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Mechanical Keyboard Guide

Cherry Switches

This guide explains the differences between the four most common types of Cherry MX switches, often the biggest difference between mechanical keyboards. Each switch is named after its colour.

Blue – These switches are the easiest to identify, as typing on them produces a loud clicky sound. They also produce tactile feedback, as you can feel a small bump upon pressing down each key. These switches are often called ‘Click Action’ and require 50g to actuate. These switches are often recommended for typing.

Popular Blue keyboards: Razer BlackWidow, Das Keyboard Ultimate.

 

Brown – Brown switches are similar to Blue switches, as they incorporate the same tactile feedback. Unlike the Blue switches however, they are much quieter, lacking the characteristic clicky sound. These switches are often called ‘Tactile Action’ and require 45g to actuate.

Popular Brown keyboards: Filco Majestouch-2 Tactile, Leopold FC200RT Brown.

 

Black – Black switches are very different to Brown and Blue switches, as they incorporate neither tactile feedback (a bump) or aural feedback (a click). Black switches are typically called ‘Linear Action’ and require 60g to actuate. This high actuation force can be helpful for avoiding accidental keypresses.

Popular Black keyboards: SteelSeries 7g, Leopold FC200RT Black.

 

Red – Like Black switches, Red switches possess linear action, as they actuate without special tactile or aural feedback. These switches are much lighter than Black switches, typically requiring only 45g to actuate (compared to 60g). These switches are (like Black) called ‘Linear Action’.

Popular Red keyboard: Leopold FC500RR.

 

Or, put simply:

Clicky Tactile Actuation Called
Blue Yes Yes 50g Click Action
Brown No Yes 45g Tactile Action
Black No No 60g Linear Action
Red No No 45g Linear Action

104 / Tenkeyless

Typically mechanical keyboards are available in two formats, 104 and Tenkeyless. 104 keyboards feature a numberpad, while Tenkeyless keyboards do not.

Typically Tenkeyless keyboards are chosen for gaming contexts, as few games require use of the numberpad.The reduction of size can mean that the keyboard is closer to your mouse, resulting in better posture. This can be useful for gaming on small desks. The smaller size also means that the keyboard will be lighter, which can be a bonus as mechanical keyboards tend to be quite weighty.

Cheers to Manyak’s Mechanical Keyboard Guide for much of the information and Geekhack’s LethalSquirrel for the animated illustrations.

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Dirt 3 Review [PS3]

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Game Reviews

Dirt 3 is Codemasters’ latest off-road racing game, following up 2009’s Colin McRae: Dirt 2. While legendary rally racer McRae has been dropped from the title, Dirt 3 marks a return to the series’ rallying roots.

True to form, the action is split across several off-road disciplines, including rally, rallycross, trailblazer, landrush and head-to-head modes. These races take place across lushly detailed stages, from the snowy wilds of Norway to the sun baked roads of Kenya. These disparate locales are newly enhanced with weather effects and night driving, which transform familiar courses into untested tracks that you’d be foolish to take at full speed, not least because you’d be missing the visuals.

Dirt’s big draw isn’t the scenery though; instead it’s the clever driving model which convincingly captures the thrill of barely-in-control off-road racing for newcomers and veterans alike, letting you feel your car squirm around every slick corner and bounce over every bump.Continue reading

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Speedlink Medusa NX Stereo Gaming Headset

Today we’ve got the Speedlink Medusa NX Stereo Gaming Headset. As far as stereo gaming headsets go, the £30 Medusa NX is fairly inexpensive, so there’s certainly some potential for a good bargain here. Let’s see how it stacks up!

First, let’s look at the sound quality. In video games, the Medusa NX provide good but not incredible sound quality, with a well-balanced but not particularly crisp sound. Voice chat, whether in-game or over Skype, is perfectly understandable.

For music, you’ll certainly need to fiddle with your EQ settings to get things sounding just right. Once you’ve done so, the Medusa NX does fare well for all music types, although again the sound is a bit muddy; if you’re looking for a divine aural experience you’ll need to move a bit up-market.

The microphone, although non-detachable, is affixed to a flexible metallic boom, so positioning is not a problem and damage seems unlikely. The sound quality of the microphone compares favourably to others in its class, and will produce good results over Skype and Teamspeak alike.

Comfort is another vitally important quality for a gaming headset, and one place that many cheaper gaming headsets fall down. The Medusa NX’s thickly padded cups do provide above-average comfort and certainly more than I was expecting at this price range. Still, after a few hours it was a relief to remove them.

While the back of the box claims that the NX Stereo is lightweight at 280g, it’s heavier than my previous gaming headset, the Creative Fatal1ty (200g). This weight is put to good use though, with thick and solid construction from the microphone to the cups themselves. The 2.8m long cable is similarly well constructed, although the in-line control does feel weak. Overall though, the Medusa NX does feel well-made and unlikely to break even when folded, so that’s certainly a point in its favour.

I’d say that the Speedlink Medusa NX Stereo Gaming Headset is a fine choice for gamers looking for a budget headset. While it lacks flashy looks or custom features, the NX gets the basics right and that’s what really counts.

The Speedlink Medusa NX Stereo Gaming Headset was tested with StarCraft II, Brink and music from classical to K-pop. The sample used for the review was provided by the good people at Meroncourt. You can buy the Medusa NX Stereo on Amazon.

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Ozone Ground Level XT Mousepad Review

Gaming peripherals these days are titled like exotic cars, labelled with a baffling assortment of two letter acronyms boasting of increased performance, superior gaming acumen, and a competitive edge. You’d be excused for thinking Ozone’s Ground Level XT follows the same path, but happily the XT doesn’t stand for Xtreme Technology or Xtra Trendy: instead it stands for the perfectly palatable Extra Thick.

As soon as you take it out of the clear plastic box, you can tell that the XT is definitely on the thick and heavy side. A thickness of six millimetres doesn’t sound like much, but it’s positively massive compared to the usual 2 mm thickness of traditional cloth mousepads. Still, does an extra 4 mm of padding make that much of a difference to the common gamer?

After using it for a few days, I’d say so. While its claim of smoothing “all the small imperfections the desk may have” may be a non-issue for those of us using wood or metal rather than, say, a pile of gravel, it does make the mousepad much more comfortable to use. That’s important for the long gaming sessions that are the staple diet of so many gamers, particularly those that haven’t invested in a dedicated wrist wrest.

Beyond the aforementioned thickness, the Ground Level XT is dependably average. The cloth surface is soft, with a sufficiently low coefficient of friction that mousing certainly isn’t an exigent task. The size of the pad is also fairly typical, so it will suit gamers with all but the lowest mouse DPI settings.

For a mousepad costing less than £10, the Ozone Ground Level XT provides a startlingly comfortable mousing experience. If you’re looking for a cloth mousepad of the standard size, particularly if you’re going to be using it for many hours a day, then the XT should be your first stop.

The Ozone Ground Level XT was tested in StarCraft II, Brink and normal desktop usage. The sample used for the review was provided by the good people at Meroncourt. You can buy the Ground Level XT on Amazon.


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SteelSeries Shift Gaming Keyboard Review

The SteelSeries Shift is all about one thing – customisability. Like the Zboard before it, the Shift can transform into a different keyboard to fit the game you’re playing. This isn’t just in software either; the actual physical keys can be quickly detached from the base unit and replaced with one of a number of different keysets sold by the company, allowing you to quickly change both the function and physical appearance of the keyboard. It’s a very cool idea, but how well does it work in practice?

Gaming

The base keyset included with the Shift is pretty much a standard keyboard (as seen on the right), with the exception of a split-apart spacebar and some helpful directional symbols on WASD. For gaming, it’s solid but unremarkable; the keys are easy enough to hit and well proportioned but have no specific advantage over a normal non-gaming keyboard. SteelSeries claims up to six presses at once (key phrase there, “up to”), and sure enough in my testing I never found it a problem.

The dedicated macro keys, found along the top of the keyboard, are flat, wide and easy to press. I like that they’re along the top instead of (as is so often the case) along the side, as it means you’re much more likely to press them accidentally, although of course it also means it’ll take a little longer to reach them. There’s a record key on the top too, meaning you can record a macro and assign it to one of the macro keys without leaving the game, something that spares a lot of time.

Where it’s supposed to get good is when you take out the base typing keyset, and load in a keyset for your favourite game. SteelSeries were kind enough to supply me with a StarCraft II keyset, something I was particularly happy about as I play a lot of StarCraft II. Truth be told, for me the StarCraft II keyset was a mixed bag.

While having the shortcuts printed on the keys isn’t that useful for most serious gamers (I can’t see a pro-gamer looking down at their keyboard to remember how to build a structure), it can be handy for teaching the game to your friends.

Having shortcuts on the numberpad also doesn’t fit StarCraft very well – generally, you’ll have your left hand on the left side of the keyboard at all times, as almost all of the game’s shortcuts are on that side. To press the macro keys then, you’d have to take your hand off the mouse or away from the left side, neither of which seems very possible when playing at all but the lowest levels.

It’s certainly worth mentioning that the StarCraft II keyset was actually originally built for the Zboard, and seems to feature the same lower-quality key feel that the Zboard did. Particularly on the circular StarCraft specific keys on the right hand side, I found it a lot more difficult to find and hit the keys when I needed to. I would assume that this isn’t a problem with the newer Shift-specific keysets, but I don’t have them around to test so I don’t know.

If you’re the kind of person that owns shirts, bags, mousepads and other merch from your favourite game (and I know I am) then it’s pretty cool to have a themed keyboard. Otherwise though, I found having the standard keyset installed to be much more useful, even when playing StarCraft II. Overall, I’d say that the base unit is the best non-mechanical keyboard I’ve used for gaming, even if the StarCraft II keyset I tried wasn’t to my liking.

Typing

As a typing keyboard, the Shift is far superior to its predecessor the Zboard. The base keyset feels a lot better to type on, and while the split spacebar can cause some initial aggravation, once you learn where it is it’s not so bad. The letter keys are weighted at 60g, which I feel is pretty close to ideal.

The media keys and macro keys are, mercifully, flush with the keyboard, meaning that it’s extremely difficult to hit them accidentally, something that always happens when a friend sits down at my BlackWidow or G15.

The Shift also avoids the typical gaming keyboard obsession with moving around the keys for no good reason; the numberpad is present and accounted for, and the function keys all act as they should. The Home/End block is shifted down slightly to allow for the Bar Lock and Pad Lock keys, but this is a fairly easy thing to get used to.

While mechanical switches offer the best typing experience, at least in my opinion, the Shift isn’t bad at all. In fact, I’d say it’s probably one of the better gaming keyboards for typing, as the keys aren’t too mushy and everything is where it should be. Unlike the Zboard before it, you could legitimately use the Shift as your one-and-only keyboard.

Comfort

The Shift is a pretty comfortable keyboard to type on using the base keyset and will work fine for extended gaming sessions. When using the StarCraft II keyset and its rounded keys, I found that I would slip off fairly frequently, making it a bit more tiring to use. Overall though, this is a perfectly usable keyboard for typing, although big writers or programmers will likely find a mechanical or scissor keyboard more to their liking than the Shift’s rubber domes.

Connectivity

As with most high-end gaming keyboards, the Shift’s cat-of-nine-tails cord features a number of passthrough options, allowing you to plug peripherals into your keyboard instead of scrabbling around the back of the computer to plug things in. If you’re low on USB ports or your case doesn’t feature front or top facing ports, this can be a real lifesaver. There are two USB ports, a microphone port, and a stereo port. Unusually, one of the USB ports is powered, meaning that you can plug in external harddrives, flash drives, and other USB devices that won’t work on a standard USB hub. The ports are fairly easy to reach too, giving the Shift the best connectivity options of any keyboard I’ve used.

Look and Feel

As with other SteelSeries products, the Shift looks more conservative than say, a Razer or Logitech product. Instead of constant flashy lights and poppy colours, the Shift has a muted and functional look, something that I personally prefer. While the choice of colour and finish is fairly standard, the Shift does feature a few strong curves; you can tell this isn’t a £3 keyboard.

The Shift feels well built as well; although made of plastic, it is weighty enough to convey a sense of strength. Each component is strongly constructed, from the thick plastic fold-up feet to the heavy plastic of the cord. This is impressive, particularly considering the potentially fragile operation of changing keysets, something that feels natural and not weak in any way.

Software

The Shift’s software portion, the SteelSeries Engine, allows you to further customise the keyset by remapping any key on the keyboard. As well as single keypresses and predefined shortcuts, such as launching programs or activating commonly used Windows functions, you also get access to the Engine’s advanced macro functionality. Essentially a stored sequence of commands and delays, macros allow you to accomplish multi-step tasks with the push of a button.

These are particularly great for MMOs, where you’ll be casting the same spells in the same order again and again. My own favourite macro usage is to spam the in-game chat with victory messages after I defeat the enemy team in FPS titles, but there are loads of situations in which a macro can be very useful.

As you change keysets, the Engine switches to that keysets profile, allowing you to have different functionality in different games. Typically, these mappings will only be activated once the game is detected by the Engine software, thus preventing the indignanty of performing a spell casting or chat spamming macro in the middle of your IM conversation.

You can also import and export profiles in the Engine, allowing you to share configs with your friends or download them off the internet. Another cool feature is the Stats tab, which allows you to record how many times you press each key on the keyboard during a gaming session, displaying the results in a nifty heatmap of the keyboard.

Overall, the Shift’s software is top-notch, tying with Razer’s in terms of functionality and ease of use.

Cost

The Shift currently costs £75 on Amazon.co.uk – roughly similar to the Razer BlackWidow and the Logitech G15, both of which have their unique features (mechanical switches and an integrated display, respectively). While initially this seems like a great price, once you factor in the cost of additional keysets at £17 a pop, it’s a harder one to judge. While the Shift’s base unit is excellent, you really need to buy a keyset for your favourite game to really take advantage of it, which may make the Shift just too costly for some.

Conclusion

The SteelSeries Shift’s excellent functionality, solid construction and top-notch software overshadow its small flaws, and if you’re all about macro keys and customisability, then this is the keyboard for you. While I prefer a mechanical keyboard for typing, as a gaming peripheral it’s excellent.

As always, buying a keyboard is a very subjective thing, so don’t take my word for it: Go and try a friend’s! And if you’ve tried the Shift or another great gaming keyboard lately, let me know in the comments!

The SteelSeries Shift and StarCraft II keyset were provided by SteelSeries.

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Toshiba Portege R400 Tablet PC Review

The R400 is a member of Toshiba’s Portege line, a brand aimed towards business professionals who are willing to spend top dollar to get exclusive features in an ultraportable package.

The first thing you’ll notice about the R400 is the stylish white and black chassis, which at 29mm thick is just a bit thicker than Apple’s MacBook Pro. While at first glance it takes the appearance of a standard ultraportable laptop, it’s also able to function as a tablet PC by rotating the screen 180 degrees and folding it back against the keyboard. The LED screen is bright and highly readable, and using the touchscreen with the included stylus is similarly a breeze. Thankfully, you’ll quickly come to trust the R400’s high build quality when transferring between tablet and laptop modes.

Although heavier and thicker than a dedicated tablet like the iPad, the R400 is much more capable. As it runs full-featured Windows Vista by default (and easily upgrades to Windows 7), you’re able to run all the programs you’re used to on your desktop computer. On the laptop side of things, the keyboard and trackpad are quite usable, if a little cramped. You’re also able as connect a host of peripherals via its two USB ports or Bluetooth. The R400 also counts a standard 802.11abg wireless card and a 3G modem amongst its connectivity options, although faster wireless 802.11n is notably lacking. Another no-show is an integrated optical drive, so you’ll have to transfer your media via USB or wireless.

The R400 also provides some unique features; probably the most interesting is the auxiliary EDGE display. Located on the outside of the case, this monochrome display can display useful information like incoming emails and battery levels, even when the laptop is turned off. Another business level feature is the integrated fingerprint reader located just underneath the display.

The small form factor unfortunately has led to compromises in performance; the R400’s Intel Core Duo 1.2GHz processor is faster than that of a typical netbooks, but pales in comparison to most contemporary laptops of much lower price. The integrated graphics are also weak, so few 3D games will run at tolerable framerates. Even with such low powered components, the battery life is merely adequate, with the six cell battery lasting just three hours under moderate usage. Although an secondary battery is available, this considerably increases the weight of the unit. All things considered, while office applications and your web browser will run just fine, you’re better off sticking with another computer for intensive tasks like media editing or games.

If you need a highly usable and stylish laptop for running your browser and office applications, the R400 is definitely worth a look.

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Magicka PC Review

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When PC gamers hear the phrase action RPG, one series immediately springs to mind: Diablo. The classic Blizzard titles re-energised the tired RPG market of the late nineties with their heavy combat focus and streamlined plot and character interaction. They also spawned dozens of similar games, from Greek fantasy Titan Quest, to tactical Dungeon Siege, to cheap and cheerful Torchlight. While these games kept the same core mechanics of click-heavy combat, randomised loot and specialised characters, Arrowhead Game Studios’ Magicka takes a much more creative approach, stripping out the RPG elements and adding some adventure.Continue reading

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MechWarrior Retrospective: The Future is Hawken

The first multiplayer game I really got into was an odd one – Microsoft’s MechWarrior series. If you haven’t played it, it’s basically a game in which you pilot a massive robotic walker, called a ‘mech, armed with a judicious amount of firepower. Unlike most FPS games of the time, there was a high level of customisability; given a maximum tonnage, you had to balance engine power, armour and weapons to make your perfect fighting machine. You could act as a sniper, taking down enemies from kilometers away with banks of missiles shot forty at a time, or get in close and rip your opponent’s legs off with a well aimed autocannon shot.Continue reading