Dell Chromebook 13 (2016): Owning a Chromebook in 2016

A few months back, I bought a Chromebook. I had one before, but was completely disappointed by the hardware, so I ended up getting rid of it fairly quickly. The software though was impressive and the idea of owning a Chromebook stuck with me. After trying tablets and low end Windows machines and feeling let down, I decided to spring a bit more for a top end Chromebook, the business-class Dell Chromebook 13 launched earlier this year. It has been true love ever since.

Why did I need another computer?

Portability was my biggest need. I have had a desktop for years – one that is custom-built and for gaming-first – and I hated going anywhere since any work I would be doing (writing, blogging, or otherwise) would have to stop. Plus, when I travel, it is normally to my father’s house and he does not have great entertainment options. My phone works for media consumption too, but a larger screen is always helpful.

Beyond portability, there were also in-home uses for it. I do a lot with a Chromecast in the bedroom, so it is nice to have an alternative to my phone for streaming videos and the like. I also live in a household where most everyone goes to bed around 10pm except for me. Having the Chromebook allows me to continue writing while not disturbing everyone else (our computer room is between both bedrooms).

I had hoped a tablet would suffice. I tried several Android-based ones and generally liked it, but did not love it. Maybe Android N will finally make Android tablets a worthwhile platform. That was not the case when I used it. I would have considered an iPad but I have no ties to Apple’s ecosystem all of the models were prohibitively expensive.

The other Chromebook I had tried was a low end model. It ran really well – Chrome OS is designed with budget laptops in mind – but it did not fit my standards of quality. The keyboard was terrible to type on, the build quality made for a creaky, cheap-feeling device, and the screen muted everything. While I was always looking for a secondary computer, I found out quickly that quality mattered to me more than saving a few dollars for a niche use device.

What was I looking for?

After the first Chromebook failed to wow me, I started looking at Windows machines instead. I didn’t mind the idea of paying a little bit more since I wanted quality. I even considered a few ~$1000 ultrabooks as potential options. I have wanted to do even more writing than I already do, so I thought spending extra on a high end computer would incentivize me to write more since that is why I would be purchasing it in the first place. That’s dangerous logic though, especially when moving into a category of computers that can do so much more than just process words, such as allowing me access to more video games or other distractions.

I assembled a list of must haves for my new computer:

Good keyboard. Anything I would buy would need to have a good keyboard since I would be writing on it so much. This requirement also pushed out all tablets, save for things like the Surface or a Transformer that could have keyboards attached. Sadly, after trying devices such as those, I learned the keyboard quality was nowhere near where I wanted it to be, plus paying extra for the keyboard frustrated me.

Good build quality. I was prepared to drop several hundred dollars on this new device. Whether I should expect build quality or not for my price range, I knew I was not going to settle for anything less. Nothing kills my hype for using a new device more than an ugly screen or the feeling that I will break it at any time with regular usage.

Good screen. Most computers do black font on white text well enough that this shouldn’t matter all that much, but I knew I would sometimes use the device for media consumption too. While some people may be able to skip out on screen quality for their needs, the fact that I am looking at the screen 99% of the time makes me feel like it needs to look great too.

Nearly futureproof. Here’s the really tricky one: I wanted a computer I wouldn’t need to upgrade in two years. It is one thing to spend big now, but I don’t want that to translate into me creating a new product need in my life and then giving in to typical consumerism in upgrading that need too frequently. I wanted to spend my money on a simple, straight-forward device and stick to it for as long as I can.

With these requirements in mind, I immediately eliminated almost every Windows machine in my price range. They all had something to sacrifice. If they were cheap enough to have all of these things, then they typically had an old-school hard drive and not a solid state drive. Without that, there was hardly any future-proofing since I am always going to think, “Well, a new laptop won’t take three minutes to boot up.”

It also eliminated virtually all Chromebooks as well. In fact, Chromebook shopping became very difficult with these requirements because the market is aimed at a much lower end consumer (students mostly) than what I wanted to be. Every Chromebook I looked at sacrificed one thing I wanted in favor of being really good at everything else. Each one came with a sacrifice.

With no Windows machines or Chromebooks to buy, what was I going to do?

Enter the Dell Chromebook 13

When the new Dell Chromebook 13 was announced, I immediately thought it was perfect. It was designed for business use, which is a bit unusual in the realm of Chromebooks. With that came an excellent build quality, a rugged but simple design, and a great keyboard. It was a bit more expensive than what I wanted to spend on a Chromebook, but it was too good to pass up. Finally, I did not have to sacrifice anything.

Over the last few months, I have honestly enjoyed using my Chromebook more than my desktop. There have been zero growing pains. Since I was already invested in the Google ecosystem and their productivity software, the transition was flawless. I now carry my Chromebook to work or anywhere I travel. I frequently pen articles such as this one from the comfort of my bedroom. With Chrome Remote Desktop, I can access my desktop from my Chromebook if necessary.

Everything about the Dell Chromebook 13, physically-speaking, has been great as well. I love the keyboard which has the right balance of give, but doesn’t have that typical laptop problem of buckling when I press keys toward the middle. The screen itself is perfect, though Chrome OS’s lack of UI scaling still annoys me (in other words, running at the best resolution often means text/icons are too small to read). The battery life is great and I sprung extra for a 4gb ram model so I should be able to use this Chromebook for many years to come.

If I had to do it all over again, I would not hesitate to buy another Dell Chromebook 13. I might have considered getting the touchscreen model more, especially now that Google Play and Android apps are coming to Chrome OS in full, but I doubt that I would use that feature enough to warrant the additional cost.

If you need a Chromebook, I cannot recommend this one enough.

What do I think of Chrome OS overall?

When the world first used Chrome OS, it was ridiculed. Everything in a browser? No software running off the machine itself? No apps or programs? It was an absurd thought, but in the years since, my need for all of those things has diminished. I do everything in my browser now and my browser is Chrome. Chrome OS is hardly a leap.

Since the early days, Chrome OS has evolved somewhat on its own as well. There’s better offline support now so even though I use Google Docs for my word processing, I am not out of luck if I lose my internet connection.

With the upcoming release of the Google Play Store, I am expecting even better use from Chrome OS. I have played around a bit with Vine and it works well, even if using a pointer instead of a touchscreen is a little trickier. I look forward to a world where Chrome OS and Android become one, but for now, both remain perfectly usable for me on a daily basis.

I bought a Chromebook for a variety of reasons, Chrome OS included. I love using a simpler machine as my everyday writer. It keeps me from getting too distracted. At the same time, my Chromebook is not the simplest thing possible because it does have the full weight of the Chrome browser and the Internet behind it. I am not cutting myself off from the world like George R. R. Martin does with his writing computer, but it strikes a better balance.

Overall, I love Chrome OS too. Beyond the lack of gaming, using my Chromebook mirrors how I use my desktop now. All of my apps and programs are web-based, Google-operated, and tie back into the cloud. I embrace it all.

I wouldn’t hesitate to stick with Chrome OS well into the future, especially now that I have a Chromebook I love. I only wish my desktop could run all the same games on Steam without the Windows 10 bloat it has going on currently. That will likely never happen, even with Valve’s own attempt at Steam OS.

Xenoblade Chronicles X so far …

Without hyperbole, the opening to Xenoblade Chronicles X is one of the worst I have ever experienced in any video game I have ever bought that was critically acclaimed. There are no bugs marring the experience, just abysmal design. The early game for XCX is obtuse, deliberately vague, and one of the more frustrating gaming experiences I have had in recent memory.

Xenoblade Chronicles X is an open world JRPG for the Wii U. It is a standalone sequel to other JRPGs in the Xeno- franchise, such as Xenoblade Chronicles for the Wii or Xenogears on the original Playstation.

More than just a JRPG, Xenoblade Chronicles is a pseudo-MMORPG. The game’s focus is less on saving the world and more on doing routine tasks while exploring a vast wilderness. There are multiplayer elements, but the focus is on taking the open world feel and the style of content present in MMORPGs and making those work in a mostly single player context.

The open world nature of the game bites it in the ass almost immediately. Xenoblade Chronicles X teaches you nothing and expects you to learn it all by exploration. This is part of the game’s overall theme. Humanity has crashed on an alien planet and has to make a new life for itself. Similarly, you the player have crash landed into this new game and have to learn it all for yourself.

It is a high-minded idea with a built-in audience among certain gamers, but nothing infuriates me more than a game that does nothing to help me. A lengthy in-game manual does not count. It is not so much that I need a ‘hold-your-hand tutorial’ either, but the fact that I had to look up how to heal in-combat because the game never tells you outright is a huge red flag. Beyond a brief review of combat controls, the game’s early-goings spent more time reviewing where the shops and job boards were placed in the city than anything else.

I do not mind complicated games, but my tolerance for them can be lower than others, especially when I feel like the game has done nothing to earn my interest or respect. Playing Xenoblade Chronicles X feels similar to booting up a game like Crusader Kings. You’ve heard nothing but praise by people who have invested 100+ hours into it, but then you realize you need to take a class in all the interlinking, poorly explained subsystems that make the game worth playing in the first place. Real MMORPGs give me less of a headache than this crap. I thought I was beyond video games that require me to read a novel before I can begin to “fully experience” them.

After a particular frustrating episode, I took to Twitter to complain. I also took to the Internet to read every scathing review I could find. Finally, I cracked open the manual and start reading. I had reached a point in the story where the enemy was two-shotting me, so I had nothing better do anyway.

From what I learned, the point of the game is less following the story and more wandering the wilds of the alien planet, planting probes and grinding out kills on anything that looks like you can take it down. The story’s sole purpose is to give your avatar a reason to go out into those wilds. I don’t mind that kind of thing at all, but the more I learn about the game, the more I feel like it is going to all work.

There are things  I do enjoy about the game: the giant animals inhabiting the alien landscape or the ability to just wander around, often to my swift death but not always. There are things that I can accept despite grumblings, such as a poor UI (even after I modified it) or flighty controls. I am learning something new every time I boot the game up.

Maybe the combat will soon click for me. Maybe the exploration will continuing pulling me in. Maybe the jobs-as-quests will start feeling less mundane. Maybe the incentive to pilot a giant robot 25+ hours into the game will keep me going.

Maybe, but not definitely, and I hold the game’s opening responsible for any and all doubt I have in Xenoblade Chronicles X

Open Worlds, Open Wounds

The first time I played Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, I was completely paralyzed. I didn’t get it. There was so much to do, but no urgency to do any of it. I felt lost from the outset, but eventually it clicked. When it did, a whole new world unfolded before eyes and I fell in love with open world RPGs.

I had already had a taste with MMORPGs, but Morrowind managed to give me a wide-open world that felt both personal and alive. I wasn’t fighting over spawns with other players. I wasn’t holding off from exploring because I wasn’t the right level yet. I was making Vvardenfell my own with every adventure.

That feeling has rarely been emulated since. Elder Scrolls games continue the tradition, but almost every other open world RPG fails to captivate me.

I think the biggest problem with non-Elder Scrolls open world games is their reliance on MMORPG features. Dragon Age: Inquisition is a great example. I thought it would be a great refresher for a series I once desperately wished to love, but its open world was something I experienced more through its map than through actual exploration. I’d pull up that map, check off my shopping list, and obsessively farm crafting nodes despite not having any interest in using the materials. The same can be said for my experiences with The Witcher 3 or even JRPGs like Final Fantasy XII and Xenoblade Chronicles X.

Exploration, combat, and progression all become even more video gamey when MMORPGs are your inspiration. The point becomes hitting the highlights of a map to extract enough bonus experience/items/skill points to improve your character. In making all of its story fit neatly in those boxes, open world games tend to come across as being mechanical and lifeless. Games like The Witcher 3 manage to skirt around this by also providing high quality sidequests with excellent stories, but those are exceptions rather than rules.

The Elder Scrolls series manages to be almost spartan with its content, and the value of an individual quest is raised because of it. Compare that to most other attempts at open world RPGs and there’s a world of difference.

I much prefer the focus on distinct factions with only a handful of special sidequests to constant content, everywhere. As soon as a developer decides to make an open world RPG, they immediately follow-up that decision with filling up their game world with trinkets and discoverables. Afraid players will miss out, they then place signage throughout the game and in all of its features. It is a real shame because immersion is even more important in an open world RPG, and it is hard to feel immerse when every scenic view is seen through the lens of the overall metagame.

It is harder to balance an open world RPG. You need a setting that both tells a story and lets the player tell their own. Too little freedom, and it should never have been an open world in the first place. Too much and most players are turn-off by the lack of focus or are unable to make a choice since so many choices are possible.

I remember when ‘open world’ was a marketing buzzword that worked on me. With every game that promised it, I had visions of grandeur on par with favorite Elder Scrolls and MMORPG memories.

That is no longer the case. I cringe when I hear an upcoming RPG is open world because I know most will not get it right. Open world RPGs are often everything I hate about RPGs. They are mechanical and boring. They ask me to do all of the drudge work and to grind my way to some perceived top, but the payoff is never there. Sometimes the stars align, but never often enough to deal with the rest of the misery.

I will not refuse to buy open world RPGs. Not yet. I just have my guard up anytime I hear about one now.

 

Murf @MMOGames.com: Shroud of the Avatar Interviews

My second set of backer interviews in my series for MMOGames is up and this time the game is Shroud of the Avatar. Please check it out!

MMOGames, “Backer Survey: Shroud of the Avatar

And don’t forget to check out the first one about Camelot Unchained.

Odin Sphere: Leifthrasir (PS4, 2016)

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I remember when Odin Sphere first came out. I had several friends who were totally into it, but I managed to miss it entirely. When I heard it was going a HD remake for Playstation 4, I was instantly interested. A close friend decided to preorder Odin Sphere for the art book ahead of actually owning a Playstation 4, so he had it shipped to me instead since he knew i wanted to try it.

I am glad I did. Outside of its repetition, Odin Sphere Leifthrasir is a wonderful game.

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To sum up the game, it is a beat ’em up with a heavy RPG influence and a dash of platforming too. Odin Sphere is also gorgeous. Render in a hand-drawn style, the game is beautifully animated with unique characters. Boob physics aside, every character and enemy is distinct.

Odin Sphere employs a frame narrative to tie the game’s many characters together. When the game begins, you play as a young girl, stuck in an attic with her cat Socrates, reading your grandfather’s books. Each book she reads is the story of an individual character. Every character’s story overlaps, so in order to piece together the entire narrative of Odin Sphere, you have to complete the game as each character.

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I liked the character and the stories a lot. It gets a bit ham-fisted and some of the dialogue is laughable; there’s also not a lot that is unique about Odin Sphere’s story. However, delivering the narrative in piecemeal faction from the limited perspective of each character keeps it fresh and interesting. If you are like me, then you will want to play through to completion just to fill in all the gaps in your knowledge.

I also really like the different factions. There are a few moustache-twirling villain types, but otherwise these are distinct nations with distinct goals. There are vikings, fairies, dwarves, and goblins. There are also bunny people called Pooka that suffer from a curse. All in all, its a varied cast and nice to see multiple nations vying for power, rather than one Empire crushing all the rest.

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Combat-wise, Odin Sphere is near perfect. I did not play the original or the classic mode included in this remake, but I found it well-balanced between accessibility and challenge. It plays like an action brawler and each character brings their own unique traits. In addition, there are special moves that use a rechargeable energy bar and magic attacks which use an even rarer resource.

Progression is two fold. Combat gives you ‘phozons’, which allow you to upgrade skills. Eating gives you experience, which levels you up and allows you to unlock passive abilities. Eating is also the source of the game’s loose crafting system where you plant seeds to get mats to make new foods. I thought I’d hate it, but it is integrate well and simple enough not to distract from actual gameplay, while also providing something unique to do.

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My one downside to the game is the repetition. Each character goes through remixed versions of the same levels, complete with the same sets of enemies. The bosses vary slightly, but most of the boss encounters overlap, so you will experience each many times. While I understand not providing more content – the game truthfully has plenty – additional variety would be greatly appreciated.

All in all, I got 35+ hours out of Odin Sphere and I loved playing it. If you have access to a platform with the game, then I recommend it without any doubt whatsoever. It is a ton of fun, a pleasure to play, and a joy to look at.

Uninstall Theater: Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris

I didn’t play enough to take a screenshot, so here’s an artist rendering:

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Everything I know about Tomb Raider comes from the movies. I have never played a Tomb Raider game for more than five minutes. The only reason I downloaded Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris was for its co-op. I figured Diane and I could knock it out sometime. She doesn’t play many shooters, but I figured a top down one with lots of puzzles would still be something she would enjoy.

Though I downloaded it months ago, only recently did we get to try it. I booted it up and asked her to join the game. She doesn’t have her own profile, at least not one with a Playstation Network id attached, but there is a User1 profile that she can use.

The game refused to let her play. It kept saying she had to log in to the Playstation Network, which made no sense to either of us since we only wanted local co-op action.

Maybe it is fixable. Maybe it is not. Maybe it is worth the trouble, but I didn’t bothered. Uninstalled this immediately after.

MMOGames, Camelot Unchained, and My Backer Interviews

My post went live while I was out of town this weekend, so I am a little late on sharing:

MMOGames.com, “Backer Survey: Camelot Unchained”

I am really excited to start this series. My initial run is going to be fairly limited, so clicks matter if any of you would like to see more content like this.

More than just talking to the people who make these games, I am also interested in those of us who backed MMOs on Kickstarter with no clear sight of a finished product in view. With Backer Surveys, I aim to do just that: explore the backers, get a handle on their opinions, and find out what they think of the money they have spent now.

With your assistance, there will be more to come!