TIME Video Games

Nvidia Shield Takes PC Gaming on the Road, but Mileage May Vary [Update]

Jared Newman for TIME

Nvidia's Shield now lets you play full-blown PC games from anywhere, but it's a work in progress.

I love my Nvidia Shield, but the $200 gaming handheld is much less useful when I’m not at home. Its best feature, which lets you stream PC games from a networked computer, had only worked over a local Wi-Fi network, so you were limited to simpler Android games outside the house.

That changed this week, with a major update to the Shield’s software: GameStream now works remotely as a beta feature, so if you have a fast enough connection, and a PC with a supported Nvidia graphics card inside, Shield will let you play full-blown PC games such as Dark Souls and Borderlands from anywhere.

At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work. I’ve seen a couple reports of remote GameStream working well, but in my experience it wasn’t good enough to be playable. The best I can say right now is that remote PC game streaming is possible, but it’d be risky–or maybe just premature–to buy a Shield simply for this feature.

To use remote GameStream, Nvidia recommends upload speeds of at least 5 Mbps on your PC’s network, and download speeds of at least 5 Mbps on the Shield’s remote network. My home connection gets upload speeds of 6 Mbps–just passing the test–and I tested the Shield’s connection on two networks in my neighborhood. One was a home network with 30 Mbps download speeds, another was a home network with 15 Mbps download speeds. Finally, I tried remote GameStream on my AT&T phone’s 4G LTE hotspot, whose download speeds fell anywhere from 5 Mbps to 25 Mbps.

None of those connections were good enough to stream my PC games reliably. The biggest issue, by far, was framerate. Every game I tried would drop a horrendous number of frames, making it nearly impossible to control the action reliably. At best, I managed to get through a moderately difficult level of Trials Evolution and take down a few bad guys in Borderlands 2, but these weren’t pleasant experiences. Going into Shield’s GameStream settings and dialing back to minimum quality didn’t help.

I also had problems establishing the initial connection to my PC. On nearly every attempt, Shield would tell me that the connection failed, and would boot me back out to a menu. I could usually get around the issue by relaunching the stream a few times, but it was still an annoyance.

The good news is that controller input seemed fairly responsive on the two home networks, which showed pings of around 25 ms using Speedtest.net. If the framerate issues weren’t present, I’d probably be comfortable using remote GameStream for racing games, puzzle-driven platform games and maybe some easier shooters or adventure games.

Keep in mind that both test situations were on the same Internet service provider in the same neighborhood. I wasn’t able to test GameStream in more remote settings, but when using Shield on my LTE hotspot, with a ping time of around 100 ms, input response was much laggier. Ping generally increases as you move farther from the source, so I wouldn’t be too confident in more remote setups.

I don’t know what’s causing the framerate issues, but it could be a problem with remote GameStream being a rough beta. I’m actually hoping that’s the case, because if Nvidia puts the same kind of attention into this feature that it did into in-home streaming, it’ll be a much more useful feature before long. If my 6 Mbps upload speeds are the culprit, there’s nothing I can do. I’m already subscribing to Time Warner’s “Extreme” Internet package, which is two steps above the standard tier. The lack of competition in my area means Time Warner has no incentive to improve upload speeds anytime soon.

I bought an Nvidia Shield last week, hoping remote GameStream would come in handy, but knowing that I’d still get plenty of mileage from the device with in-home streaming alone. I recommend that anyone else eyeing a Shield go in with the same mentality, at least until we have more time to see if remote streaming improves.

Update: I just ran some more tests after setting up port forwarding rules with Nvidia’s help. Performance was better on a home Wi-Fi network, with fewer game-breaking stutters. Borderlands 2 and Trials Evolution felt playable this time around. Connecting over my 4G hotspot still introduced a hefty dose of input lag, so I still wouldn’t go that route for games that demanded quick reflexes. While having to set up port forwarding isn’t ideal, this is an early beta feature, and hopefully these extra steps won’t be necessary in the future. I’ll continue to test remote GameStream in the coming weeks, but I’m feeling better about it now.

MORE: The History of Video Game Consoles – Full

TIME Video Games

Someone Tell Sony It’s Remastering The Last of Us for PlayStation 4

Sony Entertainment Network

The game most consider the apotheosis of Naughty Dog's story-driven oeuvre is coming to PlayStation 4.

You’d think a remastered PlayStation 4 version of a game that won 2013’s Writers Guild of America award (“Outstanding Achievement in Videogame Writing”) and an Annie (“Best Animated Video Game”) and a Game Developer’s Choice Award (“Game of the Year”) might warrant a little ballyhoo.

But no, the official announcement for the PS4 version of Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us — and by official, I mean Sony’s own Sony Entertainment Network — is a surprise banner gracing the carousel at the top of the company’s PlayStation Games page. The banner itself notes the game’s won “over 200 game of the year awards” bracketed by little film festival-ish laurel leafs. (In other words: “We’re art!”)

If you click the banner, there’s nothing on the other side of the link, and there’s nothing listed about a release date or timeframe at this point.

Maybe the non-announcement’s a store malfunction, or someone goofed up the publish date and we’re not supposed to know yet, or there’s a press release deluge happening as I type this, but the advert’s been up for awhile and no one’s taken it down, so I guess this is it folks: your very own official not-hyped, post-marketed version of an announcement about what’ll probably be the boutique version of what most consider to be one of the most accomplished video games yet made. I suppose there’s something refreshing about that.

Also refreshing: that I didn’t have time to finish the PlayStation 3 version, which means I get to experience the remastered version with fresh eyes. I almost dove back in to wrap it (and the DLC) up over Thanksgiving, after (finally) finishing Uncharted 3. I’m glad I waited.

MORE: The History of Video Game Consoles – Full

TIME Video Games

Every Super Nintendo Start Screen in a Nine-Hour Video? Yes, Please

Surely you can set aside nine measly hours of your workday to watch this. Yes? Yes. Say yes.

I remember January 22, 2014 like it was only a few months ago. That was the day I published a post called Every Nintendo Start Screen in a Three-Hour Video? Yes, Please. Best moment of my life – top five, at least.

Now it’s April 8, 2014. I’m a little older and whole lot wiser. And the same NicksplosionFX YouTube user who put together the epic three-hour Nintendo montage just made it look like a second grader’s dopey science project. The Super Nintendo version is just over nine hours long. Believe it or believe it, I haven’t watched the whole thing, but it’s currently streaming along on the TV in my office like a calming drip of nostalgia.

SUPER PRESS START [YouTube via Geekologie]

TIME Opinion

Molyneux: Xbox One Without Kinect Is Inevitable

Microsoft

22Cans studio founder says he's certain Microsoft will eventually release a price-reduced version of Xbox One without Kinect.

Getting irritated with the capriciousness of Kinect for Xbox One is an accretive process. Back in November when I reviewed the system, I was genuinely impressed with the strides Microsoft had made with its voice recognition technology, which I felt (and still feel) were much better realized and more accurate than the original — in my view, broken novelty add-on — that the company somehow managed to sell to millions of masochistic Xbox 360 owners anyway.

But several months into the Xbox One’s run, I’ve stumbled into the revamped Kinect technology’s uncanny valley — that place in its aural geography of elocution somewhere between the effortless economy of “Xbox, on” and the maddening superfluity of “Xbox, on. Xbox, on. Damn it, Xbox on. EKSSS. BOKSS. OHNNN.”

At least one former Microsofter agrees with me: In an Edge interview that canvasses several Microsoft execs about the prospects for Xbox One going forward (the magazine weirdly asks “Can Microsoft turn things around for Xbox One?”, as if turning around’s needed at this point), 22Cans founder Peter Molyneux takes a shot at Microsoft’s living room ear-eye:

I actually wish Kinect wasn’t a requirement. It feels like an unnecessary add-on to me. Maybe it’s because we’re in England, and it doesn’t really use the TV stuff, but it feels more and more like a joke. My son and I sit there saying random things at it, and it doesn’t work. They could cost-reduce it [by removing Kinect]. I’m sure they’re going to release an Xbox One without Kinect. It would be unthinkable that they wouldn’t.

Unthinkable? I guess we’ll see how recently promoted Xbox honcho Phil Spencer feels about the peripheral’s necessity (and maturity) as Xbox One rolls out to new markets this fall. The company’s challenge is in convincing consumers that a still-in-transition technology is strong enough to justify bundling and keeping the platform’s price $100 higher than Sony’s PS4. I think the first Kinect, much like Nintendo’s Wii, enjoyed a period of novelty sales — call it the consumer curiosity honeymoon phase — where it was new and unusual enough that the promise (as opposed to the much lesser reality) fired imaginations (and wallets), putting a slew of Wiis and Kinects in living rooms like so many fondu-makers and coffee table books.

But by the time you’re circling ’round to the next generation of these technologies, I think people are looking for companies to put paid to these concepts, not sell iterative “almost-there” devices. When you’re “almost-there,” you start expecting the interface to be as deterministic as your old one, and that’s simply not the case with Kinect for Xbox One. Interfacing in that uncanny valley now — interacting as if you ought to be able to depend on recognition perfection — makes the disconnect all the more evident, and your willingness to play ball fades, because who wouldn’t rather take the extra second to pick up a remote and go back to getting a precise response every time?

Amazon Fire TV gets this precisely right, by the way: control the navigational interface with a deterministic remote, then use your voice to input longer words or phrases. Even where it goofs, and it certainly does, it’s still probably faster to voice-ask twice for “Christopher Nolan” than it would be to type the name in manually with a remote or gamepad.

I’m with Molyneux: Unbundle Kinect now and get the Xbox One’s price down $100 or more. Sell the system (and I mean really sell it) to game enthusiasts — your strongest evangelists, and evangelism’s crucial in a system’s early days — because the Xbox One is a games console first and foremost (it looks awfully silly as a media box, up there next to the hockey pucks from Amazon, Apple and Roku). And double efforts to get studios to ensure performance parity between PS4 and Xbox One games so we can stop having this stupid debate about which system’s more powerful (answer: they both are, depending which developer you ask).

Full disclosure, I recently yanked Kinect from my Xbox One and dropped it back in its cardboard packaging. My press unit sits in my office, where I use it to play games and little else. My media center in the living room has an Apple TV, Roku 3 and now an Amazon Fire TV that’s as good at parsing morphemes and phonemes (when I’m searching for video content) as anything Kinect’s capable of. I’m also a fairly quiet guy. I’d rather push buttons than pretend I’m on the bridge of a starship — or pretend Kinect works well enough to be my go-to navigational interface.

MORE: The History of Video Game Consoles – Full

TIME Video Games

Xbox Owners Can Finally ‘GoPro’ and Upload Game Clips to YouTube

Microsoft

Xbox One owners finally get YouTube uploads, Xbox 360 owners get an extreme-sports-angled camera partnership.

Let’s be clear: GoPro is not a verb…unless I’m using it in a title, in which case it is, just this once, I promise. It’s also a brand of rugged high-def cameras that get people to say stuff like “extreme” and “sports” a lot. And as of tomorrow, it’ll be an official app that lives on your Xbox 360 (Microsoft says the Xbox One version’s coming sometime this summer).

According to Xbox Wire, the GoPro app is meant to stream some of that “extreme” content to your Xbox 360, browsing “a variety of categories including sports, athletes and adventure, and watch individual videos or view back-to-back videos within a category.” You’ll need Microsoft’s $60 a year Xbox Live Gold subscription to access it, and you’ll also have the option to buy GoPro cameras and accessories — handled by Microsoft’s online store — directly through the app. Microsoft reminds us this is the first time it’s bundled physical purchases with an Xbox app, so think of it as the company’s canary in its Xbox-meets-Amazon mine.

But the news you’re probably reading this for, is that Microsoft’s finally adding YouTube support to its Game DVR and Upload functions on the Xbox One (and yes, no surprise, Xbox Live is required). According to Microsoft:

Now, use Game DVR to capture epic gaming moments, edit them in Upload Studio, and, with the simple click of a button inside the YouTube app (look for My Uploads), share them instantly to your YouTube channel. The updated YouTube experience also allows you to watch YouTube videos in Snap Mode, add individual YouTube videos to your Pins, earn Media Achievements, and add your YouTube channels to OneGuide for instant access to YouTube videos right next to your favorite TV listings or App Channels.

How much this matters probably depends on how much you’re already streaming game sessions to Twitch, which launched (late — the PS4’s had it since launch in November) on Xbox One in early March. Twitch has somewhere in the vicinity of 45 million viewers a month, compared with YouTube’s monthly one billion. But then Twitch is a broadcast service, while YouTube’s a clip-sharing one, so there’s plenty of reason to use both.

 

MORE: The History of Video Game Consoles – Full

TIME Video Games

Simcraft: What If The Simpsons Did Minecraft?

Check out the 547th episode's surprise couch gag.

The latest episode of Fox’s indefatigable The Simpsons, “Luca$,” may be something of a critical clunker, but forget the goofy plot about Lisa dating a competitive eater-in-training, or Bart covering up a B-list character’s illicit activities. You’ll want to watch this video for the unexpected hat-tip to one of the most (unexpectedly) popular games ever made.

No, I don’t get all the Minecraft references either — I’ve only dabbled with the game. But I’d bet dollars to Lard Lad donuts my brother’s seven-year-old son would get all of them (and probably be able to offer scholarly annotations in the bargain). He spent most of our last get-together asking me nuanced gameplay questions. I pretended to understand, nodding in the right places, but I’m pretty sure he figured me out.

On the other hand, I’m not sure how clever the couch gag is here. Is Minecraft‘s most visible contribution its blocky look? That seems to be the only conceit here: “Hey! Look! The Simpsons as LEGOs!” (Which, of course, is already a thing.) And Moe showing up as a creeper, because of course he would.

Here’s mister Minecraft himself, Markus “Notch” Persson, reacting to the spot:

And on how surreal it still feels when this sort of thing happens:

TIME technology

Watch a Giant Game of Tetris Played on a Philadelphia Skyscraper

Gaming enthusiasts gathered in Philadelphia for the chance to play the classic arcade game on an unprecedented scale

Have you ever felt compelled to play a giant game of Tetris on the side of a skyscraper? Probably not, but now that you’re thinking about it, doesn’t it sound pretty fun?

To kick off the Philly Tech Week festival, Philadelphians gathered for their chance to play the classic arcade game on the side of the 29-story Cira Centre. Hundreds of LED lights embedded in the building’s glass facade displayed the falling blocks, which competitors controlled with joysticks.

Last year, participants played the simpler (but arguably more mesmerizing) Pong. We’ve got our fingers crossed for Flappy Bird next year.

TIME Gadgets

Set-Top Showdown: Amazon Fire TV vs Apple TV vs Roku

Amazon

It wasn't enough to be another channel on someone else's box: Amazon had to throw its hat in the hardware ring, too. And so it's expanded its "Fire" brand to include Fire TV, a tiny black-plastic slab that does significantly more -- and in some cases, notably less -- than its competition.

Which streaming media box should you buy? We’re here to help by taking a look at the three most popular price-comparable set-top boxes on the market today.

Let’s start with a quick-reference comparison chart, then we’ll go point-by-point through the most obvious (and some not-so-obvious) features below.

Amazon Fire TV

Apple TV

Roku 3

Price

$99

$99

$99.99

In Box

Remote

Remote

Remote
Earbuds

Processor

1.7 GHz
Quad-core + GPU

2 GHz
Single-core

900 MHz
Dual-core

Memory

2 GB

512 MB

512 MB

Storage

8 GB

Only for caching

External MicroSD

Sound

Dolby Digital Plus

Dolby Digital

Dolby Digital

Network

Dual-band Wi-Fi
Ethernet

Wi-Fi
Ethernet

Dual-band Wi-Fi
Ethernet

Video

HDMI 1080p

HDMI 1080p

HDMI 1080p

Pre-Cached
Streaming

Yes

No

No

Voice Search

Yes
(Amazon-only)

No

No

Gamepad

$40

No

Included
(remote/wand)

Cloud Music

Amazon
(Coming in May)

iTunes

Third-party

Tablet/Phone
Mirroring

Kindle Fire

iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch

“Select” devices

App Remote

No

iOS

iOS
Android

Channels

24+

30+

1,200+

Games

134

AirPlay

77

All three boxes are the same price — unless you’re a gamer.

A hundred bucks covers the basics across all three boxes, including remote and power supply (none include an HDMI cable, however, so remember to factor that in if you don’t have a spare). Amazon Fire TV costs another $40 if you’re eyeing the optional game controller, a necessary purchase if you want access to Fire TV’s library of first- and third-party games. Roku sells less powerful boxes for $80 and $50, too.

Fire TV is primarily for Amazon Prime users.

Unlike Roku or Apple TV, Amazon’s interface has Amazon Prime DNA pretty much embedded throughout, and that’s an annual service that costs another $99 (bringing your total all the way up to $240, plus the recurring subscription fee, if you opt for the Fire TV gamepad).

You can buy a Fire TV and use it for Netflix or Hulu, of course, but everything else about the Fire TV, from voice search to interface layout, is organized to push Amazon’s services. If you’re not planning to subscribe to Prime, the reasons to invest in Fire TV (and not a much more broad-minded Roku 3, app-wise) shrink dramatically.

On the other hand, if Prime gets the job done for you, $99 a year for free two-day shipping, Kindle library lending and unlimited streaming of a sizable selection of video content may be a better deal than paying $96 a year ($8 a month) for either Netflix or Hulu Plus.

Fire TV is a lot faster than its rivals…for now.

The Apple TV tends to be an interface dog, lagging behind your commands and sometimes pausing for several seconds in processing limbo-land. The Roku 3 is significantly zippier, but still occasionally has to play catch up when you’re trying to move quickly between apps or a crowded menu. Not so Amazon’s Fire TV, which responds effortlessly and immediately to virtually any command, letting you speed through menus and dialogue boxes as fast as you’re able to input commands.

Here’s a five-minute walkthrough of the Fire TV interface and a few of its features:

I’m sure Apple and Roku have faster boxes in the oven, but for the moment, Fire TV is the king of set-top interface responsiveness and speed.

No one has Roku’s channel library.

Apple TV has a little over 30 channels (not counting Apple’s own), and Fire TV has fewer still at this point. Roku, by comparison, has a smorgasbord, making it the obvious pick if channel versatility is paramount. And since Roku doesn’t have a particular service dog in the hunt, you can probably expect it to remain the most channel-agnostic (and well-rounded, support-wise) of the bunch going forward.

Roku’s version of Amazon Instant Video is Prime-friendlier than Fire TV’s.

Amazon’s interface to its content is slicker, especially with voice search, granted, but where Roku’s version of Amazon Instant Video includes a discrete Prime-only content view, Amazon folds its Prime content into the interface in a way that makes browsing only Prime videos much less straightforward (and makes it much easier to stumble into for-pay content, which is clearly what Amazon wants to happen).

My favorite remote is still the Apple TV’s…

Apple’s aluminum remote sports the best in Jobs-ian minimalism: unbelievably slender (almost too slender, in fact, if you have large hands), with all the navigational functionality smartly encapsulated by its wheel and center button and self-explanatory “Menu” and “Play/Pause” ones.

Roku’s remote, by comparison, feels chunky and confusing (What does an “asterisk” button do again? What’s the difference between a backwards arrow and a backwards circle arrow?), and it’s easily the heaviest, though it has a few nice extras, notably the headphone jack for private wireless listening and the option to tilt it sideways like a Wii Remote with d-pad and A/B face buttons.

The Fire TV’s relatively slim, matte-black remote makes its own design case fairly well, though it also employs less common button symbols (like its three-dash options one). It feels the best in my somewhat larger hands, and sports a microphone button at top, just below the microphone hole.

…but Fire TV’s voice search option (in its remote) feels terrific.

I’ve thrown everything I could at the Fire TV’s remote in hopes of stumping it, from movies to TV shows and actors to directors to genres. Exceptions made for instances I clearly mispronounced something, the closest I got was “Peg-plus-cat,” which returned “Peg plus cat,” as desired, but also nonsense entries for “Pague Pluskat” and “Pigplus Kat.” Just to be a wise guy, I tried the one word almost no one can spell (but almost anyone can sing) from Disney’s Mary Poppins: Fire TV not only knew what I meant, but spelled it correctly.

Voice search seems to rank results identical to manual searches on Amazon’s website (in the Instant Video category), which sometimes make sense and sometimes don’t. When you search “Ricardo Montalban,” for instance, Amazon brings up the somewhat obscure film The Desperate Mission first, followed by the second season of Bonanza (Montalban starred in just one episode). You have to cycle over several entries to get to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which, Fantasy Island aside (it’s not on Amazon Instant Video), I suspect many would argue is his best-known role.

The one hard-to-miss downside, also noticed by my colleague Harry McCracken, is that Fire TV’s voice search works best and most often to summon Amazon content, failing to bring up the same content in a rival service’s channel, even if the rival service offers it free.

Instant video playback works eerily well.

How does Amazon know what I want to watch? How much stuff could it possible be presciently caching? So far, pretty much everything. Amazon calls this ASAP (Advanced Streaming and Prediction, obviously a play on “as soon as possible”) video buffering, and its job is to eliminate the wait you’re accustomed to experiencing when a streaming video buffers, as it will if you play anything on an Apple TV or Roku (or your computer or game console).

Amazon claims the more you use the Fire TV, the better ASAP gets. I can’t confirm that because it has yet not to work. In fact, so far, it seems to be cataloging things that relate to nothing I’ve searched previously. I don’t know what sort of voodoo’s involved behind the scenes here, but it definitely seems to be working.

Fire TV lets you play games the way they’re meant to be played…

Which would you rather play a first-person shooter with:

  • A Wii remote-like wand with absent buttons?
  • Pretending your arms, hands and fingers are weapons, but ones that only work properly some of the time?
  • The tried-and-true method: a straightforward gamepad, honed and respected in gaming-dom for decades?

Fire TV is the only set-top that offers the latter.

…but the gamepad’s a little chunky.

Not original-Xbox monstrous, but Amazon’s definitely erred on the side of large, clapping a sizable flat-lying faceplate on top of a battery-thickened body with enormous handlebars that’ll make you extra-grateful for the smarter design advances both Sony and Microsoft employed in their PlayStation 4 and Xbox One’s controllers, respectively.

I’ll have a more detailed review of the Fire TV-as-games-microconsole soon, after I’ve spent more time with the games (especially Amazon Game Studios’ Sev Zero), but at this point, I’d say the gamepad reminds me most of the Xbox One’s controller, only bulkier.

Amazon has the most games, including the only first-party titles.

Not by much at this point — Roku has a decent number, too. But Amazon is the first of these three to offer first-party games, developed by its own Amazon Game Studios, which probably signifies the company committing to this space long-term. Amazon’s also promising “thousands more [games] coming soon,” meaning, I assume, that it intends to eventually crack open the entire Android games library.

Fire TV syncs with your Amazon account before hitting your doorstep.

When I plugged my Fire TV in, it automatically figured out who I was and signed me in — no fuss, no muss. That’s a little creepy, but also kind of cool. I have long, random, easily forgettable passwords unique to each of my accounts, which means I’m often summoning a password management app on my computer or smartphone to sign into things. With Fire TV, Amazon removes that step by taking care of business beforehand.

There’s just one potential problem: This past year, Amazon mis-delivered several items I’d ordered, presumably sending them to someone else or simply losing them. If someone intercepts your Fire TV, unlikely as that sounds, then opts to misbehave, they’d have temporary access to your account simply by plugging the device in. That’s probably a security risk Amazon’s going to have to address at some point.

Fire TV can partner with Amazon’s Kindle Fire Tablets.

Remote control apps aside, Roku only works with “select” Android devices (see here). Apple TV, as you may know, can partner with iOS products, allowing you to AirPlay-stream videos, pictures and even select games through your television set.

Fire TV includes an AirPlay-like feature that lets you mirror movies, TV shows, music and photos from your Kindle Fire tablet to your TV as well as control the display remotely, but it also lets you turn your TV into a “second screen” by clicking what Amazon calls a “fling” icon to fire audio or video running on the tablet at your TV (and freeing up the tablet for other tasks). There’s also a Wii U-like contextual view feature, content-depending, that lets you view additional info, pulled from IMDb, about whatever TV show or movie you’re watching.

Who cares what these boxes look like? They’re basically invisible.

All three boxes are roughly the size of hockey pucks, and when you’re the size of a hockey puck that can fit pretty much anywhere, aesthetics cease to matter. I couldn’t care less whether one has beveled edges or another’s the height of a dime (faced up). Here’s what all three have in common in my household: they go on my entertainment center’s top shelf and I never look at them again.

Fire TV has slightly higher-end audio, but only audiophiles are going to notice.

Amazon does its best to play down its competitors’ sonic capabilities on its comparison site, but while Fire TV supports Dolby Digital Plus surround (and includes an optical audio out option), both Apple TV and Roku 3 support Dolby Digital 5.1 surround (that is, 5-channels plus a subwoofer).

The difference? Dolby Digital Plus supports higher bit rates for improved audio quality and has better techniques for reducing compression artifacts, though it still involves compression. (No one’s doing lossless streaming at this point, or what’s called Dolby TrueHD, for which you’ll have to turn to high-end Blu-ray playback hardware like the PlayStation 4.)

In practice, we’re talking subtle differences most won’t notice (and certainly not in scenarios where you’re playing sound through your TV’s speakers, as I do). And if you’re an audiophile with a stacked, component-filled living room, chances are you’re going to be more interested in a much higher-end streaming video-capable box like Sony’s PlayStation 4 anyway.

Fire TV is missing Amazon Music for now.

Amazon says Fire TV is “made for music,” but apparently not Amazon-bought music out of the gate, which is strange indeed. If you’re an Amazon Cloud Player user, or you’ve simply purchased music through Amazon, you can’t access it directly through Fire TV right now (there’s not even a music option in the menu — the only music features are third-party ones like Pandora, TuneIn and iHeart Radio). The company says integration with Amazon Cloud Player will be here in May, however.

For Roku owners, there’s a dedicated Roku app — dubbed “Amazon Cloud Player” and made by Amazon — precisely for that.

In summary…

If you already own a Roku 3 or Apple TV and don’t play games and don’t care about Amazon Prime, there’s not much that argues for the purchase of Amazon’s Fire TV at this point (if you already own the vastly content-superior Roku 3, in particular, which includes Amazon services Fire TV doesn’t, I’d steer clear of Fire TV for now).

If you own none of the three boxes above, this gets trickier, because it depends to an extent on what sort of ancillary devices and services you own or use. If you’re an iOS user and/or invested in iTunes, there’s a strong argument for the Apple TV because nothing else supports iTunes or AirPlay. Likewise, if you’re a Kindle Fire user and find the second-screen angle appealing, there’s a very strong argument for Fire TV. And if you don’t really care about device-partnering and you prefer to hop around services (Netflix, Hulu, etc.) in more of an egalitarian environment, interface-wise, the Roku 3 should be at the top of your buy list.

But if you do use Amazon Prime, you’ve already invested in a Kindle Fire, you want to dabble in Android gaming on your TV screen with a proper gamepad, and you care about interface responsiveness and voice accessibility, Fire TV becomes easy to recommend. It has no obvious bugs or performance issues or gotchas (beyond the ones mentioned above) at this point. Short of missing services like Amazon Music — albeit temporarily — it already feels like a second- or third-gen product, reasonably priced, content-rich and refined.

TIME Video Games

The Elder Scrolls Online’s Director Talks Cartography, Combat, Boredom and Post-Launch Content

Bethesda

The Elder Scrolls Online's director Matt Firor answered 10 questions about Bethesda's fantasy roleplaying MMO in tandem with its launch today.

The Elder Scrolls games have arguably the strongest claim on the mantle of the fantasy gaming tradition Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson’s Dungeons & Dragons kickstarted in the 1970s. You might say a game like The Elder Scrolls Online was thus inevitable: a sprawling multiplayer-only opus that brings the series full circle.

You see, The Elder Scrolls: Arena, released in 1994 (and which wasn’t originally supposed to be a roleplaying game at all), was the first and last game to offer access to all of Tamriel, the continent on which all the action’s happened to date. Tamriel has nine provinces, and you could visit all nine in Arena — a game that boasted over two million square miles of explorable turf. Nothing else came close to that boast in 1994, though most of that turf was randomly generated and forgettable.

Subsequent Elder Scrolls games increased each province’s granularity, but at a cost, trading sweeping tracts of random-spawned terrain for smaller swathes of hand-sculpted geography. The other compromise involved throwing up arbitrary barriers, like the water surrounding Morrowind’s island of Vvardenfell, or Cyrodiil’s invisible walls bordering its six adjacent provinces and turning you back.

The Elder Scrolls Online dispenses with those barriers and resurrects Tamriel as a continuous continent, all of its provinces plumbable, from Skyrim to Elsweyr and High Rock to Black Marsh (though some of the world remains locked at launch, for the sake of expansion content). The game lets you play as a Dragon Knight, Templar, Sorcerer or Nightblade, squaring off against a demon prince named Molag Bal — referenced in prior games, but the primary antagonist here and threatening to pull Tamriel into his other-dimensional realm.

I posed the following questions to Matt Firor, ESO‘s director and one of the lead designers on Dark Age of Camelot, the most warmly received MMO in the post-Everquest run up to Blizzard’s World of Warcraft. ESO launches today for PC and Mac, and runs $15 a month (after a free 30-day trial period).

How geographically close do you hew to the cartographic arrangement of the provinces in prior Elder Scrolls games? Will Morrowind, Cyrodiil and Skyrim — the three most concretely defined areas to date — be discernibly similar, topographically?

Yes, we stuck as close as we could to the original heightmaps for areas of Tamriel that have featured prominently in other Elder Scrolls games. As we expand the game’s geography, and begin to fill in blank spots on the map, we’ll continue to do this. We also updated those areas’ ruins, flora and fauna — mushrooms in Morrowind, Ayelid ruins in Cyrodiil, etc. — to be immediately recognizable by gamers familiar with those classic titles.

Tell us a little about the quest system and what you’ve done to mitigate the sense of box-checking genericness that plagues most MMOs.

Good quests begin and end with a good story. If you care about the characters you are helping or the mystery you are solving, then the quest works. This is a game content design mantra, not just confined to MMOGs. With fully voiced NPCs and a really strong writing team, we made sure that when you are questing that you care about what you are doing, which makes the whole quest interesting and fun.

Combat was arguably one of the weakest aspects of Skyrim, and in my view, it’s been a problem point for all of the Elder Scrolls games (to say nothing of its click-slavishness and physical disconnectedness in most MMOs). How different is combat in ESO?

I suppose this is subjective — I really like the combat system of Skyrim and Oblivion and we used the combat control system from those games as the foundation of the ESO combat system. But we have a much different A.I. system in ESO, as it is a multiplayer virtual world. Our world has a constant population of respawning enemies, so the main differences come from being able to deal with enemies behind you and multiple enemies at the same time.

More recent MMOs have been figuring out how to fold event spontaneity into their exploration/loot hunt/leveling games. How dynamic and mutable is ESO (as opposed to scripted) as you move through the world?

We have a couple of different types of spawning content in the world. We have our Dark Anchors, which are large-group-based open world encounters where you and your friends take on allies of the big bag guy, Molag Bal. We also have miniature versions of those (Dark Fissures) that are solo-able as well as other randomly spawning encounters at various points around the world. When you add that to the exploration content we have (treasure chests, skyshards, mini-dungeons, etc.) as well as our really in-depth questing system, there’s a ton to do in the game.

Let’s talk music. We’ve been saturated with composer Jeremy Soule’s scores for three sprawling Elder Scrolls games. How did composers Brad Derrick and Rik Schaffer approach this game? Given the time shift, are we in the same thematic ballpark as Morrowind and Oblivion and Skyrim, or a noticeably different one?

Both Brad and Rik have written and managed the scores of many games between them, so they had the experience to find the right tone for the high-fantasy orchestral score. Jeremy’s work does make a cameo – he composed the track “For Blood, for Glory, for Honor.”

We also had Malukah write and perform bard songs for the game, which are amazing – you can hear them just about any time you walk into a tavern in the game. But yes, overall, even though we’re at a different period of time with ESO than Skyrim or Oblivion, it’s still in the same high fantasy ballpark.

Style-wise, ESO‘s interface most strongly resembles Skyrim’s minimalist approach, which some players loved and others hated. Can you talk a little about the things that inspired ESO‘s interface in that light?

It wasn’t so much copying Skyrim’s interface as it was trying to build on one of the most important parts of Skyrim: Moment to moment gameplay is about looking at the world, not at the UI. The compass is small and unobtrusive, but tells you what you need to know, enemies in the game give you “tells” that you respond to instead of buttons flashing on the button bar, etc.

What’s the mini-game and achievement hunt like? I assume there’s an exploration mini-game?

There are several. Every zone has tons of achievements (every quest, every explorable area, every dungeon, all dungeon bosses, etc.). There are also skyshards which, if you find enough of them, give you extra skill points. There are also chests to find — complete with a lockpicking minigame — that can give you some pretty good loot, especially if those chests are found in dungeons. Every time you find an area on the map that has something interesting, you get experience, so just walking around the world will help develop your character.

How interesting do you feel you’ve made the nooks and crannies and null space? How bored (or not bored) do you think players are going to get exploring dungeon #1 versus dungeon #159?

Our dungeons, designed for groups of four, have really interesting stories that drive the player to (and through) them, so the first time you go through it, it feels like just more awesome questing. Dungeons are filled with chests, books, barrels, crates, and traps to keep players busy while exploring and fighting.

If you want to do multiple dungeon runs, obviously then you focus on the loot, which is better in dungeons than in the overworld, and you are always guaranteed good stuff from the boss and mini-bosses.

One particular thing that should be pointed out is the attention to detail on boss encounters in dungeons. Every boss is a hand-crafted encounter with unique abilities for groups to learn and overcome. With over 18 normal dungeons and 6 Veteran dungeons at launch, that’s a lot of boss encounters. Speaking of Veteran dungeons, these 50+ dungeons provide a second challenge or story to the “normal version” of that dungeon. It is a new quest with new areas and all new enemies.

ESO has a huge advantage over other startup MMOs in that it’s built on a successful franchise, but how are you handling sustainability post-launch? What sort of content rollout schedule should players expect?

We have been working on post-launch content for many months now – our first post-launch package, Craglorn, is our first Adventure Zone. It introduces Trials, a large-group competitive PvE endgame, four-man Veteran Dungeons, a Death Recap screen so you can see who or what killed you, and an entire overworld designed for groups. While the content packages we have will range in feature sets, Craglorn illustrates the kind of commitment we have to providing regular content to our players. Over time, you’ll get new systems, new zones, new quests, stories, and lots more.

Do you worry that at some point the whole swords-and-sorcery theme wears out its welcome? That after all the crazy time players put into Skyrim, they’ll bounce sooner in ESO?

These things wax and wane, but there’s always room for a good fantasy, whether that’s a game, book or movie. It’s been over two years since Skyrim launched, so there has been plenty of time for gamers to get their Tamriel appetite back!

MORE: The History of Video Game Consoles – Full

TIME Opinion

Microsoft’s Cortana Raises Important Questions About Sexism and Gender Stereotyping

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Cortana, the artificially-intelligent character from the popular Halo video game series Microsoft

Cortana (the Halo-series video game character) has a broader, occasionally controversial history.

Cortana, the name Microsoft’s given its response to Apple’s Siri virtual assistant, may turn out to be a bolder move for the company than I suspect many realize. For starters, she’s a character in a militaristic sci-fi video game that, for all its popularity in gaming-dom, locates her impetus well outside the entertainment mainstream — and as the historical purview of a very specific, mostly not-female demographic.

More importantly, from game one (released back in 2001 for the original Xbox) through Halo 4 (released in November 2012 for the Xbox 360), she’s been a sometimes controversial symbol. On the one hand, she’s a strong-willed and multidimensional female persona in a series that’s been fictively nuanced enough to draw the attention (and participation) of a Hugo and Nebula award-winning writer like Greg Bear. But she’s also a character who’s essentially imprisoned — literally in the series’ case — within the psyche of an adolescent male’s fantasy notion of a Campbellian hero figure: a simultaneously fleshed-out yet hyper-fleshy persona — she’s all but nude in these games, her female parts exponentially more detailed as console graphics and design techniques have improved — who appears in hologram form, Obi-Wan-like, only if Obi-Wan were a nubile pole dancer.

But perhaps that’s just my own biases as a clueless, culturally-compromised male showing through. What’s wrong with nudity (or near-nudity) anyway? Must attractive nearly-nude women be pole dancers? Am I selling pole-dancing short? Are people without clothes (or nearly so) mere sex objects? Is that just latent American prudishness on my part? Fear of female sexuality? Gender stereotyping? A kind of unconscious, compartmentalizing sexism? Is immobility itself necessarily reductive? Doesn’t that then sell the mobility-challenged short?

Or is there also something exploitive and sexist occurring in these games when you start thinking about their demographics and marketing? Does intentionality trump reception? What of Microsoft’s intentions? Do we presume too much? Surely the game’s writers are going to argue there’s nothing sexist about the character.

The question seems to be whether players should celebrate a character like Cortana for her depth and poise (though it’s worth noting that she loses her mind in the most recent game), or view her cynically, as an imprisoned, hyper-sexualized plot actuator — a ploy to titillate the game’s target adolescent male demographic.

And now she’s the name Microsoft’s given its Siri competitor, a Windows 8.1 assistant voiced by the same person responsible for Cortana’s Halo incarnation (Jen Taylor).

Forget Halo for a moment. What about this idea that the personality — and both Apple and Microsoft clearly want us to view Siri and Cortana as personalities — is female and not male, responsible for what amount to secretarial duties like creating alarms, reminders and appointments? To be fair, Apple has a male voice option in iOS, but does anyone use it?

In Microsoft’s case, it sounds like Cortana is female-only, in keeping with her video game persona. So does all the internal testing I presume Apple and Microsoft have been doing suggest people want their servile computer algorithms, just like the computer in Star Trek, to be female? If so, what does that say about us?

This isn’t an indictment of what Microsoft demonstrated at its Build conference yesterday, which from an algorithmic standpoint sounds pretty cool — another step on the very long road toward fully semantic computing, where your computer understands not only what you want to know, but the context in which you want to know it.

I’m just asking the question, because there’s a history here, and in Cortana’s case, one that reaches back over a decade and across one of the fastest-growing (and at this point, greatest revenue-generating) entertainment mediums in history. I don’t have a satisfactory answer yet, but I think it’s important to be mindful that there is a history here, and that we should at least be thinking about its potential implications as we engage with these applications rolling forward.

MORE: The History of Video Game Consoles – Full

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