All posts in “Gadgets”

Bag Week 2018: Mission Workshop’s Radian rolltop starts simple but grows piece by piece

Welcome to Bag Week 2018. Every year your faithful friends at TechCrunch spend an entire week looking at bags. Why? Because bags — often ignored but full of our important electronics — are the outward representations of our techie styles, and we put far too little thought into where we keep our most prized possessions.

I’ve always been wary of modular, rail-based bag systems. They’ve always struck me as rather military and imposing, which I suppose is kind of the point. Even Mission Workshop, whose other bags I have always enjoyed, put out one that seemed to me excessive. But they’ve tempered their style a bit and put out the Radian, a solid middle ground between their one-piece and modular systems.

The Radian is clearly aimed at the choosy, pack-loving traveler who eschews roller bags for aesthetic — which describes me to a tee. Strictly rolltop bags (originating in cyclist and outdoors circles) end up feeling restrictive in where you can stow gear, and rollers are boxy and unrefined. So the Radian takes a bit from both, with the added ability to add bits and pieces according to your needs.

What it is: Adaptable, waterproof, well-designed and not attention-grabbing

What it isn’t: Simple or lightweight

The core pack is quite streamlined, with no protruding external pockets whatsoever. There’s the main compartment — 42 liters, if you’re curious — and a cleverly hidden laptop compartment between the main one and the back pads. Both are independently lined with waterproof material (in addition to the water-resistant outer layer) and the zippers are similarly sealed. There’s also a mesh pouch hidden like the laptop area that you can pop out or stow at will.

You can roll up the rolltop and secure it with velcro, or treat it as a big flap and snap it to a strap attached to the bottom of the bag — the straps themselves are attached with strong velcro, so you can take them off if you’re going roll style. The “Cobra” buckle upgrade is cool but the standard plastic buckles are well made enough that you shouldn’t feel any pressure to pay the $65 to upgrade.

Access is where things begin to diverge. Unlike most rolltop packs, you can lay the bag on the ground and unzip the top as if it were a roller, letting you access the whole space from somewhere other than the top. The flap also has its own mesh enclosure. This is extremely handy and addresses the main ergonomic issue I’ve always had with strictly top-loading bags.

In a further assimilation of rolltop qualities, there’s a secret pocket at the bottom of the bag that houses a large cloth cover that seals up the pack straps and so on, making the bag much more stowable and preventing TSA or baggage handlers from having to negotiate all that junk or bag it up themselves.

Of course, a single large compartment is rarely enough when you’re doing real traveling and need to access this document or that gadget in a hurry. So the Radian joins the Mission Workshop Arkiv modular system, which lets you add on a variety of extra pockets of various sizes and types. Just be careful that you don’t push it over the carry-on size limit (though you can always stuff the extra pockets inside temporarily).

There are six rails — two on each side and two on the back — and a handful of accessories that go on each, sliding on with sturdy metal clips. The pack I tested had two zippered side pockets, the “mini folio” and the “horizontal zip” on the back, plus a cell phone pocket for the front strap.

They’re nice but the rear ones I tried are a bit small — you’d have trouble fitting anything but a pocket paperback and a couple energy bars in either. If I had my choice I would go with the full-size folio, one zippered and one rolltop side pocket. Then you can do away with the cell pocket, which is a bit much, and have several stowage options within reach. Plus the folio has its own rails to stick one of the small ones onto.

There’s really no need to get the separate laptop case, since the laptop compartment would honestly fit two or three. It’s a great place to store dress shirts and other items that need to stay folded up and straight.

As far as room, the 42 liters are enough on my estimation to pack for a 5-day trip — that is to say, I easily fit in five pairs of socks and underwear, five t-shirts, a sweater or two, a dress shirt, some shorts, and a pair of jeans. More than that would be kind of a stretch if you were also planning on bringing things like a camera, a book or two, and all the other usual travel accessories.

The main compartment has mesh areas on the side to isolate toiletries and so on, but they’re just divisions; they don’t add space. There are places for small things in the outside pockets but again, not a lot of room for much bigger than a paperback, water bottle, or snack unless you spring for the folio add-on.

As for looks — the version I tested was the black camo version, obviously, which looks a little more subdued in real life than my poorly color-balanced pictures make it look. Personally I prefer the company’s flat grey over the camo and the black. Makes it even more low-profile.

In the end I think the Radian is the best option for anyone looking at Mission Workshop bags who wants a modular option, but unless you plan on swapping pieces out a lot, I’m not personally convinced that it’s better than their all-in-one bags like the Rambler and Vandal. By all means take a look at putting a Radian system together, but don’t neglect to check if any of the pre-built ones fit your needs as well.

bag week 2018

Bag Week 2018: The Nomadic NF-02 keeps everything in its right place

Nomadic, a Japanese brand sold by JetPens in the US, makes some of my favorite bags and backpacks . The Wise Walker Toto was an amazing little bag and I’ve always enjoyed the size, materials, and design. The $89 Nomadic NF-02 is no different.

The best thing about this 15×7 inch backpack is the compact size and internal pouches. The Nomadic can hold multiple pens, notebooks, and accessories, all stuck in their own little cubbies, and you can fit a laptop and a few books in the main compartment. This is, to be clear, not a “school” backpack. It’s quite compact and I doubt it would be very comfortable with a much more than a pair of textbooks and a heavier laptop. It’s definitely a great travel sack, however, and excellent for the trip from home to the office.

The bag comes in a few colors including turquoise and navy and there is a small hidden pouch for important papers and passports. There is a reflective strip on the body and it is water repellent so it will keep your gear dry.

Again, my favorite part of this bag are the multiple little pockets and spaces. It’s an organizer’s dream and features so many little spots to hide pens and other gear that it could also make an excellent tourist pack. It is small enough for easy transport but holds almost anything you can throw at it.

Nomadic is a solid backpack. It’s small, light, and still holds up to abuse. I’m a big fan of the entire Nomadic line and it’s great to see this piece available in the US. It’s well worth a look if you’re looking for a compact carrier for your laptop, accessories, and notebooks.

bag week 2018

Bag Week 2018: WP Standard’s Rucksack goes the distance

WP Standard – formerly called Whipping Post Leather – makes rugged leather bags, totes, and briefcases and their Rucksack is one of my favorites. Designed to look like something a Pony Express rider would slip on for a visit to town, this $275 is sturdy, handsome, and ages surprisingly well.

There are some trade-offs, however. Except for two small front pouches there are no hidden nooks and crannies in this spare 15×15 inch sack. The main compartment can fit a laptop and a few notebooks and the front pouches can hold accessories like mice or a little collection of plugs. There is no fancy nylon mesh or gear organizers here, just a brown expanse of full grain leather.

I wore this backpack for a few months before writing this and found it surprisingly comfortable and great for travel. Because it is so simple I forced myself to pare down my gear slightly and I was able to consolidate my cables and other accessories into separate pouches. I could fit a laptop, iPad Pro, and a paperback along side multiple notebooks and planners and I could even overstuff the thing on long flights. As long as I was able to buckle the front strap nothing fell out or was lost.

This bag assumes that you’re OK with thick, heavy leather and that you’re willing to forgo a lot of the bells and whistles you get with more modern styles. That said, it has a great classic look and it’s very usable. I suspect this bag would last decades longer than anything you could buy at Office Depot and it would look good doing it. At $275 it’s a bit steep but you’re paying for years – if not decades – of regular use and abuse. It’s worth the investment.

bag week 2018

Inside Atari’s rise and fall

By the first few months of 1982, it had become more common to see electronics stores, toy stores, and discount variety stops selling 2600 games. This was before Electronics Boutique, Software Etc., and later, GameStop . Mostly you bought games at stores that sold other electronic products, like Sears or Consumer Distributors. Toys ’R’ Us was a big seller of 2600 games. To buy one, you had to get a piece of paper from the Atari aisle, bring it to the cashier, pay for it, and then wait at a pickup window behind the cash register lanes.

Everyone had a favorite store in their childhood; here’s a story about one of mine. A popular “destination” in south Brooklyn is Kings Plaza, a giant (for Brooklyn) two-story indoor mall with about 100 stores. My mother and grandmother were avid shoppers there. To get to the mall from our house, it was about a 10-minute car service ride. So once a week or thereabouts, we’d all go. The best part for me was when we went inside via its Avenue U entrance instead of on the Flatbush Avenue side. Don’t ask me what went into this decision each time; I assume it depended on the stores my mother wanted to go to. All I knew was the Avenue U side had this circular kiosk maybe 50 feet from the entrance. The name has faded from memory. I remember it was a kind of catch-all for things like magazines, camera film, and other random stuff.

But the most important things were the Atari cartridges. There used to be dozens of colorful Atari game boxes across the wall behind the counter. When we walked up to the cashier’s window, there was often a row of new Atari games across the top as well. Sometimes we left without a new cartridge, and sometimes I received one. But we always stopped and looked, and it was the highlight of my trip to the mall each time.

For whatever reason, I remember the guy behind the counter gave me a hard time one day. I bought one of Atari’s own cartridges—I no longer remember which, but I’m almost sure it was either Defender or Berzerk—that came with an issue of Atari Force, the DC comic book. I said I was excited to get it. The guy shot me a dirty look and said, “You’re buying a new Atari cartridge just for a comic book?” I was way too shy to argue with him, even though he was wrong and I wanted the cartridge. I don’t remember what my mother said, or if she even heard him. Being too shy to protest, I sheepishly took my game and we both walked away.

Mattel began to run into trouble with its Intellivision once the company tried to branch out from sports games. Because Mattel couldn’t license properties from Atari, Nintendo, or Sega, it instead made its own translations of popular arcade games. Many looked better than what you’d find on the 2600, but ultimately played more slowly thanks to the Intellivision’s sluggish CPU. Perhaps the most successful was Astrosmash, a kind of hybrid of Asteroids and Space Invaders, where asteroids, space ships, and other objects fell from the sky and became progressively more difficult. Somewhat less successful were games like Space Armada (a Space Invaders knock off).

Mattel also added voice synthesis—something that was all the rage at the time—to the Intellivision courtesy of an add-on expansion module called Intellivoice. But only a few key games delivered voice capability: Space Spartans, Bomb Squad, B-17 Bomber (all three were launch titles), and later, Tron: Solar Sailer. The Intellivoice’s high cost, lack of a truly irresistible game, and overall poor sound quality meant this was one thing Atari didn’t have to find a way to answer with the 2600.

These events made it easier for Atari to further pull away from Mattel in the marketplace, and it did so—but not without a tremendous self-inflicted wound. A slew of new 2600 games arrived in the first part of 1982. Many important releases came in this period and those that followed, and we’ll get to those shortly. But there was one in particular that the entire story arc of the platform balanced on, and then fractured. It was more than a turning point; its repercussions reverberated throughout the then-new game industry, and to this day it sticks out as one of the key events that ultimately did in Atari.

The single biggest image-shattering event for the 2600—and Atari itself—was the home release of its Pac-Man cartridge. I can still feel the crushing disappointment even now. So many of my friends and I looked forward to this release. We had talked about it all the time in elementary school. Pac-Man was simply the hottest thing around in the arcades, and we dreamed of playing it at home as much as we wanted. The two-year wait for Atari to release the 2600 cartridge seemed like forever. Retailers bought into the hype as well. Toy stores battled for inventory, JC Penney and Kmart bought in big along with Sears and advertised on TV, and even local drug stores started stocking the game. And yet, what we got…wasn’t right.

Just about everyone knows how Pac-Man is supposed to work, but just in case: You gobble up dots to gain points while avoiding four ghosts. Eat a power pellet, and you can turn the tables on the ghosts, chase them down, and eat them. Each time you do so, the “eyes” of the ghost fly back to the center of the screen and the ghost regenerates. Eat all the dots and power pellets on the screen, and you progress to the next one, which gets harder. Periodically, a piece of fruit appears at the center of the screen. You can eat it for bonus points, and the kind of fruit denotes the level you are on (cherry, strawberry, orange, and so on).

But that’s not the game Atari 2600 owners saw. After securing the rights to the game from Namco, Atari gave programmer Tod Frye just five weeks to complete the conversion. The company had learned from its earlier mistakes and promised Frye a royalty on every cartridge manufactured (not sold), which was an improvement. But this was another mistake. The royalty plus the rushed schedule meant Frye made money even if the game wasn’t up to snuff, and thus Frye had incentive to complete it regardless. Atari also required the game to fit into just 4KB like older 2600 cartridges, rather than the newer 8KB size that was becoming much more common by this point. That profit-driven limitation heavily influenced the way Frye approached the design of the game. To top it all off, Atari set itself up for a colossal failure by producing some 12 million cartridges, even though there were only 10 million 2600 consoles in circulation at the time. The company was confident that not only would every single existing 2600 owner buy the game, but that 2 million new customers would buy the console itself just for this cartridge.

We all know how it turned out. The instruction manual sets the tone for the differences from the arcade early on. The game is now set in “Mazeland.” You eat video wafers instead of dots. Every time you complete a board, you get an extra life. The manual says you also earn points from eating power pills, ghosts, and “vitamins.” Something is definitely amiss.

Pac-Man himself always looks to the right or left, even if he is going up or down. The video wafers are long and rectangular instead of small, square dots. Fruits don’t appear periodically at the center of the screen. Instead, you get the aforementioned vitamin, a clear placeholder for what would have been actual fruit had there been more time to get it right. The vitamin always looks the same and is always worth 100 points, instead of increasing as you clear levels. The rest of the scoring is much lower than it is in the arcade. Gobbling up all four ghosts totals just 300 points, and each video wafer is worth just 1 point.

The ghosts have tremendous amounts of flicker, and they all look and behave identically, instead of having different colors, distinct personalities, and eyes that pointed in the right direction. The flicker was there for a reason. Frye used it to draw the four ghosts in successive frames with a single sprite graphic register, and drew Pac-Man every frame using the other sprite graphic register. The 2600’s TIA chip synchronizes with an NTSC television picture 60 times per second, so you end up seeing a solid Pac-Man, maze, and video wafers (I can still barely type “video wafers” with a straight face), but the ghosts are each lit only one quarter of the time. A picture tube’s phosphorescent glow takes a little bit to fade, and your eye takes a little while to let go of a retained image as well, but the net result is that the flicker is still quite visible.

It gets worse. The janky, gritty sound effects are bizarre, and the theme song is reduced to four dissonant chords. (Oddly, these sounds resurfaced in some movies over the next 20 years and were a default “go-to” for sound designers working in post-production.) The horizontally stretched maze is nothing like the arcade, either, and the escape routes are at the top and bottom instead of the sides. The maze walls aren’t even blue; they’re orange, with a blue background, because it’s been reported Atari had a policy that only space games could have black backgrounds (!). At this point, don’t even ask about the lack of intermissions.

One of Frye’s own mistakes is that he made Pac-Man a two-player game. “Tod used a great deal of memory just tracking where each player had left off with eaten dots, power pellets, and score,” wrote Goldberg and Vendel in Atari Inc.: Business is Fun. Years later, when Frye looked at the code for the much more arcade-faithful 2600 Ms. Pac-Man, he saw the programmers were “able to use much more memory for graphics because it’s only a one player game.”

Interestingly, the game itself is still playable. Once you get past the initial huge letdown and just play it on its own merits, Pac-Man puts up a decent experience. It’s still “Pac-Man,” sort of, even if it delivers a rough approximation of the real thing as if it were seen and played through a straw. It’s worth playing today for nostalgia—after all, many of us played this cartridge to death anyway, because it was the one we had—and certainly as a historical curiosity for those who weren’t around for the golden age of arcades.

Many an Atari 2600 fan turned on the platform—and Atari in general—after the release of Pac-Man. Although the company still had plenty of excellent games and some of the best were yet to come, the betrayal was immediate and real and forever colored what much of the gaming public thought of Atari. The release of the Pac-Man cartridge didn’t curtail the 2600’s influence on the game industry by any means; we’ll visit many more innovations and developments as we go from here on out. But the 2600 conversion of Pac-Man gave the fledgling game industry its first template for how to botch a major title. It was the biggest release the Atari 2600 had and would ever see, and the company flubbed it about as hard as it could. It was New Coke before there was New Coke.

The next few games we’ll discuss further illustrate the quality improvements upstart third-party developers delivered, in comparison with Atari, which had clearly become too comfortable in its lead position. First up is Activision’s Grand Prix, which in hindsight was a bit of an odd way to design a racer . It’s a side-scroller on rails that runs from left to right, and is what racing enthusiasts call a time trial. Although other computer-controlled cars are on the track, you’re racing against the clock, not them, and you don’t earn any points or increase your position on track for passing them.

Gameplay oddities aside, the oversized Formula One cars are wonderfully detailed, with brilliant use of color and animated spinning tires. The shaded color objects were the centerpiece of the design, as programmer David Crane said in a 1984 interview. “When I developed the capability for doing a large multicolored object on the [2600’s] screen, the capability fitted the pattern of the top view of a Grand Prix race car, so I made a racing game out of it.” Getting the opposing cars to appear and disappear properly as they entered and exited the screen also presented a problem, as the 2600’s lack of a frame buffer came into play again. The way TIA works, the 2600 would normally just make the car sprite begin to reappear on the opposite side of the screen as it disappeared from one side. To solve this issue, Crane ended up storing small “slices” of the car in ROM, and in real time the game drew whatever portions of the car were required to reach the edge of the screen. The effect is smooth and impossible to detect while playing.

The car accelerates over a fairly long period of time, and steps through simulated gears. Eventually it reaches a maximum speed and engine note, and you just travel along at that until you brake, crash into another car, or reach the finish line. As the manual points out, you don’t have to worry about cars coming back and passing you again, even if you crash. Once you pass them, they’re gone from the race.

The four game variations in Grand Prix are named after famous courses that resonate with racing fans (Watkins Glen, Brands Hatch, Le Mans, and Monaco). The courses bear no resemblance to the real ones; each game variation is simply longer and harder than the last. The tree-lined courses are just patterns of vehicles that appear on screen. Whenever you play a particular game variation, you see the same cars at the same times (unless you crash, which disrupts the pattern momentarily). The higher three variations include bridges, which you have to quickly steer onto or risk crashing. During gameplay, you get a warning in the form of a series of oil slicks that a bridge is coming up soon.

Although Atari’s Indy 500 set the bar early for home racing games on the 2600, Grand Prix demonstrated you could do one with a scrolling course and much better graphics. This game set the stage for more ambitious offerings the following year. And several decades later, people play games like this on their phones. We just call titles like Super Mario Run (a side-scroller) and Temple Run (3D-perspective) “endless runners,” as they have running characters instead of cars.

Activision soon became the template for other competing third-party 2600 developers. In 1981, Atari’s marketing vice president and a group of developers, including the programmers for Asteroids and Space Invaders on the console, started a company called Imagic. The company had a total of nine employees at the outset. Its name was derived from the words “imagination” and “magic”—two key components of every cartridge the company planned to release. Imagic games were known for their high quality, distinctive chrome boxes and labels, and trapezoidal cartridge edges. As with Activision, most Imagic games were solid efforts with an incredible amount of polish and were well worth purchasing.

Although Imagic technically became the second third-party developer for the 2600, the company’s first game didn’t arrive until March 1982. Another company, Games by Apollo, beat it to the punch by starting up in October 1981 and delivering its first (mediocre) game, Skeet Shoot, before the end of the year.

But when that first Imagic game did arrive, everyone noticed.

At first glance, the visually striking Demon Attack looks kind of like a copy of the arcade game Phoenix, at least without the mothership screen (something it does gain in the Intellivision port). But the game comes into its own the more you play it. You’re stuck on the planet Krybor. Birdlike demons dart around and shoot clusters of lasers down toward you at the bottom of the screen. Your goal is to shoot the demons all out of the sky, wave after wave.

The playfield is mostly black, with a graded blue surface of the planet along the bottom of the screen. A pulsing, beating sound plays in the background. It increases in pitch the further you get into each level, only to pause and then start over with the next wave. The demons themselves are drawn beautifully, with finely detailed, colorful designs that are well animated and change from wave to wave. Every time you complete a wave, you get an extra life, to a maximum of six.

On later waves, the demons divide in two when shot, and are worth double the points. You can shoot the smaller demons, or just wait—eventually each one swoops down toward your laser cannon, back and forth until it reaches the bottom of the screen, at which point it disappears from the playfield. Shoot it while it’s diving and you get quadruple points. In the later stages, demons also shoot longer, faster clusters of lasers at your cannon.

The game is for one or two players, though there’s a cooperative mode that lets you take turns against the same waves of demons. There are also variations of the game that let you shoot faster lasers, as well as tracer shots that you can steer into the demons. After 84 waves, the game ends with a blank screen, though reportedly a later run of this cartridge eliminates that and lets you play indefinitely. If I were still nine years old, I could probably take a couple of days out of summer and see if this is true. I am no longer nine years old.

Demon Attack was one of Imagic’s first three games, along with Trick Shot and Star Voyager. Rob Fulop, originally of Atari fame and one of Imagic’s four founders, programmed Demon Attack. In November 1982, Atari sued Imagic because of Demon Attack’s similarity to Phoenix, the home rights of which Atari had purchased from Centuri. The case was eventually settled. Billboard magazine listed Demon Attack as one of the 10 best-selling games of 1982. It was also Imagic’s best-selling title, and Electronic Games magazine awarded it Game of the Year.

“The trick to the Demon Attack graphics was it was the first game to use my Scotch-taped/rubber-banded dedicated 2600 sprite animation authoring tool that ran on the Atari 800,” Fulop said in 1993. “The first time Michael Becker made a little test animation and we ran Bob Smith’s utility that successfully squirted his saved sprite data straight into the Demon Attack assembly code and it looked the same on the [2600] as it did on the 800 was HUGE! Before that day, all 2600 graphics ever seen were made using a #2 pencil, a sheet of graph paper, a lot of erasing, and a list of hex codes that were then retyped into the source assembly code, typically introducing a minimum of two pixel errors per eight-by-eight graphic stamp.”

Although you can draw a line from Space Invaders to just about any game like this, Demon Attack combines that with elements of Galaga and Phoenix, with a beautiful look and superb gameplay all its own.

A watershed moment in video game history, David Crane’s Pitfall! was one of the best games released for the 2600. As Pitfall Harry, your goal is to race through the jungle and collect 32 treasures—money bags, silver bars, gold bars, and diamond rings, worth from 2,000 to 5,000 points each. Jump and grab vines, and you soar over lakes, quicksand, and alligators, complete with a Tarzan-style “yell.” You can stumble on a rolling log or fall into a hole, both of which just dock you some points. Each time you fall into quicksand or a tar pit, drown in a lake, burn in a fire, or get eaten by an alligator or scorpion, you lose a life. When that happens, you start the next one by dropping from the trees on the left side of the screen to keep playing.

Pushing the joystick left or right makes Pitfall Harry run. He picks up treasure automatically. Holding the stick in either direction while pressing the button makes him jump, either over an obstacle or onto a swinging vine (running into the vine without jumping also works). Push down while swinging to let go of the vine. You also can push up or down to climb ladders.

In an incredible feat of programming, the game contains 255 screens, with the 32 treasures scattered throughout them. The world loops around once you reach the last screen. Although Adventure pioneered the multiroom map on the 2600, Pitfall! was a considerably larger design. Crane fit the game into the same 4KB ROM as Adventure. But rather than storing all 255 screens as part of the ROM—which wouldn’t have fit—Crane’s solution was not to store the world in ROM at all. Instead, the world is generated by code, the same way each time. This is similar to games like Rogue, but even in that case, the game generates the world and then stores it during play. Pitfall! generates each screen via an algorithm, using a counter that increments in a pseudorandom sequence that is nonetheless consistent and can be run forwards or backwards. The 8 bits of each number in the counter sequence define the way the board looks. Bits 0 through 2 are object patterns, bits 3 through 5 are ground patterns, bits 6 and 7 cover the trees, and bit 7 also affects the underground pattern. This way, the world is generated the same way each and every single time. When you leave one screen, you always end up on the same next screen.

“The game was a jewel, a perfect world incised in a mere [4KB] of code,” Nick Montfort wrote in 2001 in Supercade: A Visual History of the Videogame Age, 1971-1984.

You get a total of three lives, and Crane points out in the manual that you need to use some of the underground passages (which skip three screens ahead instead of one) to complete the game on time. The inclusion of two on-screen levels—above ground and below ground, with ladders connecting them—makes the game an official platformer. And the game even gives you some say in where to go and what path you take to get there. Pitfall Harry is smoothly animated, and the vines deliver a genuine sensation of swinging even though the game is in 2D.

The game’s 20-minute timer, which approximates the 22-minute length of a standard half-hour television show, marked a milestone for console play. It was much longer than most arcade games and even cartridges like Adventure, which you could complete in a few minutes. The extra length allows for more in-depth play.

“Games in the early ’80s primarily used inanimate objects as main characters,” Crane said in a 2011 interview. “Rarely there would be a person, but even those weren’t fully articulated. I wanted to make a game character that could run, jump, climb, and otherwise interact with an on-screen world.” Crane spent the next couple of years tinkering with the idea before finally coming up with Pitfall!. “[After] only about 10 minutes I had a sketch of a man running on a path through the jungle collecting treasures. Then, after ‘only’ 1,000 hours of pixel drawing and programming, Pitfall Harry came to life.”

Crane said he had already gone beyond that 4KB ROM limit and back within it many times over hundreds of hours. Right before release, he was asked to add additional lives. “Now I had to add a display to show your number of lives remaining, and I had to bring in a new character when a new life was used.” The latter was easy, Crane said, because Pitfall Harry already knew how to fall and stop when he hit the ground. Crane just dropped him from behind the tree cover. “For the ‘Lives’ indicator I added vertical tally marks to the timer display. That probably only cost 24 bytes, and with another 20 hours of ‘scrunching’ the code I could fit that in.”

Pitfall! couldn’t have been timed more perfectly, as Raiders of the Lost Ark was the prior year’s biggest movie. The cartridge delivered the goods; it became the best-selling home video game of 1982 and it’s often credited as the game that kickstarted the platformer genre. Pitfall! held the top spot on Billboard’s chart for 64 consecutive weeks. “The fine graphic sense of the Activision design team greatly enriches the Pitfall! experience,” Electronic Games magazine wrote in January 1983, on bestowing the cartridge Best Adventure Videogame. “This is as richly complex a video game as you’ll find anywhere…Watching Harry swing across a quicksand pit on a slender vine while crocodiles snap their jaws frantically in a futile effort to tear off a little leg-of-hero snack is what video game adventures are all about.” Pitfall!’s influence is impossible to overstate. From Super Mario Bros. to Prince of Persia to Tomb Raider, it was the start of something huge.

Amazon’s Fire TV Cube is a glimpse at Alexa-controlled entertainment, but it needs work

Sleek and compact design • Alexa works even when soundbar is playing loudly right next to it • Super easy setup process • Comes with Ethernet adapter and IR extender cable
Not all apps support full Alexa voice controls • Not compatible with projectors • Can’t control channels picked up OTA via TV antenna • No option for ‘Nintendo’ for switching inputs • Doesn’t work with universal remotes like Harmony Hub
Amazon’s Fire TV Cube is a good glimpse at how Alexa can be used to control your home entertainment system, but it’s in need of a lot of polish.

Mashable Score3.25

Amazon’s Fire TV Cube, a mashup between an Echo speaker with hands-free Alexa voice commands and a Fire TV 4K (2017), is not a product that should surprise anyone.

Considering how great the Echo and the Fire TV 4K are, it’s more shocking that it took the company this long to combine the two. I mean, it was inevitable that we’d all want to control our TV and entertainment systems with voice after we let Alexa come into our homes.

With the $120 Fire TV Cube, Amazon sorta delivers on the futuristic dream of using voice commands to control your TV content instead of having to fiddle with remote controls. 

Much like the original Echo, the Fire TV Cube is a glimpse of the future. The groundwork for a remote control-less home entertainment system future is all there on this product, but there’s still some work to do before that future truly takes shape.

Fire TV Cube basics

Typical Amazon packaging.

Typical Amazon packaging.

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

Like all of Amazon’s hardware, the Fire TV Cube is as basic as it gets. The no-frills 3.4 x 3.4 x 3.0-inch black cube is intended to blend effortlessly with your TV, soundbar, A/V receiver, cable box, game console, or whatever else you may have in your media center.

Its glossy plastic sides, however, do mean you’ll never see it clean again once you peel away the plastic wrap. The Fire TV Cube picks up fingerprints and dust like there’s no tomorrow. 

My original Fire TV (left) vs. Fire TV Cube (right).

My original Fire TV (left) vs. Fire TV Cube (right).

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

Along with the Fire TV Cube and power adapter, you also get a 2-in-1 Ethernet/microUSB adapter, a 7.5-foot long infrared (IR) extender cable, and an Alexa Remote with two pack-in AA batteries.

Missing in the box is an HDMI cable, which you’ll need to connect the Fire TV Cube to your TV. But chances are you already have a spare or can reuse one if you’re just replacing another set-top box with the Fire TV Cube.

The top of the Fire TV Cube has your usual Echo buttons.

The top of the Fire TV Cube has your usual Echo buttons.

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

As for buttons, the Fire TV Cube’s top has the same four from the Echo smart speakers: volume up and down, mute, and push-to-activate Alexa). It’s all pretty self-explanatory.

The Fire TV Cube is powered by a 1.5GHz quad-core processor and comes with 16GB of internal storage and 2GB of RAM. It supports 4K video playback at up to 60 fps, HDR 10, and Dolby Atmos. Of course, you will need a TV and speakers that support these features if you want the highest audio and video fidelity.

If you prefer a wired connection, you can use this included Ethernet dongle.

If you prefer a wired connection, you can use this included Ethernet dongle.

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

The IR extender cable's about 7.5 feet long.

The IR extender cable’s about 7.5 feet long.

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

And that’s really the full tour of the Fire TV Cube. There’s an LED strip on the front that lights up when Alexa is activated and the four sides of the Fire TV Cube are “IR transparent” so you can still use your existing IR-based remote controls to control the devices that are connected to the cube.

Overall, I like the Fire TV Cube’s looks. It’s small and compact and doesn’t hog up much space near my TV. 

Simple set up

Setting up the Fire TV is a breeze.

Setting up the Fire TV is a breeze.

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

As much as I love new gadgets, I absolutely, absolutely, hate futzing around with my entertainment system.

My setup isn’t grand by any means, but it is a monstrosity that’s the result of years of adding and removing new devices and tweaking TV settings every now and then to get them all talking to each other just right. Oftentimes, if you mess with one thing, something else breaks so I try not to “improve” on it too frequently. If it works, it’s good, right?

Fortunately, hooking up the Fire TV Cube to my existing setup was a simple process and didn’t break anything.

You plug the power adapter in, connect the Fire TV Cube to your TV via HDMI and then follow the on-screen instructions to setup WiFi and sign into your Amazon account.

The back of the Fire TV Cube has just the necessary ports.

The back of the Fire TV Cube has just the necessary ports.

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

After that, the Fire TV Cube walks you through selecting your streaming services, enabling Alexa, adding your soundbar or receiver, and then runs through some shorts tests to make sure everything’s working properly.

A few minutes later and you’ll be staring at a slightly tweaked, but still familiar Fire TV home screen laid out with your usual movie and TV content and apps.

If you’ve downloaded apps on a previous Fire TV, you’ll need to re-download them. Similarly, you’ll also need to sign into any third-party apps like Netflix, Hulu, PlayStation Vue, etc. again. Using the Alexa Remote to peck at an on-screen keyboard, especially for complicated passwords, is still a pain in the ass, though. It would be amazing if Amazon could come up with a universal single sign-on for all your media apps and services.

The Alexa Remote is the same one included with other Fire TVs.

The Alexa Remote is the same one included with other Fire TVs.

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

I also later had to go into the settings tab to adjust a few more things like assigning my game consoles a preset HDMI input name in order to use Alexa to switch between them, but that’s really it. (Hey Amazon, it’s nice to see Xbox and PlayStation and Apple TV as HDMI options, but where’s Nintendo? I had to assign my Switch the generic “Game Console” for the input name.)

If you’ve got a cable or satellite box or any other device that’s controlled with IR and you have it hidden away inside of cabinet, you can use the included IR extender cable. Additionally, if you’d rather connect your Fire TV Cube to the internet through Ethernet instead of WiFi, make sure to use the included adapter.

The amount of time it takes to fully set up your Fire TV Cube will depend on how many devices you need to connect and how many logins and passwords you’ll need to enter. But once I finished and cracked open a nice cold beverage, the hard work was mostly worth it, even though I encountered a few bugs and glitches, and ran into some limitations for what I could and couldn’t do with Alexa.

Alexa replaces your remote control?

Call on Alexa and the Fire TV Cube's thin LED strip will light up.

Call on Alexa and the Fire TV Cube’s thin LED strip will light up.

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

The whole point of the Fire TV Cube is to use Alexa voice commands to do everything you’d normally do with a remote control.

Now, you can already use Alexa to control your Fire TV if you own an Echo — it’s just a matter of pairing them together. However, this combo doesn’t let you control your soundbar or A/V receiver, which the Fire TV Cube does.

I own both an old Fire TV and an Echo, but like I already told you, I’m really lazy when it comes to messing with my existing entertainment setup. I tried to get my Echo to control my TV setup with the Logitech Harmony Hub and after too many hours of cursing out my tech, I gave up. (On a related Logitech note: The Fire TV Cube isn’t compatible with universal remotes like the Logitech Harmony.)

That’s why I like the Fire TV Cube. It was easy to setup with my ancient Sony Bravia HDTV I bought almost a decade ago and a Sonos Playbar.

Using voice controls instead of a remote worked just as easily, but it wasn’t perfect.

Using voice controls instead of a remote worked just as easily, but it wasn’t perfect.

With eight far-field microphones listening through the top of the Fire TV Cube, I was happy to find Alexa just as responsive on my OG Echo.

Amazon recommends placing the Fire TV Cube 1-2 feet away from any speakers, including the soundbar that might be sitting in front of or below your TV. 

Since my poor man’s “media center” is just two IKEA Lack tables smushed together, that didn’t give me much room. Still, I placed the Fire TV Cube inches to the left side of my soundbar and Alexa had no problems hearing from my sofa 12 feet away.

I’ve got an IKEA Expedit bookshelf next to my TV and could have placed the Fire TV Cube there to meet Amazon’s recommended placement distance, but that wouldn’t have given the cube’s IR blaster a direct line of sight for my remotes (which, TBH, I didn’t use much after).

The Fire TV Cube's home screen is optimized for voice controls, but still similar enough to the regular Fire TV OS.

The Fire TV Cube’s home screen is optimized for voice controls, but still similar enough to the regular Fire TV OS.

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

Alexa on the Fire TV Cube does everything an Echo does. You can do all the basics like ask it for the weather, play music, check your calendar, tell jokes, control your smart home devices, etc. If you’ve got a smart camera, like Amazon’s own Cloud Cam or a Nest Cam, you can also tell Alexa to show you what it’s seeing with an “Alexa, show [camera name],” command. It’s the same as on the Echo Show.

Ask for the weather and your TV will show you the forecast.

Ask for the weather and your TV will show you the forecast.

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

If an Alexa skill comes with a visual it’ll display it on your TV. For the weather, you’ll get a weekly forecast or for music in Amazon Music or Spotify, you’ll see album art and lyrics (if they’re available) — you get the idea. It’s a very similar experience to the Echo Show, which is no surprise since the interface was based off the Show’s.

These are all things I expected the Fire TV Cube to nail and it did it with aplomb. Controlling your TV, soundbar, and content is a bit more of a hit or miss.

Simple commands like asking Alexa to turn my TV and soundbar on and off worked fine. But I noticed some irregularities when I attempted to use Alexa voice controls as my only method of control.

For example, I set up an Alexa Routine for when I returned home. With an “Alexa, I’m home” routine, the voice assistant should turn my Philips Hue smart lights on in my living room and bathroom, turn on the TV, turn on the soundbar, and then report the weather. 

Because I had a soundbar connected, the weather report should have come through it with the forecast shown on the TV screen. But for whatever reason, the weather report always came through the Fire TV Cube’s tinny speaker instead. At first I thought it might have been the order in which the soundbar turned on — if it’s the last action in the routine, it might not be able to catch up to Alexa — so I swapped the commands so that the soundbar and TV would switch on first, but that didn’t fix it. 

At other times, the weather report would come out of the soundbar, but cut off the beginning because it must have been in the middle of switching between the Fire TV Cube’s speaker to the soundbar.

Once you've logged into your streaming services, it'll get its own publisher row showing more content.

Once you’ve logged into your streaming services, it’ll get its own publisher row showing more content.

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

Using Alexa to launch apps, find content, and navigate around the Fire TV interface is straightforward. I could say “Alexa, show more” to scroll up and down and left and right to see more content. To select content, an “Alexa, select [name of content or the number listed next to the title]” did the job.

Amazon’s own apps like Prime Video and Music are Alexa-optimized for voice controls, but they’re also not perfect, either.

A few times, Alexa on the Fire TV Cube failed to understand “next song” or “skip song” when playing music on Amazon Music. Another time, I asked Alexa to play Lady Gaga and the Echo Dot in my bedroom heard it first and started playing it instead. When I followed up with Alexa on my Fire TV Cube to play Daft Punk, it informed me that it was already playing on another device and if I wanted to play it over my soundbar instead. I said yes and “Poker Face” blared through my soundbar, but it didn’t stop on the Echo Dot. 

What lyrics look like on Amazon Music...

What lyrics look like on Amazon Music…

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

... and what they look like on Spotify.

… and what they look like on Spotify.

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

For videos, it was also very wonky sometimes. I could tell Alexa to play The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and load up the last episode I watched, but it couldn’t understand me when I told it to go to a more specific episode like “Alexa, play The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel Episode 6.” 

On too many occasions, voice controls either sorta worked or didn’t work at all.

Other times, I’d tell Alexa to  go to the “next episode” and it’d play a trailer for “The Goliath” leaving me wondering WTF happened. Whenever Alexa failed to understand (not hear) my voice command like this one, I ended up reaching for the Alexa remote to fix the issue, which defeats the whole purpose of having voice controls in the first place.

Even in an app like PlayStation Vue, where you can access live TV channels (“Alexa, tune into CNBC on PlayStation Vue”) and switch between them seamlessly without having to repeat the app’s name with every command (“Alexa, tune to CNN”), I still had to use the remote to access some functions.

Alexa voice controls are magical… when they work. But it’s still very early days for the Fire TV Cube. On too many occasions, voice controls either sorta worked or didn’t work at all.

Take Netflix — Amazon told me Netflix is one of the more notable apps getting the complete voice control treatment. Unfortunately, the feature wasn’t available yet when I tested the Fire TV Cube. But that wasn’t entirely true. I was able to tell the Fire TV Cube to play Mad Men and it’d load the first episode and play/pause voice commands sometimes worked. When I asked Alexa to “skip forward a minute” it’d only skip 10 seconds. 

These are clearly bugs that need to be fixed, but it’s all the more frustrating when they sorta work, but don’t really. 

Amazon says full Netflix voice controls should be rolling out shortly after the Fire TV Cube ships to customers. I’ll have to revisit it and update this review once I’ve tried it.

I think the biggest problem with the Fire TV Cube and Alexa voice controls is that you can now see what Alexa’s failing to understand. On the Echo, if Alexa doesn’t understand a command, you’re more forgiving because you assume it genuinely doesn’t know how to do something you’ve asked it for. But on Fire TV, I found myself more frustrated because I could see buttons for things like like “forward” and “back” in apps like Netflix, but voice controls didn’t do anything. 

This visual frustration is all the more annoying for apps you’d naturally want to use voice for — like the Silk or Firefox browser — but don’t have the support yet.

Voice controls are the future, but it’ll take more time

There's no native YouTube app. You'll need to load it via the Silk browser or Firefox.

There’s no native YouTube app. You’ll need to load it via the Silk browser or Firefox.

Image: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

When I was first briefed on the Fire TV Cube, I was all ready to declare the death of the remote. Now that I’ve used it myself, I can safely say the venerable remote control need not go coffin shopping just yet.

Even with all the bugs and limitations, the Fire TV Cube’s Alexa voice controls are still impressive to start. But they lack polish, and even Amazon knows this.

Amazon told me it’s really only “day one” for the Fire TV Cube. They’re planning to improve the voice control navigation and content discovery with customer feedback. Not to mention it’ll be on developers to update their apps with Alexa voice controls.

Just as Amazon wasn’t totally sure what kind of useful or weird skills would be created for Alexa, Amazon’s not sure how developers will integrate Alexa voice controls into their own apps. 

My advice: go for broke. I want to see every feature within an app have full-on Alexa voice controls integrated at the deepest level. Because, again, what’s the point of buying a device with hands-free voice controls if you’re still forced to use the remote control sometimes? Yes, I know a remote is convenient if, say, you can’t talk to Alexa because maybe you might disturb someone sleeping or it’s late or something. But, like, still, that doesn’t mean Alexa controls shouldn’t be 100 percent capable of replacing the remote because it should be able to.

As it stands, the Fire TV Cube is a half-baked promise of the future. I have no idea if it’ll get significantly better in six months, a year, or two years from now. But the early adopter in me is hopeful that developers will embrace voice for the Fire TV the same way they did for the Echo. I mean, I think we can all agree that turned out pretty well for what was an equally half-baked product.

If you live life on the edge and aren’t afraid of the growing pains, by all means get a Fire TV Cube. It’s a neat step into the voice-controlled entertainment center of tomorrow. But if you need your living room centerpiece to work perfectly every single time, maybe wait until most of the kinks are ironed out.

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