Stray Pixels

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EXCLUSIVE: Author David Craddock on “Stay Awhile and Listen,” a book about the making of “Diablo”

Stay Awhile and Listen launches today on Kindle, Nook, and iBooks. The book tells the story of Diablo and its developer, Blizzard Entertainment, from the very beginning until launch in 1995. With countless exclusive interviews and the passionate writing style of a true fan, Stay Awhile and Listen is a worthwhile purchase if you love games, Diablo, or happen to work in the industry.

The author is David Craddock, an experienced freelancer with bylines on some of the biggest publications and websites out there including, Joystiq, Touch Arcade, ShackNews, and the Official Xbox Magazine.

You can download the book for Kindle at http://www.amazon.com/Stay-Awhile-Listen-Blizzards-Video-Game-ebook/dp/B00G8UL474

Describe the first time you played Diablo.

David Craddock: I will never forget this… because it’s so painful. My Uncle Brad became friends with some of the guys at Blizzard North. They played roller hockey together, and they started calling on him to help with their networking and IT troubles. They passed along early copies of games to him, and he passed them to me.

One of his first scores was a demo that only developers from Blizzard North had access to. I think you could only create a Warrior, so I did that, appeared in Tristram, and took my first step. That’s when the pain started. See, Diablo required a Pentium processor. A low-speed Pentium, but a Pentium nonetheless. My rig, which proudly sported a turbo button (remember those?), was a 486/66 megahertz machine. You could only walk in Diablo. My avatar didn’t walk. He crawled. The turbo button failed me.

I didn’t care, though. The demo lasted only two levels and ended in a battle to the death against the Butcher. I never did kill that Butcher bastard. I even started new games with my characters and killed scavengers (rats), Fallen, zombies, and skeletons, earning experience points at a flood and then a trickle when I reached the sky-high level of, like, 6, I think. Still wasn’t good enough to kill ol’ Butch.

But never mind all that! I was an addict. I moved to San Francisco in 2007 and met Eric Sexton and Kelly Johnson, artists on Diablo 1-2. They worked with my Uncle Brad on some games and talked to me about stereoscopic graphics for my first freelance writing gig. Eric and I became good friends, and he offered to help me round up his old colleagues so I could interview everyone about Diablo and the old days at Blizzard North. The series expanded to include the history of Blizzard Entertainment and their games as well.

Seven years later and here we are.

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Cover

Did you play the game with friends back then? Or were you more of a solo player?

David: I’ve been close friends with three guys since our elementary school days: Jeff, Mike, and Andrew (the primary editor on Stay Awhile and Listen, matter o’ fact). Jeff and Andrew played WarCraft II over their phone lines every night after school. I think Mike played it, but I didn’t. I vacillate between console and PC games, and I was all about Super NES and fighting games back in those days.

My first Blizzard game was Diablo, and as we know, I loved it. Jeff and Andrew took to it as well. Mike? Not so much. He was more into strategy games, but the rest of us played Diablo so he gave it a shot. Speaking of shots, Jeff fired some several, most of them into Mike’s avatar. Jeff was what we refer to today as a troll. He was all about player-killing (PK’ing) in Diablo. Mike was the newbie and suffered Jeff’s trollish behavior. Our party entered the labyrinth, killed a few skeletons—and then Jeff turned on Mike, cutting him down with alacrity.

Andrew and I tried to help. We typed in, “Okay, Mike. David’s going to cast Town Portal. Andrew will resurrect you. As soon as you’re back on your feet, GO THROUGH THE PORTAL.”

Mike’s response: “My stuff sucks.”

The good Samaritans: “Yes, well, we’ll get to that later. Ready?”

Mike: “I need armor.”

I opened a portal. Andrew performed the resurrection. And Mike stood there while Jeff struck him down again. I also recall “HAHAHAHAHA” filling up the chat window.

In another instance, Andrew and I attempted to tag-team the Butcher. We were each around level 3 or 4; I was a Warrior, he played a Sorcerer. It went as well as you might expect. I died first since my character went toe-to-claw with Butchy. My character collapsed, my loot fountained out everywhere, and the screen went red. I typed, “Rez me!” Andrew couldn’t though. I watched, doubled over in laughter, as the Butcher chased him around and around the outside of his square lair. Occasionally Andrew would pause and throw a firebolt or spray lightning. The spells would miss, and off he ran again, around and around and around, the Butcher’s cleaver whistling through the air just behind him.

Man that was funny.

Do you remember being able to run the game in the highest frame rate in high-res? Did you have to update your PC at all in order to play?

David: I was stuck with the 468/66 machine for a long time. That didn’t stop my addiction, though. It probably took me twice as long to complete the game as the average player, but I made the best of it!

Did you ever dream about Diablo? :)

David: You know, I do dream about Diablo. I’m glad you brought this up. I don’t know where else to turn. He whispers to me. Usually at night. He threatens me. Makes me do things to the townsfolk. He tells me to trust Lazarus, and I…

Wait, wait—I confused myself with King Leoric. What, that’s never happened to you?

Actually, I do dream about the games quite a bit. One Saturday, I played for probably 10 hours straight. When I closed my eyes, I saw the map grid burned against my eyelids.

You mentioned that writing Stay Awhile and Listen was a 5-year project. How was your day like back when you were in the middle of writing the book? Were you able to take some time off (i.e. work a bit less) or did you essentially work on it during nights and weekends?

Stay Awhile and Listen has been a labor of love. Emphasis on “labor.” I’m a freelance writer by trade, and there were many occasions where I had to set Stay Awhile aside and focus on gotta-pay-the-bills projects. I was able to hammer out a schedule that I stuck to through most of the project.

In the mornings, I’d shower, wolf down breakfast, and focus on book stuff. I always woke up energized about Stay Awhile and other personal writing projects, so I gave them my best hours of the day. (Sorry, Amie.) After lunch, I’d take a small break and then turn my attention to freelance stuff. That worked out pretty well while my wife (the co-founder of DM Press along with yours truly) and I lived in the Bay Area. I wrote for so many clients during out first year and a half in San Francisco: Official Xbox Magazine, PlayStation: The Official Magazine, Good Old Games (GOG.com), Electronic Arts…

When the economy bottomed out in ‘09, I lost my job and the clients I’d written for lost their budgets for freelancers. I eventually found semi-steady work, but we ended up leaving the Bay Area and moving back east to Ohio, where the cornfields are many and the cost of living is sane. I’ve gone through lean periods, but Stay Awhile was always there. Some days I wrote a little. Most days I tried to write a lot: transcribing interviews, outlining interviews, and then tucking in on the first draft in December ‘11 through the following May.

The feast-or-famine routine was actually one of my primary motivators for dividing the book into three volumes. I wanted and needed to release something after so long. It’s great to finally see that book in stores, but I can’t bask in the afterglow for too long. More words to write!

Did you actually meet some of the Blizzard developers face-to-face? How did it feel to meet your childhood heroes?

David: After meeting Eric Sexton and Kelly Johnson, who helped me flesh out my Blizzard rolodex, I spent several days each week trucking back and forth from San Francisco into Silicon Valley. There, I ate many lunches and drank many cups of hot cocoa with Dave Brevik, Rick Seis, Michio Okamura, Mike Dashow, Mark Tattersall, Tyler Thompson, Karin Seis (nee Colenzo), and other Blizzard North alumni. I’m proud to say I count each and every one of those folks as a friend.

On my last day in the Bay Area, Amie and I rushed into San Francisco, tired, dirty, and sweaty from last-minute details, and had lunch with Dave Brevik and Max and Erich Schaefer, Blizzard North’s founding fathers. That was the first time I got to chat with those guys all in the same room. I didn’t do much talking. I was tired, but I was more focused on their interaction. They bounced ideas back and forth at lightning speed, talking about this and that.

After lunch, we gathered together in front of the restaurant and snapped a photo. You can see it for yourself.

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The author (second from left to right) with the team responsible for Diablo

What’s next for DM Press?

David: Amie and I hope to expand to international markets. Sooner on the horizon, I’ve got Stay Awhile and Listen - Book II to edit (it’s finished but needs to be put through the fact-checking and rewriting stages) and a young adult fantasy novel, Heritage, that launches next July from Tyche Books. Also on the DM Press side, I’m working on another big project (no hints!), but before that launches, I confess I’m a bit tired. I want to publish some smaller books—smaller in terms of scope—to build our library a bit.

Trust me when I say that gamers everywhere will soak up what we’ve got coming down the pipe.

Filed under diablo blizzard pc gaming books

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Pixel Press: David & Jack's Finished Pixel Press Level in Minecraft

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pixelpressgame:

If you’ve been following along David and his son Jack have been working on the first Pixel Press level in Minecraft (#PPIMC). Below are the latest images, and even a video David put together.

Even more cool - David and Jack have shared their Minecraft template that you can use to build your…

Are you into Minecraft? Then this is for you :)

Filed under minecraft games pixel press kickstarter

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Mobile gaming, the Sega Genesis, and why 16-bit still has a few tricks up its sleeve

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If there’s one thing 16-bit games excelled at is to do more with less. Their CPUs didn’t even hit 10 MHz and “large” games took an entire 4 megabyte cartridge. They couldn’t handle polygons without extra chips, couldn’t stream music and did not include any sort of networked play. Still, try to find anyone who doesn’t adore 16-bit games. You can’t. A huge percentage of gamers grew up in the late 1980s and early 1990s when 16-bit consoles were all the rage.

Can 16-bit consoles like the Sega Genesis teach mobile developers how to make better games? What can we learn from these high-powered behemoths of the past, when “High Definition Graphics” meant 256x224 pixels of resolution and three-button gamepads ruled the Earth?

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The Mega Drive, Genesis’ Japanese doppelganger

Sega’s greatest console

I’m an unabashed Sega fanboy. We have no less than THREE Sega Genesis consoles at home, one JVC X’Eye and two Model 1s. One of the Model 1s is configured as the so-called “Tower of Doom,” sitting on top of a functioning Model 1 Sega CD and enhanced with a then-powerful 32X.

The Master System was a good console; I played a ton of Master System games. I was living in Brazil then, and unfortunately mine died in a fire — I would have brought it with me to the U.S. otherwise. The Master System had superior graphics and CPU hardware than the NES but sound was lacking when compared to Nintendo’s grey box (at least the U.S./European version, which didn’t have FM sound). Games were mostly fun, but there was a distinct lack of 3rd party titles due to Nintendo’s ironclad contracts. Most titles were superficial: arcade ports (R-Type, OutRun), sports (Great Soccer), platformers (Castle of Illusion) and action games (Rambo First Blood Part II).

We all know the NES trounced the Master System in the U.S. That’s why Sega went all-out with the Genesis. They started with arcade components, lost 1 CPU (the System 16 board sported dual Motorola 68000) and included a top-notch Yamaha sound chip for high-quality stereo sound. Sega didn’t skimp on design either, coming up with a black, menacing shape that is unique to this day. The Genesis meant business.

The Genesis’s legacy is a library with 915 titles. Many of them are classics like Streets of Rage, Sonic The Hedgehog, Strider, Mortal Kombat, Virtua Racing, Phantasy Star II to IV, and much more. Unlike the Master System, Genesis games managed to be very deep, reaching near-PC depth for the time. For example, F-22 Interceptor was an elaborate, true-to-life simulator and games like Haunting Starring Polterguy let players “haunt” pesky humans through detailed isometric graphics. The Genesis didn’t have the greatest sound (when compared to the SNES) or color (limited to 64 on-screen at the same time) but it was directly responsible for creating millions of Sega fans, most now in their early 30s. Almost 42 million consoles were sold worldwide; Genesis’ legacy lives on thanks to never-ending porting to Steam, XBox Live Arcade, PSN, Google Play and Apple’s App Store.

Mobile vs. 16-bit

Mobile is similar to 16-bit in more ways than one. Like 16-bit titles running on ancient hardware, mobile games have to make the best of 4 to 5-inch screens, 2-channel sound and limited hardware specs. 3D graphics may now be a reality thanks to powerful mobile GPUs like Nvidia’s Tegra 3 and Apple’s A6 CPU/GPU combo, but most developers can’t spend $3 million on a single title. As a result, most mobile games are still 2D — or 2.5D — which brings them closer to 16-bit. The same for sound. While the latest smartphones could offer surround sound, no one carries a 5.1 setup with them everywhere they go.

How about the interface? 16-bit consoles like the Super Nintendo (SNES) and the Sega Genesis relied on gamepads with a small number of buttons. Smartphones have zero physical buttons, but can counter with an unlimited number of virtual buttons — and accelerometers. Hardcore gamers will always prefer physical buttons but savvy developers know how to deliver precise controls via gestures and virtual buttons.

Modern mobile games on Android and iOS have been with us for roughly three and a half years. A console generation lasts an average of five years. If mobile was a console platform, the current generation of games would be just over the “learning curve” that often results in terrible launch titles. By now, mobile games should be fairly mature, just like the best SNES and Genesis games in 1993.

16-bit wisdom

Now that we established that mobile and 16-bit  share a few personality traits, let’s look at ways 16-bit game design can make mobile games better.

No-frills intros

Known for its terrible Engrish, Zero Wing had notwithstanding a very nice, polished intro. Similar to today’s motion comics, intros in the late 1980s and early 1990s spelled out the game’s premise with showy graphics and music. They made booting any brand-new game a special occasion.

Another great example of a quality intro is Streets of Rage, with its moody dance music, scrolling titles and blinking city lights.

Memorable music

Thanks to MP3 files and loose limits on game size, everyone can have CD-quality music in their game. Unfortunately, the result was far from better music. Music is actually worse now. How could this have happened?

In the past, composing game music was similar to programming. Sure, you could use an audio suite but in the end music was still generated on-the-go by a sound chip, not recorded and then played back by the console’s sound card like today. You needed to know each console’s chipset intimately. The Genesis’ Yamaha YM2612 could be challenging but was able to deliver standout scores like Ecco The Dolphin, Bio-Hazard Battle and Lightning Force. This forced developers to spend more time on the music, which lead to the memorable, epic music we all love to this day. Nowadays, it’s easy to buy “canned” music and simply drop it in the game. Quality suffers as a result, which is why most cannot remember a single song or score from mobile games. I can only think of the Angry Birds theme myself!

Hair-pulling difficulty

Mobile games tend to be way too easy. Some are proudly “casual.” Genesis games on the other hand could be punishingly difficult. Take E-Swat for example. You play this armored, Robocop-like cop but you don’t get to wear the damn suit until level three. So if you never make it past level two, you’re screwed. Worse yet, once you finally get to level three, the game becomes three times harder. Now, is that a bad thing? NO! As Dark Souls so bravely demonstrated, a tough game can be exhilarating. Console games didn’t offer instant saves — only RPGs could afford it — so a difficult game had to be completed in one sitting. Raising the average difficulty level for mobile games would be easy due to instant saving and/or checkpoint systems.

How many of you would welcome more challenging mobile games? I know I would.

Fair pricing

If you could tell someone from 1994 that you can “buy” a game for free in 2012, something that could easily cost $50 back in the day, they would have a fit. “No way, games are expensive!” would be their likely answer. Except that we now live in that world. The world of freemium, “paymium” and everything in between. We download mobile games for free like it’s the new normal.

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Not to beat a dead horse, but we need to start paying for our games again. Developers should be able to sell a quality, full-featured mobile game for $12 at the very least. Genres that naturally lead to in-app purchases can remain free — that’s not a problem. It’s action games, RPGs and sports/racing games that worry me. 16-bit games made their developers money, which in turn led to 32 and 64-bit games. In two years, 2/3 mobile developers might go out of business because, frankly, it’s expensive to keep a studio going. We can keep not paying for our games, but developers might also stop making them.

Replayability

Another casualty of casual games (no pun intended): there’s no reason to play them again. Most of them never end in the first place. 16-bit games on the other hand are extremely replayable. You want to experience some of those levels again, top the high score board, impress your friends. The basic gameplay loop on a game like Comix Zone is enough to keep me coming back 17 years after its launch.

Mobile games are short-lived, so many developers shortchange gamers with simple, let-me-show-you-how-to-have-fun levels. Developers fear frustrating gamers, fear that they won’t spend any money in in-app purchases due to a possibly challenging game. That’s incredibly sad, because it means most of us will never replay a mobile game. Those memories will remain with old consoles, trapped in the past.

How about you? Do you think 16-bit games can teach mobile games a few valuable lessons? Let’s hear it in the comments.

Filed under Sega Genesis game 16-bit console classic

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Remix God: Introducing TheLegendofRenegade

There’s a YouTube user out there with an uncanny talent for remixes. Better still, he uses instruments sampled from the Sega Genesis to remix pop classics and game music brilliantly. At almost 2,500 videos, TheLegendofRenegade is a force to be reckoned with.

Let’s start with some Genesis (the band, not the console).

This mix took my breath away. But Mr. Renegade can do even better.

Behold Michael Jackson’s “I’ll Be There”:

The pièce de résistance: F-Zero’s “Mute City”:

I invite you to go over his playlists to see what I mean. His remixes are excellent 9/10 times and always interesting. You won’t regret it — especially if you’re a Sega Genesis/Mega Drive fan like me.

Filed under Sega Genesis music YouTube remix

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Bought a Nexus 7

I wasn’t expecting to buy a new tablet today. We already have an iPad 2 at home and both my wife and I have smartphones.

Still, when as Hugo Barra officially announced the $199 price earlier today, we couldn’t resist :)

photo courtesy of Engadget

Why buy a 2nd tablet?

We own an iPad. We’re fairly happy with it — it has great battery life and more-than-adequate performance. My main issue with the iPad 2 is the low-res screen and the now “outdated” iOS look. The screen is a big deal because I love to read on the Kindle App and, frankly, text looks pixelated on the iPad 2. In regard to the interface, I’m a huge fan of Android 4.0 so I’d rather stick to Android’s more sophisticated home screen, app drawer and widgets. Not to mention that I can now transfer stuff between the Galaxy Nexus and the Nexus 7 via Android Beam :)

The Nexus 7

This is a powerhouse, no doubt about it. Quad-core CPU, 12-core GPU and 9 hours of battery life streaming/playing video. Compact 7-inch form factor. HD, IPS screen.

It’s not a “Hacker Special” like some in the Android community expected but it addresses everything I wanted from a tablet for an exceedingly affordable price. 

Possible cons: no rear camera, no SD card support and missing HDMI output

Some users are having a hard time dealing with the lack of an SD card port. I have a Galaxy Nexus so I’m quite used to it by now. Not a big deal. I also don’t care about a rear camera or HDMI output. They had to shave something off to make that $199 price :)

In closing

I should receive the tablet in 3 weeks or so. I’ll update this post with my impressions once that happens. Make sure to leave a comment if you’re disappointed with the Nexus 7 announcement — or if you already pre-ordered, just like me :)

Filed under Android Jelly Bean Google Nexus tablet Tegra Google IO

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The Lumia 900 Launch, 1 Week Later

The Nokia Lumia 900, Microsoft and the Finnish company’s last stand on the mobile wars, has been on sale for roughly a week. Apart from AT&T’s boo-boo, launching on Easter Sunday, and a crippling connectivity bug, the launch seems to be moderately successful, with the Lumia 900 currently topping the charts at Amazon.com and selling out in AT&T’s online store.

Windows Phone forums at Reddit, XDA Developers and Windows Phone Central are filled with happy owners still in their honeymoon period, grizzled Windows Phone veterans and recent converts thanks to Nokia’s very generous $100 credit in their AT&T accounts. They see that $100 overture as a clear signal that Nokia is not Apple (“you’re holding it wrong”) or Google (“huh? You mean you need actual customer support?”). To top it all, the promised emergency patch arrived 3 days ahead of schedule, which is unheard of in smartphone circles.

Nokia was the Apple of its time, with thought leadership in smartphones (they practically invented them), high-speed mobile connectivity, build quality and profitability. They’ve been suffering a very public fall after iOS, then Android, started eating away at the company’s key high-end and low-end markets. Last week, Nokia’s shares were at their lowest since 1997.

The Nokia Communicator 900, regarded as one of the very first smartphones

Still, Nokia was a behemoth. They were professional, reliable, resourceful. That’s what we all witnessed in the follow-up to the Lumia 900 launch, when a connectivity bug left new owners without a data signal.

Nokia addressed the connectivity problem head on, sparing no expense to make Lumia 900 owners happy. In a very public blog post, they admitted something was wrong, apologized, and took steps to correct it. That’s a masterful response to a potentially catastrophic crisis of confidence in their newest and most important product release in years.

[not to mention a PR and marketing campaign that proudly proclaimed that "the smartphone beta test was over"]

The Lumia 900 might not be a huge hit. Windows Phone may be beyond saving at this point. Nokia did, however, rescue their brand in the process. They showed the technology world why they’re not Apple or Google. No matter what happens in the next two years, Nokia will be better for it.

Now if only they made a high-end Android smartphone…

Filed under Nokia Lumia 900 launch AT&T free smartphone mobile

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Apple Stumbles with the New iPad

This just in… The new iPad (aka iPad 3) has its share of hardware issues. Gadgets are known to ship with all sorts of “bugs” — hardware and otherwise — but the new iPad is quickly becoming notorious for two major issues:

Some (don’t) like it hot

An infrared shot points to the CPU/GPU as the culprit

The first widely reported problem was what some call “heatgate”: the fact that the new iPad seems to operate at higher average temperatures than the iPad 2. 

USA Today: http://content.usatoday.com/communities/technologylive/post/2012/03/new-ipad-raises-questions-for-hot-climates-/1

CNET: http://news.cnet.com/posts/?keyword=iPad+overheating

Apple Insider: http://www.appleinsider.com/articles/12/03/21/thermal_test_of_ipads_a5x_chip_shows_operating_temperature_of_97_degrees.html

Apple Support forums: https://discussions.apple.com/thread/3810951?tstart=0

While no one has reported burns, overheating gadgets can quickly become uncomfortable to hold. It’s annoying on a notebook and/or netbook, but more of an issue with tablets since users tend to hold them with bare hands. For example: Infinity Blade 2, the Retina-ready blockbuster by ChAIR Entertainment, can take temperatures up to 116 degrees Fahrenheit according to Consumer Reports.

No one knows for sure WHY the new iPad runs hotter than the previous models, but most point to the new A5X CPU/GPU combo. Repair Labs, for example, reports that the A5 chip in the iPad 2 is ceramic (perfect for conducting heat) but that the A5X is metallic, an inferior material. DisplayMate, on the other hand, blames the new iPad’s screen for the heat issues.

(router) Can you hear me now? (new iPad) Nope!

The iPhone 4 had the notorious Antennagate. The new iPad seems to have an issue with Wi-Fi reception instead:

Gizmodo: http://gizmodo.com/5895145/does-the-new-ipad-have-wi+fi-reception-problems

PC Magazine: http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2401924,00.asp

Apple Support forums: https://discussions.apple.com/thread/3812929?tstart=0

Wi-Fi reception is a big deal if you use your gadget at home, Starbucks and/or hotels. I often use my phone in the bedroom — away from the router which sits on top of our sub woofer in the living room. Lackluster WiFi reception would be a massive problem because it would prevent me from using my phone in bed.

(Verizon data doesn’t reach my Santa Monica apartment. I often read clients’ email messages in bed, in the wee hours of the morning, to make sure I’m on top of things)

No one knows what causes the Wi-Fi problem, but the press is starting to give this new “bug” more and more coverage. If this is in fact a real engineering flaw, it could become a nightmare for Apple.

Jobs’ absence to blame?

I got lambasted on Reddit last week for complaining about Apple’s use of the (invented) word “resolutionary” — a cheesy pun, really — and suggesting that Steve Jobs would have never allowed it. Redditors (correctly) pointed to me that Apple has used such puns before.

This, however, is much more serious. Did Apple rush the new iPad? Would another 6 months result in less heat and better Wi-Fi reception? I feel like Jobs would have NEVER allowed his engineers to ship the new iPad in the current state. Maybe he would have made sure it used a ceramic CPU/GPU combo. Maybe he would send the whole thing to the drawing board if the Wi-Fi antenna wasn’t up to snuff — i.e. achieving the same or better Wi-Fi reception than the iPad 2.

The original iPad, one of Steve Jobs’ most daring — and polished — creations

I can’t point fingers since I have absolutely no idea what goes on inside Apple. Maybe these are non-issues (like Antennagate). Maybe Apple did rush the new iPad to deal a death blow to Android tablets. Who knows? What we do know is that Apple has its hands full of new iPad hardware bugs, despite record-breaking sales over the weekend.

Apple stumbled on this one and I can’t help but think that Steve Jobs would have caught both issues and fixed them without any of us knowing about it.

Image credits:

new_ipad_heat.jpg / Slashgear

video / YouTube user GRE9DEL

iPad 1 / ZDNET

Filed under iPad new heat Wi-Fi wifi Apple overheating