Virtual World viewers: Part 5 – Firestorm

In Part Five I’m looking at a third-party viewer which has achieved prominence in Second Life. Firestorm is a V3 series client that comes from the same development team as the Phoenix viewer.

Let’s take a closer look.

Download and Installation

Firestorm 3.2.2 Log-in screen

Download time was twenty seconds for a 70.5 MB file. Installation was without any problems. Firestorm takes 254 MB of space once installed.

At log-in there is a drop-down menu for Default Settings. This gives you the choice of Phoenix, V3 or Hybrid for your UI layout. Which option you choose will affect the colour scheme, icon buttons, Toolbar and sidebar appearance. There is a drop-down menu, Start at, to choose where you wish to log-in to: your Home, last position or by typing in the region name on the Second Life main grid (Agni).

Other grids are not listed as default but can be enabled. Once you have logged into SL: by looking under the Advanced tab in Preferences, a tick-box can be checked to provide a drop-down menu at log-in. This is marked with a warning that other grids may not support Firestorm. The preset list of grids is not as extensive as in Imprudence but does include 3rdRock, OS grid, InWorldz and ReactionGrid among others.

Downloads and documentation can be found at: Phoenix Viewer

As mentioned in the Phoenix review: the website home page includes the developers’ blog, quick download links, links to the team’s wiki, support and bug reporting system (JIRA).

Firestorm documentation has its own wiki pages which are laid out into subject areas. In-world (Second Life) classes are offered on a regular basis and a timetable is listed. Video tutorials are also available. Wiki documentation and support is available in German, Dutch, French, Italian and Spanish. In-world support is also listed for Hungarian, Portuguese and Russian speakers.

Navigation

Firestorm UI in-world

As I have logged-in with Firestorm before my preferences were remembered. The Movement and Camera control boxes are visible, as is the Mini-map. Voice chat is not turned on as default and requires enabling in Preferences. User name tags I have turned off previously. The Camera control box in Firestorm is re-sizeable, which is handy if you prefer to have it on-screen all the time.

I’ve also reconfigured the UI buttons to show my preferred configuration in the bottom bar.

Firestorm UI colour and theme preferences

The user interface skin is set to Firestorm Grey when choosing the Phoenix option in Default Settings. After experiencing problems with a similar colour scheme in Exodus (see in the Exodus Summary section), I checked to see if Firestorm has other skin colours available. It does and you can find these in the Preferences window under the Skins tab.

Firestorm Starlight SilverBlue UI skin

I changed the UI skin to Starlight SilverBlue. This is not quite the same as the V1 Silver colour scheme, which is my personal favourite, but it may help people who have visual problems with light text against dark backgrounds.

Some aspects of the UI do change when a different skin is chosen, so it is worth checking to see if you’re happy with the style. Images of the preset skins can be found on Firestorm’s wiki pages. I noticed that with the Starlight SilverBlue there is a thicker Toolbar at the top of the screen which partially covered my worn AO HUD.

Once a new skin is selected a re-log is necessary to enable the change.

I have found that when I log-out my Profile window pops out on the right-hand side of the screen. This is a documented bug for this viewer version on Firestorm’s JIRA.

Another point to note is that WindLight settings are automatically set to region defaults and for WindLight Share. If you prefer to keep your own WindLight settings at log-in and for teleporting to different regions you will need to disable this in the Preferences window under the Firestorm tab options.

Graphics

Firestorm Graphics Preferences

My Graphics settings were on High as default. The Hardware Skinning option was on as default, enabling me to immediately see the rigged mesh hair I was wearing. Anti-alias was turned on at 2x, which I changed in the Hardware Settings tabbed window. As with the Exodus viewer; the screen did not turn black on changing the anti-alias factor. But this is where another problem occurs.

I have tested the anti-alias settings from 2x to 16x but it seems for this viewer version, on my 2007 iMac, it doesn’t work at a higher level than 2x. Whilst this is enough to smooth some of the visible jaggedness of object edges, it is a noticeable drop in effectiveness compared with the anti-alias settings in Phoenix.

Initially I did experience a problem with the viewer’s frames per second registering as quite low. Unlike the previous review experience I quickly traced that to a temporary, external connection problem. Using the High graphics setting was satisfactory for the rest of the review period after I had re-logged.

Avatar Appearance editing

Alpha multi-layers and multi-attachments

The alpha layering abilities in Firestorm worked well. There are three alpha layers – hair base, make-up and facial tattoo, worn in the picture. Initially there was a little fuzziness with adding the alpha facial tattoo but that resolved without needing to use the Rebake Textures command.

The multiple attachments function also worked without any problems when testing with two designated Chest attachments.

The changes in the Inventory count when wearing, adding or removing an item, which I’d first noticed with the Exodus viewer, I also noticed here. As I haven’t found any documentation about this I’m assuming that it is a feature of V3 viewers.

Transactions

With Thom Lunasea’s help once again; we tested L$ and object transactions. These were without any problems. One feature that I did find particularly useful was the object transfer options appearing in the Instant Message chat window that I had open.

Transaction options in IM chat window

Friends, Chat, Groups and Maps

With the StarlightBlue UI skin, and the choice of Phoenix settings at log-in, there is a more V1 style to Instant Messages, Open Chat (now called Nearby Chat) and the Contacts List.

Contacts window

(My contacts list has been blurred out for friends’ privacy)

There is a hybrid look with Instant Messages as the V3 series notification icon is in the bottom right-hand corner. However the Contacts List and IM chat window is like the V1 series with this UI skin and Phoenix setting.

The Groups window, and the individual Group Info window, is another hybridised look, with the group image visible in the main window.

Groups window

One thing that I was pleased to find: when looking at a Group’s Archive History and highlighting a notice, there is no longer a message of having declined it appearing in Nearby Chat. A minor change from the V1 series but a welcome one.

The Mini-map and the World Map did not seem dramatically different from usual. One thing I did find I miss is with the Radar function under the People icon. In Phoenix the Radar list gives the viewer information of nearby avatars. Having recently needed this facility (see the Summary below), I was unable to find if this is something that Firestorm provides.

Snapshots

I have not taken many snapshots with Firestorm, apart from some of those included in this review, so I’m unable to give a full review of the quality and performance. One function that I think is a useful addition is the option to upload your images directly to Flickr (if you have an account).

Snapshot window with Flickr option

Summary

From some purely anecdotal research, by doing a viewer count in twelve different regions over the course of three days, it certainly appears that Firestorm is the V3 client of choice for a great many Second Life residents. In comparison to the numbers for Linden Lab’s official viewer, and other TPVs, I’d reach the conclusion that Firestorm is by far the most popular.

However, it was interesting to see that in some regions (at the times I was present) the only viewer that outdid Firestorm on user numbers was Phoenix.

The Phoenix team’s strong point is offering a wide variety of options for users to customise and enhance their experience. The ability to change the layout and skin colour of the UI was something I was particularly happy to see.

Much like in the Phoenix viewer; there are a wealth of functions which are barely explored in this review. I admire the work that the team has put in, along with the support that they offer (particularly for non-English speakers). I found Firestorm to be stable, the features to be mostly well-explained and to offer the opportunity of a V3 series that can run reasonably well, if not at the height of efficiency or functionality, on an older machine like mine.

However, the biggest drawback for me is the lack of higher level anti-alias. Whilst 2x is sufficient for some aspects of in-world experience; for building, photography or filming it does lose out on the image crispness that I find preferable.

Overall the performance was good, so I would recommend it to people who have not tried any V3 series client before.

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