Category Archives: gaming

Review: Turtle Beach z300 headset. Super flexible, shame about the sound

The Turtle Beach Z300 is a super flexible gaming headset, with wired and wireless connections, Dolby 7.1 virtual surround sound, and extra features like switchable dynamic range compression. It is primarily for PC gaming, but also works with Mac (no Dolby surround) and with any Bluetooth-compatible device – which means almost any smartphone or tablet. You can also use the wire to plug it into any device with a 3.5mm audio jack.

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In the box you get the headset, detachable microphone, USB cable, jack cable, USB transceiver, and some documents including a note about having to download the Dolby 7.1 drivers. I still recommend downloading the online manual, which is more detailed than anything in the box.

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A few more details on the three ways to connect:

Wireless via a USB transceiver. This is the preferred method for a PC. The USB transceiver is pre-paired and indicates via an LED whether or not the headset is connected.

Traditional wire. A jack cable is supplied which connects to the left earcup and has a standard four-way 3.5mm jack on the other end, suitable for a phone or tablet. In wired mode you still need to charge the headset and have it powered on.

Bluetooth. You can pair with up to two devices. The right earcup has Bluetooth volume controls, and a Bluetooth button for answering, rejecting and ending calls.

The actual headset seems sturdily made and features a fabric-covered headband and earpads. The material feels slightly coarse at first, and the earcups are slightly on the small side, but in practice I found the comfort reasonable.

The microphone is on a flexible boom and is detachable. You can also swing it up above the left earcup to get it out of the way.

You charge the Z300 via a mini USB port on the right earcup, which annoyingly is the old type, not the slightly smaller one now found on most phones and tablets. A cable is supplied, though it is too short to reach from the floor to your headset if you are wearing it, and in my case too short even to reach from the front panel of my PC. You might want to get a longer cable if you expect to charge while wearing. Play time is specified at 15 hours.

An annoyance: there is no indication of remaining charge.

How about the other controls? There are several:

Power on/off on the left earcup and easy to find by feel. The headset automatically powers off after 5 minutes of inactivity.

Master volume on left earcup.

Mic monitor volume on left earcup. This controls how much sound from the mic is fed back to your. It does not affect the volume heard on the other side.

Tone on left earcup: cycles through 4 “game modes”. These are Flat, Bass boost, Treble boost, and Bass and Treble boost. I generally used the Flat mode for this review.

Dynamic Range Compression on left earcup: raises the volume of quiet sounds. The effect seems minimal to me.

Bluetooth controls on right earcup: as mentioned above.

If you use the USB transceiver and a Windows PC you can insteall a Dolby 7.1 driver. Note: these are stereo headphones, but when used with this driver they support Dolby’s virtual surround system. You enable this by going into the Windows sound properties dialog (eg right-click the speaker icon and choose Playback Devices), then showing the properties dialog for the Turtle Beach speakers. A surround sound tab then lets you enable “Dolby Headphone”. You can also choose between two modes: Music or Movie.

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Enabling Dolby Headphone makes a substantial difference to the sound. It is distinctly louder, and the sound seems to fill out more. On games with true surround sound, the virtual sound should mean that you get spatial clues about the source of an explosion or footstep, for example, though you need to make sure the game is set to output in surround sound.

I tried this and reckon it works a bit. It is not as good as a headset I tried that really did have multiple speakers. My big gripe though is that if you enable Dolby Headphone, it messes up true stereo, for example on music. You no longer hear the mix as intended.

This would not matter too much if it were easy to switch Dolby Headphone on and off, but it is a hassle to go into Windows sound controls every time. I would like to see more effort go into usability.

How about the sound quality? Here is my second big gripe about this headset. The sound is not great, with anaemic bass and a nothing special in the mid-range or treble. For gaming it is not too bad, and I did find the audio atmospheric if you can live without much bass thunder, but for music they are not good enough.

The microphone quality is fine. I tried the headset with Dragon Dictate, just to check the quality, and got high accuracy of transcription which is a good sign.

In summary, the flexibility is exceptional, the build quality is fine, but the sound is lacking. Personally I would not use these as my main headset because I do both gaming and music listening; but if your main use is gaming they would be OK.

Price is around $170 or £170 (better value in the USA it seems).

Here comes Steam Machine: a quick look

At CES in Las Vegas I got a first look at Valve’s Steam Machine. This Brix Pro model comes from Gigabyte and will cost $499 for bare bones – no RAM or storage.

I was surprised by how small the thing is – quite cheap-looking in fact, especially when compared to something like Microsoft’s Xbox One which is large and sleek, and costs a similar amount (though smaller is good in most ways).

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Next to it you can see the controller, which gives you an idea of the scale.

Ports on the back are hdmi, DisplayPort (better quality), Ethernet and 2 more USB 3.0.

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and on the front, two USB and an audio socket (supports digital as well as analogue).

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Power is on top.

What counts though is the spec. Core i5 4570R (an i7 is also available), Intel Iris Pro 5200 graphics with 128MB ED RAM, wifi included. Max RAM is 16GB. It’s going to cost at least $100 –$150 extra to make it a working box.

Intel showed the Brix Pro driving a large display at 1080p.

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However, I was told that the little box has enough power to drive a 4K display as well as a second display at 1080p. In principle, you could have a Steam Machine with 3 4K displays for the perfect setup; Intel said that its Iris Pro 5200 is capable of this though not in this particular configuration.

Running Linux (SteamOS) and tapping into the huge Steam community and app store, Steam Machine is one to watch.

First thoughts on Xbox One: difficult to recommend right now

I received an Xbox One on launch day last week.

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I ordered this because I am interested in tracking Microsoft, and because I have had a lot of fun from the Xbox 360 and its predecessor, the original Xbox.

In the box you get the console, power brick, the new Kinect sensor, a single controller, a headset, and several leaflets including a pointless Day One “achievement” and a code to download FIFA 14.

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Setup is a matter of connecting an HDMI cable to your TV or, in my case, a receiver, and the Kinect to its special port. I also connected an ethernet cable.

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Finally I connected a digital TV PVR to the HDMI in. This enables the TV app on the Xbox One.

First impressions of the hardware are good. It looks elegant and feels well made. The controller is lovely to hold. The Kinect looks solid and sits comfortably in front of our TV.

I looked in vain for any specifications in the box. From other sources I believe the Xbox One has:

  • AMD chipset with 8 CPU cores at 1.75 GHz and 8GB DDR3 RAM
  • 500 GB hard drive
  • AMD GPU with 768 cores supporting up to 3840×2160 (2160p) graphics.
  • Blu-ray drive
  • Gigabit Ethernet
  • 802.11n wifi
  • HDMI out, HDMI in, 2 USB 3.0 ports, S/P DIF optical audio out.
  • 7.1 surround sound

First impressions of the software are so-so. It began by downloading a firmware update, which went quickly enough. However that was just the start. The Xbox One dashboard uses an app model; almost everything is an app. Each app has to be downloaded and installed, including the Blu-ray player, Xbox Music, Skype and so on. Even the system settings is an app.

I made the mistake of registering my free download of FIFA 14 as one of the first things I did. The download is huge, and while it proceeded most of the other functionality showed as “Queuing”.

I expected to be wowed by some gorgeous effects in the new dashboard, but in fact the design is rather pedestrian. It is a tiled user interface but not quite the same as Windows 8. The dashboard features a larger tile which represents the currently selected app. This may be a live preview in some cases, TV for example. You can select this to run full screen, or you can have a snap view which shows a secondary app running alongside.

The dashboard overall feels rather spartan, especially to begin with when nothing much has been downloaded.

All of this contributed to an overall out of box experience of “is that it?”

I remember unpacking the original Nintendo Wii, running the Sports game, and having an amazing time. By contrast getting started with Xbox One was rather drab.

There is a video store where you can buy or rent downloads. I tried a few previews which show in extremely poor quality, which I trust bears no comparison to what you get if you actually pay. It beats me why you would show worse-than-VHS previews of movies when trying to tempt people into paying for a download.

There there is Kinect. I have mixed feelings. First, it really is amazing. It feels like a huge step forward from the original Kinect. I downloaded Kinect Sports Rivals preview, which lets you ride a water racer where you clench your fist to accelerate and move invisible handlebars to steer. It works perfectly even when you are seated. Technically that is a huge achievement.

At the same time I have to say that I would rather use a controller. Are we ever going to get equally precise control with motion sensors, compared to what you get with a controller? If it is a bowling game, motion sensors do make sense, but for controlling a water racer I am not so sure.

I am looking forward to trying the fitness app, but currently I a get a log-in failure with a message “unable to connect to token service”. It could be a firewall issue. Annoying.

Voice control is another big feature. Again, I have mixed feelings. It works for the most part very well. You say “Xbox select” and available options show in green text on the screen.

The main problem I have with the voice control is lack of consistency. I am willing to invest the time getting good at voice control, but only if I can do nearly everything with it. Unfortunately many apps are not voice enabled. So you can start the YouTube app with voice, for example, but not search within it.

I also worry that voice control will be a liability in some scenarios. Such fun to enter a room full of intense gamers and say “Xbox Go Home”.

It is getting there though, and worth some effort just to be able to go into a room, say “Xbox play Miles Davis” and have it be so.

That brings me to Xbox Music. It seems pretty good for streaming from Microsoft’s service, but not for much else. In my case I have a huge library of music ripped from CD and would like to be able to play it on the Xbox One. Rumour said that there would be support for DLNA streaming but I cannot see any sign of it.

FIFA 2014 looks good though football games are not so much my thing. I do miss having a little leaflet with a quick guide to the controls; a downside of download games.

There are not many games available and some are extraordinarily expensive, £68.99 for Dead Rising Deluxe Edition for example.

The YouTube app is nicely done and a good way to while away time, lack of voice search aside.

There are occasional Windows-like annoyances. You start the console, it says “Hello Tim” and you think you are signed in. You open Xbox Music and it says you must sign in. You select to sign in and you get another screen saying you should sign in. Then you sign in and it works.

There is a lot more Windows in Xbox One than in its predecessor. The SkyDrive app lets you view your uploaded photos which is handy. Internet Explorer is there and works reasonably with voice control, but lack of Flash is a big problem given that multimedia is important in the kind of web browsing you are likely to do on a TV.

So what do I think? On the plus side, the hardware seems excellent. I like the new controller. I like the Blu-ray support. I like the YouTube app.

The sad thing though is that as of now an Xbox 360 is a lot more fun, with its rich array of available games, and mature dashboard and apps.

Lack of any backward compatibility is a disaster at this point in the new console’s lifecycle. It is also disappointing that you cannot yet install Windows 8 apps, which would have instantly provided an array of reasonably priced casual games.

Populate XBox One with some strong games and apps, give the dashboard a bit more polish, and it could be really good. As it stands though, I find this hard to recommend. This is a long-term worry, since it gives the competition a head start from which the One may never recover.

Microsoft also needs to be a little less greedy in terms of pushing its subscription services and give us more fun out of the box.

Kinect is the major differentiator, and we will have to watch this space. The technology is amazing but where are the stunning and delightful games or apps that take advantage of it? Whether or not these will arrive is a big unknown.

Microsoft’s Xbox One almost invisible at Gadget Show Live

I looked in on London’s Gadget Show Live this morning. It was the usual frustrating experience: the things that were interesting were surrounded by hordes of visitors so you could barely get a look.

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Here is what I found curious. Microsoft is the lead sponsor, but the Xbox One was shown only on a tiny stand near the back of the hall. Here it is – all of it.

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By contrast, Sony had a huge stand for PlayStation 4. Apologies; my snap does not show the scale well.

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That said, Microsoft had its own massive stand, but for Windows, with a strong push for Surface tablets and a reasonable presence for Windows Phone.

However, if you look at the demographic of the show, with lots of kids even on a Friday, it is better suited to gaming consoles than to relatively expensive tablets – though to be fair, the Windows tablets seemed to be attracting a fair amount of attention.

I had a chat with a guy from Sonos at its stand. Will Sonos support high resolution formats (better then CD quality)? This is almost a trick question as I’m not sure you can hear the difference; but there is nevertheless strong demand for it in the slightly crazy world of high-end audio. Apparently there are ways to do it now, but the Sonos engineers are working at bringing full support into the range.

Sonos has apps for iOS and Android; what if I have a Windows Phone? No support yet but again I got the impression that this is being looked at. There is a public API so third-party support is also possible. They appear also to be considering a Windows 8 store app though nothing is confirmed.

Panasonic had a rather lovely 4K display running full resolution video – only £5,499 – as well as a 3D display which looked great though it requires glasses. Don’t bother with 4K unless you have a 42″ or bigger screen, I was told by a Panasonic guy.

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I also watched a bit of Gadget Show Live in the Super Theatre. Sorry, but I thought it was dreadful. Little innovation on show, slightly risqué humour despite the presence of many kids in the audience – “I’ve got a new girlfriend, you should see her Nokias” said a robot comedian, for example. I may be in a minority as the show overall seemed to go down OK.

Talking of the robot comedian, it was controlled by a Windows 8 tablet strapped to its back. After three or four jokes something went wrong and it had to be controlled manually, reducing the robot to little more than a fancy powered loudspeaker. Never mind.

Review: Hauppauge HD PVR 2 Gaming Edition Plus capture and streaming device

Hauppauge’s HD PVR 2 is a video capture device. The idea is that you connect it between a video source, such as an Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3, and the TV or home theatre system you normally use. Instant pass-through means you can continue to play games as normal, provided that the HD PVR 2 is powered up.

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At the same time, the HD PVR 2 outputs the sound and video to a PC or Mac via USB. Capture software running on the computer lets you save your gaming session to disk, or broadcast it to a live streaming service like twitch.tv so that your followers can watch you gaming triumphs and tragedies in real time, complete with voiceover commentary if you feel inclined to provide it.

I reviewed the original HD PVR 2 here. The Gaming Edition Plus has several new features:

  • Mac software is provided in the box, whereas before it was extra cost
  • An optical audio input is provided, so you can get surround-sound from a PS3
  • Updated software now includes StreamEez for live streaming of the captured video

In addition, whether because of firmware or driver updates, I found the HD PVR 2 Gaming Edition Plus generally less troublesome than the earlier model.

In the box

Kudos to Hauppauge for supplying a generous collection of cables.

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Along with the software CD and a getting started leaflet, you get a USB cable, two HDMI cables, a 5-way special cable for connecting component video and stereo audio to the A/V input on the unit, and an adapter cable in case you prefer to use standard RCA cables for component video and audio.

The reason for both HDMI and component support is that the HD PVR 2 only works with unencrypted HDMI signals. This means it works with HDMI from the Xbox 360 but not from the PS3. In cases where unencrypted HDMI is not available, you will use the component option.

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In order to get 5.1 surround sound without HDMI, you will need the optical in for audio.

The HD PVR2 itself is relatively compact. The snap below shows it with a CD so you can get a sense of the size.

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Setup and usage

Setup is a matter of first making all the connections, including the USB connection to your computer, and then installing the software and drivers from the supplied CD.

There are two primary applications. One is Hauppauge Capture. You can use this to capture video in .TS (H.264) format, do basic editing, export videos to MP4, upload videos to YouTube, and stream to twitch.tv or Ustream. You can add a personal logo to your videos via Settings.

Capture is at a maximum of 1080p at 30fps, or you can downscale as needed.

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The other supplied application is ArcsSoft TotalMedia ShowBiz 3.5. This can also also capture directly from the HD PVR 2, and in fact the documentation seems to steer you towards using ShowBiz rather than Hauppauge Capture. The ShowBiz editor has more features, including basic transition effects, storyboard and timeline, lettering, and upload to YouTube or export to file.

Setup was straightforward, though note that passthrough does not work until you have selected the video and audio input in settings on the PC. Once set, you can turn off or disconnect the computer and it continues to work.

Both applications worked well in my tests. While passthrough seems instant, there is a significant delay before video is captured, which is disorientating at first. I did experience occasional glitches. On one occasion the capture failed several minutes into a longer recording for no reason that I can see, but it seemed to be a one-off.

What about streaming to twitch.tv? I was excited to try this, and impressed by the ease of setup. Login is built into the capture application.

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However I discovered that my ADSL broadband connection was too slow for live streaming and although I could see that the connection was working, the image simply stuttered and broke up.

Live streaming is also demanding on your hardware. See this thread for a discussion of the requirements.

In other words, for successful video capture any modern PC or Mac should work fine, but do not assume live streaming will work unless you have the right hardware and broadband connection.

Conclusion

I was impressed by how reliable the HD PVR 2 Gaming Edition Plus compared to the earlier version. If you want to get creative with video sourced from a gaming console, or any video source, you need a capture device, and this Hauppauge is an affordable and reliable choice. The supplied software is basic, but of course you can use other video editors like Sony Vegas or Adobe Premiere Pro with the files that you capture.

Recommended.

The HD PVR 2 costs around £130 – £150 in the UK. More details from the manufacturer’s website here.

Virtual Reality with Oculus Rift

I tried these on during Microsoft’s Build conference, at the Xamarin party. No, it is not me in the picture.

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No, it’s not Microsoft’s answer to Google Glass. Rather, it is the Oculus Rift, a Virtual Reality headset funded by a Kickstarter project that achieved nearly 10 times its original goal.

Unfortunately it is hard to photograph, but what you get is a view of a 3D virtual world which responds to the turn of your head. The added realism is extraordinary, even though the current model shows a slightly pixelated screen; this will apparently be fixed for the first commercial release.

There is one snag with the Rift, which is the urge to move around by walking. Not too good in as you will soon hit the wall. The developers have thought of this, and I saw a picture of a walking platform, where you walk on the spot and sensors pick up your direction of virtual travel. Unfortunately my guess is that such a platform will fail the “conveniently fits in the living room” test.

It will not necessarily be the Oculus Rift; but virtual reality is so compelling that its time must surely come. It would be utterly great with more movement sensors so that you could climb walls, engage in sword fights and so on.

Wearing a great big headset is unsocial though as the point is to immerse yourself in a virtual world. Looking like an idiot also comes with the territory. Hit or miss? Not sure.

Windows in Xbox One: a boost for Windows 8 apps?

What if the just-announced Xbox One runs Windows 8 apps? Could this be the boost that Microsoft’s store and app platform needs?

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Microsoft has yet to describe the app story for the One in detail, but it would make sense. Here is what we know, as I understand it, though it is no doubt an over-simplification.

Xbox One is described as having three operating systems: a virtualisation host, a Windows OS for general purpose use (including web browsing, Skype, and I would guess the management app), and a dedicated games OS. The games OS runs in parallel, so you can do instant switching between a game and other activities like watching TV, or have a Windows 8-style snapped view where both are visible.

The Apps element on the One will, I presume, be part of the Windows OS. There is considerable commonality between the demands of a touch UI and that of a TV UI (where you are sitting well back from the screen). A touch UI demands large targets so you can hit them with fat fingers, while a TV UI requires large targets so you can see them from a distance. It could be that the tendency towards large, chunky controls in the “Metro” Windows 8 UI is partly driven by planned support for Xbox, even though this tendency is frustrating for desktop users sitting close-up to large screens.

It is unlikely that Microsoft will introduce a completely new app model for Xbox One. Rather, I would expect to see some compatibility between Windows Store apps and Xbox One apps, with differences to account for the different platforms. No accelerometer or touch control on the Xbox One, for example, though you have Kinect which enables a touch-like interaction though hand detection.

What about the OS partitioning? This may mean that the powerful One GPU will not be available to app developers, or that game apps follow an entirely distinct development model.

If developers can easily share code between Xbox One apps and Windows Store apps, with Windows Phone 9 added to the mix at some future date, will that be enough to get some momentum behind Microsoft’s app platform?

Keep your 360 – Xbox One not backward compatible

Microsoft says that the newly announced Xbox One is not backward compatible with the 360:

Xbox One hardware is not compatible with Xbox 360 games. We designed Xbox One to play an entirely new generation of games—games that are architected to take full advantage of state-of-the-art processors and the infinite power of the cloud. We care very much about the investment you have made in Xbox 360 and will continue to support it with a pipeline of new games and new apps well into the future.

This contrasts with the considerable compatibility effort made in the 360, which runs some (but not all) original Xbox games despite having an equally different architecture and a switch from Nvidia to ATI for the GPU. The way this works on the 360 is that when you put in a compatible original Xbox game, it downloads a patch to enable it to run. I am not sure of the details, but there is some kind of compatibility or emulation layer combined with game-specific code to fill any gaps.

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This may not seem a big deal to Microsoft, but in a family context it matters. Space in the living room is at a premium in many households, and lack of compatibility means a difficult decision. Replace the old 360 and abandon all that investment in existing games? Have both side by side, adding complexity and clutter? Or pass on the new Xbox and rely on your iPad or Android tablet for fun new games, as the 360 fades from view?

What will happen to classic games as the consoles which run them crumble? Emulation is the answer, and enthusiasts have come up with solutions for many obsolete consoles. In other words, we will end up running those games on PCs. For example, check out Cxbx for an ongoing effort to run original Xbox games, though progress is slow.