Category Archives: Tech Reviews

NZXT Phantom 820 Review

avatar

PrintPrint

Good looks, solid installation, a few eyebrow-raising quirks

If you’re big on case lighting—you Cylon fan, you—you’re going to absolutely love NZXT’s latest Phantom chassis. It’s rare to see such attention to detail paid to simple illumination, as with the three separate strands of lighting found on the exterior, interior, and rear of NZXT’s Phantom 820. Cooler still, you can manually cycle through a variety of colors for the lights, so as to find the one that matches whatever mood you’re in at any given moment.

Don’t assume that you can just leave certain wires dangling on this case: To get all of its features to work, plug in everything you can get your hands on!

Of course, a case is more than just its looks—striking as the sharp angles might be on the various windows and grills adorning this jet-black chassis. Installation-wise, stuffing parts into the Phantom 820 is a pretty pain-free process that leaves plenty of room for advanced customizations by skilled system-builders. We’re going to assume that describes you, since your average DIY computer crafter isn’t likely to buy a $250 ticket to this case’s light show. Regardless of its redeeming qualities, it’s a wee bit expensive.

The Phantom 820 comes with four 5.25-inch bays, which all lock your optical drives (or reservoirs) into place using handy little plastic mechanisms instead of the screws we oh-so-hate. And we’re giving special mention to the Phantom 820’s drive covers, which lock onto the sides of the chassis using a spring-loaded, front-facing switch instead of those often-finicky plastic tabs—you know what we’re talking about.

The case’s six hard drive bays use trays to secure your storage in place. They all pull out on the right side of the chassis, but with a caveat: Two of them can also be accessed by first pulling out a compartment on the chassis’s left side. We don’t mind it much that you have to pop off the nonstandard side of the case to access the drive bays, but it would have been nice to be able to access all the drive bays from the case’s left side, as well.

For example, a built-in fan controller on the top of the case (across from its two USB 3.0 ports and four USB 2.0 ports) allegedly controls fans you plug into certain connectors. We couldn’t get it to work with any combination of fans we hooked up, nor does it appear to work with the default case fans already wired on the Phantom 820. And don’t just assume that the manual’s instruction of “plug in the Molex connector” is all you need to do to get the case’s full light setup working: You have to connect your front-panel headers and a supplementary SATA connector for the full, controllable effect.

NZXT’s Phantom 820 is a strong contender for your attention and wallet, especially if you prefer looks over functionality. At this price, however, you should be looking for a case that nails both categories flawlessly: The Phantom 820 is close, but not tip-top.

Price $250, www.nzxt.com

NZXT Phantom 820

Number Six

Gorgeous chassis with eye-catching, customizable lighting across three separate zones.

Number Five

Wiring and instructions a bit tricky to figure out; finicky fan controller.

Borderlands 2 Review

avatar

PrintPrint

The shoot-and-loot format (almost) perfected

We loved the original Borderlands for all of its first-person-shooter action, varied gameplay (there was shooting people and driving over them, for example), and lots and lots of guns. In fact, the official claim from developer Gearbox Software was that the game offered 16,164,886 guns, which is almost as big as Gordon Mah Ung’s personal collection. Despite its glorious carnage, it also had a few glaring problems, foremost of which was a horrendous PC port that was so bad Gearbox publicly apologized (via a love letter written by the game’s annoying NPC Claptrap) and promised to make it right with Borderlands 2.

Menus overlap one another in a console-ready attempt to fit everything into the middle of the screen.

There’s good news, kids: Gearbox kept its word and has more than made up for its past transgressions with this awesome sequel, which goes above and beyond what we even thought possible from a franchise like Borderlands. The sequel is better than the original in every way imaginable, making it a must-have for PC gamers.

All of your firearm fantasies are fulfilled in Borderlands 2, with shotguns that shoot acid, rockets that shoot homing missiles, and grenades that explode into more grenades.

Like the first game, the sequel takes place on the mythical planet of Pandora—and once again you are a rogue vault hunter determined to unlock a secret relating to some ambiguous mysterious Vault. As before, the story isn’t terribly important, but it’s definitely more tolerable thanks to a liberal infusion of humor and memorable characters, such as the friendly Ellie and the too-hip annoyathon named Tiny Tina.

Claptrap and Scooter return as your BFFs, too, and they are much improved, but neither is as memorable as the game’s antagonist—a megalomaniac named Handsome Jack who tells you as soon as the game begins that he is buying a pony made of diamonds and naming it after you, “Piss for Brains.” Jack keeps up the wisecracks throughout the 30-plus-hour first play-through, and by the time the final battle arrives, you are itching to pile-drive his face into the ground. This intense desire to kick his ass is a testament to Gearbox’s pitch-perfect writing, as it never gets old and is always funny. Even the bad guys scream funny sayings like, “I’m going to wear your head like a condom!” as they rush toward you, though at times there’s so much chatter you can’t hear mission details as they pop up on your intercom.

Just like the first game, you have to choose one of four character classes—Commando, Siren, Gunzerker, or Assassin—each with a unique special ability; we liked Commando and its upgradeable Sabre turret the best.

One of the biggest sins Gearbox committed in the previous game was its console-centric HUD, and it has largely redeemed itself this time around, but not completely. You can now adjust FOV and HUD size via sliders, and everything is mouse-and-keyboard friendly, but the weapon- and perk-management screens are still more difficult to deal with than they need to be. For example, on the level-up screens where you assign skill points to different strengths there are three columns, with only one fully visible at a time, so you have to click over to one to make it pop up, but we didn’t even see the screen on the left because it’s mostly covered up by the stats of whatever current skill you are examining. Luckily, we were able to respec our character for a small price, but there’s no reason why the menus need to be squashed together like that on a PC, which packs more pixels.

Gunfights are nonstop and intense, and often end with the bad guy exploding and littering the battlefield with his remains.

The layout of these screens is important because you are constantly managing your inventory, trying to figure out which weapon to use, which grenade mod is best, which relic to try out, and which class mod fits best with your current situation. Like the first game, the possibilities are seemingly endless as the game randomly mixes and matches stats and capabilities for weapons and gear into a dizzying array of options. You can have guns that spit corrosive goo, a sniper rifle that is also a Gatling gun, grenades that suck people into a vortex before exploding, and much more, and all of them are fun to use. Gearbox puts the weapon count this time around at “87 bazillion,” which sounds accurate to us. Sadly, we never saw a legendary “orange” weapon the entire game, and the golden chest containing epic loot at Sanctuary never opened for us since in order to have a key you needed to have either pre-ordered the game, bought the DLC, or snagged a free key on Twitter. Though it’s clever marketing, a way to earn a key in-game would have been appreciated.

Each of the four classes has a special ability, and here we see the Commando class’s Sabre turret go to work on a feral Bullymong.

The final pieces of the puzzle are co-op and performance, and Gearbox has pulled these off quite nicely. You can easily add any of your Steam friends to your current game or join a random game with people of a similar level as you. Squadmates can heal one another and collectively decide who gets what loot according to their needs. It’s all very slick and well-implemented, and the preferred way to play through the more difficult levels. Performance is also quite good at 1080p with everything turned on, but bump the resolution to 2560×1400 and Borderlands 2 will require a beefy rig to run. The game was unplayable at times at 2560×1440 with a GeForce GTX 670 with all PhysX effects on High, but played fine on a GeForce GTX 690 (imagine that). Though taxing on your GPU, the PhysX effects are totally badass. Downed enemies leave pools of blood on the ground, and particle effects explode constantly, raining down shrapnel during battles. We’ve never seen PhysX look this good in a game, or add such immersion, making it a must-have feature here. 

Though it’s not without flaws, Borderlands 2 packs so much awesomeness into its virtually endless campaign (you can play the very long full campaign with side missions twice for each character class) we largely didn’t mind the small annoyances. It’s entertaining from beginning to end, and with the four character classes, True Vault Hunter mode for the hardcore, and online co-op, we’ll be playing this game for a long time to come.

Price $60, www.borderlands2.com, ESRB: M

Note: This review was taken from the Holiday 2012 issue of the magazine.

Borderlands 2

Grumpy cat

Amazing PhysX effects; nonstop action; hilarious writing; lots of replayability.

Ceiling cat

Menus still squished; monster rig required for high-res gaming.

CyberPower Zeus M2 Review

avatar

PrintPrint

The more-affordable ultraportable

If it’s true that Ultrabooks aren’t meeting sales expectations because of high prices, CyberPower is making moves in the right direction by offering a trio of 14.1-inch models that break the $1,000 barrier. One of those is the Zeus M2, which rings in at $850. That’s nearly half the cost of the Lenovo X1 Carbon. So what, if any, features and performance are sacrificed in the service of money savings?

There’s nothing flashy about the Zeus M2’s design, unless you count its glossy screen and brushed-metal lid.

It’s pretty clear that CyberPower cut some of its costs on materials and construction. The CyberPower Zeus M2 is nearly all plastic except for its brushed-metal lid. The body is not super rigid, exhibiting flex in the base when the notebook is held by one corner, and some mushiness under the keyboard. But the build doesn’t seem flimsy and the hinge feels solid. The keyboard and touchpad are in keeping with the budget motif—strictly serviceable, but thankfully free of any major nuisances in our testing. Similarly, the screen is an unremarkable TN panel with a 1366×768 resolution and a glossy finish. All in all, the overall quality is what you’d expect from the price tag.

But by keeping design flourishes to a minimum, CyberPower is able to outfit the Zeus M2 with a respectable loadout of internal components that doesn’t stray far from many pricier configs. For instance, at 1.7GHz, its i5-3317U CPU is clocked just 100MHz lower than the X1 Carbon’s proc (the same proc found in our zero-point, incidentally). The M2’s 120GB Intel SSD is just 8GB shy of the X1’s—what’s more, the M2’s drive achieved sequential reads that were 21 percent better than the X1’s drive and sequential writes that were 10 percent better in CrystalDisk Mark. On top of that, the M2 offers 16GB of RAM to the X1’s 4GB. The M2 also boasts a competitive array of ports, including full-size Ethernet and HDMI ports, two USB 3.0 ports (along with one USB 2.0), and a media card reader.

In our benchmark tests, the Zeus M2 held its own, performing even better against our zero-point rig than Lenovo’s Carbon X1. Our battery rundown test was another story. Here, the M2 conked out in less than four hours. Since long battery life is one of the tenets of the Ultrabook mandate, this is a notable failing.

Still, we have to give CyberPower credit where credit is due. The M2 might fall short in the style and battery-life categories, but it succeeds in key ways that are crucial to the Ultrabook brand, by offering a thin and light portable with flexible features and competitive performance at a very competitive price. Budget buyers will be well-served by this device.

Price $850, www.cyberpower.com

Note: This review appeared in the Holiday 2012 issue of the magazine.

CyberPower Zeus M2

Costco

Solid performance and features competitive price.

Walmart

Budget styling; disappointing battery life.

Benchmarks

Our zero-point ultraportable is an Intel reference Ultrabook with a 1.8GHz Intel Core i5-3427U, 4GB of DDR3/1600 RAM, integrated graphics, a 240GB SSD, and Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit.

Specifications