ideas on this one.  This is my last ditch attempt.  I’m hoping that all of the people who have emailed me and commented about Armor over the years will sign this.  Maybe a large expression from fans will be enough to make this happen.

 

Playstation VR Review

Posted: February 12, 2017 by ryanlecocq in Technology

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I will be following this with a video review on my YouTube channel, will just take a bit to put together.

 

Once again, it sucks sometimes being just a dude who writes about games, instead of someone who is paid to do it.  In general I like playing and writing what I want, but on the other hand, companies rarely send me their products early and for free.  In the case of the PSVR, which Sony apparently only sent out 15 or 20 of to the entire world at launch, it seriously took me this long to get one.  I live in a little town that got very few units and wasn’t willing to pay inflated prices to scalpers on craigslist and eBay.

The plus side to this is that like many of you, I am a normal consumer who has to buy this stuff.  My rating of this device is based on how realistic it is to upgrade my gaming PC and buy the competition, versus buying this in a real budget.  Like the average PC gamer (real average, not average snob on forums) I have a gaming PC that is upper midrange for about 3 years ago.  So I could barely handle any high-end VR games without some very costly upgrades.  I also needed a new PS4 though and the Pro model had just released at the time.  Since Sony’s platform would bring both 4K and VR gaming, an upgrade that would be about twice as much in my situation for my PC.  It makes a huge difference that this is the only solution that made sense in my case, because I am not sitting here in an office, staring at 3 devices I didn’t pay for and comparing them.  So without further preamble, the review.

 

Fidelity

I should start by saying that my own VR experience is limited by my amateur journalist status.  I did work at Samsung in 2014 and was fortunate enough to use both an Oculus Rift developer unit and the Gear VR prototype (which was a stripped down version of the dev unit) when the Gear VR was being launched.  So I have some experience with Oculus’ tech and none with HTC’s.  The PSVR is the first consumer unit I have used in a home environment, outside a canned demo.

The quality is what I think will become the new standard of “good enough” for VR.  For lack of a better description, it’s basically like having a 1080p OLED screen wrapped around your face.  When you first put it on, you will definitely notice the individual LEDs if you have sharp vision.  After a while of using it, the effect goes away as your eyes become used to focusing on the image the way they do reality, rather than a flat screen.  The effect is a tiny bit worse in the PSVR than the other headsets I’ve tried, because the resolution is slightly lower, but the effect is no more or less annoying until you stop noticing it.  The biggest issue with visual quality is anti-aliasing effects or scaling, as in Resident Evil 7.

This is the first unit I have used that was using full room tracking of any kind.  All tracking is limited by what the Playstation camera can see.  In practice I found this to be about a 2m x 3.5m area that would only go as low or high as I aimed the camera’s roughly 100 degree scope.  Sony could easily improve this later by adding additional cameras or sensors, but I found it to be an excellent balance of interaction vs home intrusion.  Much like the Wii, Virtual Reality is one of those things where you want to jump around for the first day, but then you remember you play video games to relax.  I’ve found that I am most comfortable sitting or standing stationary.  Although you can wander around a bit in most VR games (really fun in Batman!), the most interesting stuff is usually right in front of you.

Finally, the sound quality is very impressive!  I didn’t even bother with Sony’s earbuds and instead went straight to the Turtle Beach headset I bought for the VR.  I had my doubts about Sony’s claims that their magical 3D stereo would be better than real surround sound, but it’s pretty darn good.  It is actually completely playable with living room surround sound, although your position is sometimes slightly off.  Not at all unbearable though if you want to remain in touch with other people in the room.  This is even required for a couple of games with asymmetric gameplay using the TV as well, such as Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes!

 

VR Nausea

This has so far varied from person to person.  Some people seem to experience it depending on the type of movement in each game.  Resident Evil 7 is the worst offender so far, because it does this strange disconnect where the controller moves your actual character model, but you can still move yourself around and change your view.  It can result in a disconnect in position that is a serious head trip.  I also found that when I turned off all the anti-nausea aids (like FOV filter, slow walking and limited camera control) and played as I normally would, running around at full speed and aiming very quickly while strafing, I was overcome by intense nausea after about 90 minutes and 2 boss battles.  That was a pretty extreme test, but so far I have been the least susceptible to nausea and I wanted to see if there were limits.  There were indeed and I had to take the headset off and take anti-nausea meds immediately.

In general though, if you limit yourself to hour-long sessions and don’t play like a baboon on crack, you shouldn’t have too much issue once you get used to it.  We’ve found that taking a break at a max of 90 minutes is pretty necessary though.  It doesn’t need to be that long, but you will definitely get a headache if you play for 5 hours straight.

Probably the most important trick to avoiding nausea or headaches is to calibrate the headset for each user if they will be playing for more than a few minutes.  It’s fine to pass the headset around to demonstrate, or to play party games.  When playing long sessions though, it is much easier to focus the image and remain comfortable if you calibrate your eye distance and camera position for each profile.  Some games require a ‘neutral point’ for the headset, that it will treat as the center of the room and this is of course different based on height and distance from the camera.  Not tuning this for each user can result in having to lean or tilt your head in an uncomfortable way while playing.

 

Control and Precision

Once again, I have not used the Rift or Vive controllers, so I have no idea how they compare.  I would assume they are better, because the Move controllers were designed ages ago and can be purchased cheaper.  That being said, both the Dual Shock 4 and the Move controllers do a fantastic job when used properly.  Its’ really important to heed the warning about other bright lights near you when playing, because that will cause the dreaded shaking effect.  If you ever tried to get any kind of accuracy out of your Nintendo Wii though, you know the drill.  Middle lighting and no points of light near the player.  Follow those guidelines and the control is actually very accurate.  So accurate on occasions that my wife’s 5 minutes in front of an in-game mirror gesticulating and saying “I’m Batman” had me rolling on the floor in tears.

Playing with the traditional controller is a great middle ground between the up-on-you-feet experience of true VR and the gaming we’re all used to.  It’s much less taxing and totally necessary for a game like RE7, that takes hours to complete.  It is occasionally confusing that you can’t just move your body or touch things with your hands, but that just means the illusion is still working.

The biggest issue with both controllers, is that neither of them was designed for VR.  The DS4 is a traditional controller and the Move was obviously designed to be seen while playing.  Hitting the tiny face buttons accurately is nearly impossible when swinging the remote around blindly.  This results in most games using only the move and trigger buttons, only occasionally using one of the face buttons repeatedly.  Worse, 2D menu navigation with the Move controller is almost impossible (and not even supported in many games), meaning you have to pick up the Dual Shock to perform many functions in game and system menus.  These are things that could easily be smoothed out with software updates and will likely be solved completely by the inevitable “improved sensor and control” package Sony will surely release this year.

 

Software Selection

Currently the PSVR has a notable advantage in that two of the most critically acclaimed and hardware pushing VR games are exclusive to Sony’s platforms (for the moment).  Batman Arkham VR and Resident Evil 7’s VR mode (the game itself is cross platform) are both limited time exclusives to PSVR.  While this means they will obviously come to other platforms later (surely with addons and updates), at the moment two of the best VR experiences can only be played on PSVR.  These are of course the first 2 full games we bought for ours.  Beyond that we just have free content and a couple really cheap games.  Those two games are pretty much worth the price of admission on their own.  Resident Evil 7 lets you explore a VR environment that is actually large and detailed, with fully free movement.  Something lacking in almost all existing VR games.  Batman on the other hand, makes you Batman.  The Goddamned Batman.  Yes, you are Batman as he goes on a graphically detailed point-n-click adventure that we would have laughed away in 2D, but you are BATMAN.

The rest of the games range somewhere from tech demos to games we’ve seen before that have been VRified.  Many of the same genres we saw on the Wii have showed up for a quick buck.  Then there are the videos and “experiences” which have shown up before on other VR platforms.  These range from amusing shorts like Invasion, where you stand in place and watch a 3D scene, to “games” where you teleport around an environment and can basically just poke stuff.  These are all great for trade shows, but the steep price tags for some of them are obvious exploitation of the fad that will harm the industry in general.  The perception that it is an overpriced gimmick is the biggest hurdle for VR to overcome.

 

So… Overpriced Gimmick?

Absolutely not.  This is the technology I have been waiting for for years.  If you only see VR as a new way for people to be lazy and avoid reality, you are blinding yourself to a world of possibility.  VR has limitless opportunities not only for the obvious, like training and simulation, but for the subtle and humanistic as well.  I imagine a world 10 years from now where sheltered white kids like myself, from our nice little towns, could learn a lot more about racism from experiencing Roots, rather than watching it.  Sure, a VR whip or travelling for a month in your won VR filth isn’t anything like the real thing, but it’s a much better eye opener than a decades old movie on a VHS tape.  Or imagine a simulation of what it’s like to communicate with speech impediments or brain damage.  You speak clearly, but others can’t understand you.  I could go on and on and on.  This is a technology that will literally change everything.

For right now, it will let you stand in front of a mirror as Batman.  It may not sound like much, but the only way we can get to that better world of empathy and understanding is by financing it with our money.  Virtual Reality will only take off if enough of us take the plunge in the early days.  From my own experience though, even these early methods of experiencing VR are well worth the cost of admission.  It seems like a lot of crap to buy and hook up, until you put your face in it and see a fully VR area for the first time.  This is not like any of that 3D glasses crap you can see at the movie theater.  If you have not used one of the headsets released in the past few years, no technology you have seen before can prepare you for this.  It’s a level of immersion and interaction that no medium has ever come close to in the past.  I’ve tried everything from the Nintendo Virtual Boy to high-end arcade VR machines over the years.  Nothing before the current generation VR devices ever made my brain cross that threshold to perceiving the VR space as real.  To a limited extent, I was doing this within moments of playing the PSVR.

Without any further rambling, I just want to say that I think the PSVR is truly the best positioned consumer VR device.  As much as I love PC gaming, I never in a million years expect it to be the dominant entertainment platform.  John Carmack and Gabe Newell are way smarter than I am, but they are somehow completely delusional about this.  PC gaming is always going to be a niche segment, because average consumers keep the PC in the office and the Playstation in the living room.  As someone who has until very recently been in the homes of many consumers working on their devices, I don’t see this changing soon.  The Playstation VR is the mainstream, ready to play right now solution that I decided to go with after much thought and I highly recommend it.  The VR quality is more than good enough to create the experience and the ease of use is top-notch.  The manufacturing quality seems to be up to Sony’s normal standards and I don’t see any of the parts being easy to break.  As much as I hate to always say “go with the big, successful company that makes similar stuff”, it is a really good rule of thumb.  Startups like Oculus (though they are now owned by Facebook) and players from other industries like HTC will often make the superior product, but it’s almost always the company like Sony that has the market power to force it into the public consciousness.

We’ll see if I invested wisely in the long run, as VR in general may not take off and even if it does, many of the early competitors will likely fail.  Here’s hoping it goes universal and multiplatform though, so we can all play the same games on different devices for years to come.

True Guru Tips for Buying Computers and Parts

Posted: January 31, 2017 by ryanlecocq in Features, Off-topic, Technology

There are many articles that discuss commonly held wisdom about buying and selling electronics.  I have written several myself.  This is going beyond that to the realm of instinct and “kicking the tires” so to speak.  If you’ve read all the basic stuff about “do not buy below (A) graphics card for gaming at (X) resolution” and all that, this is the guide for you.

 

Read, read and re-read the full listing before buying.

I know this doesn’t seem like an advanced tip at all, but I want you to really let it sink in.  Even I have allowed myself to be duped by an incorrect listing and then been tempted to be that asshole complaining about it in the reviews.  Trust your common sense madam or sir, you know there is no such thing as a GTX 960 with 2048 shader cores.  Do not let your greed to find some impossible deal trick you.  Because you will have just fooled yourself.  You have done the basic research, you knew better, you just hoped against hope you could game the system.

Now this totally goes both ways.  There are totally such things as “unicorn parts” and if you think you have found one, try to verify by part number or reviews and BUY IMMEDIATELY.  Allow me to give a couple of examples I have bought.

The first was a Geforce GTX 460 that was some sort of odd developer edition.  It was overspecced over OEM in every way (more cores, faster speeds etc) and yet it had only one 6-pin PCIe requirement.  If you are familiar with the Fermi series cards you know this is effing nonsense.  Yet it was, and the results are still on some forum somewhere as the internet went from suspicion to awe as I was like “wtf is this thing!?”  It completely outperformed everything in range at significantly lower wattage.  No idea where it came from, but so glad that some e-recycler got ahold of it somehow and put it on eBay.

The second was a completely unlocked Haswell revision b CPU for testing.  It said right on the die cap that this was absolutely not to ever leave the Intel factory.  Some enterprising gentleperson in China went through some epic adventure to get it out, as evidenced by the battle damage on the cap.  It still booted just fine though and I gave them terrific feedback.  This is one of the chips they use to test what the released ones will be set at.  Every single setting of the CPU is unlocked, because the techs at Intel need to be able to toggle every switch for testing.  With the right custom bios, you can turn on and off some very interesting features on these.  You can also overclock the hell out of it on good cooling, which is all I cared about.  I guess I shouldn’t recommend that you try to get one of these, because Intel would probably have me killed if I still had it in my possession writing this.  But if you, wink wink, nudge nudge happened to find one, it was like eating gelato in a computer part.

 

Sometimes refurbished is good!

I frequently say the biggest problem with computers now is they aren’t made with love, by human hands.  That sounds corny, but it’s as simple as the guy in the factory pulls a big level that dunks the heatsink in thermal paste and slams it on a laptop logic board.  That is no way to apply paste, plain and simple.  Many of the problems that cause all of those angry reviews come from the simple byproducts of automation.  It makes total sense, they can sell it much cheaper and when you return it, they just have a tech open it up and fix a simple problem and it never happens again.  They can just re-sell it for a little less as refurbished and it’s usually only a small percentage that actually have issues.

Let’s rewind a couple sentences: “…and it never happens again.”  This is the part that’s important.  When you buy a device that has been properly refurbished, you are getting a device that has been opened up by a person more qualified than anyone involved in manufacturing it.  They have actually touched it with their gloved hands and even the laziest tech will usually blow out plastic shavings and do other basic fixes, without even mentioning it.  This means that you have a device that is actually less likely to ever fail again than the other units that didn’t fail.  The other units could still have a wire that is too close to something, it just didn’t fail within warranty.

This goes very counter to common thought, that if there are a lot of refurbished models available, it must be garbage.  That really isn’t true anymore.  Most problems with electronic devices these days are caused by minor things that can be easily fixed.  Oftentimes manufacturers will even go to the effort of refurbishing (though not actually having to fix anything) units that have been returned for any reason.  It’s pretty rational really, you say you just returned it because you didn’t like it, but maybe you just cleaned up the cat vomit really, really well.  Might as well have a tech open it up just to be safe, don’t want to be that really, really horrifying Amazon review.  This goes like any of these, just do your research and read as many reviews of the refurbisher as possible.

 

Never trust reviews by people who sound like jerks.

Unreasonable people generally behave unreasonably.  That’s not some deep wisdom, it’s just the obvious.  The people who have emotional outbursts about a Chromebook not having a DVD drive, are usually the kind of people that put diesel in their gas car and blame the gas station.  You have nothing useful to learn from these people in this situation.  Focus on the reviews that calmly and rationally cover the pros and cons of the device at hand.  They are unfortunately few and far between sometimes, but keep looking and you should find a few.

On the flipside of this, if you are reviewing something, try to be rational.  Your personal emotions about the situation are irrelevant to anyone but you.  What matters is how long you used the thing and how it functioned during that time.  The purpose of reviews is to inform other potential buyers, not vent at the manufacturer.  At best the only company employee who will read it is an intern and you may get a canned response.

Also nobody cares how you feel about the brand in general.  This device was probably made in a different factory than the last device you bought by that manufacturer and the company has probably changed hands five times.  Brand loyalty or hate is the most irrelevant, stupid thing you could waste your time on when we are talking about the product itself.  I want to just hammer that home with the example of my wife’s 2014 Macbook Pro 15.  It’s the fully loaded one with all the bells and whistles.  Now you may have your gripes about Apple in general, but I’ve taken apart a lot of their devices and they are usually pretty good about engineering.  The late 14 MBP15 has the huge design flaw, in that it is incapable of using its own dedicated GPU by the laws of thermodynamics.  I kid you not, we’ve replaced the logic board twice, it’s just that simple.  You start using a 3D application, it overheats.  Every. Single. Time.  That is the sort of thing you should be specific about in a review.  It’s only the model with dGPU and it’s not nearly as common on other years.  People need to know that someone at Apple messed up on that model and that they should buy a different one.  Not that all Apple computers are bad, because the 2011 iMac 27″ is still trucking fantastically right next to it.  I’ve experienced the same with Asus, HP and Dell, brands I generally really approve of.  Every brand makes a few lemons, but there’s a reason that those companies are the big names; they generally make products people really like.

 

Be aware of what sacrifices are necessary.

Owning technology has laws, much like gravity and magnetism.  These laws are things like your technology will only be as good as you put time or money into it.  This is an absolute, unbreakable relationship that can only be cheated in one way, which I will mention later.  You either have to put time into researching and maintaining everything yourself, or you have to throw money at it.  You either have to know exactly what you can get away with cutting corners on, or you have to just buy the most expensive one and trust the warranty.  You cannot expect to just spend ten minutes browsing Amazon, order the first thing that looks too-good-to-be-true and hope it turns out well.  You will probably end up with a laptop with a keyboard in a language nobody speaks.

If you are an average consumer, your only hope to get a really good deal on current technology is to really read up on it and catch a good sale.  If something looks too cheap, it probably has some major flaw.  If something is much cheaper than others of the same thing, it is probably damaged in some way or being sold for parts.  It is possible to save money over just buying the first thing recommended to you, but it will take time and effort.  I know how it feels to get something super cheap on Amazon or eBay, but I also know how it feels to find out it’s the wrong thing and I only have myself to blame.  The important thing to keep in mind is that unless you are a master scammer, you are probably not going to game the system all that much without someone realizing it.  Don’t be too quick to think you’ve outsmarted people who have been separating people from money for a long time.

Finally, if you are not the average consumer, you may qualify for that method of cheating the system I mentioned above.  Guess what?  It also takes work.  If you become a top-tier tech, you will have the ability to make machines do things that the average user could only dream of.  As a general rule, any system I build beats official benchmarks of the same parts by 15% or more.  It’s not magic, I just do 100 things or more to optimize performance that take years of experience to learn.  So you are avoiding the work each time you buy something, by investing it up front with knowledge.  There is no easy path to this.  If you just try to copy what an expert does, you will have catastrophic failure like Mickey in Fantasia.  There is no way around learning the hard way when it comes to technology, but I highly recommend it.  If you are passionate about your technology, you truly cannot buy the peace of mind that comes from building and caring for your own devices.  You can also get a $500 computer to out-bench a $1000 computer if you know what you’re doing.

 

Never, ever feel rushed.  There is always another deal.

It’s easy to get caught up in sales and rebates on sites like Newegg and Amazon.  That’s the whole point.  They are trying to convince you that today’s deal is something special, when a simple graph of their prices would show that everything goes up and down constantly.  The other thing to be aware of is that new parts are releasing constantly.  This not only gives you more options, but also causes the previous parts to drop in value.  The older parts are still just as useful as they were before the new thing arrived, so it often saves you a lot to go with the previous model.

There is a flip side to this as well.  If you keep hesitating, waiting for the next deal or new product, you don’t have a system the entire time you wait.  People have a hard time understanding this, but the most cost-effective way to PC game is to build a new mid-range system every 6 months to a year.  If you build it yourself, it will be worth at least what it cost you 6 months later.  You just need to build it barely powerful enough to run current games well, knowing that you won’t have it in a year.  So the cycle pays for itself and you spend absolutely nothing but time and the effort of building a couple of PCs a year, which I find relaxing.

 

 

I think that about wraps up this edition in this long-running series.  I may think of a few tips to add later.