Tennis - Ritual in Repeat

Ever since their debut album, Cape Dory, I always look forward to anything new from Tennis. Their sound is a blend of enchanting pop hooks with elements and traces of music from days past. As it goes, I feel that their albums have actually gotten better each time. This being their third full length album, Ritual in Repeat is quite literally the band's best effort to date. 

This is a front to back, cover to cover release. Every song stands strong on its own yet completely belongs to the overall collection of compositions. For my money, there have not been enough albums this year in which every song will grab your attention. This is one of the reasons Ritual in Repeat is so refreshing and welcome. 

The album opens up with a prodding thumper called "Nightvision". This is about as slow as any track takes to get started. Once the chorus kicks in, you know you are in for a treat. When you hear "I knew all the love songs", it is music magic. The only thing you will find here are sounds that move your soul. 

There is no nonsense or filler on this album. Only three tracks go over the 4 minute mark. Everything else is shorter. The first song that started to get stuck in my head was the upbeat pop number "I'm Callin". It borders on being campy but that is absolutely ok. It is written perfectly and will haunt your mind when the music stops.

"Timothy" is another standout track. With the reverb turned up, when Alaina sings "quick to judge", the reverb rolls off of those syllables perfectly. Hearing the nuance in that phrase in combination with the reverb effect has also gotten stuck in my head. Whether done on purpose or accidental, it stands out and gives the song texture. The "ahhs" sung in the background are enchanting as hell and then the backbeat kicks in. Forget it. The fact that the album finishes so strong after this is truly a feat.

The only time this album stops for a breather is for the "Wounded Heart". At a track time of 1:49, I am not sure if there was a shorter song that could convey such emotion so quickly and beautifully. It is a slow acoustic gem and it helps balance everything out.

The way Tennis decided to end this album was interesting. "Meter and Line" could be one of the best songs here and it is the last track. It clocks in at a mere 2:31 and ends abruptly leaving the listener wanting more. Listening to the entire album over again is a great way to get back to listening to "Meter and Line" once more.

Ritual in Repeat may very well be the apex of Tennis. They have hit their stride and in my opinion they hit all of the right notes with each song and with each note they decided to play. This album will be very hard to top. Until this band gives that a go with a fourth release, I will have this album on repeat. 

 

From an Apple iPhone 5 to a Samsung Galaxy Note 3: A real world account

19 months with the same phone is a new record for me since 2007. I previously got restless with the iPhone 4 and jumped to the Samsung Galaxy S3. That only lasted a couple of months. I cited not being able to see its screen in the sunlight and lack of timely OS updates as reasons to crawl back to Apple. My iPhone 5 had a pretty good run. It is and was a solid phone. I did not give it up because it became a poor performer, though the battery left a bit to be desired. I gave it up for some other reasons.

The first reason was that my step daughter had a phone with a cracked screen and needed a replacement. Second, the iPhone 5 screen, has just become too small for me. The quality of the screen is almost second to none and the text is crisp and clear, but I have a hard time typing on it as it cramps my hands up after a while. This is a real issue. Additionally, I found myself using it less and less for everyday things. I'm getting older. I have to zoom in on text on my 23" monitor sometimes so that I can read more easily. My wife still has an iPhone 4. It is hard to believe so many people made it through on such a tiny screen for so long. When I look at that screen now, it is that much harder for me to see text.

These days, I am the least loyal gadget geek there is. I do not care who makes it, I just care that it does what I want it to. I know the rumors are that Apple will release one or more larger screen iPhones this year. This makes a ton of sense. From now until then, presumably, is about 6 months of wait time and there are no guarantees. Being the impatient person I am, I needed to switch to something for those 6 months, possibly longer.

Enter the Samsung Galaxy Note 3. This marks my second shot at an Android device and I certainly am off to a better start than I was with the Galaxy S3. The first test was to walk outside of the Verizon store and check the screen's ability to display properly in direct sunlight. It passed this test. Though, I need to leave Auto Brightness on for it to be readable. It basically has to turn itself up to 100% brightness in sunlight, but I can at least see the screen which was not the case for the Galaxy S3.

The next test was to verify the battery could at least match the aged iPhone 5 battery I was using. I have had battery disappointment with my iPhone 5 from the beginning. Well, that is not entirely true. The first iPhone 5 I purchased in October of 2012 seemed fine. When I had to get multiple replacements, battery life was never as good as my original. Age and iOS updates furthered my disappointment with the battery. 

The Note 3 appears to have equal or slightly better battery performance than my iPhone 5. Being able to pop in and out a fresh battery at will also helps. There probably is not a smartphone that exists yet that can give me the battery performance I am looking for. As long as a battery can get me through a full day with fairly heavy use, I should be good and that has been the case with the Note 3 thus far. I do dream of the jump in science which will allow increased battery capacity say tenfold (Graphene?). 

With these tests passed, I needed to know more.

Design:

The front of the phone is a rectangular screen with one button. The trim is a metal looking plastic band. The back is a black plastic somewhat faux leather design. It will not win any design awards, but it also will not win any ugly awards. More and more phones design is defined by a screen with a button. The only thing that sets them apart are the degree of curves, choice of materials, and thickness. For the most part, I look at the front of my phones, which is the screen. If you take away the button, speaker grill, and any logos and only took a picture of the screens of competing phones, it would be tough to pick one out over another. 

The stitching is unnecessary, but you don't see it with a case on top of it.

The phone is thin enough for sure, even with a slim plastic case attached. The only complaint I have is I wished the headphone jack was at the bottom as I have grown accustomed to that. It is much less jarring than having it on top. Some people might be thrown off by the power button being on the right side as opposed to the top, but I have gotten used to that, mostly.

Pocket sized?:

The Note 3 still seems gargantuan to some people. I am 6 feet tall, so I'm a big guy. While I cannot speak for others, this phone fits in all of my pants pockets just fine without hinderance. Sure, it is a bit more noticeable to me than the iPhone 5 but it does not bother me a bit. It also does not stick out very much because it is fairly thin.

Camera:

I think the new HTC One M8 is gorgeous and I considered it, but its camera got terrible reviews. The camera on the Note 3 is fantastic. Pictures and videos are super crisp and I really like the default saturation.

An outside shot I took.

Motion/Gestures:

I do not use any gestures. Unfortunately, since taking a screenshot the standard way (power and volume button) does not appear to work on the Note 3, I did have to enable palm swipe for screenshot which caused me a bunch of unwanted screenshots on my S3. Hopefully that is not the case this time around.

S Pen:

I suppose I might be one of the few people who got the Note 3 with no real everyday need for the S Pen. I will say that drawing in an app like Autodesk Sketchbook is an entirely different and more accurate experience than using a finger or large headed stylus on any other device. There is something to be said for the its sharp tip and I believe I will make use of it more and more in the future.

 

CUSTOMIZING!

 

TouchWiz? No! Nova Launcher Prime:

I do not use Touchwiz. Touchwiz is useless. So the first thing I do is install and configure Nova Launcher Prime. This allows me to create a pleasurable and familiar layout for my phone. 

Keyboard:

The default Samsung keyboard is ugly.  Swiftkey is beautiful. The keyboard takes up half of your screen a lot of the time so I think it should look nice. Luckily Swiftkey also functions very well. 

System Font:

For me, the system font is important to the look and feel of the phone experience. As such, the fonts that come pre-installed with the Note 3 are not what I prefer. I was able to fix this by purchasing Helvetica Nue.

Notifications:

I actually like the way iOS notifications work on the lock screen in that the screen turns on and you see swipeable items. In order to get a very similar experience, I use Nils Notification Lock Screen and Floating Panel. What I dislike about iOS notifications are all of the other things you have to shut off for each app (badges, etc). In Android, it is simple to turn off notifications in one setting. I really appreciate the all or nothing sensibility.

Lock Screen:

I also grew accustomed to the camera swipe shortcut on the iPhone lockscreen. In order to achieve something similar and beyond, I turned to Widget Locker. With this app, I am able to set many different shortcuts on my lock screen, camera included. 

Custom Ringtones:

There are many ways to add custom ringtones to an Android device and it is arguably much easier to do than iOS. I chose an app called Ringtone Maker. I simply downloaded the .mp3 files I wanted to use from my OneDrive app and set the tones from within Ringtone Maker.

Exchange:

My work email is Microsoft Exchange based. The most modern looking app I found for this was Nine. This allows me to bypass the ugly default email app completely, using the Gmail app for my Gmail account.

SMS/MMS Messages:

In my previous foray into Android, I used GoSMSPro to replace the uninviting Messages app. Google Hangouts now offers to take control of SMS and MMS. I appreciate having a unified system for all messages. My only gripe is that distinguishing between Hangouts and SMS messages are marked by a very small 'SMS' tag. Being able to separate SMS messages into its own tab or something similar, would be very helpful.

Further Battery tweaking:

I noticed I was losing a bit more battery power than I should so I turned off location services for Google Now and turned off push for all email accounts. I am also mindful to open the task manager and clear memory every so often. These few things seemed to get back some valuable juice.

Car Integration/Audio:

A very important benefit of having an iPhone is its easy integration with many automobiles. I was able to plug a lightning cable from my phone to my car usb port and get power, audio, and even song information. My car only supports basic bluetooth audio functionality, not A2DP, but this worked fine side by side with my iPhone for phone calls.

With an Android device, I was not about to plug in a cable to the bottom for power and an audio cable to the top for audio with a mess of wires all over the place. Instead, I purchased this Bluetooth adapter to solve the issue. Now all audio plays through this bluetooth device and I only plug one cable into my phone for power only when necessary. It is not as convenient, but it gets the job done.

I had previously purchased the iMagnet car holder for my iPhone which worked amazingly. It works just as well for the Note 3. I highly recommend this product to everyone regardless of what phone you have.

Wrap Up

With these customizations, I am able to have an Android experience that is very functional, minimal, and pleasing to my eyes. I will admit that it took me a fair amount of time to put it all together and find the right apps and settings. Coming from an OS that is mostly dictated, I feel like an animal uncaged when moving to a platform that lets you do so much. 

 I am pleased with my home screen.

iOS absolutely has a coat of polish and uniform elegance that Android lacks out of the box, but with some effort, I find the Android experience can rank right up there and also be better in different areas because of the vast customization abilities it affords you.

Sure there are a few iOS exclusive apps I will miss like Tweetbot but the reality is I absolutely can get along without them. I will still enjoy those apps on my iPad as I feel the tablet experience on iOS is still unsurpassed. iPads also come in multiple screen sizes. I feel great about being able to make use of several different ecosystems: Windows on a PC, Mac OS on a laptop, Android on a phone, and iOS on a tablet.

I guess I like my technology the same way I like my food: All of it.

Review: Mists of Pandaria is a Return To Form and Then Some

In my small group of friends, I am the only one playing World of Warcraft's latest expansion, Mists of Pandaria. Everyone else is either not interested or lacks the necessary time. These are people who have all played WoW in the past and conquered all previous expansions alongside me. The part of not having the time is based heavily around being older and being recovering MMO addicts in addition to an interest in trying to not get sucked into just one game. The part about not being interested revolves somewhat around the idea that pandas are corny and I imagine this is not uncommon.

I feel sentiments of both of those ideas to an extent. Time is a precious commodity for everyone and an MMO requires more time than most other types of games. Beyond that, I was never excited to see pandas in WoW. I was content seeing them on the WoW homepage during April Fool's Day as a joke, but it ended there. I purchased Mists of Pandaria differently than any other World of Warcraft game in the past: Alone, online, basic version, no fanfare, and almost in an obligatory fashion. I thought about ending WoW altogether or trying a different MMO instead, maybe Guild Wars 2. But I already knew the outcome of that choice. I would buy Guild Wars 2 and get bored of it then buy Mists of Pandaria. So I just purchased MoP and dove in on day one.

I did not have terribly high expectations. I actually presumed I would not like it. It is now a month after release and I have not stopped playing. Mists of Pandaria is truly a return to form and then some. It is so much more than anything Blizzard has ever done with WoW. Over the last several years Blizzard has changed, tweaked, added, and deleted so many features and systems that it almost seems precisely planned that MoP is some sort of grand culmination and maturing of all previous changes.

This expansion could not be what it is without the maturity of the Dungeon Finder and Raid Finder. Both were evolutions of the idea of solving the issues of getting people into dungeons quickly by grouping them automatically and allowing them to join these instances from wherever they were in the world and took away the need to be on the same server. These systems also place players nice and neatly back to what they were doing before the encounter. It did not always work that way. Now, it is another facet of the game that is expected and it just works.

There are several new dungeons to conquer. My preferred method is to queue up for 1 or 2 dungeons per day as I am leveling. This gives some quick XP boosts in addition to adding some blue gear to help leveling even more. It is not necessary to do this by any means as many quests offer hearty gear upgrades as well, blues included. These new dungeons are straight up, "to the point" with the least amount of trash mobs as ever before.

At level 90, with an average item level of at least 450, players can begin heroic dungeons which offer slightly greater challenges and slightly better loot. One of the best tests of a dungeon's staying power is whether or not you mind returning to its heroic version for numerous subsequent runs. In Cataclysm for instance, I was never thrilled about going into Grim Batol Heroic due to its longer duration than other dungeons. It sometimes felt tedious. None of the new dungeons feel this way to me in MoP. Completing your gear drops from heroics will lead you to getting your average item level to 460 for raids and so on (470 for further raiding). Just last night I was able to hop into a Raidfinder version of Mogu'shan Vaults for the final boss encounter. It is a similar experience to the Raid Finder content in Cataclysm except you win your own loot instead of rolling against the whole raid which is a welcome change.

This game feels like it was directly tuned from all of my previous positive and negative expansion experiences. Leveling feels just right. Leveling is made up of standard WoW questing fare: Collection quests, kill quests, and an occasional bombing run. Every once in a while a quest might stand out and make you smile like the one featuring Master Bruise Paw in Paoquan Hollow which plays like mix of Karate Kid and Kill Bill training. More care has been taken to make sure multiple quests happen closer together so it is easier to stay more organized and productive. Once an entire quest hub is completed, you are offered a ride to the next one. This helps to keep up with the natural questing progression if you so choose to follow it.

The star of this expansion though, is the game world. The zones are some of the best that have been crafted in any MMO I have ever played. The zones are vast, beautiful, detailed and made with care. Each area is memorable which means the designs were well thought out. Even though I do not care for pandas, their home world is fleshed out with ridiculous amounts of culture and story. It is difficult to not be pulled into it and care a little. Blizzard has created an entire continent that I actually want to spend a lot of time on. Whether it be a rainy afternoon by the Lake of Stars or a bright sunny morning near the Great Wall, the world is a true marvel to behold. As a testament to the vast beautiful continent, I never fly too far from the ground so I do not miss any of the character or charm.

This appreciation for the new zones could only facilitated by the inability to fly until you are level 90. At first I was frustrated to learn that the ability to fly had been taken away yet again as I began my journey, but as I experienced the game from ground mounts only, I understood why flying was taken away and I did not mind. I actually preferred it. I feel like I would have missed out on so much. It should be noted that I have been level 90 for about a week and I have been flying all over Pandaria and I still have not seen it all. Needless to say, the charm of exploration is more alive than ever in this expansion.

The character progression options are nearly endless. Cooking has become more desirable and fun. This is a product of the happenings in and around Halfhill. Halfhill is a cooking hub that offers a plethora of things to do in the cooking profession. It certainly does not hurt that the new player farm feature is just across the field which integrates directly with cooking by allowing you to grow crops that are required by the newest recipes. In my experience, this area is a very popular place and only one piece of the huge progression puzzle MoP offers players. On a personal note, going into MoP, my cooking skill was a mere 82. Halfhill offers a helpful first for WoW professions: True power leveling for cooking. There are all new recipes with ingredients that can be purchased and found easily. I was able to level cooking to over 500 within a half hour. This is something totally new. Blizzard is telling players "We want you to experience what we have done with cooking and we want to make it easy for you to catch up".

Every other profession has seen its level cap raised to 600 including the newest profession, Archaeology. Archaeology has seen some new lore groups added in Pandaria which means new artifacts to find and also a new system that allows players to trade in commonly found artifacts for goodies to help with the profession. With that, another profession that has seen great additions is fishing by way of The Anglers which is a group of fishermen, including Nat Pagle, in Pandaria who offer you more fishing dailies. Fishing is amazing in MoP. There are so many lakes and rivers to fish from and there are more fishing pools than ever. Not to mention, many of the new fish are used in man new cooking recipes. In the right MoP zone with the right background music playing (and possibly while it is raining in-game), fishing is peaceful and one of the most unique ways to immerse yourself in Pandaria.

There are several factions to gain rep with which spans every department and corner of Pandaria. The rewards, as always, speak for themselves and many dailies intertwine in terms of giving Lesser Charms of Good Fortune as rewards which eventually yield Elder Charms that give you bonus rolls in raids (another new mechanic). There is an entire quest line that enables you to eventually obtain a Cloud Serpent mount, which I just recently started. If it is not apparent, MoP offers more of everything. There are also all new entire sets of achievements. So much to do, so little time.

With all of this meaty content, there are a ton of things I have not even touched yet in my first month like: Battlegrounds, rated or otherwise. I only had time for one scenario so far. I did not touch Challenge Mode yet. I did not roll a monk or check out its starting zones. I only took a short amount of time to try out Pet Battles (level 5). On a personal note, I have always loved taking part in Brewfest and Hallow's End which happened back to back the last few weeks. And forget about making it out to the Darkmoon Faire anytime soon even though I need to hand some quests in. There is a lot to do and that is what players look for in an MMO.

Conclusion

Reviewing an MMO is always a tough task. It took me a whole month to experience enough content to feel confident enough to write something substantial. One thing that strikes me is that the game does not seem to be getting the attention I feel it deserves. The only way to describe how that makes me feel is this: I feel bad for anyone who decided not to pick this expansion up simply because anyone who was ever a WoW player at any time deserves an expansion this good. I know many will not come back to this 8 year old game for numerous reasons, but I think anyone who does not experience Pandaria is missing out on one fine MMO expansion (not just a Warcraft one) and none of that sentiment has anything to do with pandas except for the name.

Bottom line: Anyone that has any kind of fire left for WoW should pick up this expansion. MoP sets the bar very high for future WoW expansions or any expansion for that matter. It is chock full of content and is well worth $40. Patch 5.1 is already on the PTR which will add even more things to do.