Tag Archives: Tech

Things that most intrigued me from E3 this year.

Well, another year, another E3. Per usual there has been a slew of major announcements, directs, and panels. There’s a lot of talk about the Nintendo, and Square Enix presentations being the highlights of the year. While there’s no question there were a lot of major revelations and surprises that came from these two juggernauts, there was a lot of stuff overall. And while it’s true that some of the major panels turned out to be duds, there were some big titles that came out of the least hyped pressers.

E3 may not be as exciting as it used to be, but it still remains one of the biggest game-themed conventions around thanks to its long-standing relationship with being an industry, and press themed show. In recent years they’ve allowed fans to attend, but it is still geared far more toward showing off products than it is toward fandom.

In any case, every year I find myself more interested in some of the more obscure games than many of the popular ones. This year seemed to follow that trend for me, though there were still a couple of huge hits that squeaked their way in. In any event, read on. Maybe some of these will pique your interest too.

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10.) AMD Ryzen 9 3900X

A lot of folks were probably way more hyped about Final Fantasy than a computer component. But for those who tuned into the AMD conference this year, this was a major revelation. At $499 it’s price competitive with as well as comparable to the Intel i9 9920k.  They also showed off the benefit of extra cores when showing off the 8 core Intel i9 9900k, and 12 core AMD 3900X chips running Division 2, with OBS, on maxed settings. While the game itself ran comparably, the stream quality was night and day. If you’re a streamer who is going to be in the market for a new build in July, this may very well be worth your consideration. Especially when considering the current 12 core Intel solution is $1200 as of this writing.

 

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09.) No More Heroes III

While Travis Strikes Again wasn’t fantastic, it wasn’t bad enough to sour me on the franchise. No More Heroes 1, had a great story, fun characters, and dark humor. Bogged down by a barren overworld. No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle was streamlined and a terrific hack n’ slash game as a result. All we really got was a trailer with a glimpse of familiar gesture moves. But it was well put together. It veered toward the stuff we loved about the first two entries on the Wii. So I’m cautiously optimistic that Suda51 will deliver.

 

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08.) ASTRAL CHAIN

We previously only had a glimpse of this one, but the expanded footage made this game look even cooler. Giant robot monsters. Robot Police Officers. Fast-paced combat that Platinum Games is known for. The aesthetics are bombastic. The visual presentation is something that gets a resounding “Yes.”. Hopefully, this game continues Platinum Games’ tradition of quality action games.

 

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07.) Daemon X Machina

Last year Nintendo showed off a quick trailer of this one which looked amazing. Then they put out a short playable demo that gave us the basic concept. We know there will be a customizable character you can play as and that the system for doing so is deep. We know that you’ll be piloting giant mechs and that during missions you can even get out of them to fight on foot. The controls needed some fine tuning but other than that it felt like it would be a solid action game. This year’s trailer showed off a lot more. It looks even more expansive and the action looks even more hectic than before. Here’s hoping the extra time made everything that much better across the board.

 

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06.) Enter The Gungeon: House Of The GunDead

Devolver Digital always seems to have a great conference every year as they’re able to find a way to tell people what they’re releasing candidly while lampooning current trends the entire time. They showed off a few cool looking indie games but then they dropped a bombshell. The company is bringing out an actual arcade cabinet based on Enter The Gungeon. This game is a rail shooter in the vein of Operation Wolf, but with full-on light guns. It looks awesome. While I don’t have space to house it or the budget to buy one, I am interested to see one in action. Hopefully, a convention like RetroWorldExpo or Portland Retro Gaming Expo may have one on display someday.

 

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05.) The Messenger: Picnic Panic

The Messenger was one of the coolest takes on the Metroidvania in a while. It had fantastic action, a great story and terrific time-travel themed feature that was used very well. If you still haven’t played it, you should. It’s awesome. For those who have played through the game and were left wanting more Devolver also revealed that the expansion pack to the game will be coming soon. Plus it will be free! The trailer shows off a new beach themed area, new enemies and even a cool octopus boss fight. Any excuse to fire up more of The Messenger is a good one. Let’s see what Sabotage has in store.

 

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04.) Cyberpunk 2077

While RPGs aren’t my go-to genre, I can appreciate a good one and CD Projekt Red‘s next outing looks like it could be as big as their Witcher franchise. The expanded footage they showed off during Microsoft’s conference gave some nice details on the storyline where we’ll be playing the role of a mercenary in a dystopian future. The facial animations were quite impressive and the action looked great. This one may veer toward the Action RPG than the Witcher games did but even if that turns out to be true it will hopefully have enough to sate fans of the slower methodical pace of traditional RPGs too.

 

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03.) Outriders

While it’s hard to say how this is going to turn out as Square’s segment on it showed very little outside of a prerendered trailer, I am intrigued. For a couple of reasons. First, People Can Fly is a studio that has always made fast-paced First-Person Shooters of a very high caliber. Painkiller was an amazing FPS with a Smash T.V. feel. It was like a darker version of Croteam’s Serious Sam. Years later they would find themselves working with Epic and EA where they made Bulletstorm. This was another high-quality game that felt like Half-Life 2’s linear style of action game in one sense. You played through different set pieces as the story demanded. But on the other hand, the action felt a lot like Platinum Games’ MadWorld. You had to find creative ways in the environment to dispatch your enemies for big rewards. Oddly enough, Steven Blum voiced the protagonists of both Bulletstorm and MadWorld. Outriders will be a completely different kind of experience. It already seems like there will be some sort of hero or class system. But the character design looks really cool. Especially the monsters you’ll fight which remind me of the old Inhumanoids toys. Couple those toys with People Can Fly’s track record and we may see something special.

 

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02.) The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild Part II

Yeah, I know everyone is pretty much excited for this one. But seeing how great the first one turned out coupled with the imagery from the teaser, you can bet I’ll keep an eye on this one. There was a lot of Zelda shown off this year between the reboot of Link’s Awakening (which looks adorable by the way. I love the claymation art style going on), and Caydence Of Hyrule. But this one already looks pretty amazing. It’s probably a good two years out, but it looks great.

 

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01.) Chivalry II.

I’m going to preface this by saying that no, the original game wasn’t perfect. It had its share of bugs. When you made it to the highest level of play there were ways to exploit the movement system to do things the developers didn’t think possible. And while the expansion pack was fun, the lack of a true Team Objective mode meant many fans merely dabbled in it whereas in the base game they poured scores of hours into it. But in the grand scheme of things Chivalry was, and still is one of the most enjoyable competitive First-Person action games of recent memory. It did something few other games thought of at the time: Take the objective focus of a Modern Military Shooter like Battlefield and change the setting to the Medieval period. And while the game really veers into the Hollywood action side of things by portraying everything similarly to old time castle siege movies, there is some realism. The weapons in it existed. The missions take liberties with some of the dark war practices of that part of history.

So the original game was a blast in spite of all of its faults. This game looks to build upon the original’s solid foundation by adding new features. You’ll get to ride horses bringing essentially vehicular combat to the game. You’ll have newer objectives apparently. And they claim that the slashing action is being completely overhauled so some of the cheap looking stuff that could be done in the first game won’t be replicated here. I loved the original game so much that I put hundreds of hours into it. But as much as I love Chivalry I am tempering expectations a bit. The 1-year exclusivity with the Epic Games storefront is going to be a turn off for some. And while Mirage: Arcane Warfare was a fantastic take on the Hero shooter, it was a commercial failure. One can only hope that didn’t leave too bad a taste in the mouths of some buyers. All of those caveats aside, I really do hope Chivalry II lives up to Torn Banner Studios‘ advertised features. The trailer looked fantastic and something fans of the original 2012 release have wanted for a long time. It’s due out next year so hopefully, it shows up ready for primetime.

 

So there you go. Ten of the things that I was really invested in seeing. By no means is this complete, but these are the ones that stayed the freshest in my mind. But how about you folks out there? Feel free to comment below! Perhaps there’s something I missed or overlooked!

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PowerA Enhanced Wireless Controller for Nintendo Switch Review

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The Third-Party Controller. It’s been a mainstay since the days of the Atari 2600. For over a generation, one of gaming’s running jokes has been this familiar scene. You’ve invited someone over for a night of video games. You want them to play with you, but you don’t have the cash for a second controller. They’re expensive. You need an alternative that isn’t as costly. So you pick up a compatible controller for a third of the price and force the guest to use it. Why is this a joke? Because for over 40 years, there have been countless controllers made by companies other than the platform holders. Controllers that have often been shoddy, made from cheap, brittle plastics. Controllers that often wear out fast, or simply aren’t as responsive as the stock controller that came with the console.

In short: Third-Party controllers have often been largely inferior to their First-Party counterparts. But, over the years there have been exceptions. The long-defunct Suncom often made controllers on par with the likes of Atari, and Coleco. ASCII made a couple of terrific pads for the NES, Sega Genesis, and Super Nintendo. But, by and large, these were never the rule.

PROS: Feature rich. Build quality. Affordable.

CONS: No NFC chipset for Amiibo figures. No Lithium-Ion battery.

NOW: You’re playing with PowerA.

In recent years a newer name has come into view. PowerA. This company has controllers you’ll see sprinkled along with First-Party controllers on pegs in Walmart, Target, and Gamestop stores all across the USA. They started out making some inexpensive wired controllers, and have slowly introduced some wireless alternatives. This is especially true in the Nintendo Switch sections. Near the end of 2018, their wireless offering began showing up, and initially, it might seem easy to write it off like another bad knockoff. But quite honestly, you might just want to consider this one.

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With Nintendo’s own Pro Switch Controllers costing nearly $80, you may not be prepared to get one on a whim. A set of Joy Cons and another grip is also not an inexpensive endeavor. PowerA’s offering is almost less than half the price of Nintendo’s and is as responsive in its reaction time. I’m serious. You can approach any game you own on the console with it, and it performs wonderfully. The thumbsticks have a very nice grip along their circular rims and feel great. It also has a sturdy, yet light feel. Enough heft without weighing down your wrists during long play sessions.

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There’s also a nice bonus in that there are two programmable buttons they’ve added to the underside. If there’s a game that has a sequence you want to assign to either of them, you can press the center button on the other side, and then program the sequence to either side button. This can be handy in some games where you don’t want to deal with a combination of simultaneous movement. Maybe you have a game that requires you to press Y, and X at the same time for certain tasks. And for whatever reason, you can’t get a handle on it. Now you can make that a single button press. Or maybe there’s a game that makes pressing a weird, unintuitive combination mandatory. Now, you can skip that.

PowerA also made a controller that pairs with the Switch fairly easily. All you have to do is go under the grip order menu and press the sync button along the top. It may take a moment longer on an initial synchronization but after that, it’s pretty quick. The controller also features some really well-made face buttons. the A, B, X, Y buttons have a nice feel, and the D-pad feels terrific. The shoulder buttons and triggers also have a great feel to them. The +, -, Camera, and Home buttons feel a little bit brittle and cheap. But they’re also not the most essential ones either. Unless you just have to take 30-second clips of everything, it probably won’t matter much to you.

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The controller also includes a gyroscopic movement! Until recently, most Third-Party offerings omitted this to get to a lower price. The thing is, there are a handful of games that really do play better with motion controls enabled. Super Mario Sunshine’s Cappy trick jumping, and Splatoon 2’s smooth, quick aiming go much, much better with motion controls. In the case of the latter, the difference between using the right thumbstick, and tilting the controller is night and day. So having that feature in a controller is a must for some players. Some who enjoy Mario Kart 8 Deluxe might enjoy motion steering.

But, there are a few concessions here to be aware of. First, the battery. The PowerA solution does not have a rechargeable Lithium-Ion battery like the Pro Controller does. Instead, the company went with traditional AA batteries. There is a plus, and a minus to this. On the minus side, you’ll have the expense of buying AA batteries in bulk or rechargeable AA batteries, and a AA battery wall charger. You won’t have the same battery life Nintendo’s solution gives you either. But on the plus side, if you’re still playing games on the Switch in 15 years, you’ll still be able to find batteries. And you won’t have to take the controller apart to replace them.

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Sadly, this controller also eschews the NFC chipset the Pro Controller has. So you can’t use Amiibo figures or cards with this. You’ll still need to use your Joy-Con controller to scan in the collectibles if you want to use their features. It isn’t the worst thing in the world, but it is inconvenient if you want to play Smash Bros with this controller while also training Figure Players.

Considering the cost of the controller (at the time of this writing) though, these omissions may or may not bother you too much. It manages to come through on all of the most important fronts. It also performs as well as the Nintendo options in your games save for the cut feature or two. If you’re in the market for a second controller for your Nintendo Switch, this is definitely one worth considering. Just keep in mind you’ll need a stash of batteries, and Amiibo Figures aren’t compatible with it. You can also find it in a variety of different colors or screen prints. Sadly none of these feature the Squid Sisters or Inklings. Despite there being a non-motion controlled wired Splatoon themed controller by PowerA. Hopefully, future revisions will include other Nintendo themed screen prints.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

 

Elgato HD60 PRO PCI Express Capture Card Review

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Maybe you’ve decided you want to migrate old home video footage to your computer through a daisy chain of adapters. Or maybe you’ve decided you want to dip your toes in the waters of video production. Or perhaps, (more likely) you’ve decided you want to capture video game footage for your fledgling YouTube channel. Or maybe you’ve decided you want to try your hand at streaming video games on Twitch. Whatever the reason, you’re going to need to find a way to get that content to the intended audience through the use of your computer.

PROS: Excellent build quality. Small enough to fit any case type. Intuitive software.

CONS: Drivers are tied to software utilities.

LTTP: Retro Speed Run streamers will need to find a good scaler to use with it.

Enter the Elgato HD60 PRO. You can find this in either a PCI Express card for your desktop computer, or you can find an external version that connects to your machine with a USB 3.0 cable. We’ll be taking a look at the internal card version here, as that’s the version I bought after getting a better than expected tax return this year.

The Elgato HD60 PRO comes in an attractive package. There’s a sleek slip cover over a gate fold box. Upon opening that box, you’ll be greeted with the card itself, a booklet, a HDMI cable, and a handy low profile bracket for those with a flex case. You’ll know if you have a flex case, they tend to be used on computer models that go for the small, sleek, and rectangular look. Often times these cases do not have the height needed for expansion cards. Yet, they’re often built using motherboards that do allow for some expansion. Unfortunately, this usually means hunting for specialty “Half-Height” or “Low Profile” cards. So it is nice that this card comes with that low profile bracket. If you have such a computer, and want to stream your PlayStation 4 games through it, this card makes that possible.

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Once you have the card installed, you may or may not be surprised to find no CD or Flash Drive in the box. Elgato doesn’t include drivers in the box. Instead, you have to go directly to their site to get them. And they don’t simply give you the drivers, they include them in their software utilities. This is the first of the two grievances I have with the product. In the grand scheme of things both are fairly small. But they do make things needlessly complicated. The software itself is actually quite intuitive. But it is broken up across a few different utilities depending on what you want to do with it. There is an audio utility for those who only want to capture sound. The Game Capture HD utility which records video, as well as streams video. The Control Center for managing accessories. Finally, there’s the Stream Deck which is for the optional Stream Deck device. You don’t have to download the latter two, but you may just want to get them, and install them anyway in case the need should arise.

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The main one you’ll really need is the Game Capture HD utility. As I mentioned before, this is a great piece of software. But even if you’ve decided to use something else, you’ll need to install it because it contains the drivers for Windows 10. Without those, your computer won’t know what you’ve installed into the motherboard. If you do decide to use the Game Capture HD though, you’ll be surprised at how simple it is to navigate.

There’s a clearly marked button for the capture settings you want to use. You can go with standard resolutions like 480, 720p, or 1080p, and you can set the frame rate to record at 30 or 60 Frames per second (FPS). If your computer is newer, you shouldn’t have any problem running things on higher settings with newer consoles. If your system is older though, you can tinker with the settings until your happier with the performance. Do make sure your system is above the minimum requirements before you buy this or any expansion for your computer though. If you don’t have compatible hardware, you’re not going to have a great experience. Still, my machine is getting long in the tooth, (i7 4770k, 16GB RAM, a 250GB SSD, 1TB SSD, and an Nvidia GTX760) yet had zero issues using this card.

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The software also has an easy to spot recording button, and streaming button. Once you tie the software to your appropriate account (Twitch, YouTube, etc.) it easily syncs up with your settings there, and just seems to work. At least it did for me. There are also a host of preset overlays you can choose to use, all of which can also be customized. You can import your own art, websites, banners, and more. You can put in a webcam PIP. You can run a green screen. The software is an amazing little utility. Especially if you’re not familiar with video production, or you’re new to streaming. When you are streaming you can easily move back and forth between full screen gameplay or windowed with your various settings around it.

Other easy to tweak settings are sounds like your microphone, and game audio levels. You can have the software lower game audio while you’re talking for example. You can also tinker with your bit rate settings so you can try to find a balance between performance, and clarity for your stream as well. It doesn’t however have a lot of options for specific plug-ins. You can work around this by adding website links to things that will behave like a plug-in. Like a chat box for example. But there aren’t a slew of dedicated Elgato software plug-ins.

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That said, other utilities like OBS, and XSplit give you a lot more freedom if you’re willing to take the time to learn how to use their features properly, and experiment. If you want to really do more unique things with your channel, and you’re looking to be a more professional looking personality on a streaming or video site you’ll want to either master using one of those, or buy a more feature-rich suite that the card is compatible with.

I’ve really liked using this card thus far. It has an excellent build quality, and it outputs as well as inputs. That means you can take the feed from your Nintendo Switch dock for example, and bring it into the card to be processed. But you can also run a second HDMI cable out to a TV or Monitor. This makes it especially nice if you’re looking to multitask on a computer screen, while you’re playing a game on the second one. Those who want to have Twitch opened in one window, their utility of choice (Elgato, OBS, XSplit, etc) in another don’t have to worry about having to play the game windowed, or continually have to Alt+Tab between things constantly.

Of course, it isn’t going to be perfect for everyone. The other minor issue for me is this card doesn’t have legacy inputs on it like Composite, or S-Video. So if you want to use it to stream things like NES games you’ll need to get an adapter or scaler to convert the signal. For merely capturing footage this is fine, but for streaming speed runs, keep in mind this will induce a little bit of input lag. A really high-end scaler like the hallowed Framemeister will be a safe bet for reducing it to a minimum, but if you don’t have that kind of money there are a wide variety of options. But you’ll have to do a fair amount of research to see what device in your budget will give you the best results.

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The other thing to consider are the number of other cards that do include legacy support. If you’re planning on mostly recording from legacy consoles, or want to digitize old analog VHS or Beta tapes from elder family members, you may not need to get a separate scaler with one of those other cards. However, not all of those other products are built as nicely, and few have a utility as seamless, and easy to figure out as Elgato’s downloadable one. Really you’ll have to decide on your own which route is the way to go.

That being said, I’m actually quite pleased with this card. The performance has been excellent, it has a great build quality, as well as fit, and finish. The software utility while, broken up across two programs, and two optional ones, is intuitive. It’s very easy to use, especially for someone like myself who isn’t as familiar with customizing things in OBS as many streamers, and YouTube personalities are. If you’re just starting out, and want something you can get into using right away, this is an excellent card. It might cost more, but the convenience, and quality are worth it. Just remember if you’re looking to broadcast speed runs of games on consoles of old with it you’ll want to find a scaler that can mitigate some of the inevitable input lag to go along with it. For anything current though, the Elgato HD60 PRO is a winner.

(Minimum Requirements: OS: Windows 10 64-Bit. CPU: Intel Core i5 series 4 or newer. Graphics: Intel HD, Nvidia GeForce GTX 600 series or better. Expansion slot: A free PCIe x1/x4/x6/x16 slot on your motherboard.)

Final Score: 9 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

Horipad Wired Controller Review

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The Nintendo Switch is a great console, that plays a lot of great games. The controllers it comes with, while innovative, aren’t always the best option in every scenario. On the go, they’re great. They’re small, compact, and you can divide them to make two controllers. But at home, those two joycons are likely going in the comfort grip. So when a friend comes over, or your significant other, spouse, siblings or roommate want to play with you, what to do?

PROS: Quality build. Versatile. Inexpensive.

CONS: Doesn’t have the gyroscopic functions.

WEIRD: The D-pad design.

There are a surprisingly high number of controller options emerging for Nintendo’s gaming tablet. Obviously Nintendo’s own solutions are pretty great. You can roll with another set of joycons, which will double as two controllers, and that gets you set for four player games. But you have that small size issue which in a home setting, and on certain games may feel cumbersome for larger hands. You can also go for Nintendo’s Pro Controller. It’s nice, does everything the joycons can, and it’s got a hefty, yet comfortable design. But it also costs more than a lot of games do the day they come out.

For a lot of us, buying a Pro Controller for ourselves, or to have on hand for a second player, may be cost prohibitive. There are a wealth of third-party solutions coming out now to address this. But many of them have lackluster build quality, using cheap plastics or sub par wiring. Enter the Horipad. Hori isn’t generally known for what most might call general purpose controllers. They’re known for expensive, professional grade arcade fighting sticks. Go to any local Street Fighter or Tekken tournament, and you’ll find a lot of arcade joysticks made by Hori.

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Anyway, the Horipad is a pretty good solution for anyone looking for a controller for a second player, or to leave connected so they don’t have to take the joycons off at home. It has a solid build quality. It doesn’t have the heft of Nintendo’s own controller, however it doesn’t feel brittle, and thin either. It feels about as solid as Microsoft’s own Xbox 360 controllers did.  The thumb sticks feel really comfortable, and all of the buttons, and triggers are very responsive.

Beyond that, the controller also has the +, and – buttons to pull up menus. It has the home button, and even included the screen capture button. Hori even put a turbo button into the controller, and it works wonderfully. Simply hold a button down, press turbo, and it will just rapid fire along when you hold it from that point on. Let go of everything, press the turbo button again, and everything goes back to normal.

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Frankly, this would be an utterly flawless solution if not for a couple of things. The worst is the lack of gyroscopic functions. This means that for a handful of games, you really won’t be able to use it properly. Super Mario Galaxy, for instance, requires gestures for some of the moves. Using the joycons, or pro controller won’t be a problem, as you can swing or shake them when needed. You can’t do them with the Horipad. The pad does work in Splatoon 2, but you won’t be able to use mouse-look like you can with the joycons or pro controller. There aren’t gobs, and gobs of games that require the gyroscopic tech. But if you buy one, do know you’ll have to use the joycons. I do applaud Hori for mentioning this on the back of the box though. It’s nice to know this going in.

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The other thing some won’t like is the D-pad. Rather than get rid of the C-buttons, and put a traditional D-pad in their place, they kept the C-buttons. The solution they came up with was to put a peg hole in between the buttons, and make a D-pad that plugs into it. It does work fairly well. In most games that benefit from a D-pad this works fine. Press “Up”, and get the desired result. However it ends up feeling like the D-pad on the original Xbox 360 controller.  So it isn’t quite as good as a dedicated D-pad but it’s still an improvement over the C-buttons on the  left joycon.

 

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But there is one really, cool thing about this controller, and that’s its versatility. You can also use this on any Windows 10 computer. Plug it in, and it is seen no problem. However the buttons are still mapped as if you were playing on the Switch. So in games where you’re used to using Microsoft’s layout, you’ll have to go into the menu, and re-bind keys. The overwhelming majority of PC games let you do this. But the bottom line is that, you can repurpose this as a game pad for your PC. Which means although you’re getting a second controller for your Switch, you don’t need to buy an Xbox or Steam controller for your computer. Assuming you haven’t already.

 

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All in all, this is a great all around controller for the overwhelming majority of games on the Switch. Especially if you want something a cut above most other third-party controllers in terms of quality while still coming in at a budget price. Those who require a traditional D-pad might want to look at other solutions. But again, this is still a cut above the build of a lot of third-party solutions. The fact that it can also be used as a PC game pad is also a really great feature. It’s also a really comfortable fit for about anybody’s hands. About the only major drawback is the exclusion of the gyroscopic features seen in Nintendo’s own Pro Controller. Be that as it may, you can get two of these pads for the cost of Nintendo’s wireless one. For someone who needs a solid controller at an affordable price, the Horipad is a contender.

Final Score: 8 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.

SD2EIC Drive Review

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It’s no secret I’m a huge Commodore fan. As a child in the 80’s, I started gaming on the seminal Atari 2600. It’s a timeless system for many reasons, and I still fire it up a lot today. But when my father came home with a Commodore 64 bread bin it quickly became the de facto platform in our household. When the company redesigned the computer, and sold a cheaper junior model, my father bought one, and donated the old one to relatives. But from the moment I saw Forbidden Forest running off a cassette tape the first time, I was hooked.

Through the years I played tons of awesome games on it. It wasn’t until I was a Junior in High School that we would move to a modern MS-DOS X86 PC. Because that is how versatile the King of 8-bit computers was. The C64 launched in 1983, and wasn’t discontinued until 1994 when the company went out of business. It’s fondly remembered as a games machine, because it’s where many companies went during the console market crash, and where many indies that became today’s majors got their start.

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It was a big deal here in North America, but it was even bigger in Europe. There are countless games that never officially made it Stateside.  So the platform is also an importer’s dream. Provided of course you’re willing to wade through the landmine of PAL Vs. NTSC concerns.

But whether you’re a North American or European Commodore 64 owner, there’s no denying that over time some of our floppies, and cassettes are slowly wearing out. A lot of our disk drives, and datasette drives are going kaput. With only so many in the wild, it’s going to get harder, and harder to rebuild our beloved collections. But fear not! Thanks to The Future Was 8-bit there is a way to keep the memory alive, on the original hardware.

PROS: An SD Card reader that emulates Floppy, and Cassette drives exceptionally well!

CONS: Not quite everything is compatible.

BUT: Far more than enough is compatible.

At first glance, the SD2EIC just looks like an SD card reader in a cute 1541 floppy drive shaped casing. But it’s no ordinary SD card reader!  This device emulates an actual 1541, and datasette environment. It plugs into either the tape drive slot or the floppy drive slot (depending on the version you order), and the serial DB port.  From here you can put in an SD card with your Commodore 64 program files , and run them natively on the computer!

This can be done a few ways, you can download images (assuming you own the programs in question), or if you have the means, you can back up your files to a computer, and then transfer them to a card.  You can also migrate disk images from the 1541 floppy drive to the SD2EIC. This is a little bit more involved, since you’ll need a couple of extra cables, and you’ll need to find a Compression software that works with the platform. Once you’re set up though, you will be so glad you have one of these.

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The device utilizes a file browser software file you can download which lets you go through a DOS like directory system. This makes it easy for you to organize files, and set them up in an order you feel most comfortable with. The documentation included with the SD2EIC gives you a pretty detailed set of instructions on using it. For basic file browsing though, it is pretty straight forward. You can navigate using either the CRSR Up/Down key, or a joystick in port two. If you don’t feel comfortable configuring the software, you can order a preconfigured card with it. The card has the file browser, and a bunch of programs on it.

If that weren’t enough, the device also has three buttons on it which are used when using programs that require multiple disks. This is handy when running a game or other program, that would normally involve flipping a diskette over, or putting in the next diskette when prompted. Here you have forward, backward, and reset buttons which you can press in these situations. Two of the buttons also act as the power, and load/save LEDs on the 1541 floppy drive. It’s really cool, and a nice touch to an already great experience.

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The SD2EIC can read all kinds of C64 file images. It can run D64, T64 files as well as PRG files. Again, it can also run them sequentially. But the device can also save files. This makes the unit very attractive to budding BASIC programmers. If you know your way around code, you can use this in lieu of a floppy diskette drive. This is a great way to save your projects without fear of a 1541 drive dying, or your diskette wearing out, and your data going with it. Plus even a relatively small SD card can house thousands of programs, and files due to the small file sizes on a typical 5.25″ Floppy Diskette. It’s compatible with both NTSC, and PAL machines too, though if you put PAL files on your card, and run it on an NTSC machine you’ll likely experience the same random glitches, video issues, or occasional crashes you would if you were to run an imported game on floppy.

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One of the things that really impressed me was the build quality. Most commercial SD card readers, even ones made by big industry names can be flimsy. The SD2EIC I received is superb. It’s built with plastic made by recycling broken Commodore 64, and 128 computer cases. It’s sturdy, and even the cabling feels secure. It isn’t something you can be careless with, but it can withstand shuffling around your set up.

There are a handful of minor issues with the drive. The first is that you do not want to accidentally grab the wrong controller if you have two of them plugged in. Doing so will exit you out of the program, and drop you back to the BASIC prompt. The second is that the SD2EIC doesn’t emulate a 1541 drive at 100%. That’s because the 1541 floppy drive is powered by another MOS 6502 CPU just like the stock Commodore 64 computer. So there are a handful of programs that won’t work due to being written in a way that utilizes the 1541 floppy drive in a specific way.

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Nevertheless, I can still tell you that the SD2EIC is a must own peripheral for any Commodore 64 collector. The wealth of pros outweigh the cons of a few incompatible programs out there. Especially when you consider just how versatile it is. The ability to run backup images alone, is something that should put this on your radar. With 5.25″ diskettes drying up, breaking down, and working 1541 drives dying from old age, this is a very welcome peripheral for preservation. Plus, budding indie developers have a means for their BASIC, and Assembly language projects to be stored on a modern format.

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It’s amazing how many wonderful homebrew products keep coming out for this legendary machine. Over the last three decades there have been Ethernet cards, a web browser, and even a new motherboard! But this drive is going to be more, and more sought after as time goes on. And, as these are made from recycled Commodore computers, you may want to get one before they dry up. It is truly a must own peripheral for anyone interested in Commodore.

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Now it should be noted there are other ways to get the SD2EIC. You can buy the circuit board, and daughter board from NKC Electronics. It’s nice if you’re good at assembling your own casings, and doing your own electronics assembly, or repair. But going with this specific one makes things very convenient. Plus the use of recycled computers to make the attractive casing is a nice touch that keeps them out of the landfill. I know I’m repeating myself, but it’s true. TheFutureWas8Bit has really outdone themselves with this one. Whether you’re a long time fan, or new to Commodore. Get yourself an SD2EIC from them. You won’t be sorry. Even the care put into the shipping packaging will astound you.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

A Steam walkthrough for newcomers

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(I originally wrote this for the defunct Retro Retreat. It’s been edited, and updated.)

Since it’s inception in 2003, Valve’s Steam service has come a long way. Starting out as an inconvenient, buggy, necessary evil for Hal-Life 2, it grew into a huge storefront, and destination for the biggest PC games. It adapted to the concerns, and needs of a community going so far as to create it’s own. Eventually dwarfing online store services in the console market in terms of members. It became famous for week-long door buster deals during the summer, and winter months igniting sales on existing games during what have always been lull periods for releases. How many times have you been on a video game message board to see threads of boasting huge sales? How many times have you heard friends talk about getting some of your favorite games on their computer for a lot less than $60, and legitimately?

 Yet for a variety of reasons good, or bad many out there still haven’t forayed into the world of Steam. This article is going to cover creating an account, utilizing the client, and showing a few things that some who have used the service may not yet know about. I chose to put out a Steam article because of the fact not a lot of blogs or outlets have really talked about it much other than mentioning when a major AAA release is coming to it or an indie darling is coming about. Despite having millions of subscribers, when I’m in public I  still meet a lot of gamers who have yet to try Valve’s service out. I will be going through the service on a Windows machine, but the service is available to those on Apple Macintosh or any of the Linux distributions.

The first step to setting up a Steam account is really simple. From any computer with an internet connection go to the Steam website (Steampowered.com), and click Install Steam at the top right corner. A box will ask you if you want to save or open the installer. Click save, and once it’s downloaded then you can proceed to run the installer. Once you have Steam installed, you can run the client by clicking the shortcut if you chose to have it on your desktop or start screen (If you are on Windows 8). Otherwise simply go with the standard Start->All Programs->Steam->Steam path from your Start button.

When you first fire up the client it’s going to take you through a sign up process. This is generally straightforward, asking for typical info for business or security reasons most websites you use every day have probably asked for. All of this will be tied to an email address of your choosing.

The reason for this is so that you can get security checks, lost password information or email alerts from Valve should you ever need it. Once you have an email address selected, it will also ask you for an account name (Which will be different from your online name), and a password for you to log onto Steam. Some people like to check mark the software to remember their password. But generally this isn’t recommended, especially if you are using a laptop at a public hotspot. Remember that all of your game, and content purchases will be tied to your Steam account. So if the password is stolen, the thief has access to your digital library. Steam does have some safeguards in place in case this ever happens. But to better avoid such a scenario it’s recommended you memorize, and type in your password when you want to log onto the service.

You can also access your account from any computer with an internet connection, so do feel free to do so. For instance, if you are on a netbook in a coffee shop (or other place with a hotspot), and have the sudden urge to play Peggle, you can log on to Steam from there as well. Steam will build a list of trusted devices for your account with it’s Steam Guard feature. You will be emailed a code with every device that tries to log on, so if someone tries to do it on a system you don’t own they will be denied unless they also have access to your email account to get the specific code.

With all of that out-of-the-way, it’s time to customize your account. Here you can choose a screen name for your friends, and opponents in games to see you under. You can also upload a photo or other picture to your account to use as an avatar. You can also change this at any time. So if you become bored, or begin to worry it may offend someone it can be swapped. You can also post a website under your info so if you want someone to be able to visit it you can do so. Then when people see your profile they can visit your site if they wish.

Many people like to put a description or a list of likes, and dislikes here while others like to leave them blank. Just like Facebook, it’s entirely up to you how open or private you would like to be. Please use proper judgment though, as you don’t want to have your private phone number, or company secrets, or social security numbers or other stuff that should remain private floating around the internet. Once you have a profile set up it’s time to start adding friends if you have any, who are already on the service. Simply go to the top of the screen, and click the Friends tab. Under that, click Add Friend, and you will be able to search by screen name or email. Once you find them, click Add Friend, and an invitation will be sent to them. Once they get it, they can confirm they know you, and will be on your friends list. The friends list client is a lot more than just a, well list of people.

The friends list works much like your list on Xbox Live, Playstation Network, or (For us old timers) X-Fire. You can talk to them via typing, or by talking on a headset. Right clicking on their names allows you to invite them to join a chat, or a group. Groups are nice for fans of certain games, or other fandoms to get together on Steam. You will find Steam groups for just about anything within reason. Groups will allow you to make other friends or at least players you can get along with.

Now that you have an account, and a friends list it’s time to navigate your layout. Steam has four main areas noted at the top: STORE. LIBRARY. COMMUNITY. followed by whatever screen name you went with. The store is usually the default screen for most people who sign into Steam. It is here you are greeted with a scrolling pane of the latest releases. Sometimes you may also get pop ups of the latest releases, or sales. You can either click next on each one if you’re interested or simply click close, and it won’t bother you again. The store tab allows you to shop for games. You can use the search function to find a particular title, or you can sort by price, or genre. You can even look by developer or publisher. On the side panel you can also find a button to sort for games under $10 or under $5 for those times when you want something new to play, but don’t have a lot of disposable income. Valve will often times do a special mid-week deal on Wednesdays to pique interest, and many times on Weekends have special two-day deals where you can play a full priced game for free, and then buy it at a discounted rate if you really enjoy it.

But the biggest hype in the Steam community is during the summer, and leading up to early winter a second time when Valve runs annual season sales. Particularly the summer sale. During this sale each day games will be slashed 50%-90% off. Before you go thinking it’s just to unload unwanted keys for drivel nobody wants to play there are a lot of great deals every year. Blockbuster games, indie games, and everything in between. Sometimes during these runs you will see publisher packs discounted too. These packs generally include every game the publisher has released on Steam. Other packs will be multiplayer packs, where a single user can buy a bundle of keys to be given away to friends. Games like Payday 2 really benefit from this as the discounted rate gets a sale from fans. But also legally, and affordably gets their on the fence friends to check out a game they might not normally buy on their own.

Season sales also involve the community by raffling off content for hitting metrics. Get an achievement in one title, get a card. Get a friend to play Co-Op with you, get a card. Write a comment or recommendation or commendation of a title you played, get a card. Collect so many cards, get a badge that boosts your Steam profile rating. These contests make an already great sale into something fun, and community driven. Plus a lot of the community driven things that occur during these periods don’t require buying things. So it’s just more of an incentive to log in, and play with your friends.

Buying games is pretty easy. Once you go to a game’s page you click on Add To Cart. Clicking on your cart then takes you to the checkout. Here you can choose to buy the title for yourself, or to gift the title to someone else. Electing to gift the title will let you either email a notification to someone, or you can simply pick someone from your friends list. You can also add the gift to your inventory to hang onto to be gifted later. This is a wonderful way to buy for birthdays or holidays that are a ways off.

 Steam will even let you know if a friend already owns the title so you can back out of the transaction, and choose something else to gift. At this point whether you’re buying for yourself or someone else, Steam will ask for your billing information. Here is where you enter your address, and credit card information. Steam will then let you save the information  for future purchases, or like your password, you can leave the box un-ticked.

It should also be noted that Steam features a buying option for those without a credit card: The Steam Wallet. Steam Wallet allows you to purchase gift cards at physical brick, and mortar stores to be used on Steam. They can be found at Best Buy, Target, 7 Eleven or GameStop, and they may turn up at other retailers as well. All of the cards have a code (Except at GameStop which we’ll get to in a moment.) that can be redeemed. Simply click under the Games tab, pick Redeem Steam Wallet Code, and type it in. In the case of GameStop, rather than print the code on the actual cards, wallet codes are printed on the receipt. Adding the wallet code works the same way. If you have any money in your Steam wallet, it becomes your default payment. So game purchases will come out of the wallet until empty. Once empty, Steam will then ask for credit card information again.

Video games, and other content purchased from Steam are forever tied to your account. As mentioned earlier, you can access your content from any system Steam is installed on. Steam also has an offline mode. So if you have a spotty connection, or simply want to play a single player game on your laptop while camping you can choose to. All you have to do is click Go Offline under the Steam tab before going out, and about. It should also be noted that any physical retail disc version of a game also sold on Steam will be added to your account. Simply choose Activate A Product On Steam, punch in the Key, and the service will authenticate it. Once authenticated you can either download the title or install it from your physical disc.

Now that you have some titles under your belt it’s time to customize your library. When you click your Library tab you will notice a few symbols toward the upper right. These allow you to change the layout of your library. You can choose (Left to right) a simplified list version (With descriptions on the right for each title), a modified list version, or Steam Grid version. (Pictured). Going with Steam Grid gives your library a look similar to those found on Xbox Live, or Apple iTunes. This layout is by far the most popular one, and is recommended for anyone other than those running on fairly underpowered computers. There is also a fourth layout called Big Picture mode.

Steam Big Picture mode is intended for gamers using a Home Theatre PC. What’s a Home Theatre PC some of you may ask? A HTPC is a computer used in lieu of typical media players, and set-top boxes with a TV set. Not only are they popular with some of the do it yourself crowd, who like to buy parts, and assemble their own computer. But some manufacturers actually sell pre built ones along with their regular desktop lines. HTPC’s typically have midrange to top-tier hardware. Great processors, graphics cards, and fast storage. Some even include Blu-Ray drives. HTPC’s also come mostly in cases that resemble rack mount stereo equipment, or set-top boxes. Some of the Steam boxes take this route as well. With a HTPC hooked up to a HDTV, Big Picture mode allows players to navigate Steam with an Xbox 360 (or comparable) gamepad.

Steam Big Picture mode changes the entire look of Steam. You can browse not only the store or your library or friends list with the twin sticks, but the mode also features a web browser too. The web browser controls well, and displays most websites with little to no trouble. Typing in web addresses or chatting with friends is also seamless. Rather than pull up an onscreen keyboard the way every console since the NES has, Steam Big Picture has a wheel like display. It can look daunting at first, but the color coded letters are fairly easy to follow, especially if using an Xbox 360 pad. To exit the mode, Steam entirely, or even restart or shut off your computer, you can highlight the power button, and pull up a shutdown menu.

Steam also allows gamers to run titles not originally intended for release on Steam. Doing this is very simple. Under the Games tab select Add Non Steam Game To My Library. From here you will see a list box of everything installed on your computer, much like the one featured in Windows’ Add Or Remove Programs option under it’s control panel. Once you check mark, and apply the title you want to add it will appear on your list or grid of titles. But it doesn’t end there! If you are using the Grid mode, you can then right-click on the new, but bland icon, and pick your own custom artwork for the button! All you have to do is make sure you have the custom button made up to be applied. Simply pick Set Custom Image after right clicking the icon, and then browse for your custom button. JPEG, PNG, or TGA formats can be used at a resolution of 460×215.

The other major area of Steam of importance is the Steam Community tab. This is where you can visit the latest news that outlets are bringing up, as well as game hubs. Game hubs allow users to share screenshots, files, and discuss the titles they love. Every title available for download on Steam has it’s own community hub. There is also a Steam Community Market where users can trade custom content for Steam Wallet credit. It’s an entire sub economy for enthusiasts. Many games support this area most notably Team Fortress 2, and it’s hat crafting. The most successful people in the community have actually been able to make a living at it.

Steam Trading Cards are also a big component of the market. Most of the new releases on the service over the last two years support them. As you play these titles, over time they drop cards you can use for profile or community uses. Each card belongs to a set. Half of which are generally dropped off to you by playing the game they are associated with. To get the remaining cards in the set you can trade with friends, or buy them in the Steam Marketplace. Completing sets allows you to craft badges, that in turn boost your Steam Level which is kind of like Xbox Gamerscore. It gives you bragging rights amongst your friends. But it can also get you custom game themed backgrounds for your profile, along with emoticons for use while instant messaging friends.

However, if you’re a player who doesn’t care about that aspect of the service, you can sell your cards on the marketplace. Most of the cards will be nickel, and dime pricing. But occasionally you may get a rarer foil version of a card that goes for more. Sale events can also drop special cards. Selling these on the marketplace for change adds up. So many players will sell the cards for wallet credit, and use the money on new games instead of crafting badges with the trading cards.

t your thing, you may want to look at Steam Greenlight. Greenlight is something everyone should look at once in a while, because it allows community input as to what titles may eventually find their way to the Steam store for actual purchase. One of the best examples of Greenlight bringing a wonderful title to Steam is Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams. This excellent platformer was green lit after a very successful Kickstarter. Steam users can vote on what upcoming titles they want to see hit the store. There are thousands of titles to vote for, from independent creators to studios with a product publishers may have rejected. If enough folks vote for a title, Valve puts it into their pipeline, and begins the process of working with the creators on how to get it on the Steam store.

Eventually this portion of Steam is supposed to be retired. But for now players can use it to try to keep good games in the store, and bad games out. Sadly, it’s really about the only thing you can do aside from posting reviews. Fortunately, Steam does allow you to do so on every game’s store page. So if you have played a title you loved, and want to implore people to buy it you can do that. You can also tell people to stay away from stinkers you’ve played as well.

Finally, it’s time to go back to the first option a second. Click on Steam, and pick Settings.

This will bring up a box with several tabs. We’ll briefly cover each of these. The first tab is called Account. This is where you should go if your email address ever needs to change or you want to change your password. You can also manage Steam Guard protection as well as choose any Beta participation with the Steam client. If you choose to opt in, you will get any updates to the client that aren’t finalized. You can always change this on or off, but participating in betas does let you get a peek at what may be coming down the pike.

The second tab is the Friends tab. This tab goes further than the friend option on the top of the mainline Steam screen. It gives you the option to change sound tones, let you know if someone logs on,  lets you post time stamps during conversations, as well as notifications, and sounds options.

Third on the list is the Interface tab. This tab lets you change language settings in addition to whether or not you want Steam in your startup menu, what custom skins (If any) you would like to use with the client, and what screen you see first upon logging on. You can even choose to default into Big Picture mode if you wish.

The In-Game tab features options for the Steam overlay. The overlay is a feature all of the Steam purchased software titles, and some non Steam titles allow players to use. Basically, it covers the game or program being used for quick access to the Steam community, or friends tabs. It’s handy when you’re gaming, and a friend needs to talk to you at the same time. You can also choose a Steam Browser homepage here.

The Downloads + Cloud tab is where your bandwidth options go. Here you can change the speed if you ever upgrade/downgrade your internet service, and you can also alter where your Steam games are installed. Honestly it’s best if you use the default locations for your Steam installs as to keep everything running smoothly. But if you ever do change from Cable service to DSL service for instance, changing that here can better optimize Steam.

The final tab is the Voice tab. This controls the Voice over IP settings in Steam. If you find yourself playing a lot of games with friends, and don’t  want to go through the setup process of third-party VOIP clients like Ventrillo, Mumble, or C3 it’s a great feature. For non Steam games however you still may want to use one of those third-party clients, as not every non Steam title works with the Steam VOIP or overlay.

So that’s the basics for Steam. Feel free to tweak, or poke deeper into the service. Some of the things covered here may change in later updates, but not so much it renders this guide unusable. Hopefully you’ve enjoyed reading through this, and found it a great resource for your first foray into the #1 digital storefront in PC gaming. Keep an eye out for the mega bargains during the seasonal sales, make some friends, and enjoy all of the great stuff Valve’s service has to offer.