Yesterday I gave a rapid overview of Firestorm Beta. I’ve now had more of a chance to take it for a spin, so here’s a more detailed look.
First off, make sure you completely remove any previous versions of Firestorm prior to install – in the case of Windows, probably best to restart your PC after doing so and prior to installing the Beta. The Widows installer comes in at around the same size as the official Viewer 2 installer (25 Mb) and runs a seamless install, and places 151 Mb of data onto your hard drive.
The first thing you may notice on logging in – assuming you do not rez directly – is that Firestorm has borrowed from Imprudence / Kokua, and while a cloud you are now an orange cloud, rather than the default grey mist.
The next two things you’re liable to notice is that there is now an AO button on the bottom toolbar, and if you click on anything, you get…a pie menu! Viewer 1 lovers, your prayers are answered.
I’m going to commit sacrilege here and say that, after using Firestorm and Viewer 2 and S20 / S21 for a while – and despite Phoenix still being my primary Viewer – I actually think the pie menu is vastly overrated (particularly given it varies so widely as to where anything is, depending upon which Viewer you use; one person’s Detach is another’s More, so to speak). I’ve found the Viewer 2 context menus to be far more consistent in options faster to learn and easier to use.
This being the case, I went straight to AVATAR -> PREFERENCES and pulled up the UI Extras. Much work has been done here to bring together some great UI customisation options on the Viewer – including a check option to toggle between the pie and context menus. I’m not going to run through the options – they are all pretty self-explanatory, and to be honest, most have been available in the earlier Preview options.
Other tabs within Preferences have also been massively improved. The Firestorm tab now includes pretty much everything those familiar with Phoenix would expect to see – with a lot of rationalisation and simplification of tabs and options. A nice touch here is that under FIRSTORM -> GENERAL you now get a greater choice in how names and display names are seen, and you can toggle between the Viewer 2 search and the “improved Viewer 2 beta” search (currently on the Search Project Viewer) – those who wish to compare and contrast and identify improvements can now have a field day playing with both! Within this sub-tab is one of my personal favourite new additions: TURN AVATAR AROUND WHEN WALKING BACKWARDS. This is something HUDdles has long had and I’ve really missed it when relying on built-in AOs.
A new element to the FIRESTORM tab is the VIEW sub-tab, which brings together several camera-related functions previously scattered around the place, if available at all. Along side it, the CHAT sub-tab has been massively expanded over earlier releases – and now includes a set of options related to … radar!
I See You!
Radar is one of the biggest bones of contention in Second Life. People either love it or loathe it – with those loathing it frequently loudly and persistently screaming here, there and everywhere about it being an “invasion of privacy” and a “tool for drama” (and in the latter case, totally missing the irony in the fact that they tend to be the ones creating the drama).
If I’m honest here, almost any tool in the Viewer can be used properly or to create mischief and the radar is no exception – it is how you choose to use it, and I think it fair to say that most people use it responsibly. Those screaming on…and on…and on… about it representing an invasion of privacy would do well to remember that privacy can be invaded simply by removing camera constraints, pushing up draw distance and camming-in remotely (all possible on the “official” Viewer).
As far as I’m concerned, radar is a HUGE boon. As a former estate manager, it enabled me to identify problem people / areas quickly, get directly to them and deal with matters / provide assistance. Combined with other tools, it enabled me to deal with trouble remotely and confirm the required action had been taken. Even today I find it very useful at times – and it is one of the reasons I’ve stuck it out with Phoenix for so long. Well, no more. I’m in love with the improved Firestorm radar.
Aswith the Preview, Radar forms a part of the PEOPLE tab on the Sidebar – but is much improved. For a start there is an optional minimap display; you can also adjust the scan range for the radar and alter the way avatar and adisplay names are displayed.
If you want a more Phoenix-like radar display, simply go to the tab PREFERENCES (shown in the image), uncheck the show minimap option, and then undock the PEOPLE tab from the sidebar and resize accordingly; however, be aware that doing so can make scrolling through your friend list a tad more tiresome. As with Phoenix, the radar also includes a right-click option when highlighting specific names, allowing you to IM people, etc.
The Firestorm Beta sees the arrival of a client-side AO – something I’ve been wanting for ages, so colour me happy in a shade of bunny. This is not a simple port of the Phoenix AO, but a complete re-write – and incorporates significant changes. This being the case, I’ll point you towards the official documentation on the AO and the three video tutorials, Importing, Customising and Options, that have been produced.
All I will say is, despite the amount of material supporting it, the AO is very easy to set up – and the fact that it now uses inventory links means that a) you no longer require a dedicated folder for all your animations used by it (animations can reside in their own folders), and b) you can now run multiple AOs from the Viewer – exceptionally handy for role players who might wish to switch between a “normal” AO with walks, etc., and a “role-play” AO with more specialised animations / walk styles.
Other Bits and Bobs
Firestorm also – finally! – gets multiple tattoo layers and alpha masks. This has been one of the biggest disadvantages in using a V1 Viewer to date, and has required the use of “combination” alphas in particular. Well, no more! Like Viewer 2, Firestorm allows you to wear up to 5 tattoo layers and 5 alpha masks.
Skins-wise, there are the same choices as earlier releases, but things actually appear to work somewhat more smoothly (although some colour choices for text leave something to be desired… pale brown on grey isn’t a good choice in the readability stakes). Be aware that in the case of the Starlight options (which were created for Viewer 2), you will see the Sidebar tabs in your world view, whether or not you use them. However, some options also give you a handy little Preferences button, which is added to the Navigation bar at the top of the Viewer window, saving you the trouble of having to hunt it via the menus.
A rather nice touch with Firestorm is the auto camera repositioning when building. Select BUILD or EDIT from any menu, or by clicking the toolbar build button (if enabled), and your camera position automatically shifts to present you with an optimal view of what you are doing. When you have finished your work, the camera will swing back to your Avatar.
One potential irritant that still manifests itself is that altering the defaults for how your inventory is ordered is not persistent between relogs; uncheck SYSTEM FOLDERS TO TOP, for example, and on your next relog, system folder will indeed be back at the top of your inventory window. This really does need fixing, as constantly having to go alter the inventory preferences on logging-in gets old really fast.
I also found RLV/a a tad wobbly at times. Occasionally (and quite randomly) a force wear command would result in an error message being through up on my screen, stating the command string exceeded 24 characters. However, the error was inconsistent; when testing with a specific item from inventory, the error appeared 3 times out of 5 wear attempts – but wore successfully on the other two occasions.
Similarly, Edit can appear a trifle flaky when editing a worn attachment – the menu option to enable editing would (again randomly) appear greyed-out when clicking on one point of the attachment, but would then be enabled when another part of the save object was clicked.
A little while back I commented on Viewer 2, and included a rough-and-ready performance comparison chart for the various Viewers I use. So how does the Beta stack up?
Well, pretty much the same at the 14918a preview, which still puts it behind Phoenix on my PC (Q6600 quad-core 2.4Ghz, 3Gb RAM Win 7 32, Ge9800 1Gb), and totally outstripped frame-wise by Viewer 2.
However, the big test is with shadows. I’ve remarked on Phoenix and Viewer 2.7.1 in this regard, and I have to say that shadows on the Firestorm Preview were at best intermittent for me – more usually not working at all.
With the Beta things improve – marginally. While Firestorm does render shadows as crisply as Viewer 2.7.1, and includes the occlusion option while avoiding Phoenix’s propensity (in my view, at least) to ignore alpha masks, the hit on frame rates is as bad as Phoenix: my system can barely manage 8fps with draw distance set to anything remotely decent (i.e. above 32 metres); this compares with Viewer 2.7.1 pumping things out at around 15-18fps with Draw set to 360 metres.
This is still only a Beta release, and there are things that need tidying – and doubtless the Phoenix-Firestorm tea have much they still want to add to / improve upon for the Viewer (I have little doubt camera depth-of-field is one of the things we’ll be seeing dropped into Firestorm shortly). That said, Firestorm has always impressed with its capabilities and stability, and as far as I’m concerned, this release brings it of age, and it is time to finally say, “Move over Phoenix.”
Of course there are things I’d like to see in Firestorm – right now, Viewer 2.7.1 widdles all over the opposition in terms of frame rates even on my (relatively) old GPU, with only Kirstenlee’s S21 coming close (and even that cannot produce shadow rendering as well as 2.7.1). I appreciate the easiest answer for me to really enjoy shadows would be go buy a new computer, but right now that really isn’t an option; so it would be nice to see Firestorm get to the point where it can emulate 2.7.1 reasonably well (JPG2000 libraries and licensing notwithstanding); I can live with an 18fps frame rate if it means I have wonderful, wonderful shadows and can move!
Will Firestorm satisfy everyone? Well, no, obviously not. Even with pie menus, Viewer 1 style cursors, Viewer 1 legacy name displays, yadda, yadda, there will still be those who would have us believe that the Viewer 1 UI front end is “better” and “easier” and what have you; and they’re entitled to their opinion. For my part however, I’d rather move with the times. The bottom line is that, leaving aside that bloody awful Sidebar, viewer 2 has come a long, long way in 18 months and isn’t the heaving beast that was loosed on us at the start of last year.
Now Firestorm takes Viewer 2 to a whole new level, capitalizing on concepts and ideas first seen on the likes of Kirstenlee’s Viewer and pulled across from Phoenix et al. In doing so, it delivers a flexible, usable Viewer which, in my personal option, easily matches Phoenix in both functionality and usability – and which is (with due respect to Jessica and the rest of the team for all their hard work on Phoenix, and the current warts notwithstanding) far more convenient and intuitive than Viewer 1.
So why not give it a spin yourself?