Over the last few weeks the family has come together to play Champions Online. My wife has been a gamer for years and of course she has a solid gaming rig. However I was surprised when my daughter not only started playing but got serious about the game. She has never been much of a gamer but there is something about super heroes that just made her want to play. Her personal PC is a laptop from about 2 years ago. Remember she was not a gamer so for her birthday we bought her a solid little $400 laptop for her Facebook time and to watch movies in her room.
The day before yesterday I was working with her on making her costume in game a bit more heroic and finally had enough doing it remote and went to her PC to help her. OMG!!! How could she game this way. The graphics where washed out and awful and the game play laggy at best. I said nothing but hung my head in shame that ANYONE in my house would be gaming like this.
So yesterday I set to work. I found an old Antec NSK 4480 case I had. I dusted it off and cleaned it out. The case came with a 380 watt PSU, 80 Plus certified, after testing I decided to try this out since it looked good. Looking around I found a MSI 760GM-E51 board I had from a clients system that had died. It had an Athlon II X2 240 processor attached to it. I found a stock AMD heat sink and put it on and then put in 2 Gig DDR3 Kingston Value RAM I had on hand for testing. Looking through some old drives I found a WD 320 Blue and an old ATA DVD Burner.
For the video I looked through some old cards and found nothing. I went to my new stack and found a 6570 I was sent by AMD for review. I then pulled a spare Sidewinder mouse I had on hand as well as a spare Saitek Eclipse II for her keyboard. I finally rounded out this system with a Samsung 22" monitor I had sitting on the shelf.
When I am building the family ignores me so she had no idea what I was doing. My wife and daughters left for about 3 hours yesterday for some running that was needed and so I went to work. I removed her laptop from the workstation we setup for her in the computer area and setup the PC I had just finished building. I installed Champions and even went into her account and made the costume switch we where working on. I set up her vent and she was now ready to rock.
The girls came in and piddle for about an hour until I mentioned that Doug, my best friend and his son wanted to play some Champs tonight. We finished dinner and set down. Nicole asked me about her laptop, finally noticing what had been put there. I explained that I wanted her to enjoy the game more so I built this for her to game on. She tried to tell me she did not need this, she was happy with her laptop. I asked her to humor me.
The rest of the night the term OH MY GOD was about all she could say. :woo: I have set the game at 1440×900 and maxed out the detail, AA and AF levels. The game actually ran great at 1680×1050 but I was not comfortable with the card I chose running at the level maxed out, was concerned it would glitch or stutter some, I was shooting for perfection. I can tell you that 1440×900 with MAXED everything vs 1680×1050 with medium everything, the 1440 wins on which looks better.
Needless to say she is a happy camper and Dad is now a hero in the real sense of the word.
The reason I am passing this along? Well as computing enthusiasts we often overlook old or lower end components, we think them beneath us, not worthy of our attention. However I think we have missed out with our hardware snobbery. Todays games, no matter what the “enthusiast” sites tell us, are actually becoming less demanding of high end computer components. The need for pure, raw, top end horse power has passed and today even gamers can often find great enjoyment in more budget oriented, so called lower powered systems.
For years I have preached the mantra of experience over benchmarks. Over the last two years I have seen my flock of believers grow as AMD has moved to embrace this ideal and so have a few of the hardware review sites. However for the most part the computing community has still become mired down in the muck of the benchmarking system.
So called lower tier parts have a place in the PC community today and not just for people doing nothing but Facebook. General family PCs and even gamers can find solid experiences in these PCs once we embrace what they offer and not snub our nose at the benchmarks they show.
As you all know I have been around computers a LONG time. I go back well before the PC era and so I recall all sorts of neat things from the early days. Something I have loved and missed the most is the old AT style keyboard. This old brute weighed a ton, it felt solid under your hands and the keys made a nice click when you pressed them. Plus pressing them was not the mushy affair of todays keyboards, they used a mechanical solution called a bucking spring to give a solid return and feel to the key presses.
Todays keyboards do not use the mechanical systems but rather use either full membrane or domed switch design. Both of these system rely on a soft membrane under the key to allow for a softer feel and quieter operation. While these work okay they lack the solid feel we enjoyed back in the day.
Enter the era of the mechanical keyboard. While they have been around for a while actually mechanical keyboards are what you would consider a luxury computer item. They are more durable than the usual fare however they also cost more as the switches are more expensive per key than the other designs.
Thermaltake has joined a small group brining this kind of keyboard to the market with the Meka G1. Using Cherry MX Black Switches, one of the heavier switch designs used for keyboards, they have set out to create what they hope is a first class gaming keyboard. The feature goes on to include 2 USB ports on the back as well as a headphone and mic jack.
First let me begin by saying I think we should throw out the gaming keyboard title. Compared to most gaming keyboards this one lacks one serious feature, a macro key set. While I personally do not make use of the macro keys on a “gaming” keyboard, they are a staple feature that sets a keyboard apart from the more basic kinds. I do however feel that the term luxury keyboard fits, when you look at the pricing and features offered.
The keyboard itself has an almost retro look from most keyboards you would buy today. Gone are the various special functions keys, like web or calculator. This is a good thing to me since I see people use these keys for like the first week they get their neat new keyboard and then ignore them after that. The only useful keys in my opinion outside the standard ones are volume control. The G1 puts these in by including a Fn key where the traditional (now) Windows key would go on the left. The multimedia functions are accessed by holding down the Fn key and then using F1-F7.
The G1 has dual USB connectors as well as a head phone and mic plug. Rather than have a bunch of flimsy cables that can be easily broken, Thermaltake took all the cables and wrapped them in a tough fabric sheath. While a bit stiffer than normal this sheath is tough enough to protect your cables from sharp edges under the desk, kids and small pets. In a pinch it could be used as a weapon to beat someone of as a garrote. This is some serious cable sheathing.
At the PC end the cable sheath terminates in a tough plastic end that allows the individual cables to come out for access. The dual USB plugs allows the USB ports on the back of the keyboard to be powered. This is a step up from other USB hubbed keyboards and shows in the fact that I had no devices that would not work correctly when attacked to this board including an external HD. There is also a USB to PS adapter. It seems you need the PS2 port connection to get the full anti ghosting effect that this keyboard offers. However even when plugged into a USB port I never experienced any issues using this keyboard with ghosting.
Okay with the features out of the way the question is how does it work? For testing I pitted the G1 against the two keyboard I current think are the best, the Saitek Eclipse II and the Microsoft Sidewinder X6.
The first think I noticed is the difference in the way the key presses feel. The G1 has a smoother resistance and there was a more noticeable feel of having pressed a key. There was also a more audible click when each key was pressed, you not only felt the key press, you also heard it. The keyboard itself has a much more substantial feel to it. It is heavier and feels more solid under use.
From a gaming point of view I would have to say I am a bit disappointed with the G1. The macro keys for the gamers is what really sets a keyboard apart in gaming. The USB ports are neat but not as big a deal as many make of them because we have had easy front PC access to USB for years. The only real use I have found for them is to use an LED light for low light PC use since this keyboard does not have backlit keys. Headphone and mic jacks in my opinion are USELESS on a keyboard. By plugging them into the back of the computer it means you need to either plug and unplug speakers when you want to use these for headphones or buy an extra switch. Once again we find front headset jacks are standard fare on modern cases making this feature not worth the trouble.
Reading this you might think I do not like this keyboard, you would be wrong. I LOVE this keyboard. For a big heavy handed guy like myself the mechanical keyboard is night and day better in typing experience than the softer stuff out there. My hammering hunt peck style leaves lesser keyboards mush at the end of 6 months but this one should hold up for years.
The problem is selecting a keyboard is not a this is best use it type of thing. It is, along with a mouse and monitor a very personal choice. These are the interfaces between you and your PC, the places you and the PC make contact. As such how they effect your computing experience varies from one person to another.
Is the Meka G1 a great gaming keyboard, no I don’t think so. While it offers the right buzz features I think it is missing a feature that is what sets the gaming keyboard aside, the macro setup. Anti-ghosting and fast polling and great but unless you are an elite gamer, and not just think you are, the odds are you will not notice any difference from keyboards without these features.
Now lets ask a different question, is the Meka G1 a great keyboard period and I would answer yes. The heavy duty feel, the great key responsiveness, the potential durability all combine to make this a great keyboard. As with most luxury type computer parts the pricing is a bit steep for the G1, but then again that is a fault with all mechanical keyboards. If you are looking for the mechanical keyboard then the G1 is not only a great choice, it is my first choice.
As recorded live 22 May 2011
When an office or family buys a PC they get it back, set it up and then marvel at all the things they can do. Of course shortly after that moment the truth sets in when they realize those neat programs that came with their PC are trials versions that expire shortly after we figure out how to use them. You see unlike our car or TV, when you buy a computer it does not come with everything we need except power, we need programs to make it do what we want it to do.
However do not despair because over the years more and more free software has appeared. Now free used to mean limited trial or just plain crappy, with a few exceptions. Today however there is a lot of high quality free software that can easily fill your family or small business needs. If I where to make a list of the various programs that are offered you would be here reading all day. Instead below you will find a list and a link to the various programs I consider the best in each category.
Computer Protection: When you get that new PC one of the first things you should do is make sure it has protection on it from the malware that seems to be all over the internet. Most new PCs come with some form of protection pre-installed, this si fine but it is a trail and gives the user a false sense of security, one of the first things you should do is remove it and get full protection on your PC. The good news is that there are some great free solutions for doing this, my persona favorite is Microsoft Security Essentials. Not only is it free, it is also simple to use and does a great job of staying out of the way when using your computer. I have used this program on my home PCs and helped a lot of people set it up, and no one has been disappointed.
Productivity: Did you know that Microsoft Office is one of the most pirated programs in the world? The reason is simple, everyone uses it at the office and at school. The problem is the cost, well at least that is the argument given. I have over the years shown people alternatives that are free, most prominently Open Office, however I hear the same argument all the time that they do not want to mess with the compatibility. Well Microsoft has decided that more people need access to Office and introduced Office WebApps. You need to create a Live account and the program works in conjunction with Live Mail and Skydrive.
You have available a toned down version of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote that is 100% free and can be used anywhere you can get internet access. The programs store your documents using the SkyDrive system making them available wherever you are and with no need to worry about your system crashing causing you to lose files. It is completely compatible with the full version of Office so compatibility issues do not crop up. While not as powerful as the full version of Office it is a great alternative to piracy and fills the needs of families with ease. It can even handle light business work as well from my experience.
Photo Editing: This is an area that keeps growing in use when it comes to family PCs but also for business. A lot of companies use photos to record various aspects of their companies and sometimes need to edit them down for size to use on social networking sites or for reports. While basic functionality can be reached using Live Photo Gallery, some people want more than to crop and remove red eye or give basic touchups. For a more full featured package I suggest Paint.Net. There are other great programs out there but most of them come loaded with various trail software and load slowly, Paint.Net is clean and fast yet with enough power to handle pretty much any photo editing need.
Movie Making: Another area that is growing in the realm of the home and small business user is making of home of movies or presentations. Being able to take pictures, short videos and music or even a narrative and put them all together is something a lot of people are doing these days. It can be a compilation of home movies, an anniversary presentation, wedding memories, the family vacation or even an office project. For this there is nothing I found for free that beats Live Movie Maker, a part of the Live Essentials Package. This powerful little program makes it easy to create simple films, complete with transitions, special effects and sound and then put them on a DVD to give out. The really nice part is that when you get the Live Essentials package you also get instant messaging, basic photo management, a blog writer (like the one I am using), a good email client and more. So while the Movie Maker might be what we are after we get a more full featured packaged.
Entertainment: Now you might not expect this to be a category but I feel there is a need here. A lot of families use their PC for someone to enjoy music or even watch TV on. Again this is an area that is rife with piracy, most especially in music. However if you are using your PC to play music there are great free and legal alternatives. Right now I am torn between two different systems, Pandora and Grooveshark. Bother offer the ability to play the music you want to hear without being forced to pay money for every song you play. For video we are currently blessed with a wealth of options as many networks have started airing full episodes of their prime series. However the most comprehensive list can be found at Hulu. While each of these offer pay features I have found their free features can easily meet most peoples needs.
Gaming: Surely you did not think I work through this list and leave out computer gaming? The number of GOOD free games has grown a lot over the last year. One game I have seen played in a lot of home and a few offices is various forms of golf. Lets face it sometimes weather or life just gets in the way of enjoying some time on the greens and while playing on the computer might not be the same, it sure beats working. EA Sports decided to experiment and they have given us the excellent Tiger Woods Golf franchise for free with Tiger Woods PGA Tour Online. Played fully online there is little in the way of installed software and this also means you can play your round at the office during slow times and finish at home later in the evening. Of course you can also gather your buddies together and all do a round of golf together, not bad for a free game.
Perhaps you are a more “traditional” gamer, the MMO world continues to expand, provide better games and many of them are free. If you want to grab a sword or fire off a spell then Lord of the Rings Online is my preferred choice. Set in the rich world of Tolkien the game lets you see the famous landmarks you only got to read about in your youth. Maybe you want a simpler game that can engage the kids, then look no further than Wizard 101. A simple game system with amazing efforts to protect kids in the game system has made this an award winning MMO that continues to rank higher on the charts every year.
My personal choice for free gaming right now has been influenced by the movie industry and this summer of super heroes, Champions Online. I go back with Champions a LONG time, first starting to play the pen and paper version in late 1981. During the following years I played it off and on a lot and have some great memories including weekly gaming sessions with my friends and the founding of the super team, The Round Table. My character back then was called Blue Knight (think Iron Man with Stark not being a playboy). This all came back like it was yesterday as I played Champions Online and today I now defend Millennium City as the Blue Knight once again. A solid game system, good graphics that remind you of the old comics and just the plain fun of being a super hero makes this an awesome free choice.
I could keep listing programs all day long but I think you begin to get the idea, there is a lot of great free software out there. This is a small list and does not come close to covering all the options and choices but these are the programs I have found that use and enjoy the most. If you have a great free program you fee deserves notice be sure to add it as a comment to this post. In the mean time enjoy the truth of an old saying that I will paraphrase, “Many great things in life are free.”
When Thermaltake decided to redo the Armor lineup I must say I was impressed. We have reviewed the A90 and the A60, both of which are solid case choices. Recently however another Thermaltake box showed at my door, the Armor A30.
The Armor A30 differs from the other two cases we have looked at by going from the mid tower design to the micro ATX form factor. This smaller size is usually reserved for budget cases, but in the case of the A30 Thermaltake is trying to make a full gaming case.
When you think gaming case you tend to think of fans and an ability to remove a lot of heat from the system. Gaming systems typically generate more heat so this is an important consideration. In the A30 Thermaltake has put a single 92mm fan for the intake but added dual 60mm fans for rear exhaust and a single 230mm fan at the top to pull out the heat. Add to this the generous placement of vents on both sides of the case and you get some serious air flow potential.
The front of the case looks pretty plain with two 5.25” bays and a single 3.5” external bay. We also see a USB 2, USB 3 and ESATA ports besides the power and typical LEDS as well as the headset and mic jacks. The lower front area is where the 90mm intake fan is housed. The blue LEDs in the fan add a bit of style to this front area.
The front and the top of the case have the angular lines we have seen in the A60 and A90, keeping the new Armor look. The top area is dominated by the 230mm exhaust fan, also with a blue LED. The middle of the top is slightly indented allowing it to function as a tray area.
The top panel is removable for installing parts instead of the typical side panel access. This could be a problem considering the small size of the case however the people at Thermaltake thought of this and made the motherboard tray area fully removable.
Not just the motherboard tray area either. They also made a 5.25” bay bracket that includes the brackets for dual 2.5” HDs as well as the single 3.5” drive. This is all with thumbscrews meaning no tools needed. Under the mounting bracket is a 3.5” HD mounting bracket as well, again removable. The result is the case basically disassembles for very easy building.
The PSU sits in a bracket that is located right above the typical CPU area of a motherboard , limiting the size of the heat sinks you can use. This placement works well for cabling but creates a different issue, it blocks a good portion of the 230mm cooling fans area.
We put a PSU in the case and then fired off an LED behind at. As you can see 25% to 30% of the area of the fan is blocked. If you are using a PSU that has a large cooling fan this can be partially mitigated by the PSU fan helping to pull air from the case. However it still means that a good portion of the chimney fans potential is removed by design.
For purposes of this build I decided to build a solid gaming machine, so we used an AM3 motherboard with a 975 processor and a 6850 for video. We used the stock AMD heatsink and put in an SSD drive.
Firing the case up the first thing I noticed was how quiet the case is. I really expected the dual rear 60mm fans to be noisy but Thermaltake has found a nice balance between fan speed and noise level. My testing showed that the processor was running higher than in the typical case but considering the compact conditions I was not surprised. However as I looked at the setup I noticed something. The stock heatsink shoots air down into the heatsink for cooling. However it is working against 2x 60mm fans exhausting as well as a PSU and 230mm fan pulling air away as well. On a whim I reversed the fan on the heatsink, my plan worked and I got a 4c drop in CPU temps.
The last none budget case in this form factor that I looked at was the P180 mini. It is a great case but is more conservative in it’s looks, more like a compact luxury car. Taking this analogy forward with the A30, I see this case as a sports car among the compacts. It has some nice lines that scream gaming and offers a step above cooling performance than other cases in it’s form factor.
Something that truly impressed both Doug and myself was the construction. Not a single inch of wasted spaces exists within this case. Every place you look is a bracket or mounting system that can be removed if not needed and designed for easy installation. The construction is solid, the case feels solid and the finish matches everything else in the Armor lineup.
To get an idea of the compact size of the A30 we see it here in a picture next to an Antec One Hundred. This small size makes this case perfect for someone with limited space but still needing a full power computer.
The cases style and the lighting are subtle enough to impress without being overpowering. Thermaltake claims the Armor case design is meant to give gamers the feeling of have armored their PC and the style works.
This case is actually fun to build in despite the small size and the result is a solid PC case. The easy disassembly and well done internal design speaks volumes to the thought put into this case. That is why it bothers me so much that such a glaring design issue exists with placement of the PSU.
At the end of the day this is a worthy case for anyone looking to build a full gaming system in a small form factor.
Review as aired live 8 May 2011
Anyone that has listened to this show for any length of time knows that I take my sound seriously. I have a history with audio dating back many years to my running sound for local rock and country bands to my work in radio today. Sound is something that brings things alive to me, be it a game, a mood induced through music or the immersion that sound can bring to a movie. When it comes to my computer gaming I am pretty picky and after years of trying various brands the headsets I have found best have been those created by Plantronics. With this background in place we enter our second week to Tt esports products reviews with a look at the Shock Spin and Shock One gaming headsets.
I have to admit that when these headsets showed up I was less than truly excited. Like I said I have tested a lot of headsets over the years and when it comes to gaming headsets it seems to be more of the same. For testing purposes I set down with a few games such as Batman Arkham Asylum and Champions Online. (Yes I am in a superhero kick) Next I loaded up the final battle scene of the first Fantastic Four movie and finally some music was played. (Poison Unskinny Bop and Sawyer Brown the Race is On) The games where chosen based on what I was playing at the time, the movie and music where chosen because of specific sound properties each presents. The headsets where compared to a Plantronics GameCon headset that has been my headset of choice since it’s release. The Shock Spin and Gamecon where hooked to an Asus Xonar DX soundcard and the Shock One is a USB set so it is of course hooked to a rear USB port.
Now early testing on the Shock Spin was conducted by Doug and he will give a more in-depth look at it on our live broadcast, the segment for the headsets will be available on this blog entry later today. What I do want to reveal was a conversation Doug and I had a couple of weeks ago. While doing show prep Doug was telling me how much he had enjoyed using the Shock Spin for just listening to music. As an additional test he had taken the headset to a friends house that is a huge audiophile. Doug said that his friend was so impressed he now felt ruined when going back to is usual headset.
I have to say that once I began my testing of the Shock Spin I understood. While the Shock Spin may be listed as a gaming headset do not be fooled, this is a full sound multipurpose headphone that is as much at home watching a movie, listening to classical music as well as playing computer games. To say I am impressed is an understatement in the way I look at the sound quality these headphones produce. The sound is warm and rich with a base strong enough to feel but not overpowering. The sound separation in this headset is outstanding. So much so that when listening to a heavy drum piece of music I was able to discern the moment the stick hit the drum head and the release.
The headset however goes beyond delivering great sound, it is really comfortable to wear. The nice large ear pieces fit well on every head size we tested and the material based padding was the perfect compliment. Additionally the Shock Spin using an old style expansion band which allows the headset to fit a bit lighter on the ears and head in general, not making you feel like your head is in a vice.
While the headphones have won my heart the same cannot be said for the microphone. Since this is billed as a gaming headset it would be expected that the microphone would be attached to the headset. Thermaltake took a different direction and instead used a small clip on mic for sound input.
While the mic is adequate to get the job done it is far from the star performer that the headphones have proven to be. Because it is a clip mic you need to up the gain on the mic input a bit more to get your voice to come over clear. The increased gain however results in more background noise. This added to the fact the mic is not noise cancelling means it is only adequate for the job.
Next up we plugged the Shock One headset into our USB port to see how it would work. At first glance the Shock One is more along the lines of what we traditionally think of when we see a gaming headset. The mic is build right into the headset on a pivoting arm to get it out of the way, fully noise cancelling. The headset comes with a CD for driver software but I did not need to use it as the headset was fully functional just by plugging it in. I did test with the including software to try and adjust the sound quality but the effect was minimal and made no difference of note during our testing.
The headband is very strong and provides a tight fit to the headset. Now after use this loosens a bit and fits your head better, however initially this can be a bit tight. The headset comes stock with a leather style padding but had a cloth padding to change this out if you prefer. This is a nice feature that I wish all headphones did. In the winter the cloth is kind of nice but the summer brings sweat and they get a bit soggy in feel over long sessions.
Running through our gambit of sounds the headset performed well but was not as exciting to listen with as the Shock Spin. The issue was that the sound was almost to crisp. This is an issue I have had with USB headsets for a long time, they pure digital solution leaves something to be desired in my option. While the sound was okay it did not reach the quality level of the Plantronics I used as a base line and was far behind the Shock Spin.
The headset is foldable for easy transportation and comes with a nice travel bag, a feature we are seeing in all the Tt epsort lineup. We are also seeing on both of these headsets a nice thick fabric braded cable. The Shock Ones put a bit of bling on as the sound control module and even the headphones have red illumination. While it might not make them better for listening it does give a nudge to the cool factor.
The microphone in this headset however did shine. It produced clear and well defined audio input with no detectable background noise. It was able to do this will little gain being added to the input meaning you have a lot of headroom to up the input volume if need be. The mic input was head to head with my Gamecon headset when it came to voice recordings, well ahead of the clip mic on the Shock Spin.
Finally we come to comfort and the Shock One again fell behind the Shock Spin and my base line Plantronics set. A combination of a strong headband and the small size of the ear pieces just made your head feel gripped way to tightly.In the picture to the right you can see a comparison of the Spin and the One in the size of the ear piece. The larger size and lighter band tension of the Spin just made a huge difference in the comfort level.
When I got the pricing on these two headsets I was “shocked”. The Shock Spin can be had on Newegg for around $60. When you realize the sound quality of this headset is comparable the lower end Senniheiser or even Gato that cost nearly twice as much the Spin becomes a steal. While the mic may be subpar to other gaming headsets in general the sound quality essentially means you are getting a great headphone with a free mic. While I would not use this set for doing work on the show because of the mic’s input quality, I would use this set for every form of headphone listening I do and never have a regret. The mic is adequate for game communications but the star of the Spin is the headphone.
The Shock One is priced currently on Newegg at $90 and I must say I am surprised and not at the same time. This pricing puts it in the range of other USB gaming headsets from the typical big names. However all of them are about the same in sound quality and they match Plantronics Audio 995 which is lower in price. Now in fairness the Shock One is more portable thanks to the folding and the optional ear cover material is a big plus as well.
When looking at these two headsets to me the one that truly shines is the Shock Spin, the sound quality is just amazing for the money. They are a step apart and offer a lot more than a gaming headset normally offers when it comes to listening. If you want a headset for listening and only occasionally needing voice capabilities for a game then the Shock Spin is a GREAT buy.
If you are attending LAN parties the Shock One gets a win for the folding and easy portability and the bling factor to show off to your buddies. Of the USB headsets it is middle of the pack with the big names and a worthy choice if that is the direction you are leaning.
Tte sports has done it again with these headsets, they have gone after the bigger names in this part of the industry and given them a run for their money.
Now if you will all excuse me I have some music to go enjoy, my family hates it so I will be using the Spins. I also have to find a way to explain to Doug that since my name is the one on the show I am the boss and I am keeping the Spins for myself.
Segement Aired 1 May 2011