Hot on the Web
Lost in Cyberspace
Online San Diego
Feature Articles
Book Reviews and Reading Diary
Music Reviews
Favorite quotates
Contact Me

Hot on the Web

Steaming ahead

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on July 8, 2005
(Issue 2327, Celebrate the Moments)

A couple months back, we looked at Half-Life 2 and an affiliated program called Steam, which I somewhat off-handedly referred to as an anti-piracy effort.

But in the weeks since, as I've played Half-Life 2 multiplayer and its assorted multiplayer mods, I've come to realize that Steam is much more than a simple effort to prevent folks from copying Half-Life 2 from a friend.

To be sure, Steam does connect to Valve's servers to authenticate your copy of Half-Life 2 before you can play the game – every time you play the game.

But several times a week, Steam also displays news from Valve (the publisher of Half-Life and Half-Life 2). These messages contain information about upcoming releases from Valve – new mods, updated maps, overall company strategy.

And anyone and everyone who has Half-Life 2 installed is an existing Valve customer with, presumably, an interest in information from them – talk about a targeted marketing audience!

(This all works because Steam runs automatically in the background once you install Half-Life 2. You can also access Steam from your Windows taskbar, and when new messages are sent from Valve, Steam will automatically launch a new window - although this only seems to happen when my PC is first turned on. If, like me, you tend to leave your computer on all the time, the messages may not be as timely.)

Also a purchase point

But in addition to being a validation tool and a communications device, Steam is also a commerce channel – you can purchase other Valve games from within Steam. Well, mostly – if you find a game you want, you're directed to a Web page in your browser. And if you own previous Valve games (Half-Life, say) you can register them in Steam and then play them without re-installing them to your hard drive from the game discs.

However – and this is a big however – this process leaves something to be desired. For instance, I own the Half-Life add-on "Opposing Force." I dug out my CD, typed my registration number into Steam, and then clicked on "Opposing Force" in the Steam games list.

I have a mid-range DSL connection, but it took forever to download "Opposing Force" and launch it. And every time you complete one section, you have to wait while the next is downloaded. Even in game, the animation is choppy and fragmented – not nearly the game experience of playing off the original game CD.

On the upside, there is a 2-D, Commander Keen-styled scroller called "Codename Gordon." It's the basic Half-Life 2 world turned into an old-school arcade game - as if Half-Life 2 had come along during the age of Atari. This is apparently free for anyone who has purchased Half-Life 2, and is an entertaining take on the world of Half-Life. Drawbacks? No saving of games! Set aside a couple hours, play on the Easy settings, and see how far you can get.

But Steam promises to be on my PC for the next few months, as Valve has said it will announce and deliver new Half-Life 2 add-ons via Steam and its Web site. Should be interesting.

More on Netscape 8

Also awhile back, we took a look at Netscape's latest browser for Windows. One of the few complaints found in this space against Netscape 8 was the fact that the AutoFill feature for sites with a log-in didn't have a simple opt-out option a la Mozilla or Netscape 7. That is, you either had to save the page's form info or add that site to the "Don't ask me again" list – both of which left tracks on your hard drive about our online activity.

But while Netscape 8's AutoFill isn't quite as intuitive as Mozilla's or previous version of Netscape, you can get around this. When you visit a new site and you're prompted to fill out a new AutoFill passcard or add the site to your ignore list, you can simply click Cancel to close the AutoFill dialogue without saving any information.

And to be honest, with a few more weeks of using Netscape 8 under my belt, I've grown quite found of the AutoFill tool. When you revisit a site for which you have created a passcard, you get a nice, thin horizontal toolbar across the top of your Netscape browser window with buttons that will fill and submit the forms on that page, edit the passcard (after changing your password for that site, for instance) or cancel and close the AutoFill toolbar.

It's pretty darn handy.