Archive for the ‘tech gadgets’ Category

How to play old arcade games with a MAME machine

Posted by matt on February 21, 2009

Ahh, arcade games.  Last summer, I posted my “What’s your top 1% video game“, and it got me thinking that I haven’t played too many games lately…

Over 6 years ago, I decided that I wanted to build an arcade cabinet that would play all the old-school arcade games.  While my MAME (Multi-Arcade-Machine-Emulator) machine has gone through at least 3 rounds of iterations, it has been out of commission for over a year (after some hard use at my last Karaoke party… kind of a long story).  Until last week…  I finally got around to putting in an old workstation that would update the CPU hardware for the first time in about 4 years and get everything else back working.

It’s hard to believe, but I’ve been messing around with MAME for over 10 years.   Growing up in a 12-machine video game arcade at my parents campground in the 80s was a dream come true.  Today, it would be too hard to figure out which specific arcade game to buy, so in the 90′s when MAME came out, having the ability to play many games on the same machine had huge appeal.  How many is many?  As of early 2009, how about over 6500 working games!!

While there are many paths to going and getting one of these machines running, I’ll tell you what I did:

tankstick_sm2.jpg1) Controls ($200 or less) – Back in 2002, I purchased an X-arcade Joystick.  This is arcade quality, and if you just want to use MAME with a normal computer it works well.  If you plan on having a cabinet, a better way to go would be to simply buy the controllers and build your own board.  I ended up ripping up my X-arcade and put it in a custom board.  I’m lucky that my good friend Cory was able to make me a board and layout.  Check his modern arcades site for more of the cabinets he has built!

2) Computer – (cheap/free?) Many people have an old computer lying around.  The one that is usually in my MAME cabinet is what typically becomes of my primary workstation after I upgrade (typically every 2-3 years).  While some games don’t even work with the newest hardware, you can easily play over 4000 of these games with almost any machine.  Remember, these games are from the 80′s, so emulation of them isn’t that intensive.  The first computer I used was a 486 running Windows 95 and it easily played all the early 80′s classics like Galaga, Pacman, etc.  Today I’m using a middle-of-the-line Athlon 3800+ with 1GB of RAM and a 256MB Radeon HD 3450 video card which also works quite well.

lowerhell-MAME-Custom-Arcade-cabinet-by-Matt-Apps3) Cabinet – ($varies, mine was $175 delivered) The biggest commitment is the cabinet.  Rather than try to build my own, I went to a local games distributor and asked if they had an old cabinet.  They did, and I ended up with an old Zenophobe cabinet (it had been later turned into Combattribes).  If you know of a game vendor in your area, chances are they have old stuff around in a warehouse that can be had for cheap.  Check craigslist too.  You might find a working machine that you could convert fairly easily.

4) Monitor ($varies) – I used a computer monitor that doesn’t look the best in my cabinet, but there are a lot of options.  With LCD’s so cheap, taking one out of the case and mounting in a cabinet may work well for you.   You can probably get a CRT almost free these days.

5) MAME Emulator – It’s free, just download it.  This is the program that acts as the hardware for all the different games by using your computer.  It’s been in active development for over 10 years and continues to improve.   I use the MAMEUIFX32 as it has some features over the official builds (like high-score saving).

6) ROMS and CHD’s -  These are the actual games and use use the MAME emulator to play them.  While the copyright on many of these games has expired or the potential interested parties are no longer interested, you will officially be entering a grey area playing any of these games.  There are groups of individuals that have been around for years that will get the roms to you for cost of the media.  Doug Burton is one of these guys.  You also may also consider bittorrent. Please don’t ask me–I’ll just direct you to this post.

Recently, the size of all the games has grown astronomically with the addition of CHD (compressed hard drive) files.  I mentioned before there are 6500 working games (about 7500 total that don’t all work).  If you sort by size, the first 3000 games only add up to 90MB!  But they go up from there…  To get to 5000 games, you need 611MB of disk space, and to get to 7400 you need 17GB!  Finally, if you include a couple of hundred games with the CHD files, the archive grows to almost 150GB!!  Drive space is cheap these days though, so even at that size it shouldn’t be an issue.

Check this Youtube video of me playing M.A.C.H 3, an old laser disk came from 1983.  While emulating Galaga and Pacman isn’t that hard, MAME has come a long way to be able to emulate old laser disk games too.

Posted under tech gadgets, Video Games

How to buy a decent, Dell Studio 15.4″ laptop for only $450

Posted by matt on January 31, 2009

dell-studio-1531.jpgRecently, my wife’s old Toshiba Satellite A15-S157 laptop finally bit the dust, and it was time for a new one.  She wasn’t interested in a netbook (too small), and we weren’t interested in spending a ton of cash since it’s mainly one of those ‘lounging around the house’ laptops.

I was about to pull the trigger on one of those cheap Office Depot type specials you often see for around $500, when I realized it wouldn’t be much better than the 6-year old Toshiba it was replacing.

Using my tried and true buying site, BensBargains.net, I found some deals at the Dell Outlet, where you can get either refurbished or scratch-and-dent re-certified computers.  I opted for a refurbished Dell Studio 15.  To get the best deal, here is what I did:

1. Dell Outlet – First go here and get familiar with the site, the options, how the selection works, etc.  To get the best deals you won’t be buying just yet, but you want to see what’s available and know how to ‘quickly’ buy one of these.  For the Studio Laptops, you can even choose from EIGHT colors, and typically there are a lot of options out there to meet your needs.

2. Dell Outlet Twitter – Often, Dell puts out 20% off coupons on these already cheap outlet PCs.  The best way to find out when they come out is to follow their twitter account.  I even put them on SMS update, so when the deal came out, I got a text message right when it happened.  This was important, because when the 20% off coupon comes out, the selection goes FAST.  Deal sites usually post this, but if you get the tweet, you are getting it the same time they are.

We’ve had the laptop now for a couple weeks with no issues.  It comes as it was new (nice boxes and all), and you would never know it was refurbished.  It’s re-plastic wrapped and totally clean with a fresh install of Windows Vista Home Premium SP1.  Here are the specs:

Studio 15 (1537) Laptop:

  • Intel Core 2 Duo T5800 (2.00GHz/800Mhz FSB/2MB cache)
  • 250 GB SATA Hard Drive (5400RPM)
  • 3 GB DDR2 SDRAM 800MHz (2 DIMMs)
  • Dell Wireless 370 Bluetooth Module
  • Dell Wireless 1510 802.11a/g/n Draft Mini Card
  • Integrated 2.0 Mega Pixel Web Camera
  • Fingerprint Reader Touchpad
  • Mobile Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 4500MHD
  • 8X Slot Load CD / DVD Burner (Dual Layer DVD+/-R Drive)
  • Genuine Windows Vista Home Premium
  • 15.4 WXGA LED Laptop Screen Display with TrueLife
  • Multi-card reader slot, HDMI & VGA output
  • eSATA, 3-USB, Firewire, PCMCIA, 10/100/1000 LAN
  • 6 Cell Primary Battery
  • Plum Purple
  • 1Yr Ltd Hardware Warranty, Mail-In Service after Remote Diagnosis, 24×7 Phone Support
  • Usual bundled software (that I uninstall)

$539.00:  Cost (Pretty good price–’new’, this would be around $800)

- $107.80: 20% off any refurbished Studio 1537 (this is the twitter outlet coupon I used)

Subtotal:  $431.20
Shipping and Handling:  $19.99
Shipping Discount:  -$19.99 (coupon had free shipping too!)
Sales Tax:  $23.72
Total Amount:  $454.92

dell-studio-1531a.jpgdell-studio-1531b.jpgdell-studio-1531d.jpgdell-studio-1531c.jpg

To get this laptop with a decent processor, wireless-N, bluetooth, webcam, the color you want and a nice sized hard drive for $450 is impressive.  Used on eBay you’d easily pay more and not have a warranty.

If you are in the market for a new laptop, don’t be afraid of refurbs.  I’ve purchased a lot of refurbished electronics and have had great success.  Usually you can save 30-40% from new, and you often can’t tell the difference.

Good luck!

Posted under how to, tech gadgets

Gadget Review: Super Talent Pico-C USB 4GB flash drive

Posted by matt on September 3, 2008

super_talent_pico_c_icon_4gb_thumbdrive2.jpgSince the death of the floppy disk a number of years ago, almost everyone I know has seen or used a USB flash drive to move files around.  I’ve broken a few ‘freebie’ drives that I’ve gotten from vendors, so I decided that I needed one that was reliable.  The two main criteria for me are that it can fit on a key chain, and can take some abuse.  I don’t need the thing to have a ton of storage–4GB should be good enough.

It has a strange name, but I finally found this little drive, the Super Talent Pico-C that met all my criteria (it’s even waterproof!).  It was cheap too, at only $16!

Check out my one-take video review of it as well:

Posted under reviews, tech gadgets

Geocaching tutorial: how to have fun with your GPS

Posted by matt on July 23, 2008

01-introduction-to-geocaching.jpgIf you follow me on Twitter, you’ll occasionally get a message from me saying that I’m geocaching. So what the heck is geocaching?  Quite simply, it is an organized way that folks hide boxes or ‘caches’ around the world with specific GPS coordinates.  The coordinates are then posted to a website to allow others to find them and record their visit.  This global treasure hunt is quite fun, and after you get yourself a GPS, it’s also pretty much free.   Here’s my geocaching how-to:
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Posted under how to, reviews, tech gadgets

Review: Popcorn Hour A-100, Part 2: Video, Audio and Torrent

Posted by matt on July 12, 2008

Previous Popcorn Hour Articles:

PCH boot-up screenFinally, my second part of the Popcorn Hour review.   In Part 1 of my review, I detailed my setup with HomePlug AV.  I’m still using this, but now that 802.11n is coming close to standardization, I’m looking forward to trying some wireless that should leap-frog the HomePlug AV solution in both convenience and performance.  But for now, HomePlug is getting the job done.
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Posted under Popcorn Hour, reviews, tech gadgets