14 October, 2015

A graphics tablet upgrade

Once upon a time...

A very long time ago, I bought a second-hand Genius tablet, a NewSketch 1212HRIII. It was a fantastic size at 12 inches square. There was plenty of room to write large if I so needed. The resolution wasn't particularly detailed, though it was okay for the time. While it worked fine, it needed a serial connection. Also, there's no pressure sensitivity with a tablet that old. Well, the computer I was using for the tablet died, so I had to either find a replacement powersupply for the computer (assuming the motherboard hasn't died), find another computer that has a serial port, or find a new tablet to replace the 1212HRIII. In addition, there was the added problem of finding a driver that would actually work, as the driver for the 1212 barely worked with XP.

So, I bought a new tablet. I browsed a local online computer supply store, and picked a likely candidate to suit my budget. I also compared some of the reviews I could find, what few there were. In the end, I chose the Genius MousePen i608X. The reviews I saw on the site all said 1,024 levels of pressure sensitivity, 2,560 LPI and some software that was free for a month but would cost you several hundred dollars if you wished to use it after the initial month. Well, I got a little surprise when the tablet arrived.

Huh? It got an upgrade?

This tablet is also called the i608X, but supports 2,048 levels of pressure sensitivity. It has 5,120 LPI and a stated resolution of 0.25 mm. It has no trial software on the CDROM (so, no Corel Paint), though it does come with a freeware paint application in addition to the drivers and manual. I took the suggestion of the various reviewers and headed off to the Geniusnet.com website to download their later drivers, as I wasn't sure what age the drivers on the CDROM were. You may have to google for "geniusnet.com i608X download" like I did. I installed those, rebooted, plugged the tablet in, and watched Vista while it churned a bit discovering new devices. Woo hoo! I now have a new 6" x 8" tablet.

Thankfully, because this tablet is smaller, it fits on my desk much better than the 1212. It's also USB, so it works with anything that's got USB ports and the right drivers. About the only problem I'm likely to strike is battery life in the pen, as it's not batteryless. I think I can live with that, I have plenty of rechargeable batteries. And because of the pressure sensitivity, I've learned a few new tricks with drawing that I didn't know before. Frankly I'm no artist, so learning how to use this properly is going to be quite some process, but I didn't seriously need the extra "features" that most more expensive tablets have, such as tilt, or even Eraser. It'd be nice, but at least for me, tilt would only get in the way. While an erase function would be nice, I can usually select the eraser from the palette in GIMP anyhow.

Ah yes, the pressure support

It's there, somewhat. Some programs support it properly, some others are a bit flakey with it. For example, Krita (a KDE drawing app) supports pressure input fine from the tablet, but the application I use most (GIMP) doesn't always register that I'm inputting from the tablet, and ignores it, at least with the default kernel module. Under Windows, pressure sensitivity at least works in the GIMP, but under Linux I'm not as lucky, even though I'm using the same version of GIMP in each case. I've noticed that Paint.NET doesn't support pressure sensitivity whatsoever, at least in the last version I have. I can't upgrade it any further as the author now wants a minimum of Windows 7 for the application.

So, does this require a DKMS module to support things properly?

In a word, probably. I upgraded to Ubuntu 15.04 just so I could get proper pressure sensitivity in GIMP. I got partial support, but not everything was working right under the normal Linux kernel. So, I headed off to github, and grabbed the digimend tablet support deb. I installed that, removed the original hid-kye module, unplugged and plugged the tablet back in and restarted Xorg. After that, everything appears to work properly, and the best news? I even got the tablets mouse to work. Pressure support now works well with GIMP, at least under Linux.

So will we see any new cool pictures?


Because I'm so new to computer art, and to art in general, I don't know most of the techniques to use. I think I have quite a long process ahead of me. I think I'll like this. Incidentally, this picture was drawn with my original tablet.

Would you recommend this tablet?

Hey, what is this, twenty questions? Um, right. First off, this tablet is most certainly a budget tablet. It's not a tablet for people who have lots of experience with tilt, pressure and different brushes under commercial graphics programs. It's not a tablet I'd recommend to a professional artist, unless you're really needing to pinch your pennies. It's a small tablet (though not absolutely 4"x5" tiny, thankfully) for people who are starting to learn about computer art. It doesn't take a lot of room on the desk. It's under a hundred dollars, at least in our currency. It doesn't have an eraser, but it does come with two spare hard nibs, a nib extractor and a CDROM with some drivers, the manual and Paint.NET. If you buy this tablet, do yourself a favour and grab the drivers from the manufacturer's website (in my case, geniusnet.com) if you're using this tablet under Windows. If you're using this under a Debian-based Linux, head to Digimend's site for some updated drivers until the Linux kernel support catches up with this revision of the tablet.

I think I got lucky, as this particular tablet supports twice the number of pressure levels than its predecessor, and slices, dic... wait, that's the knife set. It also seems to have a higher resolution. It remains to be seen how long the nibs last, or how long each AAA (or LR3) battery lasts in the stylus and the mouse. I'm hoping I can buy more nibs another time.

There's no fancy Wacom-like dials. The stylus needs a battery, so that changes its weight as a result. It's a bit heavier than a good quality Parker pen as a result. The nib doesn't appear to have any "give" or provide any obvious feedback, so learning just how hard to press for a certain effect is an exercise in training and experimentation. Most artists would probably be well aware of this anyhow. The mouse is of dubious value unless your desk really is running out of real estate. I wouldn't try to game with the mouse for example, I already bought a Logitech m950t for gaming. You could possibly save yourself one battery and use your existing mouse on the tablet as a mousepad, but that gets complicated when trying to share space with the stylus.

Hey, you missed out the hotkeys

Ahhhh yes. I did too. Surrounding the working area of the tablet are a number of gray squares, and the ones in the top line are tied to common application functions. The ones down each side are blank and can be assigned to anything supported by the application, at least under Windows. However, you can elect to use the entire tablet area, and forgo the hotkeys.

Wait, what about Linux?

Gee, you really are quick today, aren't you. I haven't figured out how to get the "keyboard" working on the tablet, as the Linux driver simply uses the whole tablet as the working area, which includes the areas set aside from the working area normally under Windows. You can of course reduce the working area in xorg settings, but this doesn't then open the excluded area up for further input as hotkeys. If you're after the normal shortcuts available under Windows, I don't know how to do it under Linux. Those appear to work well enough under Windows, but the various buttons can only be set to whatever the application supports. If you want a custom key or program to trigger, I think you're out of luck. Consider it one of the slight penalties for choosing a budget tablet.

Now I've got the "right" drivers, input from the tablet is smooth, especially in Krita. Krita has an advantage over GIMP in that the size of the brush indicates just how hard you're pressing, a smaller circle for light pressure, and a larger circle for heavier pressure. The GIMP merely shows the selected brush size. As for other programs that support pressure input, I've only tried Pencil2D, which worked quite well.

Naturally, the more work I put into learning the basics of drawing with a tablet, the better I'll get. Anything's got to be better than the cartoon I made.

23 September, 2014

A review of a five-year old mouse, and a new keyboard

I bought more tech

I noted my venerable ten year old Microsoft Wireless Optical Mouse (2.0) scroll wheel was getting a bit erratic, actually it had been somewhat erratic almost from day one, but I was just putting up with it until it started dying. About four months ago, I noted one of the buttons wasn't working properly any more, and needed me to lean on it a bit harder. I switched it over with one of the unused buttons left in the mouse, and continued on. While I did, I started my search for a decent replacement mouse.

My primary requirements for a good mouse

Wireless. An absolute must.
I got sick of cables getting caught up just as I was frantically trying—and failing—to hit a creeper. So wireless is a must. I have less of an issue actually hitting the monster a little late due to wireless lag than I do missing the monster altogether due to losing the mouse out of my hand because the cable caught up on the underside of the desk keyboard tray.
A scroll wheel that tilts.
Not mandatory, but it would be a nice thing to have. The MS mouse had it, but started being erratic not long after I started using it.
More than three buttons.
Most good mice seem to have more than just the clickable scrollwheel, left and right buttons these days, though the Razer Naga goes a bit overboard.
Cheaper than $100 NZ.
A bit harder to match, especially if you want a gaming mouse. Not quite so hard if you want just a good mouse that doesn't have another $100 stuck on merely for the brand.
Replaceable batteries
I get used to rechargeable batteries, and though they're fiddly, I can deal with popping one out and a new one in.
Left handed.
This requirement is a LOT more tricky, considering the previous requirements.

I recently bought the Logitech m950t otherwise known as the Performance MX. So far, it meets every requirement but the last one. I'm seeing what it feels like in the left hand before I get too frustrated. It comes with one of those absolutely tiny USB stub receivers that Logitech seem to be coming out with now. The process for installation is literally: extract from box, plug it in, download the Setpoint software from the Logitech website, install that software and run it. I note that there's an equivalent program (Solaar) for Linux, and though it's not as fully-featured, you can do just about anything you like with the mouse with other Linux utilities anyhow. In fact, often it's easier to configure this mouse under Linux than Windows.

What came in the box.

First, I must state what I thought I'd get, as I'd watched a review of the m950, the predecessor to the m950t. In that review, the box included a CDROM for drivers and software. It also included a shielded extension USB cable, in case our computers were under a table (mine is) and needed the detector a little closer to the actual mouse. It included a cable to connect the mouse directly to the computer, which has the side effect of also charging the included battery. It also appeared to include a power supply so you could charge your little rodent overnight. In comparison, I got no CDROM. This isn't an issue as the software's downloadable from Logitech. I also got no power supply - after all, you don't usually need to charge overnight. I did get the normal direct-connection USB power-only cable, the tiny receiver, a small pouch of documentation and the mouse itself, which included a 2050 mA GP ReCyko+ battery from Gold Peak Group. I swapped this out straight away for one of my 2500 mA Varta batteries. The rest? Empty space. And plenty of look-how-wonderful-this-is marketroid.

A left-hander's experience of the Performance MX

You might ask why I changed over. I'm normally right-handed, but organisation of two people onto one big table meant I needed to switch the mouse over to the other side of the keyboard as there's far more room there to move a mouse around. I also had to switch over all the games I could so I could use the cursor keys instead of the accursed WASD movement scheme most modern games seem to have settled on. WASD and Dvorak keyboard layouts simply just don't go together anyhow.

The mouse does fit the right hand really well, especially for those of you with slightly larger hands. As you'd expect, it doesn't really fit in the left hand, but that may be to my advantage, as I'll be less likely to accidentally activate any of the other buttons. So far the knuckle of my ring finger has a tendency to activate the zoom button, but otherwise it's not too bad.

The buttons and scroll wheel.

There's the standard left and right buttons, the scrollwheel which can also act as a middle button, and a hardware button behind the scroll wheel to choose between a wheel that clicks as it rotates, and one that rotates freely without clicking. A freewheeling scrollwheel is one feature that some users rave over, and other users see as utterly pointless because they end up overshooting what it was they wanted to land on. I'll have to try it both ways. Personally, I hate clicky wheels. The MS mouse didn't click, which I loved. I'm finding at the moment that the clicky wheel gives a little more precision when scrolling, but there's a break while I switch between the two methods. If I know most people, they'll want to stick to one or the other method. And the mouse wheel does tilt. Logitech says that if you tilt it harder, horizontal scrolling speeds up.

On the left hand side of the body just above where the thumb would sit from the right hand, there's a small cluster that control zoom, page back and page forward. These would mainly be useful for web browsers to flick back and forth in their page history, and changing the size of text. Clicking the zoom button then rolling the scroll wheel up or down zooms the text of the application you're working with, but only for applications that support that. For example, Setpoint provides the same zoom-in function to the Windows desktop, but not to my current editor (vim). I presume that a similar function would be useful in a graphics program, whether still pictures, video or music. You do have to install the Setpoint software for this though, which is a separate download.

The final button of importance is the app-switch button, out of the way on the left flange of the mouse. I reconfigured this to become a DPI toggle, as the OS already provides an application switcher.

The responsiveness

As soon as I plugged it into the computer and moved it around on the table, movement was very smooth, and quick. This is probably due to the large pads on the base of the mouse to assist movement. Finally, a mouse with decent pads. I might even have to wind the sensitivity back down, as I'm now finding it too quick. In game (Minecraft) it seems to work very well, and would probably work well in other games too. I settled on a final DPI setting of about 1000dpi for normal movement, and 500 dpi for more precise movement. That bit at least, I do like.

The price.

I got lucky. I found this mouse for NZ$89.99 at a website I use regularly and took advantage of the discount. At Noel Leemings the mouse is currently $129.99 which would have put it outside my budget. I'm happy with the price. I had to accept that there was no way I could get a wireless Razer for that price, and the Logitech gaming mice were also too expensive and weren't generally ambidextrous.

Laser and wireless for gaming. Really?

Some people dislike the laser sensor, claiming it's inaccurate when compared with optical sensors in the mouse. I don't know, as I don't play games to the extent that competitive gamers do. For me anyhow, my computer has enough trouble just keeping up with displaying stuff to the screen, so I don't notice how the mouse contributes to movement or action lag. My reactions aren't sufficiently fast to notice any lag from the wireless connection instead of having it wired. As for the Darkfield sensor, I don't notice much difference between my old Microsoft mouse and the new sensor. If anything, the difference is more than accounted for with the lovely big smooth feet the Performance MX has. If the MS mouse had these same wide feet and a repairable wheel, I'd have made more of an effort to keep it going.

Other complaints?

Many many people have complained about the buttons going bad in Logitech mice, for various reasons. Sometimes it's the leafspring inside the microswitches Logitech use, and sometimes it's wear on the plastic pressing against the white button of the microswitch. One's easier to fix than the other, but both of them involve opening up the mouse and thereby invalidating the warrantee the mouse has. Less often, people complain about the stiffness of the middle click, and the increased likelihood of triggering scroll events when they're actually trying to click instead. I've found it stiff, but still functional. Very occasionally, these models (and presumably some others too) are prone to electrostatic buildup inside the capacitors, which can cause erratic behaviour. A simple fix for this is to power the mouse off, remove the battery, then press down both the main buttons of the mouse for thirty seconds. This apparently discharges any remaining voltage in the capacitors. You can then put the battery back in and power the mouse back on. This is often the first fix to try, and won't invalidate any warrantees. It's even recommended by several Logitech representatives in the forums.

Fixing the individual switches can be done in two ways. One involves replacement of the switch with another switch of similar pinout. This requires reasonable hand-eye coordination, soldering skills and a soldering iron. The other requires very good hand-eye coordination, and disassembly of the switch itself to access the leafspring. Reassembly is no mean feat with one attempt of reassembly taking over two hours, most of that taken up by trying to refit the spring after retensioning.

Fixing ridges in the plastic pressing on the white button when the button itself is fine but the action isn't fine, either means filling in the crack perhaps with good glue, or perhaps even buying a new plastic housing.

Conclusions

My initial impression is that this mouse is very nice and well worth the price I paid as a replacement for my previous mouse. It's not a gamer's mouse but that's not why I bought it. I don't need a gamer's mouse and I'm unlikely to ever require the response speed that the G series of mice provide. The fact that I'm using it in my left hand is proving complicated but not unusable, though there's absolutely no doubt that this mouse is meant to be used in the right hand. In my right hand the page history buttons are too hard to reach with my thumb without accidentally running into the zoom button first. I'm sure I'd get used to that in time. I'd love if Logitech actually provided a left-handed variant of this mouse. It's been out for more than five years, surely there's enough demand by left-handed users to warrant the same treatment as Razer, who provide ambidextrous and even fully left-handed variants of some of their models.

Because I have large hands I used previous mice using a claw-grip. Most mice aren't big enough to fit my hand, so my fingers have got used to being bent to reach the buttons. I have to retrain my hand, which isn't a bad thing for me. This mouse still isn't quite big enough to fit my hand, but it's far closer than previous mice that I've used.

As you can rightfully understand, I hope I don't have to fix this mouse for a good long time especially given its price. It's meant to be a premium mouse, it should have premium componentry inside, even if it's not commanding the same price as Logitech's gaming mice. Logitech's customer support is apparently stellar in a lot of cases, with many people able to receive replacement mice when theirs goes bad. Frankly, with the number of people asking for replacements I would have looked very hard at what's going wrong with the mouse, and how to prevent it in later models of the same hardware.

A new (to me) keyboard

I've just received a second-hand (but well-loved) Logitech K750 to go with my Performance MX. The keyboard seems to be in good order, but it feels quite different to type on. It remains to be seen how well I get used to it, as it's almost nothing like the DSE $14 keyboard I was using before. It's quite a solid feeling keyboard that weighs in at 760 grams (1.66 lb) with keys that remind me of laptop keyboards in travel. This is a full-size keyboard though, with all the keys you'd expect on a US keyboard. It might be only 7.5 mm thick, but it's heavier than the DSE keyboard. It's solar-powered, with a backing battery (the ML2032) that's really hard to replace, intentionally. If it goes south, you're normally meant to send this keyboard back to Logitech under their limited three year guarantee. This won't apply to me as I'm a second purchaser, not the primary one.

Pairing the keyboard up to the receiver was as simple as starting up the Unifying software, turning the keyboard off and on, waiting until Vista did its thing with installing new devices, and I was good to go. I'm now typing the article on it, and though it's a little noisier than the other keyboard, I'm not complaining much. It's most certainly a membrane keyboard, but instead of the normal dome with a key mechanism sitting on it, it appears to use a more hinge-like construction similar to laptop keyboards I've disassembled.

How well does it convert to Dvorak?

I've changed out the caps and switched them around to Dvorak layout, though I can already touch-type in Dvorak so it doesn't matter much to me. It's really nice to be able to swap caps around though. Be aware that for this job, you'll need a flat blade, such as a small screwdriver. Also, lever the bottom left and right corner of the key up gently as it clips there in two places inside the cap and hinges from the top. Pop off the caps, and don't remove the rest of the hinge, or you won't get it back together right. Arrange the keys how you need, considering your required keymap. Keycaps simply reattach by placing each key squarely on top of the hinge and pushing down straight until you hear and feel a couple of clicks. If one side lifts up, you haven't got it properly clipped down. Push down on that side until it goes click, and check it depresses and returns cleanly.

About the only other issue I'll have will be keeping the solar panels well illuminated so that the battery remains well topped up. I've raised my keyboard tray a little, that seems to boost the amount of light received. The keyboard normally comes with a micro-fibre cleaning cloth to help out with that. In addition, I'd better not spill any drinks on it, as there's no spill protection whatsoever. Anyone want my Coke?

It also remains to see how well I game on it too, given the shorter travel and the slightly different keyboard layout. It's a little more standard arrangement of movement keys, and the | is above the Enter key, not squeezed down beside the right-shift. At least it's somewhere nearby. Time to game on.

Keyboard Problems

This keyboard hasn't shown me any issues yet, as I've only had it thirty hours. However, this keyboard isn't unbreakable, and you should take the usual care not to knock keycaps off, especially if you break the scissor hinge underneath. Logitech will probably cover accidental damage that's not a result of stupidity, but may not cover the damage if you drop a coffee mug onto the keyboard.

Again, if you kept the original purchase receipt - you did keep it, right? If you did, scan it in and save it as a JPG or PNG image file. You may need this if you need to make a claim under the limited three year guarantee. If you're outside the guarantee period, then you will have to investigate other options.

Others have found that the rechargeable 3 Volt ML2032 gives up after a very short time, or within the first few months. These batteries can be replaced, but you have to replace them with another ML2032, and not a standard CR2032. If you're still within the three year guarantee period, it's simpler to check back with Logitech or your retailer who'll be able to advise what to do. If you're outside the guarantee period, have a look on line. They're not easy to find, but you can find them if you hunt hard enough. Of course, if you don't live in the U.S., then getting them to your location can be nearly as much of a problem as some postal companies have restrictions about sending batteries through the postal system.

Keyboard conclusions

So far, I've found this keyboard pleasant enough to type on, with enough feedback to let me know I've hit the key, without having to hammer it to do so. It's been compared to chiclet keyboards but each key has a subtle dish allowing your fingers to find the centre of the key for better accuracy. Touch typing on this keyboard won't win me any speed awards but I can touch type without any real issues I'm currently aware of. Typing on the other Dick Smith keyboard is certainly louder in comparison, whereas touchtyping on this keyboard is a bit quieter, perhaps similar to the Apple keyboards.

Like the mouse, I don't expect keyboard lag to be perceptible for gaming unless my battery is running low, but I won't know this for several weeks or months yet. The speed of response is certainly adequate enough for my current needs and this should be a very long lasting keyboard if I look after that battery. Would I recommend this keyboard? Currently, yes. It doesn't have the same issues for battery life that the K800 has, though it has its own issue. About the only thing missing from this is the modern trend to backlighting, but you can only do so much with one battery cell.

The cost is a bit of a dampener, even considering what you're getting for your money. I got lucky, and purchased mine second-hand for less than half the retail price, but if you want this keyboard new, be prepared to pay a bit for it. Perhaps not as much as the G-series keyboards, but perhaps more than the K800.

It has the advantage of working under all three major operating systems, though if you wish to customise what the application keys do, you'll need to check what your OS thinks each key does. Under Windows and Mac OS X, basic functionality is provided by the OS, with extended functions provided by the SetPoint and SolarApp programs. Under Linux, check the Solaar program, as you'll probably need this to check battery life.

01 July, 2014

Ode to a unique cat

Goodbye, furry friend

A picture of my cat.

Today, I mark the passing of our furry not-so-little companion. No lap cat was he, in fact he was quite distinct. Unfortunately a couple of weeks ago, he started not wanting to eat, and it was today we found out the reason why. A cancer had invaded his mouth, and could not be treated. So we said goodbye to him, and started our time of no cat. Wow.

04 April, 2014

My New Cans

Headphones and surround sound

You wouldn't have thought that surround sound and headphones would be a good match—at least not normally. Surround Sound has traditionally meant 4 or more speakers surrounding the participant. Where do headphones fit in all of this? Not very well. If you want to play surround sound movies or games but you don't want to annoy the neighbours—or family—to do so, then surround sound headphones may seem like they fit the bill. Well they may, and they may not. I very recently bought the Plantronics Gamecom 780 as a surround-sound update to my stereo-only Altec Lansing headset.

The state of play

There are a number of factors to consider when purchasing a "surround sound" headset. First, does the headset use two speakers, or multiple smaller speakers? Does it connect to the computer over USB or discrete audio cables? Does it use surround sound software present on the computer or a computer-connected hardware device that the headset plugs into?

So, how does this mean anything to me?

Because it affects the quality of sound that you hear. We all like to have fantastic sound, and headphones are already a compromise. Headphones such as the Razer Tiamat use multiple speakers for each ear to reflect an approximation of a true surround-sound environment. It's a hardware method not requiring any more resources than a sound card with multiple surround outputs. They're usually more expensive, and most of the speakers have to be smaller to fit within the profile of head mounted sound gear. This reduces the range of sounds they can produce with accuracy, losing some bass response in the process.

In comparison, you have the good old two-speaker headphones. These have been around since people first made headphones, and usually use larger 40 mm 'drivers' to produce sound more accurately—for example, to give better bass response. Add some smart software or hardware to them, increase the price a little, and you're being sold a set of surround sound headphones. If you need surround sound under anything but Windows, look hard at the software solutions as most of them will only work under Windows. Also check whether the headset uses discrete audio cables or purely a USB cable, as this may also limit what devices you use the headphones with. 3.5 mm, RCA or optical cables allow the headset to be connected to any supported audio source, but USB connectors only allow for connections to computers.

In addition, you've got the software that's used to translate stereo into wow. Sometimes it's called Dolby Digital, sometimes Dolby Pro Logic II, sometimes other things. It all does the same thing, though it may tweak the methods used. Plantronics went with including Dolby Pro Logic IIx for their headset.

Plantronics? Didn't they do …

Aeronautics headsets? Yes. They've produced aeronautical headsets for use in aircraft, control towers and even space missions. Since then, they've branched out into consumer headsets. I first came across how good Plantronics equipment sounded when I was listening to podcasts. The presenters using Plantronics equipment sounded pretty good, though that could also have been their professional setup.

So, what about this Gamecom 780 then?

The Plantronics Gamecom 780 supports 7.1 virtual surround sound through a software interface, feeding two 40mm speakers and taking input from a noise-cancelling microphone. It carries these signals over a 6.5' (2 metre) USB cable, eliminating the confusion of which cable does what. It's long, but not very long. Opinion is divided over cable length with some people swearing that 10' is great, and some others swearing at 6' being far too long. I like 6', though I wouldn't have minded a little more length.

Once I got rid of all the kinks in the cable, I was able to plug it in, install the software supplied on CD, and get up and running with them practically straight away on a Windows Vista system. On Linux, I booted up and the headset was simply there with no other configuration needed. Other people have mentioned little niggles about volume control under Linux, but so far I've learned to turn them down—way down. That way I don't get blasted when I fire up Cold Play. Other than that, they work perfectly well as a normal stereo headset.

In addition, the software supplied for Windows is exceptionally basic, with no equaliser provided. You get a Dolby toggle and a toggle between music or movies/gaming. Even the volume control is supplied by the OS. For those of you hoping to beef up the bass, max out the midrange or twiddle with top end, forget it. It ain't here, though admittedly the audio already hits the sweet spot for me.

Are there any other wrinkles?

I did strike an issue that actually has nothing to do with the headset itself, but I struck it because the USB headset is treated as a soundcard separately from the motherboard one. Line-in from anywhere else, comes into the motherboard soundcard. Normally the sound gets forwarded on to the output of the motherboard chipset and doesn't get forwarded on any further. Which means that my brand new handy headset doesn't hear it without a bit of extra help along the way.

In Linux, that's as easy as firing up the alsaloop program, though this isn't entirely stable. I've found that occasionally, the alsaloop program will drop, citing inability to write data to pulseaudio. At the moment, I just restart it. On Windows, I've had to go with a little donateware program that takes two or three hardware inputs and one or two virtual inputs, and outputs them to one or more hardware devices. VoiceMeeter and VoiceMeeter Banana (previously VoiceMeeterPro) from VB-Audio fits this bill nicely, though Windows seems to have one or two issues with it occasionally. It is an excellent wee program and in 2016, I decided to pay some money to its author, because though I can't resize the elements, it does exactly what I needed it to.

Okay, what's the final verdict?

I'd recommend this headset on Windows in a heartbeat if it wasn't for the fact that other customers have had issues on Windows 8, and issues with the physical design of the hardware itself, often showing breakages in the plastic headband. For other operating systems, it's a perfectly acceptable headset with great stereo sound for music, games and movies. There's no surround-sound capability on Linux or Mac OS X beyond what programs (like VLC) generate for themselves, though surround sound on Windows definitely adds a dimension that wasn't there the same way before. The microphone sounds clear to others, though the noise-cancelling claim hasn't been definitively settled yet. For me, the headset makes an excellent upgrade from my previous Altec Lansing budget headset. As for the surround sound, I had trouble differentiating front from back. It could be I'm simply not used to the surround stage that Plantronics envisioned, but everything sounds like it's either at the sides or the front. I wanted to hear something unambiguously behind me, but that's a little inconclusive for me at least. Other people have sworn it drops them right inside the action.

Conclusion

Good headphones used to be stereo-only and aimed mostly at audiophiles and music lovers, but times have changed. If you want surround sound that doesn't disturb your neighbours, you can have it whether you're a gamer or simply love your movies. If you're into music, be aware that the audio quality may suffer in headsets marketed towards gamers, and good stereo headphones may still be a better compromise.

Update (Nov 2014)

I had to take the Plantronics 780s back to the shop I bought them from because they developed a crack in the headset, right where it curves outwards to the post holding the earpiece framework. I have a pair of 788s to replace them with, the only real difference is a slight rebadge and slight change of colour from orange to a light red. In addition, the software now works on Windows 8 and 8.1, though I don't know about Windows 10.

Update (Dec 2015)

I'm on my third and final set of Gamecoms, the second pair finally developed a crack in the same place that the first set broke. If this pair does the same thing, then I'm regrettably going to have to change headphones. I don't seriously expect a pair of headphones—whether cheap or not—to only last for 12 months on average. They should seriously last a lot longer. Heck, my Altec Lansings have lasted since 2006, and were a darn sight cheaper.

02 April, 2014

My take on spectacular crash and burn

Loose lips sink ships!

First off, some links to cover the subject about the Game show sunk by one question...

In short, a group of people got together to produce a TV show about producing games. Unfortunately for that group, entertainment value decided to stick its ugly oar in. Sexism had a big part to play. Corporate sponsorship muddied the message. Poor decisions "for the ratings" sunk this project before it was even completed. It was sunk not by one man—Matti Leshem—and that dreaded question, but by a culture of "what Joe Public will lap up the most". And yet there were good things that resulted. A guy lost his job, and hopefully gained some respect of women in the process. Several others stood up collectively for their beliefs and put the project in the bin, where it belongs with last week's smelly fish heads and busted pantyhose. An agreement was tentatively made to do the job the right way—to show developers not as competitive sexists, but as a collective supportive group who can tell the difference between entertainment and the right thing.

For those of you who have read the horror story already, I can't offer much new. For those of you who haven't yet read about it, go. Do so. Read the points of all the participants in what ended up being a complete and royal clusterbomb of stupidity. And hope that it never happens again for any reason. This will have been said many times over the past two days since the articles originally aired, but I'll repeat it. Don't let people's bad views colour your view of the world, and don't ever lack respect for anyone. I suspect I'll never drink Mountain Dew if this is the extent they're prepared to go to just to get people to notice them.