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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Firestorm – A Viewer for All

Ever since Linden Lab released the long-awaited Viewer 2, the Second Life world has been divided into two camps: those who love it, and those who hate it. The problem is that they made massive changes to the viewer interface, so that it became in effect an entirely new viewer experience. Anyone who’s had to move from one piece of familiar software to a new and unfamiliar one can tell you how painful that can be.

As a result, the number of people who use third party viewers shot up. First Emerald, and then its genealogical successor Phoenix, became tremendously popular. Overall, third party viewer users actually outnumber the users of the “official” Second Life viewer.

But all of these third party viewers are based on the “old” Second Life viewer code, version 1.23. Linden Lab has stated that over the coming months, as they introduce server updates optimized to make use of Viewer 2 code and features, these old-style viewers’ features will begin to break. So it’s get used to Viewer 2 or give up Second Life, right? Well, no. The clever third party viewer developers are already offering some alternatives, and I’d like to tell you about one of them.

The developer team responsible for Phoenix has now released their new Viewer 2-based “Firestorm”viewer in a public beta. I’m not going to go into all of its features, you can see those for yourself, or take a weekly class offered in world.

What I will tell you is this: First, it’s a beta release. Expect to find some odd behaviors. But even though I’ve noticed some minor annoyances, I consider it stable enough to use and have been using it myself almost exclusively for a couple of weeks now. Second, it is highly customizable.

What does that mean? Well, let me put it like this. When you first start up Firestorm, the thing looks a lot like Viewer 2. Here are a couple of screenshots for comparison. The main difference is the Viewer 2 “sidebar” of frequently used functions has been moved to a much less intrusive lower menu bar location. So you Viewer 2 users should be pretty happy with it.
Your Basic Viewer 2

Firestorm in Viewer 2 Emulation Mode
But with some tweaking, I have made my Firestorm interface look a lot more like the Phoenix/Viewer 1.23 style interface I’m used to. Take a look at the screenshots below. 
My functions appear in separate windows, not slide-outs from the right. I can put my chat and IM windows over there on the right where I’ve had them for years. I can see my IMs in tabs, just as I’m used to.
Dear Old Phoenix

Firestorm in Phoenix Emulation Mode (with Radar added)

Plus, I have access to all of the most desirable Viewer 2 features like multiple items on a single clothing layer, the new avatar physics layer, and parcel level Windlight environment settings. I can see things that Viewer 2 users see, like the new web based profiles and Search window (or I can see the old style search as well).

And I have functions that no Viewer 2 user has, things I’m used to from Phoenix. Things like an avatar radar, where I can click on a resident and teleport right to them. I’m able to see an avatar’s age and other key information on the radar screen. I have better protection against malicious media streams, and more precise building tools. I have a lot more control over my graphics settings. I can collapse my inventory list with a single mouse click. I have a built in AO with the ability to use multiple animation sets.

Best of all, I have real support. I’m a member of the Phoenix/Firestorm in world group. They offer real time answers to viewer related questions (try getting THAT from Linden Lab!) They have in world office hours. They have a website with a FAQ, a Wiki, and a JIRA bug reporting system, and they actually SOLVE bugs that get reported! They offer a weekly class in how to use the viewer. I can’t BELIEVE they do all this for free…but they do.

This is what a Second Life viewer should be like. This is what support should be like. Brava, Phoenix/Firestorm!

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