Drone

home-from-droneThis weekend Matt stopped by with his new drone!  Wow, what a piece of technology!  I was a little curious at the start, but much more so once he was flying it and showing us the features.  He bought a rather expensive model (at least in my book), and it has some pretty sweet features and specs, including a nice gimble & camera.  The gimble allows for beautifully smooth movement of the camera while shooting up to 4K video or 12-megapixel snapshots.

He started it up in the driveway, got up between 200 and 300 feet to clear everything tall in the neighborhood, then flew it around.  I must say, it scared me a bit knowing how much that little toy costed, and watching it zoom out of sight over the neighborhood.  It has a decent range, but I still found it scary.  It probably would have felt even worse, had I been the one who paid for it!  He mentioned getting to a certain point where the video starts to cut out…sheesh, now THAT could give me heart issues… but there’s a nifty little “Go Home” feature and calls it back and it comes right back to your location.

After some flying around and recording (both from my cell phone and from the 4K camera on the drone) until the drone’s battery was nearly dead and getting pretty chilly in the 32-degree weather, we came back inside to warm up and figure out how to view the footage as quickly as possible.

I transferred the videos to my PC and could view them there, but we wanted to watch them on the big TV.  It’s 1080p though, so we couldn’t actually view them in full 4K quality.  I used my laptop, which already has a dock connected to the TV, and the video looked awesome!

The video on a MicroSD card is limited to 4GB file sizes, so our footage was split into two files – one about 8 minutes (4GB in size), and the other about 6 minutes (about 3GB in size).  I wanted to use ShareStudio, an app on the PS4, to edit the video, but unfortunately, the PS4 didn’t recognize the video file format that the drone used.

After we finished ogling the fine footage, I dropped the videos into my YouTube channel to start uploading them to the internet.  After a few hours they completed, and the footage still looks quite impressive there, and now we can share them with everyone easily.  Take a look if you want.  Here’s Part 1 and Part 2 from the drone, and my cell phone footage.

I want to be able to edit those three videos into one nice one, complete with cuts back and forth between be shooting the drone, and the drone shooting me, when we were playing with the “Follow Me” feature of the drone, but I tried doing so in Corel VideoStudio, but it didn’t work out so well.  The resulting video, which I wanted to save as a 4K video, was horrible with dropped frames throughout and full choppiness, rendering it unwatchable.  I might try it again at 1080p, just to see if it’s the 4K it can’t handle, or if my PC’s just not powerful enough to handle the job.

 

Thriller

My favorite Michael Jackson song (and video) is “Thriller”.  I memorized the Vincent Price lyrics years ago, for some reason, and recite them occasionally during haunting seasons.  Here they are.  See if they jog your memory.

Darkness falls across the land
The midnight hour is close at hand
Creatures crawl in search of blood
To terrorize y’alls neighborhood
And whosoever shall be found
Without the soul for getting down
Must stand and face the hounds of hell
And rot inside a corpse’s shell

The foulest stench is in the air
The funk of forty thousand years
And grizzly ghouls from every tomb
Are closing in to seal your doom
And though you fight to stay alive
Your body starts to shiver
For no mere mortal can resist
The evil of the thriller
The evil laugh that Vincent Price does at the end of the poem & song is great.
Happy Halloween!

PS3

Yeah, sure, the PS3 is pretty old now.  But I’d rather like to think of it as a “mature” console.  Not unlike myself, it is “aged”.  This also makes it–and its games and accessories–a lot more affordable, which is a huge plus, in my book.  It also has a long history, and has gone through 3 versions.  I look back at my purchase history and feel good remembering those classic old games and how much I enjoyed playing them.  All 800+ purchases.  Many of them, in fact, are console versions of even older “classic” arcade games, which bring back even more memories of my past.

One of my all-time favorite games was one of the first games I purchased for the PS3–Joust.  This was an arcade video game where you ride an ostrich and fly around jousting buzzards (and another ostrich if two people play it).  If you fly into a buzzard or the other player and your sword is higher than theirs, you win the joust and kill your opponent.  Kill all of the other players on the screen and you complete the level and advance to the next–harder–level.

I purchased this game in 2006–about 10 years ago, as a digital version.  This means there’s no physical disc or cartridge, you just download the game to your console, install, and play it.  It wasn’t until just recently that I became concerned about this method of game ownership.  First of all, Joust is no longer offered in the Playstation Store for purchase, so I can’t look it up there and re-download it, like I thought I could.  I imagine there are probably several classic games that I purchased back then that are no longer in the Playstation Store.

The reason for my concern is because I decided, earlier this week, to try to get back into playing some of my favorite games, just to relax a bit, and possibly play a little during my walks on my treadmill, but I quickly discovered that the hard drive on my PS3 (320GB) is completely full!  I had cleaned it up some time ago, removing all videos, music and photos, in order to free up enough space to install GTA 5, another great game I play occasionally.  When I say “play” referring to GTA 5, I mean just driving around freely throughout the city and county in the game, driving over people, destroying properly, jumping out and chasing down people to punch them out, and basically wreaking havoc  until the police come and try to stop me.  I don’t really play many missions, as you’re supposed to do in the game, I just goof around to see how much trouble I can get into.  But I digress.  Back to my full hard drive:  As I said, I cleaned up the drive recently, removing nearly everything I could that wouldn’t effect gameplay, and after installing GTA 5, it’s pretty much full to capacity again.

The PS3 has a backup feature, allowing you to back up all of your data and transfer it to another PS3 (or the same PS3 if you’re doing something like replacing the hard drive).  So I tried this, using a 64GB thumb drive I have.  So I started this process, and after several minutes of thinking, the PS3 told me it needed about a drive with about 200GB more storage space!  Agh!  I don’t have a flash drive or external hard drive available with that much space free.  I even tried one external drive that I store TV Shows on for use with my Plex media server, but that drive is formatted as NTFS, and the PS3 requires a FAT32-formatted drive in order to use it.  I know, that’s all Greek to the non-geeks reading this, so let’s just say “that drive won’t work on the PS3”.  My PS3 currently has a 300GB drive, which was pretty huge back in it’s time, but these days it’s hardly enough.

So there I was without a backup solution, and I had a brand new, 1.5TB drive (the largest hard drive the PS3 will allow) waiting to be installed in my PS3.  The way I saw it, at that point I didn’t have much to lose moving forward and installing the new drive.  I found out that I can access my entire purchase history and I can re-download everything I’ve purchased in the past, so I figured it would just require re-downloading everything I want to play.  I would lose my old game saves from way back when, but that’s no biggie for me.  Working through all of the levels in all the good ole games again just adds to the fun! I only had a 320GB drive before, so even if I install everything I had before, I should still have over 1 TB (1000 GB) of the new 1.5TB drive free when I’m done.

So I installed the drive, which was a pretty simple operation, and the PS3 simply prompted me for the latest PS3 update data, which I downloaded to a small flash drive and inserted, then it installed this and formatted the new drive.  All went well, and then I installed a few old games without issue.  They seem really tiny these days, especially on today’s huge-capacity drives!  Over time I’ll be installing a lot more of my old purchases, as I get around to more and more of my old games, and now there’s tons of space for some new ones, if I want them.  It’s nice to have some breathing room back, and it’s such a relief that Sony allows a simple method to re-download all of one’s old purchased content!  They’re earned back a little more of my trust, having lost a lot of it with their support of Cinavia–a copy-protection method that detects copied commerical media and prevents the PS3 from playing or streaming copied DVDs, Blu-Rays, and streamed movies that aren’t originals.  In today’s world, if you don’t keep a backup of something–especially something you purchased electronically, you’re always at risk of losing it due to everyday use, damage, or disaster, so backup copies are critical.  And Ciavia prevents users from being able to use those backups–basically resulting in the PS3 user being assumed to be a pirate!  This also results in the PS3 being rather crippled as a media center, in my opinion.  Whether Cinavia is still built into the PS3 these days, I’m not sure, but I think it’s still there.  I’ll find out soon, as I just installed the Plex app and will be connecting it to my Plex server soon.  Plex is a media server I use to stream all of our movies, tv shows and music to all of our devices.  If Cinavia effects Plex playback, I’ll have to uninstall it and just stick with using it through our Roku boxes as we always have.  That would be sad though, as using it through the PS3 controller or the PS3 Remote looks like it would be fun.

I also discovered, after accepting to two-week free trial of Playstation Plus, that they now offer online storage to Plus users for storing all of their game-save data!  I’m pretty sure that gives me a window of two weeks where I can swap back to my old, full drive, save all my game-save data to my online storage, and then swap back to the new drive and still access all of my game-save data (and hopefully save it back to my new drive easily) so I don’t have to keep paying for Playstation Plus after my two-week trial.  We’ll see how this goes.

Lastly, I’m really liking the fact that all of the PS3 games, accessories, and online content is, by far, a lot cheaper than just about everything for the PS4 and X-Box One!  And since I haven’t been involved with it for a few years, everything I’m seeing is new to me, even though all this stuff is probably old to everyone else.

American Horror Story

Sandy and I just started watching Season 1 of American Horror Story.  We like it!  It’s weird, but interesting and very well done.  It’s the kind of show with the odd video effects mixed with horror to scare the crap out of you while it plays out.  It does a lot of flashing back to different time periods, but it’s necessary to fill in the story.  At least for season 1.  This is a series that “resets” every season, with a different story and cast each time.  I heard about it by reading a small article in Happenings that said Michael Chiklis (from The Commish and The Shield) was going to star in Season 4, currently in production.  Season 4 is subtitled “Freak Show”, and is supposed to involve the weirdest freak show ever.  Season 1 is about a single haunted house and it’s very bizarre history.  I’m not sure what the subject is for seasons 2 and 3 yet, but it should be interesting!

Subscriptions. A rant.

I am so frustrated with how things are these days with tech, services, and just about everything else.  For one example video games.  Back in the day, you could buy a video game and that was it–you could play it normally, privately, or play it online, if the game offered that feature.  There was no fee to play online, no “online pass” you had to own, and no other fees other than the purchase of the game itself.  It was the same with movies.  Buy a DVD, and you could play it anywhere, on any DVD player, on any TV.

Today, things are quickly changing.  Luckily, you can still buy DVDs, but I know that’s going to go away eventually.  The same with video games.  Everything is “going digital” and you’ll eventually only be able to obtain games, movies, and music digitally.  All of your purchases will only be for a “license to download” things, so you’ll never really “own” anything.  Stop paying a subscription fee, and you lose access to everything you had access to with that subscription.   We will soon “own” none of our media, and we’ll only have a temporary license to play it.

Whether that’s a good thing or bad, I guess, is up to you.  Maybe I’m “old school”, but I prefer to have something physical for what I pay for.  Whether that’s a DVD, a Blu-Ray, a Music CD, or a game disc.  As far as I’m concerned, I own that disc, music, or game, and I can install or play it wherever and whenever I want, and not have to pay anything for it ever again.  At this point in this “revolution”, however, I’m a bit stuck in the middle with this stuff.  By that, I mean I now prefer the convenience that comes with having everything digital, but I hate the idea of having to pay a constant monthly fee for the right to access them.  To this end, I have found an efficient way to extract–or, as they call it these days, “rip”–all of my CDs, DVDs, and BluRay discs to media files, so I have everything readily-available, all the time, from my computer, and I can move any of them to any of my portable devices as I want to, without having any extra fees to pay. Ever.

I took this convenience one step further recently after discovering “Plex”, an awesome media platform that allows me to have ALL of this media on a “server” of my own, then stream it, totally free, to any device or other computer I want–even to my TV.  Plex works great, supports all the major formats for music and movies, has apps for all of the smartphone types, and even has apps for all of the set-top boxes like Roku, Google TV, etc.

The latest generation of game consoles (Playstation 4, X-Box One) recently took a very bold step into the fee-based cesspool:  They released both systems as non-backward-compatible!  This means that everyone who has a Playstation 3, or X-Box 360 (the generation of consoles that came out right before them) will no longer be able to play their previously-purchased games on the new consoles.  All of the money that I–and hundreds of thousands of other people–spent buying great PS3 games before, will basically be wasted when our PS3 consoles eventually die or break down.  If we’re lucky, when that happens we might be able to dig up an old, working PS3 somewhere just to keep our came collection viable.  But we know, soon enough, it’ll all be gone.

Now, if a particular game you like was popular enough on the PS3, and the developer is still around and developing for the PS4, you might see a PS4 version of your game made available, but you can sure bet you’ll be paying for it again if you want to play it!  It might have a “cheap $9.99 UPGRADE fee”, but you’ll be paying for it again, regardless.  Games of this type can be found in the “PS3/PS4” section of the Playstation Store on the PS4…And this is a very small section.  The titles here are games that are PS4 versions with equivalent PS3 titles.  If you own one of the PS3 versions and upgraded to the PS4, you’re lucky enough to be allowed to pay for your game again!  I guess we’re supposed to feel good about having to pay for our games a second time…?  You bought the game once though, why should you have to pay ANYTHING for it again?!?!  I know, I know, the developers worked hard to provide the new version, and they have to get paid, etc., etc., But don’t they get enough from the users who buy the game new, who obviously pay double or triple the price of the “upgrade”?  Obviously, the “upgraders” are getting the same version of the game, so the developers can afford to sell a copy of the game for the lower price if they want to.  Ah, but remember now, that “upgraded” copy of the game is now only a “license” to the game… it’s not a physical disc copy of the game.  So you can never re-sell it to anyone else, and I’m sure, by the time the NEXT generation of consoles comes out, it’ll be completely worthless.

Movies are also moving quickly toward this path.  Services like Netflix, Hulu and Redbox already off vast collections of thousands of great movies and TV shows, with everything they offer available to you all at once, for just a low monthly subscription fee.  It’s like having your very own Plex server, except with thousands more movies (but no music–those would be another, completely different subscription service), except that, as soon as you stop paying the monthly fee, it’s snatched away from you completely, and you have nothing.  You own nothing.  I know, I’m old-school.  I’m just ranting.

So these days, as we work hard to earn the money to pay down and eliminate all of our debt, finally getting financially stable, and able to pay our mortgage, gas & electric, cell phone and property taxes to keep living normally, we can add to that a half dozen or even a dozen perpetual subscription fees that will never end, for all kinds of things that we’ll never own.  For me, I’m trying to get by with as few subscription services as I can, as most other people probably are, but as the new game consoles prove, it’s only going more and more–quickly– in that direction.

If you do the math for the subscription scenario, then compare it to the math to actually buy all of the DVD, BluRays, and Music CDs as well as the hardware required to build your own streaming server, sure, you’re going to find that paying the monthly subscription fee will end up costing you thousands of dollars less in the long run, and will take tons less time to build, maintain, and keep up than your own server would.  But then again, I’m a geek who enjoys such things, so taking that time and extra effort is something I’d rather do with a chunk of my time instead of just being twice the couch potato and watch movies for two-thirds of my day.

Rant complete.

Haylie’s 4th Birthday

HaylieI just finished posting the photos (and a video) from Haylie’s 4th Birthday Party.  I was a little disappointed that I somehow missed the “grand finale” of the pinata smashing on the video though.  I thought I captured that, which I thought was the best part, but I think my camera was still paused when I thought it was recording.  Bummer!  Enjoy what’s there though.  I still have a couple of “auto-awesomes” from the bouncy house that I’m working on, so I’ll add those later on. Enjoy!

Plex

plex

After over a year of using Plex, I checked my website and found no mention of it! Man, am I just not updating this site, or what!?! Again, apologies. Nuff said. So, Plex. Plex is a home media server. You’ll find all the details (and the download for it) at http://plexapp.com/.  Jay and I tried using several applications to handle our movie collections as well as our music collections, and just to stick to the topic at hand, I’ll just say that we kept coming back to Plex for various reasons.  It seems to handle the most formats of music and video out of all of the options we looked at, and handles them all better than the others as far as transcoding for the various platforms and for whatever streaming bandwidths we need.

We settled on the following solution for extracting (“ripping”) our DVD and Blu-Ray collections to standard video files: AnyDVD HD (Slysoft) and Handbrake (PC version). AnyDVD is a commercial product, so it will cost some money, but it does a fine job at enabling you to successfully rip your entire collection to regular video files for streaming. AnyDVD doesn’t actually do the extraction of the video, it simply ENABLES the ability to do it by removing any encryption that may be on the DVD or Blu-Ray disc you’re ripping. The app runs in your system tray and goes to work any time you insert a Blu-Ray or DVD into your DVD drive. Handbrake is the app we actually use to do the ripping. It has tons of options, and we settled on a few solid settings that work nicely across both Blu-Ray and DVD movies to provide a nice, consistent quality for all of our movies. Most, I must admit, are not “HD Quality” (1080p). Going with this quality for every movie would just fill up our drives way too quickly. And since standard DVDs aren’t 1080p anyway, it was pointless to go that route when we extracted our entire collections. We settled on a very good quality resolution that results in each standard movie taking about 1GB of space, more or less, depending on the actual length of the movie. Handbrake will also let us extract full HD 1080p videos if we want to, from Blu-Ray discs, but the resulting files are pretty enourmous, so they’re also that much harder to work with.

Finding those two solutions that work together so well–AnyDVD HD and Handbrake–was no small task either. We tested a lot of different applications before settling on these options, so trust me, they do work, and AnyDVD HD is updated very frequently to keep up with the latest protections added to new DVDs and Blu-Rays. Many solutions for doing the same things these two applications do have come and gone over the years too, but most have been eliminated due to lawsuits or the inability to stay updated. AnyDVD HD is the only one we’ve found to be consistently updated and just always works. How they can do it and stay in business, I don’t have a clue. I do know that it’s located in a foreign country though, which may have something to do with how they avoid being shut down, and another big factor is that the application doesn’t actually do the ripping of the data itself. In legal terms, “enabling” the ability to copy a movie and actually “performing” the act of copying a movie are two distinctly different things, so only enabling the ability for a user to copy content that they legally purchased (a DVD-based movie) apparently isn’t as bad as products that provided the “whole package”–something that “DVD-X Copy” and others did.

When you have AnyDVD HD installed, you can then use just about any “video extraction” application to copy your movies, since the disc is now unprotected and the movie is available to be copied using standard methods. We settled on Handbrake because it’s free, and, much like Plex, it just consistently works right. It does have a TON of options and settings, but once set properly, it does a fine job with both Blu-Ray movies as well as standard DVDs.

So once those options were settled upon, our movie collections began to build. When you configure Plex, you simply set it up with “Sections” for your media. For example, you could have a “Movies” section, “TV Shows” section, a “Music” section, etc., or anything you like. I even have a “Kids” section with just animated and children’s movies, which Kevin uses quite a bit. For each Section you add one of more folders from your computer. I have a “Movies” folder on my PC as well as a “Kids” folder for Kevin’s movies, so I pointed those Plex sections to their respective folders.

That’s pretty much all that’s required for setup! Seriously. Plex automatically goes out to the web and finds the cover art (called “posters” in Plex) and even adds several optional covers for every movie it finds. It also adds all of the movie’s details to its database, and all of this info is displayed whenever you browse your Plex movies or their details. It ends up looking pretty much like Netflix or Hulu, and it’s just as easy to use. Of course, if a cover poster isn’t right, was incorrectly matched, or the movie wasn’t found at all, you can manually edit it to your liking and/or add your own cover art to make it appear exactly as you like.

As I mentioned earlier, Plex is available on pretty much every device you might have with a screen. On the PC, smartphone, or tablet you can use the “PlexWeb” interface to do movie database editing or just for watching movies. Or, on your smartphone or tablet you can use the Plex app for that platform to stream movies ever easier and smoother. Plex on a “real” TV is awesome though. I researched streaming TV devices shortly after starting to use Plex, and found, to my delight, that most of them have a natvie Plex app! After some careful consideration, I ended up purchasing a “Roku” box. This is a hockey puck-sized black box that connects to your TV via HDMI. It can connect to your home network via wireless or wired network (the particular model I got offered a wired option, but some of them only offer wireless). Either way, I use mine wirelessly, even though it’s a little slower that what a wired connection would offer, and it still performs very nicely.

Roku boxes offer hundreds of free (and some paid) “channels”, which are the apps that control whatever streaming service you’d like to do. For example, Hulu and Netflix are optional channels on Roku, as well as Plex and other media streaming apps. Most are free (even Hulu and Netflix, though once you open them you have to sign into your paid account to actually USE them) so don’t be fooled. There are plenty of REALLY FREE streaming apps too though. The content can get pretty obscure, but I guess it’s pretty easy for almost anyone to create an app for these systems and offer streaming content. I love my TWiT Network app now too–This is the “This Week in Tech” network that Leo LaPorte (formerly of TechTV fame) built and it offers some great web-only streaming tech shows.

So the Plex app on Roku is excellent and I use it almost daily to watch my ripped movies and TV shows now. I can’t even remember the last time I had to take a DVD or Blu-Ray out of its box to watch a movie! It’s been many months. Whenever I buy a new movie, it gets opened once, inserted into the PC, and ripped to my server, then it goes back in the box. I only go back to the disc if I want to watch a “behind the scenes” feature or special feature other than the movie that was included on another disc or on the original DVD or Blu-Ray. These smaller videos can also be ripped from the discs as well, and you can even have them added to the end of the movie in Plex if you want, but I leave them on the disc normally, and use Plex just for the movies. It’s fairly rare that I want to view special features, so I don’t mind pulling out the discs for just these times.

Plex is free, and is technically still in “beta”, which means it’s not quite “done” yet. It’s quite complete compared to a lot of other options we’ve tried though, so don’t hesitate to start using it! Handbrake, as I mentioned earlier, is free as well, and is in about the same state–neither of these applications have reached version “1.0” yet, but they’re both still top-notch at what they do. You’d only have to shell out a little money for AnyDVD HD, but it’s well worth it. Oh, and you’d probably have to also purchase a large external hard drive to hold all of your movies and music, depending on how large your collection is. But hard drive prices are always dropping these days, so even that isn’t bad any more.

So that’s basically it, in a nutshell. It’s a great solution to make watching all of your home DVDs, Blu-Rays, Music CDs, and even Home Movies as simple as possible, to the point where you never have to get out of your chair to put in another disc! Of course, some of us could actually USE this little bit of extra exercise these days though… I make up for it by walking during lunchtime at work and taking the dog for extra walks at home.

The ISO Event

dvdA couple weeks ago, Jay told me about a server application that let you stream ISOs to your PS3.  I was in awe, and had to give it a shot.  I have a lot of backup ISOs of my movies, and being able to immediately play a DVD image directly on the PS3 without having to burn a DVD would be HUGE for me!  So I tried it.  For those not familiar with what an “ISO” is, it’s an exact image of a DVD disc–it contains every single bit of the DVD–the movie, menus, extras, etc., in the exact format of the DVD, except that it’s a file instead of a disc.  There are several applications available that will then let you burn that image to an actual DVD when desired, and even some that will “mount” the image as a “virtual” DVD drive on your computer so you can play the movie on your computer without having to burn a disc.  So, as you can imagine, ISOs can be very handy on a computer, and they make great backups in case your DVDs get scratched or marked up so much they’re no longer playable (thanks, kids!).

So being able to instantly stream and play these ISOs on the TV to which my PS3 is on, is a big deal for me.  It makes all of these movies and special feature discs available at my fingertips, instead of having to go find the DVD and insert it into my PS3.  I played with the latest version of the application for a couple days, but found that the voices never synced up with the video–ISO movies always played with a too-fast video speed, and the audio was always 10-15 seconds behind the video.  There are a ton of tweaking options in this application, so I tweaked everything I could, but couldn’t get it to play ISOs properly.  It would stream every other type of video file from my PC without any problems, but ISOs were the key to my happiness.  This was very disappointing.  Meanwhile, Jay was having the same issues, so it wasn’t just me.  After some googling of the issue, I found others having the same problem–with the newest versions of the application.  A few users noted that the previous version that they had before this one would play ISOs perfectly.  Ah ha!  So I uninstalled and deleted the newest version, then installed an older (actually the oldest version online–version 1.04) and guess what?  They were right–ISOs now play perfectly!!

Just as Audible screwed up their audiobook app on me in their latest version, PS3 Media Server’s latest version messed up ISO streaming.  So right now, my ISO images are streaming perfectly, and I’m very happy with it, though it is a very old version of the application.  Hopefully someone will determine what went wrong and correct it in a future version.  I will be glad to upgrade it to the latest version, once this issue is resolved, but for now I’m perfectly happy staying right where I am.  This is awesome!  I also found out, during my googling, that this may be the ONLY application that can actually perform this function!  I’d be perfectly willing to pay for a full-blown feature-rich commercial application that did this, if I could find one!

By the way, PS3 Media Server works with more than just the PS3.  It will stream to any DLNA-compliant network device, and is available for many operating systems, including Windows, Linux and Mac.  And it’s a completely free, open-source project.  Here’s the link: http://www.ps3mediaserver.org

Review of the Wii-U

Wii-UAfter a few days of playing with the Wii-U (once I managed to pry it out of the hands of my 14-year-old) I thought I’d post my thoughts.  An HD Nintendo console has been overdue for quite some time, so it’s a relief to finally see them catching up (somewhat) to the “big boys”–PS3 and X-Box 360–though new consoles from both of those companies are now in the works as well.  But Nintendo reminds me a lot of Apple in the way they evolve.  They’re slower in movement, but over time they do get it right for their particular audience.  Anyway, the Wii-U is an excellent replacement for the Wii.  I am very relieved to see that we can still play our old Wii games on it, so we can get rid of the old thing completely.  It was a pain to have to bring the TV down to a standard definition video image to use the Wii.  Now everything can remain in full 1080p HD.

The Wii-U comes with a huge “GamePad” controller, which is much like a small tablet combined with a Wii controller.  It has a decent-sized touchscreen–at least it’s bigger than the Nintendo DS screen–and feels very comfortable in the hands.  It’s nice and light, with nice finger grooves in the right places underneath and a stick on both the left and right sides.  Many games allow their gameplay to run on either the Gamepad screen or the TV screen, and some allow both simultaneously.  Unfortunately this doesn’t apply to all games–and doesn’t apply to the old Wii games at all–but hopefully this will change in the near future with an update.  Being able to play on just the gamepad–even if you can only go up to 40 feet away from the console–is HUGE for our household.  To Kevin, it means being able to still play the console games he wants when he has time, while we can still watch the TV shows we want.  If Nintendo adds this feature into the classic Wii software, I think this feature alone could justify its price for a lot of families!

The good ole “Mii” universe is alive and well on the Wii-U, and there are always hundreds, if not thousands, of other users visiting our system and posting comments about all of the games.  We even see posts from others as we finish levels of some of the games, and I’m always wondering if the comments are actually directed toward OUR game or just generic comments… Can other users watch our gameplay?? Can we watch theirs?? I haven’t found this out yet.

For the old Wii games, there’s a “Wii” option provided as a separate app, which takes you to the classic “Wii Menu” and provides the exact same interface as the old Wii system.  In fact, you have to put down the Gamepad and pick up a standard Wii controller to play any of the Wii games and use the Wii menu interface.  We did the “Wii system transfer” before completely taking our old Wii out of service, and that was pretty flawless, once we got it going.  This was a lengthy process though, probably because we had accumulated a lot of game save data, Mii’s, and games from the Wii Store over the years.  The process is fully animated once you start it, and kind of plays out like a little cartoon, with “Pikmin” characters (from what Kevin says they are) carrying your data through the old Wii systems, out to a rocket ship and loading them up for the transfer.  One little pikmin character almost gets left behind, ala “E.T”, but they realize it before blastoff, and re-open the ship’s bay door and let him in at the last second.  Once the data is saved to your SD card, the ship takes off and your’re ready to insert it into the Wii-U, switch to that system and continue the process where the ship then lands and the pikmin unload the data into the new system and setup the icons.  It’s an amusing little cartoon, but pretty monotonous if you have a lot of data like we did.

The Wii-U also has “TVii”, which I originally thought would be a streaming TV service from Nintendo, but unfortunately it’s not.  All it is, is a “remote” for your existing TV and cable box.  You select your TV remote by answering a few simple questions based on whether the TV responds to the signals the Wii-U sends, and it sets up the remote for it.  This is definitely the simplest “universal remote control” setup I’ve ever seen, by far.  Totally painless.  Then it does the same for your cable box and cable provider.  Once that’s done you can completely control your cable box and TV with just the GamePad, replacing your two remotes.  Unfortunately, WE have much more than that to control, including our stereo, PS3, X-Box, etc., and the Wii-U doesn’t go any further than the two devices.  If someone could just make a 15-device universal remote app for the Wii-U, I’d gladly pay for it…that would be bliss!

Other apps included with the Wii-U are Netflix and HuluPlus, which both work great.  I’m currently using both services and comparing them.  Using the Wii-U interface, Netflix easily outshines HuluPlus, in my opinion.  In the Netflix app the interface on the Gamepad screen matches the TV interface, so you can use either one to select a movie or TV show and watch it on either the TV or the GamePad. Excellent!  But in HuluPlus on the GamePad, it only shows you the currently-selected option, very large, in the middle of the GamePad screen.  You have to look at the TV to scroll and select what you’re looking for.  Unless you memorize the layout of the menus, you can’t use just the GamePad to find a movie or TV show to watch, so it’s rather limited.  I’m guessing Hulu will fix this in an update though.  In comparing the Netflix and Hulu services themselves, it’s pretty much a draw.  They both offer little of the same content.  They seem to each have their own contracts for the content they offer, and both have good solid YV series offerings and movies.  It’s a tough split.  One minus on Hulu is the fact that its TV shows include “limited commercial interruptions” throughout its TV shows.  Sometimes this seems like a bit much, with hour-long TV shows sometimes having numerous 3-commercial breaks.  And there’s no fast-forwarding through the commercials either–you’re stuck with them.  I did find, several times, when I did several fast-forwards and rewinds to rewatch a part of an episode, that it can get confused and then lets you fast-forward through commercials, but then thinks a later section of the actual TV show is the commercial block!  Then later it seemed to realize it was messed up, and when I went to fast-forward or rewind the show it reset it back to the beginning again.  Pretty irritating, but it didn’t happen often and I couldn’t repeat the glitch at will.  Most of the time it worked fine.  Both Netflix and HuluPlus also have an autoplay feature for TV series playing, so you can seamlessly watch a series without manually having to start each episode.  But since HuluPlus has a commercial block before every episode and after, you have to site through a huge block of commercials (usually 6) between each episode.  A big PLUS with Hulu, however, is with current TV series playing.  Hulu gives you the current episodes of TV shows, while Netflix only provides you with previous seasons, only releasing new seasons of a show long after the next season is airing or long after the series is completed.  I guess you have to weigh the value of this with whether you watch a lot of currently-airing series’ or not.  Both services are $7.99 a month, so it makes me wonder if Hulu is worth it for all the ads when Netflix is ad-free.  But, like I said, there are enough differences between the two services to warrant having both of them, for those who can afford it and are avid movie and TV buffs.

But back to the Wii-U: The Wii-U store currently offers a very small selection, but that’s just because it’s new.  They haven’t added any of the classic Wii games to the store yet, so only Wii-U games are there at the moment.  When they finally get the games from the old Wii store into the new one, there will be a much better selection.  And it’d be even more awesome if they also add all of their classic “boxed” Wii games as digital downloads as well!  They would certainly make a fortune, especially on those hard-to-find classics.  I know they can do it–they already offer most of their new “boxed” Wii-U games as digital downloads, and the classic Wii games are much smaller in size, I’m sure.

We played a bit of Mario & Nintendoland for the Wii-U as well as a couple of the new downloadable Wii-U games that were on sale this week in the Wii-U store, and what does Kevin come back to the most?…. wait for it…. a cheap download called “Little Inferno”!  This game is just plain “WRONG”.  It teaches kids how to burn their toys.  It’s aimed at older teens, obviously, and always warns you not to play with fire, but it provides you with a safe environment to do so, allowing you to burn everything from all kinds of toys imaginable, to batteries, to a school bus full of screaming children, or an angry elf (yes, Jay–an Angry Elf) who has a belt of dynamite strapped around his waist.  It’s totally wrong, but I must admit it’s very addicting to but everything and see the way each item responds to a flame.  How this game got past the Nintendo approval process I have no idea–I guess it’s a good test of the parental controls on the Wii-U–you can block your kids from playing it if you want.  But, if they gotta play with fire, I guess doing it on the Wii-U is tons better than anywhere else!

I think Nintento has a great start here.  As long as they get busy with updating and keeping on top of the issues in a timely manner, this will turn out to be an awesome Wii system.  The GamePad features alone can make it almost as useful as a full tablet, if they make the right improvements.  We’ll see what happens.