Cool Yule Tools 2016: Digital disruption at Santa's Workshop

The 17th annual Network World holiday gift guide has something for every techie (and techie-wanna-be) on your list.

silicon santa banner 3 Stephen Sauer
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Gaming and VR

Sony PlayStation VR
About $400 (controllers, cameras and games are extra)
More info: https://www.playstation.com/en-us/explore/playstation-vr/

I can guarantee that the Sony PlayStation VR will be the hot gift for gamers on your list this holiday. Sony has done an outstanding job with its virtual reality headset, integrating it well with the existing PS4 console and providing enough games to whet the appetite of gamers. The headset fits nicely in between lower-end models (such as the very inexpensive Google Cardboard style) that use a smartphone, and the upper end models that can cost $600 or more and require additional computing power (HTC Vive, Oculus Rift).

There are some things to be aware of if you’re going to buy this for someone this holiday. First, you have to have enough space for the PlayStation Camera to detect the headset and the person wearing the headset. In this way it’s a lot like the Xbox Kinect camera and games – smaller room settings don’t cut it. Second, while the initial games are cool to try out, it’s just the first round of games. Once developers learn more about the system, gaming experiences should go beyond just “hey, that’s cool!” and into deeper scenarios.

See the full review here.

Also, check out the "After Hours" section for quick recaps of VR games we've tried and enjoyed so far.

-- Keith Shaw

Samsung GearVR
About $100
More info: http://www.samsung.com/global/galaxy/gear-vr/

If Sony’s VR gaming system isn’t in your budget (or because you don’t own a PS4 console), but you still want to experience virtual reality beyond the basics of Google Cardboard, Samsung’s latest GearVR headset is worth a look.

The headset lets you connect Android phones (preferably ones from Samsung) to immerse yourself into the world of VR. A collaboration with Oculus expands the offerings of apps, movies and games from just having to search for VR through the Google Play store.

The headset is comfortable to wear – Velcro straps go behind and over your head that you can adjust for a good fit. A padded area around the nose and eyes help keep it comfortable while you’re in the virtual space. It can get uncomfortable if you’re wearing glasses while wearing the headset (in fact, Samsung recommends not wearing glasses), so if you have sight issues your experience may be less enjoyable. The headset does have a focus wheel that does try to give you the crispest image, but I still found times when text was fuzzy (it doesn’t help that I have different visual acuity levels in each eye).

-- Keith Shaw

Plantronics RIG 4VR
$120
More info: http://www.plantronics.com/us/product/rig-4vr/

Turtle Beach Stealth VR
$80
More info: http://www.turtlebeach.com/en-us/earforcestealthvr/

If you make the investment into Sony’s PS VR virtual reality headset, you quickly realize that the included earbuds that Sony gives you doesn’t really give you a full, immersive experience. While it’s certainly OK to use the headset without any headphones or earbuds (using the TV’s speakers, for example), for the complete experience you want to have a headset that also covers your ears completely to bring you into whatever virtual world you’re visiting. If you’re doing a game where other players don’t need to participate (such as with the Playroom VR games), then wearing a headset is optimal.

For the guide we received two headsets specifically designed for use with the PS VR headset. The Plantronics RIGS VR and Turtle Beach Ear Force Stealth 350VR fit over the top of the PSVR headset (so you put on the VR headset first, then the headphones). The Plantronics headset matches the style and the color of the PSVR, so many people will think that the two devices go together.

The Stealth 350VR is designed to allow the VR cables to go over the headset, yet under the headphones, to make sure they don’t get in the way during gameplay. The headphones also feature over-ear cushions made of memory foam, 50mm stereo speakers, a variable bass boost, noise-cancelling microphone with mic monitoring (really aimed more at non-VR uses, such as regular PS4 gameplay), and an integrated amplifier. The wired headphones connect to the VR headset through the 3.5mm headphone jack. In addition to the PSVR, these headphones will work with the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive VR systems, or you could just use it with the PS4.

The Plantronics headset also connects wired to the headphone jack, but also features a cool self-adjusting headband (you pick from three different settings for a good fit), vented earcups to help reduce ear fatigue. It has a noise-cancelling microphone that flips up to automatically mute, or you can take it off completely.

Both headsets worked well with the PSVR, I can heartily recommend both headsets – the decision on which one to buy depends on personal preference, color and fit. Bravo to both!

-- Keith Shaw

Lenovo Ideapad Y900-17ISK (17-inch gaming notebook)
Starts at $2500
More info: http://shop.lenovo.com/us/en/laptops/ideapad/y900-series/y900-17/

My days of PC gaming are long past, what with distractions like work, life and children (curses!). But if I could ever find some additional time to get back into the gaming space, I’d start with the Lenovo gaming gear.

In this case, the Ideapad Y900 is a 17.3-inch notebook with tons of high-end features aimed at gamers. Check out the Lenovo site for a list of complete features, but this includes things like a mechanical backlit keyboard (programmable, of course), NVIDIA GTX 980M graphics, the latest Intel Core i7 processors, and thermal cooling optimized to keep the temperature of the system from getting too hot. Lenovo offers some additional accessories (such as a mouse, headset, external keyboard and a cool gaming backpack), which are nice but you’d probably want to explore some other options there.

The system is large and heavy enough where you’d likely keep this in one location, but I liked how you could take this with you to different areas (or, if you grabbed the special backpack, you could in theory take this with you on the road). I miss the days of 17-inch notebooks that dominated the marketplace, and always enjoy a larger display area. It’s one of the reasons that I usually tie in a notebook’s screen with a larger monitor. With this system, you won’t necessarily need one, unless you are a sucker for as many displays as possible.

The price on this is steep, so if you get or give this as a holiday gift, consider yourself very lucky (and feel free to buy me some nice things too). But this would be a nice long-term investment or gift for someone who wants to go all in on computer gaming.

-- Keith Shaw

AtGames Sega Genesis Classic Game Console (2016 version)
$50
More info: https://www.amazon.com/Sega-Genesis-Classic-Game-Console-2016/dp/B01KV6E72O/ref=pd_sbs_63_t_1?_encoding=UTF8&psc=1&refRID=3N43KKCETZGXER0TWCHJ

If you were playing video games in the 1990s, chances are you owned a Sega Genesis console (or you knew someone who did). After the early days of the Atari 2600 and the first Nintendo Entertainment system, the Sega Genesis was the system to own (at least until Sony and Microsoft entered the business).

If you want to relive those early games of the Genesis, check out this package – it includes 80 built-in games and two wireless controllers, all connected through your TV. It connects via composite cables, so make sure you do this on an older TV (no sense trying to connect this to an HDMI-based system).

This year’s model (they’ve had models for the past few years) includes three Mortal Kombat games, as well as a whole bunch of Sonic the Hedgehog games (including my favorite, the one where Sonic is in a giant pinball machine). To round out the total to reach 80 games, there are some filler games that you probably have never heard of. For good reason, as these games aren’t very good.

The wireless controllers require a good line of sight between the controller and sensor (usually placed on top of your TV) – it’s not as good as the connection you get with modern consoles (like the PS4 or Xbox One). Playing the games was nostalgic at first, but in the end you’ll likely go back to your other gaming system, as will your kids.

-- Keith Shaw

Logitech G810 Orion Spectrum RGB mechanical gaming keyboard
$160
More info: http://gaming.logitech.com/en-us/product/g810-orion-spectrum-rgb-gaming-keyboard

If you’re all in on PC gaming, you will probably want to upgrade your keyboard from whatever version the system comes with (exceptions made if you buy a gaming desktop that concentrates on the keyboard as well as the tower). This is especially important if you’re using a gaming notebook and you want to sit farther away from the keyboard.

The G810 Orion Spectrum keyboard from Logitech can fill that need. It’s a mechanical keyboard, but not one that makes the really loud “clickety clackety” sounds when you type. Logitech says that the keys are specifically designed for gaming, with mechanical switches that can “actuate up to 25% faster than standard mechanical switches.” For games that require split-second timing, this can make a difference between game life and game death. The company says the switches are tested to last for more than 70 million key presses, so you’ll likely own this keyboard for a long, long time before a key fails (if ever).

In addition, the keyboard lights up, with customization options for creating up to 16.8 million colors. This always makes me chuckle because you probably can’t perceive that many colors, but it’s cool that you have the option.

The keyboard layout is nice – it’s a full size keyboard with arrow keys, a number pad and full line of function keys. It also has a volume control slider and dedicated play/pause/next/previous track buttons. It’s clearly designed for a Windows environment as well.

Another nice bonus – the keyboard purchase enables you to a free game – Tom Clancy’s The Division.

-- Keith Shaw

Turtle Beach Ear Force Stealth 520 Surround Sound Wireless Gaming Headset
$100
More info: http://shop.turtlebeach.com/us/headsets/playstation-4/turtle-beach-stealth-520

Turtle Beach Ear Force PX24 Amplified Gaming Headset
$80
http://shop.turtlebeach.com/us/headsets/xbox-one/ear-force-px24

At some point in your gaming life, you’re going to want or need a gaming headset. It might be your spouse/partner/significant other telling you that they’re sick of listening to your gameplay, or, more likely, you’ll want to talk with friends while you’re playing together in a first-person shooter or other cooperative online game.

There are tons of different options available, depending on whether you want to go wired or wireless, and what gaming console you’re using (PS4, PC or Xbox One, for example). Described here are two headphones/headsets from Turtle Beach.

The Stealth 520 is designed for the PS4 or PS3 gaming consoles, and utilizes Bluetooth wireless technology, meaning you won’t have a cable going from the headset to the game controller. It comes with one if you don’t want to use the wireless option, but we prefer the cord-free route. However, this does mean that you need a free USB port in order to plug in the Bluetooth dongle, which also has a small wire that connects to the back of the PS4 console for digital optical audio.

On the features side, the Stealth 520 features 7.1 surround sound, 50mm stereo speakers, audio presets (push a button to hear different options) and the ability to boost your chat above the game sound. A microphone can attach or detach from the headset, depending on whether you want to chat or not (like if you just want to listen to music). This also features Turtle Beache’s “Superhuman Hearing” technology, which advertises the ability to hear “soft footsteps to far off reloads.” I’m not sure if this is specific to individual games or not – in my use I was able to hear things just fine, and couldn’t tell if it was because of the Superhuman Hearing option or not. My success or failure in any particular game was usually because of my limited skills in that game, not because I could hear any better.

The fit was good, but not great – I prefer headsets that go completely over the ear, and this one sat more on the outside of the ear than I desired. This meant that after a few hours, my ears started to ache, and I’d need to take a break from gameplay.

The PX24 model is a wired headset, and compatible with the PS4, Xbox One, PC & Mac, and even “mobile gaming” (although I’d laugh if I saw someone playing Candy Crush with this headset). I used it with a PC gaming setup, where I was going to be less mobile (basically sitting in a chair). The PX24 also features the “Superhuman Hearing” technology, included on a button on the small control panel connected to the USB cable that this headset uses. Other settings include virtual surround sound level adjustments, a variable microphone monitor, a master volume control, variable bass boost and the ability to mute your microphone. This one fit better than the Stealth 520, as the foam earcups fit over my ears rather than on them.

If you have more than one setup where you’re playing games (like a PS4 and PC, or a PS3 and Xbox One), then the PX24 can be used for both systems without having to buy one headset for one system and one system for another. But, this also depends on your budget and how much you want to spend for a headset.

-- Keith Shaw

Energizer XtraLife Charge System (PS4) by PDP
$30
More info: https://www.amazon.com/Energizer-Extra-Charge-System-playstation-4/dp/B01BE767ZO

My kids love to play video games with me, but the thing that irritates me most is that they don’t recharge the controllers after they’re done. This means that when I’m ready to play, I’m dealing with dead controllers, or I have to plug them in with a wire, making it a bit more difficult to play.

The Energizer XtraLife Charge System does two things to help – first, it gives you an extra battery pack that you plug into the back of the controller. Second, it can recharge that pack as well as your main controller through its docking station. Lights on the side of the dock glow to indicate whether the system is charging or if the charge is complete. With the extra battery life, you can play for a longer period than before, which is a nice bonus.

Charging controllers via this dock also means you don’t have to use the USB ports on the PS4 for recharging, freeing them up for things like your VR headset or other docks (like the Skylanders or Disney Infinity dock). Sadly, you’ll still have to remind the kids to put their controllers back in the dock when they’re done, but at least you’ll have a longer battery life so you won’t have to remind them as much.

-- Keith Shaw

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