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).
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.
and on the front, two USB and an audio socket (supports digital as well as analogue).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The HD PVR 2 costs around £130 – £150 in the UK. More details from the manufacturer’s website here.
I tried these on during Microsoft’s Build conference, at the Xamarin party. No, it is not me in the picture.
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.
The Hauppauge HD PVR2 is a gadget for capturing video from an HDMI or component video source, such as an XBox 360 or PlayStation 3 games console, and has replaced the popular HD PVR, which was component video only.
The concept is simple: instead of connecting you console directly to your TV or A/V amplifier, connect it to the HD PVR2. Then connect the unit to a PC or Mac via USB, and to the original TV or amplifier via HDMI. Your PC can then capture the video (and audio) while you are playing the game using the big screen. Hauppauge says the delay between input and output is only 60 microseconds, which you will not notice.
The use of HDMI makes connecting the PVR2 simpler than with its predecessor. Instaead of a bunch of component audio connections, there is just power, USB, HDMI in and out, and an A/V input that connects to component video sources where needed. The A/V input has a special cable that gives floating sockets for component video and analogue audio. The unit is also supplied with a cable suitable for connecting to a PS3.
You might need component input in two cases:
1. Your games console lacks HDMI – for example, Nintendo Wii.
2. The HDMI output is encrypted for copyright protection. This is the case with the PS3, but not the XBox. Since component video and analogue audio cannot be encrypted, you can capture anything this way.
Hooking up the HD PVR2 was easy, but getting started was troublesome. We tried a succession of Windows 7 laptops, including a Pentium Dual Core 2.3Ghz, a Core 2 Duo at 2.6 Ghz Pentium, and a Core i5 at 1.6 Ghz. The pattern with all these was similar: the drivers and software installed OK, HDMI pass-through worked, the capture might work once, but then there were frustrating errors. The problems:
Difficult or impossible to select the HD PVR2 as the input device in the capture software
Capture software hanging
USB device error reported
This was tedious, partly because nothing could be captured, and partly because the only way to retry was to reboot both the laptop and the HD PVR2.
Swapping to a high-spec USB cable seemed to help a little, but soon the old problems were back, even after applying the latest driver updates from Hauppauge support.
Just before giving up, we connected to another Windows 7 Core i5 laptop, speed this time 2.5Ghz. Everything worked perfectly.
It is not clear what to conclude here. Hauppauge specifies:
Laptop or desktop PC with 3.0 GHz single core or 2.0 GHz multi-core processor
and adds in the FAQ:
You can record HD PVR 2 video on pretty much any PC. Older, slow, laptop or desktop PCs can be used to record HD PVR 2 video.
But when you playback an HD PVR 2 recording on your PC screen, you need a fast CPU and at least 256MB of graphics memory.
All our machines meet the spec. Either our sample box is particularly fussy, or Hauppauge is optimistic about the minimum requirements, or there are other factors at play.
Bundled software and Mac support
Hauppauge supplies Windows drivers for the HD PVR2 along with a version of Arcsoft ShowBiz for capturing and editing video.
If you want to use a Mac, Hauppauge recommends third-party software called HDPVRCapture which costs an additional $29.95.
ShowBiz is easy to use and provides simple editing features and output to AVCHD, AVI, MPEG1, QTMOV or WMV. You can also upload direct to YouTube with a wizard.
You don’t have to use ShowBiz if you have other capture software you prefer.
Another feature is called Personal Logo. This is a separate application which lets you specify a bitmap as a logo to appear on your captured videos, along with its position and transparency. Handy for reminding everyone who you are on YouTube, or for publications posting review footage.
Once your system is up and working, you can start capturing video with one of two methods. The first is to hit a large corner button on top of the HD PVR2, which automatically starts up ShowBiz in capture mode. Alternatively, you can start ShowBiz, select Capture, and click Start.
While capturing, you can see the video running on the PC. There is several seconds delay between your live gameplay and the capture stream, which is confusing to watch, so ignore it and focus on your gameplay. When you are done hit stop. Videos are saved automatically, by default to the Videos folder on your PC, named according to the date and time.
Next, you can edit the video in ShowBiz. I created the following video and uploaded it to YouTube as a demo. However, I could not get the YouTube unload in ShowBiz to work. I saved the file as an AVI and uploaded it manually.
Settings in depth
When you run the Capture module in ArcSoft ShowBiz it exposes a number of settings, which you get to by clicking Device and Format Settings.
Device Settings lets you set brightness, contrast, Hue, Saturation and Sharpness.
Format settings gets you a bunch of settings which gives extensive control subject to the limitations of the hardware. Here are the settings for the H264 encoder:
Here are the video settings:
and the audio properties:
All this looks impressive though many users will just want to click and go. Mostly this works OK, though check that you have 16:9 specified if you use widescreen.
Note that 1080p at 60 fps (frames per second) is captured at a maximum of 30 fps, and 1080p at 50 fps is captured at a maximum of 25 fps.
Hauppauge says that your PC does not need to be on for HDMI pass-through to work. Despite this, we found that if you turn the system on from cold, pass-through does not work until the USB connection to a PC is made. Once up and running, you can disconnect and turn the PC off and pass-through still works.
ArcSoft ShowBiz is very basic. Fortunately you can import the captured videos into other editors.
Having to use component video for the PS3 is annoying but not the fault of Hauppauge. It is surprising in some ways that the XBox generally outputs an unencrypted HDMI stream.
When this device was not working I wanted to throw it out of the window; but once I got it running it was great. The bundled software is poor, documentation is thin, and it is just a little quirky, but the ability to capture your gaming output is worth a bit of hassle.
The Apple iPad had a stunning Christmas – at least, it did in my part of the world.
A key factor was that EA Games decided to offer a range of classic board games adapted as iPad apps for 69p ($0.90) each. So for less than the cost of a takeaway pizza I downloaded Scrabble, Monopoly, Trivial Pursuit and Risk.
The games are not perfect – Scrabble accepts all sorts of odd words and US spellings, for example – but they are official licensed versions, nicely implemented, and a lot of nostalgic fun, which is the idea after all.
Trivial Pursuit supports in-game purchases for extra questions, so that could work out more expensive eventually, but nobody could complain about the value.
It is not quite the full board game experience, with wine spilt on the pieces, junior tipping over the board in disgust, and game abandoned early because it is time to visit grandma, but the changes are mostly for the better.
One thought: this is another example of how well a tablet substitutes for physical things. A book, a board game, a photo album: the iPad is a better replacement than a PC or laptop, easily passed round, long battery life, no flapping screen, and a more natural user interface.
I am not sure what are the economics of selling games at 69p, but no doubt EA has drawn the graphs. Currently EA 69p games occupy four of the “Top Paid iPad Apps” category slots in the UK store.
Of course I am interested in the big picture. Looking at user reviews of Android equivalents like Monopoly I get the impression that there are more bugs, partly because EA has a dedicated iPad verson for these games whereas the Android versions are universal across multiple screen sizes, and partly because there are more OS versions and hardware differences to accommodate.
What about other tablets or new entrants to the market like Windows 8 in 2012? Prising users away from their Apple devices will not be easy, though I still think Microsoft has chances if it plays to its strengths in business applications.
I’m just back from Microsoft’s BUILD conference in Anaheim, California, where I had little time to do much other than attend sessions, write, eat and sleep (a little).
I did have a quick look round the exhibition though, and was pleased to find four pinball machines. Unfortunately I never got a go, except on one that proved to be slightly broken. Another was so broken that it was switched off.
That’s one of the reasons you don’t see many pinball machines these days. They are high-maintenance, with many moving parts that get pounded constantly by one or more heavy silver balls, plus the occasional thump from the player as he bangs or shifts the machine just enough to affect the ball’s motion without causing, he hopes, a tilt.
Another reason for the game’s decline is that a good player can play for ages on a single quarter – or 50c, which seems to be the going rate now. It is a game of skill where accurate shooting gets you both long games and frequent extra balls and replays.
Neither of these characteristics is good for arcades, which like high income and low maintenance.
I love the game though. It offers tactile, physical pleasure that will never be captured by video simulations. The machines themselves are pure delight, every one different, often with gorgeous artwork and amazing gameplay with loops and tunnels and mini-play areas and fantastic contraptions that enable themselves if you get the right sequence of targets.
Most latter-day machines have a multi-ball mode, which is a lot of fun and surprisingly difficult. Watching several balls at once is a great deal harder than keeping your eye on just one.
I am not sure that pinball machines are made any more, though enthusiasts seem to be able to keep the old ones going. Sadly a lot of the machines you encounter in dusty corners of cafés and arcades are not in good order, the bumpers do not bump as they should, some features do not quite work, and they are disappointing.
The best one at BUILD was called Pirates of the Caribbean and seemed pretty good, though I never got a game.
Most of the time I have to make do with computer simulations. The best I have come across are the Pro Pinball series for the PC (don’t get the Xbox version which is a poor port). I was on a forum once with one of the developers, who explained how he hated scrolling on pinball simulations. I agree – how you can shoot accurately with the play area is scrolling all time? There is also an amazing open source project which lets you load actual machine ROMs for authentic simulation, though this is of uncertain legality.
I am more interested in simulations than pinball-ish games that you could never build. One of the great features of Pro Pinball is that you can go into a maintenance mode and tune it as you would a real machine.
Unfortunately none of these are anything like as much fun as the real thing, though they do save on quarters or your local equivalent.
Today I got to try a Nintendo 3DS for the first time. A few first impressions.
It is a neat unit though it feels a little flimsy compared to the original DS or the DS Lite. I like the charging dock that comes in the box. Here it is, complete with genuine user fingerprints. The joystick (or circle pad) on the left is beautifully responsive.
My first question was: what is the 3D like? The answer is that it really works.
I spent some time playing with the Augmented Reality game, where you lay cards on a table, point the 3DS rear cameras at them, and see magic happen as three dimensional creatures emerge, intermingled with the real world around them.
Photographing this takes more skill than I possess, but to give you the idea, here are four Augmented Reality cards (all in the box as standard) that I have laid on the desk:
and here is a snap of the 3DS top screen viewing those cards in the AR game:
You cannot see it from this image, but the 3D effect is vivid, and the background is the desk on which the cards are placed. A gimmick, but an engaging one.
The built-in AR game is a lot of fun and makes use of the AR background in that you have to pan the camera around the targets to shoot successfully, something which cannot be reproduced in a purely screen-based game.
What about eye strain? I am not sure; but the 3D screen did seem to strain my eyes slightly. There is a slider which lets you reduce or disable the 3D effect easily, so the eye strain possibility should not deter you, except that since you are paying for a 3D device it is a shame not to use it.
There is a lot more packed into the 3Ds though. It has an accelerometer and gyroscope, one front and two rear (for 3D) cameras, and wireless LAN that supports WPA/WPA2 at last – this was an annoyance with the older WEP-only models.
The software has the usual Nintendo quality, complete with the ability to create Mii avatars similar to those on the Wii, but this time they can be based on a snapshot of someone’s face taken with the built-in camera.
The downside versus the original DS is the battery life – just 3-5 hours.
Still, DS fans will love the 3DS. But will it grow its market? I’m doubtful. A lot of the market for casual gaming has passed to smartphones now; and for someone with a modern smartphone, the 3DS duplicates a lot of functionality. Few smartphones have 3D of course, though I did see the LG Optimus 3D at Mobile World Congress last month.
But how important a feature is 3D? That is an open question, and I guess depends on how much difference it makes to gameplay. My quick impression is that while it is truly impressive when first encountered, it is something you soon feel you could manage without – but that is only a quick impression and I could be proved wrong.
It is hard to understand why some of the best game studios go out of business, while lesser ones (I am not going to mention names) continue. The last time I felt like this was when Ensemble Studios, makers of Age of Empires, was closed by Microsoft. Today it is the turn of Activision’s Bizarre Creations, based in Liverpool.
There are countless racing games, but when I encountered Project Gotham Racing on the original Xbox I knew it was special. It is a hard game which rewards skill; you will not get far if you simply try to charge round the track. It is also street racing, with superb graphics capturing well-known locations like London and San Francisco. The graphics got better in the later versions of the game, but for gameplay I still have an affection for the first one.
The other I will mention is Geometry Wars, which started as a mini-game in Project Gotham Racing 2, but came into its own as an arcade game for the Xbox 360. This one cannot be captured in a screenshot: it is where gaming meets art, creating fantastic visions of light and colour as you charge round the screen trying desperately to stay alive.
Apparently the relative lack of success of the critically acclaimed but poor-selling game Blur, released in 2010, was the beginning of the end for Bizarre Creations.
Laments and memories can be found in the official forum here and also on neoGAF. Farewell video here.
Thank you to Bizarre Creations for some of the best gaming moments of my life.
There is something counter-intuitive about 5.1 headphones. Headphones just look so stereo. Can you really create the surround sound illusion with the speakers so close to the ears?
It turns out you can, or at least sufficiently so to make these Kave 5.1 headphones from Roccat a satisfying product. They are intended primarily as gaming headphones, which explains the attached microphone, though it could be handy for Skype calls and other such uses as well. Another common use is for movies, where surround sound adds to the drama and sense of immersion. They are not really intended for music; but I found them pretty good for that as well.
What you get is a set of closed-back headphones with a relatively fat cable and an inline control box. The cable has four two-channel mini-jacks, one each for front pair, center and subwoofer, read pair, and microphone input, as well as a USB connector which supplies power and enables communication between the control box and the PC. You can flip open a panel on the control box to reveal channel sliders and to switch between “game” and “movies”.
Installation is a matter of plugging the cables into your sound card and a USB port. You need a 5.1 sound card, since there is no decoder in the Kave. Another point of interest: the volume control and mute on the control box directly control the volume and mute on the PC, but the 5.1 balance controls operate on the signal after it is received from the sound care; at least, that is what I observed on my test system.
The plugs are colour-coded; I also found the Windows 7 5.1 configuration utility handy for checking that I had the connections right.
There is a CD in the box but it does not contain any drivers as none is necessary. It does have a 5.1 demo video and a manual.
I tried the Kave with a variety of game, movie and music DVDs. In general I was impressed; but it is important to set expectations. I am a fan of Sennheiser headphones and use the high-end HD600 as well as a variety of cheaper sets. In comparison with the Sennheiser models the Kave is enjoyable but unrefined, and for listening in stereo a traditional set of headphones is probably what you want.
Equally, if you have a full home cinema setup and sit in the sweet spot with carefully-positioned loudspeakers and a proper sub, the Kave cannot compete favourably.
The point though is that such a setup is both expensive and often impractical; sometimes you need to listen privately or in another room.
In this context, and given a 5.1 mix, the Kave has real advantages, even for music. It is curious. I played with the sliders to compare the sound of the front and rear channels, and found that the positional difference is subtle and hard to detect. If you play a 5.1 mix with the Kave though, and then play the same downmixed to stereo, the sound is flat in comparison, in ways that even the purer hi-fi sound of something like the HD600 cannot altogether compensate for.
The benefit of true 5.1 sound is sometimes apparent in details that you can more easily hear, and sometimes a matter of a more three-dimensional sound.
The sub in the Kave is puny compared to a real one, but does add some grunt to games and movies. Confusingly, Rokkat also calls this a “Vibration unit” which lets them say that the Kave has “adjustable vibration” – all this means is that you can vary the level of the sub channel as you would expect. There is no additional vibration unit.
It is a compromise, and if possible you should try to hear the Kave in comparison with a high quality stereo set before making a decision; or ideally have both so that you can choose the best option for a particular title.
The Kave is on the heavy side but comfortable to wear. It has a blue neon light at the headphone end of the microphone stalk, and another which lights up when the microphone is muted; this is meant to look stylish and futuristic though will not appeal if your tastes are more towards the understated.
The Kave folds for convenience though it is hardly worth it as they are still somewhat bulky. The multiple connections and awkward control box make the Kave best suited for semi-permanent installation in a desktop PC, rather than something you would use on your travels.
Given its suitability for gaming, it is a shame that the Kave cannot be used easily with an Xbox 360 or PS3, though with adaptors you should be able to get it working, remote volume aside. It should work fine with a Mac though, if you have a suitable soundcard.
I do not mean to be negative. I was pleased with the Kave, which offers an excellent listening experience, recommended for games for movies and enjoyable for music as well.
Good points: Comfortable headphones that offer a taste of real 5.1 sound; well made and high quality.
Bad points: Multiple connections and floating control box can be inconvenient.
Summary: Real 5.1 sound headphones and most enjoyable, though less refined than stereo sets at a similar price level.