What PC accessories should put on your must-have list for 2011? The ones you should borrow, beg for and steal (OK, maybe not steal) from all of your tech-savvy friends? These ones.
For this mega-list of PC accessories (that you should acquire as soon as you're done reading said article), we called in a smattering of objects across a wide range of categories in an effort to understand the full scope of an "awesome computing experience". We've painstakingly narrowed this list to a mere ten items - ranked - which you'll find right after the jump. And, of course, no list would be complete without the big losers to accompany the big winners - you'll find the products that didn't test quite as well at the end of the article!
Grab your credit card and/or sack of cash: Let's get started.
10) Razer Megasoma
Let's get this out of the way up-front: If you're the kind of person who honestly thinks that an expensive mousepad is going to be the cure toward your last-place ills in the first-person-shooter of your choice, you're crazy.
Now, I'm going to say that I enjoy Razer's Megasoma gaming mousepad, but for the chief reason that it presents me a smooth, easy-to-navigate surface that I can literally roll up with me and take into unknown environments. Is that worth the gaming mat's $US50 asking price? Only you can really be the judge of that one-it sure beats slapping your optical mouse on the cut-off top of a cardboard box, eh?
In all seriousness, the kind of person who would consider buying a gaming mat, period, is the kind of person who likely cares just as much about the look, feel, and status of his or her PC components as the actual performance thereof. So, with that in mind, the Megasoma is certainly pretty to look at. Shoot, even its packaging is just as detailed and eye-catching as the silicon mat itself. You'll be the belle of the LAN party ball once you've slapped this extravagant add-on next to your equally tricked-out keyboard.
However, a word of caution: Depending on how your optical mouse is constructed, this mat might do more to break your performance than help. My current mouse, which uses a Philips Twin-Eye sensor to detect where it's going, would not work with the gaming pad in any useful capacity. I tested the mat with another mouse, based on a BlueTrack sensor, to find that it performed as well as a glove fits. No complaints whatsoever.
9) Corsair Flash Padlock 2
There are USB keys of all shapes, sizes, varieties and novelties - so how about a USB key that's essentially a bank vault for your information? Corsair's Flash Padlock 2 is just that: a USB stick that automatically secures your contents with 256-bit AES encryption without requiring you to install any additional software or fuss with any configuration screens.
But that's hardly the reason why this USB key is so cool.
Not only do you get the encryption on the drive side of the equation (in an 8GB or 16GB capacity, mind you), but the USB key builds a locking mechanism right on the top of the device itself. This comes in the form of a four-to-ten digit PIN code that you enter using five buttons on top of the key-without a successful combination entry, the drive won't even show up in Windows Explorer. And if an unsavoury individual tries to just button-mash to gain access, the Flash Padlock 2 will lock said individual out from the keying mechanism for a period of two minutes.
And, if you lose the PIN… don't freak out. Resetting the device wipes it forevermore, ensuring that your trusted files will be seen by nobody's eyes but your own!
8) Razer Nostromo
When you play games, do you ever think one of the following questions to yourself: "Man, I sure wish I could rearrange my keyboard?" Or how about, "I sure wish I had more buttons?"
Razer's Nostromo might seem like a little overkill at first glance - I, too, was a bit suspect… and I play World of Warcraft for Thrall's sake - but this hand-shaped keyboard extension is far easier on one's fingers than a typical keyboard for playing most titles you throw at it.
Here's why: Just how many keys do you use in a given game? How many of you are running around a digital environment via a standard WASD setup? The Nostromo packs 14 different keys in a configuration that's reminiscent of a claw-it's a lot quicker and easier to move your fingers up and down to access the parallel rows of keys versus a standard keyboard's design. Also, all in-game movements are now mapped to a directional pad that you control with your thumb. It's a strange sensation at first, but I already see myself enjoying it far more than WASD.
A quick-hit button within thumb's reach toggles the eight different keymaps you can set up for the device, making for a total of 112 different commands that you can dial up with one hand-sized gadget. More, if you count the fact that the directional pad itself can be mapped based on the direction you're pushing.
It defies logic that so much can be orchestrated with, literally, a hand-sized device. But that's the Nostromo-a deft keyboard replacement for true power gamers.
7) Microsoft Lifecam Studio
A stocking stuffer? Really? Aren't webcams usually these big, behemoth devices that attach to the top of your monitor akin to how a barnacle latches on to a crab? Well, yes. But you'll be amazed by just how much power Microsoft has packed into its super-tiny (and super-light) Lifecam Studio. For starters, this is one of the few webcams on the market that actually runs a 1080p resolution. That's right. You can now capture images in full 1920x1080 glory using a device that's slightly larger than a tube of lipstick (not video, though! Microsoft's software limits you to a mere 720p resolution. Sigh).
If that, in itself, isn't enough to whet your whistle, try this on for size: the cam's built-in microphone actually does a pretty great job of capturing audio from a typical monitor distance's worth away. I'd be more than happy to the built-in recorder for things like Skype calls, or YouTube videos, or any other such reason that would cause me to want to bust out in full 1080p/720p glory.
The camera also comes with a built-in, silent autofocus. No head-tracking, however, as the Lifecam Studio sits wherever you happen to attach it-which, to Microsoft's credit, could also be a tripod. Yes, the company has even built support for a tripod mount directly on the cam itself-you hear that, budding filmmakers? Your path toward HD cinema has arrived.
6) Antec Digital PSU Power Tester
Your system won't turn on. You swear up and down that you haven't actually done anything to offend the gods and/or deserve this treatment, but the fact of the matter is that you're staring at a large brick that used to otherwise be a fully functioning desktop PC. Nuts.
Antec's Digital PSU Power Tester is the perfect such device to eliminate (or pinpoint) a potential problem within your system build. Or, for the more hardcore Maximum PC readers, it's a great tool for checking the various power supplies that litter your workspace/basement/garage. The last thing you want to have to deal with is undoing a perfect wiring job as the result of your careful efforts to stuff a dead PSU into your newly minted system.
Antec's tester requires but two things from you: a connection to the PSU's 24-pin connector and its 4/6/8-pin connector (both, obviously the two connections that go into the motherboard itself). Firing up the power supply-assuming its working-will cause the tester to display the various voltages present on the +3.3V, +5V, and +12V rails. If your PSU is churning correctly, you can also use Antec's tester to check its various molex and SATA connections as well. If there are any problems during your experiments, the tester itself will emit a loud beep to alert you that all is not well in power supply land.
5) Zalman ZM-MH200 Hub
For the build-it-yourself geek, there's little more awesome than being able to pull up the contents of a hard drive on-the-fly. Now, the normal process for doing so is a laborious task: You have to pop open the side of your case, you have to slap the drive in place and screw it to the side of some kind of retention mechanism or bay, you have to connect the drive to your system and power supply, you have to boot into Windows and assign the drive a letter, et cetera.
Well, your favourite deity of choice has done much to ease your life by creating the concept of external drive enclosures to accelerate this task, but even these can be complicated depending on the specific brand you've picked up. Not every drive enclosure is as smoothly operating as, say, a hot-swap bay.
That's where Zalman's ZM-MH200 Hub comes into the picture, because there is no enclosure to deal with on this product. Just flip your 3.5-inch or 2.5-inch drive vertically and glide it gently onto the associated connectors within the device. It's as easy as that, provided you don't mind having a bare drive just reaching to the heavens, as it were.
Not only can you mount two drives at once, but you can also connect two other USB devices to the ZM-MH200 at any given time. The device also comes with a built-in reader for SD, SDHC, and microSD cards. Overall, the ZM-MH200 connects to your system via a simple USB or eSATA cable.
Although Zalman does make a USB 3.0-friendly device, I opted for the "lesser" ZM-MH200 simply because it supports more connections at once. With the potential power of eSATA fueling its connections, I'm far more worried about what I can stick into the ZM-MH200 than what its transfer speeds will be like.
4) Bluelounge Refresh
I've been jumping back and forth on this one, because I actually have two similar products on-hand, both designed to somehow ease your process of recharging the 10 various handheld devices you own. Each has its own set of strengths and weaknesses but, in the end, I had to rule in favour of Bluelounge's Refresh over Idapt's I4 - here's why.
Idapt's I4 is a hard-shell design that uses a solid base station for the root of its recharging. You plug this into the wall, and then you slap three of six different plugs into three modular connections on top of said charging station. The device supports a variety of, er, devices, including those based on mini-USB or micro-USB connections, iPhones, Nokia phones, etc. Turning the entire platform on and off is as easy as hitting a button on its top.
I'm a fan, but there's something a little less elegant about Idapt's setup (plus, I hate that I have to turn my phone on its side in order to get it to recharge overnight). Bluelounge's Refresh, on the other hand, is a bit more of a soft design than Idapt's charging station. A removable cover conceals a hollow area underneath which, itself, is home to five different cords - USB, microUSB, miniUSB and iPhone/iPod connections. When you need to use one, you just slip it through a gap between the Refresh's top and base, and then you gently place your now-recharging device on the rubberised cover. Easy as pie.
Simply put, the Refresh just does a better job in a prettier fashion. You can charge more devices (though admittedly, less of a variety of devices) and you don't have to orient them in strange ways just to get them to power up. There isn't anything to snap in and out per se, although you're welcome to take out cords you aren't using to trim down the clutter within the Refresh itself-even though you won't see it one bit!
3) MadCatz Cyborg R.A.T.9
I'm not going to waste your time, nor mine, in trying to recap Alex Castle's glowing review of the RAT 7 gaming mouse from MadCatz. If his perfect,10 out of 10, couldn't-be-better Kick arse score awarded to the device doesn't speak for itself, I don't know what will. In short, the RAT 7 is the end-all, be-all of gaming mice.
So what the heck is the RAT 9? In short, it's the wireless version.
That's right. Nothing's changed in design or format between the RAT 7 and RAT 9 mice, save that the former has a cord and the latter does not. The latter also comes with a wireless adaptor that doubles as a charging station for the two batteries that MadCatz includes with the mouse. Although I would normally gripe that the battery life on said device isn't very strong - you'll get about a day and a half with the device under decent, evening use-the fact that you can instantly swap out the tiny, life-giving package for a fresh new pack is a feature that's absurdly wise of MadCatz to implement.
My only other criticism with the device-a minor one, at that-is that its Philips Twin-Eye sensor doesn't work with the Razer gaming pad mentioned earlier in this article. So, to extrapolate that, you might want to test out the RAT 9 before you go purchasing $US50 hunks of silicon to stick under it. A small quibble, but it had to be said! Other than that, it's hard to think of a better, more feature-packed or more comfortable mouse.
2) Logitech G19
Amongst all the keyboards that one could purchase-especially those with a gaming slant to them (extra buttons / macro support / blinky lights / etc) - there are none more impressive than Logitech's G19. Why's that? Because while plenty of keyboards build some kind of monochrome LCD display directly front and centre on the device, none come with a freakin' full-colour screen, a super-mini-monitor, as it were, for displaying all sorts of interesting things as you type.
The layout of the G19 is similar to Logitech's other G-series designs, so I'll touch on it but briefly: Twelve function keys can be assigned across three different categories, giving you 36 total buttons of customizability that you can program on a per game setting. You can change the backlighting of the keyboard to any colour your heart desires, and built-in volume controls, media playback controls, and a start-key-blocking switch do much to trick out one's general gaming experience.
Now, onto the display. To call it elegant or eye-catching wouldn't really do it justice. This 320-by-240 resolution screen pivots up and down to assist you in finding the perfect viewing angle. And that's just the tip of the iceberg for its options-laden operations: a directional pad and buttons give you easy access to any of the built-in profiles that customise the display to whatever game you're playing.
You can also use the display to watch videos (yes, full-fledged videos) or jump between pictures in any folder on your system. Heck, you can watch YouTube videos on your keyboard. You can also instantly connect your Webcam's input up to the display to, well, watch yourself. Or, if you're a bit shy, you can set up the keyboard to just give you a read-out of your system's CPU and memory performance.
Does this keyboard rock? Can you type D-U-H? Simply put, I would never go back to any other keyboard after using the G19 after just one day.
1) Logitech G930 Wireless Gaming Headest
This was a tough one, as I found a compelling case for both the Logitech G930 and Creative's World of Warcraft headset-specifically chosen for its initial "cool" factor above all other models.
The trade-off goes something like this: both headsets are wireless, which is awesome if for nothing else than the ability to jam to tunes (or listen to yourself being shot at / stabbed / etc) while making dinner in another room. Or, perhaps more practically, sitting on your bed or couch from a decent distance away. There's nothing more important to a great PC that the sound it emits, which is exactly why a killer wireless headset rests at the top of our must-have list.
I preferred the sound of the Logitech G930s slightly more than Creative's headset-I felt the low-frequency booms and general crispness of noise in both games and music to be a bit stronger on Logitech's device. As well, I didn't really like the emulated three-dimensional positioning found in Creative's headset. It just never felt like very strong surround sound for me as compared to the more enveloping feel of Logitech's headset.
Feature-wise, the ear-enveloping G930 comes with four buttons right on the headset-one to mute your attached microphone, and three that can be customised to whatever you'd like (I have mine set to control music in my media player of choice). And don't forget the volume control. Running your finger up and down your ear to raise and lower your system sound is even easier than doing it on your keyboard.
I didn't quite care for the G930's attached microphone, in the sense that it kept on falling from a vertical position (automatically muted) to a standard, time-to-chat positioning (muted no longer). Creative's detachable headset solves this on the World of Warcraft headset, but its only other accompanying features besides volume controls are the LEDs that illuminate your ears with whatever colours you'd like. An eye-catching feature, no doubt, but I'm a sucker for feature over form.
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