Tag Archives: review

Inexpensive Indie Games Worth Your Money

If you’ve ever played an online multiplayer game, you know the world of gaming can be incredibly off-putting and toxic. It’s hard to go a single day without another player challenging your sexuality, calling you a slur, or just being so obnoxious that the game becomes unplayable. This might be why I’ve gravitated towards games of the offline, single-player variety, mostly roguelikes and platformers and strategy games.

At this point, though, the only thing holding me back from being a truly insufferable video game hipster is that I don’t want to keep them for myself. I want to take you along for the ride.

There are games that are pure art; games that put a smile on my face every time I play them; games that make me grind my teeth and make my hands slick with sweat. A lot of them cost less than a third of what the big-name companies are churning out year after year with very little variation or improvement – yeah, I’m talking to you, Bethesda and Bungie. Unfortunately, the lack of a big name often means lack of big advertising. Indie games rely on positive reviews and word of mouth to generate hype.

So here’s some hype for inexpensive games that are absolutely worth your time and attention.

Here is my criteria for a game to make this list:
1. It must cost $20 or less.
2. It must not be made by a major developer.
3. It must be critically acclaimed.
4. I can reasonably suspect you might not have heard of or played it. (Imagine me typing this out as I push my thick-rimmed glasses up higher on my nose and sip on my vanilla soy latte, because I am hipster trash.)
5. It must be memorable for its story, music, or some other aspect of its design – that is, art apart from gameplay.

These rules eliminate some of my most favorite games right off the bat. Rules #1 and 2 prohibit Katamari Damacy, which is ostensibly still in the underappreciated vein; rule #2 also cuts out Portal and Team Fortress 2, the latter of which is, incredibly, still going strong and completely free to play. And, of course, no Fallout. No Final Fantasy. No Legend of Zelda. No Tetris, even! These games don’t need me. I’d like to shine a light on some of the lesser-known ones.

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I know, y’all are sick of hearing me talk about this game.

Will I ever stop? No. Celeste is that good.

In case you haven’t been within earshot of me in the past 18 months, Celeste is a 2D platformer about climbing a mountain to prove something to yourself. During her climb, Madeline is forced to confront the aspects of herself that she hates; without spoiling anything, it is only when Madeline learns to accept herself as she is that she is able to move forward. For a game that appears so simple, Celeste totally surprised me with its deeply moving story of anxiety and doubt and the healing power of forgiveness.

This game is the complete package: the pixel art is beautiful, the music is perfectly composed to evoke certain feelings, the plot tells an important story – and even when you want to crack your Nintendo Switch over your knee out of frustration, the rush of euphoria that you feel when you finally, finally beat a screen that killed you hundreds, thousands of times is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before while playing a game. The tougher the challenge, the more rewarding the payoff. Did I mention that the music is extremely good? It is extremely good.

BOTTOM LINE: WHY THIS GAME IS WITH YOUR MONEY
There is a reason why Celeste won Indie Game of the Year in 2018. Just play it already!

$20 on all platforms.

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FTL: Faster Than Light is a real-time strategy, space opera Oregon Trail. What, that alone isn’t enough to reel you in? It is somehow seven years old today and I’m still playing it like it’s brand new. That’s probably because no two play-throughs are the same; the game feels different every time.

The name is a pun on “for the loss,” which tracks with the general roguelike gameplay: you’re going to lose way more often than you win. Choosing from a variety of ships and crews, the player has to navigate across randomly-generated space, making choices and experiencing consequences and, of course, beefing up the ship with cool weapons and subsystems. So much of FTL‘s gameplay is subject to chance that it’s difficult to truly master; aiming to complete achievements gives a sense of direction and accomplishment.

I include FTL over Into the Breach, a time-based strategy game released last year by the same developers, for two reasons: for FTL, the ratio of success to failure (that is, feelings of triumph to frustration) is much more tolerable, and the music is very good, evolving as the player enters new territories and the intensity of the confrontations ramps up.

BOTTOM LINE: WHY THIS GAME IS WORTH YOUR MONEY
FTL never stops being new and fun, even if you’ve played through it hundreds of times. Between the variety of ships and the random level generation, each experience of the game is guaranteed to be different. Plus, the music just plain slaps.

$10 on Windows, Linux, macOS, iOS.

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If I could give one game as a gift to everyone in the world, it would be this one. Monument Valley is an absolute treasure.

Monument Valley combines puzzles with Escher-like optical illusions in a gorgeously colorful world. The puzzles are never especially challenging and interacting with the environment is always gratifying. Underlying the visual aesthetics is a delightfully subtle soundscape to accompany the music and an equally subtle story about the protagonist and her place in the world.

This is one of those games where it’s better to show than tell, so here, feast your eyes on the beauty of these puzzles.

BOTTOM LINE: WHY THIS GAME IS WORTH YOUR MONEY
Once you’ve played this game, you’ll never forget it. Monument Valley is evidence that games can be art.

$2 on iOS and Google Play.

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My skin is clear and my crops are flourishing.

Of any game on this list, I suspect this is the one that most TRUE GAMERS have heard of. It was created by a single developer (Eric Barone, how you do this?) who thought the Harvest Moon series was going to shit (true) and wanted to get back to its roots.

There is something strangely soothing about developing a routine that involves repetitively completing tasks: watering crops, caring for animals, exploring and mining and fishing, getting to know the villagers in town. Farming simulators are wonderfully therapeutic balms for us Type As who love the satisfaction of striking items off a list and maintaining good time management.

What’s cool about Stardew Valley is that it is a true indie success story, made by one person whose interactions with and feedback from fans made this game incredibly popular very quickly, eventually generating more than $1 million in revenue. When’s the last time your spiteful project made $1 million? Not any of mine, but maybe someday.

BOTTOM LINE: WHY THIS GAME IS WORTH YOUR MONEY
If you enjoy farming simulators like Harvest Moon, Stardew Valley is worth your time. Behind the revolving door of mundane tasks and simple pixel art is a charming story of a community coming together in support of each other, their little town, and their quiet way of life.

$15 on all platforms.

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Florence is a combination of puzzles and interactive art, designed by Ken Wong, the same creator behind Monument Valley. The player follows the titular Florence as she navigates through a dead-end job and a tense relationship with her mother, to an exciting new relationship, to settling in to a predictable routine, to a devastating breakup, to her growth and flourishing as an artist. It is the story of how people come and go in our lives and how we grow through those connections.

You can finish this game in one sitting, easily – but that hour is going to be an emotional roller coaster. Florence’s life is so deeply relatable to young people, and the player’s interactions with her experiences of love and loss feel very personal. The storytelling – all visual, very little dialogue – is brilliantly intuitive, and the orchestral music follows the emotional tenor of the plot in a very moving way.

BOTTOM LINE: WHY THIS GAME IS WORTH YOUR MONEY
Florence is completely unlike anything I’ve ever played before. It is like an interactive graphic novel. One of the game mechanics – using actual puzzle pieces to show how conversations get easier as we get more comfortable with someone – was so clever and insightful. The music is beautifully composed and rises and falls along with the story, making it an intensely emotional experience. Honestly, if you get through this game without getting even a little misty-eyed, I don’t think we can hang.

$3 on iOS and Google Play

If you’ve got nostalgia for choose-your-own adventure stories or text-based games, you’re in luck: A Dark Room will scratch that itch, but it will probably leave you with more questions than answers.

A Dark Room, as the name suggests, is bare: no graphics, no sounds, just text – and even the descriptions are sparse. You wake up in a dark room and make a fire. You don’t know who you are or where you are. You meet a stranger, who helps you build shelter, which attracts more people just like you. It seems like everyone is working together for a common goal – safety – but are you? As you become more powerful, you start to explore the world outside your enclave, and your relationship with your community changes.

This game will make you feel completely in the dark for almost the entire duration. It gives you so little information that it feels impossible to make meaningful decisions, and those choices have consequences. I’ve heard that there are multiple endings for this game, but I’ve played through it a few times and have only gotten bad ones. After a certain point, the bad stuff feels inevitable. It feels like you’ve become something you barely recognize, like you’ve completely lost control. The ease with which I fall into this outcome is something I still think about a lot. This might have been the point.

BOTTOM LINE: WHY THIS GAME IS WORTH YOUR MONEY
If you like using your imagination and sparse, dystonian storytelling, you’re in for a treat. A Dark Room is a great throwback to text-based adventure games, and since the gameplay demands some waiting on the part of the player, this is a perfect game for a long flight or car ride.

(Not to be confused with The Dark Room, which looks like a less elegant execution of the same concept.)

$2 on iOS and Google Play – free browser version here!

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You ever put off doing something for a long time because you know you’re going to love it and you’re not ready for the commitment? That was what Crypt of the NecroDancer was to me. The overwhelmingly positive reviews didn’t do it; it took hearing one of the tracks at random on Spotify for me to be like, hold up, I need more of this.

Yeah, I am late to this party, but better late than never!

Crypt of the NecroDancer synthesizes a roguelike dungeon crawler with a rhythm game. Everything you do has to be on tempo with the background track – moving, attacking, blowing stuff up, finding and purchasing items. The levels are, to a certain extent, randomized, and they only last for the duration of the songs. You can get through a whole dungeon in less than ten minutes, which makes this game excellent to kill time here and there.

This game has a surprisingly sharp difficulty curve for beginners. The tutorial is sparse; it throws you to the wolves (well, skeletons and bats) more or less immediately. You’re going to die a lot in your first 30 minutes or so. I got really frustrated. But once I remembered that this is a strategy game, not a hack-and-slash, and became a little more thoughtful about my movements – paying attention to the enemies’ movement patterns especially – the game got easier and a whole lot more fun.

BOTTOM LINE: WHY THIS GAME IS WORTH YOUR MONEY
Crypt of the NecroDancer doesn’t take itself seriously, and the music is just so dang good. It takes a while to get the hang of it, but once you do, it feels like you enter the drift when the music starts playing. I forgot how immersive rhythm games can be, and how time seems to fly by so quickly, even as it’s being divided up neatly into individual songs and levels.

$15 on all platforms.

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At the start of the game, as the main character loses her voice, her world crumbles and drains of color. Gris uses simple linear platforming to take the player through the five stages of grief, painting a deeply emotional portrait of loss – without using any words at all.

You can finish this game in one afternoon, if you’re smarter than me. I found some of the puzzles to be unbelievably unintuitive; sometimes the beauty of the art obscured the way forward even in the most straightforward of puzzles. Despite that, though, I think this game is worth playing. The art is stunning; as the protagonist progresses on her journey, more color is added to the environment, creating an impossibly layered watercolor dreamscape. I’ve never seen anything like it before.

BOTTOM LINE: WHY THIS GAME IS WORTH YOUR MONEY
Gris has, without exaggeration, the most beautiful art I’ve ever seen in a game. Combined with the music, which ebbs and flows gorgeously, Gris is a subtle but intensely moving experience – even if, like me, you have to look up the solutions to a few of the puzzles. Fortunately, the occasionally frustrating gameplay didn’t dampen my appreciation for the gorgeous art and score.

$17 on macOS, iOS, Windows, and Nintendo Switch.

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2018 IN REVIEW

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WHAT HAPPENED THIS YEAR

I spent five months deployed: January, February, March, May, and June. It seems like a lot of time when spelled out like that, but for the most part it was easy and went by quickly. I got fully qualified and my aircrew wings. Best of all, though, I got to be in Hawaii for my birthday and I got to go home for a friend’s wedding and for Christmas too! I feel lucky. For all my worrying, things turned out okay.

I went on a trip to Alaska. I saw Denali, Wrangell-St. Elias, and Kenai Fjords. Now I have a truer understanding of what constitutes a wilderness. Alaska is sprawling and untamed and beautiful. I admire it and fear it. I would love to go back someday.

I got to spend some time with a friend in Washington as well. I’m proud of these videos.

I ran my first half-marathon! It was fun and challenging, but I don’t think I’ll do it again.

I started going to therapy again. It would be dishonest to say I’ve made a lot of progress – sometimes you don’t know how junked up you are on the inside until a professional calls you out on your own bullshit – but I’m at least becoming aware of what the path ahead of me looks like. The biggest difference between the start and the end of this year is that I now see the journey as worthwhile.

I started volunteering regularly. On Wednesdays I help out at the library on base. I really like the librarians and the work, too: re-shelving, helping out with programs, cleaning, cataloging. The place is always super busy and the time goes by fast.

I read my most books ever – 75 in a year! Thanks, deployment! Even if you take out the comics and graphic novels and novellas, I went way beyond what I was aiming for. A book per week has become a reliably attainable goal. I will stick to it for next year. You can find all the books I read this year here.

My recurring resolution to write a blog post every month frustrates the hell out of me. I wish I would stop doing this to myself. But I’m in the habit of doing it by now, and I know if I drop it, I will probably never find the motivation to write anything at all. I need something that will force me to, even only once a month.

BOOK OF THE YEAR

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I think we all harbor some sort of secret fantasy about the life we wish we could live. If I wasn’t such a coward, my dream is to move to some remote wilderness and stake out a solitary, sustainable life for myself. Whiskey When We’re Dry takes that daydream and shakes it up with my favorite fantasy life: a nineteenth-century, wild-wild-west story of a trick-shooting, cross-dressing young woman on a quest to redeem her family name. I get goosebumps just thinking about it. Jessilyn has the authentically Western voice that I’ve been craving since reading True Grit and her integrity and tenacity left me feeling breathless, inspired, a little bit in love. I devoured every word of this story. I can’t wait to reread it.

2018 Runners-Up
Saga by Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples (volume #9 ruined my will to live)
The Witch Elm by Tana French
Circe by Madeline Miller

ALBUM OF THE YEAR

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Jonna Lee’s music has been making a huge impact on my life for almost a decade. Her entire iamamiwhoami project deserves a long write-up of its own. But her music and videos are so dear to me that anything I write feels so incomplete, so inadequate. I have been trying and failing for years to express how much I love what she does.

Think about the art that you appreciate the most. Try to describe it in such a way that conveys its significance in your life and encourages others to make room in their own hearts for it. I see this all the time when people recommend TV shows. You just have to watch it, they say.

For her three iamamiwhoami albums (bounty, 2011; kin, 2012; blue, 2014), Lee released the music and videos simultaneously. It was almost impossible to separate the visuals from the audio. The secrecy behind the project also made the release of each new video feel like a dispatch from the beyond, a clue that might reveal more of the machinations behind the creators.

Jonna Lee is a performer, though – she wants to interact with the audience behind the screens, take the audiovisual show to the real world. There was only so long that she could continue as iamamiwhoami. Though Everyone Afraid to Be Forgotten is her first venture beyond iamamiwhoami, it retains enough of the project’s visual motifs and audio samples that it feels like an authentic transition between the two.

Much to my relief, it stands spectacularly on its own two feet.

In Everyone Afraid to Be Forgotten, every song, separately, is memorable. The more upbeat synth tracks that Lee has become known for – SAMARITAN (with excellent costuming by COMME des GARÇONS) and NOT HUMAN, for example – contrasts in sound but not in tone with her slower, echoing dirges (LIKE HELL, HERE IS A WARNING). The haunting live recording of DUNES OF SAND in Jonna Lee’s hometown church provides some of the dopest acoustics your ears will ever be blessed with.

But where Jonna Lee really excels is audiovisual thematic unity. Linking the music with the videos is what makes Lee’s audiovisual storytelling so compelling and unforgettable. So the first time I watched the album’s movie accompaniment, I was actually a little underwhelmed. It felt like there was something missing.

There is just something about the way she produces a short video, contained to one song, that is perfect. No one else is doing what she does. I can’t wait to see what she does next.

2018 Runners-Up
By the Way, I Forgive You (Brandi Carlile)
Be the Cowboy (Mitski)
Dirty Computer (Janelle Monáe)

MOVIE OF THE YEAR

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Look, this one isn’t deep. I like these women and I love a good heist. Ocean’s 8 is light-hearted, fast-paced, and fun. It doesn’t take itself seriously. I liked it when I watched it the first time and I was surprised when I really enjoyed watching it a second time.

2018 Runners-Up
Black Panther
Crazy Rich Asians
Bird Box

TV SHOW OF THE YEAR

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During my first deployment this year, I was on a lot of overnight watches. It wasn’t a real watch, though, because I got to watch a lot of TV. And I watched the entirety of Brooklyn Nine-Nine in an embarrassingly short amount of time.

Once I started, I couldn’t stop. This show is pretty close to perfect. It is hilarious at no one’s expense, my favorite type of humor. Many of the episodes convey substantial moral messages. All of the characters have substance and depth – most of all, in this year’s season, Rosa. Her coming out was portrayed so perfectly that it stayed with me all year long. It was honest, it was authentic, and it gave me hope. It made me feel less alone during a time when I was very lonely. I’ll always be grateful for that.

2018 Runners-Up
Terrace House: Opening New Doors
The Great British Baking Show

GAME OF THE YEAR

Image result for celeste game breathe2018 was the year of beautiful indie games that made me cry. It started with Monument Valley – both, though neither are 2018 games – and then there was Florence and later Gris. What all of these games had in common was they felt like playable works of art.

Just on the surface, there is a lot to like about Celeste (by Matt Makes Games, also creator of TowerFall). The music is some of the best I’ve ever heard; seriously, ask anyone I work with: I have been listening to the soundtrack nonstop for months. If you’ve taken the time to read all of these words (thank you) and you get nothing else from this post, put on some good headphones and listen to the music* from Celeste. The pixel art is also gorgeous. The game controls are so simple and tight that there is zero room for error. As a 2D platformer, Celeste belongs to a genre that is notoriously brutal and unforgiving. From the very start of the game, though, Celeste sets an encouraging tone for the player: “You can do this,” the protagonist tells herself. “Just breathe.”

“Celeste gives me the tools and guidance to succeed so that every death is my own fault,” writes Emily Heller for Polygon. “I find this oddly comforting, since I know every stage can be bested; I just have to keep trying.”

There are going to be many times during this game where you want to give up. I can’t count how many times I rage-quit (though I can say exactly how many times I died, since the game keeps track). But after some time away, I would resume the game and beat that seemingly impossible puzzle almost effortlessly. Why was it so hard before?

Celeste Mountain makes manifest the climbers’ deepest fears. For Madeline, a physical embodiment of her anxiety discourages her from continuing her journey. Madeline first tries to outrun this part of herself, then musters up her courage to confront her head-on. I don’t need you, Madeline tells the negative part of herself. You’re holding me back. This pushing-away has terrible consequences, though, and Madeline hits rock bottom – literally the deepest depths of the mountain. There, she realizes that she can’t conquer Celeste without accepting herself in her totality, fears and all. Madeline’s contrition and reconciliation with the negative part of herself moved me to tears. Together, supporting one another, they summit the mountain.

Through some challenging gameplay (just want to emphasize that again: this game is very hard), Celeste teaches the player that progress isn’t always linear. Through Madeline’s experience, the game reveals that the only way to conquer your fears is through self-love. It is the starting place for true change.

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If you play Celeste (and I really, really hope you do), remember that the effort is what makes it rewarding. It is supposed to be hard. But you’ll get better, and you’ll return to earlier levels and wonder how in the world you found them difficult at all. Facing your fears and accepting yourself sometimes demands an intense inner struggle, too, but you’re going to come out on the other side – or on the top of the mountain – better for it.

2018 Runners-Up
Into the Breach
Florence
Gris

* Lena Raine, the composer for Celeste‘s music, wrote a really interesting blog post about her creative process using as an example one of the game’s most popular tracks. As someone who knows nothing about music, this sort of thing is super interesting to me, and maybe it will be for you too.

FOR NEXT YEAR

I am still trying to stop swearing. I was doing pretty well at this for a while, but inevitably we are influenced by the people around us. I’m going to keep trying.

I have to stop using my phone while driving. This is a terrible habit. Even with my phone mounted to my dashboard, I don’t need to keep changing my music while I’m driving, and definitely I don’t need to read a text or check my Neko Atsume cats “real quick” at a stop light. If you’re in the car with me, please keep me accountable.

I want to – need to – write more. It’s a shame that the only writing I do anymore is for work and for this blog. I have to find some way to stay inspired. Someone please start a creative project with me to maintain my motivation.

Some undefined fitness goal? I focused a lot on running and swimming this year with an appalling collection of tan lines to show for it. Maybe 2019 is the year I come back to the church of iron? Maybe it will be the year I find the balance between the two? Maybe I will give up and be fat in peace at last?

Finally, I am turning 30 soon. I thought this would scare me. With the exception of things that are the result of trauma, as I get older, I feel less afraid, less frantic, less rushed. A family friend once told me that, in his head, he doesn’t feel any older than he was in his twenties; it’s his body that betrays him. I think I’m starting to understand what he meant.

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Amazon Kindle: Oasis or New Paperwhite?

NOTE: I’ve had this post in the holster for a while. I wanted to make sure I used the Oasis enough to give it a fair review. Then those clowns over at Amazon went and released a Paperwhite-Oasis hybrid this week for half the price. What the hell! Why do I keep giving those jerks my dollars?

Here is the post anyway.

I like to read. I spend a lot of time doing it. It is a big part of my aesthetic.

I got a regular Kindle – no bells or whistles – as a birthday gift a few years ago. I was incredibly touched by the thoughtfulness of it; someone essentially provided me access to infinite books. I had never owned an e-reader before and I have to admit I was a little bit of a stuck-up purist when it came to reading. Physical books only! Gotta smell that good binding glue.

But the idea of reading all of the Game of Thrones books without having to lug around massive tomes was pretty appealing. I decided I would use the Kindle just for the big and cumbersome books, especially on the ship where personal space was limited. A compromise, right?

I ended up liking the Kindle a lot, especially after learning how to use the library’s e-book system. Unlimited power! It hasn’t replaced physical books, but at this point I almost wish that it would: my book hoarding is starting to get a little out of control and I live in less than 600 sq/ft of apartment space.

Anyway.

The Kindle, as a basic e-reader, is excellent. The battery life is unbelievable, especially if you keep it on airplane mode (which, if you get digital books from your library, you should, so you can keep your loans after they expire! STREET SMARTS!). It is inexpensive and durable; mine has a few scratches but, for all that I put it through, it is in great condition. It fit perfectly in the back pocket of my shipboard coveralls, even in a protective case. With no LEDs, it is very easy on the eyes, especially at bedtime.

So over the summer I found myself post-deployment rich and wanted to buy something nice. Why not a new e-reader – a quality e-reader? Perhaps the Gucci of digitized text? Even though I use my Kindle almost as much as I use my phone, I still felt a little guilty buying a new one, since the old one still works just fine, so many years later.

There are a few things about the regular Kindle (not Paperwhite) that I don’t like.

  1. It is tough to read one-handed. This is not something you would guess just by looking at it. The symmetry of the Kindle is visually pleasing but it requires the reader to pinch the corner or side of the device to keep it in hand. It doesn’t have page-turn buttons, and tapping the screen one-handed demands uncomfortable contortions – not unlike reading one-handed with a physical book when it comes to the position of the little finger.
  2. It doesn’t have a backlight. This isn’t a dealbreaker for me; I don’t mind using a book light or switching to my phone if I need illumination. I think my eyes are getting worse, though, and lately I have been having a harder time reading without the extra light on the screen. A backlight would be convenient, but only if it doesn’t keep me awake after reading in bed at night.
  3. The operating system is insultingly slow. It takes ages to recognize a wifi network. Sometimes I have to reset the device before it syncs up with my Amazon account and downloads new book purchases. Also, I can’t purchase books directly from the Kindle device. In fact, I can’t purchase them through the Amazon app on my phone, either. I have to use my internet browser to navigate to Amazon’s webpage to buy the book, then wait for it to get sent to my Kindle. This is incredibly short-sighted; I’ll reach the end of a sample of a book and think, I’d like to read more! But I have to go on a choose-your-own-adventure style quest to get the rest of the book. Amazon, for real, what the hell?
  4. The screen is framed by the device’s plastic body. Unlike a tablet, for example, which has one smooth, continuous surface, there is a gap in between the screen and the body of the e-reader. Dust and sand love to get up in there and hang out. It is really hard to clean that stuff out once it’s in there. And it’s always in there. It lives there now, perhaps forever. There is little bits of every place that I’ve ever been, still lodged in the corners of my Kindle. That would be kinda nice if it wasn’t so gross.

Which e-reader would correct these issues? Specifically, which Amazon brand of e-reader would correct these issues, because I’m a brand-slave due to my Kindle library?

The Paperwhite has backlighting, but shares the same physical structure of the original Kindle (ie, nooks and crannies for dirt to hide). The Voyage solves that issue and has page-turning buttons on the sides so the reader doesn’t have to swipe the screen. But I was curious about the asymmetry of the Oasis. It doesn’t appear intuitive, but after some thought, I could see how the imbalanced grip would actually be more comfortable, if a little strange-looking, for one-handed reading.

It’s definitely not cheap. For $300, I got one without ads. What a treat.

But is the price tag worth being able to dunk your Kindle in the bathtub like a teabag?

Here are the pros:

  1. Reading one-handed is a lot easier – if holding the device relatively flat. If I’m sitting upright on the couch or at a table, it feels very comfortable. My thumb rests along the page-turn buttons and I don’t have to move my hand at all to turn the page. This is wonderful.

    (Holding flat – comfortable, balanced, and ergonomic! Holding upright – say, in bed, laying on my back – the corner gets a little stabby into the palm after prolonged reading.)

  2. Fingers curl quite naturally along the lip on the back.
  3. I can buy books directly from the device! What should have been a default feature (and smart business tactic) now feels like a luxury. So, thanks, I guess?
  4. It is waterproof – or so they say. I’ve taken it in the bath a few times and haven’t had any accidental (or deliberate) dunks yet. I don’t feel nervous about ruining it with my wet hands and I can read by candlelight thanks to the backlighting. This is actually very nice, but backlighting is certainly not unique to the Oasis. (And now the waterproofing isn’t, either! I died and went to hell.) img_6814
  5. The operating system and page refresh are much faster, noticeably so.
  6. The battery life is comparable to the ordinary Kindle, but only if you leave it on airplane mode. I read a lot of complaints about this before purchasing, but so far it seems fine to me.
  7. The screen is one smooth, continuous surface – no gaps or crevasses for the entirety of the desert or beach to hide in when I travel.

All in all, what I like about the Oasis is that it’s much easier to hold, it’s nice on the eyes for both device design and actual reading, and it corrected a lot of the software issues from previous iterations of the Kindle.

If I could go back in time, would I hold off on buying the Oasis in order to wait for the improved, waterproof Paperwhite?

Probably not. My biggest complaint about the regular Kindle/Paperwhite is how uncomfortable it is to hold one-handed. That is still true; the physical design is unchanged. The asymmetry of the Oasis fixes this problem, at least to my satisfaction.

But should you buy it? Would I recommend it to others?

Honestly, if you have a few hundred bucks to piss away, sure. I don’t really have any huge complaints about the Oasis – but I’m not sure that I have effusive praise, either. All in all, it’s not so different from the much cheaper, earlier Kindle that I own. There are tons of other non-Amazon, more affordable e-readers out there, too. I would probably recommend one of those.

Or I can give you my old Kindle as a gift, just as it had been given as a gift to me. It still works great! Given the choice between the two, though, I do always reach for the Oasis. That’s worth something.

Just probably not $300.

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FITBIT CHARGE HR REVIEW

I bought the FITBIT CHARGE HR about a month ago based on a very positive review from a shipmate. (Actually, I bought the device ages ago, and it took more than a month to arrive. I guess these things are in-demand and back-ordered.) This is my first experience with a fitness tracker. Here are my most and least favorite aspects.

charge hrPROS

Features
This device tracks a whole lot of stuff. Steps, miles, elevation, heart rate, calories burned, sleep, and activity – all monitored without any user input. As something worn on the wrist, it is very unobtrusive. Best of all, its default display is the time and date! If I was going to be wearing something on my wrist all the time, it had better double as a watch. Many fitness trackers that I researched lack this simple, essential feature. The data it gathers seems to be mostly accurate; sometimes I’ll watch it count the steps as I’m walking, or I’ll review the mileage after a run. Because of its placement on the wrist, however, it probably counts some non-walking movements as steps, but this number is probably negligible.

App Integration
I think the strongest (and weakest; see below) advantage of a FITBIT tracker is the accompanying app. It is very intuitive and easy to use, and it does much more than displaying data. The user can track food and water intake. The app can scan bar codes and allows manual inputs for calorie counting. If the user has a weight-loss goal, the app will make suggestions based on difficulty and amount of time to reach a certain weight (ie, a difficult goal of 5lbs in a month as opposed to a leisurely goal of 5lbs in three months). The most fun aspect of the app is its social feature. Users can challenge others to have the highest step counts throughout the workweek or weekend. I’m not ordinarily a competitive person but I was surprised by how eager I was to be just as active as everyone else. For better or worse, comparing oneself to others is easily the most motivating feature of the app.

CONS

Internet Dependence
For folks with consistent and reliable access to the internet – and I think we’re beginning to take this sort of thing for granted – this won’t be an issue. When I finally got the CHARGE HR in the mail, my ship had just gotten underway. I expected I would be able to use the device on its own until I could download the app. Not so. Setting up the device requires internet, bluetooth, the app, and, for me and for many who neglect this stuff, the latest version of the iOS software. The device was completely unusable until we returned home – even setting up the time and date had to be configured via the app, use of which also requires an internet connection. Because of the app’s dependence on internet access, much of the tracker’s functionality and features are inaccessible to me once I go underway: I can’t modify the time or date (annoying when we cross time zones), sync my data from the device to the app (including being able to view heart rate and sleep patterns), set vibration alarms, etc. Many of these things should be accessible solely via bluetooth. During the ship’s operational cycle, this is going to be a huge inconvenience. I will say this in the tracker’s defense, however: it did store three or four weeks of data and synced it to the app without issue when we returned home. Nothing ended up getting lost, so I’m willing to forgive this deficiency.

Not Waterproof
This is truly baffling. How is a fitness device intended to be worn on the body not waterproof? It is advertised as “sweatproof” and “splashproof” but is not recommended to be used while swimming or showering. What happens when swimming or another water-based sport is the user’s primary fitness activity? I can buy a $10 watch that is water resistant to at least 30m. Why couldn’t this $150 device have been engineered to do the same?

VERDICT

Overall, I’m really enthusiastic about the FITBIT CHARGE HR. It encourages me to be more active in a very simple “I should get off my butt and walk around” sort of way. I need this especially underway when I’m more sedentary than usual. The heart rate monitor and sleep tracker help me better understand the quality of my workouts and sleep. The longest I’ve gotten out of the battery is almost four days, but I tend to charge it whenever I remove it to shower. Best of all, the black version goes with anything that I wear.

I don’t think anyone, regardless of their goals, needs a fitness tracker. But, if you’re interested in incorporating into your life a subtle reminder about your activity level, the CHARGE HR is a fun and fascinating luxury.

UPDATE, 20MAY2015: The pedometer/mileage function is a little inaccurate while running. It seems to be a half-mile short for each run of 3-4 miles, and nearly a mile short for a 10k. I used this page and a bit of trial and error for calibration.

UPDATE, 09AUG2015: Somewhere between Australia and Japan, the button on the side of the device fell off. I have no idea what caused it – all I do is run on the treadmill. It is surprisingly hard to use the device without the button. I emailed FitBit to request a new one, but I am still pretty disappointed in the fragility and poor craftsmanship of the thing.

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A NAVY YEAR IN REVIEW

If my teenaged self knew that she would be living in Japan for a few years, she would have totally freaked out. Learning that it would be on a Navy ship, though, I think she would have been a little less enthusiastic. Even as an adult, when I got my orders, I was pretty thrilled. A foreign country! Serving my country! Going underway! It was all very exciting. To be sure, my first year here has been all ups and downs, the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. There was a lot to learn and see and do. It was difficult and rewarding and, even on most days when I’m not especially gung-ho about being in the Navy, I wouldn’t change anything about it.

SOUTH CHINA SEA – MARCH 2013

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