AuthorRyan Finnie

Confessions of a casual PS4 launch participant

On Friday at 12:01 AM, I became a PlayStation 4 owner. I was first in line at the Carson Valley Best Buy to get one. No, I didn't camp out for a week or anything. In fact, it was mostly accidental.

First, let me say, I am not a hardcore console player, nor am I a zealot toward any console camp. I like console gaming, but my ownership has been erratic. He's a list of consoles I have owned, in order:

  • ColecoVision
  • NES
  • Super NES
  • PlayStation 2
  • Wii (launch day)
  • Xbox 360 (Falcon)
  • Xbox 360 S
  • Wii Family Edition
  • PlayStation 4

Yes, both my original 360 and Wii units died. The 360 after about 3 years, the Wii after nearly 6 years. Both failure modes were similar: they would occasionally work, but most of the time would freeze during startup. In both cases, I bought a replacement unit, and sold the old unit for parts on eBay. Both sales got decent money (not enough to pay for the replacement of course, but more than I would have expected for mostly broken systems).

The only time I ever camped out for a consumer device was for the Wii launch in November 2006. Best Buy was opening at 8 AM, and I stopped by at about 8 PM to check out the line and talk to people. I did want the Wii, but didn't plan on camping for it. There were already about 50 people in line, but rumor was they had about 150 units available. So what the hell, I went home, grabbed a folding quad chair and some warm clothing, invited some friends, and went back to the line.

It was actually pretty fun. Lots of social people in line, people would occasionally get pizza delivered, lots of GameBoy action, etc. After midnight, a few people who managed to get the few sold at Wal-Marts came by and flaunted their new purchases. When 8 AM came around, it turns out they had over 150 units available, and there were only about 120 people in line, so technically camping wasn't even needed. But like I said, it was a fun experience. (If I would have known there would be shortages for the next year or so, I would have bought 10.)

Fast forward to Thursday night. I was vaguely interested in getting a PS4 (my personal guess is the PS4 is going to "win" this generation, but I've been wrong about such things before; picking HD-DVD over Blu-Ray, for example), and was driving by the Reno Best Buy at 7 PM, when I saw about 30 people in line for the midnight launch. They had no idea how many units were going to be available, so I didn't think it was worth it to get in line. But I decided to drive out to the Carson Valley Best Buy to see if there was a line there (my Ford C-MAX is still new enough that it doesn't take much persuasion to get me to drive 45 minutes).

When I got there at about 8 PM, there was a roped-off area for non-preorders, but nobody in line. The fact that the area existed probably meant there was at least one console available, so hey, I got in line. Two minutes later a woman got in line behind me, who was buying it for her husband who was out of town. Then, for the next hour, nothing. At about 9 PM, a few more people trickled in. More after 10 PM. At 11 PM, there were about 20 people in line, when they let us in to begin taking our money and trying to sucker us into buying bundled accessories and services. My favorite was, "The PS4 includes an HDMI cable0, but it's just a cheap, basic one. You want this $50 cable, which supports 3D and 4K!" (The PS4 supports neither 3D nor 4K, and HDMI cables are essentially all the same.)

At 12:01 AM, they passed out the purchases. I bought the PS4, Need for Speed: Rivals, and Knack.

Coming up next, a review of the PS4...

0 Wow, a consumer video device which comes with an HDMI cable. What next, a printer which comes with a USB cable?

I'll try not to let stardom go to my head

I'm now in IMDB, and officially have a Bacon number of 3.

Here's the clip, a seven-second close-up of my torso and a brief shot of my face.

Closing out the books, 2009 edition

2013 Ford C-Max HybridToday I made the first fill-up of my new Ford C-Max. The result was slightly surprising: 40.7 MPG; I was expecting between 35 and 38 MPG. A far cry from the advertised 47 MPG, but as I explained in my last post, I realized the MPG discrepancy when buying the new car, and my expectations are built around an average of about 36 MPG. Coincidentally, yesterday Ford voluntarily re-rated the 2013 C-Max from 47/47/47 to 45/40/43. Still more than I'm expecting, but more in line with a typical car's posted MPG vs reality.

As with my 2007 Prius, I kept fuel records of my 2009 Prius, and have crunched the numbers:

  • 108 fill-ups between November 5, 2008 and July 23, 2013, with a total of 40,637 miles driven.
  • An average of 16 days between fill-ups (min 0, max 48).
  • 376 miles driven between fill-ups average (min 217, max 487), with an average fill-up of 8.962 gallons (min 6.613, max 11.466). The Prius had a fuel capacity of approximately 12 gallons (though it varied depending on the ambient temperature), and the low fuel warning usually came on between 8 and 9 gallons, so that 11.466 fill-up was cutting it very close (or the pump was rigged).
  • Gas price per gallon per fill-up was $3.268 average (min $1.849, max $4.499). Gas prices from one fill-up to the next changed an average of 16.6 cents. Maximum change between fill-ups was a drop of 66 cents, from a rural station in Southern California on May 23, 2011, to a Reno Sam's Club (member discount applied) the next day.
  • Average fill-up cost $29.19 (min $16.63, max $40.12). A lifetime total of $3,152.66 was spent on 967.904 gallons. Fuel cost per mile was $0.0776.
  • Average MPG per fill-up was 42.018 (min 26.770, max 56.162). Lifetime MPG (lifetime miles over lifetime gallons) was 41.989.

If you are interested in the raw data, the spreadsheet used to generate these numbers is available here.

New car, 2013 edition

2013 Ford C-Max HybridMy friends, I have bought a new car.

"Oh, it must be Saturday."

Yeah yeah... (I would point out the last time I bought a car was nearly 5 years ago.) But the shocker is it's not a Prius. It's a 2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid. That's right, after 12 years of Prius ownership, I have jumped ship. And I love it.

First, a little background. The C-Max is a competitor to the Prius v, not the regular Prius. When the 2012 Prius v was announced, I was confused about it specifically, and crossovers in general. It was advertised as a larger Prius, but my first impression was, "What's the big deal? The numbers are a little larger, but it doesn't look any bigger in photos. It can't be much different." After taking a test drive in a C-Max, I now get crossovers. The C-Max, like the Prius v (which I admit I haven't been in) may have the outer stylings of a midsize hatchback, but the interior is laid out and feels a lot more like a compact SUV. Higher ride, more headroom, more room in general.

By the way, I categorize it as a crossover because frankly, the crossover category is already very loosely defined, and the C-Max doesn't cleanly fall into an established category. Ford simply groups it as a "hybrid", while Wikipedia calls it a "compact MPV" (a term not used in the US, though we would call a regular MPV a minivan) and groups it with light trucks. The EPA groups it as a "large car".

So the C-Max looks like a hatchback on the outside, feels like an SUV on the inside, and handles like a Focus (which it is based on). I've been driving it since I bought it on Wednesday, and I love it.

(Let me point out that in my points below, I am comparing the 2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid to my previous second generation Toyota Prius. Not all points may be applicable to the current third generation Prius, or to the Prius v.)

First, I'll get the bad points out of the way. It's not a Prius. It won't get the same fuel efficiency as a Prius. The EPA estimate is 47 MPG city/highway/combined, but at best, I'd describe that as a distortion of reality. At worst, I'd call it a downright lie. I have a feeling the C-Max was "taught to the test"; that is, it was designed to do best at the EPA standardized test. Real world usage will be about 38MPG, slightly lower than what my 5 year old Prius got in the real world.

The cargo area (before you fold down the fold-flat rear seats) is 24.5 cubic feet. My Prius was 14.4 cubic feet, but the floor surface area of the Prius was noticeably larger than the C-Max. So the C-Max technically has more cargo volume, but the Prius felt like there was more cargo room available. Also, the under-floor storage of the C-Max is greatly reduced compared to the Prius.

2013 Ford C-Max HybridThat's basically it for the cons. The C-Max shines at everything else I've found. The interior build quality is excellent compared to the Prius, and feels very solid. It's noticeably quicker; 0-60 in 8.1 seconds, a full 2 seconds quicker than the Prius. Handling is much better as well.

The dash is beautiful. There are three LCDs, one each built into the left and right of the speedometer to display standard data (odometer, fuel remaining, etc) and hybrid data, and a large touchscreen LCD in the center dash. The default view to the left of the speedometer is "Coach" mode, which gives you bar graphs showing how efficient you are at acceleration, cruising and braking. To the right of the speedometer is "Efficiency Leaves", which gives you an at-a-glance view of your efficiency. Careful driving will grow leaves on the branches, and wasteful driving will make the leaves fly off.

It also keeps track of regenerative braking. When you come to a full stop, it shows you the efficiency of that braking maneuver, with 100% meaning the brake pads were never used and all of the energy was recaptured to recharge the batteries. The main touchscreen also has a mode which shows what the ICE/electric systems are doing, like the Prius, but unlike the Prius, it tells you why the ICE has turned on (you're accelerating rapidly, the batteries need to be topped off, etc).

The main functionality of the large touchscreen is a system called SYNC with MyFord Touch, and it's great. The massive amount of functionality is a little unintuitive at first, but once you realize how things are laid out, it's very easy to work with. GPS navigation looks decent, though I have not yet tried setting a route. It was easy to pair my iPhone with the car, and the built-in phone functionality works well. Climate control is more refined than on the Prius. But the best part is the entertainment system. It supports AM/FM, HD radio, CD, Sirius/XM, USB media, Bluetooth audio, and oddly, RCA A/V in (which I have not tested yet). The Bluetooth audio works great with the iPhone, song information displays on the LCD, and I have full control of playback/navigation from the touchscreen or the steering wheel.

Plenty of places for power too. One 12v lighter adapter inside the center console, one outside it, and one in the cargo area. And interestingly enough, the back seats have a standard NEMA receptacle, though it is limited to 150w (plenty of power for a laptop, though).

It supports automatic parallel parking as well, and to my surprise, it actually works! Press a button, and the car begins scanning the area as you drive. When you pass a spot long enough to work, it tells you when to stop, tells you to put it into reverse, and when you ease off the brake, it does everything else for you.

2013 Ford C-Max HybridHonestly, there are about a hundred other things I could mention, and I'm still finding new features. For example, today I found it has a WiFi client built into the car. Presumably for people who have garages, so it can use the internet connection in the house to download things like traffic/weather data. (My carpark parking space is too far away from my apartment for the car to see my access point.)

The future of the C-Max in the US is uncertain. It's been a badge in Europe for years (including non-hybrid models), but this is the first model year it's been available in the US, as a hybrid only. J.D. Power ranked it last in initial quality, which is tracked by consumer complaints about design problems, and that was almost entirely due to two issues: the lower than expected MPG and the MyFord Touch system.

The MPG issue I already touched on; in my opinion it sucks that it's advertised as 47 MPG, but I'm willing to accept that it won't do more than 40 MPG in real-world usage. If they had advertised 40 MPG, I think it would have been a moot point for most people.

Apparently after the launch there were many, many problems with the usability of the MyFord Touch system. I've seen pictures from last year of it in action, and it even looked quite different than it does today. But they've released a handful of updates (the firmware is field-upgradeable), and I've had no problems with the version on my car.

I read a lot of reviews before I made the purchase, and while you would expect there to be a wide range of professional auto review opinions on a new car, they eerily all follow the same formula: Good looks on the outside, lots of space on the inside, excellent build quality, excellent power and handling for a hybrid, unrealistic MPG, and horrible entertainment interface. If everyone's agreeing on the major points, and the two downsides are 1) acceptable to me and 2) already fixed through software updates, I consider that a good thing.

For the record, I've got the top trim level (C-Max Hybrid SEL) with the top package (303A), and includes every option but the sunroof. It was a bit expensive, $31,000, but I got a decent trade-in on my 5-year-old Prius, $14,000. Many of the options (such as nav, leather and MyFord Touch) are only available in the top packages, but for a semi-luxury car, it's a pretty good price. There is also a plug-in hybrid variant of the C-Max, but as I don't have a garage, it wouldn't be useful (and it's not approved for sale in Nevada yet).

M29, a secure URL shortener

A year ago, I launched M29, a URL shortener with a twist. Apparently I forgot to announce it here. Whoops.

Normal URL shorteners are fairly simple. You submit a long URL. The service generates a short URL. The long and short URL are placed in a backend database. If you go to the short URL, it redirects to the long URL.

This means that the URL shortener service has a large database of URLs available to it. While 99% of the contents of this database may be mundane, it's still a large, centralized source of information. Very relevant to the recent NSA news, for example.

M29's twist is, except when serving the redirect, it does not know anything about the contents of the long URLs. This is accomplished by generating an AES-128 key, using it to encrypt the long URL, and then splitting the key in two. One half of the key is stored in the backend service, and the other half is encoded as part of the short URL itself. This means the only time the two parts of the key come together is when the short URL is requested for the redirect.

Getting from a long URL to a short URL can be done one of several ways. If you go to m29.us and have Javascript enabled, the client side actually loads an AES libary, builds the key, encrypts the URL, and sends the encrypted URL and half of the key to the server, all processed on the client side. If you don't have Javascript enabled, this task is farmed out to the server side, which generates a random key, encrypts, makes the database insert, returns the short URL, then throws away half of the key. M29 also has a featureful API which lets you do these tasks yourself. (It is also compatible with the goo.gl API, which is easy to work with and has several tools available.)

The net effect is, while I currently have a database of about 10,000 entries, I cannot read them. Source IP and URI logging are not done on the server, so the only way I can find a long URL is if I load a full short URL, which is not possible given just the backend database.

Anyway, this weekend I did some work on M29, including adding a bit.ly-style preview option (append a "+" to the short URL to get its info), among other small feature additions and fixes. It was then I realized, by going to that above short URL (the first URL generated and used in documentation) that the one-year anniversary of the service is today.

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