Part III: Too much is never enough
Earlier I asked what went wrong? Why are we as a group so discontent with our MMOs? Every year we see more games release, there are currently hundreds of MMORPGs along not counting MMOFPS and the other niche games. Tens of millions of us play those games and an ever increasing number of us are discontent with the games we have to choose from in one form or another.
I’ve gotten considerable input from other gamers who have been around since at least the days of Ultima Online and Acheron’s Call, many who like me gamed in the days before there were computers.
It’s true that we have come a long way technologically in our games. Stunning graphics are a given now days, surround sound helps complete the feel of immersion, and there is no lack of games with a deep and rich story line. So while we may grumble about this or that, any comparison to the graphics or sound of say 15 years ago should end those complaints quickly.
So technically games have gotten much better.
While we have seen several instances of games simply failing to deliver content that they promised, or features not working as advertised, such as combat or crafting interfaces which sounded innovate but often turned out to feel counter-intuitive or cumbersome when actually tried. Yet all but the worst of them are again better than what we had a decade ago, if we had them at all back then.
So game play has evolved:
Much of the input I have received unsolicited from readers who were long time gamers reminisced about a feeling of accomplishment with MMOs of yesteryear. Often stories and comments about how they felt like they had overcome more back in the days when archers had to count the arrows they could carry and every player had to worry about actually carrying water and food with them. Planning for encumbrance and how it would affect their class performance, torches to see by not to mention spell components for casters, all seemed like a pain at the time.
But many players looking back today get the feeling that the current stable of games let us take too much for granted.
Today we play MMOs where we can all carry a half a dozen bags at all times containing countless sets of armor, weapons, potion bottles and scrolls all ready in the blink of an eye. Gone are the days of needing to eat and drink if we wanted to regen health and mana at all. Travel is given no thought or very little as nearly everyone has skills or items that can instantly port them from spot A to spot B. And instances insure that there is seldom even a delay or danger in reaching a quest or spawn area, we just gather together flip a switch and POOF! There we are at or very near BoosMob#22015 where we proceed to wail on him/her until treasure drops out. Then we pull the lever again and POOF we are all home safe and secure and throwing away gear that we just got 2 days ago for the shiny new gear that ole #22015 dropped tonight.
Ask the average player today what a corpse run is and they are likely to think it’s the name of some creature in another game. Today, not only are there no such things as corpse runs there is not even a death penalty. This of course has led to a mentality of charging in first and never mind the dead, as long as we kill stuff someone will get us back up on the fly and damn the person healing if they could not keep up anyway.
Fast paced playing does not make for a very fulfilling night in an MMORPG and yet time and again when I try a new game that is the kind of groups I find. Players who know no caution because there is no down side to failure and no reward for skill. Players who are not interested in the story line much less the details of WHY they are trying to complete the current quest. The only reason for a quest it to get loot and to hell with the back story. Players who will take any path they can find to jump to the end and bypass content to get the sparkly stuff at the end.
And when the content cannot be rushed through then the developers feel the wrath of the players who cry and scream that the play is too hard and they generally vote with their money, moving on to games that are more rewarding and less challenging.
Add to this the fact that we have hundreds of games to choose from today and you have an atmosphere where developers feel forced financially to cater to the whims of the players or lose them to the games that will.
Players don’t appreciate new content they just race through it as fast as possible and yell for more.
Recently while researching for another story I saw reference to a behavioral study where the test subjects were asked to rate the chocolates from a very limited selection and again rate the chocolates from a much larger selection. The short version of the conclusion is that the more choices the subjects had, the less likely they were to be as satisfied with any of them. I think this is another important factor in the general discontentment of MMO players today. We have so many choices that it is staggering. I know people who play 5 and more MMOs regularly. They bounce back and forth every time they get angry with one and leave that game as soon as they find something they don’t like it.
It is my opinion that what we need is more challenging game play that cannot be crashed through in a matter of days. We need real penalties for failure to make players slow down and think their way through storyline and content rather than following the all mighty zerg rush that seems to be the strategy of choice in too many cases. There is no risk in most games today only rewards and bigger rewards.
I may sound like some old guy giving my version of the “back in my day” speech but its true. In a world where devs are pushed to make everyone is a winner or risk losing paying customers to the game that will make them all a winner, there is no obvious reward for challenging gamers. Thus every game becomes a candy coated trip down rainbow avenue where golden armor and skittles drop from every mob, or they become grind fests where you repeat the same task over and over and over until by increments you get the golden armor and skittles just by virtue of the amount of hours you put in.
Unfortunately I don’t see a way out of the cycle. Only a developer who is willing to take risks would put time and money into a game that made players actually think and work for success and no one is willing to put that kind of time and money at risk. Everyone is going to continue to develop games based on the models we have now, giving us a long list of games that are 80% the same with different graphics because they are a proven money maker.
And the odds of the gaming community as a whole standing up and saying “give us more challenging games that have not been dumbed down” is about as likely as every 5 year old in the world standing up and demanding more green vegetables in their diets.
There are some more subtle complaints about the current crop of MMOs that I personally have but I will save those for another time.
For now I want to make this one point clear and I will be blunt about it. We need games that make it less easy to succeed. This solves the problems of zero to end game in 30 days, and it will weed out crybabies who need to go back to phone games until they learn some patients, strategy and manners. I’m not talking about a step backward in technical features the advancement in maps, graphics, sound and interfaces are all good things. But in the end and MMO is about engaging story line that people won’t or can’t skip over and challenging game play that you can be proud to have taken part in.
I will end with a personal example of this. 3 of the most frustrating weeks of my gaming career were spent in EverQuest with my guild struggling in the Planes of Power to beat Coirnav the Avatar of Water and the The Rathe Council. In the days before voice comms running a 72 man raid of this type took days and sometimes weeks of practice and learning to form strategies and even then having one person in a key role loss connection could make the entire 3 hour event unwinnable. At the time it seemed maddening but looking back on over a decade of MMOing those are the proudest moments of my gaming career. I ask each of you to think back about that one event that you are most proud of accomplishing in you gaming career and I bet it the road to it was paved with difficulty and I bet it took time and along the way you thought more than once about quitting.
That is what we need again and I just don’t see anything like that being offered in the newer games we are being offered.
Discussion on show as aired 21 July 2012
Part II The Early Years
As mentioned in the first part of this article, Everquest was my first “real” MMOrpg. I had spent some time trying out various MUDS but they never really captured my attention. One day I got a phone call from the my oldest and the most consistent gaming friend who asked me if I had heard of an online game called Everquest. I had not but after a few minutes talking about it, I went to our local game store that night with him and we each purchased a copy. I still remember our first night in Norrath with clarity. We spent hours trying to get our starting characters who were of different races and thus started in different areas together so we could play together. After several failed attempts we finally decided to simply reroll as the same race so that we could at least start in the same place.
At last, standing together in our newbie armor (it was of course not real armor it was cloth armor or what we civilians call clothing and the only thing cloth will protect you from is sunburn) with our starting weapons (they could only be called weapons because they were somewhat pointed on one end) we stood in the same starting area and tried to decide what to do next. After facing down a few vicious rats, Skip decided that based on what he had read we wanted to be in a different “zone” for the best selection of low level quests and adventures. Since I had read nothing to prepare me for the game and he had an entire afternoon of reading under his belt, I bowed to his apparent wisdom and we sat out with visions of riches and adventure (or at least some better armor, maybe some of that rusted chain mail we had eyed so enviously on another player) . Quite possibly there might be dragons that needed slaying and lovely damsels in need of a rescue or three. The world was our oyster!
As it turned out it would not be the last time I blithely followed Skip under equipped and under prepared into harm’s way in the dark. Looking back now I wonder why it took me so many years to stop following Skip into situations where I was sure to end up in a cook pot. It’s just that he always sounded so convincing when reassuring me that he had read an post on some forum somewhere, and he knew exactly where we were going and that it would be a cake walk with gold and beer and hot chicks at the end of the rainbow.
Well the short of it is that we spent most of the next 3 hours being repeatedly killed, eaten and digested by lions on the plains of Karana. Apparently a lion’s appetite for level zero noobs is infinite, if not they would eventually have let us go simply because they were too bloated to chase and eat us for the 23rd time. It turned out that brandishing and even swinging our “starter” weapons proved to be even less effective than hiking our skirts and running. Apparently the lions were not at all impressed that our “starter” weapons were slightly sharp on one end. In the end we both had to get to bed because of work the next morning and though we had made no progress at all and had probably set some record for most deaths to lions in one evening we vowed to meet online again the next night and give it another try. Why? Because it was fun.
A lot of those early MMO days were like that. An entire evening spent dyeing, trying to recover your last corpse before it rotted and you lost all your gear and dyeing again and making little to no progress but having fun all the same. That’s not to say we never got anything done. We had plenty of great times and did not even join a guild for a long time. We just wandered around, the two of us, completing quests, getting better than cloth armor and in general having fun.
Compared to the MMOs we have today the progress was painfully slow, the frustrations were high and the game mechanics crude at best. And yet we had a blast! Despite corpse runs, no voice chat, no maps, no markets or auction halls and a complete lack of mounts to ride, we had a blast. Why? Maybe it was the newness of it. We had nothing else to compare it to, or very little. The number of MMOs to choose from back then could be counted on one hand with fingers to spare and I never remember hearing anyone back then talk about jumping to another game much less back and forth. Most of us simply picked one and stuck with it. Often our choice was based on what our real life friends played.
Over the next several years my list of gaming friends grew to include dozens of people I met online and I we had a blast playing together. I did not even belong to a real guild for the first year or so that I played, I simply got online and sent tells to some of those friends and there was always something to do. We talked occasionally about other games and by then you needed two hands to count the main stream MMOs that were out there. Some left to try these other games and most came back soon thereafter telling us tails of how the “other game” had faired. Few of us saw a compelling reason to switch. We were simply happy where we were. Again I can’t say that there was a reason to stay, just no compelling reason to leave a game we liked and knew well and were comfortable in.
Personally I first began to see the seeds of unrest in 2004. Maybe it was there earlier, but that is when I began hearing rumors of this new game called World of Warcraft. In development by Blizzard who had a sterling reputation among gamers it promised to be better than anything else out there. It adopted many of the most popular features of other MMO of the day and was the first game I also can remember being “hyped”. There was a real sense of anticipation leading up to the release of WoW.
It was around this time that my game of choice Everquest seemed to for the first time start making several class changes, altering bit by bit the roles and abilities that many of our age old classes had been known for. With each new expansion we began to see abilities being adjusted and I began to see some players become upset enough at the changes to either leave or roll other classes mostly because they did not like the changes made to their existing characters. With the release of WoW we saw for the first time a dramatic drop off of friends who went to try this new game and never came back. Many did come back but a good percentage were back and forth and then eventually just gone from our Everquest community.
Feeling this sting of lose SOE seemed to adopt a policy of emulating some of the newer games to appeal to the people whom they were losing. In a policy of streamlining many parts of the game. Corpse runs had been gone for some time but now there were ways to get around the loss of experience we had always suffered as a death penalty we didn’t even need certain classes to help rez our dead anymore we could simply pay an NPC to do the same thing. Gone were the days of needing a teleporting class to help us cross vast distances, there was the equivalent of mass transportation in the form of portals that did the jobs that at one time made a few classes very desirable. In short the games were becoming easier. I’m not yet prepared to use the word dumbed down as many of the changes were defiantly for the best. Things like auction halls, and various player markets meant we could sell goods without being on line. Mass transit type systems meant that non teleporting classes were no longer at the mercy of those who used to charge a fee to move them from point A to point B, and we had maps. On the other hand many of us found that from expansion to expansion classes were being morphed in ways that made them more or less valuable to groups and guilds alike.
People playing classes which had never been the best at any one skill but who were pretty good at several found themselves begging for groups who no longer wanted or needed them because changes in their classes or other classes had made them undesirable. This added to companies wanting us to buy 2 and even 3 expansions a year at 30.00 each plus our 15.00 subscription fee left many feeling like they were no longer customers so much as cash cows.
This general unhappiness led to more and more players that I knew deciding to try game after game that came out until eventually I did not see them anymore.
We began to see every MMO adopt a seemingly desperate drive for players by offering them more stuff, faster and easier. In the span of a few years we seemed to have moved from games that challenged, to games that gave the biggest shiniest bobbles the fastest. I knew people that were hitting max level and playing “end game” content in new games in mere months if not weeks. This was inevitably followed by complaints that there was nothing left to do and players bouncing back and forth between whichever games had new content that they could rush through which led to game companies releasing more expansions trying to feed their players appetites for fast progression. It was like a firestorm, self-sustaining and burning up content until new expansions sometimes did not even seem to mesh with previous content in the game. Many of us shook our heads as we were forced to wade into new content that was neither interesting nor related to any previous story line in our games. Eventually even I moved on from my beloved Everqeust out of frustration. At the risk of being overly dramatic it was heartbreaking for me. I realized that I had not been enjoying the game for well over a year but I was very close to the people in my guild and as an officer I felt like I would be letting everyone down if I did not log on every night and help with raids and recruiting. I was very close to many of those other players and had been for years. But at some point I just could not stand by any longer and watch my game change in ways that made it un-enjoyable for me. And like so many others before me, I said my goodbyes and I moved on.
To some this may sound like my own personal MMO gaming journal, but I have talked to a lot of long time MMO gamers and with some variations many of their experiences parallel my own. In a short few years we seem to have moved from a MMO world of limited choices with great contentment to a MMO world of many choices and much discontent.
Today you can read through the forum threads about any of the many new MMOs in development or recently released and the crowd quickly breaks down into a fight as vicious as any I have ever seen over politics or religion. Inevitably there are the base of “fanboys” who swear by their mother’s beard that this game will be the defining moment in gaming history, humbling all previous games. They are countered by the neigh sayers who can’t stand anything about the game based on the trailers and developer interviews, they have already decided that the game is useless and so is anyone who is willing to try it. Not being content to just not try the game, they feel compelled to log into the forums daily and call the fanboys idiots and explain to them in great detail the depths of their idiocy. The third and largest group, are those who have had their hearts broken and their expectations dashed so many times over the last few years that they are simply skeptical of anything that anyone says. Oh they hope that the new game in question will live up to at least some of the expectations but they don’t believe it ever will.
So what is the problem with the MMO situation as it stands today?
So many of us have become hardcore skeptics when we read comments from game studios like “we will re-define what it means to be an MMO” and “our combat system is unique and will exceed our players expectations” or “we plan to do away with the grind aspect and offer an ever changing, ever challenging experience for our players unlike any MMO before”
We have just seen too many games release over the last few years that did not live up to their own hype (Much less the spontaneous hype created by an overly enthusiastic fan base)
In the next segment we will take a look at some of the situations that have made such skeptics of most of us and try to figure out how we got here and if there is a cure for what ails us. In the meantime please feel free to share your experiences or comment on this topic with us here or on the show Saturday.
Show segment as aired live 14 July 2012
(The Good, the Bad and the Nerfed)
I’ve been intentionally out of the MMO scene for the last 6 months. Broken games and broken promises and broken guilds finally led me to a point of frustration that I could not overcome. I simply reached a point where I would rather stomp repeatedly on a large rusty nail than log in to my then current game for 3 hours of figuring out how to play now that my character class had been radically changed and trying to find something to do in a guild that had become a ghost town because 75% of the other members had left for other games. I’m still looking for my “next game” and several are due to launch in the near future that look to have some promise. And yet it occurred to me, I’ve been through this cycle before more than I would like to remember. I’ve also watched countless gaming friends and acquaintances do so even more often. Thinking about it for a while, I suddenly realized it all seems like a scene from the movie Groundhog Day. That’s because it is. Too many of us seem to be caught in this cycle of pre-release expectancy, release day euphoria, new game scramble and new guild introductions. This in turn gives way to post launch disappointment, content inadequacy, class choice remorse, balancing patch rage and ultimately new game yearning. It’s a vicious and for many an emotional cycle and each one costs us hundreds of dollars and likely thousands of hours of our lives. At the end we have little to show for it but a deactivated account and a feeling of loss or maybe even betrayal. If we are lucky we have made a new friend or two along the way but even that may not last if they move on to another game, or decide to stay with the game where you met while you move on. It’s like staying in touch with people you knew in high school, you intend to stop by and chat regularly but when you lead different gaming lives you often have little to discuss besides the inevitable “you should come play this game with me” and them saying the same to you.
So how as gamers did we get here?
I’ve been playing MMOs since the early days of Everquest. A daily player of 1 – 6 hours a day in games like Everquest, Eve Online, Lord of the Rings Online, Dungeons and Dragons Online, and Warhammer Age of Reckoning, to name a few. Like a lot of online gamers I got my start in the late 70’s with what is today referred to as PnP or pin and paper gaming in games like AD&D and Mechwarrior. But my gaming career if you will started much earlier.
(queue up the way back time machine sound effect)
I remember a time when I actually used to juggle work and a family in the 80s and 90s to manage getting together with friends around a table for a precious 4-6 hours of gaming one night per week with maps and books and graph paper. Eating handfuls of pizza and other takeout while trying (unsuccessfully) to keep the books and papers free of food stains. Some of the best times of my life were spent huddled around a table trying to puzzle out some riddle or negotiate with a powerful warlord or slay a flame spouting dragon at the kitchen table. When the time came that our gamming out grew the limits of my kitchen table and became too loud for my wife to tolerate, we were relegated to my workshop where we set about the same tasks with the same gusto despite the lack of heat or air conditioning and questionable lighting. But with more than one talented Game Master in the group we never lacked for fun and unique adventures that saw us matching wits with undead overlords, over-fed underlings and over eager henchmen. We traveled the various planes of existence, saved cities, discovered worlds, started and ended wars, avenged the innocent, made a nice profit and in general kicked ass in every imaginable way. We had adventures that we still talk about years later. Oh there was death on our part, injury to mind and body and humiliations abounded. But in the end none of us ever vowed while packing up our pens and papers and dice at the end of the night that we would never ever play this stupid game again. On the contrary we could not wait to get to the next game night and pick up where we had left off or start a new adventure that one of us had been carefully crafting for the last 3 months.
Several of the members of our gaming group were early PC users and even worked with or on them in our daily lives, and I can remember sitting around on more than one occasion dreaming of the day when we could computerize our gaming experience. It would be so great to automate dice rolls of NPCs and display maps on a screen! How cool it would be to track the health and saving throws of all those orcs and kobolds, rust monsters and henchmen and somehow we would have an entire campaign on a computer dazzling our fellow players with all the marvels of this new computer age! We were a little sketchy on how exactly this was going to be done but we had every confidence that as computers and software advanced it would be so. Oh we all played computer RPG games like Wizardry, Ultima and Pool of Radiance, Might and Magic and such, but it was all single player and was really just a time filler until we could get together on the weekends for “real gaming”.
The eventual discovery by us of our first MMO Everquest seemed a dream come true! Now we could game together without having to be together! We could now adventure any night after dinner and still be on hand if our spouses needed us. Brilliant! We were at the dawn of a new age, we could play our games any time of the day or night someone else worried about writing the adventures and all was right with the world! It was a heady time indeed.
Fast forward to today. There are more MMO games than you can shake a stick at, MMORPGs, MMOFPS, MMORTS, MMO anything you can imagine. Countless servers host countless games in, on and from every continent and millions of fellow gamers are available to join us online 24/7/365. It all sounds like gaming nirvana, a veritable promised land of milk and honey for gamers. And yet join any voice comm channel or watch any public chat channel in any MMO out there and a sizable portion of the discussion sounds like “this game sucks so bad!” “OMG they nerfed me again” “I hate this game and want my money back” and “I can’t wait till game XYZ launches, I will be gone to play that and never come back to this game again”. Dozens of new games are launching each year in every genre imaginable all to great fanfare and expectation fed by game publishers and hopeful gamers alike. And yet a six to twelve months after launch half of the people who tried it out, are gone sometimes more. Most of whom have either moved on to try the next game to release or gone grumbling back to a game they say sucks and swore they would never play again while mumbling about dealing with the devil they know.
Why do we seem to live in an age where so many games despite dazzling graphics, tantalizing lore, sophisticated skill trees and revolutionary combat systems seem to suck so bad? Is it the game studios lying to us about what to expect? Is it the reality of limited budgets and ruthless deadlines? Is it a dumbed down player base? Is it the limitations of our current technology? A player base with a short attention span? What has made us a population of dissatisfied, grumbling resentful, skeptical, unhappy players who move to another game every 6 months always getting our hopes up that this one will be THE game, the one that fulfills all our expectations.
Over the next several weeks we will be exploring these and other possibilities in an attempt to explain the general discontent felt by a majority of MMO gamers today. Along the way we welcome any and all input from our listeners and readers. Share your stories, insights and opinions with us and maybe, just maybe at the end we will have some answers. At the very least maybe we will have a clearer understanding of what the question is.
Our discussion as aired live 7 July 2012
By Doug Berner
As I talked about in our review of the K60 and M60, we got a chance to check out some of the cool offerings from Corsair while at CES. The K90 and M90 keyboard and mouse are designed around the needs of the MMO player. Since both Ed and I are avid RPG gamers and dedicated MMO players this set was one we really looked forward to checking out.
Designed for MMO gamers this pair of products grabbed out attention right away with their aggressive styling and unusual features. A few months ago the good folks at Corsair were kind enough to send us some review samples and we have been hard at work putting them through their paces, kicking the tires so to speak. Yes we are far from the first source to review these products but as our listeners know we strive to do a thorough test on items like this to get a feel not only for the initial impressions and feature list but to see how well they hold up and how they perform under a variety of situations on a daily basis. So with no further delay I will jump right in with our impressions, experiences and conclusions of the K90 and M90 from Corsair.
I will spare you the unboxing experience and tell you that they were more than adequately packaged. (by now you all know how Ed and I feel about “unboxing reviews”).
As mentioned above this keyboard is designed from the ground up to be not just a gamer’s keyboard but a MMO gamer’s keyboard. For the non-gamers out there who are about to stop reading let me just clarify by telling you this is not JUST a gaming keyboard and the features included to make it appeal to gamers are also excellent additions to a daily work and general use keyboard. The K90 is essentially a variant of the K60 the review of which you can read by clicking the link at the beginning of this article. As such it shares many of the features and characteristics of the K60 like the brushed aluminum case, Cherry MX Red mechanical switch keys, heavy braided cable and aggressive styling. The additions included to set the K90 apart and make it appeal to MMO gamers and for that matter many others are a massive bank of programmable macro keys included in a bank on the left side of the keyboard, backlighting and a full length wrist rest.
First the basic features you will find in the K90
1 Mechanical Cherry MX Red switches for all the primary typing keys means you get the long live and precision of mechanical switch keys with a very light touch.
2 Solid brushed aluminum upper and lower deck construction means the K90 offers a great aggressive styling that does not show finger prints as well as sturdiness that insures you could use it as a self-defense weapon if you ever needed to.
3 The connection cable is heavy and reinforced to the point that an average adult could probably swing on it without damaging, much less breaking it. Yet is has a good deal of flexibility to it.
4 The multimedia keys located in the upper right corner are unobtrusive yet function easily and efficiently and the analog volume roller control which at first look seems out of place on a modern digital device actually performs faster and with more accuracy than any button volume control I have seen.
That is where the similarities end. The features that make this a better MMO keyboard than is FPS cousin include:
Programmable Macro Keys: 18 Macro keys which are easily programmed with the software to repeat any of those multi key tasks that are a mainstay of most MMOs. Simply launch the software and assign as many key strokes as you want to one of the function keys. You can also adjust the delay time between key strokes if you need to. As mentioned above though these same keys can be very useful in the real world where you may use the same series of key strokes over and over to perform repeat processes for cut and paste, editing or switching between applications. Using these will save time and reduce the potential for errors when performing these tasks.
One interesting characteristic of the macro key bank is that it is set down at a lower level than the primary keys on the main deck of the keyboard to avoid accidentally hitting them. I’ve seen some people ding the K90 for this and the fact that the macro keys are not mechanical. But in my experience this has been an effective way to keep me from accidentally banging these and causing embarrassing gaming moments that my friends would never let me live down. As for them not being mechanical, well they don’t need to be. They have made the feel of the macro keys nearly identical to the main keys, these keys get used a hundred times less and lets face it if they were all mechanical we would be looking at a more expensive keyboard. So in my opinion I think Corsair hit the mark with their choice of placement and key types here.
Back Lighting: The inclusion of laser etched, backlit keys on the K90 provides solid elegant backlighting in any color you want as long as it is blue. The fact that it only comes in blue may turn some off who have other colored lights in their case and want everything to match and I am hopeful that a future incarnation may be offered in different colors or even multiple colors to make everyone happy. However if you like blue you will be happy with the K90’s backlighting which performs admirably in all room lighting environments. Or if you are not a fan of blue you do have the option to turn it off with the press of a button located at the top of the keyboard.
Additionally the backlighting does not extend to the edit keys the macro keys or the function keys. Corsair seems intent on keeping the focus on the keys that are used the most by backlighting only the primary keys, arrow keys and numpad keys.
Full length wrist rest: The final feature that sets this keyboard apart from its FPS cousin is the inclusion of a full length wrist rest. Its hard to say a lot about a wrist rest other than that this one does its job admirably. It has a nice textured finish and does a good job of making the K90 more typing friendly that its FPS counterpart.
All in all we have been faithfully pounding on the K90 for about 3 months and it has performed and held up admirably. They software makes programing the macro keys fast and easy and actually makes it possible to have multiple profiles that you can set up for various games or applications that you use. I cannot imagine anyone needing more macro keys than this, ever.
The backlighting is quickly adjustable to three different levels or can be turned off all with the touch of a button and Cherry MX Red switches make this thing a joy to type on without the hand fatigue I have sometimes experience with heavier switches.
There is one USB port on the top edge of the keyboard and while this one less than many keyboards come with now. It is still one more than 90% of users will ever use. If you need this feature one will almost always be enough.
A price tag of about 120.00 seems a bit steep to those who have not yet discovered the wonderful world of mechanical keyboard. But the combination of quality construction, unique styling and outstanding feature more than justifies the price. The K90 is among the best keyboards we have reviewed here and has earned a spot in my personal top recommendations for those looking for a first rate keyboard with generous macro capabilities.
As with the K90 the M90 shares some commonality with its FPS cousin the M60 FPS mouse.
The M90 is a sleek aggressively styled sturdily built mouse aimed at the MMO gamer with features they are sure to value and again those same features could also be valuable in everyday and production/office use.
It offers the same rock solid aluminum foundation found in the entire Vengeance line of products and sports that same wide rubber clad aluminum scroll wheel that I loved so much on the M60 but the similarities with the M60 pretty much end there. The M90 has a completely different shape and feel to it.
Oh it’s a hefty hand full just like its FPS counterpart but unlike the M60 this mouse does not have removable weights to adjust that weight for those who like a lighter feel to their mouse. This was no detraction to me since I prefer a heavier feel to my mice.
A generously long braided cable connects the M90 and is both flexible enough not to interfere with operations yet sturdy enough to not be in danger of breaking or wearing out any time this decade.
The fit and feel of the surfaces of the M90 are a nice matt black that does a great job of resisting finger prints and smudges while still offering a non-slip tactile experience.
Internal lighting on the M90 is blue to match the K90 keyboard and is very subdued. The Corsair logo on the rear is lit in white and adds both brand recognition and a nice bit of flare to the appearance.
Again functionally after months of use we have had no problems or technical difficulties with the M90, it has performed flawlessly and shows no noticeable signs of wear.
The thing that sets the M90 apart from most of the gaming mouse crowd is the addition of several programmable macro buttons on the thumb side. Nine to be exact and these like every button on the M90 (it has 15 in all) is easily programed to allow you to customize the M90 for any game functions you like in any order you like. Few other mice can boast this amount of flexibility and when combined with the number of programmable macros found on the matching K90 the amount of customization is staggering.
At the heart of the M90 is a 5,700 DPI Avago Technologies ADNS-9500 LaserStream™ gaming sensor. Sure that’s a mouthful to say but what it means is that on every resolution and on every surface we tested the M90 it performed with wonderful speed and sensitivity in every application and every game we tried it on.
The Macro Buttons: Ok let’s get down to what makes this mouse stand out in a crowd. All those buttons give the M90 a level of flexibility that not many other mice can even approach. The inclusion of the software which allows the possibility of up to 50 profiles means this mouse can be customized for multiple games and applications and have some left over for multiple users if you have to share it with someone else. From the standpoint of customization the M90 sets the bar way above most of its competition.
However; I said this mouse has a lot of flexibility and there is the one shortfall I find in the M90. Those buttons on the thumb side are not the easiest to use in any situation much less an immersive environment like gaming. The thumb buttons, all nine of them are located around the edges of the thumb side. They are all narrow and rather to firm for such small buttons. The result is that for me and at least 4 other people that I had try the M90 out, the buttons were not easy to find and when found were difficult to press without changing the grip to apply more pressure.
I think I understand the reasoning behind the placement to be that they should be available but not in the way of your thumb so as to avoid accidental pressing of them during regular gameplay. An admirable thought but the execution of the design leaves quite a bit to be desired. Perhaps if I were 20 years younger or had an extra joint in my thumb to allow it to bend to those awkward positions easier my experience would have been different but in fairness my other test subjects ranged between 14 and 20 years of age so I don’t think it’s just that my thumbs are old, fat and worn out.
In every other aspect the M90 is a sterling example of what I would expect from Corsair; unique styling, quality construction, and innovative features. I would like to see a future incarnation of the M90 that had easier to reach, larger buttons with a lighter touch. Then we would have a winner in every category. But for me the thumb buttons are a deal breaker. If I didn’t need them I could just ignore them but since they are there I feel a bit cheated by not being able to make use of them.
The Corsair K90 MMO keyboard is a winner hands down. Aggressive styling, well thought out key layout, rock solid construction, elegant backlighting and a veritable cornucopia of programmable macros make this a MMO gamer’s dream keyboard. Only the limiting of backlight colors could possibly be a detraction and that not by much. If you are a gamer or will be buying for a gamer in the near future and want an unforgettable experience that is sure to enjoyed for many years you should look at the Corsair M90.
The Corsair K90 MMO mouse, while offering that same line up of Aggressive styling, rock solid construction, and elegant backlighting, could have benefited from a bit more testing and research on the number of joints that humans have in their thumbs. Having said that, results may vary and if you find that you can live with the placement of the thumb keys you will not be disappointed in the M90 in any other respect.
Review Aired Live 2 June 2012.
We had an interview scheduled for today with Daniel Stahl, the lead on Cryptic’s MMO, Star trek Online. Our original plan had been to talk about Perfect World buying Cryptic and what that meant for consumers but the best laid plans of mice and men…. You see last night world came out that Star trek Online was going F2P, this meant we had a unique opportunity to speak with Daniel about this before all the corporate talking heads started putting out company lines. So I am proud to bring to you our interview with Daniel Stahl.
I deal with a lot of home users everyday, during these phone calls or even face to face discussions we often talk about how they make use of their PC. Without fail one of the first things out of their mouth is, “But I am not a gamer.” The tone used is similar to what you would expect to someone denying they had AIDs, I am not exaggerating. I can work on a PC and have met people proud of their adult material collection or the number of pirate movies or music they have but the term gamer sends them into fits of throwing out crosses and chanting prayers to ward off satan.
You really have to wonder why this stigma when it comes to being gamer. Some people look at me like I am a nut when I talk about gaming and make a point of stressing my age. News flash folks gamers come in all shapes, sizes and ages. In fact in a recant study by the Entertainment Software Associations, they have found that the average age of a video gamer is around 37 years of age. When you limit the games to just PC based that number jumps to 41. Does not sound like gaming is just for kids does it. In fact the same study found that 29% of Americans over the age of 50 regularly plays video games.
If age and being mature is not the issue, how about being a waste of time? There is a story I have told many times. I was back from the Navy and working part time for a pen and paper game company doing demos and playing testing games, I was also doing some beta testing for a number of video games. My mother was talking to me one day and spent about an hour lecturing me on how all my time spent involved with games was a waste and I needed to do something useful with my life. Those games BTW led to contacts within the computer world as well as drove my interest in making the hardware do more for less cost. The result off those games is a business I own that has been successful as well as a radio show that is growing every year not just locally but world wide. (Thank you to all of you out there that listen online BTW) About a year and a half ago I ask my mother if she remembered that conversation and still thought I was wasting my time?
Now do not get me wrong I am not saying all gamers are heading for a successful life because of gaming but it is hardly the waste people think and less of a waste than other people do every day and society does not look down on them. How useful is the person sitting in a bar 3 nights a week? What about the person that spends all their time looking for new sex partners? How about the person that even just has a weekly dining group that tries a new restaurant each week? Or the people that sit glued to their TV at least once a week for sporting events? Tell someone you do ANY of these activities and they would not look at you like the village idiot.
The most likely cause of this sigma was the behavior of the early geeks, particularly those that attended Star Trek or Star Wars conventions. You know the people I mean, the ones that would attend in full costume and actually act the role they had dressed for. However is that fair either? I mean I have seen people at sporting events dress and act in a manner that makes you wonder if they have a single functional brain cell or if the beer has floated them all away. Yet no one considers all sports fans losers? I have watched people get so drunk in bars that they have come out of the bathroom naked with TP trailing behind them on fire while they danced to Walk Like and Egyptian, and yet no one thinks all people in bars are morons? (BTW that is a true story)
Besides, what most of these people do not know is they likely are gamers at some level. Play solitaire often enough to keep saved game codes? How about Angry Birds? Video games are a part of the American and world culture whether we like it or not. Gaming is not small potatoes when it comes to economics either. Estimates place video gaming as an industry that generates $25 BILLION plus last year. Literally hundreds of thousands of jobs world wide exist in this industry.
While computer gaming is not something that will appeal to everyone, just as many of us do not like beer, there are some real reasons outside the fun of gaming to play. As a parent gaming can be a great teaching tool. Lisa and I have used an MMO to help our 7 year old learn to read better. He has to read what the game says if he wants to succeed and he really hates losing so his reading has improved. Some games like Civilization can even take a bit of educational material,. like history and sneak it in during play. Of course many games are great tools to teach critical thinking, make up for some of the lack of it in public schools today. Parents gaming with the kids can be a great way to develop a relationship with the kids, find a real common interest and share it.
Gaming for adults has benefits as well. Studies have shown that if the mind is kept active and engaged that Alzheimer risks are drastically reduced. Computer gaming can be a great way to relieve stress, create family time and socialize. Not to mention that as far as entertainment goes gaming can actually be a great low cost alternative to other options. Getting a free to play game like Champions, Tank World or even LOTRO can provide more entertainment than a ton of movie rentals and not cost a dime other than the cost of the Internet and PC which you have anyway.
Is there a downside to gaming, well of course there is. Like anything else it can be abused. I have seen people use video games as their way to tear up marriages and even lose jobs. To be honest thought I know of more marriages and jobs lost from booze, yet we accept that.
The next time you meet a gamer, do not roll your eyes at them. Instead talk with them, see what they have to say. Listen to what they like about the games they play and approach it with an open mind. You might find a whole new world to explore and a new way to have some fun.
I do not recall ever seeing such super hero hype in media as we are seeing this summer. Thor has released, X-Men First Class has just come out and Green Lantern is on the way in a couple of weeks and next month we have Captain America. To add to the hype Marvel has made sure their movies have included teasers to the Avengers next summer along with Ironman 3. This is truly the summer of heroes.
In the computer gaming world super hero games have traditionally not done well in fact they have been kind of jinxed. Most of the early games let you play a known hero and while they where decent enough games they failed to capture any kind of heroic feel to the game play. The jinx was finally broke with the game Freedom Force, which let you make your own hero. While this was a great game and the sequel was solid as well, it was not long before we hit a draught once again. Then Cryptic Studios smashed the jinx into the ground like the Hulk smashing a villain with City of Heroes. After a while however Cryptic moved on but they did not forget their first great love and so was born Champions Online.
Champions Online is based on the award winning Pen and Paper RPG, Champions. The Champions game system is set in it’s own gaming world, forgoing the idea of letting you recreate heroes from Marvel or DC. This world has a rich and deep history developed over the years of pen and paper play. The developers at Cryptic where obviously fans of the RPG, so much so that Cryptic actually bought the IP for it.
Now while Champions Online is a different product it is impossible to separate it from City of Heroes since Cryptic made both games. It is something Cryptic has had to accept, not only because these are the only two Super Hero MMOs out, but also the fact that they are both Cryptic’s creations. With that in mind I will warn you that you will see a lot of references for comparison between these two games.
The premise of the MMO is classic comic book. The world is in trouble, in this case an alien invasion is taking place and Millennium City, used to be Detroit, needs heroes to save the day. As the logo states the game is a Free to Play MMO. This means the basic game is free and that you can make micro-transactions to add features to the game you would like, more on this later. When you first start the game you are treated to a login screen that asks you how you want the control system configured. You can use the default Champions system, a system based on the way most fantasy MMO’s work or a system based on the way CoH works. This is actually a really nice feature right out the gate allowing you to make the game feel and control in a manner you are confortable with.
When you first sign up for the game using the F2P model you are given a choice of 8 archetypes. These archetypes are basically easy to use power sets based on the traditional hero styles. They allow the use of weapons from guns to swords, ice powers, raw strength, fire, a bow, metal powers and mystical. These basic types allow for people that want to play type of hero without having to get too caught up in the game mechanics of the powers. As your character levels the basic power choices are made for you with you having the ability to modify the way the powers work and how your character uses characteristics to create the hero you wanted. Each archetype does have two levels where you have to choose between two different powers and you get the choose the travel powers of your character. This means you decide if your hero flies, teleports, tunnels or runs really fast.
Now as we stated earlier this game is free to play, what that means is the games basics are free and that through small purchases, using Cryptic points you may buy additional game features. For the free players, they are called Silver in the game, you may purchase additional archetypes. Right now there are six additional archetypes you can buy, adding such hero types as the gadgeteer, electrical, darkness, the beastly hero, the super spy and the mighty weapon wielder, think Thor. Each of these additional archetypes cost about $12 a piece. While this might seem steep when taken into account that you just buy the hero type you want and can ignore the rest without a recurring fee and it does not seem so bad.
Once you have selected your hero type it is time to make your hero. The editor is very powerful and allows you to create any look you can practically imagine. You start from a basic template but as you can see there are a lot of options, in fact so many that I could not listed them all in this blog without spending the day at it. The character creator breaks the hero down into head, torso/arms, hands, legs/feet and then adds extra areas to each of these. You can independently color each part using a four color chose for each part from a very large color pallet. If all this seems overwhelming, fear not as the random button will allow you to let the system randomly create a look for you. The look on the left is what I got the first time I hit random. Now as with the archetypes there are additional items that can be bought to give you even more costume options. New costume options range from formal wear to Luchador, Ninja Warriors, Cyberpunk Cyborgs and much more.
Now with your character created and his or her look complete you name your character and set forth to rid the world of evil. Before you name your character you should know that the main superhero names, the ones that have a copyright on them, have been blocked out. So if you thought you where going to play Batman or Superman well you are out of luck. This does not of course stop the various play on words in an effort to create the name anyway.
The tutorial that follows character creation leads you through a series of basic missions to stop the alien invasion that has hit Millennium City. The cities super group, the Champions, have been neutralized and it is up to you and the other heroes that have assembled to stop this invasion and free the Champions. Once you have finished the tutorial you are put into the game proper with early offers allow you to begin your heroic career in Millennium City or in the white north of Canada.
The actually game system is easy to learn and the combat is fast paced. The combat system is based on having a power that builds your energy and then other powers that allow you to charge them up for maximum effect. They default control system uses the number keys for your primary powers and the alt plus number for your secondary powers. The travel system lets you use your faster travel powers for not just movement around the game but in combat as well. In addition some parts of the environment come into play, there is something cool about picking up a bus and throwing it at the bad guy.
The missions have some decent storylines and each area has multiple story arcs. Overall I really like the way the missions are laid out. The basic content is free for everyone to play and three mission packs are available for purchase if you want more content. There are three of these adventure packs all they seem to have around 4 hours plus of game play in each. The adventure packs and most of the missions can easily scale between running them solo or in groups, this is a great feature since sometimes you just do not want to play alone and other times you do. A recent addition is the comic series, a group of new missions released each week that are all tied into a single overall storyline. These have replaced the Adventure packs and unlike the older system these are 100% free for all players.
For people that want to play with their friends but cannot get as much play time there is the sidekick system. This allows players of different levels to play together at the same level. The system works pretty well though it does have the issue that you have to stay close to keep it going. Also the sidekick system does not just work by bringing a beginning character up, it allows higher level characters to play down at the level of their friends.
As I stated earlier I wanted to take a look at the idea of the free to play system. The concept is actually pretty cool for consumers. Essentially the basic game is free, no money needed to enjoy it. However there are extras you can get if you desire them, allowing you to spend what you want to create the game the way you want it. Some people do not like this system but I think it is great. For example if all I wanted to play is an Ice Powered hero and do not want to mess with the big adventure packs, I can play 100% for free with no added cost. If I desire down the road to play a gadgeteer then I would have to buy the archetype but I do not have to pay for everything including the stuff I do not want.
Now the other side of the hybrid F2P model that Champions Online uses is that you can pay a subscription fee. This fee gets you a bunch of the extra stuff including costumes and adventure packs as well as access to the free form character creation. Freeform means you are not limited to a set power arc and can mix and match all the available powers as you choose. This level of game play is for the more hard core player but the cool thing is you can start with F2P, see if you like the game and then upgrade later on to the full gold membership.
As I said at the start looking at Champions Online almost requires comparisons to City of Heroes. The first big difference is the subscription model with CoH being a full paid subscription system offering a light trial period but not the open ended free game play of Champions. The game system in Champions wins hands down for me from an easier to work with character creation system to a faster more action oriented combat system. While the graphics in Champions may not be considered state of the art they look better than CoH in my opinion and they do a good job of created the comic book look and feel. Finally the storylines in the Champions just work better with on many occasions my actually feeling like my character was a super hero, something I never really felt in CoH.
Now with this game approaching 2 years since release some people have asked why I am reviewing it now. You have to understand that I am an old school Champions pen and paper player dating back to 1981 and it’s first release. When I heard that Champions was being brought to an MMO I was to be honest skeptical of how the game would be. The transition from pen and paper to computer game has not always been a good one, historically it is usually a disaster. So with this in mind I was kind of scared to look at Champions on release.
However there is something cool about MMOs, the games that release are seldom the same a year later, as the game grows and expands. With that in mind when it was announced that Champions Online was going Free I decided it was time to dive in and this review is that time spent exploring.
I could give you a lot of different reasons why I like or dislike this game but I think there is an easier way to sum up my opinion. Right now my daughter and wife both are playing with me as well as Doug and his son. We are not just playing but spending money to get more access in the game was we explore it and everyone is having a blast. In fact Champions Online has stolen away almost all my Star Trek Online play time.
With all of the super hero movies out this summer it is easy for a gamer to get inspired. To envision create your won super hero, fighting against evil and saving the world. That can come in the form of a suit of super technology, a large hammer, the strength of a hundred man or many other possibilities. With a chance to enjoy this kind of game play for free there is no reason not to give Champions a try, and I think once you do you will want to stay.
I am now off, there is a situation in the deserts of the southwest where a huge monster named Grond is terrorizing everyone. So the Blue Knight will answer the call along with his companions of the super group, the Round Table. We could use all the heroes we can get, Grond is a big one.
Have you been heroic today?
Review and Interview Segments as aired live 5 June 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.”
I did an article back in January about how I thought the future of CPUs was being seen in the Fusion design that AMD was introducing. So when Gigabyte and AMD offered me a chance to see Fusion in action on our test bench I could no resist.
The E350N-USB3 is Gigabyte’s release using the AMD E-350 APU and comes fully equipped with features we see on better motherboards. The APU is not socketed so this is sold as an all in one. We find full USB 3 support, SATA 6Gb, On/Off Charging as well as Gigabyte’s Ultra Durable treatment which includes all solid capacitors and 2x the copper in the PCB.
The board is targeted for DIYers looking to build a small form factor media center PC . To meet this goal the onboard video, using a HD 6310 in the core of the APC, is designed to handle Blu-Ray and high def playback through an HDMI connector.
The system supports up to 8 Gigs of DDR3, has 4 SATA connections as well as 2 internal USB 2.0 Connections. On the 2 internal connections, the White connection is the On/Off Charge enabled for the front USB ports. There is also a PCIe slot that works at 4x speeds. The power hookup is pretty standard fare with the 24 pin and 4 pin power connections being used.
Moving to the back of the board we find 4x USB2 slots and 2x USB3 slots. We have a PS2 multi-slot as well as the various sound connections and finally we have a VGA, DVI and HDI connection set. This allows for dual video output in a few different configurations, it is limited to 2 outputs but the combinations are very open.
To say this board is small is an understatement. The board is in a mini-ITX design which means it is only a little over 6.5” square. To put this into perspective here is a picture of this board on the tray of Thermaltake’s Armor A90 case, a tray for mini ATX boards. When I first saw I described it to Doug as cute.
With the board in hand it was time to see what it could do. When I look at this board I see more than something for playing movies, I see a general purpose low cost PC, one for a family that is not heavy into their computer use or a business needing a solid work station for word-processing, maybe keep books or use the internet.
With that in mind I built up a system with 4 Gigs of RAM and a nice little HD, in this case I used a WD Scorpio Black 320 Gig. The 2.5” size means it would be a perfect fit for a small form factor build and it is one of the faster spindle drives in this form factor for use. And SSD would have been a great choice as well but a budget build for an family means we need a bit of space and the SSD just does not fit the criteria.
With all this in place we hooked the system up to a 1080 display and started testing. Why a 1080 display? Well this build begs use on an HD TV so a 1080 makes the most sense. In general use this little critter was snappy and very responsive. I would have no issues at all using this as a day to day PC for light work and surfing. For the family style testing I threw some photo editing at it. I was pleasantly surprised at how well it handled the basic editing. In fact when I handed it to my daughter to play with, she is studying photography, she was quite happy with the snappy response it had.
Next up we hooked the Fusion to Hulu and Netflix, the playback at 1080 was very sharp and smooth. I also loved that fact that since this was a full PC instead of just a console I could use a wireless keyboard and mouse to surf the entire internet from the couch on the big screen.
Finally what good is a family system that cannot do some gaming. Now I am fully aware this is not meant to be a gaming rig but AMD has been pushing how powerful these graphics are. So with that in mind I set a realistic expectation and fired up some MMOs at 720. The reason I chose 720 is the same reason I chose 1080, this is a standard HD TV setup. So at 720 I fired up LOTRO at stock settings and set about playing. While I was not engaging in PVP I was in the first section outside the Humans starter area. There was a lot of player activity and I made sure to get into some serious fights. The game play was smooth and looked good. I pushed the graphics to the High preset and the play stayed very smooth. WoW gave me an identical experience. EVE provided some solid performance but I would not try to PVP in it, plus the defaults where all it could handle. When I tried STO the poor little fella faltered and was not playable.
However I think my results brought out an interesting point. Some of the more often played titles did fine at 720 resolution with the stock build. If you need more gaming power your case could be the limiting factor. In a true small form factor build you might be stuck looking for half height cards. Our test build however used the Armor A30 case (review in two weeks) and it allows for full height cards. For this I used a Sapphire 6850 and gave our games round 2. As expected all performed better and even up to 1080 for most. Of the MMO testing however STO was still not liking what it was getting. Also while we could game with the discrete card at 1080 the numbers where no where near those of a bigger system.
One other factor I wanted to look at with this little brute was it’s heat and power consumption. The heat was not what I expected but then again the chip is called Fusion, not could Fusion. Under full load I have seen temps as high at 55C. Which this might seem a bit hot it is not really that bad when you consider that these temps where done in a small form factor case that is not designed to move air. As for power consumption this thing SIPS electricity. Using folding at home to push the CPU and GPU portions at the same time I was only able to get the full system build to pull 50 watts. That is not a typo, the full system build only pulled 50 watts and that was under load. At idle the system dropped to 39 watts. That means at full load this build only used as much power as a normal build with cool-n-quiet fully engaged and then dropping another 20 watts. That is some serious power consumption savings. During gaming with LOTRO the system never peaked beyond 45 watts.
Overall I am really impressed with this little package. It delivers solid performance for all ranges of basic computer use and does so in the price range of a good CPU ( still would need a motherboard). Additionally it has the ability to do basic MMO play at a reasonable resolution. Think how fun it would be for the kids to Play Wizards on the big screen. Well at least until Dad kicked them off to play LOTRO. When you realize you can build this general purpose budget family system WITH a Blu-Ray player for around $300 in parts or $400 for a higher quality build you get a win for the budget DIYer.
As for the E350N-USB, Gigabyte has a great little board. The quality and feature set are what you find on better quality boards and while you might pay a premium for this quality it is definitely worth it. Sure there are less expensive options when looking to build around the E-350 APU, but you get what you pay for and Gigabyte delivered the goods.
If you are looking to build a decent media system for the family, wanting a small business machine or perhaps the grand parents just need a basic system for email and seeing the kids on Skype. THIS is the platform you want to build on!
Segment as aired live 10 April 2011
One year ago Cryptic introduced Star Trek Online live to the world. With the game being built on a franchise as rich as Star Trek there was bound to be a few bumps in the road, no one however expected the off road ride this game initial took. In 30+ years of computer gaming I can honestly say I have never before seen a game garner such a level of love/hate. There was no middle ground and trying to stand it meant flame wars on many forums.
I myself was subject to many of those flames when I said a year ago that, “While STO is a good game is not a great game.” However that was a year ago and the very nature of MMOs means that it will grow and evolve over time. So one year later what has become of Star Trek Online?
Well first the premise of the game itself has remained solid, set in a period of around 2409 (30 years after the movie Nemesis) the game is firmly in the original time line, not going the direction of the new Star Trek. The Federation is at war, with everyone it seems. The Klingons have built a coalition of races and has gone back to it’s aggressive roots. The Romulan Empire is in chaos after losing their home world, the Cardassians are actually quiet but a splinter group has begun to cause trouble, the Undine (Species 8472) has openly engaged in hostilities and various other hotspots are everywhere. This is not a time of peace but of turmoil for the Federation.
It is against this backdrop that your character is thrust into Star Fleet and command of a starship. When I first reviewed this game I was playing a character that was basically myself, I wanted to feel like I was living the dream as it where. Well that is still the case, though I have been through a few characters over this year my primary is still me, though now an Engineering officer and proud member of the 3rd Fleet.
Fleets in STO are like guilds in various games or corporations in EVE Online, they are a social group in game that work together to enjoy the game. It is possible for someone to literally find any combination of characteristics to the various fleets. They range from uber-military style, the role play and super casual, plus of course everything in-between. I would advise anyone looking for a fleet to play with to take their time. Some of the recruiters out there are slick and will get you in a fleet before you know it only to find that it is not what you are looking for. Check around and be picky.
While the premise of the game has not changed the feel definitely has. The game now feels more polished, more completed than it did on release. While some areas such as exploration and ground combat still need work, other areas have begun to come into their own. The crafting system that before was overly simplistic has now evolved into a decent system that requires a bit more thought and effort but also makes more sense and has better options.
A diplomatic system has been put into the game. It is still a little bare but I would think we will begin to see it beefed up. Doing the diplomatic missions has the nice benefit of allowing you transwarp capabilities to various star systems in the game, making travel easier.
One of the complaints I had with the release of the game was during movement in sector space the game mechanics felt like they where getting in the way of the immersion. At the time sector space was filled with lines and grids, however Cryptic heard that complaint and the result is stunning. The shot above is in Sector space and trust me when I say down left and right, no lines.
The ship in the shot above is an Excelsior Class, taken from the early movies and Next Generation series. Other ships have been added as well such as the Nebula Class, a dreadnaught and numerous ships for the Klingons.
Speaking of Klingons, one of the complaints early in the game was lack of Klingon content, this is changing fast with the Klingons still not up with the Federation but nicely improved over the release.
One of the biggest changes though is the addition of the Featured Episodes. The idea is that an series is announced and then once a week for 5 weeks a new mission is posted in game, all part of the series. These episodes have a very good storyline to them and the game play is just plain fun. I do not think anyone has ever taken this kind of content approach before and Cryptic has done it well. The result is a literal buzz in the STO community as the day of release approaches and then excitement as we await the next installment.
There are a lot of other changes on the way as we discuss in the interview linked below but for now I want to look at STO as it is today.
In a years time the team at Cryptic has managed to take a game that was decent it grow leaps and bounds. The game has more depth, more excitement within it’s community and realized a lot of the potential we spoke of in the first review. The STO team is to be congratulated for living up to Captain Montgomery Scotts definition of Miracle Workers.
With that in mind I have to say that STO is at the precipice of being a GREAT game. With the direction the game is going I have no doubt they will achieve greatness but they must stay the course just a little longer.
As the game stands today however I have no issue with telling any MMO player, particularly anyone that likes Star Trek that this game is a MUST BUY! Future looks bright, the ideas ambitious and the people at Cryptic seem passionate about the future of Star Trek Online.
If you will excuse me now the USS Adventure is waiting for me to beam up before we head out. We recently received an assignment from Star Fleet to head for the Quadra Sigma system and investigate reports of a Borg fleet massing. The future of the Federation could be at stake…
Crisler to USS Adventure, one to beam up.
Interview with Daniel Stahl of Cryptic, Aired 30 January 2011