Commentary

Eleven-And-A-Half-Hour Santa

I am a frugal, minimalist sort by nature. Years in grad school living on a "stipend" only reinforced the impulse. And an adult life of freelancing and the uncertainty that business "model" brings only baked the habit in. And so the largesse of holiday gifting always fills me with a bit of dread. 

"You're cheap, Dad, not frugal," my daughter says, quickly intercepting the ball. "There's a difference." This from the girl who got a MacBook Pro for her high school graduation. 

"You are, honey," my fiancée usually comes in with the assist. Will the iPhone she is getting for Christmas put an end to this perennial full court press on Steve? 

"Miserly -- truth be told," my ex-wife typically adds, dependably making the slam dunk on my character. And let's not even go into what she has gotten from me.  

Actually, I am a worse gift-getter than giver. I prefer the large pleasures of simple (okay, cheap) things. Luckily the mobile industry has obliged and offered up a long list of stocking stuffers that most mobilistas will appreciate. Many of them also point the way toward our portable digital media future. Of course, these low-priced items generally require a higher-priced initial purchase of a smartphone, handheld game machine or tablet. At any rate...

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Electronic Arts has been having a massive sale on almost all of its iOS games this week, but fans of classic board games will want to grab the very good iPad renditions of Monopoly and Risk. Both are great for two-person pass-along play. The game boards of our childhood are rendered and animated beautifully.

Speaking of nostalgia, Square-Enix is just pouring its trove of classic role-playing titles from the early console days onto iOS, Nintendo DS and Playstation PSP platforms. I can barely keep up with the torrent of way-back experiences for old RPG grinders like me. From the new Secret of Mana revival on iOS to much of the Final Fantasy series on both Sony and Nintendo handhelds, most of these titles are not to be missed.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Infinity Blade hack and slasher for the iPad is the one show-off piece of the year. The first use of the iOS Unreal Engine is just dazzling in its graphics and remarkable in its use of the kinetic touch interface. If the iPhone and Android platforms posed a threat to Sony and Nintendo's dedicated gaming handhelds, then this game should make console game makers a little nervous as well.

Comic strip and comic book fans are in for a real treat on mobile this year. Apps from DC, Marvel and the comics aggregator Comixology have been among the most active publishers of weekly comics releases into mobile formats. In many respects, reading a comic on an iPad is a richer experience visually than reading it in print. I have been comparing versions of the great "Wonderful Wizard of Oz" graphic novel adaptation by Eric Shanower and Skottie Young (from Marvel), and the richness of the colors really pop through on an LCD in ways they just don't in print. I wish for higher resolution for sharper line rendering in many of these comics apps, but graphic novels and comics even on the smaller smartphone format are killer apps. And you don't have to deal with the insufferable, geeky know-it-allism of comic shop clerks.   

The multimedia book has suddenly become a trend to watch on mobile platforms. Companies like PadWorx brought abridged and visually tricked-out versions of Bram Stoker's "Dracula" and Charles Dickens "A Christmas Carol" to the iPad in recent months. The abbreviated text combines with background audio and on-page animations designed to bring a cinematic feel to the reading experience.

 Is this the next logical step for books in a digital age? I'm not sure. So far, the experience seems to me more promising than revelatory. While the animations on page are interesting, they feel gimmicky. I find the shifts in background music page to page and scene to scene actually having more of an emotional impact on the reading experience. But it is something everyone interested in digital media should try.

Finally, to support true mobility across all of these devices, it is simply cost-prohibitive to carry 3G subs for phones and tablets and maybe hotspot subs for other devices. While I can't wait for the prices to come down on personal routers like the MiFi units from the major carriers, they are one of the handiest solutions for the multi-device family. I can pop my Verizon MiFi on the dashboard of the car while driving up the Jersey Turnpike and keep everyone happy. The fiancée stays connected on her laptop. My daughter can fiddle with the iPad. And I can keep Pandora's excellent classic Christmas station streaming through the iPhone connector to the car radio.

Well, they all still complain about taking long trips in a Mini Cooper. "Does everything need to be pocket-sized with you?" my daughter whines from the Mini's idea of a back seat. But even I seem like less of a Scrooge in this scenario. Keep the family fed, safe and wired: that is the new version of the American Dad.

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