Tag Archives: Hardware

OLD SKOOL AV to HDMI Converter Review

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Well, a few weeks back I talked about the Elgato HD60 PRO PCI Express card I picked up and the fairly nice experience I’ve had with it. But as terrific as it is, it doesn’t feature legacy ports. If you’re like me, you’re not going to be content with only capturing footage, and screens from current consoles. You likely have a lot of older devices, and games knocking around that you want to hook up. You might want to stream these games. Or, maybe none of this describes you, and you simply want to hook up your old PlayStation to your new TV. But alas, that TV has nothing on it other than an HDMI input or two.

This is where you’re going to need an upscaling device. There is a slew of different upscalers to choose from. The most famous one being the Framemeister. Of course between the massive amount of features and the fact that it is no longer produced, it’s pretty expensive. It also isn’t something a lot of people necessarily need. Unless you have a lot of SCART compatible computers, consoles, and just have to go the extra expensive mile for clarity you can spend less.

PROS: It’s inexpensive! It does what it advertises!

CONS: There aren’t many advanced features.

BAH: Another device that doesn’t include an AC Adapter.

The Old Skool AV to HDMI converter can be had very cheaply. I only paid around $20 at a local small business for mine, and I went in completely skeptically. In my case, I needed something to temporarily use until I could get something a step up. Was I right to feel a bit cynical? A little bit of “Yes”, and a little bit of “No.”.

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For the money, the device does what it advertises for the most part. On the plus side, it’s compact. This makes it easy to store and keeps it out of the way at your desk. Or helps you reduce the size of your nest of wires behind the TV. When you open the package you’ll find the converter itself, a USB cable, and some documentation on how to connect it to your devices. On the converter, there is a switch to change the output between 720p or 1080p. Sadly, there’s no AC adapter to go on the end of the USB cable. If you’re using this with your TV, you’ll have to repurpose one you already own, or you’ll have to buy one.

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I tested the unit out with my Elgato HD60 PRO, and I had some mixed results. Generally, it worked as advertised. I was easily able to fire up my NES and play Rolling Thunder with ease. I noticed little to no difference between setting the device on either 720p or 1080p. Most of the other games I tried after worked fine as well, although some of the tricks programmers used with the tech of the time don’t display as they did on a modern TV.  For instance, when playing Batman: Return Of The Joker, Batman’s wave blaster projectiles would sometimes cut out of the image.

Nothing that makes the game unplayable, but something to be aware of. Some old games may have quirks that a low-end solution like this won’t solve. Another thing to be aware of is input lag. Some games like Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! are harder to beat on a modern TV because HDTVs have to convert the signal from analog to their digital displays with a built-in scaler. This process takes some time, and so games that require split-second timing will have a noticeable pause between the time you press a button, and seeing the results on the screen.

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Depending on the scaler in the TV this process can be any number of milliseconds. External upscalers can reduce this significantly by converting the signal before it even gets to the television. But it won’t eliminate the lag entirely. Even the best devices won’t eliminate all lag. How does the Old Skool do in this regard? Well depending on what you’re using there can be different results. On my capture card, I did notice a tiny amount on Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!. Not enough to make the game unbeatable, but definitely harder than when playing on an old CRT. On my 720P set, which has composite inputs, it did a little bit better than the set’s built-in scaler. At least in terms of lag. It fared better on the newer 4k set in the living room, but it was still noticeable.

That said, the majority of my old stuff worked just fine for the most part on everything I threw at it, on all three setups. However, one thing that is a little disappointing, is it cannot push a 4:3 aspect ratio. So everything will be stretched out to fill the screen. On my capture card, even selecting a “Do not stretch” option in the software wouldn’t put the aspect ratio in a standard 4:3, although I could go down to a 480p resolution. That made the image look a little bit muted, but didn’t perform much better than taking a 720p or 1080p option.

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On the TVs, I had to force a 4:3 option through their respective menus. Otherwise, the default was to simply let the box stretch everything to full screen. Going with the 1080p option did look the cleanest, and so that’s probably what you’ll want to use unless performance issues crop up on your specific set. In my case, I didn’t notice much in the way of artifacts, or bands in spite of the stretched image.  Putting it to a 4:3 aspect ratio through the TV menus did make it look a bit better.

In spite of the issues I’ve mentioned here, I can’t really say this is a bad product. For the low price, it does allow you to get most of your vintage consoles, DVD players, and VHS decks hooked up to a new TV or capture card. It has a respectable picture quality, and performance is pretty good for the most part. If you’re really just looking to play your Sega Genesis games, and you only have an HDTV with HDMI inputs this will fit the bill. You can also use this for entry-level streaming, or capturing game footage for a video project. It’s going to be a fine enough solution for the average person who wants to play their old games, or dip their toes into streaming said old games.

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But, if you’re somebody who is into speed running old games you may want something nicer, that reduces input lag further than this will. If you’re a competitive gamer the same may also hold true for you. Those who are deep into the hobby of old games might want something that can support more input options like S-Video, SCART, or even VGA. So that they can have the best possible image quality when playing their Sega Dreamcast on a modern TV. SCART is also ideal for anyone importing platforms from PAL territories, as it was a standard there, and some of those platforms never really made it to North America in a major way. If you’re interested in importing something like a ZX Spectrum or BBS Micro you’ll probably want a higher ended scaler that supports the standard.

Be that as it may, for a mere $20, even some of those better served by a higher ended solution may want to pick up the Old Skool as a stopgap measure. At the very least one can competently play their old games, or stream their old games with it until they can afford to buy a better solution. Some of the converters out there can become cost prohibitive.

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While it has its faults, and you can’t expect miracles in the tier it occupies, the Old Skool AV to HDMI converter gets the job done competently. You get what is advertised. Nothing more. Nothing less. if you’re an absolute perfectionist or someone who has to have better than average performance you’ll want to invest in something a bit better. For a lot of other folks out there, as long as you’re okay with a no-frills experience you’ll be happy with this device.

Final Score: 7 out of 10

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U Youse Gaming Headset Review

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So you’ve managed to pony up $700 for that new killer rig, or for that Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo console trifecta. Between that, and a few games to go along with the hardware, you suddenly realize something: You’re going to need a headset for those multiplayer games, or for streaming games on your Twitch or YouTube channel. But with the huge investment you’ve made, there isn’t enough left over to splurge on that awesome Sennheiser pair you’ve been eyeing. Hell, you don’t even have $40 for one of those respectable Turtle Beach sets you saw when you last visited a GameStop. What can you possibly do now?

PROS: It’s dirt cheap! It sounds good!

CONS: The build is also cheap. No Microphone volume dial.

MULTI-PLATFORM: The included Y cable means you can use it on computers too.

Well you can decide to dig through the garage for an old pair of tinny monaural headphones, and one of those old crusty wire microphones. But that’s probably not what you had in mind. There are also a slew of crappy, dollar store monaural headsets out there too. Heck, even some respectable ones exist, but they’ll often cost you $20-$30 at most big box stores. Not much less than a decent stereo headset.

But enter discount store Five Below. Everything the chain sells is five bucks or less, including headphones. And while you’d be right to be skeptical about the performance of any headset that a store charges so little for, The U Youse has some good things going for it. I know I’m going to sound crazy, but this is a viable option for anybody on an absolute shoestring budget.

For starters, it has some comfortable padded cups around the speakers. It’s adjustable. For such a budget device, it’s honestly on par with some of the stuff you’d pay four times as much for in a big box retailer. The speakers are actually pretty respectable. I’ve been able to hear game sound effects, and music clearly, and cleanly. When gaming, I’ve been able to hear other players fine through Discord, Steam Chat, and the in-game chat functions in many, many games. The microphone on it is halfway decent too. Other people can hear me fine, and I’ve even been able to stream with it.

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Of course, the old saying goes “You get what you pay for”, and that still holds true with this peripheral. You can’t come into this expecting miracles. The included Y cable is made very cheaply, and so you’ll have to be careful when attaching it to the headset. Depending on your computer, you may have to fidget with the jacks to get it to connect just right. Once you do, everything will be fine. But it is something to be mindful of.

Other things to be aware of is the fact that there is no volume dial for the microphone on the cord, nor is there a mute button. You’ll have to adjust the microphone volume through your computer or console’s sound settings. And while the headphones actually sound pretty good considering the low-cost, they don’t have a lot of bass. Or much in the way of treble. Again, don’t expect these things to hang with those Beats, or  Bose headphones you saw the last time you were in Best Buy. The plastic around the cups is also brittle. So be gentle when putting these on or taking them off.

But until you can save up some money for one of those higher tier solutions this can get you through. It’s also a terrific option for parents who can’t afford to drop a lot of money on a headset for their kids. Especially if they’re children susceptible to breaking headphones regularly. You can buy a few of them, and open one when someone trips over the cord or steps on one when it has been carelessly left on the floor. For those of us whom treat their electronics well, this is also a nice backup option. When your “Good” headset wears out, this is something you can use until you can afford to get a replacement set of equal performance.

While it might not be a terrific headset, it’s a cut above the cheap stuff you usually see in discount dollar stores. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how well it’s performed for me over the past month, and I can recommend it. Again, it isn’t going to set your world on fire, but if you find yourself in need of a new headset at a time where you have to be especially frugal the U Youse is a viable option. You can easily do worse. If you have a Five Below store in your area, you may want to pick one up.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

TeamGroup T-Force SSD Gaming Delta R RGB 1TB SSD Review

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As everyone knows, there are a wide variety of games you can play on your computer. Most of the games that show up on consoles from Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo. Well the ones not made by Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo. Most of them. Anyway, you also have a bunch of new releases exclusive to the computer. As well as your stockpile of retro computer games you load through your external floppy, and optical drives, then play through DOSBox. And that’s before you even get to the important stuff like doing paperwork, doing your taxes, budgeting your accounts through Quicken, editing your photos, and ripping your vinyl collection for convenience. After all, you don’t have the time to walk to the record player, there’s work to be done! Where was I?

Oh yes. Upgrades. Eventually, you’re going to run out of space, or you’ll have a drive go bad, or a new game won’t perform well on that mechanical hard disk you have. And much like other components in your desktop, you’ll need to add another one, or replace it with a working one. Enter the T-Force Gaming Delta R RGB SSD by TeamGroup. While the name sounds like a subtitle for a Kingdom Hearts game starring Mr. T, it isn’t. It’s actually one of the nicest Solid State Drives I’ve used. When I built my computer a few years ago now, SSD’s were just coming into form. They were expensive, and didn’t give you a lot of space. So I ended up with a lowly 250GB SSD for my OS with handful of important programs. As well as a 1TB mechanical hard drive for my video games, and storage. Along with an external drive or two for backups in case of crashes. (As an aside, everyone should have a couple of backup drives. Backup the backup. And cloud storage while convenient, can have a snafu. It’s nice to have a third tier in case Murphy’s Law occurs.)

PROS: VERY fast read/write speeds. Fancy lights for those who like flash.

CONS: Doesn’t include everything you’ll need.

T-FORCE: The name reminds me of the Mr. T cartoon.

Anyway, I was thankfully gifted this drive for Christmas by my Brother. Which was good in my case. Because it turned out a couple of games I had installed required updates that improved performance. However on older drive tech in an older computer these patches introduced micro-stuttering. So I ended up installing this in January. Nearly two months later this drive is trucking along very well. Not only did it give me enough space to carry over my games, and allow me to use the traditional hard disk mostly for storage, the performance in gaming was immediately noticeable. This is largely due to the 560MB read speeds, and 510MB write speeds. Most games, and everything else load nearly instantaneously, and this is on a PC running a 4th Gen i7 4770k. While not yet an antique, intel chips are on their 9th Generation now. So if I can see the benefits, those building new machines should give this consideration. In the newest titles I own, the micro-stuttering is gone. As of now, the folks at New World Interactive even recommend playing Insurgency Sandstorm on an SSD over an HD if you have an older machine. A Solid State Drive has become an ideal component for PC Gaming.

In the frills department, the Delta R features a set of LED’s inside that will shine a spectrum of rainbow colors out of your case. These are bright too. My case doesn’t feature a window, but it does have a mesh texture design in front. At night, the gleaming rainbow of colors pours out through the metal. For those with a windowed case, it’s a nice little feature, as it gives the computer a little bit of pizzaz. Still, do know if you buy this drive, it does require a USB 9 pin header on your motherboard. It comes with a cable for the LED lights, and if your motherboard doesn’t have the header you can’t plug it in.

 

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I only have one major complaint with the drive, other than the impossibly long name, and that is a lack of any essentials. This is something that many part manufacturers are starting to cut for cost, and it is annoying for anybody who has to install these parts. Be it a home user, or a professional. The drive doesn’t include any mounting screws. So you had better hope you have some left over from a previous upgrade or that you have an older device with comparable screws sitting broken in a storage closet. It also doesn’t include any SATA cables. So again, you’ll either need to order one when you order the drive, or hope you have one you can repurpose from an old broken desktop you may still have in the garage.

It’s less of an issue if you know this ahead of time, but it’s still something that can be grating. So just know, again if you pick this drive up, you’ll want to make sure you have mounting screws, and a SATA cable already. If not, you’ll have to buy them when you buy the drive. Installing the drive isn’t really all that difficult if you’re comfortable with doing your own upgrades. It requires three cables. Just make sure your motherboard has a 9 pin USB Header for the lights before buying it.

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Overall, though I’ve been really pleased with this one. It loads, and saves files insanely fast, performs well with any game I’ve installed on it, and it’s built to handle millions of read/write operations. These things have come a long way since their inception. Whether you’re building a new gaming rig, expanding storage in an existing computer, or replacing a drive that has worn out, the Delta R is a terrific option. It also has a 3 year limited warranty, so if it dies in that time they’ll give you a new or refurbished one to replace it with. Obviously that doesn’t do much for your data, but that’s why again, you should have multiple backups. But in closing, this is a terrific SSD. Storage might not be the most exciting aspect of a PC, but it is an important one. With it’s brisk speeds, large storage, and a dash of flash, it’s a winner. Even if it does have an unnecessarily long name.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Super NES Classic Edition Review

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Well, although I’m up, and around again I still haven’t been medically cleared to leave the home on my own, or return to employment yet. So what to do? What to do? Well, when you’re shut in between the rainy weather, and waiting to go in for your follow-up, there’s little you can do. So why not take inspiration from my good friend Peter, and open something some people wouldn’t?

PROS: Respectable build quality. Play Star Fox 2 legitimately!

CONS: Light on extra features. Cannot play Star Fox 2 right away.

SAVINGS: The unit has a number of games that cost a lot on the aftermarket.

To be fair I actually opened up this system a few weeks ago. I won mine at RetroWorld Expo 2018 thanks to the raffle held by the always great Super Retro Throwback Podcast. So do give them a listen, they do some terrific interviews, and discussion with a nice radio morning show feel. In any event, now that I’ve spent some more quality time with it, I figured I would give my impressions.

Now I know what you’re thinking: “Deviot, you’re so late to the party on this one. We know it’s pretty damned cool.” But that discounts the plethora of people who still don’t have one, as they were on the fence, or wanted to wait until they saw how the scalper phase went. (It went pretty fast. You can find these things everywhere now.) For those who were on the fence, you’re probably wondering about things like input lag, filters, or simply how well are these games emulated. All of which I’ll get to in due time.

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For the five people who don’t already know about the device, it’s the second of Nintendo’s all-in-one plug, and play consoles. Atari’s Flashback, and AtGames’ continuation of the series led to a slew of players in the market. And while AtGames hasn’t done so well with their emulated take on Sega consoles, their takeover of the Atari Flashback line went fairly well. From there they did an Intellivision plug, and play, a Colecovision plug, and play, along with others. Other companies jumped in, and so Nintendo capitalized on the craze by introducing the NES Classic. Which was infamously short-packed, and under-produced leading to the majority of them being scooped up by scalpers. Many thought the Super NES Classic would follow suit, but thankfully it hasn’t, and Nintendo re-released the NES version too. So you can pick either of these up now.

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The mini console comes in a box that is very reminiscent of the one the original Super NES came in, with a black background, and grey striping along with stylized lettering. The company did an excellent job of making geezers like me, remember what it was like when we finally got our hands on one back in 1991. Upon opening the kit, you’ll find a poster, and documentation packet. Obviously the mini Super NES control deck, a HDMI cable, a USB cable, a USB Power adapter, and two Super NES controller replicas.

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I have to say, I was really impressed with the build quality of the device. Granted, I know there isn’t much to it, as it’s mostly one resin plastic shell in the shape of a Super NES. Still, considering how the company could have opted to go with a flimsy, or brittle plastic to cut costs, they didn’t. It feels very much like the same build as an actual Super Nintendo Entertainment System. So kudos on the presentation. Note that when you actually want to use the thing, the front of the unit is actually a face plate that comes off. It’s tethered to a plastic ribbon so it doesn’t get lost. Behind the faceplate are your controller ports. These are the same ports that you’ll find on the Wiimote controllers for the Nintendo Wii. Which means that if you should ever lose, or break one of these Super NES replica controllers, you can use a Wii Classic controller. It also means that if you have a Wii, or a Wii U with Super NES games you’ve purchased on it, you can use the Super NES Classic’s controllers with those as well. With this in mind you might just want to get the spare controllers for the mini just to use on your Wii U if you find you own most of the included games on it on your Wii U already.

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As for the controllers, they feel exactly the same as the ones made for the Super NES back in the 1990’s. The same textured surface. The same glossy buttons. The attention to detail here is wonderful. If you sold or gave away your Super NES years ago, this will feel very familiar to you if you pick one up. It even has the same rubberized Select, and Start buttons. Some have derided the length of the cables, and, I’m not going to lie. They really could stand to be a bit longer. You can buy extension cables, but realistically most of us will have to sit closer to the TV like we did as teenagers.

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As for the interface it’s simplistic, but nice. There’s a brief setup where you pick your language, and then your thrust into the home screen. If you go poking around though, you will find an options menu. Here you can choose display options like the aspect ratio, filters, and borders. Really the sole filter is a CRT filter which emulates scan lines, and color bleeding. It’s okay if you really prefer the look of an old TV. There’s also the standard 4:3 that doesn’t have the filter, and then there’s pixel perfect, which basically makes the games 4:3, and crisper. But that also means you’ll see every last square that makes up every character, and background. It’s interesting because some games look completely fine, while others like Super Castlevania IV have a bit of inconsistency. My Brother who isn’t nearly as into game collecting as I am noticed this when visiting. There’s nothing wrong with the game, but you can see the backgrounds, and enemies have more details in this display mode, than Simon Belmont appears to. Of course the bigger the TV the more noticeable it is. Still, if this level of crispness turns you off, you can always opt to play the game with the CRT filter on. It really will come down to personal preference.

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As for the game selection, it’s a really good one. There are some games I personally may have chosen instead, had I been a Nintendo decision maker. But on the whole, there is a nice variety of games here, covering almost every genre. Final Fantasy III (6), Earthbound, Super Mario RPG, Secret Of Mana, and The Legend of Zelda III: A Link To The Past are here for your JRPG/Action RPG/Adventure fix. You also get a lot of classic platformers. Donkey Kong Country, Super Mario World, Yoshi’s Island, Kirby Superstar are all here. Covering your action platforming you have Mega Man X, Super Castlevania IV, and Super Ghouls N’ Ghosts. You’ve got F-Zero, and Super Mario Kart for some arcade racing. Star Fox, and the previously unreleased Star Fox 2 are on the device for rail shooting. Kirby’s Dream Course is the lone puzzle outing, although Superstar does have some puzzle modes. Super Punch-Out!! is an underrated inclusion here, and of course Super Metroid is one of the best exploration games of all time. So naturally that is on here. Street Fighter II’s popularity hit its fevered pitch on the 16-bit consoles, so naturally one of the iterations would have to be included here. Street Fighter II Turbo is the iteration chosen to appear here, and it is definitely one of the fan favorites in the series. Fans who preferred the larger roster in Super Street Fighter II might be disappointed, but there are other inexpensive ways to play the Super NES port of that game elsewhere. Finally, fans of the run n’ gun genre get Contra III: The Alien Wars.

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On paper, picking this mini system is worth it for these games alone. Consider that (at the time of this writing) the original physical Game Paks of many of these titles are expensive. Super Metroid goes between $30, and $40 loose, alone. Earthbound is prohibitively expensive for many people often going for well over $100 by itself. For anybody who simply wants to buy one of these games legitimately, and play it, the Super NES Classic Edition is a pretty good value proposition. As for the emulation of the games, they’re very good. All but the most astute fan can go back, and play these without noticing much of a difference. If you go through the extra work of hooking up the original Super NES on a TV, and standing it next to your new HDTV & Super NES Classic setup, you can notice slight differences. Differences in color that might matter to an absolute purist who will insist on playing the original Super Ghouls N’ Ghosts Game Pak. If you absolutely require a 1:1 experience without exception you’ll want to empty your bank account. For everyone else a .98:1 experience is still pretty impressive.

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As far as input lag goes, I honestly haven’t noticed much of any, and I’ve played my unit on three modern TVs. A 50″ 4K unit by Samsung, a 20″ 1080p Insignia (Best Buy), and my trusty 32″ 720p Element I keep because it has legacy ports. In every case, the games played fine. Any input lag that is there will be noted by only the most scrupulous players. Top-tier speed runners, and tournament level players may want to spend on the original console, and games for those purposes. But again, for those who want to buy these titles legitimately, the Super NES Classic Edition is a wonderful option.

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Even some of those collectors who normally might pass on it may consider giving it a go as it is presently the only way to buy Star Fox 2. And while it won’t wow you the way the original did, or the way Star Fox 64 did on the Nintendo 64, it is still an interesting one. It includes features that weren’t seen until later games in the series. If you’re a big fan of Nintendo’s long running franchise, you may just want one of these for that game. Although it is strangely locked behind the first game’s first stage. You aren’t allowed to actually play it, until you defeat the first boss in the original game. Weird.

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Overall, I quite like the Super NES Classic Edition. While I feel it could use some more visual options for those who don’t like how old games look on new displays, and it could have used a more convenient way to create saves (You have to press RESET.), I do find the build quality quite nice. I also found that they added a cool fast forward, and rewind function to the save state software. So you can pinpoint the moment you want to start from. I also like that they put some of the harder to acquire titles on it, and it is nice that Star Fox 2 finally sees the light of day. The controllers are also versatile for Wii, and Wii U owners, as you can use them with games purchased digitally. It’s also a great proposition for those who want to experience what they weren’t around for without having to invest in a 20-year-old or more console, and cartridge technology. Newcomers can get their feet wet here, and see what the fuss over the 16-bit era is all about. Interestingly, Nintendo has put up PDF scans of the Super NES manuals for all of the games included here.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Steam Link Review

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Several months ago I reviewed Valve’s Steam controller. In that time, firmware revisions, and features in Steam have made it even better. But there was another cool piece of tech that launched alongside the controller, and I’m finally getting around to talking about it. Steam Link is something you really might want to look into if you’ve ever wanted to use the TV as a monitor without having to lift your 20 pound behemoth into the entertainment center.

PROS: Lag is barely noticeable. Can be used for more than gaming!

CONS: Low end video cards can’t really utilize it properly.

APP: If you have a Samsung Television, you may not need to buy a Steam Link box!

Steam Link is a pretty cool device. It’s been available now for almost two years, but the core purpose hasn’t changed. It’s an in-home streaming device that works on your home network. Just like your phone, computer, tablet, or game console, it can connect to your router. Once connected to your router, it can see all of the other computers you have connected to the router. If one of the computers is running Steam it will allow you to connect to it.

So what does this mean for you? What it means is you can have that computer running in the bedroom, but use it in the living room on your HDTV. This is perfect for nights where you have family or friends over, and you want to play party games with them without having to drag your computer into the living room with a HDMI cable. It’s also great if you’ve spent an entire day at the desk typing, and want to web surf on the couch when you get home. You can even do work on your computer in the living room if you want to.

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The device itself, is just a tiny little box that looks like a USB hub. It has both a wired, and wireless network chipset in it. So you can run a cable from Steam Link to your router, or just connect with a wireless signal. It also has a HDMI output on it so you can connect it to the TV. Beyond that are a port for the AC Adapter cable for power, and two USB ports. You can connect combinations of controllers, mice, keyboards to these ports. You can also connect USB hubs if you want multiple controllers.

Once you have everything connected to the TV, the box will go through a brief setup. It will first see the networks in the area. You’ll find yours in the list, and connect. If you have yours password protected (and why wouldn’t you?) You type it in, and go from there. From here it will see the network, and whatever computers are running Steam. You choose the one you want (Just make sure it’s running big picture mode.), and connect. The first time you do this you’ll get a verification code you’ll have to punch into Steam. Once you do this it will pretty much let you connect easily assuming the firmware is up to date, which it won’t be out of the box. So you’ll have to sit through a few update downloads, and installations upon the first use.

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But once the initial setup is over, you’re pretty much ready to go. It will connect to your computer, and you can navigate Steam with a controller or keyboard, and mouse you have connected to Steam Link. You can even minimize Big Picture mode at this point, which lets you pretty much navigate to anything on your computer. Obviously, a keyboard, and mouse connection is better for general purpose computing or work. As you can go into the fields you need to, and type away. Or to move the mouse around as needed.

But for gaming, you can navigate Big Picture mode with a game pad pretty easily. Go up, and down the menus, your list of games, and presto. You’re up, and playing in the living room, while the computer is running the game in the bedroom. Steam Link also has a few performance options you can go through before connecting to any given computer. You can force a lower image quality to reduce lag, and tweak other bandwidth settings.

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If you use a Steam Controller with Steam Link you get a U.I. better experience than with other game pads, joysticks, and controllers. Just like on your desktop, you can use the trackpad for some mouse-like navigation, and the onscreen keyboard in Big Picture lets you easily go to the fields very easily. The range on the Steam Controller’s USB dongle is pretty far too, so you can probably leave it in your computer, and still use the controller in the other room. Unless your home just has a ton of interference.

In my personal situation, I’ve found that Steam Link is pretty wonderful. I rarely notice input lag, performance is great, and as long as I use Big Picture mode, I can have an easy time web browsing, and gaming. Outside of Big Picture I can still get to things, but this is one of the parts where it isn’t perfect. If you really want to web browse on something like Chrome, or Edge, you’ll really want to have the keyboard out, as the on-screen keyboard only works in Big Picture. The same is true if you want to continue work in the cool, air-conditioned front room because your computer is in the sweltering hot bedroom where the fan isn’t good enough in July.

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But beyond that, it works very well. So long as the computer you’re using is well beyond the system requirements listed on the box. If your hardware, especially the video card; is too slow, it can’t keep up. I ran Steam Link on two of the desktops here, and the newer one which is a few years old now works fine with it. The older one does work. In that, I can navigate the computer, and even try running a game with it. The trouble is, the ancient GT9500 couldn’t push the video signal to both a monitor, and a network device. So what games the card can run, don’t run well through the Steam Link. This was also true of running movies. That computer has a number of digital versions through Ultraviolet that came with Blu-Ray movies. While they’ll display fine on the computer itself, when trying to watch them through Steam Link they will stutter, band, as well as de-sync audio, and video. Doing this was not a problem for my newer rig.

It is great that you can push more than games from your computer to the living room TV, but if your computer has a very old video card, or onboard video you’ll need to upgrade that before you can use it effectively. The good news is it doesn’t have to be a water-cooled, overclocked, $600 monster card. But you can’t get away with a sub $100 budget card either. You’ll need something somewhere in the midrange bracket.

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Be that as it may, I do recommend the Steam Link. Especially for those nights you have company over for a night of couch co-op, pizza, and drinks. But it gets even better. Because it was recently announced that certain Smart TVs made by Samsung can download Steam Link as an app! The TV’s in question have similar hardware built-in, so a free app will get you the same experience as using Valve’s box. This is great news for those looking into a new television, and it gives certain Samsung models (Not all of them are compatible) a competitive edge over other sets. But for those of us with an eight year old Element HDTV, the Steam Link is a worthy purchase anyway. Now if Valve would only allow the on-screen keyboard to work outside of Big Picture, to make it a little bit more convenient for non-Steam uses. You won’t want to type a review with a controller mind you, but needing a keyboard for a non-Steam browser might annoy some. But for the intended purpose of playing your PC games on the big screen TV,  Steam Link is pretty awesome.

Final Score: 9 out of 10.

Commodore 64 mini-guide, and a concert I went to.

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Sorry for being a little bit late this week. I was able to see a fantastic concert for the first time in many moons. I had to take full advantage of that fact. I got to see The Dollyrots for the second time ever (They don’t get out to New England very often), and it was awesome. An area band, Chaser Eight opened for them, and had an absolute killer set. Then the Dollyrots got on stage, and crushed it too. If you’ve never heard either band, and you like rock n’ roll, do check them out. Chaser Eight is pretty great, with elements of Alt-Rock, Glam, and straight up rock. It just works. The Dollyrots on the other hand, are an amazing Pop Punk trio led by Kelly Ogden, and Luis Cabezas. They have a really great blend of the sound of the early Rock groups like The Ronettes, and 1970’s Punk bands like The Ramones. Over the years they’ve grown as musicians but the roots are still apparent. It was a great show. Both bands were very approachable, and kind. They hung out with everyone at the bar after playing for a bit, and visited with fans like family you love, but don’t get to see all of the time. It was awesome. If either comes to your area, go see them. If they’re in your town as you’re reading this, just stop reading, and go see them. What are you waiting around for? Go!

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Okay, you’re back? Good. I hope you had as great a time as I did. Anyway, lately I’ve talked a lot about the mighty Commodore 64, its library, and a great C64 peripheral. It’s one of the best platforms of all time. It was sold more than any other computer in its day, and there are a plethora of great games on it. With those, the demo scene, and even a few great bands using its sound chip, you may have thought about getting one. As a lifelong fan of the computer, I can point to some facts, and information you’ll need to know if you’re going to collect for the C64. Now this isn’t going to be the most in-depth look at the platform. There are books that go into the detailed information over the course of several hundred pages for that sort of thing. But these are some key things to look for, and some things to be aware of. There may even be a few things that intrigue a casual reader. So feel free to read on.

First of all, there were a few models. The first version is often called the bread bin model. This came in a couple of variants. The silver label variant is the earliest version, and is sought after by the most devoted Commodore fans. These have the logo in a silver style paint. The drawback with this variant is it has a 5 pin DIN connector for video, where the later models (which had a rainbow of colors next to the logo) used an 8 pin DIN connector for video. Later models also added support for S-Video which is a major jump over the stock RF cable, and switch box that all models can use. The image will be much cleaner, and clearer. Provided of course you track down one of the cables.  After the bread bin model, Commodore released the C64c, which has many of the same updates as the rainbow variant of the bread bin. It also has a couple of chip refinements, and a redesigned bezel.  It should also be noted that while you gain the S-Video, and slightly better power connector in later models, you lose the ceramics for heat reduction on chips. To remedy this, later models have a metal shield inside to draw some heat, but this still isn’t always an effective solution. In Europe some later models didn’t have a metal shield, but a metal coated cardboard one, which trapped heat in some cases.

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Aside from the revisions to the standard Commodore 64, there were alternate versions altogether. The SX-64 was one of the earliest portable computers, as it had a built-in screen, and floppy drive. These things weigh a good 20 lbs. though, so they’re not portable in the sense you’re used to.  In Japan, there was a short-lived version of the C64 called the Commodore MAX. But this cut some functionality. So it didn’t compete on the games or business end, and quickly disappeared. There was also the C64 Game System. But this cut out all of the computer aspects of the computer to play cartridge games. Unfortunately this also broke compatibility with most of the game library as by 1990, the best titles were on tape or diskette.  All three of these variants are considered collector’s items. But unless you just have to have a conversation piece in your collection, I would focus on a regular C64 instead. These alternate versions can also be expensive.

The one noteworthy alternate Commodore 64 is the Commodore 128. This doubled the amount of memory in the computer, and could run all of the C64 software. The catch is it has to be run in C64 mode, as some of the revisions to the hardware led to some incompatibility in 128 mode. But the 128 did well with business, and productivity users, as there were applications that did take advantage of the extra memory. There were two versions, the standard C128, and the C128D. The latter made the keyboard an external peripheral, and included a built-in 1571 floppy diskette drive. The C128D can get expensive as a result, as finding one with a working drive is getting harder.

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There are a couple of risks involved when getting into the platform. But these can be mitigated if you’re wise enough to do a couple of simple things. First, when you find a potential C64 purchase, confirm it is working. If it’s a store, they should be willing to hook it up, and confirm it’s operational. Second, make certain the Power Supply Unit not only works, but is in great shape. The PSU actually has two rails inside. One powers the motherboard, and most of the system, while the other powers the sound chip. As a means to control costs, it is encased in a resin material. However there’s a chance even a working PSU can overheat. Depending on the problem, a bad PSU can fry components inside the computer. That’s why it’s imperative you get a plug-in as pristine condition as possible. You’ll want to make sure it sits out in the open where heat can escape, and if you’re paranoid, you can always have a small desk fan blowing on it. Also keep in mind some of the later bread bin releases may have heat issues from the cost reduced RF shield. These are mostly in PAL territory releases. But again, keeping things cool can help mitigate a problem.

With that out-of-the-way, you’ll want to start gaming. But what else will you need? This depends a bit on what territory you’re in, and whether or not you plan to do any importing. Since I’m in the US, I’ll focus on that, but I’ll touch a bit on other parts of the world in a bit. When the C64 arrived on the scene, games for it started out on cartridge. They had about as much space as the ones found on consoles that were out at the time. Not every user had an external drive right away either, so it made sense for publishers to put games on cartridges. Some of the earliest software also came on cartridges, and this even includes diagnostic software, which may or may not work depending on the hardware issue. If applicable you can turn on the computer with a diagnostic cartridge, and it will let you run simple tests to determine if a chip has gone bad.  But this isn’t always a sure thing, since some hardware failures won’t give you anything other than the blackness of space on your screen. More on that later.

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So a lot of the earliest stuff was out on cartridge. Activision ported many of its console games to the C64 including H.E.R.O., Beamrider, Pitfall II: Lost Caverns, and River Raid. But there were a number of great games on cartridge. Eventually however, publishers found alternatives that gave developers more space at a lower cost. The first of these were cassette tapes. Games, and other programs could be published on audio cassettes. These were also cheap, and so many titles started being released on cassette.

In order to run these programs you’ll need a datasette drive. These are basically old school cassette decks. If you want an in-depth look at how these worked, I highly recommend this video from the 8-Bit Guy. In European territories this is the format nearly all of the biggest titles came on, due to the lower production costs. There is one thing for newcomers to be aware of though, and that’s long load times. A lot of larger games on tape can take minutes to load. In the grand scheme of things it isn’t that big a deal. Even today’s console games can take eons to load if you’re playing them off disc, rather than installing them. Still, if you’re short on patience, you’ll need to learn to gather some if you need to run a game off of cassette.

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In North America, prices of writable media began to fall after a while though, and so many games began the move to 5.25″ Floppy Diskettes. these eliminated the storage concerns for a long time. When they cropped up again, many developers simply made games that took multiple disks to get through. To play these games you’ll need a 1541 or a 1541-II floppy diskette drive. There were a few aftermarket drives as well like The Enhancer 2000. In the USA, nearly every notable game came on floppy diskette. Even games that were previously released on cartridge or cassette tape. Most games released on floppy take a lot less time to load over cassette releases. However they’re not quite as fast as one would hope due to a slow port speed. To help with this, there are a number of Fast Loader cartridges you can get. These take some of the load off, and do shave some time off of loading. Again, 8-Bit Guy has a great video on the specifics of how this worked that I won’t go into here. Just know, that an Epyx Fast Load cartridge, or equivalent is something you want if you’re going to play games on Floppy Diskettes.

Once you have all of those in order, you’ll probably want to look into controllers. Most games took advantage of joysticks, though many also had keyboard binds. Almost any controller with a DB9 connector will fit the ports. Atari 2600 joysticks, Sega Genesis pads, and so on. However, it is NOT recommended you use a Sega Genesis pad, because the Sega Genesis pad draws more power than the controller ports need, so there is the chance you can blow a controller port in the process. So it’s best to stick to controllers built with either the C64, or Atari 2600 in mind. My controller of choice is the Slik Stik by Suncom. But there are no shortage of joystick options. Note that some games still utilized two button schemes, at a time when nearly all controllers were one button controllers. The work around most developers went with, was using the space bar.  Depending on the title it may take a little getting used to. In slower paced games it’s rarely a problem, in action games, you’ll want the joystick right in front of the computer so you can easily press the space bar when you need to.

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Now the thing to remember is, this is still a computer platform. So you can do more than game on it. In fact if you’re willing to learn the Commodore variant of BASIC, you can code your own homebrew games for the machine. Which a lot of people did. So you may even have fun tracking down old, defunct Commodore 64 themed magazines. Some of them have been archived like the entire run of Ahoy!. Not only do you get the sensation you feel when looking at an old Nintendo Power, you get programs. Long before the advent of getting a CD full of demos with your game magazine, computer magazines had program articles. You could type in these programs, save them to a diskette, and run them whenever you wanted. Many of them were written entirely in BASIC, although some were written in machine language, and you typed them into a HEX editor program. But you could save them to diskette! Some of these were really good too, like Mystery At Mycroft Mews, where you had to go around a town as detectives, solve murders, and bring the right suspect to trial.

Aside from gaming, there are a wealth of old productivity, and business programs you can find, but honestly, they’re not really going to be much value beyond the history. It is nice to see the original Print Shop in action, or some of the word processors of the time. But you’re probably not going to send your masterpiece novel to a literary agent on a 5.25″ Floppy these days. Still, you can still find old dot matrix printers, and the ribbons though they’re getting scarce.

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But in the more interesting range you can find things like the Koala pad, which is one of the earliest graphics tablets. You could draw with a stylus, and save your art to diskette. There were a bunch of clones that came afterward. But if you draw on a modern Wacom graphics tablet, and wonder where the earliest versions of the tech came from, their infancy took place on 8-bit home computers. You can also find the original 300 baud modems, that let users connect to services like Quantum Link back then (LazyGameReviews did a wonderful video on that service.) But these days, there are homebrew network cards, and browsers tinkerers can invest in.

One of the craziest things I have in my collection is the Hearsay 1000. A cartridge, and software combo that reads whatever you type, back to you. In a kind of creepy robot voice. The software is far from perfect, it doesn’t account for pronunciation, so it can only read things as they are spelled. So if you type in the name “Barbara” it will say it back as “Bar-Bar-A”. But this is where stuff like Dragon Naturally Speaking got its start. Building off of this early tech, or properly doing what it was trying to. If you find a Hearsay 1000, don’t use it while playing games with voice samples. It will yell “HEARSAY ONE THOUSAND!”, and then crash the computer. Then you’ll have to turn it off, disconnect the module, and turn it back on. Then load your game again. Considering you’re going to wait a while for Ghostbusters to load again, best to know that up front.

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Of course not too long ago, I reviewed the SD2EIC. This is a must own peripheral because you can make disk images, or download images of stuff you own to an SD Card. It’s also great if you do happen to have old disks with personal files on them, and want to save those along with your other programs. Plus the load times, are dramatically cut down.

One also needs to take into account the difference between PAL, and NTSC territories If they plan on importing. A lot of really great games including some of the best were exclusive to Europe. While most of these are playable on a North American C64, the speed differences can often lead to all kinds of glitches. Random characters popping up, graphics showing up in grayscale rather than in color, some extreme cases will involve lock ups, and crashes. One can convert their computer via modifying it, but this isn’t recommended if you don’t know your way around altering a circuit board. My advice is to either deal with the glitches if you import a game or follow the purist. Purists will import a PAL C64, peripherals, and either a PAL monitor or else using a scaler with their HDTV to run a native 50 hz signal from the computer. You’ll also want a power converter as the electrical outlets, and standards are different. If you’re in a PAL territory, and you want some of the NTSC exclusives, you’ll see similar issues. So again, purists will want to import an NTSC setup, and use a power converter.

While some of this may get a little complicated, it is worth the plunge. Once you have a fully functional C64 setup, there really isn’t anything else like it.  The unique sound of its sound chip (known as the SID) is popular to this day. The wide, and varied library gets you a large variety of original games, multi platform games, and arcade ports. As is the case with every platform you’ll find a lot of good games, some truly great games, and a fair number of bad ones. I highly recommend visiting Lemon64 for its wealth of information, and its game archive. Plus they have a very helpful community if you do run into issues. Thanks to them I discovered a wonderful hobbyist who does repairs, and builds a lot of high quality homebrew accessories, and power supplies. When my C64c gave me a dreaded Black Screen Of Death last month I got in contact with Ray Carlsen, After some back, and forth messaging I ended up sending him the machine. Having some background in PC repairs, and upgrades I had taken it apart, checked the motherboard, found no bad capacitors. The fuse was intact, and working. I didn’t see any corrosion on chips. But I had no way to test them, and I was stumped. Well he was able to determine I had a minor issue with my power connector, and that my PSU was on its way out. He installed a breaker to prevent the components from frying from a bad PSU. I also ordered one of his homebrew PSUs. When the computer came back, not only was everything working the way it is supposed to, but he somehow got it looking much newer than when I had sent it in. Now he isn’t a traditional business, so he doesn’t do bulk jobs. Don’t go looking to send him 50 broken C64 computers. That isn’t what he is about. But he’ll charge you a fair price to fix a single machine, and take a look at some of his PSU models. With the originals drying up, it can’t hurt to have a spare.

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The Commodore 64 may have been a home computer, but it was one of the most important platforms in video game history. It’s where many games went after the infamous crash in North America, and even after the rise of the NES it still retained a viable market share. In Europe it was also a major contender throughout the 80’s, and 90’s. Although there are some things to be aware of if you want to begin collecting for one, it can be a rewarding experience. Prices fluctuate constantly, but expect to spend between $50 – $150 for a working model with a good PSU. With that alone, you’ll be set for any cartridge games. But chances are you’ll want some of the higher profile releases. A 1541 Floppy drive will set you back about $50. There are deals out there to be had, but many of the cheap ones aren’t tested, so you may be buying a worn out drive. On the budget end though, Datasette drives are fairly inexpensive. So keep an eye out for one of those.

Then, you’ll be ready to pick up some C64 games! Just like on retro consoles, some games are cheap, and common. Some are rare, and expensive. A lot of times you can make out well, by buying lots. A lot of games don’t require anything beyond a floppy diskette, cartridge or cassette. But there are games that have manual protection. So do some research on a title before you buy it. For example, you’ll want to look for complete copies of certain RPGs as they require a code wheel, or manual as a means of copy protection. (IE: Type in the first word in the third paragraph on page 13.) Plus it’s nice to have the manuals, and keyboard overlays for flight sims, RPGs, or point, and click adventure games. Action genres usually didn’t have these vast control schemes requiring hot keys. But a handful did use manual protection so make sure the game you’re interested in isn’t one of them if you’re looking at a loose copy.

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Also be sure to keep your disk based games in sleeves when you’re not using them, and don’t let them get too hot or cold. Definitely keep them away from magnets, as that will corrupt the disk, and destroy your game. It was a lesson we children learned quickly back when home computers were first gaining prominence.  Finally, the Commodore 64, and other computers of the era were powered by variants of Microsoft BASIC. So you’ll need to know a few basic (Ha, ha!) commands. The most important being LOAD”*”,8,1 which for all intents, and purposes tells the disk drive to load the first file on a disk (Usually the executable) into memory. Then when the computer says ‘READY” you can simply type “RUN”, press RETURN, and fire up your game.

That should about do it this time. But keep in mind how many great things the retro games, and computing scene keeps pumping out for the mighty C64. Here’s hoping the new motherboards, network cards, card readers, and even homebrew games continue preserving one of gaming’s most iconic platforms.

 

 

C64 Direct To TV Review

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15 years ago or so, there began a craze. Companies like Jakks Pacific, ATGames, and a handful of toy companies decided to make game systems out of controllers. These systems were basically systems on a chip. A small board, with a bunch of ROMs on them, usually run under some sort of emulator. But they were often a step up above those bootleg contraptions we’ve all seen at one time or another. These didn’t skirt around copyright law either. Most of them went to the original publishers, and paid for the rights to resell these games in their units. There were joysticks with classic Namco games built in. There were controllers with Midway games in them. There was even an EA Games pad with old Sega Genesis ROMs of Madden inside. But in that sea of joysticks lied one TV game controller you most definitely ought to own.

PROS: 30 games in a controller. Modifiable.

CONS: Joystick could have been a little bit better.

REGIONAL DIFFERENCES: NTSC, and PAL have slightly different game rosters.

The brainchild of Jeri Ellsworth, the C64 Direct To TV is one of the best devices of its kind. Originally sold through the QVC Television shopping network, and the now defunct Kay Bee Toys this system was, and is awesome. When you turn the system on you’ll have the option to play 30 different games on it. The system was also sold in Europe, where it is almost the identical. The differences being that the EU version is set up for a PAL signal, and that there is a minor difference in the library due to publishing rights.

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Among the thirty games though you’ll see some of the better titles put out by Hewson, and EPYX. Including both Cybernoid, and Cybernoid 2. Firelord is also here, along with Jumpman Junior, Tower Toppler, even the Impossible Mission games. Best of all, you really don’t have to be familiar with the BASIC interface of the Commodore 64. This was designed in a way that requires no typing in of LOAD or SAVE commands. Nor do you have to worry about the odd SYS or POKE commands. Turn on the unit to find it auto boots to a launcher. Pick your game, and play away.

More importantly though, the games here don’t run under an emulator. The C64 DTV runs on a custom board but uses both SID and VIC-II chips for authentic Commodore sound, and video. So how do the games themselves run? Pretty favorably. Everything seems to run about as it would on an actual Commodore 64. Except as the games are preloaded, you won’t be dealing with any load times.

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The joystick the system is built in is pretty solid. Things feel sturdy. You won’t feel like you’re going to break it if you move it. The joystick also re centers itself nicely. If you stop moving, it stops moving. All in all, it isn’t too bad, and feels a lot better than most of these other “Compilations in a joystick” products. But it isn’t perfect. Some games like Jumpman Junior require spot on, pixel perfect movement. The joystick here may sometimes shift you left, coming off of a ladder. Leading to an unintentional suicide when you fall to your doom.

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Still, when compared to a lot of these other contraptions, the C64 DTV fares much better, doesn’t feel gimmicky, and has one huge edge over all of them. If you’re willing to do some tweaking, and are also willing to risk damaging the system should you fail. It is entirely possible to turn this unit into a nearly fully functioning Commodore 64 computer!

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Doing this opens you up to being able to run the lion’s share of C64 games. Just remember this is going to be for the advanced home brewer only. It requires a lot of soldering, rewiring, and electrical knowledge. But if you have the time, and the guts there are a number of Commodore enthusiast sites that have guides on how to do just that.

But even if you don’t want to do any of that, this is still a great device. Especially if you’ve always been curious about Commodore 64 games, but aren’t sure you want to invest in collecting the computer, peripherals, floppy diskettes, and cassette tapes. It’s also nice if you’re a collector who lives in the USA because some of these games were only released in Europe when they came out. As far as these compilation systems go, the C64 DTV is one of the best.

Final Score: 8 out of 10