To be honest I'm a pretty dreadful chess player: one who's used to Chessmaster's slick interface, often uses the 'take back move' functions and makes extensive use of tutorials. According to the Peshk@ software, Chessmaster and the Fritz tactics training I'm about 1500 ELO, but I have a suspicion that they're just being kind.
When I came to have a go on Fritz 11 last year, largely out of a need for something with an wide range of tutorials available, I found the interface rather opaque and illogical in places and eventually gave up and went back to Chessmaster. I had a lot of questions about the new Fritz 12 program when I heard they had updated it. This review therefore just covers the issues (largely related to interface and usability) that I was curious about before I bought the game, and I submit it here in the hope that it will prove useful to others in a similar position to me.
If you're a real pro, or a club player, and not particularly bothered about the UI or useability you may wish to skip this review. If you're considering an upgrade I hope you find it useful.
Installation and DRM
This edition of Fritz comes on a DVD. You may install Fritz 12 on up to 3 machines (e.g. Laptop, Desktop and Work), and you can deactivate an installation if needs be. I had no problems with installation or activation, but when updating the software it reset some of my GUI settings. Installing the game does not install the included tutorial vids to your hard drive though, and so you'll need the DVD in the drive if you want to view these.
Menus and Interface
The revamped interface is based around a Ribbon, a bit like the ones used in Microsoft Office 2007. It's been built to conform to Microsoft's 'Fluent UI' standard, and uses a row of tabs, beneath which all the options related to that tab are laid out in a readily accessible fashion. This means you can see a large number of related options at once. The Ribbon is, however, thicker than the usual menu strip, and if you find that the Ribbon's too clunky and takes up too much room on your monitor, you can just right-click it and minimise it. If you don't like the default Blue colour scheme, you can chance the theme to Black, Aqua or Silver (though doing this also resets the board design settings if you've changed them).
The menu interface is customisable, insofar as you can right-click on any icon in the ribbon (e.g. 'New Game') and add it to a small 'Quick Launch' area at the top left of the window. This means that if you have a frequently-used option you can pin it to the top of the window (I have the 'New Game', 'Handicap', 'Sparring' and 'Help' options up there). Seriously, I cannot emphasise enough how useful this is, and for me this is the one feature that has made Fritz 12 far, far more useable than it's predecessors!
Also welcome is the ever-present 'Help' icon at the top right. The included HTML help files are more extensive in detail and scope than the printed manual that's included with the DVD, so it pays to make use of it when you get stuck.
'Save layouts' is a very useful function. Once you've moved your windows around to your satisfaction, you can save the arrangement. I have one saved layout for using with the Fritz Media system DVDs, and another one for just playing chess. The panes themselves are the usual boxy Windows panes, though this time round they're fully dockable around the edges of the screen, and you can leave them free-floating if you prefer (although you cannot save a floating layout).
For me these changes made a real difference to my enjoyment of using the program, and my appreciation of just how powerful it is. It still takes time to learn in order to get the most out of it though, so do make sure you set aside a little while to fully read the manual (preferably the 'Help' manual installed with the program) and explore the options. If you want to see how the interface works for yourself without risking your money, you can download a demo of Deep Fritz 12 for free from the Chessbase website.
Fritz is still rather eccentric in a couple of ways though. For example, in the messy bit at the bottom of the application menu, 'Main menu - Customise' just allows you to change keyboard shortcuts, not customise the layout, use of engine or board appearance (those options are elsewhere). It really should have been named just 'Keyboard Shortcuts' as the Tooltip indicates, but minor niggles such as these suggest that usability testing may not have been 100% rigorous.
Selecting 'New Game' when using Opening Training or Endgame Training just resets the board to the same Opening/Endgame you've just played. You have to go back to the training option and 'turn it off and on again' in order to change the opening/endgame you are practising to a different one.
Choosing to play White or Black is a bit different to most chess games. Here it's a matter of starting a game, and immediately moving a White piece if you want to play White, or hitting 'Space' to make Fritz move first if you want to play Black. There's no 'Do you wish to play Black or White? (B/W)' dialogue box or anything. I actually quite like this touch, but I found it a mite confusing before I worked out what it was doing.
Fritz will beat most human players even on a reasonably fast machine. Luckily it's easy to lobotomise the engine with a number of preset handicap settings, given such descriptive names as 'Careless' and 'Moron'.
Stick the Handicap icon in the quick bar, and Fritz suddenly becomes pretty much pick-up-and-play, allowing a beginner to set up a game of 'beatable' difficulty in two mouse clicks.
Help and In-game training
You can activate a virtual Coach who'll give you advice on what to play and what to avoid doing. If you're about to muff something up, a window with a picture of a grizzled old boy in a hat, smoking a cigar, will pop up and give you some sagely advice. Sometimes it can be rather bizarre advice, especially durung the endgame or if used during a training session, and so I've found that sometimes it pays to use one's discretion with this feature (especially if you're using something like the Danish Gambit).
You can set up another chess engine to 'Kibitz', i.e. play alongside the game. Attempting this caused a crash the first time, however subsequent attempts worked fine.
There's also a useful 'Spy' function, which shows you what Fritz is thinking. I haven't used this feature much, but it can provide an interesting way of finding weaknesses in one's position that have been overlooked.
The 'Hotness' dial and the Mate-O-Meter are nice touches, if a trifle paranoia-inducing.
Selecting the Playchess.com option on the startup splash screen opens a program that connects to the Playchess.com servers. Here you can play against other players around the world, watch video lectures chat, etc. Some functions here, such as tutorials, cost a small fee, using a purchasable currency known as 'ducats'. Others, such as tactics training, are free.
I have found that once logged into Playchess.com I need to log out again, back to the splash screen to play a normal game with Fritz.
Included with this edition are some Fritz Trainer tutorials. These load into the Fritz interface, and consist of little window with footage of your tutor, and the board updates automatically with pieces and arrows to illustrate whatever it is that's being taught. These work fine, and for some reason I find having the video footage of the GM tutor useful and somewhat more inspiring than the rather more impersonal approach of reading through moves and analysis from a book.
The tutorials are kept on the DVD rather than being installed on your hard drive, and so unless you've somehow manually copied them over to C:, you'll need to stick the disk in the drive if you want to access them. You'll find a Beginners Course with GM Andrew Martin, along with samples from the FritzTrainer Grandmaster Tutorial DVDs, Openings DVDs, Endgame DVDs and Tactics DVDs. These samples include lectures from such luminaries as GM Garry Kasparov.
Andrew Martin's Beginner's Course is certainly welcome, and the material covered is very accessible. There is however a huge jump in terms of audience skill-level between the beginners course and the other sample tutorials, which cover some relatively advanced subjects. There's no equivalent of Josh Waitzkin's excellent 'Art of Learning' tutorial in Chessmaster: Grandmaster Edition, which bridges that gap beautifully.
In keeping with Fritz's somewhat curt presentation style, the videos just 'end' when they finish. There's no pop up to see if you want to watch the next one, or even just to let you know it's finished and not crashed on you. If you go back to the video menu window, and choose another tutorial, it opens yet another Fritz window rather than loading the media into the existing one.
It's easy to use Fritz 12 with Fritz Trainer DVDs: just open Fritz with your tutorial DVD in the drive and choose 'Chess Course'. Or go to 'Open Chess Media File' in the main menu if there's one sitting somewhere on your hard drive. You can also stick the DVD in your drive, go to 'Open' -> 'Open Database' to open the Database program, click 'Open Database' in the main menu of that, navigate to your DVD drive and open the .cbh database file. I tried opening them directly from the DVD, but only got Karsten Muller speaking German on his Endgame DVD using this method. Far easier just to use the splash screen.
Chessbase have a huge library of tutorial DVDs available, and the idea of being able to purchase 3 hours of tuition about a specific opening variation is very appealing to the Geek-within, although I'm not currently at a level where I'm likely to benefit much from these. At £20-£30 a throw you need to be pretty keen too.
Fluff and Gimmicks
I personally find the chatter function dreadfully funny, but I can understand some people may find it irritating after a while. You can turn it off. Fritz is the only chess program that's managed to make me laugh, and it has over 1000 soundbites which it trots out depending on the progress of the game. This gives Fritz a real 'personality' all of its own, though it may not be to everyone's taste.
I never use the 3D boards, preferring 2D. The 3D boards look great, but in play they just seem to get in the way. They're useful for showing friends and family members (who tend not to be so impressed by things like the database of 1 million+ games and the analysis tools), but I find it a bit difficult to look at a rendered 3D Chessboard and 'get' the position at a glance.
If, like me, you're just starting out learning to play chess, the best advice I can give you is to buy both this and Chessmaster Grandmaster Edition (PC DVD)
(you should be able to find it for a fiver on Amazon). Chessmaster has fantastic tutorials, and once you've been through them you'll be in a far better position to start to appreciate Fritz's awesome functionality in terms of analysis and training.
The changes to the Fritz interface are very welcome, especially the ability to assign frequently-used functions to the Quick Launch panel. For sure, there are some glitches, but they do not entirely detract from a far more polished and useable UI. I'm finding this edition of Fritz far, far easier to make use of than version 11, and I'm confident this will become my UI of choice from now on.