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    Nvidia Announces GeForce GTX 980 and GTX 970 Video Cards

    The next generation of Nvidia graphics cards has arrived. We first saw Nvidia's Maxwell architecture--the follow-up to Keplar--in the GTX 750 GPU. That $150 card was an entry-level introduction to Nvidia's new approach to desktop GPU design, incorporating power efficiencies learned from generations of Tegra development. From Loyd's GTX 750 review:

    "Kepler has a monolithic control logic unit that managed scheduling for up to 192 cores. Maxwell now allocates a smaller, more efficient control logic unit for each block of 32 cores. This change in the scheduler, a larger L2 cache (2048MB versus 25K in the Kepler-based GTX 650) and a large number of smaller improvements allowed Nvidia to build 640 shader cores on a die, versus 384 on the GK107-based GTX 650."

    More shaders, more transistors, and a larger die, all using less power than the last generation. That's what Maxwell now brings to the high-end, in the form of the just-announced GTX 980 and GTX 970 videocards ($550 and $330, respectively). They replace the GTX 780, GTX 780 Ti, and GTX 770.

    GTX 980 has 2048 shader cores running at a base clock of 1126MHz (1216 MHz with GPU boost). But all that runs on a chip with a TDP of just 165 watts. That's compared to 250W on the GTX 780 and 195W on the GTX 680--the card that many users will be upgrading from, I suspect. The GTX 970, with 1664 CUDA cores, is even more power efficient at 145W TDP. We're talking about high-end GPUs that now only use two six-pin PCIe power connectors. SLI now starts to look a lot more attractive. And there's plenty of headroom for overclocking, if you're into that.

    High-end Maxwell also brings three new features for gaming. First is a new anti-aliasing technology, called MFAA. Multi-frame sampled AA supposedly produces the effect of 4XMSAA with the performance hit of only 2XMSAA. Dynamic Super Resolution is a new feature that is essentially resolution downsampling--you can now tell the GPU to render games at 4K resolution for a 1080p screen. Screenshots and Shadowplay video recording spits out 4K resolution files in this mode, too. And finally, Nvidia is especially proud of a new lighting engine called Voxel Global Illumination. This is the first step in real-time light tracing, with fully dynamic illumination for one light source. Unreal Engine 4 will support VXGI in the fall, and Nvidia has produced a Apollo 11-themed render demo to show off the lighting feature.

    Performance-wise, Nvidia is claiming 1.5 to 2X the performance of the GTX 680 (their choice for point of comparison) in the GTX 980. They're also claiming that the GTX 980 will be better for VR, with built-in optimizations to minimize rendering latency--taking 10ms out of OS overhead and built-in asynchronous warp. Nvidia is calling this VR support "VR Direct", and it's something I'll be asking Oculus about this Saturday at the Oculus Connect conference. As for real-world performance and evaluating Nvidia's claims, I'm getting a review unit in and will be testing it next week on my new Haswell-E system.

    Building a Custom Arcade Cabinet, Part 4

    For this week's episode of our custom arcade cabinet build, Norm experiments with the laser cutter at Adam's shop to design some decorations for the control panels. We also begin prepping the cut, sanded, and stained pieces of wood for the final assembly. That means learning some basics about biscuit joining! (This video was brought to you by Premium memberships on Tested. Learn more about how you can support us with memberships!)

    In Brief: Microsoft Buys Minecraft for $2.5 Billion

    Microsoft today announced that it has acquired Mojang, the Stockholm-based game developer that created and publishes Minecraft. The deal is valued at $2.5 Billion. To date, Minecraft has sold more than 54 million copies across multiple gaming platforms, and Microsoft says that it intends to keep to keep developing and supporting the game in platforms outside of the Windows and PC ecosystem. Phil Spencer, the head of Microsoft's Xbox division, reassures Minecraft fans in a public statement, and Mojang's post about the acquisition answers some looming questions. The founders of Mojang, including Notch, are leaving the company, and the status of Mojang's other project, Scrolls, is up in the air. Plenty of editorial opinions on the deal all over the internet.

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    Choosing Buttons and Joysticks for a Custom Arcade Cabinet

    Arcade parts website FocusAttack.com sells 11 varieties of 30mm Japanese arcade buttons, and without some research, it's hard to spot the minute differences that separate one from another. Some are push-buttons, which install into an arcade panel with a simple snap. Others are screw-buttons, which anchor into a wooden surface. There are also smaller 24mm buttons, and buttons with clear tops or clear rims that can be paired with fancy LED lighting. But most importantly, there is the choice between Sanwa and Seimitsu manufactured buttons, Japan's two juggernauts of arcade hardware.

    When you're building your own arcade cabinet, you want the best buttons for your games. But wading into the minutia of arcade parts unprepared feels like going up against a world-class Street Fighter player--while you're clumsily figuring out how to throw a fireball, they're stringing together moves you didn't even know existed. There are just as many varieties of joysticks as there are buttons, each with their own nuanced feel.

    Knowing the differences between these components enables building an arcade machine for exactly the kinds of games you want to play--or, by mixing and matching hardware, you can create a machine with inputs that are great for a wide swath of arcade genres. For the Tested MAME machine, that's exactly what we wanted--something perfect for fighting games like Street Fighter, primed for SHMUPs like Ikaruga, and still able to handle classic 80s games like Pac-Man.

    Here's what we learned while researching our arcade controls.

    The General Overview: Japan vs. America

    There's an easy high-level way to categorize arcade parts: Japanese and American.

    Before we get into the nuances of different models of buttons and joysticks, there's an easy high-level way to categorize arcade parts: Japanese and American. If you grew up going to arcades in the US or Europe, you're likely familiar with American arcade parts made by the company Happ. They're easy to recognize: Happ buttons are concave and have to be pushed in relatively far before they offer that classic arcade click. Happs joysticks typically have elongated cylindrical bat tops, as opposed to the spherical tops of Japanese sticks.

    Japanese parts primarily come from two companies: Sanwa and Seimitsu. Each company produces multiple joysticks and buttons, but in general their buttons are flat or slightly convex, require far less pressure to activate, and have slightly larger faces. Their joysticks are also generally looser than Happ sticks, meaning they have more play to them. The round ball tops of Sanwa and Seimitsu sticks can be replaced with bat tops to make their grips more like Happ sticks.

    A big factor in choosing the parts for your arcade machine comes from personal preference. If you grew up going to American arcades and using American parts, they're going to feel more natural at first, but you might be missing out on something better. The website Slagcoin, which contains a wealth of knowledge about joystick parts, outlines some of the differences between Japanese and American designs and offers up a heavily, heavily researched opinion: Japanese parts are better.

    "Sanwa and Seimitsu make high-quality parts which will not likely disappoint. Happ/IL is a company that seems centered more on simple, public vending parts with high durability at the sacrifice of precision," he writes. "I am not exactly a fanboy for Japanese parts, just quality parts. In fact, it is my opinion that many more Americans would compete internationally much stronger in many more games if our country’s standard/common joysticks were of better quality. I would very much like to see Happ/IL or some other company do better."

    The evidence to support that claim is in the nuances of various button and joystick models. Let's start with joystick technology, the Sanwa, Seimitsu, and Happ options, and which joysticks are best for which games.

    In Brief: Custom Fix It Felix, Jr Arcade Cabinet

    We're kind of in an arcade fix today. Just as we were posting part three of our cocktail cabinet build video, reader Sergio Meyer sent over word of his own cabinet build that he's been working on with his dad. But instead of your typical multi-game MAME cabinet, Sergio's cab is a faithful recreation of the Fix It Felix, Jr. cabinet as seen in the Disney movie Wreck-It-Ralph. Sergio has been documenting his build over the course of 17 weeks, and it's now in a playable state. The most interesting thing about this project may what software he's using to run the fictional game. Disney released a Flash version of the game online, but arcade enthusiasts have recreated it to run in Windows. And as it turns out, a version that Disney made for its promotional cabinets actually leaked online.

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    Tested Projects: Building a Custom Arcade Cabinet, Part 3

    With the top and side panels of the arcade cabinet cut out, we move onto the control boards and the holes needed for all the buttons, joysticks, and other gaming controls. Different types of buttons and sticks for each of the panels require unique mounts, so John Duncan teaches us how to set up a router to cut the right kind of hole for each control scheme. (This video was brought to you by Premium memberships on Tested. Learn more about how you can support us with memberships!)

    Some of the Games I Had Fun Playing at PAX Prime 2014

    Now that PAX Prime has been over for several days, I've had some time to think about all the games I played. This year, I managed to play more games than I ever have in the past, and now that I've had some time to think about what I played, here's my short list of games I really, really enjoyed playing at PAX 2014. (We talked about most of these games on this week's This Is Only a Test, if you'd like more details.)

    Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes

    You're in a nondescript room. In front of you is a bomb. You have five minutes to defuse it. Also, you're wearing an Oculus Rift, and the instructions for defusing said bomb are written on paper in front of your friends, who are likely idiots. I only got the chance to play one round of Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes at PAX(I was one of the idiots); however, the game loop consisting of describing the bomb, figuring out the puzzles, and relaying the solutions to the Oculus-wearing defuser was one of the most satisfying communal gaming experiences I've ever had and a phenomenal demo for virtual reality. If you're showing off your new Oculus hardware to a group of friends, everyone has something to do, whether they're wearing the goggles or not. I can't wait to bust this out on board game night.

    In Brief: Nintendo's New 3DS More Buttons, Right Thumbstick

    Right before PAX weekend, Nintendo announced a refresh to their 3DS handheld line, dubbed the "New Nintendo 3DS". Coming out in both regular and XL sizes, these new consoles are slightly larger than the current models, but adds extra shoulder buttons and a second right circle pad (thumbstick) located above the regular four face buttons. The small circle pad may look awkwardly sized and positioned, but we're withholding judgement until we get to use it. Also added is NFC support for Nintendo's upcoming amiibo toy line, as well what Nintendo claims to be an improved 3D screen. The top display is still a lenticular 800x240 panel (400x240px per eye), but the stereoscopy will now adjust its parallax based on eye-tracking with the front camera--which could be a result of this July 2014 eye-tracking patent. Battery life is also supposedly improved. Are you interested in the New Nintendo 3DS? Is this something you'd like us to review or take apart? These portables are coming out in Japan next month, but we don't expect to see them in North America until some time in 2015.

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    Norm and I Are On Our Way to Seattle

    Sorry for the slow news days today and tomorrow. Norm and I are both travelling, and will be incommunicado for the first part of the day. If you're coming to PAX in Seattle, we'll be there, and there will be a Tested meetup on Friday night from 6:30 to 8:30. Follow Will and Norm on Twitter, and we'll post the details on Friday afternoon. (Premium members check your email, you already have the details). We'll be.around all weekend, playing board games, hanging out with people and checking out PAX. Also, I'll be at the PAX Rumble on Sunday morning, fighting for your respect. Please, come and support me in my quest to not embarrass myself while playing a wrestling game for the first time ever.

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    Designing a Custom Arcade Cabinet in Sketchup

    As soon as Norm and I decided to build an arcade cabinet, we ran into a problem: We didn't actually know how to build an arcade cabinet. We knew what we wanted, at least in general--a four-player MAME cocktail cabinet that could support fighting games and beat 'em ups and pretty much anything else we could throw at it. How hard could it be to find exactly what we wanted online, then replicate it at home? Turns out: Pretty hard.

    ArcadeDepot, one of the most popular sources for arcade kits, was knocked out of commission by Hurricane Sandy. The other pre-built kits we looked at didn't offer customization. That left user-built arcade cabinets to work off of. The Arcade Controls forums and wiki are great resources, with one unfortunate downside: Many of the projects linked on the site now lead to 10-year-old dead webpages, and most members only upload photos of their homemade arcade cabinets, sans dimensions or detailed blueprints. That left us with one good option: the detailed Pac-Man cocktail plans and assembly instructions created by Kyle Lindstrom.

    Credit: Kyle Lindstrom

    Most cocktail cabinets are heavily based on the original Pac-Man cocktail, with a few tweaks here and an added control panel there to support two extra players. To make those tweaks, I decided to recreate the Pac-Man cocktail cabinet in SketchUp. Once I had a 3D model of each part, it would (hopefully) be easy to piece them together, add another control panel, and change some dimensions while making sure everything still fit together.

    After recreating the cocktail cabinet in 3D, the next phase of our build could begin: Creating a cardboard mockup, to make sure the dimensions of our modified design would give us enough control panel room. The cardboard build would also give us a good visualization of how the planned 19-inch arcade monitor would look in a slightly enlarged cabinet.

    Starting off in 2D in Sketchup

    SketchUp is a free download, and offers templates upon startup to work in millimeters, inches, feet, and so on. I started with inches, and spent a few minutes fiddling with the 3D camera before settling on a top-down perspective. Then I started drawing each Pac-Man cabinet part in 2D.

    In Brief: Amazon Buys Twitch for $970 Million

    Can you believe that the Variety report that Google acquired video streaming service Twitch for a billion dollars was three months ago? Three months on, and there had been no official word from either party about an acquisition, only the closing of Twitch predecessor Justin.Tv and changing policies on Twitch's platform to remove unauthorized audio. (Arstechnica's Ron Amadeo had a good take on why recent changes seemed so bizzare). Well, it seems that Google may not actually be picking up Twitch, as the Wall Street Journal today reports. Instead, it's Amazon that may be acquiring the service, with Bloomberg and Recode sources saying that the announcement could be made later today. What do you think about Amazon potentially owning and running Twitch?

    Update: Amazon has announced that it has acquired Twitch for $970 million in cash. Twitch's CEO explains the reasoning for the acquisition and that Twitch will continue operate independently from its new owner.

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    Tested In-Depth: Nvidia Shield Tablet and Wireless Controller

    Nvidia's first Shield device was a good showcase of the Tegra 4 processor, but was limited as a dedicated gaming device. We test the new Shield Tablet and wireless controller, and show off its gaming and productivity features. We also evaluate the stylus, Nvidia's new Grid Beta, and Shield's built-in Twitch streaming capabilities. This ends up being one of our favorite Android tablets, with few compromises for all of its features.

    Testing: Oculus Rift DK2 with Elite: Dangerous + HOTAS

    Norm flies through the basics of Elite: Dangerous using the Oculus Development Kit 2 and a joystick plus throttle setup at home. Here's how the space flight simulator integrates head-tracking for its in-cockpit user interface, and why it's one of the best uses of the Oculus headset so far. Let us know if you want to see more of these Oculus DK2 game demos and playthroughs on Tested!

    In Brief: Nvidia Experiments with Cascaded Displays to Quadruple LCD Resolution

    In my continued testing of the Oculus Development Kit 2, one thing I'm sure of now is that a 1080p display for the Oculus will be insufficient for games that require reading text on screen. That includes cockpit-based space sims like Elite: Dangerous, where your in-game HUD is part of the cockpit model and not just floating in space in front of your space. At 1080p (and with the game's current font), I have to seriously struggle and squint to make out text that's even remotely in my periphery--it's why many people believe that Oculus won't release a consumer HMD until they have a display that's higher resolution than 1080p. One of the problems is that those high-density 1440p displays--used in smartphones like the LG G3--aren't cheap. But late last month, Nvidia's engineers released a research paper that proposes an display solution that effectively quadruples the number of pixels on screen, with the use of cheap LCD parts. The idea is called "Cascaded Displays," in which two 1280x800 LCD panels are stacked on top of each other, offset by a quarter pixel, and with a special quarter-wave film in between them. The stacked displays, each with a unique (and synced) video feed, combine with a single backlight to effectively double the resolution. The setup creates some image distortion, decreased brightness, and narrower viewing angles, but Nvidia believes that these side effects can be corrected or are suitable for use in virtual reality HMDs. Check out the video below for Nvidia's explanation of the system:

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    Tested In-Depth: Oculus Rift Development Kit 2 (with Game Demos!)

    We have the Oculus VR Development Kit in the office (two of them!) and have been testing them for over a week. We sit down to discuss the new hardware, compare it to our first development kit, and then run through as many game demos as we can get working. Couch Knights multiplayer! Elite: Dangerous with a HOTAS setup!

    Hands-On with Nvidia's Shield Tablet

    Nvidia's first Shield was a dedicated gaming handheld, but its new model is a high-end tablet with gaming accessories. We spend a little time with Nvidia's new Android gaming tablet, compare it to the original Shield portable, and give our thoughts on this device's appeal to PC and mobile gamers.

    How To Build a Life-Size Dragon

    Norm's note: Frank first showed us his Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate dragon sculpt before this year's E3. Frank has since written up his build, which we wanted to share ahead of this week's Comic-Con--where the Gore Magala creature will be on display at the Capcom booth.

    I love video games and video game culture, and last year was stoked to be asked to be a part of a team doing the Zombie makeups for Capcom's Dead Rising 3 booth at E3. It was there that I befriended the creative services team in charge of all of these cool trade show events and displays. Jump ahead to a few months ago, when I received a call from the team lead at Capcom to bid on the making of a display sculpture for one of their upcoming games: Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate!

    The concept was to have a 20-foot tall backdrop with a huge image of one of the game’s monsters, and have the front third of it coming out of the backdrop. Big is sort of an understatement here; once I did some quick math to put it into scale, the sculpture I would have to create would be almost 8 feet tall, 14 feet wide, and 12 feet long. To bid on something of this size is really tough. Most trade show displays are carved or milled out of bead foam and then hard coated, which leaves very little finished detail. But this monster has a lot of detail. So I had to figure a solution that could provide that kind of detail while keeping costs reasonable. After that came an engineering problem: how would this thing support itself? Additionally, it has to be transported to multiple venues and be durable enough for the public to interact with. So it also needed to come apart. Not easy!

    After some back-and-forth details of the deliverables and specifications, and some careful planning and budgeting, I was awarded the job, which would be guilt in my newly expanded shop. Here is what my team and I came up with for the design of this build.

    In Brief: Samsung's VR Gear Solution Could Launch at IFA

    Engadget's report that Samsung is developing a virtual reality solution in partnership with Oculus VR to work with its Galaxy phones is becoming more believable. While neither Samsung nor Oculus have confirmed that a device is in the works, SamMobile claims to have the first images of the device design, along with details about its name and debut. The Gear VR name sounds believable, as well as the purported IFA unveil (Sept 5-10). Three new technical details stand out from this leak: first that Gear VR would use a cushioned elastic band to hold the headset in place, that it would have a dedicated button to activate the Galaxy phone's camera to let users "see through" the HMD, and that the side controls would be a touchpad. The latter two make sense as good UI, especially the see-through button--something I hope the consumer Oculus Rift will include. If calibrated properly with a camera lens, the see-through option opens up augmented reality potential for this kind of HMD.

    I'm still unconvinced that smartphone screens (as run through smartphone GPUs) can achieve the low persistence of vision that Oculus fans are expecting, but that's based on my experience using Google's Cardboard with an LCD-based phone, not Samsung's AMOLED screens. The other weird thing about this is that we're not expecting the Oculus consumer release any time soon, so Samsung's Gear VR may be the first Oculus-related virtual reality device to hit the consumer market. I'm not sure that would be a good thing for Oculus and the VR community if the reception isn't anything but glowing. If Gear VR does get announced at IFA, it'll be something that may distract from Oculus' agenda just two weeks later at their first Connect conference.

    Norman
    In Brief: South Park Recreated for Oculus Rift from Scratch

    Members of a small production company, Tool, spent a few short weeks last month building the world of South Park in the Unity game engine to be experienced with the Oculus Rift development kit. South Park is faithfully recreated based on the layout presented in the Stick of Truth game, as well as what geography and easter eggs could be extrapolated from the show's intro sequence. The exercise, meant to hone Tool's team in Unity and Oculus development, was finished in time for the Cannes Lions festival, and can be downloaded or viewed in-browser on the Tool website.

    Norman