Playing LEGO games across two monitors with SoftTH

LEGO Marvel Superheroes on 2 x 1920x1080 monitors

LEGO Marvel Superheroes across two 1920 x 1080 monitors

This afternoon we had a visit from Isaac’s godfather, the fabulous Mike McQuaid. As we stood in my study watching the boys playing LEGO® Marvel™ SuperHeroes on my PC I remarked to Mike that I wished that there was an option to use both my monitors, rather than squeezing the two-player co-op onto one 1920 x 1080 screen.

Mike was pretty certain that should be possible and after a quick ‘google’ he unearthed information about NVIDIA® Surround, which “joins multiple displays into a single immersive viewing surface”, typically used for full-screen gaming or watching full-screen video. However, we soon discovered that it requires three displays and I have only one.

This evening, not taking no for an answer I did some internet searching of my own and discovered SoftTH which claims to do the same thing as NVIDIA® Surround but on any number of monitors regardless of whether their resolutions match or not, and so long as they are plugged into a PCI Express graphics card.

How to…

I read somewhere that configuration could be a bit cumbersome but it actually turned out to be fairly straightforward. The trickiest bit, to be honest, was locating the game files (see below).

  1. Download SoftTH.
  2. Unzip the two files: d3d9.dll and readme_SoftTH2.txt somewhere handy.
  3. Locate the directory where the game EXE file is located.
  4. Copy the d3d9.dll file into that directory.
  5. Run the game.
  6. SoftTH runs and checks for the location of a config.SoftTHconfig file. If it doesn’t find one it creates a default configuration file.
  7. Once the game loads (on one monitor) adjust the screen resolution two the new default setting (in my case 3840 x 1080), and the aspect ratio to “From Screen-Res”.
  8. The screen resolution will change, stretching across both monitors and now two player co-op uses one screen for each player.

Locations of EXE files

We have quite a few LEGO games installed so I had to hunt around for their various locations within C:\Program Files (x86):

  • \LucasArts\LEGO Clone Wars
  • \LucasArts\LEGO Star Wars – The Complete Saga
  • \Steam\SteamApps\common\Lego Indiana Jones 2
  • \Steam\SteamApps\common\LEGO Marvel Super Heroes
  • \Steam\SteamApps\common\The LEGO®  Movie – Videogame
  • \Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment\LEGO® Batman™ 2
  • \Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment\LEGO® The Lord of the Rings™

Caveats

I have a fairly decent graphics card (NVIDIA® GeForce GTX 660) so this worked for each LEGO game I tried. I didn’t play each game for long so I couldn’t attest for how reliable this is played over hours, but I couldn’t see anything that might suggest that it wouldn’t. A few notes from my 30 minutes experience of this…

Taskbar on monitor two

I discovered when returning to the games that if I had any other applications open on monitor two (I’m running Windows 8 here) then once SoftTH was running it still showed the taskbar.

My workaround was to right-click the taskbar before the game started and select “Auto-hide the taskbar” which slid it safely out of the way.

Character tables

The first real niggle I had was when selecting a new character why does the game present the character table in such a squashed-up way?!

With so much screen real estate why are the characters squashed up so much?!

With so much screen real estate why are the characters squashed up so much?!

The same is true when both players change characters at the same time.

What is going on?! You have a width of 3840 pixels... USE IT!

What is going on?! You have a width of 3840 pixels… USE IT!

Not suitable for one player

My second caveat is that as beautiful as the periphery scenery looks while playing, game play isn’t very sustainable if you are playing a single player game because your character stands right in the middle of the screen, and so is divided between the two monitors.

Cut screens?

My last word of warning is more of a hunch than from experience: I imagine that certain pre-rendered cut screens throughout the game may display in a strange way as they are not optimized for such a wide screen.

UPDATE: Actually, the cut screens on the whole were okay. You do lose some detail as you’re essentially viewing them through a huge letterbox, but it’s mostly viewable.

Targeting is disrupted a little

UPDATE: One thing I’ve noticed is that targeting with certain objects is now a bit off with the double-screen set up. For example, on the opening level with Hulk and Iron Man you need to target a water cannon at Sandman: where you direct the cannon and where it actually sprays are two different locations. On the next level you need to target one of Captain America’s locks, but it’s near impossible to line it up properly without quickly nipping back to a 1920 x 1080, single-screen resolution.

Conclusion

On the whole, I was really impressed. It was simple to set up, with absolutely no configuration from me.

I’ll show this to the boys tomorrow and see what their verdict is: usable or not? Then I’ll report back.

Party transport early warning system

Car pulls up outside our house.

What’s going on outside my front door, you ask? Well, let me show you. Ah! Right on time: here’s the party transport.

Reuben and Joshua were invited to a party taking place in Leven this morning. Our friend Helen offered to drive them there in her small bus; what her seven children teasingly refer to as ‘the loser cruiser’.

Remarkably I managed to get both boys dressed (with jumpers and shoes) in 25 minutes (could that be a record?), the birthday present was wrapped and the card was written. All we had to do now was wait.

I found myself thinking: if only there was a way that allowed me to see what was going on outside while still sitting comfortably at my study desk.

Wait a minute! I’ve got a webcam that might just… wait… it does! It stretches from my desk over to the window.

Perfect: an instant party transport early warning system.

Set up a cheap network storage with a USB flash drive and a BT Home Hub 2.0 in 4 steps

This evening I put the finishing touches to my new cheap-and-cheerful network storage: a USB drive attached to my BT Home Hub 2.0 (the shiny, black one).

Step 1: USB drive

The first step was to buy a new USB flash drive. I went for this one from 7DayShop.com. It’s a 32GB USB 2.0 drive and cost me £20.99. Usefully the swivel cap comes off quite easily.

20110610-32gb-usb-drive

(When I tried this out at first I used an old 256 MB flash drive that I had in my Big Boy’s Drawer of Interesting Things™.)

Step 2: BT Home Hub 2.0

Round the back of the BT Home Hub 2.0 is a USB port. They’ve even, conveniently labelled it “USB”. Plug the USB drive into the port.

20110610-bthomehub-rear

(The dust is optional.)

Step 3: Connect with Windows Explorer

Assuming that you’re connected to your BT Home Hub, open a Windows Explorer window and enter the following network address in the address bar: \\BTHUB\Disk_a1 then hit Enter.

20110610-BTHUB-Disk_a1

Step 4: Map a network drive

To save you having to type in the network address every time you can map a network drive to that location.

In Windows 7, open My Computer and click on the “Map network drive” button on the toolbar at the top:

20110610-map-network-drive

A dialog windows will pop-up. Select a drive letter and enter the network address, as before, in the Folder input box:

20110610-map-network-drive-dialog

Then click Finish.

You now have a network drive:

20110610-network-location

Security

I’m going to use mine for backing up a few files and as a useful location for sharing documents between PC and laptop.

I imagine that this isn’t the most secure of solutions, as anyone with access to the network could gain access to the files, if they know the network address, but as a cheap and cheerful way to share files across multiple computers without the other PCs needing to be switched on this is ideal.

Update

Oddly, after a couple of weeks of this working fine I can no longer connect to \\BTHUB\Disk_a1, the PC just tells me that it cannot find the hostname.

It appears that this is not an exact science.

FIFA 12

20110531-fifa12email

On Friday I received this email from Electronic Arts, advertising their latest football game FIFA 12.

The email subject said: FIFA 12 – are you ready to be taken to a new level?

FIFA 12 - are you ready to be taken to a new level?

But I can’t help thinking after hearing this on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: “Fifa ‘credibility completely shot':

20110531-fifa12r4today

That it might not have better been titled: FIFA 12 – are you ready to be taken to a new depth?

Amazon Kindle 3G – initial impressions

O2 Xda Zest phone sitting on top of an Amazon Kindle 3

O2 Xda Zest phone sitting on top of an Amazon Kindle 3

On Tuesday my Amazon Kindle 3G + Wi-Fi arrived. And there was much rejoicing.

Why I bought a Kindle

For a few years now I’ve wanted an eBook reader to make my growing collection of geeky books in PDF more portable.

I have a laptop, but it’s not terribly practical with its brightly glowing screen and its fan-assisted knee warmer.  And as any reader of Jakob Nielsen will be able to tell you: reading on computer screens is tiring and about 25% slower than reading from paper.

My Psion Series 5mx has a PDF reader but it’s not being developed now and so doesn’t support the latest version of PDF files.  My Windows Mobile phone does support the latest formats, but the screen is so small that it makes reading PDFs cumbersome with all the scrolling that’s required.

So I wanted something in between a laptop and a PDA, that would support PDFs and wouldn’t put too big a dent in my wallet.  The new Amazon Kindle 3G + Wi-Fi seemed to promise all of that, so I pre-ordered one.  It arrived two days ago.

Initial reaction

When I unpacked the Kindle I tried to peel away the cellophane instruction that was telling me what I should do next (plug it in!), until I discovered that it wasn’t a stick-on film it was the screen itself.

Of course! The Kindle doesn’t need power to maintain an image on the screen, it just needs power to change the image.  Genius! and a perfect introduction to the quality of the E Ink technology.

Cover

Close-up of how the Kindle is secured to the leather cover

Close-up of how the Kindle is secured to the leather cover

The first thing I did was fix it into the chocolate brown Kindle leather cover that I also bought.  I decided not to pay £20 extra for the one with the built-in light as I rarely have to read in the dark, what with us having electric lighting in the house and everything.

The Kindle feels great in your hands; the slightly rubberised feel to its casing makes you feel confident that you’re not going to drop it easily.  Once the Kindle is secured into the case it just feels great, like you’re reading a classic, leather-bound book.  It’s a very tactile experience.

First use

I plugged it in, switched it on and very quickly got to grips with the basic functionality: selecting a book and navigating through the pages.

It feels quite intuitive and I love the feel of the qwerty keyboard: the keys are quite rough like very fine sandpaper which I guess makes them easier to use than similar-sized smooth keys on which your fingers might more easily slide off.

Clarity

I can’t compare the Kindle 3 with earlier models to judge whether it does offer “50% better contrast than any other e-reader” or “crisper, darker fonts”.  But what I can say is that it just looks great.  And everyone I’ve shown it to today has commented on both the clarity of the text and how easy it is to read, even when held at strange angles and from a distance.

Connection to PC

Of course, what I really wanted to do was check out how my PDFs would render on the Kindle.

The power cable comprises a USB cable (it looks like USB A to Micro-B) that plugs into a … well, a plug.  Unhook the plug and you have yourself a USB cable.  It took seconds for Windows 7 to recognise the Kindle as an external drive.

Screenshot of Kindle folders on a Windows 7 machine

Screenshot of Kindle folders

The Kindle contains four directories:

  1. \.active-content-data
  2. \audible
  3. \documents
  4. \music

I dragged and dropped about 300 MB of PDF files into the \documents directory, ejected the Kindle from Windows and lo-and-behold! there they were.

Collections

eBooks can be organised into what the Kindle calls collections, which is like organising your files into folders or directories on your PC; books can be assigned to more than one collection. This makes it easier to find your books, and cuts down the clutter on the home screen.

Screenshot of my Kindle home screen

Screenshot of my Kindle home screen

Once organised into collections you can still view a list of all your books by title, author or most recent.

Reading eBooks

While most of my books are in PDF, I have a few eBooks in either .Mobipocket or Amazon’s proprietary .AZW format (which is based on the Mobipocket standard) which allows the text to be resized. There are eight possible sizes ranging from tiny (30 lines per page) to enormous (5 lines per page).

Showing viewing options on the Kindle 3 while reading an eBook

Showing viewing options on the Kindle 3 while reading an eBook

With eBooks the typeface (regular serif, condensed serif or sans-serif), line spacing (small, medium large) and words per line (fewest, fewer, default) can be adjusted, and text-to-speech can be turned on enabling the Kindle to read out loud the text on the page, either through the built-in speakers or via the headphone socket.

I spent about 30-45 minutes sitting reading an eBook the other day and it felt really natural.  It really is the quality of the screen that makes all the difference: it really does look like ink printed on light grey paper.

Navigation through the pages is via the forward and back arrows on both the left- and right-hand side of the Kindle; although once secured into the leather cover left-handed users I imagine would have to bend the cover back on itself (the kind of action that is drilled into you from an early age that you should never do with a paperback), or remove it from the cover altogether … or, I guess, use the buttons on the right-hand side of the Kindle.

Reading PDFs

Thankfully reading PDFs was just as easy as reading standard eBooks.

Of course, the whole point of PDFs is that the author can determine how they look and that they will retain their design regardless of the device they are being viewed on.  This means that the viewing options are reduced to just zoom, screen contrast and screen rotation.

Screenshot of PDF reading options on the Kindle 3

Screenshot of PDF reading options on the Kindle 3

Depending on the size of the text I’ve found that reading some books with the fit-to-screen option and a 90° rotation is best. Depending on the size of the original page, the navigation keys will then shift your view from the top to the bottom of the page before moving on to the next page.  It really is very impressive.

I just wish that there was a keyboard shortcut for rotating the screen.  On the Kindle 1, I’ve read, it is Alt + R, but on the Kindle 3 this inserts a number ‘4’ into the search box.

No support for PDF bookmarks

Here’s my biggest niggle with the Kindle, though, when using it to read PDF documents: it doesn’t appear to have support for PDF bookmarks.  This seems to me to be a huge failing, as it is often the way that I navigate around large PDF documents when viewing them on my PC.

I hope that Amazon address this in a future update.

Crashes

And speaking of failings: my Kindle has crashed about 5 or 6 times since I received it, and it has rebooted itself once.  I’m hoping that the latter was a software update, I’m currently on version 3.0 (515460094).  eBookvine wrote about the freezes and crashes yesterday.  Mine have happened while browsing the Web and viewing long, complicated PDF documents.

[Update: I upgraded to the latest OS and that solved the crash problem.]

I do wish manufacturers would include instructions on how to soft- and hard-reset their devices. On the Kindle 3 you hold in the power switch for 7 seconds to reboot it, and for 15 seconds to reboot (soft reset) it.

For a hard reset you need to hold the power switch for 20 seconds, release it and then hold the Home button while the Kindle is rebooting.  A screen appears asking you to type “RESET” into an input box which starts the factory reset.

It’s inconvenient, but it’s not enough to put me off using it.

Shortcut keys

A few shortcut keys I’ve found useful:

  • Alt + Shift + G
    Takes a screenshot (think of ‘g’ for ‘grab screenshot’)
  • Alt + Shift + M
    Play Minesweeper (press G within the game to play GoMoku)
  • Alt + Home
    Open the Amazon Kindle Store
  • Alt + Q, Alt + W, Alt + E, etc.
    Pressing Alt and the top row of keys will produce numbers 1-9 and then 0.
  • Alt + G
    Screen refresh
  • Alt + B
    While reading a book you can toggle user-created bookmarks
  • Menu
    Pressing Menu on the Home screen will show you both the time and available memory.

Can you run it?


Screenshot of Can You Run It showing that Battlefield 2 passes

Battlefield 2 passes with flying colours on my laptop

Downsizing and upsizing

By the recent photographs of my study in various states of disarray you probably know by now that I’m in the process of reorganising a few rooms in our house.

And by now you probably also know the reason why I’m doing it, judging by the recent scan of a 12 weeks and 3 days old baby currently gestating in my wife’s tummy.

Yes, we need to make room for another minor human some time in late January 2011.  So, I’m downsizing some of my … well, stuff, while Jane’s tummy is … well, I guess upsizing.

(She doesn’t read my blog, so don’t worry about that last sentence.)

Battlefield 2

In my study I have two PCs.  One is on my desk, the other is on Jane’s desk/our-old-dining-room-table.  One gets used almost every day, the other gets used only when Valley Boy Rich comes to visit, to play Battlefield 2 over the network.

But the time has finally arrived for my trusty Nethighstreet PC (MSI K7N2 Delta, 2.8 GHz Athlon CPU, 2GB RAM, Creative X-Fi soundcard) to be retired to the PC graveyard that is either Freecycle or eBay (I haven’t quite decided yet). Which obviously leaves us one PC down for our mildly regular death-matches.

Can you run it?

So there I was thinking, if only there was some way of discovering whether Battlefield 2 will run on my laptop when I discovered Can you run it? from System Requirements Lab.

It requires the Java runtime environment to be installed but it’s pretty simple to use:

  1. Visit Can you run it?
  2. Type in a game, or select one from the drop-down list.
  3. Click on the Can you run it? button.
  4. Can you run it? tells you whether you can run it. Or not. Any why.

Genius!  Within a few seconds I was given the good news that Battlefield 2 will run successfully on my laptop.  And what’s more it will do so at a pretty high spec.

I also discovered that it will not run Call of Duty 4, isn’t entirely sure about Lego Star Wars or Company of Heroes: Opposing Fronts and hasn’t even heard of Heaven & Hell.