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Workaround to Fix Broken Volume Buttons on Harmony Remote

Like many users, I've found that after 2-3 years of trusty use, my Harmony 880's volume up/down button has started to fail. Apparently the contacts and plastic nub under the Volume Up button finally broke. If I press it really hard, sometimes it responds, but usually either button causes it to change the volume lower. Rather than buy a new remote, I found  this relatively simple workaround.

I rarely use these large Up/Down option buttons below the directional pad.



I went into each Activity in the Logitech Harmony Remote Software and chose the Customize Buttons option.  Then I looked at the default volume control settings for the activity and copied those onto the large buttons as well.  Like this:




Now the large buttons are working fine to control volume, and I’ve actually found them to be more comfortable for this purpose.  If you still need somewhere to put those functions, assign them to a function on the LCD screen instead.


Vivitar 285HV Voltage Levels

I’ve been reading the Strobist and getting together some kit to make a basic lighting rig.  I dug out my old flashgun from college to see if it was suitable.  Turns out it’s one of the holy grails of cheap manual flash.  A Vivitar 285HV. 

This flash has been around a long time and there have been many variants.  I’ve found a lot of chatter on forums trying to figure out which versions a safe for use with digital cameras, so I thought I’d have mine checked out.

Details for my model:
I bought it around 1999 or 2000.
Front reads – Vivitar 285HV.
Under hot shoe – Made in China.
Mine has the accessory DC input for battery packs / power supplies.

I had a bench technician I know use a digital multimeter to measure the voltage at the shoe. We set the flash to Manual.  Once the capacitor is charged it measures between 7-8.3v on relatively fresh batteries.

I am able to trigger this flash reliably with a Cactus / eBay style radio trigger or a Wein Digital Peanut slave. 

(use older flashes with your camera at your own risk, you should research the safe sync voltages of your camera, triggers and flash before using any flash)


Laptop Gaming – Guild Wars

Tonight’s test involved another trip to The Big Bin of Games I Forgot I Bought (tm).  I pulled out my old copy of Guild Wars (now called Guild Wars Prophecies).  I installed it, and ran a largish update for about 20 minutes or so to bring my installation up to date.  This one runs just fine on the integrated 4500MHD graphics on the laptop.  I was able to crank the visual effects slider all the way up, and had no problems playing the game at all.  The frame rate was smooth, and everything looked great.  This game’s visual engine seems to be very efficient, and still looks pretty good even considering it’s age. I would recommend using a mouse for this one, as playing MMO’s with a trackpad seems like a bit of a nightmare to me.

Test settings:


Screenshot to show relative quality:



Crimson Skies on 4500MHD Integrated Graphics

I pulled one of my old favorites out of the games pile for this test.  Crimson Skies for Windows was a great game, but overlooked by most.  You can occasionally find it in Microsoft Classics collections.  I got mine in an “action pack” with Starlancer and another game.

I used to run this on my old desktop Geforce 5200, so no it’s no surprise that it runs fine on most modern integrated graphics chips these days. 

I tested this one will all the settings on max, and it worked fine and played smoothly.  I plugged in my Xbox360 wired controller and all the controls automatically mapped correctly.


Crimson Skies age shows, but it’s still good fun.  I was also surprised that even though it’s an old win95/98 game, it installs and plays on Vista with no problems or patches needed.




Intel 4500MHD – Joint Operations: Typhoon Rising

I got a copy of this game free with a video card a while back. I decided to throw it on the Toshiba and see if the integrated graphics could handle it.  Initial tests were pretty bad.  Even on low setting sthe game was choppy.  I then realized that I should probably run the updater.  I downloaded some updates that apparently fix some Vista and graphics card issues, and then tried again.  The game autodetected the graphics chipset, and I accepted the recommended settings and the game seems to run fine.  I didn’t bother setting up an account and trying to play on the MMO servers, but I did run some of the tutorial missions that have bunch of AI players in them, and they all ran fine. 

Settings used:






Gaming on Intel 4500MHD – Neverwinter Nights 2

I recently upgraded laptops to a new Toshiba Satellite with the Intel 4500MHD integrated video chipset.  I know this is a budget graphics solution.  I’ve also noticed a lack of info available on what will or won’t run on it.  So, I’m going to document which games I’ve tried that do or don’t work here on my blog.  First up is Neverwinter Nights 2.  I was disappointed at first, but with some tweaks it intially seems playable.  Try the settings below.  I found it runs better in a smaller window, rather than in a full screen mode.  Low resolution modes look bad stretched across a widescreen monitor, so I found using 800x600 windowed is a pretty good compromise. 
NWN2_graphicsI have not tested a level with lots of enemies, yet, but the initial festival level seems to play smoothly.  I might be able to raise some of the quality options later, but haven’t tested it yet.
nwn2_cutscene nwn2cap NWN2_req


Butterfly Photography

Butterfly and Thistle IMG_4662, originally uploaded by macrogeek.

I went out on lunch yesterday in search of something to photograph. I often spend half my lunch hour looking for anything interesting to shoot so that I can keep my skills sharp. I wandered an field behind an empty parking lot and found the mother load of bugs. Turns out what looks like a huge field of grass and weeds is actually full of thistles. There were bees and butterflies galore out there. It was hot out and about noon. I'm not sure how that affects the insect activity. Every one of these big thistle plants I approached was covered with bugs that were eating. I just had to walk up close slowly, and wait. Most of the insects would circle once and land right back on it again and go back to collecting pollen. I stood there and snapped away. I got some good detail shots.

I was using the kit lens from my wife's old film Rebel on my Digital Rebel XTi. Since her lens is an EF mount, not an EF-S, it's built for a full sized sensor. The XTi is a half sized APS-C sensor, so due to the crop factor when I use an EF lens it means that I get better zoom out of it. In this case it was just enough to let me get really good bug details from 3-5 feet away.
I guess two lessons were learned yesterday.

1. Never write off a location for photos because it looks boring or empty.
2. Check out those old kit lenses before you put them in storage, they may come in handy.


Burn Disc T@2 using a Labelflash Drive and Free Software

I've found a bunch of forum threads trying to figure out which software still supports the discontinued Yamaha Disc T@2 format. (Disc Tattoo) Labelflash is a new technology that is competing with LightScribe. It's featured on many Toshiba laptop and many DVD Burners. Labelflash is based on the Disc T@2 tech from Yamaha. The advantage of Disc T@2 is that it works on the data side of regular media, you don't need special Labelflash discs. While it's not promoted, you can still use the Disc T@2 features on current Labelflash burners. You just need software that still supports it. While some European versions of Nero support T@2, there is almost no freeware with support for it. I spent a good amount of time researching T@2, and I finally found a free solution.
Here are the steps to enjoy Disc T@2 support on your Labelflash drive:
You need a DVD+R or DVD-R with data already burned to it. (It's not supported on CD or DVD-RW) You need to leave about 900MB-1GB free for the images. I'm not sure whether you have to leave the disc open or finalized. I think you should not finalize it.
You need a DVD-RW drive with Labelflash support.
Go to and download the Labelflash Index Maker.
See that little asterisk? Read the fine print: "(*1) It is possible to etch on intact areas of the recording side. However, in this case, image visibility may be poor."
  • Download the LIM zip file and unzip it.
  • Run the executable.
  • Insert your already burned disc.
  • Click the "Scan Disc" button. This will import your folder / file info from the disc into suggested fields for the disc. You can edit this info to your liking.
  • Select a template in the upper left drop down menu. For my test disc I used "ocean". It has to be one of the "outer edge" only templates.
  • Push the "Config" button. Check the Disc T@2 button. This generated an error for me until I picked a compatible template.
  • Hit the "OK" button to burn your disc.

Here are some quick pictures of the disc I tested today.

Managing my Media Mess, DIY CD/DVD Storage

One of my current home projects is reorganizing my desk.  My main goal is to get my currently cluttered desk area to a more minimalist state.  I’m planning on moving to a much simpler flat desk in the near future, so I’m trying to find simpler solutions so that I don’t need cubbies, organizers, and cases around anymore. 
The first problem to tackle was how to organize the large amount of CD’s and DVD’s that were scattered about in various cases and organizers. 
I started at Wal-Mart.  I picked up a Snap-Lock CD storage box and a 100 count box of Paper CD/DVD sleeves.  The box was $5 and the sleeves were about $4.50.
The box comes packed flat, and you just snap it together and put the lid on it.  The package says it’ll hold up to 150 discs in paper sleeves.
I started with a collection of discs in these organizers:
and ended up with this:
I’ve grouped my discs by type, and used individual sleeves with the tabs flipped up as section dividers.
If you don’t have enough discs to fill the whole tray, you can use an empty case as a bookend like this:
Right now I have about 85+ discs in the box. I think it is much more attractive than my old disc cases and binders.  I’m going to label the end and store it on my bookshelf.
I’m storing all the nicer jewel cases, liner notes, manuals and boxes in a copier paper box that I can put in my garage or attic.  For games or software that required CD keys I wrote them on the sleeves.
I’m planning on copying all the music CD’s in the house to iTunes and then moving the discs to a second box like this in the near future to free up some shelves.


Picking Software for Photo Library Management

In this digital age, we shoot a lot more pictures than we ever did before.  There is no cost of film to make us hesitate to press the shutter button.  If you keep all your photos, eventually you're going to outgrow the ability to keep track of your them using folders on your hard drive and you're going to need some kind of gallery or library software to help you manage your media.

While there are many professional and hobbyist applications that cost hundreds of dollars and have extensive features, you may be surprised to find the functionality available in several free applications.  They are very similar, but with some reduced features.  These programs allow you to group, name, and import your pictures into their system.  They support basic editing, like cropping, red-eye correction, some basic sepia or monochrome effects, and usually some printing and online sharing options.

Picasa - Google's offering.  Free, runs on Windows XP or Vista, or Linux.  Very low system requirements.  Integrates with Picasa Web albums for sharing.  Version 3 is very fast.  Supports plugin buttons to add integration with other sites like Facebook and Flickr.  Has Blogger integration.

Windows Live Photo Gallery - This is similar to the "Photo Gallery" that ships with Vista, but has many more web features, so I recommend that you go ahead and install this one instead.  Runs on XP or Vista.  Integrates with Windows Live Spaces, Flickr, and other sites.  Good editing features, and a pretty full featured import dialog that will seperate the files on your camera by the date taken.  I use this one myself.  It's a free download, Microsoft uses a unified installer for all their "Live" applications, but you can just tick the box for only Live Photo Gallery and install that.

iPhoto - Runs on Apple's OS X only.  iPhoto is a very slick consumer photo management application.  It's not free, as it's part of Apple's iLife suite of appliations, but iLife is included on every new Mac, so you should have some version installed if you own a Mac.   You will have to buy a new copy of iLife to get the latest version when updates come out.  iLife makes use of the same printing services as Aperture Books, so you can get very high quality books printed this way.

blueMarine - This is an open source project that runs on Windows, Linux, and OS X.  It's not finished yet, but in beta testing.  blueMarine is ready for evaluation, but not production use, so it's not 100% stable.  It has a feature set rivaling the organization sections of many professional products.  Right now it mainly works as a database and organizer, but will eventually have editing capabilities as well.  I'd watch their website for updates.  It's hard to explain all their features, but they have a nice video overview here.


Fort Wayne's Best Comic Book Shop

Edit:  11/1/11 - The location info below is now out of date.  DCBS has moved near the DMV off Coldwater & Dupont.  They are located at:
10202-C Coldwater Road
Fort Wayne, Indiana 46825
They still have the same great inventory and deals.


Fort Wayne's best kept secret of comic book shops, and super cheap comic deals is Discount Comic Book Service IMG_0878
It's a mail order house, but also has a full retail location in it's warehouse.  You'd miss it if you didn't know it was there.
It's one of my favorite places to browse on lunch hour.  I can usually get full graphic novels there for less then I used to spend on my weekly comic fix.

Get directions here:

View Larger Map
You're looking for this parking lot and sign:

Once inside you'll find a huge selection of graphic novels, and a pretty decent selection of the most recent comics.  Graphic Novels are always 35% off Retail price, which is a great deal. 
The best part of DCBS is the discount corner.  You'll find all the very slightly damaged books here.  Usually they just have minor flaws like a bent corner or a tape mark on the dust jacket.  The discount on damaged stuff varies with how much is in stock at the moment.  It's normally at minimum 45 to 55% off Retail.  Sometimes during the summer they run 75% to 90% off deals.  Today I saw several art books and anthologies, like The Death Dealer and Sandman vol 2 hard bound books for 55% off along with your normal selection of graphic novels.  Here are some pictures of the selection in the damaged section today.



iPhone 3G S Battery Woes

I got my new iPhone 3G S on launch day last week.  I've been very happy with the speed and new features, but not so happy with battery life.  First I thought the reduced life was just due to having 3G access, but the last couple of days I've been watching closer, and started to suspect a problem.

Last night I ran the phone down to 10% charge.  I put it on the wall charger overnight.  I had a full charge at 7AM.  So, today starting with a 100% charge, I was down to 34% by 2PM.  I had used the iPod function for about an hour, made one call, and checked e-mail and twitter 2 or 3 times.   I was on WiFi most of the morning, no 3G data use.

So I called Apple support to tell them this seemed like it was draining too fast.  While I was on hold between the Tier 1 and 2 tech support guys, my charge dropped from 34% to 11% in less than 15 minutes.  Apple Support agreed that something was wrong.

The only options they had for me was to drive 2 hours to an Apple Store, or to send the phone back. They offered an advance replacement for $29 or a normal replacement where I'd have to send the phone in and wait 6 days or so for it to come back.

I told them I thought this was a problem given that the phone was 4 days old, and I wasn't willing to be without the phone for a week.  I finally got them to agree to waive the $29 fee and send a replacement out.  I still had to give them a credit card to cover the replacement phone in case I don't send it back.


Ghostbusters: The Game - How to handle the Possessors in the Museum

I passed another sticking point in the Ghostbusters game a couple of nights ago.  It's the level with the cocktail party guests at the Museum.  When the level starts, you have to beat a batch of 4 Possessor Ghosts.  This one had me stuck for a while, but not as long as The Collector.

The trick this time around is to stay focused on one task at a time.

  1. Throw the Trap
    Peck has been possessed.  While the Ghostbusters hose him with slime, throw a trap out.  I like to keep it in the main foyer just to Peck's left.  You want to be able to stay back in cover while you throw ghosts into it.  I'd suggest purchasing the Fast Trap or Slam Dunk Trapping upgrades by this point.
  2. Protect Your Team
    Once Peck is freed the Possessors will start to go on the offensive attacking the party guests and the other Ghostbusters.  The key to survival is to keep the other team members on the feet, and keep them from all being possessed.  Do not focus on trapping the Possessors yet.  If there are any possessed humans near you, do NOT try to trap ghosts, use the slime gun.  You should always free or help the other Ghostbusters before you spray possessed humans.  You don't want to have your last teammate get possessed by the ghost you just forced out of a party guest.  Try to stay close to a healthy ally so they can help you up.
  3. Long Range Attacks
    When you team is up and healthy, focus on long range attacks on the Possessors, fire boson darts when they hover in the foyer, or when they charge towards or leave a body.  Even when they possess someone, they retain their same amount of health, so you will need to whittle them down with boson darts when they're outside a human.  If you work at this gradually, you'll get them down to red heath so you can trap them. 
  4. Trap the Weakest Link
    Once the Possessors are in the red, only try to trap them when you have most of your team on their feet, and there is only one ghost in the vicinity, then strike fast.  Use the Slam Dunk or Fast Trap to get rid of them quick.  The level gets much easier each time you factor on of the possessors out.  Just hold your ground and repeat the cycle of getting your team healthy and whittling the ghosts down until you get opportunities to trap the next one.


How to beat Azetlor The Collector in Ghostbusters: The Game

I got stuck on Azetlor, the Collector Ghost, in the Ghostbusters PC game for almost an hour.
I've heard a lot of people say they quit playing at this boss, don't give up.  I'll show you the strategy for beating him (spoiler warning)
The boss battle is broken into 3 stages. The first two are pretty obvious, since your teammates tell you what to do.
A couple of tips first:
Keep your distance. The Collector's shockwave attack will knock you down instantly, and it takes a moment to recover, he tends to send bursts of these, so you need to keep moving or he'll put you on the ropes. Use your sideways dodge and sprint to get out of the way. His base is a swirling cloud of debris, if it hits you, you're probably down for the count, so keep away from it.
If your teammates fall, don't try to help them up if Azetlor is nearby...he'll hit you both with his swirling base.
He's faster than he looks. Use the portals in the room to your advantage. Each portal takes you to the one directly across from it.
  1. Nullify the Black Slime on Azetlor's mask.
    This is one of the reasons you should have purchased the pressure upgrade for your slime pack. It'll help you hit him from farther back so you have time to dodge the Black Slime shockwave attack he sends out.
  2. Recovery / Remove the Mask.
    The Collector's mask will flash when the black slime dissolves. Quickly vent your pack and switch to capture beam. You need to pull his mask off. Your teammates will snare his arms so you can pull the mask. If your health is low or one of your teammates is down, hold the capture beam for a bit and wait for you/them to recover. If you have recently vented your pack, you can hold him a good while before you risk overheating. While connected to the mask, back up as far as you can before you tap the "slam" button.  This will give you some distance because once you pull the mask off Azetlor will go into full offensive mode. As soon as the mask comes off head for one of the two diagonal portals in the back corners of the room.
  3. Attack & Evade using Portals
    Now you just need to break him down using the Proton Pack. The only thing that will damage him is hitting his green eye. Try using fully upgraded Boson Darts to wear him down quick. Azetlor is going to take rush whomever is damaging him. Don't expect your teammates to last very long. When he starts heading for you, aim above the eye, and fire a Boson Dart. Hopefully, since he's rushing you, he'll glide right into it. You cannot outrun him or his Black Slime pulse attack. When he gets anywhere near you, turn and dash through the portal.

    You will exit on the far corner of the room. If you ran headfirst into the portal, you'll be facing Azetlor's back and can line up a shot as he turns to chase you. You should be able to get 1-2 Boson Dart hits in before he gets close. Turn and run through the portal when he charges, or if he uses the Black Slime wave. Do not enter a portal if he's standing near the exit. Don't try to resurrect your teammates unless they're very close to a portal, you'll just get hit with the wave when you're helping them. Ignore the Book Bats that may attack. If you're firing Boson Darts at the boss, the bats will probably get hit with the Boson explosion if they fly into the path of your shots. You do not need to trap The Collector, he's just going to blow up when you take his last notch of health, so keep firing. Azetlor2BosonDart


Cheap & Easy PSP Headrest Mount installation

After trying a couple of solutions, I found a pretty easy way to hook up my PlayStation Portable for backseat viewing in my car. 
Some people may ask why I'm using a PSP for in-car video.  I already had the PSP.  PSP hard shell protectors are easy to find.  I was a bit afraid that my 2yr old might kick DVD screen.  I don't have to carry discs in the car for the PSP.  I already have all the kids movies converted and stored on an 8GB memory card.   
I first tried mounting the PSP to the back of the center console.  I found that the texture of the plastic on my KIA Soul didn't take to removeable 3m adhesive or velcro well, so I gave up on that idea.  I ended up fastening the PSP mounting bracket from the kit directly to the headrest slide bars. 
You can get the PSP cradle and mount here: 
You won't need the extra mounting hardware, but you may want to keep it for use in another vehicle.
Then just use zip ties (or velcro straps) through the loops on the mount like this:

Then slide the headrest down gently.  Make sure you don't tighten the zip ties too much until you've made sure you're not going to pull to hard on the cradle.  You don't want to crack the loops that hold the zip ties.
PICT0039 PICT0037
Insert the PSP into the spring clips on the cradle and you're ready to go.  I recommend sliding the power button into the lock position so the kids don't bump the buttons and turn things off.
I keep a car power adapter handy for charging the PSP when needed.  You can also use headphones and the inline headphone remotes for older kids.  They remotes are easy to find at used game stores.
I'm using a Transcend MicroSD to Memory Stick Pro Duo adapter in the memory card slot on the PSP.  I keep a 8GB MicroSD card loaded up with kids shows.

Soul / Element Photo

I parked next to this guy last night and thought the KIA Soul / Honda
Element made for a good photographic size comparison.
I'm still suprised how roomy the Soul is .


Kia Soul Audio Experiements, iPhone, PSP, USB

I got a new Kia Soul last week. So far I'm really enjoying it, and I'm thoroughly impressed with the audio and bluetooth setup. I got the Soul + with the audio system upgrade. This package also includes the bluetooth option.

When I got the car, the dealership was not quite sure how all the USB functions and iPod integration on the system worked. Now that I've had a chance to thumb through the manual and run a few tests, I thought I'd post a few things for folks who are considering a Soul, or just got one themselves.

  • iPhone and iPod integration. The owners manual doesn't list support or iPhone, and the dealership didn't know anything about it. You'll have to buy their $35 iPod cable. It splits a standard dock connector to fit the USB / Aux setup on the car.
    My 1st gen iPhone popped up the "unrecognized accessory" warning and asked me if I wanted to use Airplane Mode. I tapped no, and everything worked. The cable charges the phone and I'm not hearing any radio interference on the audio. You can control the iPod easily from both the steering wheel or the head unit. Artist & Title show up on the dash display. I also tested my old iPod Mini, and it works fine as well.
    [EDIT 7-1-09] I have tested an iPhone 3G and 3GS as well, both work fine with the Kia cable. A warning will popup for Airplane mode, but just cancel it. Charging and playback work fine.

  • USB mass storage device - Works fine, put MP3's on it and plug it in. The jack on the dash doesn't supply enough power for large hard drives, and larger disks take longer to scan for tracks. Drives need formatted as FAT16 or 32. The manual lists the compatible bitrates. They recommend you not use larger keychain-style drives, as they may get bumped and damage the connector.
  • PSP - There are two ways to do this.
    1. Plug in via USB and go into USB Storage Mode. The PSP will charge and the audio system will scan the Memory Stick for MP3's. Just remember it probably won't be able to play any wierd MP4 or ATRAC files you have on there. My PSP seemed to charge intermittently this way. I think it may be wanting more power than the USB jack can supply.
    2. The other way to utilize a PSP is to navigate to the Music folder on the PSP and use it as a MP3 player and then plug it into the AUX jack on the dash. You'll need a 1/8" stereo mini cable to do this. You might want to use a car charger when doing this.
  • Bluetooth - The bluetooth integration on this car is great. You can pair a phone from either the head unit controls or from voice prompts. The car will automatically link with your phone when you get in range and the ignition is on. You can select from multiple phones or turn bluetooth on or off via voice commands. There are control buttons on the lower half of the steering wheel that control the voice dial, answer, and hangup commands. I was suprised how well it works with my iPhone since my phone has no voice dialing support. It imports my contacts in about 5-10 seconds, and voice recognition seems to be very accurate. My wife says the call quality is great.

Updated 11/10/11 - I've also now used the Kia cable with my iPhone 3GS and 4S with no issues. 
Bluetooth tethering works fine, and the Airplane Mode warnings no longer display since iOS4 and iOS5. 
Here are a couple of generic equivalent cables offered by Amazon if you don't want to pay full price at the dealership. 


Custom Dice!

IMG_2612, originally uploaded by macrogeek.

I had custom dice made yesterday. I had e-mailed Chessex on Friday to ask for a quote and how long it would take to get them done. I full expected to hear a several week lead time. Monday morning, I got an e-mail with an attached picture of a proof of the design I asked for. By 10AM I had ordered them, and they were ready for pick up by early afternoon. (I'm lucky to live within driving distance of their headquarters)

I had these made as a signature item / geotoken for geocaching. I wanted something unique to drop into caches that I find, and since I'm a gamer. I decided to do dice. Plus these fit into most micro caches nicely. FireConvoy is my username on and the Groundspeak forums. The "Gx" logo is the public domain geocaching symbol.

I was really impressed with how fast Chessex turned these around. Also the cost wasn't prohibitively expensive, and you can order small quantities. If you wanted a poker chip or something similar customized, you have to usually order 500 to 1000.

This first run was 26 pieces, half Vortex Burgundy and half Vortex Blue.


Why won't Slayer's Evox Auto-Installer boot?

I recently was trying to update my XBMC install on my Xbox using Slayer's install disc. I read the faqs and couldn't figure out why it wouldn't work. Well, they kind of hint at it in the readme, but I must have missed it the first time through.

Early Xbox models CDROM drives didn't read CD-R very well. Late Xboxes boot or read CD-R fine, but mine would not. You have to burn the installer disc to a CD-RW instead. Then it works fine. (Keep in mind your system must already be modded to boot homebrew code)


Upgrading Vista Media Center to DTV/HDTV

Last week most of the local broadcasters in Fort Wayne went ahead with the DTV broadcast switch on schedule and turned off their analog transmitters.  Rather than spend money on a converter box just for the computer, I went ahead and decided to upgrade my Vista Windows Media Center PC with a new DTV tuner card.  I went to A Plus Computers here in town and picked up a Hauppauge WinTV-HVR-1600 dual tuner card.  I like the Hauppauge brand.  I've been using a MCE-150 for years with no problems, so I decided to stick with the same brand.  I researched some of the Pinnacle and other brands available at Best Buy and Radio shack and saw a lot of poor reviews and driver issues.  Hauppauge is solid and a proven name in the Windows Media Center market.  Hauppauge is also one of the few companies that includes a MPEG2 encoder on the card to keep CPU useage low.  Those little USB dongles make your computer do the compression on the video and it can eat up half your CPU cycles.  I can record TV and play games at the same time with the only performance hit being a lot of traffic on the recording drive.  I really recommend using a dedicated 2nd drive for a DVR computer. 

The upgrade went smoothly, except for a couple of issues.  
Vista Media Center can't correctly setup or retrieve program guide info for DTV subchannels.  We get 2-4 channels on a lot of the DTV channels here, so that wasn't going to work for me.  Upgrading to the Microsoft TV Pack 2008 fixed this.  This upgrade isn't supposed to be available to end users, and is only supposed to be done on a fresh install of Vista, but it worked fine as an "in place" upgrade for me.  Once I applied the update, my tuner set up all the subchannels and pulled in correct guide info for them.

I also didn't read the specs closely enough on the HVR-1600, I thought having dual analog / ATSC tuners was going to allow me to tune analog and digital over the air, but the analog tuner in the card only works for Cable channels.  I was expecting it to be switchable in software like the MCE-150.  It turned out to not be a big deal, as only FOX is still on analog in Fort Wayne.  I just popped my MCE-150 back in the lower PCI slot and am running both tuners at the same time.  I just had to go into setup in Vista Media Center and untick all the analog channels except for 55.  I wish Fox would get their crap together and get their DTV transmitter online.  Way to plan ahead guys. 

Now I'm all set up, two tuners, I get 12-15 channels or so for free via rabbit ear antennae.  I get all the major local network shows.  I'm going to have to upgrade my hard drive though.  I have a dedicated 120GB drive for the DVR.  I was getting about 96 hrs of standard def  using the MCE150, but now I can only get 12 hours or so of HD programming with the new tuner.  Looks like I'll have to grab a 1TB drive soon, or clear some space off my 500GB external drive. 


Medusa 5.1 Surround Gaming Headphone Mini Review

I've been using my Medusa 5.1's Home Edition headphones for over a month now and wanted to relay my impressions.

I think these are great headphones for the price.  They sound very nice, and come with a great cable and preamp package.  I'm loving having real surround audio while gaming, and it's really added to my multiplayer game experience.  I've been playing Left 4 Dead a lot lately, and I've frequently found myself being able to turn and shoot a flanking or leaping enemy because of the positional audio clues.

The build quality of these 'phones is good.  I have no complaints there.  Everything feels solid, the ear pads are nice and comfortable.  They're not too heavy, and they adjust well.
The integrated mic sounds good and is clear and rejects background noise well. 

I only have one hesitation about recommending these headphones.  You need a good sound card to drive them.  You need something with bass redirection or a crossover in the drivers.  I had problems getting the rear channels and bass to sound good until I upgraded from an integrated Realtek HD to a X-Fi. 

People often complain of the rear channels sounding tinny on these headphones, and they need to realize that the drivers in this headset are very small, and the rear channels are even smaller than the side and front ones.  To get good sound from the Medusa 5.1's you need to:

  • Set your sound card output to 5.1 Surround.
  • Set speaker size to small instead of large / full range. (this stops heavy bass from being sent to the "satellite" speakers)
  • Turn Bass Redirection on.
  • Set up your Bass Crossover point to 200Hz or whatever you feel appropriate.  The goal being to send highs and mids to the surround channels, and almost all the bass to the subwoofer/vibration channel.
  • Now set the volume on the preamp up about 50% or so.  This gets a good level of bass to the drivers.  Now adjust the volume on the individual channels on the headset down to taste.  I leave Bass/Vib on about 7 or 8 and the other channels on 4 or 5.  Sometimes I turn the rear channels up 1 notch.

I've found this to be a good combination and it's working well for me with all games and I'm very happy with the results.  I have noticed that Valve games tend to have more issues with tinny rear channels when compared to other developers, so there may also be some kind of issue with the way they process surround.  

Mirror's Edge (PC) with Xbox360 Controller for Windows

I picked up Mirror's Edge for Windows about a week ago and have been playing through it.
I got a little frustrated trying to do some of the tougher spots using keyboard and mouse, so I decided to go ahead and pick up an Xbox 360 controller for Windows. I was wanting one anyway for a few emulators and platformers I have anyway.

I thought I'd relay the following things that I learned:

Mirror's Edge doesn't state game pad support anywhere on the packaging. It's not certified with the "Games for Windows" mark, which usually tells if a game supports the 360 pad. I wasn't sure it would work with the controller at all, but figured it was worth a try. I found that if you start the game with a 360 controller connected, the game detects it and automatically sets it up for you. All the menus gain additional icons that show the correct buttons for "accept" and "back". The Controls menu gets a new option that allows you to choose the 360 controller layout from 3 profiles. I did not find an option to completely customize the buttons. The 360 controller works great, and it really helped me get through some parts where you need to chain a series of buttons together to make a jump. I still find myself reaching for the mouse for some of the sniping / shooting sequences, but the controller is great the rest of the time.

Any Microsoft Xbox 360 wired controller will work with Windows, (not just the ones in the 360 Controller for Windows packaging) you just have to download the drivers. I got mine for cheap from a Disc Replay store. Someone had traded it in for wireless controllers.

Some 3rd Party Xbox360 controllers will work with the Microsoft 360 controller drivers. Check the manufacturer's site first. I know MadCatz will work, they have info on their site about using the MS driver.

On my Windows Vista SP1 machine, no driver download was needed. The controller just detected and started working. I'm not sure if Windows already had the driver, or if it pulled it from Windows Update.

Xbox 360 Wirless controllers are not Bluetooth, if you want to use one with Windows, you have to buy a special Wireless kit that includes a USB radio receiver dongle.


PNY 9800GT Noise Issues

I picked up a PNY 9800GT 1GB XLR-8 edition video card just after Christmas.  I was looking to upgrade my video card, and Best Buy had them on sale pretty cheap, so I grabbed on. 
Performance was great, and I was really happy with it to begin with, but it always kind of nagged me that it was so loud.  There were no fan control options in software, so I couldn't turn the fan down, it just ran at 100% all the time.  

I moved my PC to a new Antec Three Hundred this week (not because of the card...just because I wanted a nicer case).  I was kind of hoping that more airflow would help, and maybe the card would automatically slow down the fan, but no such luck. 

I contacted PNY support and they told me that I should return the card to the place of purchase or call a number they provided to swap it out.  I was able to get Best Buy to swap it even though I was 2 days outside the return period.  I got the new card, and lo and behold, this one has a better cooler on it. 

I wish I had a shot of the old cooler, because then it would be easier to explain.  
The original one was thick, and it had a translucent blue shroud down near the power connector side of the card.  It's also easily identifiable because it attaches to the card with 4 large screws that protrude into the slot directly above the graphics slot.  This means you can't fit an expansion card in that slot, and it might hit your northbridge cooler.  

The new design is very slim, and very quiet.  It seems to have a larger contact surface, and it's fitted to the card with flush mounted screws.  This one is nearly inaudible.  I launched the NVidia control panel, and this one supports full fan controls if you have the user overclock / fan utilities enabled. 

So, if you're going to buy one of these cards, you want the one with the black cooler below, not the blue cooler with the black sticker: 


Medusa 5.1 Headphone Testing w/ Various Sound Cards

Since I got my Medusa 5.1 headset, I've tested them with a few different sound cards.

Realtek HD
Motherboard integrated audio on my Gigabyte P35 motherboard.  Sounded ok, but very low bass response, not enough power to drive the vibrate feature in the subwoofers.  Rear channels sounded very tinny.  Speed-Link's response when I reported the problem.  "this is a Problem of your Onboard Soundcard, this is not the best for the Medusa Headset. Please try it on a PCI Soundcard like Creative the the Sound should be better."

Sound Blaster Live! 24-bit
Next I pulled my old Creative Labs Sound Blaster Live! 24-bit out of the parts bin in the garage.  This was the card I was using before I built the P35 system, as my previous motherboard only had AC97 audio.  Speaking subjectively, I think this card sounds a little better.  Signal from the card was stronger, I didn't have to crank the volume as high to get the same level out of the earphones.  I think the sound was slightly better on the whole, and bass was a little stronger, but still not really punchy.  Rear channels sounded a tad better, but were still a little hallow, but not as tinny as on the Realktek HD.  The Vista drivers for the SB Live didn't seem to have many features, and didn't let me set up a crossover point or do bass redirection.  I think this driver was a courtesy effort from Creative to support legacy users, but they really provide the minimum features.

Creative Labs X-Fi Titanium Fatal1ty Edition
These were on sale for $99 at Best Buy, which is the same price as the Xtreme Gamer version.  So I went ahead and bit the bullet.  (My gaming PC is also my Vista Media Center HTPC, so I wasn't really too disappointed to upgrade the audio on it anyway)  One warning, this card is a little chunky because of the RFI shield box over it.  I could not get it to fit in the PCIe slot above my video card.  I had to put it in my middle slots, and I got a little nervous that it would restrict the hot air leaving my 9800GT.  It doesn't seem to be causing issues so far.  Out of the box, this sounded better than the previous two cards, but once I applied the driver settings that Speed-Link recommends, it sounds phenomenal.  The trick with the Medusa 5.1 is to set all the drivers to the smaller size in the THX speaker setup, enable bass redirection, and set the crossover point to 200Hz.  Turn off CMSS-3D.  Once you get the settings on the remote tuned the way you like them, this combo sounds awesome, and the bass has enough punch to rattle your teeth. 

I guess the lesson learned here is that if you're going to buy high end speakers or headphones, you probably need to support them with a decent sound card.  You can probably get by with a lesser card than the X-Fi titanium, but I have to say that the Creative drivers have a lot of support for tweaking the sound exactly the way you need it.


KARR Returns to Knight Rider

This week's episode of the new 2008 Knight Rider series gave us the return of a classic villain from my childhood, KARR. 
I know fans of the new show had been eagerly awaiting the full reveal of the new KARR design.  There was a lot of speculation regarding what kind of car he would be, and what the "exoskeleton" design would look like.  The exoskeleton mode was revealed earlier this season in a schematic view, but it was pretty hard to see details. 
Well, here are some screen grabs from Episode 12.  Spoilers ahead.
KARR's vehicle mode revealed to be the same as KITT, just like the original.  KARR has the amber scanner bar like the second design used for the original series.
KARR's exoskeleton mode is revealed.
KARR forces Torres to act as his new pilot.  He refers to this process as "becoming one".  It is implied that KARR is able to overpower the driver's mind.
I heard a lot of people complaining that KARR was too easily defeated and were surprised that Torres wasn't exploded in the fight.  I agree the fight should have taken longer, but watching the scene again, it makes more sense.  KITT harpoons KARR's cockpit.  The grapple opens inside the compartment with Torres, when KITT passes KARR he rips the cockpit cover and chest armor off.  This screenshot shows how Torres fell free / or was pulled out, I couldn't tell which.  Either way, if you watch, KARR has his insides exposed and no pilot when KITT turbo boots through his chest.  

I think the point of this episode was to give us a quick sampling of the new version of KARR.  I'm sure he'll get rebuilt.  Remember how banged up KITT is at the end of the episode and how quickly he's able to heal using his nanotech systems.
(All images in this post are screen grabs from the show.  All images and characters are the property of NBC and the show's creators. )