Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

Playstation VR Review

Posted: February 12, 2017 by ryanlecocq in Technology

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I will be following this with a video review on my YouTube channel, will just take a bit to put together.

 

Once again, it sucks sometimes being just a dude who writes about games, instead of someone who is paid to do it.  In general I like playing and writing what I want, but on the other hand, companies rarely send me their products early and for free.  In the case of the PSVR, which Sony apparently only sent out 15 or 20 of to the entire world at launch, it seriously took me this long to get one.  I live in a little town that got very few units and wasn’t willing to pay inflated prices to scalpers on craigslist and eBay.

The plus side to this is that like many of you, I am a normal consumer who has to buy this stuff.  My rating of this device is based on how realistic it is to upgrade my gaming PC and buy the competition, versus buying this in a real budget.  Like the average PC gamer (real average, not average snob on forums) I have a gaming PC that is upper midrange for about 3 years ago.  So I could barely handle any high-end VR games without some very costly upgrades.  I also needed a new PS4 though and the Pro model had just released at the time.  Since Sony’s platform would bring both 4K and VR gaming, an upgrade that would be about twice as much in my situation for my PC.  It makes a huge difference that this is the only solution that made sense in my case, because I am not sitting here in an office, staring at 3 devices I didn’t pay for and comparing them.  So without further preamble, the review.

 

Fidelity

I should start by saying that my own VR experience is limited by my amateur journalist status.  I did work at Samsung in 2014 and was fortunate enough to use both an Oculus Rift developer unit and the Gear VR prototype (which was a stripped down version of the dev unit) when the Gear VR was being launched.  So I have some experience with Oculus’ tech and none with HTC’s.  The PSVR is the first consumer unit I have used in a home environment, outside a canned demo.

The quality is what I think will become the new standard of “good enough” for VR.  For lack of a better description, it’s basically like having a 1080p OLED screen wrapped around your face.  When you first put it on, you will definitely notice the individual LEDs if you have sharp vision.  After a while of using it, the effect goes away as your eyes become used to focusing on the image the way they do reality, rather than a flat screen.  The effect is a tiny bit worse in the PSVR than the other headsets I’ve tried, because the resolution is slightly lower, but the effect is no more or less annoying until you stop noticing it.  The biggest issue with visual quality is anti-aliasing effects or scaling, as in Resident Evil 7.

This is the first unit I have used that was using full room tracking of any kind.  All tracking is limited by what the Playstation camera can see.  In practice I found this to be about a 2m x 3.5m area that would only go as low or high as I aimed the camera’s roughly 100 degree scope.  Sony could easily improve this later by adding additional cameras or sensors, but I found it to be an excellent balance of interaction vs home intrusion.  Much like the Wii, Virtual Reality is one of those things where you want to jump around for the first day, but then you remember you play video games to relax.  I’ve found that I am most comfortable sitting or standing stationary.  Although you can wander around a bit in most VR games (really fun in Batman!), the most interesting stuff is usually right in front of you.

Finally, the sound quality is very impressive!  I didn’t even bother with Sony’s earbuds and instead went straight to the Turtle Beach headset I bought for the VR.  I had my doubts about Sony’s claims that their magical 3D stereo would be better than real surround sound, but it’s pretty darn good.  It is actually completely playable with living room surround sound, although your position is sometimes slightly off.  Not at all unbearable though if you want to remain in touch with other people in the room.  This is even required for a couple of games with asymmetric gameplay using the TV as well, such as Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes!

 

VR Nausea

This has so far varied from person to person.  Some people seem to experience it depending on the type of movement in each game.  Resident Evil 7 is the worst offender so far, because it does this strange disconnect where the controller moves your actual character model, but you can still move yourself around and change your view.  It can result in a disconnect in position that is a serious head trip.  I also found that when I turned off all the anti-nausea aids (like FOV filter, slow walking and limited camera control) and played as I normally would, running around at full speed and aiming very quickly while strafing, I was overcome by intense nausea after about 90 minutes and 2 boss battles.  That was a pretty extreme test, but so far I have been the least susceptible to nausea and I wanted to see if there were limits.  There were indeed and I had to take the headset off and take anti-nausea meds immediately.

In general though, if you limit yourself to hour-long sessions and don’t play like a baboon on crack, you shouldn’t have too much issue once you get used to it.  We’ve found that taking a break at a max of 90 minutes is pretty necessary though.  It doesn’t need to be that long, but you will definitely get a headache if you play for 5 hours straight.

Probably the most important trick to avoiding nausea or headaches is to calibrate the headset for each user if they will be playing for more than a few minutes.  It’s fine to pass the headset around to demonstrate, or to play party games.  When playing long sessions though, it is much easier to focus the image and remain comfortable if you calibrate your eye distance and camera position for each profile.  Some games require a ‘neutral point’ for the headset, that it will treat as the center of the room and this is of course different based on height and distance from the camera.  Not tuning this for each user can result in having to lean or tilt your head in an uncomfortable way while playing.

 

Control and Precision

Once again, I have not used the Rift or Vive controllers, so I have no idea how they compare.  I would assume they are better, because the Move controllers were designed ages ago and can be purchased cheaper.  That being said, both the Dual Shock 4 and the Move controllers do a fantastic job when used properly.  Its’ really important to heed the warning about other bright lights near you when playing, because that will cause the dreaded shaking effect.  If you ever tried to get any kind of accuracy out of your Nintendo Wii though, you know the drill.  Middle lighting and no points of light near the player.  Follow those guidelines and the control is actually very accurate.  So accurate on occasions that my wife’s 5 minutes in front of an in-game mirror gesticulating and saying “I’m Batman” had me rolling on the floor in tears.

Playing with the traditional controller is a great middle ground between the up-on-you-feet experience of true VR and the gaming we’re all used to.  It’s much less taxing and totally necessary for a game like RE7, that takes hours to complete.  It is occasionally confusing that you can’t just move your body or touch things with your hands, but that just means the illusion is still working.

The biggest issue with both controllers, is that neither of them was designed for VR.  The DS4 is a traditional controller and the Move was obviously designed to be seen while playing.  Hitting the tiny face buttons accurately is nearly impossible when swinging the remote around blindly.  This results in most games using only the move and trigger buttons, only occasionally using one of the face buttons repeatedly.  Worse, 2D menu navigation with the Move controller is almost impossible (and not even supported in many games), meaning you have to pick up the Dual Shock to perform many functions in game and system menus.  These are things that could easily be smoothed out with software updates and will likely be solved completely by the inevitable “improved sensor and control” package Sony will surely release this year.

 

Software Selection

Currently the PSVR has a notable advantage in that two of the most critically acclaimed and hardware pushing VR games are exclusive to Sony’s platforms (for the moment).  Batman Arkham VR and Resident Evil 7’s VR mode (the game itself is cross platform) are both limited time exclusives to PSVR.  While this means they will obviously come to other platforms later (surely with addons and updates), at the moment two of the best VR experiences can only be played on PSVR.  These are of course the first 2 full games we bought for ours.  Beyond that we just have free content and a couple really cheap games.  Those two games are pretty much worth the price of admission on their own.  Resident Evil 7 lets you explore a VR environment that is actually large and detailed, with fully free movement.  Something lacking in almost all existing VR games.  Batman on the other hand, makes you Batman.  The Goddamned Batman.  Yes, you are Batman as he goes on a graphically detailed point-n-click adventure that we would have laughed away in 2D, but you are BATMAN.

The rest of the games range somewhere from tech demos to games we’ve seen before that have been VRified.  Many of the same genres we saw on the Wii have showed up for a quick buck.  Then there are the videos and “experiences” which have shown up before on other VR platforms.  These range from amusing shorts like Invasion, where you stand in place and watch a 3D scene, to “games” where you teleport around an environment and can basically just poke stuff.  These are all great for trade shows, but the steep price tags for some of them are obvious exploitation of the fad that will harm the industry in general.  The perception that it is an overpriced gimmick is the biggest hurdle for VR to overcome.

 

So… Overpriced Gimmick?

Absolutely not.  This is the technology I have been waiting for for years.  If you only see VR as a new way for people to be lazy and avoid reality, you are blinding yourself to a world of possibility.  VR has limitless opportunities not only for the obvious, like training and simulation, but for the subtle and humanistic as well.  I imagine a world 10 years from now where sheltered white kids like myself, from our nice little towns, could learn a lot more about racism from experiencing Roots, rather than watching it.  Sure, a VR whip or travelling for a month in your won VR filth isn’t anything like the real thing, but it’s a much better eye opener than a decades old movie on a VHS tape.  Or imagine a simulation of what it’s like to communicate with speech impediments or brain damage.  You speak clearly, but others can’t understand you.  I could go on and on and on.  This is a technology that will literally change everything.

For right now, it will let you stand in front of a mirror as Batman.  It may not sound like much, but the only way we can get to that better world of empathy and understanding is by financing it with our money.  Virtual Reality will only take off if enough of us take the plunge in the early days.  From my own experience though, even these early methods of experiencing VR are well worth the cost of admission.  It seems like a lot of crap to buy and hook up, until you put your face in it and see a fully VR area for the first time.  This is not like any of that 3D glasses crap you can see at the movie theater.  If you have not used one of the headsets released in the past few years, no technology you have seen before can prepare you for this.  It’s a level of immersion and interaction that no medium has ever come close to in the past.  I’ve tried everything from the Nintendo Virtual Boy to high-end arcade VR machines over the years.  Nothing before the current generation VR devices ever made my brain cross that threshold to perceiving the VR space as real.  To a limited extent, I was doing this within moments of playing the PSVR.

Without any further rambling, I just want to say that I think the PSVR is truly the best positioned consumer VR device.  As much as I love PC gaming, I never in a million years expect it to be the dominant entertainment platform.  John Carmack and Gabe Newell are way smarter than I am, but they are somehow completely delusional about this.  PC gaming is always going to be a niche segment, because average consumers keep the PC in the office and the Playstation in the living room.  As someone who has until very recently been in the homes of many consumers working on their devices, I don’t see this changing soon.  The Playstation VR is the mainstream, ready to play right now solution that I decided to go with after much thought and I highly recommend it.  The VR quality is more than good enough to create the experience and the ease of use is top-notch.  The manufacturing quality seems to be up to Sony’s normal standards and I don’t see any of the parts being easy to break.  As much as I hate to always say “go with the big, successful company that makes similar stuff”, it is a really good rule of thumb.  Startups like Oculus (though they are now owned by Facebook) and players from other industries like HTC will often make the superior product, but it’s almost always the company like Sony that has the market power to force it into the public consciousness.

We’ll see if I invested wisely in the long run, as VR in general may not take off and even if it does, many of the early competitors will likely fail.  Here’s hoping it goes universal and multiplatform though, so we can all play the same games on different devices for years to come.

True Guru Tips for Buying Computers and Parts

Posted: January 31, 2017 by ryanlecocq in Features, Off-topic, Technology

There are many articles that discuss commonly held wisdom about buying and selling electronics.  I have written several myself.  This is going beyond that to the realm of instinct and “kicking the tires” so to speak.  If you’ve read all the basic stuff about “do not buy below (A) graphics card for gaming at (X) resolution” and all that, this is the guide for you.

 

Read, read and re-read the full listing before buying.

I know this doesn’t seem like an advanced tip at all, but I want you to really let it sink in.  Even I have allowed myself to be duped by an incorrect listing and then been tempted to be that asshole complaining about it in the reviews.  Trust your common sense madam or sir, you know there is no such thing as a GTX 960 with 2048 shader cores.  Do not let your greed to find some impossible deal trick you.  Because you will have just fooled yourself.  You have done the basic research, you knew better, you just hoped against hope you could game the system.

Now this totally goes both ways.  There are totally such things as “unicorn parts” and if you think you have found one, try to verify by part number or reviews and BUY IMMEDIATELY.  Allow me to give a couple of examples I have bought.

The first was a Geforce GTX 460 that was some sort of odd developer edition.  It was overspecced over OEM in every way (more cores, faster speeds etc) and yet it had only one 6-pin PCIe requirement.  If you are familiar with the Fermi series cards you know this is effing nonsense.  Yet it was, and the results are still on some forum somewhere as the internet went from suspicion to awe as I was like “wtf is this thing!?”  It completely outperformed everything in range at significantly lower wattage.  No idea where it came from, but so glad that some e-recycler got ahold of it somehow and put it on eBay.

The second was a completely unlocked Haswell revision b CPU for testing.  It said right on the die cap that this was absolutely not to ever leave the Intel factory.  Some enterprising gentleperson in China went through some epic adventure to get it out, as evidenced by the battle damage on the cap.  It still booted just fine though and I gave them terrific feedback.  This is one of the chips they use to test what the released ones will be set at.  Every single setting of the CPU is unlocked, because the techs at Intel need to be able to toggle every switch for testing.  With the right custom bios, you can turn on and off some very interesting features on these.  You can also overclock the hell out of it on good cooling, which is all I cared about.  I guess I shouldn’t recommend that you try to get one of these, because Intel would probably have me killed if I still had it in my possession writing this.  But if you, wink wink, nudge nudge happened to find one, it was like eating gelato in a computer part.

 

Sometimes refurbished is good!

I frequently say the biggest problem with computers now is they aren’t made with love, by human hands.  That sounds corny, but it’s as simple as the guy in the factory pulls a big level that dunks the heatsink in thermal paste and slams it on a laptop logic board.  That is no way to apply paste, plain and simple.  Many of the problems that cause all of those angry reviews come from the simple byproducts of automation.  It makes total sense, they can sell it much cheaper and when you return it, they just have a tech open it up and fix a simple problem and it never happens again.  They can just re-sell it for a little less as refurbished and it’s usually only a small percentage that actually have issues.

Let’s rewind a couple sentences: “…and it never happens again.”  This is the part that’s important.  When you buy a device that has been properly refurbished, you are getting a device that has been opened up by a person more qualified than anyone involved in manufacturing it.  They have actually touched it with their gloved hands and even the laziest tech will usually blow out plastic shavings and do other basic fixes, without even mentioning it.  This means that you have a device that is actually less likely to ever fail again than the other units that didn’t fail.  The other units could still have a wire that is too close to something, it just didn’t fail within warranty.

This goes very counter to common thought, that if there are a lot of refurbished models available, it must be garbage.  That really isn’t true anymore.  Most problems with electronic devices these days are caused by minor things that can be easily fixed.  Oftentimes manufacturers will even go to the effort of refurbishing (though not actually having to fix anything) units that have been returned for any reason.  It’s pretty rational really, you say you just returned it because you didn’t like it, but maybe you just cleaned up the cat vomit really, really well.  Might as well have a tech open it up just to be safe, don’t want to be that really, really horrifying Amazon review.  This goes like any of these, just do your research and read as many reviews of the refurbisher as possible.

 

Never trust reviews by people who sound like jerks.

Unreasonable people generally behave unreasonably.  That’s not some deep wisdom, it’s just the obvious.  The people who have emotional outbursts about a Chromebook not having a DVD drive, are usually the kind of people that put diesel in their gas car and blame the gas station.  You have nothing useful to learn from these people in this situation.  Focus on the reviews that calmly and rationally cover the pros and cons of the device at hand.  They are unfortunately few and far between sometimes, but keep looking and you should find a few.

On the flipside of this, if you are reviewing something, try to be rational.  Your personal emotions about the situation are irrelevant to anyone but you.  What matters is how long you used the thing and how it functioned during that time.  The purpose of reviews is to inform other potential buyers, not vent at the manufacturer.  At best the only company employee who will read it is an intern and you may get a canned response.

Also nobody cares how you feel about the brand in general.  This device was probably made in a different factory than the last device you bought by that manufacturer and the company has probably changed hands five times.  Brand loyalty or hate is the most irrelevant, stupid thing you could waste your time on when we are talking about the product itself.  I want to just hammer that home with the example of my wife’s 2014 Macbook Pro 15.  It’s the fully loaded one with all the bells and whistles.  Now you may have your gripes about Apple in general, but I’ve taken apart a lot of their devices and they are usually pretty good about engineering.  The late 14 MBP15 has the huge design flaw, in that it is incapable of using its own dedicated GPU by the laws of thermodynamics.  I kid you not, we’ve replaced the logic board twice, it’s just that simple.  You start using a 3D application, it overheats.  Every. Single. Time.  That is the sort of thing you should be specific about in a review.  It’s only the model with dGPU and it’s not nearly as common on other years.  People need to know that someone at Apple messed up on that model and that they should buy a different one.  Not that all Apple computers are bad, because the 2011 iMac 27″ is still trucking fantastically right next to it.  I’ve experienced the same with Asus, HP and Dell, brands I generally really approve of.  Every brand makes a few lemons, but there’s a reason that those companies are the big names; they generally make products people really like.

 

Be aware of what sacrifices are necessary.

Owning technology has laws, much like gravity and magnetism.  These laws are things like your technology will only be as good as you put time or money into it.  This is an absolute, unbreakable relationship that can only be cheated in one way, which I will mention later.  You either have to put time into researching and maintaining everything yourself, or you have to throw money at it.  You either have to know exactly what you can get away with cutting corners on, or you have to just buy the most expensive one and trust the warranty.  You cannot expect to just spend ten minutes browsing Amazon, order the first thing that looks too-good-to-be-true and hope it turns out well.  You will probably end up with a laptop with a keyboard in a language nobody speaks.

If you are an average consumer, your only hope to get a really good deal on current technology is to really read up on it and catch a good sale.  If something looks too cheap, it probably has some major flaw.  If something is much cheaper than others of the same thing, it is probably damaged in some way or being sold for parts.  It is possible to save money over just buying the first thing recommended to you, but it will take time and effort.  I know how it feels to get something super cheap on Amazon or eBay, but I also know how it feels to find out it’s the wrong thing and I only have myself to blame.  The important thing to keep in mind is that unless you are a master scammer, you are probably not going to game the system all that much without someone realizing it.  Don’t be too quick to think you’ve outsmarted people who have been separating people from money for a long time.

Finally, if you are not the average consumer, you may qualify for that method of cheating the system I mentioned above.  Guess what?  It also takes work.  If you become a top-tier tech, you will have the ability to make machines do things that the average user could only dream of.  As a general rule, any system I build beats official benchmarks of the same parts by 15% or more.  It’s not magic, I just do 100 things or more to optimize performance that take years of experience to learn.  So you are avoiding the work each time you buy something, by investing it up front with knowledge.  There is no easy path to this.  If you just try to copy what an expert does, you will have catastrophic failure like Mickey in Fantasia.  There is no way around learning the hard way when it comes to technology, but I highly recommend it.  If you are passionate about your technology, you truly cannot buy the peace of mind that comes from building and caring for your own devices.  You can also get a $500 computer to out-bench a $1000 computer if you know what you’re doing.

 

Never, ever feel rushed.  There is always another deal.

It’s easy to get caught up in sales and rebates on sites like Newegg and Amazon.  That’s the whole point.  They are trying to convince you that today’s deal is something special, when a simple graph of their prices would show that everything goes up and down constantly.  The other thing to be aware of is that new parts are releasing constantly.  This not only gives you more options, but also causes the previous parts to drop in value.  The older parts are still just as useful as they were before the new thing arrived, so it often saves you a lot to go with the previous model.

There is a flip side to this as well.  If you keep hesitating, waiting for the next deal or new product, you don’t have a system the entire time you wait.  People have a hard time understanding this, but the most cost-effective way to PC game is to build a new mid-range system every 6 months to a year.  If you build it yourself, it will be worth at least what it cost you 6 months later.  You just need to build it barely powerful enough to run current games well, knowing that you won’t have it in a year.  So the cycle pays for itself and you spend absolutely nothing but time and the effort of building a couple of PCs a year, which I find relaxing.

 

 

I think that about wraps up this edition in this long-running series.  I may think of a few tips to add later.

 

 

 

 

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Adding both Tetris games was a must.  Also added a few not-so-great games that I had as a kid.

I must say my feelings are a bit at odds right now.  While our governments fight over hacking one another and Russia’s suspected involvement with US Presidential election, we citizen hackers and modders have a generally wonderful relationship.  A perfect example would be the Russian modder Madmonkey being the first to crack the loading method Nintendo used for the NES classic.  Madmonkey released the mod and source code and very quickly the internet came together and many people made the mod into something so elegant and simple that anyone can do it.  Honestly it’s so straightforward and has absolutely no sacrifices, making one wonder why Nintendo doesn’t already have mall kiosks charging you Virtual Console prices to add games to your NES classic.  Most of us would have gladly paid.  Hell, I would have gladly paid for another controller too, if they would just sell me one.  But scratching our heads analyzing Nintendo’s lack of foresight could take another series of articles, several of which I’ve already written.

The thing I want to bring up in this article is the irony of the hacking/modding community coming together across borders to mod the hottest holiday tech toy, at the same time our governments seem hell bent on starting World War III.  One can only imagine what problems our governments could solve if they worked together with the maturity and co-operation of this group that so many of them like to vilify.  Also let’s remember that when CNN says Russian hackers, they are not talking about people like Madmonkey.  If it is proven that Russians tampered with the US election, these were government employed espionage agents.  All of us real people out here that just want to play some Tetris on our NES Classic have a lot more in common than we differ across borders.

The NES Classic Edition has arrived at Bleeding Edge

Posted: December 20, 2016 by ryanlecocq in Technology

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Early this morning, the old warriors fastened on their rusted and battered armor.  They drank their coffee while tying boots that had stood at many the midnight hour, as the gates of chaos were opened.  Kissing their wives goodbye, they mounted the war chariot with promises that the conquest would bring great spoils.

When arriving at the battle line, the old lions whose manes were shot with gray, stood beside the younger men who had risen earlier and with more vigor.  The cubs were frantic, brimming with anticipation at their first early morning raid.  The old lions told their crass jokes and laughed their hearty laughs.  The gallows humor of an old warrior can only be possessed by one who has lost as many conquests as they have won.

Then the woman in the blue shirt came out and informed the hungry mob that times had changed and no raid would be required.  The old warriors were handed a slip guaranteeing them victory without conquest and told they could come back after eating their breakfast.  Much remorse was had for the better days when they had to freeze to death, instead of sitting in the castle within reach of the Keurig.

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I hope you enjoyed that little parable.  The short version is Mike and I finally got our NES Classics today.  Since all of those people who get paid to write about games got theirs in the mail for free a month ago, I won’t bother explaining what it is and does.  If you are anything like me though, you have been suffering through the coverage by all those un-scientific people as they crudely squee about it instead of answering what you really want to know.  So let’s get technical mother-effers.

 

How perfect is the emulation?

As good as I have ever seen.  If your first experience with classic NES titles was on Virtual Console, you are probably unaware that the emulation used there is considered uhh… bad by the gaming community.  While emulation on PCs and other devices is much more sophisticated than what Nintendo has offered before, even the best NES emulators are not 100% accurate to the originals.  This is often for the better, as the NES has several hardware drawbacks that cause visual glitches.  Every bit of the games is recreated here, including those glitches.  This suggests that Nintendo is emulating at a very low level and reproducing the functions of the original hardware as closely as possible.

While the inclusion of the ability to render with scanlines or at the original pixel ratio is cool, the real standout here is the emulation accuracy.  What makes many of us so nostalgic for these games is how much we hard-wired ourselves to play them.  When playing the games on modern hardware, the glitches and slowdowns that were part of that hardwiring are often removed.  This makes the game just plain feel different and can completely ruin your feeling of nostalgia.  That is not the case here.  Everything from the floatiness of Double Dragon 2 to the rubber-band throttle feeling of the original SMBros is recreated perfectly.  Kid Icarus lags just where it’s supposed to, so my jumps feel just like they did 25 years ago.  For that, I would almost pay $60 for each of these games.

 

Sound Quality?

Perfect, by which I mean awful.  The Ricoh 2A03 sound chip used in the NES was not exactly high-fidelity, even for the time.  While it pounded out decent sound from a single TV speaker, the flaws become very evident when played on a HiFi system.  If you are using a home theater system, I would highly recommend cutting the highs a bit, as they can be truly unpleasant at high volume.  While that may sound like a negative, it’s actually just because the sound is recreated so accurately.  Unlike many other reproduced versions, the tracks are not being played through a more modern midi library.  The sounds are just as crude as they were in 1985.

Once again, the standout part of this is accuracy.  Not only are the sounds accurate to the ear, the timing and duration is also perfect.  Many of us included the audio cues made by the game in our training while playing it.  If you learned to dodge at a certain time after hearing a certain sound, you will find that results match expectation.  Finally.

 

The long and short about controllers.

For how much I’ve seen people complain about the short controllers and the lack of extra ones available for sale, I haven’t seen much thought put into solving it.  The NES Classic shares its controller port with the Wii Classic Controller and Nunchuk, meaning that Nunchuk extension cables will work just fine.  You know, the ones you can buy on Amazon for .79c.  It’s also important to note that if you use a Classic Controller, the other design flaw of the Classic is removed.  The home button serves the same function as the reset button, meaning that for the cost of two extensions and a classic controller (about $12 US total if you order a used controller), you can play in bed without getting up.  That’s a pretty painless solution if you have Amazon prime.  To think, if those people had just ordered those things when they started bitching, they would have had the solutions about 3 days later.

To be blunt, do not pass this retro gem up because you are mad at Nintendo for making the cables short.  Just use your noggin and your Amazon or eBay account and fix the problem yourself for less than the cost of a single Xb1 or Ps4 controller.  I can understand wanting to have a matching NES Classic controller to complete the set, but apparently those things are unicorns and we may never see them.  For now, the play experience is much improved with a pair of extension cables and at least one Classic controller.

 

Hope that answers a few questions.  I have to get back to playing with it.

Why HiFi Sound for Gaming

Posted: September 5, 2016 by ryanlecocq in Features, Technology

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Yer doin’ it wrong.

 

When I started working as an A/V installer over a year ago, my home theater setup was probably much like most of yours.  I had one of those TVs you wait in line for on black friday, that’s really cheap for how big it is.  When I realized the sound was completely unacceptable, I bought one of those inexpensive under-tv sound boxes with 2 speakers and a sub-woofer built in.  I could now hear the noises and see the things, I felt that anything more was completely superfluous and not worth the effort.

Now my living room is a little different.  I still have the TV, but it’s next on the list.  The sound however is completely upgraded.  I’m not going to brag about my system, it’s mostly stuff I got free from work that isn’t the newest or had to be repaired first.  The point is that it’s a fully tuned 7.1 system with the best connections and running in the newest processing modes.  The difference it makes when gaming is huge.  It’s more than just surround sound being more immersive, a decent receiver has numerous benefits to a gamer which you may not even be aware existed.

 

True Surround Sound

One thing a lot of people don’t fully grasp, is what is actually surround sound and what is fake surround sound.  If it comes out of less than 4 speakers or is sent through 2 or less conductors, it is not surround sound.  So if your TV or sound bar has a “surround mode”, that is nothing like true surround.  By the same token, if your connection is through a headphone plug or the two red and white RCA cables, it is not true surround.  So most PC headsets that say surround are not surround.  The only way to get real surround sound (where the individual noises are sent to different speakers) is with a digital connection like an optical TOSlink, HDMI cable or the big orange RCA digital coaxial.

Even many people who have 5 or more speakers and have all their devices connected through HDMI, often are not using surround sound because they are not in the right mode.  To fully utilize the surround sound capability of your game system or PC, you need to be in a digital sound mode like DTS.  There are so many different digital sound modes at this point that it is almost impossible for me to tell you which is the best for your setup and game device.  On the front of your receiver or amplifier, it should say digital somewhere and the sound mode should be DTS, Dolby Digital or something similar.  Modes like Atmos and DTS:X are for more than 7 speakers and if supported, will only work with the right speakers.  If your receiver has an “auto” setting, this will usually select the best setting for your current speakers and input signal.

Once you are playing in true surround, the benefits to gaming will be easy to hear.  I’m a big fan of the Dark Souls series and this leads to a perfect example.  When playing in stereo and being invaded, you generally spend a moment spinning your camera around looking for the invader.  When playing in digital surround, the noise made when a player spawns is clearly audible from a distance in the direction it came from.  This shaves a couple of seconds off your battle preparation and gives an immediate gameplay advantage.  Insert situation from your favorite game here.  This is only the first and most obvious benefit of HiFi gaming.

 

Make Bad Look and Sound Good

Another huge benefit to running your games through a receiver is the many sound and picture processing features built into a modern stereo.  Besides just surround sound modes, a home theater receiver will have features to clean up and expand different stereo signals.  Some stereo devices, like the Wii or other older game systems, are capable of Dolby Pro Logic.  Pro Logic is a kind of stereo signal that is designed to be friendly to simulated surround sound.  Your receiver can process this into something that is somewhere in the middle between stereo and surround sound.  You can also use multi-channel stereo, which just takes any old 2 channel sound and wraps it around all the speakers.  While it won’t do anything to send sounds in different direction to simulate depth, it does immerse you more in an old game than just playing out the front left and right speakers would.

This also applies to processing picture.  If you are an old-school gamer, I would highly recommend a receiver with analog to digital upconversion over HDMI.  In layman’s terms, this means you plug in your Super NES to the receiver with its old crappy RCA cables and the receiver outputs it through HDMI to your TV.  This is pretty much essential if you want to play those systems on a newer TV.  Many newer TVs don’t even include analog inputs or are not even capable of resolutions below 480p like you would get out of a 16 or 32-bit console.  Many higher end receivers can even upconvert lower resolution signals to 1080p or 4k, which will not make the original image look better, but will eliminate a lot of the fuzziness caused by using the TV’s built in upconversion.  Even newer games that run at higher resolutions will benefit if you are using a TV or monitor that is still higher res.  A receiver will almost always have better and faster upconversion than a TV, so a PS4 or XB1 running through a receiver will look cleaner on a 4k TV.

 

Better Speakers Aren’t Just Louder

When I recommend upgrading sound, a lot of people comment about how they don’t really want something really loud.  This is a misconception brought on by using crappy sound.  In the days of old TV, when you couldn’t hear something, you just had to turn it up.  Most of us still think of sound in these terms.  When our new TV has crappy sound, we buy a sound bar that is the same thing, just louder.  Now the sound can go louder than the pathetic tiny speakers in the thin TV, so we can hear the dialogue again.  The problem with bad speakers isn’t their volume though.  You can’t hear everything clearly because all of the sounds are being forced out of two tiny speakers with limited sound range.  A speaker can only be designed to make a certain range of high and low frequency sounds, further limited by the size of the speaker.  To keep this simple, a big tower speaker can be heard much clearer at low volume than a small TV speaker, because it has several speakers inside playing the high and low sounds separately.  So although both are just playing the left and right sound channels, the larger speaker is separating it out more so you can pick out the voices from the car engines.

Furthermore, adding more speakers is not just adding more noise.  If you have trouble hearing dialogue clearly, you will be amazed at the difference a center channel speaker will make.  The center speaker plays mostly dialogue and sounds made by the things the screen is focused on.  The same is true for each level of extra speakers you add to your system.  Surround speakers go without much further description.  A subwoofer has much more utility than just making big booms.  Almost all receivers will allow you to select the individual crossover frequencies for each speaker.  In laymen’s terms, this means you can tell the smaller speakers to send most of their bass to the subwoofer so that noises in the background have convincing depth.  Although the subwoofer doesn’t move, the low frequency sound travels better and tricks your ear into hearing it with the sound from the source speaker.  You can go all out and add front height speakers, far rear speakers or ceiling mounted ambient noise speakers for the aforementioned Dolby Atmos.  The more you separate the sounds, the more realistic and immersive it becomes.

 

More Input, More Control

Personally, I have more than one gaming device.  I actually have more than 10 gaming devices.  If having a retro collection was not currently chic in gaming culture, I would probably be on Hoarders.  If you are even 1/10th as bad as I am, you have probably long ago run out of inputs on your TV.  You may be using splitters, one of those remote controlled switch boxes or even getting up and switching cables.  Although newer receivers are starting to have fewer and fewer old analog inputs (my 2014 Denon has 2 RCA, 2 component and the rest are HDMI), with a few adapters you should be able to connect at least 3 classic systems in addition to several new systems, a cable box and a BluRay player.  If your entertainment center can hold more than that, you may need splitters, but that should do it for most people.

Since the receiver has only one output to the TV, you don’t need to change any inputs or volume on the TV.  If you can configure your remote to turn the TV on, you should be able to reduce your setup to a couple button presses on the stereo remote and turning on your classic system, before you see your classic game on the screen in the best possible picture and sound quality.  This applies to new systems too, as the receiver will usually keep the settings for each input separately.  So you just push the Xbox input button and turn on the Xbox and the sound and picture will automatically be right, even if you were last watching an old VHS tape in analog stereo.  Even if you somehow mess up the inputs or settings, most receivers are smart about detecting what is plugged in and turned on.  As long as you leave most of the settings on auto, it should right itself unless that cable just isn’t supposed to go there.

Finally you can control most receivers that are wifi capable with an app on your phone or tablet.  You are also generally able to stream music from your phone or tablet to your stereo.  This allows you to control the volume, settings or just turn on your tunes at any time without hunting for the remote.  Since this is over WiFi, not using bluetooth or infared, you can do this anywhere in the range of your home WiFi.  Much better than pointing the remote or having to stay within 25-30 feet.  This is especially useful if you have a multi-zone stereo with speakers outside or throughout the house.  You can change what is playing in different areas, or adjust the volume for other rooms, without going back to where the stereo is.

 

That pretty much wraps this one up.  Hopefully this explanation helps you when deciding how much to put into sound for your gaming setup.

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Companion Video on YouTube

We’re going to try something new.  I am slowly moving towards my dream of turning the blog into a gaming variety show on YouTube.  The first baby step is this article which will be like the director’s commentary to the video above.  I grudgingly accept that the internet masses like reading huge blocks of text a lot less than I like writing them.  So now you can watch it and pursue further content if intrigued.

 

Way back when the original Kindle Fire released, I did an article on the feasibility of using a (at the time) dirt cheap $200 tablet for gaming and media.  This was in the ancient days, when the only cheap tablet options went without things like bluetooth and cameras to hit that “gift-able” $200 price point.  It turned out that the Fire’s (at the time) decent screen and competent chipset made it a clear winner in the bargain category.

Here we are in 2016 and the market has definitely changed.  There are now many tablets under $100, from such questionable manufacturers as DigiLand and Trio (they even have cameras!).  While the quality of these tablets is often laughable, they are tablets and they are less than 100 US dollars.  So Amazon doesn’t have to even do something that wasn’t possible before, they just have to make it slightly less horrible than the competition.  I can gladly say that the Fire 7 is more than slightly less horrible.  It’s actually pretty decent.

There are plenty of reviews for this tablet, as it came out last fall and isn’t remotely new at this point.  The only reason I’m writing about it is that it now goes on sale regularly for $35-40 and the XDA community have worked out all the bugs involved in fixing the things that suck most about this tablet.

 

Why the Fire 7 is worthy, when the others are not:

The Fire 7 has a lot in common with other cheap tablets; it has a low-res screen, it has a MediaTek chipset and it feels like a huge slab of plastic compared to more expensive tablets.  What sets it apart is that it somehow wears these features like a feather boa.  The screen is low resolution enough to save Amazon a lot of money, but tuned and optimized to easily outclass generic offerings.

I’ve tested quite a few generic tablets with MediaTek and Rockchip chipsets and they aren’t usually very pleasant.  Even ones that have decent raw performance are held back by terrible power and heat management, as well as a poorly optimized kernel.  Amazon has clearly thrown at least an afternoon of engineering into this thing, as it bears little resemblance in performance to generics running the same or similar SoCs.  In layman’s terms, that means it doesn’t crash, hang or freeze nearly as often as other cheapo tablets.  The performance is also generally smoother (while still being fairly weak), because it isn’t constantly throttled for power and heat.

Finally the rough plastic exterior is literally rough in every sense.  It feels like holding one of those plastic bobbers at the end of a lifeguard’s rope, but this thing is also one tough SOB.  What I really want out of a beater tablet is something I’m not afraid to take places I wouldn’t take my iPad.  The Fire 7 delivers.  It’s the perfect kick around tablet, even if you drop it in the bathtub, who cares?  It’s a $50 tablet.

 

The warty side and what you need to do to fix it:

The reason this tablet is better than others in the price range is pretty obvious if you’re at all familiar with Amazon.  The Fire 7 is of course loaded with adds and is primarily a way to sell Amazon content to even poorer people.  So Amazon doesn’t mind losing a few bucks on every unit sold.  These ads are annoying and even go so far as putting animated ones on your lock screen.  I’m the sort that likes to have my cake and eat it too, so I ain’t standing for that.  Fortunately everyone else at XDA feels the same way, so development for this tablet has been going strong since day 1.  I’ll provide a link to the index of topics for modifying the Fire 7 at the bottom of this section.  Be aware that you do this at your own risk and you do not have to do all of these things.  I went all out and replaced literally every part of my tablet’s software, besides the kernel.  The only Amazon logo remaining is on the back and at the first splash screen when booting.

  1. Remove ads and install Google Play store
  2. Root your tablet, so that you have full access and can do the rest of these things.
  3. Stop future updates, so you don’t lose your root access and workarounds.
  4. Install custom recovery
  5. Replace the Fire OS entirely with a custom ROM like Cyanogen Mod or similar.
  6. Install Xposed Framework or similar, to give you full control of your hardware and especially storage.

There is a small risk of rendering your tablet inoperable, but even that is fixable with instructions at the following link.

Fire 7 (2015) index of topics at XDA forums

 

How good is it when fully optimized?

As I mentioned earlier, I went all out and rooted, installed custom recovery, Xposed framework, CM12.1 ROM and finally Nova Launcher when I couldn’t get perfect performance out of the stock launcher.  So YMMV goes without saying.  In the end, I got a very reasonable 7″ tablet that was able to play every single game I threw at it, albeit not nearly as well as an expensive tablet.  What makes this product truly worthy as the ultimate budget tablet, was that it did all of this consistently and reliably.  My interface is smooth, without lagging or freezing.  My apps work correctly when I tombstone and reopen them.  It just plain works better than any other cheap tablet and once the Amazon induced drawbacks are removed, it does so without any glaring flaws.

This one is a winner, just like the first one.  I highly recommend this for children or the very poor.  If this is all you can afford, this is what you should buy.  On the other hand, if you are a developer and are looking for the lowest cost of entry on something that can be easily modified and used for testing, this is also your tablet.  Once running custom software, the Fire 7 is more capable in every way than a generic, or a used older tablet you could get at similar price.

 

Why HD remakes are hard to do well.

Posted: June 25, 2016 by ryanlecocq in Features, Technology

WbMtrNI

HD de-master?

 

I find the closer I get to middle age, the more nostalgic I become for things from my childhood.  Fortunately for me, this comes during a time that will probably be known in art history as the “remake” period.  Every movie, show and video game from my childhood is being remade with the newest technologies.  Sometimes though, new is not improved.  These remakes range from the fantastic Mario and Zelda HD/3D versions to the obvious cash-milking efforts put out by Square-Enix.  The quality of a remake isn’t always the direct fault of the people doing the port though.  They may have been sabotaged 20 years ago by poor foresight.

 

Games are hard to hold onto.

Until only very recently, it was cost prohibitive to keep the original assets for games.  All of the content that goes into making a game is many hundreds of times the size of the final game ROM or disc image.  You have all the uncompressed sound files and images used to make the textures, not to mention all the stuff left over from testing and earlier versions.  The assets used to make a game like Final Fantasy VII were probably in the tens to even hundred gigs of data.  In 1997, this would have been most of the storage space available for the entire company.  So deleting the assets would be necessary, unless they wanted to buy dozens of new hard drives to develop a new game.  Storage was expensive as well, meaning that this was not realistic when only the final game image would be needed to later port to other systems or re-release the game.

The problem with this though, is that with only the final game data, you cannot ever put things removed or downgraded back into the game.  The original art used to make the textures is gone, so you can’t make them look any better without creating them from scratch all over again.  The same goes for the sound files, character animation data etc.  Simply put, you have to remake any part of the game you would ever want to improve.  So what do you do?  The following are the approaches developers take to reviving old games for new profits.

 

Emulate your own game.

The simplest method is just to do what many of us do with our computers, phones and tablets.  You use software to emulate the original system and play the original ROM as it was released.  You can use effects and shaders to improve the image and sound slightly, but you can only get so much from the original source.  This is the method that Squeenix uses for Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior games.  With the exception of a few like FFIII and IV, which are remakes and X-X2 which have redone textures and music, the other games are just emulated versions of the originals.  This method is very simple and I have suspected on multiple occasions that the developers just stole work already done by fans and put it on the market.  For example the Steam re-release of FFVII has a number of bits in its files that bear a striking resemblance to several fan mods, made to make the game run on modern PCs.  This is basically the money-grabbing bottom-of-the-barrel for remakes.

 

Mod your own game.

Fortunately for developers, a lot of us players have been at this a long time.  We never had any more than the final game, so we’re used to extracting the assets and replacing them with custom content.  So most developers just take advantage of what other people have already solved and use existing tools to pull apart the game and upgrade the assets.  This is ironic and absurd on occasion, as many of these games developers were vocally against modding at the time of the game’s original release.  Yet when the promise of more money for work already done arises, they will gladly steal the fruits of the labor they once decried.  Ah humans.  Fortunately this leads to much better looking products like Resident Evil 4 HD and the aforementioned FFX-X2.

 

Remake the game, with or without reverence.

This can lead to the best and worst of game remakes.  Some, like Super Mario 3D world, completely reinvent a game in a way that is true to the original and adds new fun.  Others, like Goldeneye on Wii, completely lose track of the original in the changes, becoming a separate and often inferior product.  The major downside of this is that it almost always takes more money and resources than making the original game.  It only took a handful of people to make SNES games, while making a 3DS game takes many, many more.  A gamble like this is easy for a large company like Nintendo, but poses a much bigger risk for license-holders who are not a worldwide institution already.

 

Fortunately, this is nearly an issue of the past.  Hard drive space is now huge and cheap, allowing most studios to keep multiple backups of the original game assets.  This is why Infinity Ward can casually toss in an HD remastered Call of Duty 4 with the upcoming game.  It probably took them very little effort to pull out the original data and update it to run nicely on new hardware, adding some modern effects in the process.  So if you are younger than 25, your childhood is probably safe.  Halo and God of War will be able to be infinitely remastered for the next 1000 years.