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Imagine yourself reading your pre-flight checklist, and your flight sim responds. Imagine telling your units what formation to use, and they change formations. Imagine telling your scout or heavy weapons specialist to use a first aid kit, and he does. Now, imagine yourself coordinating your tactics and heckling your opponents between voice commands.
What Is This Thing?
The Microsoft Sidewinder GameVoice is not just your basic voice chat package. The Plantronics headset is a basic, but apparently well-made unit, equivalent to the Plantronics LS1. I haven't stepped or sat on it yet, but it has fallen off my monitor onto my desk several times. The headset uses the standard connectors to plug into a control module, so you can upgrade to another headset at any time. The control module itself connects to your sound card's speaker and mic ports, in addition to requiring a USB port. The cables are bundled together, so you don't necessarily have to worry about a snake breeding coil forming behind your desk.
How Do I Install This Monster?
Installation is surprisingly smooth: insert the CD and follow the on-screen prompts to connect the hardware, complete with diagrams of the physical connections. The headset connects to the control module, which in turn connects to your sound card and a USB port. Your current speakers plug into a pod inline between the control module and its connections to your computer. If you're using a quad speaker setup, your rear speakers still connect directly to the sound card.
I Like Shiny Things
The control module is definitely for the gadget lover. Just look at all the buttons on this thing! A switch on the control module selects sound output, speaker or headset. A dial next to that switch controls the volume. A nice round, pop-up mute button sits right in the middle of the module; a red light indicates when the microphone is muted. Four light-up channels buttons, selectable in any combination, ride on the top arc of the module. The bottom arc holds the All button - especially useful for heckling - and the programmable on-the-fly Team button, both of which light up. Last, but certainly not least, on the far right is the Command button. A green light shows when command mode is enabled.
The GameVoice chat software is based on MSN Messenger. If you have used Messenger in the past, you will be immediately familiar with the interface. GameVoice users are not required to use Messenger, but trying to coordinate an event can be frustrating without Messenger. For example, when Messenger is down (not an uncommon occurrence these days), users settings up a chat session have to exchange emails or use another chat service (IRC, ICQ, AIM, etc.). I almost used the term manually, but the only difficult part of joining a chat session is getting the host's IP address.
Anyway, back to the chat software, this time with MSN Messenger. The GameVoice application's Chat tab lists the users' contacts and their status, just like Messenger. In addition, any of your contacts hosting a chat session are listed separately, making ongoing chats easy to find and join. In other words, joining a chat is easy; however, staying there once you're in can be a different story. The disconnect bug it's called, and boy does it ever. Start or join a chat, start a game, disconnect from chat, Alt-Tab to rejoin chat, Alt-Tab back to the game. Repeat for the next game. It's more than a little annoying, and will deter many people from realizing GameVoice's potential. The problem seems to lie somewhere in the murky realm of home broadband routers. Even properly configured with the appropriate ports open, I still get the disconnect bug. I never did connect with one person I tried to chat with, but since he didn't have access to open the necessary ports, he remains anomalous in my experience.
Getting connected is easy, if somewhat buggy, but the voice quality is nice, much better than the current crop of alternatives. The compression rate is configurable, so you can vary the voice quality to better suit your connection speed. If you already use voice chat in team games, you know what a boon it can be to hear your teammates. If you're not using something, you are really missing out. Add in the GameVoice's clear sound, and you're got a winner. Unfortunately, the disconnect bug may keep gamers who already have voice chat from upgrading to GameVoice.
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