A little under two months ago, Firestorm, the Viewer 2-based offering from the Phoenix team made its initial appearance, and I gave a brief overview of it then, with a follow-up a few days later. Overall, the Viewer was impressive, despite being a pre-release, and hinted that while there was obviously a lot missing, the Phoenix team were well on the way to delivering a first-rate product.
Today, the “Beta” of Firestorm made its appearance, and it substantially builds on the initial release very positively. A list of key changes has been provided by the Phoenix team, but I’d thought I’d take a little more of a closer look at for myself.
Again, this isn’t intended as an in-depth review; it’s more a personal look at what I like in particular in this release – and what I hope to see down the road!
The installation was as expected: smooth and precise. Once loaded for the first time, Firestorm displays a Viewer 1-style COMMUNICATIONS window and has the Sidebar open – both of which I’ll return to in a moment.
However, it is on clicking the option to enable media that one will notice the first major change. As soon as you confirm you wish to enable media, (and assuming a media stream is being directed at you), the Media Filter will pop-up a request asking you if you wish to accept the incoming stream.
For those unfamiliar with the Media Filter, I strongly recommend you read the available Tutorials on it – I have one in this blog, and there is also one available on the SL Wiki. Suffice it to say here that the Media Filter helps you to safeguard your privacy when using Second Life.
If there is no media stream available when you first start Firestorm, the Media Filter pop-up will be displayed the first time you click on the media PLAY button, (top right of your screen) and a stream is available.
Sidebar and Tool bar Options
One thing that may confuse Viewer 2 users in trying-out Firestorm is that the default Firestorm skin doesn’t have the familiar Sidebar tabs. It also has a substantially different toolbar at the foot of the Viewer Window.
Both are because the Sidebar options can now be directly accessed from the toolbar. Simply hover the mouse pointer over the available buttons to see a tool tip description of their functions.
The more familiar buttons of MOVE, VIEW and GESTURE can be enabled by right-clicking the toolbar and selecting them from the pop-up menu – from which buttons can also be disabled as required. Note that in addition, the Camera controls (VIEW) can be displayed by enabling AVATAR -> CAMERA CONTROLS.
For those who still prefer the Sidebar, AVATAR -> PREFERENCES – > SKINS provides you with access to alternative UI skins that include the Sidebar. Simply re-start the Viewer after selecting your preferred skin.
A nice touch with the Camera (VIEW) controls is that the floater panel can be resized to suit your needs – and is actually a lot more compact than the Viewer 2 floater to start with.
This is a nice carry-over from Viewer 1.x, and was actually in the pre-release version of Firestorm, although I didn’t mention it in my first post. By default, IM tabs are vertically placed (as opposed to horizontally, as with Phoenix). This gets a big tick from me, as I find the vertical tabs make incoming calls easier to track, and so it’s one less preference to have to set & then restart the Viewer.
The Conversations window is open by default on first starting Firestorm, and thereafter can be opened by clicking the ^ button to the right of the text entry box in the tool bar.
The Nearby Chat tab of Conversations also dispenses with the Viewer 2.x-style headers to chat items by default, again saving one the need to fiddle with preferences, while streamlining the chat tab’s display.
This release of Firestorm sees an initial implementation of the Phoenix radar functionality. While many see this as a curse, I have to say that from a sim management point-of-view, I’ve always found the radar functionality a great boon when trying to help people in a hurry. As such, it is something I sorely missed in the initial release of Firestorm – and partly what stopped me using it full time.
In the Beta, some Radar functionality has been included – and hopefully it will be built upon over the next few releases. Bullet items regarding it are:
- The Radar is limited to a 400m range at present
- The Radar information is included in the PEOPLE tab / window and includes an option to teleport to someone as well as the standard Viewer 2.x options displayed when right-clicking on a name
- Announcements from the Radar are limited to people entering chat range and / or draw distance, and are set separately via AVATAR -> PREFERENCES -> FIRESTORM -> CHAT.
I’d personally like to see the range of the radar increased – and I know this is being worked on. I’d also like an option to announce when people enter / leave a sim; this again can be useful when monitoring a sim where there has been trouble, but not enough to warrant an outright ban as yet.
In a major move away from Viewer 2, Firestorm does not utilise web-based profiles.
Instead, it uses a two-tier approach to displaying Profiles:
Selecting your own Profile takes you to a modified Viewer 2 Profile tab in the Sidebar. This displays your “1st Life” and “2nd Life” information under two tabs called “Avatar” and “More Info” (which also includes a web link field as well). Currently, there is no PICKS tab, nor does there appear to be a way of getting “out” to your web profile from the display (other than getting to Partner information).
I presume additional functionality will be added here – and that the functionality will include the ability to get out to the web-based version of one’s Profile, should one wish. Not everyone is opposed to web-based Profiles, and as such, the flexibility to choose should be included for those wanting to go in that direction.
When it comes to other people’s Profile information, a window somewhat similar to those from Viewer 1.x pops-up. This is a huge improvement over Viewer 2.x for two very good reasons:
- It’s actually a lot faster – twice as fast on my PC – when loading a profile
- It takes up much less screen real estate
There are some very nice touches in this Profile display as well. Take Groups, for example; when you highlight one, a little “I” for information appears, together with a right-point arrow. Click on the “i” and you are given the option of joining the Group, or displaying the Group information. Click on the right-pointing arrow, and the Group information (Profile) is displayed in the PEOPLE tab of the Sidebar.
Other Little Bits
- Role players have been further catered to, with MU* poses and OOC options being added
- There is now a first pass at a persistent de-render (change Group tags to re-render, although you may need to re-log as well)
- Phoenix-style commands are now supported in chat
- “Always rez under land group” is a pre-set default
- Starlight skin support has been improved
- Additional preferences ported from Phoenix
- In-chat on-line / off-line notifications for friends.
Under the hood there are a number of bug fixes and various performance improvements as well, giving Firestorm even more polish even at this stage.
The pre-release version of Firestorm was impressive. This is even more impressive. Clear inroads have been made into a lot of the functionality that has made Phoenix such a success, and while there is still more to do, that Firestorm has reached this level of capability and functionality in just two releases is remarkable.
For me, the big wins with Firestorm are:
- First pass at the inclusion of radar functionality
- The Viewer-based profiles for other avatars
- The in-chat online/offline notifications for friends
- The Media Filter.
As well as the media filter, use security has been enhanced with the addition of an optional prompt that is displayed when you are using an external browser rather than the viewer’s in-built browser. This gives a reminder of the possible risks involved in visiting other websites directly with your browser. The warning can be disabled, and will turn off automatically if you switch to using the in-built browser in the Viewer itself.
There are some additional elements from Phoenix I’d personally like to see pop-up in a future Firestorm release. For example, right now, Outfits still remains something of a royal pain in the rear bumpers.
- There is no means of ADDing clothing / attachments from an OUTFITS folder in Inventory – the only option is REPLACE, and this DOES knock-off pre-existing attachments. The only way to add items is via the OUTFITS tab of the Sidebar
- There is no means of adding subfolders (or even displaying subfolders) in the OUTFITS tab of the Sidebar – this can only be done through Inventory.
To be fair, both of these are long-standing issues with Viewer 2, rather than anything specific to Firestorm – but both are bloody inconvenient and need sorting out.
I did notice the text overlay issue remains as well; if you scroll up a chat tab in Conversations and a message comes in for that tab, the text tends to overwrite anything you are trying to read until you scroll back to the bottom of the screen once more. Not a show-stopper, but it would be nice to see someone sort this out.
But, these niggles aside – which are, as I said, more to do with Viewer 2 than Firestorm – it is fair to say that this release moves Firestorm a stage closer to being ready for prime time and potentially becoming the most popular Viewer 2 variant on the grid. While there is still a good way to go before this is the case, Firestorm Beta 2 is pretty much usable right now.
Kudos to Jessica and the team!