All posts by Tim Anderson

Fixing Age of Empires 2 graphics in Windows 7

Age of Empires 2 is one of my favourite games, especially multi-player. Age of Empires 3 was better in some ways, worse in others; somehow it is not as much fun. One of the problems with version three is that the scenarios are more constrained; and the introduction of home cities and colonies changes the game in a radical and not altogether welcome manner.

The good news is that Age of Empires 2, also known as Age of Kings or with the expansion pack Age of Conquerors, still runs on Windows 7 – impressive for a game that was released ten years ago. The bad news is that the graphics are messed up. Here is how it looks:

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It’s playable, but that purple-stained sea and mottled grass is just not how it should be.

Fortunately there is a fix, and you can get Age of Empires 2 looking like this instead:

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The fix? Terminate the Explorer process. Here’s what you do:

1. Run Age of Empires 2
2. Press Ctrl-Alt-Delete and click Start Task Manager
3. Click the Processes tab, find explorer.exe, select and click End Process
4. Switch back to Age of Empires 2 with Alt-Tab

Presto! the graphics now work.

Once you are done playing, exit Age of Empires. If Task Manager is no longer running, press Ctrl-Alt-Delete to get it back. Then click Applications, New Task, and type Explorer in the dialog. Click OK and your taskbar and desktop will return.

The only remaining question: why does this work?

Note: kudos to TechSmith Snagit which was able to capture the screens successfully; the first two capture utilities I tried could not do so. I had to set DirectX as the input type and use a timed capture.

iPhone plus Amazon app = shopping revolution through magic of barcode scanning

Amazon has added barcode scanning to its Apple iPhone shopping app. It is an amazing feature. Here’s why.

Among the questions that shoppers ask themselves, two of the biggest ones are first, is it any good; and second, is it good value? Barcode scanning helps with both of these. The scenario is that you are in the shop looking at a book, CD or DVD – or almost anything really, from kettles to MP3 players – and you wave your iPhone over it. Up comes the entry for that item in Amazon’s store, where you can see the rating, read customer reviews, and check the price both new and used.

OK, there is a little bit more involved than waving the iPhone, but not much. Here is how it works. Tap the Amazon app on the iPhone, then Search.

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Tap Scan a barcode and hold the iPhone over the barcode.

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You adjust the size and position by moving the iPhone until the code is roughly central between the guide lines. At this point, the guide lines turn green.

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No need to tap; the app will now look up the item and show you the results. Tap the right-pointing arrow for more detail.

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Confession: I am sufficiently an Amazon addict that I have done this in shops even before the advent of the barcode feature. One reason is price-checking. We all know that you pay a premium for the instant gratification of bricks and mortar shopping; but how bad is it? This will tell you instantly.

That might not help if you need a gift at the last minute, but the reviews might. I use this for video games, or for CDs that I have not heard or DVDs/Blu-rays that I have not seen. It has saved me from some expensive mistakes.

Of course reviews are subjective and some are likely planted by publishers, authors or competitors; but there are usually enough to give you some idea of the range of opinions.

It is also handy for electronic devices. Is that MP3 player any good? How does that iPod dock sound?

When I was at school we learned about the concept of perfect competition. One of the requirements for perfect competition is perfect information – for example, knowing the price charged for an item in every outlet which sells it. We are a long way from that, but thanks to the Amazon marketplace, where third-party sellers compete, we are closer than we were. The barcode feature in the Amazon iPhone app makes it easy to access that information while shopping, which is a big feature.

Could Kinect trigger the Xbox 360 RROD (Red Ring of Death)?

On November 10th, launch day in the UK, I received and installed Microsoft’s Kinect motion controller. I wrote up my first impressions here. My Xbox was an Elite, bought to replace a launch 360 that had succumbed to the red ring of death – the means by which the console communicates hardware failure – been repaired, and failed again.

I left Kinect attached though I admit it has not been much used. Two and half weeks later, it was the turn of the Elite to display three red lights – at just over three years old, so beyond Microsoft’s extended RROD warranty.

It is probably coincidence, though some are theorising that the Kinect, or a system update associated with it, has tipped a proportion of Xboxes into failure:

I have a theory that MS was (and still is) having latency/response issues with the Kinect hardware and used one of these updates to speed something up, possibly XB360 memory speeds or access times, and some of the older 90nm hardware just can’t take it. There are LOTS of people who owned older systems that melted down immediately after the update/Kinect hookup – far to many to be a coincidence and even MS support admitted to me that repair call volumes were extremely high.

It still seems a stretch to me. There are a lot of Xboxes out there, and in the normal course of events a some of them will happen to fail at the same moment or soon after installing Kinect. The Kinect has its own power supply when connected to consoles older than the 360 Slim which appeared this summer.

Nevertheless, I was stuck with a broken Xbox. Fix or replace? The problem is, the 360 is not a reliable design – maybe the new slim model, but while the Elite is an improvement on the original, it is still, I believe, less reliable than most modern electronics. Although I could get the Elite fixed, I doubt I would get another three years of service from it. In any case, the eject button has also become unreliable, and sometimes the DVD tray has to be pushed up with some force in order to persuade it to work.

Instead, I went out and got 360 Slim, which has a bigger hard drive, integrated wi-fi, quieter running, and no need for the supplementary power supply for Kinect.

I whiled away Sunday afternoon transferring games and data from the old hard drive. I still had the hard drive transfer kit which I had used for the Elite, and it worked fine for the Slim although it tool several hours.

There is another complication when you replace your Xbox. The transfer kit moves any games you have purchased from the Live Marketplace, but not the DRM (Digital Rights Management) which protects them. In consequence, they revert to trial versions unless you are signed in with the account under which they were purchased.

The fix is to transfer the content licenses, a process which involves signing into Xbox Live on the web as well as on the new console. It is a two-stage process. First, the new console is authorized as valid for those content licenses. Second, the actual licenses have to be transferred. You are meant to able to do this second stage from the web, but this did not work for me. I found I had to repeat the download from the Live Marketplace on the 360 itself. When I chose Download Again, the download completed nearly instantly, implying that it merely verified what was already downloaded, but in addition it did some DRM magic which enabled the full games for all users of the console.

So … I got less than two years out of the original Xbox 360 (December 2005), and a little over three years from the Elite. Here’s hoping that the third attempt lasts longer.