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PAX 2009 Impressions: SteelSeries

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If you're just a casual gamer or someone who uses their computer for viewing pictures of their grandkids, then SteelSeries really isn't targeting you. Since their inception in 2001, the Danish company has been working to create top-of-the-line gear for the hardcore gamer, specifically those who like to play first-person shooters, real-time strategy games, and MMORPG titles. So it's not a surprise SteelSeries showed up at PAX to show off their latest wares, and after checking out their booth, I came away very impressed.

First, I got a chance to experience SteelSeries' new optical gaming mice, the Xai and Kinzu. The Kinzu is the less powerful of the two, essentially a highly-tuned optical mouse with a few features like slip-resistant coating, a sensitivity toggle and an ergonomic, lightweight design. But the real beast of the two is the brand-new Xai, a mouse that has to be seen to be believed, because otherwise you won't believe what SteelSeries has managed to cram into it.

The Xai features some things that are quite common on pro gaming mice — programmable macro buttons, a slip-resistant surface, etc. — but it's what's inside the Xai that sets it apart. First off, the Xai not only has all of the necessary software built right in to the mouse, but it has a menu system that can be accessed directly on the mouse itself. This menu system not only allows you to make adjustments, but it saves up to five different settings that you can easily transfer from PC to PC. You can take the Xai to a buddy's house, plug it into his PC, hop on a game like Team Fortress 2, and your mouse settings will be the same as they are in your house. It's absolutely mind-blowing to flip the mouse over and see the little menu screen on the underside, but I quickly learned that with using the mouse buttons and the scroll wheel, it's actually easy to make even the tiniest changes without having to go through a PC program to do so. Oh, and all that built-in software and hardware allows the Xai to process 12,000 frames per second at movements of up to 150 inches per second, which in layman's terms just means this thing can track and react to your movements almost instantly.

There's also a couple more features to the Xai built by SteelSeries. The FreeMove feature on the Xai works as an "aid" of sorts, allowing you to determine how much the mouse auto-corrects when you are moving your mouse in a straight line, for example. Instead of letting the mouse correct your movement for you, you can actually turn it down with FreeMove for a little more hands-on control over the mouse, creating a slightly more precise reaction to your movement. The ExactRate feature allows you to sync up your mouse's polling rate with that of the game's frame rate. Or, in less complicated terms, it lets you sync up your mouse to move and respond at the same speed the game does, which of course gives you an advantage in competitive play. Other features, like the jitter-controlling ExactAim and the sensitivity toggling ExactSense, are built-in to the mouse with the competitive gamer in mind. It all seems like a lot, I know, but for the competitive gamer SteelSeries is targeting, precision is everything. It's an impressive piece of technology, with a price point of around $80. That might be a bit much for the casual gamer, but if you want something that will give you a bit of an unfair advantage over 90 percent of the Internet, the Xai is definitely a good option.

I also got a chance to check out SteelSeries' 9HD mouse pads. These mouse pads are also specifically designed with gamers in mind, and not just any gamer, FPS players. The pads themselves are actually multi-layered: the top layers are textured, followed by a mirrored layer and then a harder plastic bottom layer. The end result of this process is that SteelSeries' 9HD pad reflects and refracts the light from your optical mouse like a prism, concentrating it at a central focal point. This, according to SteelSeries, is supposed to help make your mouse movements more precise. In a brief demo I got with Counter-Strike, I noticed two things when playing with the 9HD that I didn't get on my normal mouse pad. First, my movements onscreen were in fact slightly more precise and matched up better with my mouse movements. More importantly, I did not have the dreaded twitch where my mouse goes nuts and I'm suddenly facing the opposite direction. For a hardcore FPS player, that makes a ton of difference. The price point is a little high at $34.99 for the larger pad, but a smaller pad is in the works with a $19.99 price point.

Lastly, I got a chance to check out SteelSeries' headsets, which might have been what I was impressed with most of all. I tried out two sets of headphones: the Siberia and the 5H. Both were ridiculously comfortable, the Siberia in particular, thanks to the material they used for cushioning on the ear pieces. The Siberia also features a more ergonomically shaped piece connecting the two ear pieces that formed to my head and supported it, rather than simply smushing together around it like my current headset does. The Siberia also has a microphone that can be retracted when not in use, allowing you to use them as regular headphones without a problem. The 5H features a different design but keeps many of the same features of the Siberia, but with one added catch: it can be broken down into three separate parts for easy transportation. Both are priced under $100, which is a very good deal for the quality of their headsets.

Overall, I came away impressed with what SteelSeries had to offer, especially the headsets. The prices are fairly reasonable and competitive with what you would pay with other companies, but the product quality is top-notch with some great innovations. If you happen to play an online FPS title, such as Counter-Strike or Team Fortress 2, or are just looking for a quality set of gaming headphones, SteelSeries should be your first stop.

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About Brian Szabelski