Jun 7, 2006

USB Headsets: What You May Not Know

I frequently play WoW with a headset for voice communication, and I think most of our spouses get tired of the endless gunfire and explosions when we're playing FPS's. So, most of us find the need to play with headphones on at some point or another.

While recently building my new PC (see previous posts on that project starting in April '06), I found out something very interesting: a USB headset bypasses your sound card entirely.

I had specced in a nice Sound Blaster X-Fi sound card for my new rig, specifically because of their well-received CMSS-3D headphone technology, which was supposed to be the best simulated surround sound technology for a headset ever.

Upon getting my new system assembled, I was very surprised and a little bummed out to discover that the nice $50 Logitech USB 350 headset that I'd been using for over a year would not make use of my powerful new sound card in any fashion. So, I wanted to put the word out.

Certainly, there are positive features to a USB headset. If you're playing on a laptop, or another system with a less-than-stellar soundcard or integrated sound, then you'll most likely benefit from the digital signal processing chip that is a component of most USB headsets. Moreover, if your system is not the most powerful, a USB set will reduce some of the system burden by processing its own sound.

If you're a gaming enthusiast with a nice, turbo-charged sound card though, buyer beware. The USB headsets are typically about $20 more than the normal analog type, and if you've got a decent sound board, you're getting nothing for your extra cash.

As far as the X-Fi and its fancy 3D surround processing for headsets goes, I got to test it out last night. I'd ordered a new Plantronics Gamecom 1 headset (not the Gamecom Pro 1 - that one is USB), along with Plantronics' very handy headset/speaker switch. (Without this switch, if you alternately uses an analog headset and speakers, you must crawl under your desk to swap jacks when you change between headset and speakers - annoying and inconvenient.)

Short story, Creative's CMSS-3D processing is not hype - it sounds great. There is a very clear distinction between sounds that are in front of you and those that are behind you. I've no idea how they do this, but the positional audio is as effective as a set of 5.1 surround speakers - quite impressive.

In summary, as the saying goes, usually you get what you pay for. If you're a gaming enthusiast with a powerful dedicated sound card though, the extra $20 or more for a USB headset won't get you the added value you might be anticipating. Get yourself the analog version of the headset you like and continue to enjoy all the whiz-bangs that you expected from your cool sound card.

Jun 1, 2006

Making Money in World of Warcraft

As a busy gaming parent, the acquisition of prestigious, expensive items such as Epic mounts in World of Warcraft seems like an unattainable goal. If you're like me, you might get to raid Molten Core or Zul'Gurub a few times per week (if you're lucky), but raiding has never made anyone much cash, has it...

Seeing as a raid here and there is pretty much the only WoW playing time I get, the normal (but time-intensive) money-making methods such as running the 5- and 10-man endgame instances, soloing Scarlet Monastery, or farming for crafting raw materials, are just not an option.

So, how else can an enterprising Night Elf make a quick gold piece? No, I'm not referring to dancing nude for tips on top of the mailbox outside the Ironforge bank! Instead, I have discovered that the Auction House is the answer to my gold flow problems. Just like playing the stock market, it is possible to make a considerable sum of money on the AH by the time-honored approach of buying low and selling high.

Normally, one does not give away their most precious money-making schemes for fear of losing their edge to bandwagon-jumpers. Seeing as how 90% of WoW players play on servers other than mine, perhaps I won't lose out too badly by being a nice guy.

Before you run off in a lather to log on to your favorite toon, be warned. An unprepared AH prospector will walk away with only moths in his pockets if he is not careful. Read on, Sir Warbucks. Smile

I use several tools to help me quickly identify good deals and verify that they should be a "safe" purchase. The first is a fairly hefty WoW addon called Auctioneer. This handy tool performs scans of the Auction House, cataloging price info about each item. One merely has to mouse over a particular item, whether in one's inventory or in the AH itself, and an enhanced tooltip appears describing such useful data as the average price that the item goes for on the AH, how many times it's been scanned by Auctioneer, and how much an NPC vendor would buy the item for.

Each time you scan, another snapshot of the AH prices is processed by Auctioneer's statistical algorithms, and the more accurate Auctioneer's prices become. Auctioneer can certainly be fooled by instances of outrageously-priced items, but in general, it is fairly good at identifying good deals.

But, you say, I don't want to spend all day pouring over every item on the AH looking for a good buy. Fear not, faithful financier. Auctioneer includes a Search Auctions function that does most of the work for you. This search function is even implemented as an added tab within the AH screen itself - how convenient! Simply specify whether you're looking for sweet deals on auctions soon to expire, or juicy low buyout prices. By changing several filter options, one can literally say, "hey Auctioneer - find me all Blue or rarer items with buyouts that should, upon resale, net me 10 gold or more per transaction". Viola, this great addon spits out a sortable list.

Now, as I'd mentioned earlier, Auctioneer can be temporarily fooled by crazy-high prices. Example: let's assume an overzealous seller places several extra-high 50g buyouts on a Nightraven crossbow, and that you had scanned a few times during that period. The following day, when a more reasonable seller puts a Nightraven up for the typical 25g price, Auctioneer might consider that "normal" buyout price for the crossbow a sweet deal. In reality though, if you jumped on that 25g buyout, you'd be lucky to sell it for that and break even.

So how do we make sure that Auctioneer isn't feeding us bad tips? I use two simple cross-checks:

My primary cross-check is a web site called Allakhazam. Using this site's search tool, one can peruse long-term pricing of one's target item. Allakhazam's excellent item price database shows all kinds of great AH statistics - median, average, and most common prices, and even a histogram. The only downfall to Allakhazam is that the data has been gathered across all servers and server types. Still, I have found it to be largely accurate, which isn't suprising considering that the sample size is typically very large. Allakhazam's data is typically based on thousands of sales of the target item, over a period anywhere from around a month to as short as only a few days!

OK, so Allakhazam says that my target item (say, our Nightraven crossbow) sells for a median price of 25 gold. How do I double-check that my server follows suit? Simple - my second price cross-check is to consult the AH itself. Once you find a potential deal, switch to the AH Scan tab (the built-in Blizzard AH scan that you've always used when looking for items). Check to see if any other instances of your item are for sale. This method will catch several potential problems:

First, if there are lots of other auctions for the same item, and several foolish sellers are unloading their swag for less-than-typical prices, you'd have a hard time selling your item.

Finally, it is possible that your server's market is simply a bit different than the "average" market predicted by Allakhazam's data. Perhaps one guild has been running UBRS non-stop and the AH is saturated with drops from that dungeon. Supply and demand will drive local prices down temporarily, etc.

The only other reality check that you need will be common sense. For example, this morning, I found a piece of mail armor that seemed to be a great potential buy. Upon second glance however, I noticed that the stats were basically Int and Spirit. No hunter is going to be very interested in that piece - it's actually a shaman item, hence the extra-low price. I never would have sold it for the attractive Allakhazam median price, which also takes into account Horde-side pricing.

Good luck, and strike gold!