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Sunday, March 02, 2008

Usability Analysis on the Apple iPhone

Part I: Apple iPhone Analysis


This article is an analysis on the usability of the Apple iPhone and it is basically a rehash of an assignment I submitted for a class on usability for mobile devices. The analysis is divided into two parts. The first part is an overall analysis based on my own impressions of what aspects I find the iPhone easy and difficult to use. The second part is a more formal analysis based on Schneiderman’s Eight Rules of Interface Design.

The Apple iPhone in my opinion is a device that is both easy to use and a device I find hard to use, depending of course on which particular task is performed on that device. One of the main reasons I have chosen this particular single device for my analysis is because in terms of cellphone and smartphone technology it has many features and innovations that work exceedingly well, while surprisingly having other features that are either sub-par or missing entirely (compared to even the most basic mobile phones) on the exact same device.

Describing the Apple iPhone

For the device you find easy to use, describe or answer the following (each in a few sentences):

What is the device?

The Apple iPhone

What task(s) does the device perform?

A Multimedia Smartphone – Phone, Music and Video Player, Mobile Web Browser, Mobile E-Mail Client and personal organizer (calendar, reminders etc.)

Present at least one way in which this device is easy or enjoyable for you to use?

The Apple iPhone quite simply has one of the most intuitive and easiest to use interfaces on a mobile device, thanks to its innovative “multi-touch” screen. The multi-touch interface really shines when using the Safari Mobile web browser which is one of the main iPhone applications, especially when connected through a WiFi network as opposed to connection using EDGE, which is a lower-bandwidth wireless mode alternative that is available to the iPhone that works though the cellular network.

As an analogy you can consider EDGE to be slightly faster than a 56Kbps dialup connection, while WiFi can have bandwidth of up to 54Mbps, thanks to the Wireless G capability, so connecting through WiFi can be close to 10x faster then EDGE depending on the wireless connection, so iPhone users will preferably connect through WiFi when available and use EDGE, which has a significantly wider range of coverage as a backup when away from a WiFi Hotspot.

With the iPhone’s multi-touch interface, the user can browse full web pages and easily navigate to different parts of the page by swiping the screen to a particular section of a webpage and either doing a “reverse pinch” on the screen with your thumb and forefinger to zoom the screen in or double-tapping your finger on a particular text block or image you want to zoom in on. You can change the screen orientation on the fly thanks to the built in accelerometer by simply rotating the device horizontally or vertically to accommodate text or images while browsing and of you need to zoom back out to see a larger portion of the web page you are browsing, you can do “pinch” on the screen and the Safari Browser will zoom out accordingly. This makes web browsing on a small mobile device with a fraction of the screen “real estate” of a larger PC or Laptop, not only intuitive but quite easy to use once you get the hang of it all.

Aside from mobile devices that have their own “QWERTY” keypad built into the hardware such as Sidekicks, HTC Pocket PC phones, Palm Treos, Blackberry devices, etc. the iPhone also has one of the best text-entry interfaces in a mobile device thanks to the touch keypad. The touch keypad is especially effective in the horizontal orientation so that the virtual keyboard takes up the width of the screen and the user can more easily and quickly type with two thumbs. Also, thanks to the predictive text feature, one can not only type fast, but with a surprising degree of accuracy. Personally I found it much easier and faster to type in full, non-abbreviated sentences using the touch keypad than it was to type in other devices that use a standard numeric keypad and T9 or iTAP for predictive text.

The bottom line is that Apple really hit the ball out of the park in terms of user interfaces with their iPhone device. After coming off the iPhone and switching to a different device such as a laptop or someone else’s phone, I found myself instinctively wanting to navigate by touching the screen and may have even accidentally, mistakenly and sometimes embarrassingly double tapped an icon or two with my finger on devices that did not have such a touch screen, which should be a testament to how intuitive I found the iPhone’s interface.
· How might someone else find this device difficult to use?

Well, aside from the fact that I’m an early-adopting tech geek that tends to assimilate technology faster that an average user, the iPhone, being a touch screen device interface aside from the audible “tap” sound relies on visual cues and feedback almost entirely. As such this device obviously cannot be used by the visually impaired. For those who like to type and text by touch, perhaps middle school students trying to hide their texting activities to their peers from their teacher will have a difficult time typing as well without the tactile feedback, plus the audible clicks while typing would be a dead giveaway to teacher with keen hearing.

For the device you find difficult to use, describe or answer the following (each in a few sentences):

· What is the device?

Also the Apple iPhone, which is a Multimedia Smartphone – Phone, Music and Video Player, Mobile Web Browser and Mobile E-Mail Client

· Present at least one way in which this device is difficult for you to use?

For starters, the Apple iPhone for better or worse is integrated with Apple’s iTunes service, which means if you want to add or remove any content to and from the iPhone such as music, photos and videos, it has to be done through the iTunes software. For those who do not own an iPod and have a large music and video library that is not integrated with iTunes, the process can be very long and drawn out, perhaps even excruciating to those who are used to a simple “drag and drop” way of managing files.

I understand that iTunes is a cash cow for Apple with the throngs of iPod users who do not know anything different, but now Apple is dealing a different group of users who have delved into mobile phone technology because they offer what Apple never did in a mobile device prior to (and in some cases even after) the iPhone, such as swappable and expandable memory, removable batteries, wireless Bluetooth stereo and an easy way to move files such as music and video both on and off the device. In terms of features, multimedia cellphones pretty much trumped the iPod in almost every respect, save memory capacity since some versions of the iPod had actual miniature hard drives, which nowadays can go up to 80GB to hold all that music and video that iPod fans have purchased through the iTunes store.

If I were to make an educated guess, the preponderance of technology present in many mid to high-end cellphones in comparison to the now “vanilla” iPod is probably why the Apple iPhone was born in the first place, because Apple’s iPod could pretty much kill every music/multimedia player in the market except for those darn multimedia cellphones, that could not only play music and video, but make phone calls, be used as a GPS, check and send e-mail, browse the web and download at broadband speeds wirelessly and even take a simple picture or video and send it to grandma via MMS to greet her a Happy Birthday.

· How could this difficulty be resolved?

Although I don’t imagine Apple taking the iTunes dependency out of the iPhone anytime soon, it would be nice if I could actually manage the content I have already downloaded through iTunes on the iPhone device itself and put that cool new touch screen interface to good use.

Let me move, delete and rename my tunes and video and create play lists on the iPhone itself instead of forcing me to spend all that extra time on the computer and then forcing me to spend even more time waiting for my PC to synchronize the content to the iPhone. I’m a mobile user and I need to be on the move, let me do as much as I can on the device itself and let the PC be a tool to enhance the device, not an anchor to weigh it down.

· Do you think other users would have a similar negative reaction to the device?

Aside from the stellar touch screen interface, I would think that anyone who has taken advantage of the multimedia capabilities of all the smartphones that are out there would have similar reactions. Aside from people who have an extensive library already under iTunes, I really can’t imagine anyone who is used to the simplicity of dragging and dropping their files directly on to a device via USB cable or removable flash memory card wanting to voluntarily manage their files through the iTunes interface.

In my opinion, aside from that ridiculous and artificial 100 song limit, I think that is one of the main reasons the music phone collaboration between Apple and Motorola, the ROKR E1 failed miserably. It was because competing music phones not only had a simple drag and drop file management system that did not require something like iTunes to use, but it did not have that artificial 100 song limit. Well, that and the ROKR E1 seemed very plain next to the iconic iPod and the newly launched iPod Nano. Using the ROKR would have only been practical for those using the smaller capacity iPod Shuffle.

· Is there anything positive about the design of the device?

Aside from what I had mentioned above in the “enjoyable and easy to use” section, which also featured the iPhone, I believe the iPhone has a superlative build quality. The iPhone truly feels like a solid device. The handful of things Apple did with the iPhone outside of the touch screen interface, such as the “home” button, the volume “rocker” switch, the power button and the “sound on/off” switch were implemented well and complimented the touch screen quite nicely.

Even the stereo earbuds, which doubled as a “hands-free” headset had a tiny button to both answer calls and “remotely” control the music. One touch of the button cause the music player to either play or pause, while two quick successive button presses caused the music player to forward to the next song. A very nice extra indeed especially if you happen to be running on a treadmill, you don’t have to break your stride or concentration to look at the device to change or pause a song that is playing.
· Overall, what are the aspects of the devices' designs that contributed to your positive and negative experiences?

The innovative touch screen interface was definitely a major selling point for me as far as the iPhone is concerned but the fact that the iPhone could not do simple things such as send an Multimedia Message Service (MMS) or manage files within the device was an almost bewildering experience for me. I can only hope that competing manufactures can take the examples of what the iPhone does well and expand and evolve beyond it.

I also hope that Apple can improve upon its own iPhone design not only by expanding features with future generation iPhones, but addressing the many things the iPhone is missing by upgrading and patching the current generation iPhone so that it can do things that even the lowest common denominator such as a “free with contract” phone can do, like send an MMS message or send a standard SMS text message to multiple recipients, not to mention the higher end features like having a chat client, or managing the content from within the device itself.

· Apple iPhone Updates

I would be amiss if I didn’t mention a major update that was released after the initial draft of this article in January 2008. Among other things, the January ’08 update added the capability to send multiple SMS messages, a feature that was missing in the original release. The Apple iPhone still does not have the capability to send pictures and or video via MMS, but who knows? It may be made available in a future update.

Other updates include:

1.0.1 -

July 31, 2007
Safari security update
1.0.2 -
August 21, 2007
· Fixed bugs
1.1.1 -
September 27, 2007
· This update is commonly called the iPhone "September '07" update by Apple
iTunes Wi-Fi Music Store
· Louder speakerphone and receiver volume
· Home button double-click shortcut to phone favorites or music controls
· Spacebar double-tap shortcut to intelligently insert period and space (eg: ". ")
· Mail attachments are viewable in portrait and landscape modes
· Stocks and cities in Stocks and Weather can be reordered
Apple Inc. Bluetooth Headset battery status in the Status Bar
· Support for TV out
· Preferences to turn off
EDGE/GPRS when roaming internationally
· New Passcode lock time intervals
· Adjustable alert volume
1.1.2 -
November 12, 2007
· Battery charge level shown in
· International language & keyboard support
· Patched the TIFF exploit
· Adds custom
ringtone field
· Fixed bugs
1.1.3 -
January 15, 2008
· This update is commonly called the iPhone "January '08 Update" by Apple
Google Maps gains the 'Locate Me' feature which determines the phone's approximate location using cell tower triangulation and (in the US and Canada) Wi-Fi data from Skyhook Wireless; also adds hybrid map support and the 'Drop Pin' feature.
· Icons on the homescreen can be rearranged and placed on multiple homescreens (up to nine).
· iTunes gift cards can be redeemed on the iTunes Wi-Fi store.
· Movies acquired through iTunes have chapter support.
· Music has lyrics-support feature
Web Clips can be added to (and subsequently removed from) the homescreen.
· SMS messages can be sent to multiple contacts.
· SMS storage capacity increased to 75,000 (from 1,000)
· Default
Gmail IMAP setup for new accounts (previously was defaulted as POP3).
· Multi-touch keyboard (ie: simultaneously pressing "Shift" + "a")
· The clock timer now remembers the last used options. (bug fix)
· Incoming SMS messages now prompts the user to "View" or "Close" (previously "Ignore" or "Reply"). Pressing either option now marks the message as "seen" so there is no way to defer messages anymore.
· Labels for contact data can now be deleted.
· Applications on the phone no longer run as root; they run as the user "mobile" instead.
1.1.4 -
February 26, 2008
· Fixed bugs

Part II: Analysis using Schneiderman’s Eight Rules of Interface Design
Overview of Schneiderman’s Eight Rules can be found in the link below:

1. Strive for consistency.

· In terms of User Interface, the iPhone follows some of the more standard criteria, such as having a group of icons, which can be used to activate the major applications on the home screen.

· Although the iPhone is using an innovative “finger touch” interface, interaction with the interface itself is rather intuitive because it resembles that of a more conventional mouse and cursor and a touch screen and stylus interface.

· Activating the icons is as easy as “double-tapping” the icon with your finger, which would resemble a mouse click double-tap.

· Although the touch screen is used for the majority of the interactions, affordances such as a numeric keypad for the phone, a QWERTY keypad for text and Play/Pause, Stop, Skip Forward, Skip Back, etc. among other things, have been added to the interface to make the use with the iPhone more intuitive.

2. Enable frequent users to use shortcuts.

· The latest iPhone Patch (January iPhone Update) has added a new feature that allows users to not only customize their own home screens by rearranging existing icons and adding shortcut icons to their favorite web applications, but create multiple home screens as well.

· Prior to that patch, the majority of iPhone users were simply stuck with the default home screen and only those who ventured into hacking the iPhone and potentially damaging the software (sometimes irreversibly) and possibly voiding the warranty could modify their home screens.
3. Offer informative feedback.

· Fingertip touch screens interfaces usually lack the natural tactile feedback of an actual keyboard and/or keypad. The iPhone compensates by providing an audio “click” and visually enlarging the letter that is being typed right above the fingertip.

· Competitors such as Samsung and Nokia are developing touch screens with haptics such as vibrational feedback so that the fingertip being used to tap on a virtual interface will also feel as if something is actually being tapped.

· In terms of navigation, the iPhone offers visual feedback in terms of an icon of a dot moving around in a circle when a web page or application is being processed in the background.

4. Design sequences of actions so they are organized and yield closure.

· Most of the functions are designed as discrete tasks.

· For example, the user can make a phone call by first tapping the phone icon.

· The user can either select a name from the contacts list or dial the number from the numeric touch keypad.

· Once a number is selected the user can tap the “Send” button to send the call.

· The call will then connect through the wireless carrier and the person, voicemail or answering machine at the other end will pick up.

· The user can then have a voice conversation or leave a voice message.

· The task is completed when either side of the wireless phone connection terminates, the user can manually terminate the call by pressing the “End” button.

5. Offer error prevention and simple error handling.

· Although it is not exactly perfect, the iPhone has a predictive text feature that can automatically correct common spelling errors and help speed up typing with the touchscreen.
· There are also standard fare “yes/no” confirmations when performing difficult to reverse actions like deleting iPhone’s WiFi settings or wireless e-mail configurations.

6. Permit easy reversal of actions.

· The iPhone more or less provides the standard fare in terms of reversal of actions. There is a “back” feature of the web browser and a backspace feature for text entry.

7. Support internal locus of control.

· For the most part the iPhone works well with this paradigm as long as the user is fine with using iTunes to manage and synchronize his or her multimedia content.

· The paradigm breaks down however if the user is used to working with devices with a more open “ecosystem” since other mobile devices have multiple and convenient ways to transfer files, such as USB mass storage mode, where the connected device acts as an external hard drive, hot swappable flash memory card (such as MiniSD, MicroSD, M2 Memory Stick, etc.) Bluetooth Object Exchange (OBEX) and transferring files via WiFi, managing and transferring files exclusively through iTunes can be restricting.

· For other functions such web browsing, the internal locus of control is also maintained. The user can browse the web on the iPhone in a way that is similar to full desktop, going forward and back, entering text and even browsing multiple pages.

· Thanks to the multi-touch interface and the pinch and reverse-pinch gestures, most pages on the web can be browsed in it’s full mode, which greatly reduces the reliance on mobile-specific web pages.

8. Reduce short-term memory load.

· The iPhone has a visual interface with generous use of well placed icons so getting to the most common applications should be a simple task for most users.
· Delving into some of the more technical functionality however is a bit more challenging because common functions like turning Bluetooth and WiFi on and off are buried in the same menus where Bluetooth and WiFi are set up. Preferably, such settings should be no more than one level deep from the main menu. I would suggest that an “on/off” slider toggle switch be placed directly under the settings icon option for both Bluetooth and Wifi.

· Turning the ringer (and sounds) on and off on the other hand is as simple as flipping an external hardware switch, which for the most part provides the utmost convenience, as long as one does not inadvertently leave the switch in the “off” position, when the mean to leave it on of course.

These principles are obviously GUI-focused. Which still apply to IAs, which do not? Can you suggest any others related to what we covered in class, i.e some IA specific guidelines?

Schneiderman’s Eight Rules of Interface Design, which better follows the criteria for Graphical User Interfaces (GUIs) may or may not apply to Information Appliances (IAs) in the following ways:

1. Strive for consistency.

· Any information appliance no matter how much technical functionality has been added on to it, should follow the metaphors of its analog counterpart.

· Therefore, functions such as “baking” and “broiling” on an IA such as a computerized “smart oven” should achieve the same ends as a regular gas or electric oven. Thus, this principle may easily be applied to IAs.

2. Enable frequent users to use shortcuts.

· Although this principle may be a bit more limited, especially with simpler IA interfaces, it can nonetheless be very useful, for users who not only use a particular IA frequently, but use the same function over and over again.

· One example would be a “smart” coffee maker with built-in grinder.

· The user would set his or her preferred coffee settings on the machine, set the time and finally load the coffee beans and water the night before.

· After the machine has been programmed the first time however, a user should be able to save the settings for the next morning and easily get to it so he or she needs only load the coffee beans and water and press the “preferred coffee setting” shortcut the night before.

3. Offer informative feedback.

· This principle should be rather universal in terms of IAs as well.

· For example, if the microwave is done cooking or defrosting it should beep or ring and if it has a display, it should say something like “DONE”.

4. Design sequences of actions so they are organized and yield closure.

· This would help for IAs that require multiple steps.

· A “smart” dishwasher, for example would instruct the user to:
1. Load the dishes (if the were not loaded already)
2. Load the Detergent
3. Choose load size and temperature settings
4. Start the washing cycle
5. Provide an alert when the washing cycle is over

· This functionality can be further enhanced by allowing the user an easy way to repeat the settings in step 3 or setting up a favorite setting, for example one household may prefer a "powersaving" setting, while another my prefer a "heavy duty wash" setting.

5. Offer error prevention and simple error handling.

· Allowing a user to easily back out of a mistaken entry would be welcome on simpler devices, such as clearing a “300 minute” cycle when the user only want to cook for 3 minutes on a microwave.
· On more complex devices such as the aforementioned “smart” coffee machine, alerts can be provided if insufficient coffee beans and/or water has been loaded for a particular setting.

6. Permit easy reversal of actions.

· A simple “back” or “cancel” button would be welcome on even the simplest of IAs and should be a requirement on the more complex ones like the “smart” oven, coffee machine and dishwasher appliances mentioned above.

7. Support internal locus of control.

· This is one of Schneiderman’s rules that may actually be more appropriate for GUIs than IAs. Because Most IAs presumably have simpler courses of action, it may be better for the IAs to actually indicate to the user what needs to be done next especially for novice users and even more especially if the steps must be performed in a specific sequence such as a series of robots for an assembly line.
· Shortcuts can of course be provided for expert users, but for the most part, the locus of control can remain largely on the IA, leaving the initiation of the task and loading of inputs or requisite materials to the user.

8. Reduce short-term memory load.

· This is also an universal rule that can be applied to IAs, like the example of the different bread makers in class, a common task like baking a simple loaf of bread should be as easy as loading the mixed ingredients and pressing the “Start” button, instead of requiring the user to provide several different inputs to perform the same task.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Review: The Rio Forge 256MB Sport

Quick Introduction

The Rio Forge 256MB Sport (FORGE256) is one of the best Flash players in the market having most if not all the features I've been looking for in a flash based player. Given the price the is offering combined with the mail-in rebate, it's probably one of the best values for an MP3 Player period. If you want to compare prices, try one of my favorite comparison sites:

Price at time of purchase (04/2005) from

Price was: $159.99
You save: -$38.00
You pay: $121.99
Mail-in rebate(s): -$50.00
Shipping: (Free shipping on orders $25 & up + Free in-store pickup on all orders)
Price after rebate(s): $71.99


1) Quite a bit of music can be crammed into the player with it's decent 256MB on board memory. If you are using windows media player you can rip your CDs into WMA format. I suggest a bit rate of 96 KBPS for this player so you get a good balance of quality vs. file size. They say a bit rate of 128 KBPS is close to CD quality, but I personally prefer the smaller file size since the sound difference is almost negligible. You could get about 70-80 songs on the player by ripping songs to the 96 KBPS bit rate in WMA format.

2) The upgradeable memory is a definite plus considering the majority of the flash players out there have fixed internal memory with a maximum of 1GB. An upgrade is easily done with the SD/MMC Flash Expansion slot, just insert an SD or MMC flash card up to 1GB (1.256 GB total including the internal flash memory). This is also a boon for people who have digital cameras that use SD or MMC cards and have spare cards that they can use with the player.

I'm hoping a future firmware update will allow larger capacity cards like the 2GB SD cards to be playable. Who knows? There may even be larger capacity (3 GB or more) SD Card in the future. Hopefully the price for 2GB SD cards will go down as well. I guess we'll just have to wait see...

3) FM Tuner and FM Record - Play music from FM radio stations with 8 radio station preset slots. There is also a function to record FM broadcasts onto the memory. I live in a big city so I have a strong signal to my fave radio stations. Not sure how well the signal pick up is from more remote locations however. There is also a built-in stopwatch but unfortunately you can't change the music while the timer is running.

4) Downloading and transfer music files of internal and SD/MMC Flash memory via mini USB slot and supplied USB cable. Just plug it into your PC and it will act like a Removable drive. If you have an SD or MMC card in the player, it will load as a separate removable drive under Windows Explorer. You can also put other files in there like a USB flash/pen drive if you have the space.

The data transfer rate is not too bad under USB 2.0, and if you have an SD/MMC card reader and respective card you can also transfer music that way. I haven't really tried the supplied software and I guess you really don't need it if you download and transfer files straight through explorer. And of course, since the memory is solid-state, it is not as susceptible to skips, shocks and failures like hard drive based players can experience.

5) The player itself has an intuitive navigation system. There is a round navigation thumb pad with raised points for Play/Pause [up], Stop [down], Back [left] and Forward [right]. There is also a "Select" button in the center of the navigation pad, a menu button, a +\- volume control lever at the top and on/off switch that has a delayed "off" function so the player won't turn off by an accidental button tap. There is also a slider "lock" switch, which disables all of the controls and helps prevent accidental changes with the controls. Overall, the controls are simple and easy to use with one hand. It also has a decent LCD display for the size of the player and the backlighting works well in the dark.

6) The color of the Rio Forge Sport 256 (silver/gray) in my humble opinion is the coolest of the bunch, easily edging out the 128 (red) and the 512 (metallic-blue). The 512 MB player is arguably better because of the capacity, but you will pay for it in the price, which last time I checked was around $30-50 more depending on where you buy it. If they had a silver 512 I probably would have forked out the extra cash. Oh well...

7) Takes standard AAA batteries. Rechargeable batteries are probably the most cost effective, but you can put in the high quality batteries for endurance. There is no fixed internal rechargeable battery to worry about replacing when the battery eventually wears down and cannot hold a charge anymore like the iPod or similar players.


1) Supplied earphones have awkward fit. It's supposed to be an "over the ear" design, but the vinyl ear-hooks are pretty flimsy and the fasteners that keep the ear-hooks in place feel jagged and tend to irritate the back of my ears slightly. The earbuds are huge too and never fit into my ears quite right. The sound is OK, not very crisp and not too much base response though. If you have a better pair of earphones, I suggest using them or buying a nice new pair. I wound up buying the Sony Fontopia MDR-EX71, which is an "inside the ear" type model and has significantly better sound output than the stock earphones.

2) I haven't actually gone jogging with the player. The Supplied armband and clip looks sturdy but I wouldn't try using the supplied clip to hang the player on your belt. With that said a belt clip would have been handy. It looks a little cheap, but since there isn't really any specific aftermarket accessories for this player like the mighty iPod line has. I suppose this will just have to do.

3) Although it is touted as a "sport" player, the rubberized grips and the metal faceplate tend to scuff easily. Since it is a solid-state flash player you can shake it around, but I wouldn't recommend dropping it because it is still largely made of plastic. The plastic cover that protects the mini-USB port is not attached giving it a good chance to fall off and be lost.

4) The panel to access the battery and flash card is made of plastic and it is a little tough to open and close so so take care when removing and replacing it.

5) The volume level, even at its highest setting is not that loud. To get the best quality sound out of this player you need to spring for some quality earbuds like Shure or Etymotic. If you don't quite have the cash for that, the Sony Fontopia MDR-EX71 earphones works quite well for me.

Bottom Line

If you are looking for an upgradeable flash-based player with good quality, Look no further than the Rio Forge Sport 256. Although the earphones and arm band could be better, the quality of the player itself makes up for the iffy giveaways it comes with and with the price Circuit City is offering, combined with the mail-in rebate, it is almost a steal.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Link Exchange:

Until I have a reciprocal link page in place, I'll be placing links to other cool gaming and entertainment sites right here in my articles section. Here a site that offered a link exchange:

Source Games

Offering direct sources to high quality games and
gaming consoles that promote learning, fun, and family

I'm not sure how accessible my own link in on that site, so I'll include a shortcut to that page for the indexing spiders to do their crawl:

Actually, I'm much more of a chess player than I am a player of backgammon, but I guess the whole link exchange thing couldn't hurt... =p

Oh if you are a webmaster and are interested in doing a similar link exchange with my site feel free to drop me an e-mail at:

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Review: Grand Theft Auto - San Andreas


I thought I'd kick off beyondZINE's very first article with a review of one of my favorite games Grand Theft Auto - San Andreas by Rockstar Games. The official website can be found here: The game was released on October 26, 2004 for the Playstation 2 console. Rockstar has not officially announced when GTA:SA will be released for the XBox or PC platforms, but like the predecessor GTA Vice City, ports to other platforms can be expected down the road.

I know the game has been out for a few months and the hardcore players have already purchased their copy, but there is always the discriminating buyer who have a limited budget, do their research and buy only the best games off the shelf to get the most bang for their buck. I happen to be one of those players who falls into that category. I had a copy of GTA3 but I never really got into it at first, I was much more into Gran Turismo 3 - A Spec and Metal Gear Solid 2. MGS2 just seemed to have crisper graphics than GTA3 so and more refined gameplay at the time, so I just set GTA3 aside. I managed to pick it up again but I got stuck on the second island during a tough mission where you have to beat the clock to several waypoints. I may actually go back to it someday.

It was not until I started reading the rave reviews for Grand Theft Auto Vice City that I finally got around to buying that game. I was actually looking into purchasing Midnight Club 2 because I'm into racing games and I read in a particular review that GTA-VC had one of the best motorcycle simulation systems, even better than MC2 so it put my decision to buy GTA-VC over the top. I may still buy MC2 just to compare, but I may wait until it becomes a "Greatest Hits" game and drops in price.

But I digress, from the moment I started playing GTA-VC I was hooked, it was easily one of the best games I ever played on the PS2 platform. In my mind it even surpassed MGS2 because of the open gameplay style, which totally enhanced the replay value of the game, unlike MGS2 where once you finished the game and go back for some of the "secrets" you may have missed and maybe go back another time to get a better "score" it's all pretty much over. Buying the next installment of the GTA series San Andreas was pretty much a no-brainer after that. But still, to those discriminating gamers, this review is for you.

General Gameplay

If you are a fan of the predecessors Grand Theft Auto III and Grand Theft Auto Vice City and have not purchased this game yet, there is probably no need to read any further. GTA-SA not only continues the style of open game play that GTA3 pioneered, but improves on it in so many ways, like being able to swim and dive in water. There are also certain role-playing elements that weren't in previous installments that add to the realism of the game like in the beginning of the game, your character starts out with skinny body and where you go from there is really up to you. For instance, you are able to have your character get buff by lifting weights at the gym. Your character can easily regain energy by eating food, but if your character chows down on too much fast food his body will fatten up like the old Jared from those Subway commercials. If your character's ass gets too large for your liking, don't worry, you can lose weight by dieting or exercising. Speaking of exercising, running, cycling and swimming will help increase your character's stamina allowing you move at faster speeds for longer times, which can come in handy throughout the game like when you have to chase down a "mark" or make a hasty getaway from the law.


GTA San Andreas also ups the ante on vehicle gameplay adding more cars and motorcycles to the mix. Throughout the game you can customize certain cars with spoilers, side skirts, bumpers, hood vents and nitrous boosters. Flying vehicles take on a greater importance in the game and your character eventually gains access to various helicopters planes and even jets. There's even a part of the game where you simply cannot progress in the story until you successfully pass pilot school and complete a few really cool flying missions. Once I got the hang of flying in the game, it became my preferred method of travel, simply because the game is so huge that flying around in planes and helicopters can save you so much travel time.

Watch out for the Hitman...

For those who played the previous installments of GTA you may notice an upgrade of the weapon aiming system. The new targeting system is similar to one of Rockstar's other games called Manhunt. You can still auto-aim like previous installments, but you also have the ability to manually aim, strafe, move while targeting, move while shooting, crouch for better cover and aim and roll while crouching to dodge enemy fire. The gory cinematic executions of manhunt have been omitted, but you can't have everything I guess.

GTA-SA also adds a "weapon skill" element for certain weapons. The more times you hit certain targets the better your weapon skill becomes with that weapon. The highest skill level for weapons that have them is the "hitman" skill level which allows you to shoot faster, auto-aim farther and even dual-wield certain weapons effectively doubling the rate of fire for those weapons.

A Tale of Three Cities

The game takes place in a semi-fictional state called San Andreas, which is modeled after the state of California and the plot takes your in-game character through 3 different cities and many different towns in rural and desert areas. The three cities are Los Santos, San Fierro and Las Venturas, which are modeled after the cities of Los Angles, San Francisco and Las Vegas respectively. According to the story, your character will be limited to the city of Los Santos in the beginning due to a recent earthquake that made the bridges and tunnels unsafe to travel across.

As the character progresses through the game and other areas on the map open up one can begin to sense the vastness of the game. You really start to get the feeling that you are traveling significant distances between areas. It's not just three different areas slapped on some map though, because of the way things are laid out you really get the feel that you are in different cities as you travel between them, much like how Liberty City of GTA3 is way different than Vice City of GTA-VC even though the gameplay is very similar, you get that same feeling when you move on to a different city within San Andreas.

Los Santos itself is almost a microcosm of Los Angeles the city it is patterned after. You have the ghettos and gang violence, the smog, the traffic jams, the Hollywood-like Vinewood area complete with the sign and the houses on the hills for all the rich movie stars and gangsta rappers. The rural and desert areas are filled with tractor driving farmer types, cowboys and rednecks.

As you move onto San Fierro the in-game twin of San Francisco you get to see a replica of the Golden Gate Bridge, Trolleys, hilly streets, a bay area, a Silicon Valley type area, a "boys town" area and a Financial district complete with that tall pyramid-like tower and even a few rainstorms. You just really get the feel like you are really there.

Las Venturas, the third city in the game has the look and feel of its real-world counterpart Las Vegas especially when the sun goes down and the neon lights start flashing. You have all these different casinos that are very similar to actual casinos that were around during the 90's and are still in operation to this day. You see all different types of NPCs here from the different areas in the game like hoodrats, yuppies and especially the Elvis impersonators. It's so visually impressive that you may find yourself just cruising down the strip in the game one night in your stolen car and taking in the sights.

Of course none of the cities would be complete without their own airports, which allow you to either purchase a passenger ticket to fly between cities or if you have a pilot's license, you can even grab a plane or helicopter and fly yourself to wherever you want in the game. With that said, San Andreas is easily one of the largest in-game areas I've ever seen and since it's a relatively open gameplay style of game you can pretty much go wherever you want.

The Player

I don't want to give up too much of the storyline away so I'll just start off with the synopsis as presented in the Rockstar Games San Andreas website and throw in a few of my notes thereafter:

Five years ago Carl Johnson escaped from the pressures of life in Los Santos, San Andreas... a city tearing itself apart with gang trouble, drugs and corruption. Where filmstars and millionaires do their best to avoid the dealers and gangbangers.

Now, it's the early 90s. Carl's got to go home. His mother has been murdered, his family has fallen apart and his childhood friends are all heading towards disaster.

On his return to the neighborhood, a couple of corrupt cops frame him for homicide. CJ is forced on a journey that takes him across the entire state of San Andreas, to save his family and to take control of the streets.

Liberty City. Vice City. Now San Andreas, a new chapter in the legendary series.
Grand Theft Auto returns to the PlayStation®2 computer entertainment system this October.

Although you start out with a specific character for the game much like the "silent guy" in GTA3 and Tommy Vercetti in Vice City, the character you play in San Andreas, Carl Johnson can be customized in appearance. Unlike the different "outfits" that Tommy had available in GTA-VC, Carl can wear different things for his torso, legs and shoes. He can also wear accessories such as watches, chains, hats and sunglasses. Carl can also get a variety of different hairstyles, get inked up with tattoos and as mentioned earlier can develop different body types based on exercise, diet or the lack thereof.

Early in the game you start off with very little "respect" with your fellow gang members. Respect will eventually be earned throughout the game, but you can get small boosts in respect by wearing certain clothing especially your gang's colors, developing a "gangster physique" and having the right hairstyle. With enough respect you can recruit gang members to do some drive by shooting against rival gangs or just have a crew of homies to back you up as you travel the mean streets of Los Santos.

The Sounds of San Andreas

GTA3 started out with it's own made for the game soundtrack, whose songs were arranged into their own radio stations complete with their own DJs and commercial breaks. Although most if not all of the songs were never played on the actual real world radio except maybe for some of the classical songs, the fact that you were able to switch to different and convincing radio stations in you car just added a degree of realism to the game.

Vice City completely raised the bar by including real world music in its soundtrack, from the 80's no less. In my opinion the entire soundtrack just completely added to the atmosphere of the game giving a player the feel that one was actually in a Miami Vice-like city back in the 80's. The blending of the music and gaming elevated the game to a work of art.

San Andreas took the formula of great music and great gaming and just ran with it with its own 90's based soundtrack. If you jack a car from a rival gang member in Los Santos you are likely to hear Radio Los Santos or Play Back thumping on the radio. The former is a gangster rap station and the latter is an old school hip-hop station. I found myself listening to Radio Los Santos through most of the Los Santos part of the game. Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg are f*cking awesome.

If you find yourself stuck in the countryside you might hear a lot of country music with the radio station K-Rose tuned to most of the dials. Even if you were never quite a fan of country, just driving around in a car or truck you just jacked from some NPC hillbilly hick with country music blaring on the car speakers just helps add to the atmosphere of the game.

There are actually a bunch of songs that I wound up liking that I never really got into until I started playing the game regularly. I'll eventually put up a list of songs available both in-game and on the CD soundtrack sets that are available for sale and maybe put in a future review. The bottom line is that the soundtrack and its various radio stations totally contributed to the feel of the game. About the only thing missing was a radio station featuring Sinatra and the Rat-Pack and perhaps some Vegas-Era Elvis. I know it's not exactly 90's but it would have made Venturas much more Vegas-like.

Aside from the music, the NPCs (non-player characters) or the average Joe and Jane citizens that walk San Andreas seem to have had a slight upgrade. They still interject their silly pre-scripted comments and react with various comments when you bump into them, but what do differently in San Andreas is actually have short conversations and saying goodbye to each other, with some of the conversation combos turning out to be rather funny. :)

The Storyline

Again, I don't want to give up too much of the story because it's almost like talking about a movie to someone who hasn't seen the movie yet. It's much better to just go out and see for yourself and like I recommended earlier if you enjoyed GTA3 and GTA-VC then go ahead and buy GTA-SA. If you are unfamiliar with the series you might want to start from GTA3 and work your way up. They are all great games in their own right and knowing what happens in the previous games just adds to and builds upon the overall appeal of San Andreas.

I do have to say one thing, the stories and the missions throughout the game were top-notch, but the ending itself could have been a little better. I loved how in GTA-VC you, or Tommy rather, received various forms of congratulations over the cell phone, lending to the sense that yeah, I really finished this game. We really didn't get that in San Andreas. While GTA VC simply had a better ending, I do have to reiterate that GTA-SA is overall a larger, more technically advanced and superior game compared to its predecessors.

I would say about the only way to advance the gameplay in a future installment now is to include some sort of online element to it. There are some rudimentary 2-player elements included in the game, but to really make the multiplayer action shine is to be able to put players on separate screens and go head to head in a race or death match or whatever. Imagine an massively multiplayer online version of Grand Theft Auto, oh the chaos! Maybe a limited multiplayer version would be more feasible.

Still that's the future. For now go ahead and buy Grand Theft Auto San Andreas. In my humble opinion it's one of the best games out there and it is well worth the price of admission.

Saturday, January 22, 2005 Articles section launched...

I figured out how to get blogger to publish directly to my host, which ultimately defeats the need for a separate blog here in the address. I may keep this blog around for a few months however to see if this blog helps drive traffic to the main site.

I'll post articles to both blogs for now as they start coming in and I'll see what happens. :) Meanwhile please feel free to visit the new articles page on beyondZINE. It has the same layout as this one, which makes it pretty cool I think. :)

Friday, December 31, 2004

The domain has been purchased.

I finally got around to purchasing the domain along with a relatively inexpensive shared web server host using the financial windfall of my Christmas money. =p It is going to take a while for the domain name servers to kick in, but don't fret, I have a temporary viewing address up and running
. Until I figure out a decent system to post articles on that domain, I will continue to post articles here and even afterwards I may keep this blogger account as a mirror for my upcoming articles. Stick around, because this shit is gonna be off the hook. ;)

Monday, December 27, 2004

Zine Ideas...

I think I'm starting to get a good idea of what I want to do with this e-zine. It's more or less going to be articles about things I like. I'll start out with my favorite subjects, which are movies and games. I may eventually branch out into other interests, like gadgets and music, but for now I think I have more than enough to write about.

I just finished one of the best games I have ever played, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, so I will be writing a review about that game in the near future for my first article. I also plan on putting out a hint guide to that game.

I know there are are quite a few walkthroughs and "secrets" already out there for GTA-SA, but I'll try to put together a list of things that I found most useful and most fun, like getting a pilot's licence early and exploiting some useful glitches and "soft cheats" to get the most out of the game without suffering the penalties of entering and saving those in-game cheat codes.

So keep beyondZine bookmarked, in your favorites or what have you because there are defintilely good things to come. :)