Author - Jerry Paxton

Microsoft SideWinder X8 Wireless Gaming Mouse Review

The pinnacle of Microsoft’s Sidewinder gaming mouse line is their new X8. Their first wireless gaming mouse, the X8 brings some new features into the fray not previously seen on Sidewinder mice while also bringing back some features not seen on some newer ones.

The design of the Sidewinder X8 was definitely inspired by the original Sidewinder model. The new X8 is a bit smaller though and features slightly more ‘stealthy’ angles to it. Like the new X5, the X8 is of all-black coloring, although the X8 has actually two different sheens depending on the area. The main primary and secondary button fuselage is a shiny black while the separated grip areas are a flat. The scroll and Vista Games’ Panel buttons are silver, which really pop out in contrast. While plugged-in (we will get to this feature later) a red LED shines out of the back of the mouse. Overall, it is a very visually-pleasing design and is sure to attract attention at tournaments.

Tournaments, you say? Yes, I would happily take the X8 into a tournament any day of the week. The issues that plagues wireless mice, making them unsuitable for tourny use are all taken care of. A 2.4 GHz signal connects the mouse to its base unit, making interference very difficult, especially given how close you can sit the base unit to the mouse. Battery life is excellent with up to about a day of real usage per charge. The polling rate, while not as good as other gaming mice out there it seems fairly adequate for most DPI settings. I did find that when at the X8’s full 4,000 DPI setting it did tend to feel a bit jerky in some shooters. When scaling the sensitivity down to sub 3,000 it leveled out and became smooth and playable.

The X8 runs off of one rechargeable AAA battery, and can be replaced at any time with a fresh one should the need arise. However, you will not really need to given the awesome charging method Microsoft has designed the X8 to utilize. Charging the battery is done via a magnetic charging cable which connects to the front of the mouse. This magnetically-connected cable allows the mouse to still be playable while charging. Charging the battery back to full usually takes a couple hours or so, but being connected did not hurt my gaming performance at all.

One thing that was disappointing with the original Sidewinder was that the DPI-switching buttons were set so far back from the primary and secondary buttons you would have to actually move your whole hand back slightly to depress them. This could cost you your in-game life and made for a not so smooth gaming experience. In the X8, these buttons have been moved closer to the buttons which allows you to hit them without having to slide your hand back on the unit.

Microsoft has included a few different ‘feet’ designs inside the receiver dongle ‘box’ (it is actually a cylinder) allowing you to customize the level of traction your X8 gets on your prefered gaming surface. The receiver dongle is a a black, cylindrical box which contants the multiple feet as well as a track around the perimeter with which to wrap the magnetic charging cable. The unit is simply with a classy aesthetic that complements the X8 quite well.

Speaking of surfaces, thanks to Microsoft’s BlueTrack laser technology, the X8 is able to be used on a ton more surface-types than before. We were even able to get the mouse functioning, although admittedly-sloppily on the side of a ceramic, shiny mug.

The software needed to use the X8 was a breeze to install and integrates itself with the standard Windows Vista mouse properties screen where you can assign every one of the X8’s seven programmable buttons to whatever you like. Another addition to the X8’s programmability is its macro record button which allows you to set a macro while in-game on-the-fly.

The new scroll wheel, which hearkens back to the original SideWinder, is all metal and an attractive silver. The down-side is that we found the scroll wheel to be very difficult to roll. It feels clunky with very pronounced detentes and poor friction. A rubberized wheel might have been a better way to go, but would have clashed with the color scheme they were going for. A plus to this scroll wheel is that it now has tilt-clicking, something which no other SideWinder mouse has featured until now.

Microsoft has chosen to replace the original SideWinder’s two fore-mounted side buttons with ones actually located on the side of the mouse this time. This side-mounted design makes it very easy for your thumb to use, especially with their vertically-mounted layout. Tilt your thumb up slightly and tag the upper side button, tilt it down and, well, you get the idea.

SideWinder X8 also shows the return of the left-mounted LCD display on the thumb area which was not present in their more bare-bones SideWinder X5. This time, it shows not only what DPI mode the mouse is in but also the battery charge level.

Overall, we found the SideWinder X8 to be a very good gaming mouse made even better by its wireless capability. We would not have any problem taking the unit into a tournament situation or even using it for simple desktop applications. While it does have its flaws, the X8 is the best wireless gaming mouse on the market at the time of this writing, although at an original MSRP of $99.99 it could be a strain for those on a budget.

Microsoft SideWinder X8 Product Page

Warhammer 40k: Dawn of War II Review

When we saw Warhammer 40k: Dawn of War II at this year’s CES, we learned from Relic’s Johnny Ebbert that the game would take the ‘best’ elements from the first game such as ‘brutal melee combat’ along with features from their Company of Heroes RTS such as unit cover. Well, this is true. However after starting on the game’s campaign mode, what we did not know is that base building is not just cut-back, but really gone altogether. Imagine our shock! Not to be denied our Dawn of War II fix we pressed on past this point of shock and found a much deeper experience within.

Dawn of War II’s campaign mode takes the player(s) by the hand for a short while, introducing characters as well as gameplay tactics and then let’s them loose on three different worlds where they have a ton of free reign over which missions they take and how far along the actual storyline they progress. This open-world campaign mode adds a ton to the game’s replayability, as does the campaign’s character development. Character development in an RTS? Well, yeah!

In the campaign, you will eventually have six squads to command, however you may only chose four to take on your per mission. As an aside, I think the number of troops in each of your squads feels a bit low, but I digress. As you play missions, your squad leaders (and hence their squads) will gain experience points that go towards increasing their levels. When a new level is reached, the player can reward these team leaders by placing an additional two attribute points in any of the following categories: Health, Ranged Combat, Melee Combat, and Energy. Every additional point into one of these categories will help give the squad’s attribute modifiers in the appropriate way, however when certain places along the attribute bars are reached the squad will gain additional ‘traits’ with which to use on the battlefield. For instance, the stealthy scout squad can gain the ability to use up no energy while standing still and cloaked. The attribute points you distribute really decide how your character fights and what its role should be. Don’t go buffing your tactical squad with full melee points if you are planning on equipping them with bolters and havig them plink at the enemy from range.

Also, sometimes when killing a mob, you will find that it dropped a special item, armor, or weapon. Click on this item to pick it up and you can find it in your squad’s joint inventory at the start of the next mission. These items can be mixed and matched between your squads to fully-customize how your units fight. From maces to plasma weapons, you will find it in the game. After all, a big part of Warhammer 40k’s combat is the mixing and matching of melee and ranged weapons. Seeing a force commander shoot at Orks with his pistol before going in for a giblet-filled kill with a chainsword.

This action-RPG style of character development is further enhanced by the bantering of your characters as well as other NPCs in-between missions while setting up the next one to come. Each squad leader’s personalities really emerge and since you only have a finite number of squads, there is a high-level of responsibility you feel for them. You end up really caring about keeping these guys alive and bringing everyone home.

Along the way, you will fight not only the Orks but also the advanced Eldar and insectoid Tyranids, which serve up some of the game’s most awesome and intense moments. Let’s just say Tyranids never fight alone….Actually, there always seems to be hundreds of them, so use that cover well. Getting a handle on the game’s cover system is key to being successful at the missions. A covered squad is worth the equivalent of three uncovered ones. Whats more, you will have to think quickly in order to stay covered and out-flank your enemies before they out-flank you.

Visuals in Dawn of War II are beautiful, with incredibly detailed particle effects. This is nowhere better seen than in the game’s explosions. The presentation of the visuals is also very important. Heavy ordinance shakes the ground and created massive fireballs and plumes of smoke. The camera is fairly versatile and makes zooming into watch your troops dismember the enemy a ton of fun.

With all the stuff going on, it is a wonder you can discern any sound apart from another. The sound design in the game is exceptional and manages to capture all of the nuances of the game’s combat without getting muddled down. The voice actors a fine job of bringing their characters to life and never sound wooden or take you out of the experience.

The game’s skirmish modes seem like more of a nod to the RTS fans, but even then the actual base-building is really not there. Instead, you capture points a la Company of Heroes which adds to your power and renown, then spending these attributes to create or upgrade units.

I am one of those RTS fans that does not like ‘zerging’. I like a ‘good’ RTS match where players have a bit of time to build up their bases/defenses and get some real armies made with which to battle against each other. I would not normally like a game such as Dawn of War II because of its focus on keeping the action moving all the time. However, due to it not feeling much like an RTS, the lack of base-building and flow of combat did not phase me in the least.

That being said, Dawn of War II is not a real-time strategy game. It is a hybrid between an RTS, action-RPG, tactical shooter, and hack ‘n slash game. This combination is masterfully put together by Relic and they are to be commended for actually doing something original. Sure, a tried and true RTS sequel would have been great too, but this is not just great. Warhammer 40k: Dawn of War II also pushes the bounds of multiple genres in a very clever way and that masterful originality can mean the difference between a game you play for a week and a game you find yourself wanting to play a year later.

Western Digital Caviar Black 1TB Hard Drive Review

Western Digital, one of the grand daddies of hard disk drives, has recently split its internal hard disk drive line into three ‘weight classes’. On the ‘lighter’ end of the spectrum, you will find the ‘Caviar Green’ class, which sports higher energy-savings as well as cooler operating temperatures. In the middle is the ‘Caviar Blue’ class, which is classified as being the ‘everyday computing’ drive. Then there is the ‘Caviar Black’ drive class, which is touted on Western Digital’s official site as having ‘Maximum performance for power computing.’ This last line of hard drives is the one that intrigues us the most, both as gamers as well as geeks. With Western Digital’s ‘VelociRaptor’ line costing upwards of $300 dollars, we are always looking for a better bang for our proverbial buck. So, let’s check out their 1TB Caviar Black drive (model WD1001FALS) and see how it holds up.

Visually, the drive looks like a fairly standard SATA 3Gb/s, 3.5” hard disk. As with the rest of the Caviar lines, you will not find the VelociRaptor’s heatsink/form factor here, allowing the Caviar Black to fit into any standard 3.5” drive bay with ease. Inside, however, you will find that Western Digital has added a few of the VelociRaptor’s features which help to make the Caviar Black a very reliable drive.

The ‘NoTouch’ ramp load feature prevents the recording head from directly touching the disk platters while the ‘StableTrac’ drive system provides a dually-mounted motor shaft. This helps increase tracking accuracy by decreasing unnecessary vibrations. The third feature taken from the VelociRaptor is the presence of dual processors on the drive which claim to maximize performance. All of these add up to make the Caviar Black one very solid drive. Western Digital seems very confident in this respect as well, given that they grant a five year warranty with the drive. In contrast, the other Caviar lines come with only a three year warranty.

But is it fast? That is the question that preoccupies us this day as what is reliability without speed, especially in a ‘performance’ hard drive? Our test programs consisted of three popular benchmarking choices: HD Tune, HD Tach, and File Copy Test.

Our test rig consisited of…
Intel i7 2.66GHz CPU
6GB DDR3 Memory
Nvidia GTX 280 Video Card
EVGA X58 Mainboard

Here are the results of the drive with HD Tune:

It scored an average read rate of 86.5 MB/sec with a burst rate of 134.4 MB/sec. Access time was rated at 12.0ms, which is in keeping with expectations. However, these results are fairly average for most drives in this class. Let’s take a look at how HD Tach scores the drive.

In this test, the Caviar Black scored a 224MB/sec burst rate and 90.5MB/sec average read rate. The drive did take an access hit of 0.5ms in the HD Tach benchmark. However, even with this slight access hit, the transfer rate scores are much more impressive.

Taking the drive into more real-world tests, we ran the popular File Copy Test benchmark application on the Caviar Black. In the program’s ‘Install Create’ test, it finished in 9.141 seconds. This is in contrast to the 18 seconds it took our Hitachi Deskstar 7K1000 drive to do the same. In the ‘ISO Create’ test, the results were echoed with the Caviar Black performing in half the time of the 7K1000. Overall, it appears that in real-world situations, the Caviar Black is one hell of a performer. We believe the secret here is in the Native Command Queuing (NCQ) performance gain of having two processors within the drive. For those who do not know, Native Command Queuing is a way for the drive to access specific places on its platters in the most efficient route possible. If NCQ were not in place, a drive heads would take extra time back-tracking across the platters when they could have already grabed that data on the way to another destination. In short, be thankful NCQ exists!

For the green conscious, be aware that the Caviar Black does draw more power from the PSU than, say, the Caviar Green line (which is to be expected). The Caviar Black draws approximately 8.4 watts of power when performing read and write operations while pulling 7.8 watts while idling. In contrast, the Caviar Green line pulls 7.4 watts during read and write operations and only 4 watts while idling. In terms of standby and sleep modes, each drive is about 1 watt, with the Caviar Green taking a slight lead drawing 0.98 watts. This is still better than Segate’s Barracuda 7200.11, which requires 11.6 watts while performing reading and writing operations and a not so eco-friendly 8 watts while simply idling.

The enhanced reliability of Western Digital’s Caviar Black hard drive coupled with its dual-processors for bleeding fast Native Command Queing makes the WDS1001FALS one heck of a performer. Not only will it beat out most non-10k RPM drives in sheer speed, but it will also outlast them thanks to the features borrowed from its big brother, the VelociRaptor. The only potential issue we could find is in the drive’s cost, which at the time of this writing is $149 at the official Western Digital online store. This is $20 to $30 dollars more than most of its 1TB competitors. Still, in this case you are definitely getting what you pay for: Reliability and real-world performance. Think of it as an investment.

Caviar Black Official Product Page

GamingShogun Reviews Halo Wars

To start, I must admit that I have been a Halo enthusiast for a while now. Some gamers especially love the multiplayer components of the FPS games, while I really like the story Bungie has crafted and continues to evolve through books and, hopefully, a movie at some point. It was with great geeky excitement that I started up Halo Wars. Also weighing on my mind was that this was to be Ensemble Studios’ last official production. They have been a big part of my PC-gaming enjoyment over the last twelve years with their Age of Empires series and I thank them for their efforts, talent, as well as the many hours of entertainment they have provided me.

Marty O’Donnell’s Halo Wars theme begins with the loading of the menu system, setting the perfect mood for the game to come. After taking a couple minutes to admire his musical mastery and how his themes have become so synonymous with the Halo series, I started a new campaign.

This brings me to the game’s CGI cutscenes. They are simply breathtaking. These cutscenes are so good at telling the game’s story in between most missions that if a Halo movie could not be made in ‘real life’ a CGI version from Blur Studios would suffice just as well, if not more so, given the capabilities of what is physically possible on regular film. Halo Wars’ voice actors all do great jobs in bringing their characters to life and never seem wooden or half-hearted. Believable acting is key in these kinds of story-driven cutscenes and a failure here in casting could have ruined the fourth wall entirely.

Playing the game is a very enjoyable experience and combat is fairly well-balanced to the Halo universe. Unlike most RTS titles, Halo Wars is not really ‘balanced’ with both sides being equal in capability. In the Halo universe, especially twenty years before the events of the Halo video game when Halo Wars takes place, humanity’s technology is simply not as good as the Covenant’s. While playing UNSC forces, you will have to make good use of cover and the unit-balancing trifecta: Infantry has bonuses over Air Units, Air Units have bonuses over Vehicles, and Vehicles have bonuses over Infantry. Even though your units, overall, are not as advanced as Covenant forces, by remembering those three rules you will maximize your combat effectiveness. It is said that one marine squad in a covered position is as effective as three uncovered marine squads, so plan accordingly. Covered positions are usually scattered throughout most maps and provide the player the ability to create choke points and defensive sectors.

Units often times have a special attack which, after recharging, can be activated by pressing the ‘Y’ button on a target. Be warned though that if you have a whole group of multiple unit types under your control when pressing ‘Y’, they will all attempt to use their special abilities even if they are designed for opposite purposes, e.g. one unit in the group tries to hijack an enemy target while another attempts to barrage it with missiles.

Thankfully, SPARTAN units are not the entire focus of the game. These legendary warriors are brought into the campaign in epic fashion and are used like a fine spice in a very complex meal. Too much and they would lose their potency as the gamer would get desensitized to them while not having SPARTANs  enough would just displease too many fans entirely. Ensemble has balanced this nicely and you will find yourself always welcoming Group Omega, even yelling at them by their individual names, sometimes… When no one else nearby is in range to hear you.

Resources do not have to be gathered in the traditional sense, and are instead generated by Supply Pads that you build at your bases. Once built, the Spirit of Fire will happily begin sending down supply drops for your constructing enjoyment. Bases in Halo Wars are similar in usage to those found in the Battle for Middle Earth games. Once created, there are a set number of places for you to build things on. Some spaces are only good for turrets while others are only used for buildings. These structures run the gamut from unit-production to some that exist solely to upgrade your armies and bases.

Since the max population points of your side begins at 30 (upgradeable slightly later on in the game), and some units take up multiple population points, you may find that you do not have enough forces in reserve to act as base defense. For the most part, this is not too much of an issue as, once upgraded to the ‘heavy’ variety, your base’s four turrets will handle just about anything that reaches them. You can even specialize the turrets, giving them bonuses in attacking vehicles, air units, or infantry.

When we saw the controls demonstrated at this year’s CES in Las Vegas, I was impressed at how user-friendly they seemed. After having more in-depth play sessions with them, I can say they are the best RTS controls we have ever seen on a console. However, they are still sluggish when compared to a good ol’ keyboard and mouse. On a PC real-time strategy games you can usually assign groups of units into hot-keyed squads for easier selection while the fine-motor skills involved in using a mouse allow for much more precise targeting. Selecting individual units within Halo Wars, especially when the action starts intensifying can be a real challenge. Halo Wars will allow you to cycle through the types of units you have within a selected army by pressing the right trigger. This will definitely help you in your tactics but does not take the place of dedicated squad-creation. I digress…

Ensemble has added a great feature to the controls in the way of reticular tracking. By moving your reticule over a unit for a split second, it will ‘grab’ onto it, dragging the camera around with it. This is a very clever way to track your armies en route to a target without having to constantly maneuver your camera view.

Graphically, Halo Wars is a treat for the eyes and combat comes to life with vibrant weapons effects, detailed unit models, and passionate battle cries. There are some sound effects which seem to be recycled quite a bit in gameplay, especially when selecting multiple units with the right and left bumper keys (which select local and all units, respectively). The previously talked about CGI cutscenes often use unit models from the game, albeit their higher polygon count progenitors. The unit models in the game, while still nicely-detailed, obviously have level of detail settings applied to them at various distances to maximize game performance.

There were a few occasions when we found ourselves getting very frustrated with Halo Wars’ missions. There are a scattering of them that feature a countdown timer or some repetitive gimmick that takes quite a while to accomplish with no end in sight. Even worse is that sometimes a countdown timer or gimmick will appear X number minutes into the mission when you have already built up your forces in a certain configuration that proves to be ineffective given the time remaining or task assigned. Due to our review agreement with Microsoft we can’t say specifically what these missions are, suffice it to say that you will know it when you get to them. Stay the course, gamers, and you will not be disappointed in the end.

A feature we are having a blast with is the ‘Halo Timeline’. In this area of the game menu, you can browse the entire recent history of the Halo universe chronicled in the various games and books. These events are laid out in linear fashion, with many being concealed until you unlock them by finding ‘black box’ and ‘skull’ resources during missions. You will have to play the game through all the difficulty settings as well as complete all optional objectives to get all of them though.

Being that Ensemble Studios were masters at online features thanks to their years of PC-development, Halo Wars is privy to all the online modes you could ask for. Along with these online modes, the player can even choose to create offline skirmish games against AI opponents/allies to hone their skills. I had to laugh when I saw that one of the multiplayer/skirmish maps available was named ‘Blood Gulch’! It looks so much different from on high. In non-single player modes, you can chose to have a specific leader from each side lead your side. Depending on the leader you chose, you will be granted different sets of ‘leader abilities’. For instance, choosing Capt. Cutter will allow you to fire MAC rounds at targets while Sgt. Forge will enable you to drop special ‘Grizzly’ main battle tanks on the field.

Overall, Halo Wars is everything a real-time strategy game should be: Fun, easy to pickup, and hard to put down. It is not only a great time for RTS fans, but also hardcore Halo fans as well. With the relatively few issues I encountered while playing, Halo Wars is really the best console RTS to date. I only wish there was a PC version available so I could really crank up the graphical effects and resolution to see what it would look like.

Halo Wars is set to ship to North American stores on March 3rd.

Fallout 3: Operation Anchorage Review

After delving into the large open-world of Fallout 3 playing in a smaller, simulated encounter seems bit claustrophobic. You see, while the player gets to take an integral role in the Battle for Anchorage, it is done in a computer simulation with some strict barriers. We downloaded the expansion pack via the new Games for Windows client. The process went very smoothly and we hope this is just the start of a true PC analog to the Xbox LIVE Marketplace. After the download was complete it detected the base game and automatically installed it. We started Fallout 3 up, signed into our Games for Windows LIVE account and began playing.

Getting to the new content of Operation Anchorage is fairly simple. Upon entering the D.C. Wastes you will receive a new radio station to listen to. This radio signal is basically an emergency transmission from a group of Brotherhood of Steel Outcasts calling for reinforcements. A new location will appear on your world map (although you will not be able to fast-travel there until after your first visit. Stumbling upon a group of Outcast members on the way to the location, you accompany them as they fight through a band of Super Mutants blocking the way. Once to the Outcast’s base, you find that they have stumbled upon a cache of advance technology that can only be unlocked by completing a computer simulation of the Battle of Anchorage. This historic battle is where the US Army forced back Chinese invaders prior to the nuclear exchange which effectively ends life as we know it. Due to your Pip-Boy 3000’s capabilities, you seem to be the Outcasts best chance at finishing it. In return, they promise you all the advanced tech you can carry.

Which brings us to the sim itself. The landscape of Anchorage, Alaska is sufficiently bleak with snow and high-winds racing through the land. Once you complete the opening bits of combat and setup, you will make it to the US base in the region. Your mission is to lead a strike team to three different locations before you clear the way for a big T-51b power armor-equipped push towards the Chinese base. Health and ammo will be given via stations scattered throughout your path, while enemy corpses and items just vanish into thin air with a transporter-like blue energy. As this is a simulation, you are not able to loot anything in the normal manner. Also among the war-torn tundra, you will find ten scattered pieces of intelligence in the form of briefcases which, when collected, give you the new Covert Ops trait.

The Chinese soldiers come in two main flavors: stealth suited and not. The Chinese regulars carry assault rifles and sniper rifles while the stealth-suited ‘Crimson Dragoon’ troops can become invisible ala the Predator and carry a variety of weapons. These stealth troops are a neat new foe to fight and present the player with a challenge not seen in the base game, namely: fighting nearly-invisible bad guys.

My biggest complaint with this DLC pack is that when you finally reach the Chinese base, the story is abruptly stopped after a small, final bit of fighting. It feels extremely jarring and anti-climactic as you are yanked out of the simulation and back into the present. Perhaps this was Bethsoft’s design, I do not know. Thankfully, not all of the story feels so jarring. During the course of the missions, you recover several holodisks featuring some personal stories from the battle which helps set the tone of what you are re-enacting. Also, I would have like to have seen a larger number of enemies throughout the operation. For one of the largest battles in US history, it feels a bit too empty and, frankly, easy. I was able to get through the entire thing at level ten without too much trouble.

After the sim is completed, you are able to open the locked door to the advanced tech room and you will be able to loot pretty much everything in it. You will be able to pick up the new Gauss Rifle, stealth suit, and electrified sword to name a few items.

Is this DLC pack worth picking up? For 800 Microsoft points, or roughly $10 dollars, sure. While the pack does not feature any one thing that you will not be able to live without, it does offer a few nifty technologies as well as a relatively fun diversion during its short duration. Plus, it gives gamers a chance to continue supporting the developer, hopefully paving the way to their development of a full-fledged sequel. Let’s just hope that Bethsoft learns from our criticism about Operation Anchorage and gives us a bit more to chew on with ‘The Pitt’ and ‘Broken Steel’, which are due out sometime in February or March.

Fallout 3 Official Site

Creative Vado HD Review

With the decreasing cost of parts, pocket camcorders have been all the rage in the last couple years. Creative has been a late entry to the market and did so with their well-received Vado, which featured 640×480 resolution as well as 2GB of internal memory. However their newest camera, the Vado HD, completely surpasses their previous offering with 720p resolution, 8GB of internal memory, and a huge helping of sweetness.

When talking about the Vado HD’s design, it is important to get a sense of scale for the device, which lists its official measurements as 3.9” x 2.2” x 0.6”. Seems fairly small, but I like pictures so take a look at the following pic which helps give a better sense than those numbers.

As you can see, the camera is very small, well-enough so that it can easily fit in your pocket staying true to the ‘pocket camera’ moniker. The layout of the camera’s controls is fairly standard and should not confuse anyone who has used a pocket camera. The 2” LCD screen is vibrant, capable of displaying up to 16 million colors and below this you will find the five-way control pad as well as play/pause and delete buttons. The five-way control pad allows you to turn volume up and down when reviewing a movie with the up and down directions (or controlling the digital zoom while in recording mode) and the left and right directions control video selection in playback mode. Speaking of playback: You can easily navigate and review the videos you have shot on the Vado HD thanks to its onboard screen and controls. Deleting videos is done by clicking the delete button once to initiate the deletion and a second time to confirm it. The center button starts and stops video recording. Along the sides of the Vado HD, you will find an HDMI output, audio output, power button, and lanyard loop.

Along the bottom of the Vado HD you will find one of its best features: a nested, flexible USB dongle. Some pocket cameras out there use a rigid pylon of a USB connector, but this is unstable and feels awkward when connecting to a PC. With the flexible dongle, it is very easy to attach and remove to your nearest hub or PC. And because it nests itself within the camera when not extended, it won’t get in your way while handling the camera.

The software is a snap to install, and goes with the Vado HD wherever you take it as it lies in the internal memory of the camera. Plug the Vado HD in, hit the ‘okay’ button to run the Vado Central software and off you go. All of your videos stored on the camera will appear in a nifty UI for your perusal and uploading (it even allows a bit of video editing). Notice that on the upper-right corner of the UI you will see buttons labeled with popular video sites like YouTube. By clicking on one of them it will ask you for your account info and allow you to upload any of the videos from your camera in a couple easy steps. You can take a look at the UI in this next image, but know we have shrunken it down to fit the article window – it will be bigger on your desktop.

Creative even saw fit to include a silicon skin protective case, HDMI cable, and USB extension cable to help you connect to those hard-to-reach ports. The aforementioned HDMI output will allow you to send up to 1080i out to your television screen should it accept the cable type, of course.

Using the Vado HD in real-life situations is a breeze as well, as it features a tripod mount on the bottom of the camera to make it easy to use by yourself. Also, beginning to record a video is as easy as hitting the power button, waiting through the short boot up sequence, and then pressing the center button. This lack of complexity makes it a great choice for those moments when you need to record something right away. You get into a fender bender and need to record automobile damages? Whip that sucker out and start recording!

The 3x digital zoom, while not as good as an optical zoom, does a nice enough job thanks to the camera’s overall 720p resolution. There is really no pixelation worth mentioning in the process. Creative was smart in limiting the digital zoom to 3x, as many times when you start getting past that in cameras you notice all sorts of artifacting as the camera’s internal logic tries to compensate for the lack of image information.

Unfortunately, the Creative Vado HD does have a couple things I would like to see improved upon. The first thing is that there is no 3.5mm audio input jack. While the onboard microphone works for general usage, if I wanted to take the unit to a convention or some other noisy place, it would be nice to couple the great video quality with a more directed audio source such as an external microphone. If an audio input existed on the camera, the Vado HD could easily replace our standard HG-10 for use at such events. The second point of contention I have with the Vado HD is that there is no flash memory slot to expand the storage capacity past its internal 8GB. While you get about two hours of recording time with the internal memory, that can fill up fast if you don’t off-load it over the course of a day or two.

Aside from these issues, Creative’s Vado HD is the only pocket camera I would recommend at the time of this writing. The Flip Mino HD still has their clumsy, rigid USB pylon while also only allowing an hour of recording time. Meanwhile, the Kodak Zi6 has a larger form factor and is, IMHO, not as ‘sexy’ of a camera. For $229 dollars at Creative’s website, you can’t go wrong with their new Vado HD. Whether it be to record video podcasts, quick on-the-spot segments, or even industry happenings, the Vado HD is an excellent choice that gives you most of the full-fledged HD camcorder benefits in a much more economical package.

Vado HD Product Page

*Note to the reader:
We actually prepared a test video of the Vado HD for your viewing enjoyment, but realized that in the bright, Sunny Southern California scenery you probably would not be that impressed. We found a video in HD on YouTube, however, which showed some night driving around Japan that we thought was cool for you to take a look at. Check it out here, but we warn you that the filmmaker has added a strange soundtrack. So, click ‘Watch in HD’ on the page and turn down that audio to fully-enjoy the video quality of the Vado HD in night time conditions.

Ultimate Gaming Chair – Reactor Review

Ultimate Gaming Chair products have grown more and more popular in recent years thanks to more mainstream media coverage. In response to the demand for gaming furniture, more and more companies have thrown their hat into the very niche market. Some do it with bean bags, others with low-quality rocking chairs. UGC, however, is the grand daddy of gaming chair makers and you can usually find premium quality in their wares. Thankfully, this is still the case with their Reactor gaming chair.

The Reactor is the lower-cost alternative to their premier model, the UGC ‘v3’. Costing $199 dollars, however, you can be sure that even though its price is not as great as its bigger brother’s $499 MSRP, the Reactor is made from some high-grade stuff. The chair comes shipped in two pieces, the chair back and the chair base. Setup is very simple, as you have to line up the chair back with rails sticking out of the chair base and push. Aside from the basic mechanics of it, you have to connect a couple cables between the two pieces as well, but this is a simple task that even an untrained capuchin with a hangover could figure out. After that, simply plug in the power adapter and your audio input(s). Boom, done.

One thing I loved about the Reactor is that it is not a rocker-style chair. This is a fully-elevated chair that wont break your back every time you try to get out of it. Another benefit to the standard elevated chair design is that you won’t be craning your neck to see the television. The Reactor comes built-in with audio in and out ports as well as a headphone jack. On the same panel as these inputs you will find controls for the vibration motors as well as the chair’s volume knob. The Reactor is equipped with 2.1 channel audio that includes special vibrating motors attached to various points along the chair. These transducers create vibration from base noise which is sent to the chair. You can even use the chair as a massager without playing anything which is a great feature to have. In using it like that however, it makes you wish the chair could recline.

One feature we wish would have made it on the Reactor are armrests. On the higher-end UGC v3 they are prominently featured, but with the Reactor, they chose an open-arm design. While this works with the smaller overall profile of the Reactor in comparison to the v3, it does reduce comfort slightly especially while watching them moving pictures all the kids are talking about.

The sound quality of the Reactor is good overall, but we noted that at higher volumes, the audio would become a bit distorted, although the eight chair-shaking vibration motors do a great job of helping immerse you in the game by helping to make sounds ‘feel’ more powerful then the current volume is set at. Another nice feature is that if you are looking for a quieter experience, you can plug in some headphones and enjoy the chair’s comfort while at the same time playing stealthily.

The Reactor also makes for great party seating, as witnessed at a recent office party with twenty people or so. The chair became the must-sit on piece of furniture in the room. People were talking about it all over the place. So, if you are looking for a solid gaming chair that is a cut above the rest but still not in the completely bank-breaking high end chairs out there you should seriously check out the Reactor. It is available now from Ultimate Gaming Chair for $199 dollars.

Product Page

Demon’s Souls Trailer Shows off Gameplay and Atmosphere

Don’t get me wrong, the third-person fantasy RPG has been done before, but Demon’s Soul look sufficiently atmospheric enough to be entertaining. Under development by From Software and being published by SCE Japan, Demon’s Souls is setting up for a Japanese release on the PS3 this year. There is no word yet on a North American or European release but, as with all things, patience is a virtue.

Defense Grid: The Awakening Review

Hidden Path Entertainment has released their highly-anticipated tower defense game, Defense Grid: The Awakening. For those of you unfamiliar with tower defense titles, they generally put you in charge of placing defenses along a predefined route on which enemy ‘creeps’ will attempt to pass by in an effort to attack your home base. These started quite a while ago but in recent years have become extremely popular as casual web titles. Defense Grid raises the bar, however.

While keeping the same tried-and-true tower defense gameplay, it boasts vibrant and well-detailed 3d graphics, which is something that cannot be said about most other TD games. In addition, it features an evolving storyline over its campaign which adds a much-needed narrative to what is going on. Finished, a level can be played from other modes such as sandbox-games, etc which allows for quite a bit of replayability as you try out different tower combinations.

Speaking of towers. In Defense Grid, you will find a vast assortment of tower-type, from basic machine gun turrets all the way to unguided artillery pieces. Each can be upgraded and look sufficiently different in each level of capability as well which is a nice touch. Effects are well done with vivid explosions and other weapon effects. All of these options in terms of which towers to place where creates a big dilemma for the budding player: what to put where? Certain towers play better off one another, such as starting off with a slowing ‘temporal tower’ followed by some area-effect ‘inferno’ fire towers. By learning what each tower does and planning accordingly, your wins will be far more elegant and brilliant to watch unfold.

Creeps are of the anime ‘mecha’ variety and, while not as well-detailed as the environments or turrets, do their jobs nicely. There are light, medium, and heavy creeps to deal with. Some even have shields which are harder to break through. Then there are the air units, which do not always travel on the same path as their terra firma-rooted brethren. All of this makes for a brilliant display of action on the screen as you are not always watching the same creep go by a thousand times in a row.

Available off the Steam digital distribution service for $19.99 (with a current 2008 Holiday sale for $14.99), it would be a shame to pass up this engaging and addictive game. Defense Grid: The Awakening is truly the best tower defense game to date and I hope Hidden Path has plans to go further in the genre as they truly have a knack for it and we just can’t wait to see what they have in store for a sequel.

Official Site

Bigfoot Networks Killer M1 NIC Review

Bigfoot Networks has always held a certain place of mystery in my brain. I never truly thought that their line of ‘Killer’ NICs would be capable of living up to the hype surrounding them. In an age where just about everything has a ‘*PU’ of its own (CPU, GPU, SPU…) now we have to worry about an ‘NPU’ (Network Processing Unit). ‘Just perfect’, I thought. Finally, I got the chance to play with their flagship NIC, the ‘M1’, and have been thoroughly and excitedly wrong about my previous misgivings. This review should shed a bit more light on my change of heart.

Tech Specs:

The M1 is almost identical to its ‘little’ brother, the K1, with the biggest exception being the M1’s very cool K-shaped heatsink. The thing looks like some sort of ninja weapon. Thankfully, the heatsink is fully-secured to the board so those of you with an inkling to throw it at deserving individuals will be denied from doing so. On the back of the Killer M1, you will find the standard LAN port as well as a USB port. Yup, you heard right, there is a USB port on the NIC. Why? Well one of the coolest features of the Killer M1 is its use of FNA applications.

FNA Applications:
FNA stands for ‘Flexible Network Architecture’ and represents a novel idea in network interface cards. Essentially, the Killer M1 is a small Linux-driven computer inside your computer. This small computer acts as a gateway from your PC to the network sure but with ‘FNApps’, as they are called, you can put this small computer to work handling various tasks without taxing your system’s standard hardware. Unfortunately, there are not too many FNApps out yet, but we hope this will change. Thankfully, what FNApps do exist are pretty cool. For instance, the FNA Torrent application allows you to download torrent streams onto a USB drive (attached to the port on the NIC). FNA Voice is a hardware-accelerated voice streaming program and FNA Firewall is, well, a firewall app. Using the Killer M1 as a firewall is an extremely smart idea as it can detect and deny attacks before they reach your PC’s bus.

Physically installing the Killer M1 is simple, being really no different than any other PC card. Simply insert it in a PCI slot and boot up your PC. Install the software and you will be good to go. It is that easy and we must applaud Bigfoot Networks for such a simple, yet functional set of configuration programs. Handling the FNApps is equally simple, and adds a ton of value to this card, especially for those of your who like to use torrent programs while gaming. The following is a screen capture from the main Killer Configuration app. As you can see, it is a strictly no-frills piece of software that does not confuse or barrage you with needless information. This is indicative of all the FNApps’ software as well. They have really kept things simple and efficient for the best user experience possible.

The Killer M1 NIC takes control of the Windows network stack and increases the speed at which the NIC looks at incoming UDP (User Datagram Protocol) packets which, incidentally, is what most high-performance online games use. This is opposed to TCP (Transmission Control Protocol) packets which require acknowledgement packets to be sent back to the sender and a lot more overhead in general. In that respect, using the Killer M1 won’t make too much of a difference when sending and receiving TCP packets, as the algoritm for doing so is set in stone. With UDP applications and games you will definitely notice an improvement as the NIC offloads this processing from your PC’s CPU to its own 400mhz processor. This amount of processing power on the card is what enables it to not only mind your network, but also run its FNApps.

Bigfoot Networks touts that the Killer M1 will not only improve network ping, but should also increase my graphical frames per second as it takes on the responsibilities of the Windows network stack, freeing up the CPU to focus on the game at hand. They tout that in Age of Conan, tests have shown frames per second values to increase by up to 20fps. Also regarding Age of Conan, they claim ping improvements of up to 20ms. We thought we would focus our tests on this MMO from Funcom. Our test rig runs an AMD 6000+ 3.0Ghz Dual Core CPU with an Nvidia GTX 280 video card (stock clocking). Also on the test machine is 4GB of DDR2 800 RAM.

Our first run of the MMO without the Killer NIC installed (using the onboard Gigabit NIC) gave us an FPS rating of 38 and an average ping of 162ms. We then moved over to the Killer NIC instead of the onboard network adapter. This yielded us a frames per second rating of 45 and an average ping of 149ms. This represents an increase of 7 FPS and a decrease in ping of 13ms. Not an altogether stellar increase in visual performance but a respectable decrease in ping, especially in the fairly busy game-city of Tarantia.

Our our second run of the game, we moved over to an emptier zone on our server – the Lacheish Plains. This time, we rated values of 44 FPS and 159ms using the onboard NIC. With the Killer NIC, we received ratings of 57fps and 144ms. This is an increase of 13 FPS and a decrease of 15ms, a much better result

These two tests constitute an average ping decrease of 14ms and an average increase of 10 FPS in performance. To us, this test represents a success on the part of the Killer M1 NIC to provide a benefit to game performance, both on the graphical and network levels.

Bigfoot Networks’ Killer M1 network interface card provides a noticeable improvement in game performance, both from the standpoint of visual frames per second as well as lower amount of network ping. This fact, coupled with the promise and convenience of FNA applications and the added security of the NIC acting as a firewall makes it the perfect fit for that dedicated-gaming PC. Its price tag is hefty at $249 in most retail outlets, but if you can afford it we highly recommend it. We found it on sale at several web-based outlets for $209, so look sharp!