Archive for the 'review' Category

10 minute review: Logitech M500 mouse

Friday, October 22nd, 2010

About a year and a half ago, the little computer shop where I worked got in a pair of Logitech MX Revolution mice. These were huge, expensive, wireless mice with one awesome feature – the scroll wheel could be clicked into a free-spinning mode, where one deft movement would let you zip through pages and pages of text or whatever at once.

I couldn’t stand the mouse – it was too big and heavy for me to accurately game with for long periods, I didn’t really need wireless, it sacrificed middle-click to switch the wheel in and out of hyperscroll mode, and did I mention it was expensive? – but that scroll wheel was revolutionary and I sorely missed it for weeks after trying it out for a couple of days.

Fast forward to today – new job, new desk, decent work laptop, and a mouse whose main claims to fame include “Integrated wheel scrolling device” and “Business Black color complements ThinkCentre and ThinkPad systems”. I made it nearly four months with the thing, before deciding to treat myself to something better.

That something turned out to be Logitech’s M500.

In brief: USB, corded, laser optical, Logitech quality. Hyper scrolling is switched on and off with the button on top. And never mind the US$ RRP of $39.99 – I paid AU$35 for mine from PC Case Gear.

Accidentally pressing a mouse’s thumb buttons and browsing back a page in Firefox is a pet peeve of mine, and I still do it occasionally with my G3 at home, but the buttons on the M500 are much higher and harder to hit except entirely on purpose without being out of reach. The cord should be pretty long-lasting – it’s lightweight but not too thin. It ought to survive anything short of being absent-mindedly driven over with an office chair.

Tracking is as good as I could need – my work setup involves two fairly high-res LCDs side by side, and being able to flick accurately between Lotus Notes on one screen and a virtual server half a metre away on the other is pretty essential. My old Lenovo mouse did the job, but this mouse is noticeably better at it.

Conclusion: If you spend eight hours a day with your hand glued to a computer mouse, it better be a good one. Any $35 mouse should kick butt compared to the stock standard thing your work PC came with, but I wasn’t expecting anything with Logitech’s hyper-fast scrolling for that price, and now that they’ve figured out how to let you middle-click despite having it there’s no reason not to choose it over anything else. Recommended.

Howto: Edit the boot menu easily in Windows Vista and 7

Saturday, September 19th, 2009

Startup options in Windows XP. Startup options in Windows 7.

The Windows XP boot menu is determined by the contents of C:\boot.ini, a scary little text file that nevertheless is pretty important to know about if you fix computers. Microsoft changed how the boot menu works in Windows Vista and 7, helpfully removing the Edit button as you can see in the screenshots above.

You’re meant to use the even scarier command-line-only tool bcdedit, but I can’t be bothered learning how that works just to fix the incredibly basic problems I usually see (duplicate entries due to messed-up OS installs or repairs, or tweaking dualboot systems properly).

I’d like to share a lazier solution: VistaBootPRO gives you a perfectly good GUI for boot menu editing. The personal edition sells for US$10 on their site, but there appears to be a free version available here if you’re only going to need it once or twice.

VistaBootPRO on Windows 7.

It gives me a slightly scary error message on startup about Vista not being detected (I’m running Windows 7) and that I may “experience minor problems”, but it’s worked fine for the basic things I’ve done with it. YMMV.

Howto: Find drivers for XP on new laptops

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2009

This is increasingly becoming a common situation: You’ve got a brand new laptop, it’s got Vista, it runs like a dog, and you want XP on it instead. You’ve got a spare copy of XP – for one reason or another – and you’d like to install it.

Here’s the catch: Tons of new hardware is being brought out without drivers being written for Windows XP, and laptops are just full of it.

Case in point: an HP dv6836TX, which a customer recently brought in to have XP loaded on it. HP do not provide XP drivers for all of its hardware, only some of it, and it took me a good half a day to find everything. Software for the card reader – a Ricoh R5C822  – came from a similarly-specced Dell Inspiron 1525. The onboard LAN pretended to be a Realtek 8139, which XP has drivers for, but those drivers actually hung the system; it’s actually an RTL8102E, or something like that.

The simplest way to identify hardware in a computer is to run a program that looks at all the individual devices, matches them up to a big list of vendor and device IDs, and tells you who made each thing and roughly what it’s supposed to do. 99% of the time at work, we use Everest for that, which isn’t a free program but the trial version is perfectly capable of IDing hardware.

The graphics gave me the biggest headache by a long shot. NVidia do host drivers for laptop chipsets now, but because HP (and practically every other laptop maker…) subtlely customise their hardware, NV’s software for the 8400M GS failed to see any compatible hardware, and flat refused to install.

It’s the most frustrating kind of incompatibility: it comes down to one little text file missing one little line with some numbers in it, the result of which is that you’re completely dependent on your computer manufacturer for software updates.

Or, to put it another way: You’re not. I mention laptopvideo2go.com in passing on my driver guide, but today they deserve some serious recognition. These guys collect those little lines from all the laptops they and their friends can find, and put them all in one big text file – the .inf file, which lists all the hardware a driver is compatible with – so that NVidia’s own drivers will recognise NVidia’s own hardware.

It’s a bit tricky to do – their site is a little confusing in places, and financially supported by well-placed driver-promising ads where necessary – but their forum is run by human beings, and anybody even slightly technically minded ought to be able to figure it out.

I managed to, and that 6836TX went home running XP like a champ.

Mapping your network with Windows 7

Sunday, February 1st, 2009

Link Layer Topology Discovery first appeared when Windows Vista came out in 2006, but wasn’t very exciting back then, as most people playing with Vista had existing home networks full of XP, which doesn’t support LLTD by default. Now, though, with Vista machines more common and regular people up to testing Windows 7, it’s becoming more than just a curiosity: it actually works now.

networkmap

This is Windows 7′s network mapper in action at a recent LAN gathering. C7 and Pitchblack aren’t shown in the map; those PCs were running Windows XP and Ubuntu Linux respectively, both of which need a little tweaking to show up properly in Vista/7′s network mapper.

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Windows 7: Devices and Printers window

Tuesday, January 13th, 2009

I stumbled on a new item in the start menu today: Devices and Printers.

w7-devices

It’s somewhere between My Computer and the Device Manager. Intrigued, I answered yes to that interesting question at the top and set about plugging in every USB device I could see within arm’s reach:

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Windows 7, and more on Radeons and PhysX

Sunday, January 11th, 2009

So, Microsoft released the first beta version of Windows 7 this weekend. (Actually they did it on Friday, but a thousand million keen participants brought their servers to a halt, before a mad rush to setup new servers to handle the insane load.) Officially the beta product keys will expire on August 1, which is a little later than I’d hoped, but having played with the beta for a day now myself I’m going to stay optimistic about the RTM date.

Because, put in a nutshell: Windows 7 is looking fantastic so far.

perfect

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how to abbreviate the retro gaming experience

Sunday, January 4th, 2009

Remember all those funky DOS games you used to play? They came on plastic squares that slotted into the front of your 486, and you had to type something to get them to load. And none of them work, because your new computer runs Vista and doesn’t even have a floppy drive, and anyway the abandonware site tried to give you a virus and the game just complains about 16 bit mode, whatever that is.

If you’re a bit more technically apt than that, you could get the games to run in DOSbox (it emulates an old PC in a window on your new one, so you can actually play them through). Assuming about 50 minutes on average for a single scenario in Dune 2 (that last level is a biatch, unless you cheat by saving frequently and reloading if a missile obliterates your base), it’ll still take you about 24 hours of solid gameplay to finish all 3 campaigns. Much more, if you replay the last half of the game to fight on all the different maps (which is worth doing, if you’re a die-hard fan).

Multiply that by the number of games you’d happily play again if you had the sheer time on your hands that you did when you were eight, and you realise it’s unfeasible for most adults. So, leech off the time spent by other adults, watch some recorded gameplay videos, and let the internet take your inner child back to a time when the internet didn’t yet exist.

Speed Demos Archive dot com would appear to be the place to go, unless you had the same games as me and are content at picking from what I could find myself:

the disk drives of the future

Friday, December 26th, 2008

USB flash drives

Nobody uses floppy disks for anything regular and important anymore. They’re slow, they’re physically huge yet hold so little, and they wear out and die too easily. CDs and DVDs have their place, but today people mostly use USB-attached flash drives to cart their files around.

This is my newest flash drive. It’s a 4 gigabyte OCZ ATV, and it goes like the clappers. HD Tune clocks it at just under 31MB/sec for sustained reading, which is about as fast as you’ll see any USB-connected drive go on a current PC. It’s the fastest flash drive I currently own, and has now replaced my Corsair Voyager GT as my everyday bit bucket.

It’s also a bit more practical than the Corsair; that dangly thing at the back fits snugly into the cap, so you don’t have to keep track of it when the drive’s plugged into a computer, meaning you’ll never lose that little bit of protection. I have absolutely no idea where my GT’s endcap is.

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emergent behaviour

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2008

Lead a child to a sandbox and he’ll dig a hole in the sand. Bring him a playmate and they’ll throw the sand around, put it in their pockets and drive trucks through it.

You get the same scary effect from putting two scripted AI characters in the same room, and making them interact. I just observed the following exchange between two people in Rivet City:

Security guard: “I’m looking for troublemakers, seen any?”
Resident: “Why don’t you look where you’re going!?”

If I hadn’t already heard both phrases before, elsewhere in the game – most of the guards state their own business, and people often complain if you push past them – I’d have written this off as a coincidence, game AI doing something that feels so out of place it breaks that precious fourth wall.

Except these two independent, randomly-governed entities got together and had a conversation – a snitchy, unfriendly conversation, and one that was obviously an accident of programming intended to look intelligent… but isn’t that what intelligence is? Two creatures coming together and becoming more than two creatures?

A lot of behaviour looks smarter than it actually is. Some of it isn’t, but my point is that AI is getting scarily real. Not necessarily in combat – tonight I killed six super mutants at once, because I sometimes hid behind a letterbox and they took too long to circle around it – but just in little interactions between well-meaning folk. It makes the game freakishly immersive.

I need to finish Fallout 3 fast. I’m starting to eye up garbage bins for precious bottlecaps.

and now, the truth

Saturday, November 29th, 2008

I’m not really into RPGs. Every time I try my hand at one, I get about a third of the way through the game and then irretrievably stuck because I forgot to pick up a swirly purple potion from the 3rd room on the left as you walk in the 2nd door on the 5th level.

The only thing that’s changed between the last time – when I was about 11yo or so – is that the internet appeared, and information and hints and cheats for PC games became instantly accessible, thereby making huge-item-inventory games playable for the casual FPS guy who feels like trying out a slower genre.

Unfortunately, the only other thing that’s changed since Ultima Underworld is that games have become utterly massive (Fallout 3 takes up about a thousand times more space on my hard drive than UW did, no exaggeration), and the bigger something gets the more complicated it is and the harder it is to get it right.

I’m saying F3 has bugs. They’re painful.

  • Critical NPCs will randomly disappear, leaving you unable to talk to them to finish certain missions; this happened twice in my first foray into the game, one of them something important to the storyline, so I couldn’t have finished the game no matter what.
  • I don’t think gamesaves/loads are 100% accurate. I’ve made neutral characters angry with me, reloaded the game to a few moments before I pissed them off, and they’ll be just as angry and try to kill me. In one case, when I reloaded to escape a particular enemy and went back to where I was at the time I saved, that enemy’s actually warped back with me and continued trying to kill me.
  • Fallout 3 has this thing where if you’ve ‘discovered’ a special location like a city or a particular landmark, you can instantly warp between them as long as there’s no enemies near you. This saves hours of gametime where you’d otherwise have to jog for 30 minutes to go back to somewhere particular. Problem is, the game thinks nothing of spawning tons of very strong enemies directly surrounding you at your destination. Surely it makes no sense that you’d just walk out of the desert into the middle of a triangle of 3 super mutants, and then suddenly everyone realises who’s there and starts attacking?
  • Actually, warps are extra-buggy, because they do weird crap with physics and clipping and corpses that’re already there. Frequently I’ll warp to somewhere I’ve killed raiders or dogs or whatever before, and their bodies will suddenly be catapulted into the air, sometimes landing stuck in another object and they’ll bounce forever.
  • You’re meant to run into random enemies when you’re wandering around in the wastelands – a hungry dog, or a pack of molerats, or ants or a super mutant or whatever – but there’re obviously places in the game where certain enemies are scripted to appear with certain weaponry. I hugely doubt that having killed the two mutants camping outside Big Town with a rifle and a rocket launcher, two more mutants with exactly the same weaponry would show up later on and camp in exactly the same spot.
  • Stuff in my inventory changes sometimes. I’ve just realised I have two of a very unique key you pick up very early in the game. Come to think of it UW did something similar once or twice, maybe there’s some particular thing about RPGs that make them near-impossible to code right.
  • Apparently there’s a patch out that fixes all the random crashes when you reload, or warp, or just quit the game anyway.
  • More a design flaw than a bug, but two separate skills you have to build up in the game are Lockpicking and Science, the latter of which lets you break into various computers to gain information or turn other systems on/off. Your skill in a particular area is a number between 1 and 100, but unlike the Medicine, Repair, Explosives or Small Guns skills which give you a straight-out percentage of effectiveness based on how high you’ve made that skill, you can’t even ATTEMPT to pick “hard” locks unless you’ve got 75 lockpick skill points, or hack “very hard” computers until you beef Science up to 100, despite the minigames that represent lockpicking and hacking being identical at every skill level. It just feels like an arbitrary thing that wouldn’t work the same way in real life (you can’t pick more than “very easy” locks if you’re on 24, but the instant it goes up one point another 25% of the locks in the game become available to you).
  • I’ve been playing for a few days, and I’ve already found a few spots in the map where you can get completely stuck, or where there’re textures missing or models wrong or something. I hesitate to even mention it, considering how insanely HUGE that map is and how hard it’d be to get it flawless, but it’s pretty striking to walk past a giant rock and see one whole face is missing:

…and that’s just the stuff I’ve come across. The Fallout 3 wiki has tons more (lots of spoilers there) if you’re interested. The game isn’t completely unplayable; I’m just quickly tiring of wasting ammo killing enemies I’ve already taken care of, and then restarting the game after it crashes because I tried reloading because I warped into the middle of 3 giant enemies with giant guns.