Wednesday, August 4, 2010

. . . MPCU -- Controllers & Sound

Modular PC Upgrade Series Part 3
(from the Cape Cod Times Digital Grind Column)

A Brief Foreword on this Series

This post is part of a multi-part series on the subject of Modular PC Ownership.

The system of Modular PC Ownership espoused in this series follows a green conservation approach to technology that is intended to reduce your individual carbon footprint, save you money, improve your computing satisfaction, and increase the value in many respects that you receive from your personal computer. Each posting on this blog has been created to support and enhance a related column published in the newspaper.

Today's posting supports the column: The right accessories make all the difference, which is the May 25th, 2010 Cape Cod Times Digital Grind Column.

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Table of Contents

Part 1: Speaking of MPCU -- Introduction
01: Preface
02: Introduction
03: The Economics of Modular Upgrading
04: Introduction Conclusion

Part 2: Speaking of MPCU - Keyboards
05: Introduction
06: Connectivity Options
07: Keyboards Conclusion

Part 3: Speaking of MPCU - Controllers & Sound
08: Introduction
09: Controllers
10: PC Sound
11: Controllers & Sound Conclusions

Part 4: Speaking of MPCU - Computer Cases
12: Introduction
13: What a Case Should Do
14: How to Begin Building your Foundation

Part 5: Speaking of MPCU - Power Supply Units (PSU's)
15: Introduction
16: Selecting a Power Supply
17: Quality vs. Cost

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Controllers & Sound

08: Introduction

This posting covers and expands upon Part II of the multi-part column series on the modular upgrades approach to personal computer ownership, "The right accessories make all the difference" in the Digital Grind Column (25 May 2010, Business & Technology Section, The Cape Cod Times) which covers Controller and Sound upgrades.

The first half of this part of the series addresses controller upgrades that expand the gaming capabilities of a system, while the second half addresses sound, and specifically personal sound choices. This article contains expanded information in addition to that covered in the newspaper, and additional choices in types of hardware under these subjects, and it serves as both a companion to the column and an expansion on the issues. Due to the limitations for print publication there is not always enough room to fully cover a subject and this blog series is meant to help address that limitation.

09: Game Controllers

Video game consoles like Microsoft's XBox 360 and Sony's PlayStation3 are a very popular choice for casual gamers, but most serious gamers still consider the PC to be the best platform, especially for games in the shooter and RPG genres and games with strong multi-player elements. When the subject is flight simulation, the PC is the only cookie in the jar when it comes to realistic simulations, hands down. A smaller percentage of gamers consider the PC to be superior for sports-based games as well, but regardless of what genres you prefer on the PC, the fact is that -- save for shooter games -- the PC mouse and keyboard are invariably the least enjoyable and effective method for play!

  • Controls: PC vs. Console
It was not that long ago that the PC was the only choice gamers had when it came to online multi-player gaming. Consoles like the Nintendo 64 and PlayStaiton1 had limited multi-player abilities largely restricted to split-screen play, which while fun, lacked the challenge, excitement level, and unpredictability that true multi-player online play brings to the table. It would be easy to simply ignore this history and immediately jump to the present state of tech, but doing that deprives us of some historical aspects that are key to understanding why the game controller is the magic solution for PC gamers -- so let us ponder the connection...

The first true online multi-player gaming console system to reach mainstream gaming was the Sega Dreamcast -- a console that was clearly before its time despite the fact that it had a production run that lasted from its introduction in 1998 to 2001. When we say that the Dreamcast was "before its time" what we are really saying is that it was a concept that was not viable due largely to connectivity speed restrictions, and not flaws that were inherent to the gaming system itself.

The hardware in the Dreamcast was sufficiently powerful enough to provide an engaging and enjoyable game-play environment, and the inclusion of a modem to permit it to support online gaming was a great idea, but it came at a point when broadband was still an idea and not a reality for 99% of the gaming public.

In 1998 online or multi-player gaming invariably involved a PC and an Ethernet connection to the Internet, not a modem, and the gamble that Sega made turned out to be winnable, just not for Sega. Most gamers are not aware of this, but Sega was not the only company that equipped their console with a modem -- Nintendo released a modem adapter and later an Ethernet adapter for its GameCube console, but these, like Sega's modem, simply never caught on.

It wasn't until the pairing of the 56K modem and Sony's PlayStation2 (and later the PS2 Ethernet adapter) that allowed online multi-player gaming to be successful on the games console, with Square Enix's Final Fantasy XI cementing the future of that console gaming style. Once the average connection speed to the Internet reached 56K online multi-player gaming and MMO gaming became sustainable on consoles, an advent that shaped the nature of the generations of games and the consoles that followed.

Microsoft's Live Network for the original XBox, and later the expanded XBox Live for the XBox 360 set the standard for what it meant to be "online" with respect to consoles, and Sony's PlayStationNetwork (PSN) followed in that path, providing a similar gateway for online multi-player gaming that remains popular today.

Even with these changing interfaces and the evolution of what online gaming means, with each generation of console there were certain aspects that remained a set standard, starting with the game controller.

Regardless of the manufacturer and model (until the Wii arrived on the scene) game controllers were very similar in layout and design, allowing gamers to quickly master game controls no matter what console they were playing on. Whether your controller came with your console, or you purchased it from a third-party manufacturer, it included dual joysticks, a D-Pad, four primary buttons, and some type of trigger buttons on the front, all of which were part of the standardized controls used by every video game.

The full-motion controls of the Wii created a fork in the controller road, but as far as gamers were concerned that fork applied only to the Wii, as the XBox 360 and PS3 continued to use the traditional style, and a traditional controller could also be bought for the Wii... This goes a long way towards explaining both why the game controller for the PC follows that layout, and why most serious gamers consider having a game controller (also known as a Game Pad) as a required PC peripheral device.

  • Game Port vs. USB
Prior to the invention of the Universal Serial Bus (USB) most game controllers used the PC Game Port -- a 15-pin D-shaped plug that was either built into the motherboard (after 1994) or more likely part of the sound card (from 1990 onwards). Up until the release of Microsoft Windows Vista, most computers included a Game Port, and early on this port was used for joysticks, some flight controllers, racing wheels, and early game pads, but the invention of the USB port standardized connectivity and expanded the capabilities for add-on controllers, allowing them to preform many more functions with a single connection!

Unlike the digital connection of the USB port, the Game Port was an analogue connection, which limited its capabilities considerably, with its most obvious and annoying weakness being that devices connected to it had to be calibrated frequently in order to maintain their accuracy. With analogue joysticks and early game controllers this often meant calibrating the device to work with the OS every time it was plugged in, and in many cases, required the additional step of calibrating the devices for each individual game each time the game was loaded as well.

When Microsoft released its Windows XP version, regardless of the type of connection, game controllers only had to be calibrated when they were first plugged in to the system, and then re-calibrated if they were removed and re-plugged in, as the OS passed the calibration data to the games and programs that you ran. Modern USB-based controllers use a self-calibration system which takes place automatically and usually does not require any user interaction, save for more complex joystick and flight-control units, which still require manual calibration by the user.

  • Selecting a PC Game Pad
Other than minor variations in features, most PC game pads are similar in their function and their capabilities, providing a predictable set of features and function. Unless you have an older PC or notebook computer, chances are you do not have a Game Port, so you should be looking for a USB-based controller.

If you own an older flight control system, game pad, or joystick that uses the 15-pin Game Port all is not lost -- you can pick up a Game Port to USB conversion kit at most games retailers and online for around $8 that allows you to use your older controller on newer systems!

Deciding on a game pad or controller for your system can be a complex task as there is a wide variety of devices to choose from, so concentrating on the better engineered and feature rich models is the way to go. For most gamers, that means one of the following:

  • Saitek Cyborg Rumble Pad
An exception to the rule above is the Cyborg Rumble Pad (formerly called the Saitek PS2700 Rumble Pad) that was featured in the column.

The Cyborg Rumble Pad has a number of unique features, most notably a reversible D-Pad and left joystick (called the Cyborg Module), and is compatible with both the XBox 360 and PC, allowing for its native use in Games for Windows Live as well as Games for XBox Live. The Cyborg Module allows the gamer to configure the game pad with the D-Pad above the left joystick, which is the default location for the XBox Game Pad, or with the D-Pad below the left joystick, which is the default location for PlayStation controllers.

The Cyborg Rumble Pad features force feedback and vibration effects (hence the name "Rumble Pad") which are a common feature on console game pads, and when it is used on the PC, allows the gamer to program any part of the controller for specific keyboard or mouse commands, allowing it to be used for games that do not normally use game pads through the included software for Windows.

  • XBox 360 Game Pad
When the game being played is branded with the "Games for Windows Live" logo that means it is fully compatible with both the wired and the wireless Xbox 360 controller. If you already own an XBox 360 with a wired controller, you can plug that into a USB slot on your PC and use it to play your game -- if you have a wireless controller, the simple addition of the XBox 360 Play and Charge Kit (a NiMH battery pack and long cable that allows you to connect the standard wireless 360 controller to the USB port on the front of your XBox 360 and play while it charges).

  • Logitech RumblePad 2 Vibration Feedback Gamepad
Available in two versions -- the Rumblepad 2 and the Cordless Rumblepad 2 -- this well-engineered gamepad has a solid feel to it. Configured with the D-Pad above the left joystick, the Rumblepad 2 contains two vibration feedback motors in it, and comes with software that allows the player to custom configure the buttons and to load pre-set profiles for popular games provided by the manufacturer.

The wireless (cordless) version of the Rumblepad 2 is compatible with the Logitech Unifying Receiver System (LURS), so if you already have a wireless mouse or keyboard from Logitech you may already be using this technology. LURS consists of a very small low-profile USB receiver that plugs into a convenient USB port (on notebooks you can leave the receiver plugged in even when you transport your system), and allows up to six compatible wireless devices, which means you do not have to worry about having enough USB slots on your computer!

  • Thrustmaster Ferrari Wireless Gamepad 430 Scuderia Limited Edition
If you are looking to make a style statement as well as obtain the edge of a PC Gamepad, the Scuderia from Thrustmaster may just be the way to go! This numbered and custom-painted limited edition gamepad includes an optical wheel with auto-centering for precise driving control in its standard layout. Connecting via the 2.4GHz wireless spectrum, the controller features fully customizable and programmable controls with built-in mapping, presets, and platform-independent internal memory, and it works with both the PC and the PS3, which means you can get double-duty out of it. Priced at just $40 SMRP, the Scuderia is a limited edition unit, so if you want one it might be an idea to get it soon!

  • Other Controllers
Fans of flying games, flight simulators, and flying combat games will want to add a joystick or flight control system to their PC, and thankfully there are almost as many to choose from as there are gamepads!

Selecting the right controller means looking for the options that you want, and the price you can accept -- but even if you are on a tight budget there are still quite a few high-quality units to choose from:

  • Thrustmaster T.Flight Stick X
For under $30 you can obtain a T.Flight Stick X from Thrustmaster that is fully programmable and can be used on both the PC and the PS3! This 12-button 4-axis controller has default configurations for Microsoft Flight Simulator X, UbiSoft's Blazing Angels and Tom Clancy's HAWX, and IL-2 Sturmovik from 505 Games to name a few. ITs plug-and-play design includes a sliding throttle and air-brake for realistic civilian airliner flight, and its protected internal memory allows you to store all of your configurations even when the joystick is unplugged from the computer.

  • Mad Catz X52 Flight Control System
Featuring a separate joystick and throttle control segment, the X52 adds a level of realism to flight simulation normally only found on more expensive control systems. At just $89 this controller offers features commonly found on controllers in the $200 plus range, including illuminated buttons, a multi-function display, 3 toggle switches for up to 6 programmable flight commands, and a mode selector switch with LED indicators. The joystick features all of the standard buttons and the throttle quadrant a scroll wheel, two throttle controls, and detents for afterburner and idle settings.

  • Saitek Pro Flight Yoke
The Saitek Pro Flight Yoke System features a stainless steel shaft, ergonomic controls, integrated chronograph and a separate throttle quadrant providing a smooth and accurate interface for realistic flying simulation. Priced at just under $130 this unit includes a built-in USB 2.0 Hub in case you want to add additional instrument displays, and is compatible with XP, Vista, and Windows 7!

10: PC Sound

When the topic of PC Audio is raised chances are that the conversation is about speakers and sound systems (a topic that will be covered in-depth in a later part of this series), and not the subject of Personal Audio, yet most PC owners prefer to listen to music as a solo activity. Add in the increasingly popular voice-over-IP (VoIP) programs that allow PC users to make and receive phone calls all over the world for free or at very low cost, and a high-quality headset and microphone are on the must-have list for PC upgrades!

As obvious as that may be, finding a headset and mic combo that will last through more than six months of moderate use can be a very challenging experience! If you read the column you will note that I used to consider any set that lasted more than six months to be a pretty darned good deal -- the exact quote is:

"Over the course of the past decade I have owned — and replaced — more than a dozen headset and microphone units as they broke or wore out, believing that six months was a good lifespan for that type of device."

I held that belief until I received a pair made by Sennheiser as a gift on Christmas Day 2008 -- a headphones and mic set that I still have and use today! Having evaluated a large selection of products from a dozen different manufacturers I am prepared to say that in this area of tech you really do get what you pay for, which means that paying extra for better quality is both necessary and a good idea.

Consider that the average cost of a set with reasonable quality can run between $45 and $75 and still only last through 6-months of moderate use, and you get an annual cost of $90 at the low end and $150 at the high!

  • Sennheiser PC350
Sennheiser's PC350 model has an MSRP of $229.95 and offers the user noise-isolating earcups, a noise-canceling microphone, and is fully compatible with Skype and other VoIP software just as a starting point. Factor in that they are compatible with Microsoft's XBox 360 (but that requires a third party adapter), feature a 9.8 foot cable with 3.5mm plugs that will fit the standard ports on any PC or notebook, and support directional sound data, and what you have is what I see as the perfect combo.

Whether using them for gaming, making VoIP calls, or listening to music, the PC350 delivers a strong and high-quality experience. In Modern Warfare 2 I was able to detect the direction of footsteps and give-away sounds allowing me to be a much more effective sniper/SPEC OPS soldier, and when I listened to my MP3 collection it sounded like I was in the room with the symphony, not listening to an MP3 track on a computer. VoIP calls are crystal clear, and the noise-canceling mic allowed my voice -- and not the background noise in the room -- to be transmitted.

If you have the budget, this is the headset and mic combo that I recommend.

  • Sennheiser PC151
The PC151 stereo headset and mic combo delivers a high quality sound and voice experience for gaming, music, and VoIP for a price that is easily worked into your upgrade budget! With an MSRP of just $79.95, the PC151 offers similar features to the PC350, including a noise-canceling mic, adjustable microphone and headband, in-line volume control and mute, and the 3.5mm plugs that mean it will work with any PC or notebook computer.

The PC151 performance level is very good though it is not at the level of the PC350 set, and the materials used in the construction of the 151 are not the same grade or quality as that of the 350, but in the realm of budget-friendly headsets it has no equal!

11: Controllers & Sound Conclusion

Computers used for gaming tend to receive the most benefit from adding additional types of controllers, but that is not to say that only gaming rigs benefit from this. Users into digital graphic arts may find that adding a graphics pad and pointer add to their abilities in that department, and folks who find using the standard mouse in gaming or general computing may find a trackball or pointing wedge to be the ideal solution to that problem.

The focus for upgrades on this level is to add capabilities to your computer, and like keyboards, these are devices that ideally should outlast your present hardware configuration and carry forward with you to the next, and the next after that, a fact that justifies spending extra money on their acquisition.

When it comes to personal audio, it should be pretty obvious that obtaining high-quality and reliable kit is not easy. Sennheiser was the only company out of the dozen whose products I evaluated that reached the minimum level of quality that is required for me to be comfortable recommending them -- and that says a lot. There is nothing that I hate more than spending significant money on a product that lasts less than a year, let alone just five or six months.

Upgrades in these two categories can add immensely to both your computing satisfaction and the capabilities of your PC, but prior to making purchases in this category it is always a good idea to visit a store and try them out -- that way you know that what you have chosen is the right solution for you.

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CM Boots-Faubert is a freelance writer, author, and columnist. He writes the Digital Grind Column for the Cape Cod Times, and the Game On: Cape Cod Gaming Blog at the paper. He writes extensively on video games and gaming, both as a freelance journalist and as a walkthrough writer, reviewer, and previewer. His books include the soon to be published title Games Journalism 101, that discusses how to establish a career writing on video games, and his title in the Hand's On Series, Hand's On: Home Networking which is a complete guide targeted at the average PC user on how to design and build a home computer Ethernet network.

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