Friday, November 26, 2010

My Fall Project: Neo Geo Bartop Arcade Cabinet

A dream of mine has always been to own an arcade cabinet. Ever since the days of playing games in arcades, bowling alleys, and diners as a boy, I've wondered what it would be like to be able to play an arcade game for free whenever I wanted. This summer, as I was wrapping up my touchscreen jukebox project, I was considering what my next project should be. In September, just for grins, I priced out a cabinet with the options I wanted. While it seemed economically out of reach at first, I decided that I could make a few financial sacrifices to make it work. And there it began.

I decided to build a Neo Geo Bartop for several reasons. (For those unfamiliar with Neo Geo, see here for background info.) Mainly, it was because I love the games. I first read about Neo Geo and its prohibitively expensive home console and games in an early issue of Electronic Gaming Monthly circa 1990. I never played Neo Geo console or arcade games as a kid, but rather got into them in my 20's when I learned how to mod the Xbox and play emulated games on it. I had noticed the amazing graphics, sound, and overall fun of many of the Neo Geo games. When deciding what arcade game to build, I looked for "the most bang for the buck." The system should be PC-based, since I already had an old PC laying around. This is a much more versatile solution than using an actual arcade board, which would yield only one game, or a handful at most. The fact that there are 150 Neo Geo games, many of which are great, all with the same controls sealed the deal. Simple and attractive artwork, with a ROM set that is easy to emulate on an old PC helped, too. I chose to build the cabinet from a pre-fab kit since I lack most of the tools and skills required to cut my own. I chose a bartop (a.k.a. tabletop) kit as opposed to a full-size cabinet so that it wouldn't take up as much room in my rapidly shrinking apartment. I decided to build a 1-player cabinet, but there's a USB port on the front panel so that an optional 2nd controller can be added for 2-player games. I could envision a finished product made of 100% authentic arcade parts, most importantly a CRT (tube) arcade monitor, that would net a hyper-realistic arcade experience for a fraction of the cost and space requirements of a full-size system. It took over 2 months to build, and now it's done.

After having played with it for a few days, I can honestly say I love it. The games look and feel great. The controls are spot on. I'd go so far as I like it better than an actual Neo Geo cabinet, but I'm biased. This was not only the most difficult and expensive, but also the funnest project I've ever worked on by far. Planning it and building it was just as fun as playing it. It was well worth all the (minor) injuries I sustained during construction. The biggest obstacles to completion were sufficently cooling the PC and getting the bezel (black area around the screen) painted and mounted. Cooling the PC required 5 cooling fans: 2 in's and 3 out's. Quite a pain to set up, but seems to be running OK. The bezel, consisting of plexiglass and a plastic frame, had to be spray painted and velcro-ed, respectively. Very difficult to set up because it has to be just right since that's what people who play the thing are looking at 95% of the time.

As this is my first arcade cabinet build, I'd like to thank the following people, in no particular order, without whom this project would have never been completed:  My friends Joe and John at BCG, Andy at Ultimarc, Dom, Elton, and Bill at my work, Gerry at NorthCoast Custom Arcades, Todd at ArcadeOverlays, Suzo Happ, and the forum mods and contributors at Racketboy, BYOAC,, and KLOV.

Parts list:

Cabinet Kit (Ultimate Bartop I)
Monitor (Wells Gardner D7700 13")
VGA Breakout Cable
ArcadeVGA (AGP) Video Card
Logitech Desktop Speakers
White Cold Cathode Light
Competition Joystick
Ultimate Pushbuttons
Smart Strip Surge Protector
Wire + Cable Ties
Custom Sideart, Marquee, and CPO
Control Panel Plexiglass
Marquee Mirror
Misc. Screws
Black Spray Paint
Matte Board
Case Fans
USB Extender

NorthCoast Custom Arcades
Suzo Happ
NorthCoast Custom Arcades
Suzo Happ
Suzo Happ
Radio Shack
(already had)
AC Moore
Best Buy/Newegg
(already had)

PC Parts list:

Hard Drive
Power Supply

AsRock K7S41GX
AMD Sempron 2500+ (1.66GHz)
Seagate 250GB (IDE)
1GB (2 x 512MB) DDR 400
Generic 300W
Windows XP Professional SP3
Maximus Arcade 2.10

Build pics:

Monday, October 11, 2010

I'm going to CES 2011!

That's right. Another lifelong endeavor will come to fruition in January. I've wanted to go to the Consumer Electronics Show ever since I read about it Nintendo Power magazine when I was 9 years old. I read about it every year in tech blogs, and every year I say, "Damn, I need to go next year." Well, my time has come. A friend hooked me up with free registration, and I just booked my flight and hotel. I'm planning on reviewing/photographing/documenting anything that I deem interesting. So, expect multiple CES installments on this here blog the in mid-January.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Growing Up Geek

As an homage of sorts to Engadget’s Growing Up Geek series, where their staff and other tech personalities discuss their technological upbringing, I present to you my own installment. Enjoy.

There are 2 kinds of geeks in this world. Some are born into geekdom, others find their own way. I fall squarely in the latter realm. To understand this, one should examine my childhood. Growing up, my parents were the opposite of what we’d now call “early adopters.” Nothing against them, but at every technological turn, they were late to the game. This assumes that they ever found out there was a game being played. Technology was usually thrust upon them, and at times, against their will. No one in my immediate family is what I would consider a geek, nerd, or technophile. I have 2 uncles who were 80’s and 90’s technology “users” (read: they owned computers and camcorders), but tech did not consume their lives as it surely does mine. If being a geek means that one’s intelligence and social awkwardness, combined with a love of things like gadgets and video games, causes isolation and alienation, then I was surely a geek. In a small Catholic school class, if I wasn’t the smartest boy and one of the top 3 students overall, I was damn close. The other kids in your class usually resent this, especially when you’re cocky and arrogant about it like I was. Defense mechanisms are a bitch. But I digress.

My earliest childhood memories of technology revolved around 2 subsets of tech that I still enjoy to this day: TV and video games. My parents bought me an Atari 2600 Jr. for Christmas circa 1987. I think they told me some time later that it cost $50, which was big money in those days of single-income households. I remember many fun hours playing Missile Command and Asteroids. Before Nintendo’s monstrously successful Game Boy dominated handheld gaming, there were 1000 different handheld video games from 100 different manufacturers, one of the more popular being made by Tiger Electronics. Some were crude, some were cool. I had a similar knock-off, called Jumpman, which was a trichrome version of Donkey Kong made by Tandy (Radio Shack). I loved it. I brought the bulky, day glow-orange unit everywhere my family went. My mom was taking college courses around this time, requiring digital calculators and tape recorders, which my young sister and I “played with” and rendered unusable. I also remember when my Aunt Mae bought my parents their first VCR, which was around 1985. It was the neatest thing. You could record TV! What a concept! I had no idea how it worked, but it did, usually. Looking back, I’m especially grateful that my aunt bought us VHS instead of BetaMax. I have no idea what the VCR cost her, but it must have been a fortune. Years later, I took the thing apart to get a stuck tape out, and saw first hand how many individual assemblies and parts the thing had. Production costs for that type of unit must have been astronomical. And this was a Mono, 2-head VCR. We had a library of tapes, with a few dozen in steady rotation for my sister and me.

I should also mention that music and technology were not totally separate from one another in my upbringing. At some point around 1988, my mom bought me a generic-branded candy apple red Walkman from Kmart, and my first tape, Bon Jovi’s New Jersey. I wouldn’t listen to that album now if you gave me $20. Unlistenable. My first tape would’ve been Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite For Destruction if I’d had my way, but my mom didn’t like the cursing on it. I eventually amassed a collection of a couple dozen tapes and listened to the Walkman constantly, even though the headphones were cheap and hurt my ears. Eventually I got a cheap hand-me-down boombox for listening to tapes in my room.

My grandparents bought me a 13” TV and an NES for Christmas and my birthday, respectively, in 1990 I believe. (That’s one good thing about January birthdays: It’s like double Christmas.) Let me tell about the countless joyful hours I spent playing Nintendo by myself and with my friends. When I wasn’t playing, I was reading Nintendo Power magazine, usually on the toilet. My mom and dad could be heard at our house around that time yelling, “Are you STILL in there?!?!” Back then, my brain was a sponge. I could damn near memorize a whole issue of NP in a couple days. For example, in Super Mario Brothers 3, I memorized all 8 configurations of 16 flip cards in the flip card mini-game. Those of you who’ve played it know what I’m talking about. What can I say? I was obsessed. I was one of the few kids I knew with my own TV, and even without cable, it still ruled! I felt less special when my sister got one the following year, but whatever. And I really don’t know what I would have done without my NES. Being the geek that I was, my social life in the early 90’s was less that stellar. Let’s just say that video games, in general, got me and countless other youths of my generation through many a sad and lonely day.

I got my first CD player for Christmas around 1992. My first 3 CD’s, were Nevemind by Nirvana, MC Hammer’s Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em, and Music For The People by Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch. I’ll admit that I couldn’t listen to the last 20 seconds of Territorial Pissings from Nevermind because it scared me. I thought it sounded like Kurt Cobain was being choked to death. Anyway, I traded in my NES to a local game store for cash so I could go halves with my parents on a Super Nintendo (SNES) around 1994. This brought Super Mario World, Super Mario All-Stars, and Street Fighter II, among other games, into my room. Awesome! The graphics and sound were incredible, and the games were just as fun as NES, if not more. It was also around this time that my Mom bought the family a Word Processor. For the uninitiated, imagine a typewriter with a monochrome LCD screen less than the size of an iPhone that, when printing a document, sounded like a jackhammer. “Frustrating to use” is being kind.

The pivotal moment in my geek evolution came in January 1997 when I went with my mom to the Gateway Country Store in Upper Dublin, PA to buy our first PC, a Gateway 2000 Pentium II running Windows 95 at a whopping 233MHz. Of course, we didn’t leave the store with a PC. Noooooo, we had to wait 2 weeks for it to arrive via mail, in the then oh-so-envious cowprint box. Even though I didn’t know how to use it save for opening Word, typing and printing, I loved it. There was a fun motorcycle game called Redline Racer that came with it, which actually ran on our PC’s meager hardware. We got AOL at some point, just like 90% of computer-owning Americans. I began to realize then just how powerful the Internet could be, crude as it was then. I’m in high school at this time, and I’m beginning to develop an interest in the machines available to me and computer courses offered. One such course that I took was Computer-based Media, or something similar. It was taught by (let’s call him) Mr. D, a kindred spirit and fellow geek. I owe much of my success in life to this man. Mr. D took time to help me understand the fundamentals of PC and Mac multimedia. He allowed me to stay after school on his time to help me complete my projects and to even go so far as to let me use his personal internet dialup account (either CompuServe or Prodigy) unsupervised. Let me stress that last bit: unsupervised. This type of freedom and access is unheard of today. He trusted me, and in return, I never abused the privilege. Rather, I learned how to use a search engine (Altavista) and move files between computing platforms, among other things. His trust and tutelage made it clear that computing was for me as a career. This led directly to my choosing computer engineering as a college major, which of course led to my current standing in life. I’m extremely grateful to Mr. D for all that he did for me as a tech-curious teenager.

Rather than delve into my college years, where my geekdom became official, at least on paper, I think I’ll wrap this up. Technology has had an effect on my life, to varying degrees, since early childhood. From video games and VCR’s to PC’s and, currently, home theater, I feel like my life has been bettered at every turn because of technology. Many of the things in my life that I enjoy have come from the Internet. I hope that the first generation of kids who don’t know what dial-up Internet is realize how good they have it, technologically speaking.

Monday, August 30, 2010

My Touchscreen Jukebox

Ever since I first started listening to music as a child, I wondered what it would be like to have a jukebox. Something that me, my friends and family could use at parties and other gatherings to easily and conveniently listen to music. I've had the idea for quite a while. Ever since I starting going to bars at the ripe old age of 18 and saw the cool touchscreen jukeboxes that they had hanging on the walls, I knew I had to have one. If one was to buy a jukebox from a vendor, one would surely need deep pockets because jukeboxes, touchscreen or otherwise, ain't cheap. So, I decided to "roll my own."

My first thought was to buy one of the recently made all-in-one touchscreen PCs from a vendor like Asus. These, however, are still in the $400-range for a used item. Too much $$$. My next thought was to use my existing desktop, and add a touchscreen as a 2nd monitor. Touchscreens are in the hundreds of dollars for a new unit, so I had to go used. Enter my old friend eBay. I found an ELO 15" USB/VGA touchscreen pulled from a kiosk somewhere in Texas for $75 shipped. Score! I added a Monoprice vesa mount so that I could hang it on the wall, and some conduit for neatness of cabling. I mounted it next to my PC at shoulder height. So far so good. The monitor works exactly as advertised. But what about software? This is the key to any good jukebox system, so I had to choose carefully. Enter E-Touch/Freebox. After many, many hours of research, I found this suite to be by far the best and most authentic jukebox experience of any software on the Internet. It's skinnable and customizable. It supports FLAC files after some plugin installs. It supports my existing cover art (cover.jpg) and tags. It's very responsive with my touchscreen. I'm running the final version 5 (the actual number escapes me). While not perfect, it's the closest thing to perfect touchscreen jukebox software that you'll find. Highly recommended.

I haven't had a full scale test of this unit yet (read: drunk people using it), but that will be coming soon I hope. In the mean time, I'll continue tinkering with it and will post my findings as needed. I may update to the recently released Version 6.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Revo Review: Part 2

Well, I've decided to keep the Revo. Reason being: I found a way to get Hulu Desktop to run smoothly. The answer: Overclock it. I read some forum posts over at Revouser, and I found that you can actually use the Asrock Ion utility called OCTuner. It's an app that runs in the background. I have the Revo running stable at 1.98GHz, a 20% CPU increase. Not bad. Anything higher will crash, though. Someone modified one of the .inf files to work with the Revo, and guess what: I got the Revo playing flash videos of all quality levels smoothly at 1080p. Almost no skips/jitters. I also bought a cheap Chinavision remote so that I could use Windows Media Center, et al, without a keyboard and mouse. It works great. Overall, I'm pretty happy. Next up: the elusive homebrew touchscreen jukebox.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Review: Acer Aspire Revo AR1600-U910H

Recently, more and more video content has been shifting towards Internet streaming for delivery to consumers like you and I. The biggies have been Netflix, Hulu, Boxee, Youtube, and many others. I have been without a satisfactory means to consume said web video content from the comfort of my couch. A recent purchase of mine is an attempt to remedy this: the Acer Aspire Revo AR1600-U910H. I got this from a generic reseller online for $130 shipped. No a bad little score, eh? Well, that sort of remains to be seen.

Basically, I want this thing, first and foremost, to be used to playback SD and HD Flash content. This is mainly Hulu and Youtube for now. The hardware of this nettop is Intel Atom 230/Nvidia Ion-based. I upgraded the RAM from 1 to 2GB. Hardware decoding for H.264-based content. HDMI audio and video. Low power, but might do the trick with the right software. My first setup in software looks like this: Windows 7 Ultimate (32-bit) running Windows Media Center as a frontend, Boxee, Hulu Desktop, XBMC, Macrotube dashboard plugins. Flash 10.1 RC2. Latest Nvidia Ion drivers. After a few days of testing, here's what I found:

1. XBMC cannot yet decode 1080p content under Windows w/ this system.
2. Media Player Classic does 1080p just fine.
3. Youtube vids up to 1080p are relatively smooth w/ 70% CPU. Some slight jerkiness.
4. Some Hulu clips play similar to #3. Some are a mess w/ 100% CPU.
5. Revision 3 shows (720p?) play fine.

Summary: So far, this little box might be a great computer for light tasks, but Flash is spotty, and 1080p H.264 movies only play w/ certain apps. At this point, I'm not setting this thing up permanently in my living room until after the offical Flash 10.1 drivers are released and I have a chance to test them. Similarly, I need to test 1080p movies w/ various media center plugins to see if a rock-solid solution exists. Stay tuned for Part 2...

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Review: Klipsch RB-51 Home Theater System

I recently treated myself to a new speaker system, the Klipsch RB-51 Home Theater System. My old cheap Sony setup had served me well, but it was time for an upgrade. Let me say right off: these speakers rule! I like to think of myself as someone that really enjoys listening to music. For that purpose alone, these speakers are worth the money. Tight, punchy bass from the subwoofer, and bright, clear, loud mids and highs from the fronts. I have a few surround sound discs as well, including Dark Side of the Moon and How the West Was Won, and they just shimmer. It's like hearing my entire collection again for the first time. For TV and movies, these may be the best speakers I've ever heard. The crown jewel in this set is the center channel, which is the most important speaker in a 5.1 setup. The dialogue that comes out is crisp and clear. The surrounds make any background sounds completely immersive. I can't imaging that the audio sounded better in the production studio. Bottom line: spend the extra money and get a Klipsch setup. Truly amazing.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

My CES 2010 Top 5

This year's CES was, quite frankly, boring. Nothing truly groundbreaking was announced or demoed, in my opinion. Having said that, here's my personal list for the best of CES 2010:

Tegra 2/Android Tablets

I'm very interested in a lower-power 1080p chipset. Tablets are kinda cool, too. Android has what it takes to run these well. The combination could mean cheap, portable and highly useful touchscreen interfaces/front ends in every room and car. This is what I always hoped we'd see.


The Boxee Box definely looks cool. Love the Windows version. In time, it maybe the perfect media streamer. All content on one box with a nice remote and UI. Sweet.

Android 2.1

Of all the open source OSes, I'm most optimistic about Android. It seems to have the right combination of services, UI, and supoort. Phones will get it first, but the real proving ground for Android is the x86 port of it. If people start using it on laptops, look out MS and Apple.

Netgear Push2TV

If I can send my PC's video wirelessly and reliably to my TV, that's a game-changer. Let's see the hardware first, though.

Windows 7 Mediaroom Support

If I can get my FiOS content on a Windows PC with no extra hardware, that, too is a game-changer. We'll see if it actually happens.

In closing, I'd just like to say, "Fuck 3D!" I do not now, nor will I ever care about watching a movie or TV show in 3D. There is nearly 100 years of 2D footage, the vast majority of which looks like shit on current hardware. Industry, stop trying to make me buy a completely new hardware iteration, when the current 2D devices are FAR from perfect. I want cheap, thin, light, bright 2D 1080p displays with NO MOTION ISSUES!!!! Make this happen, then we'll talk about next-gen hardware.