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It's good to talk
In this two part review, we look at two distinctly different pieces of hardware that allow you to talk over the Internet. First up is the MicMouse from ACT-ON aiming for VoIP users followed by the Steelsound 5H aimed at gamers, reviewed by Lawrence.

Offer someone free phone calls worldwide 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year and they'd probably snatch your hand off, yet countless PC users I know have either never heard of or never tried Voice over IP or VoIP.

So what is it? In a nutshell VoIP is a technology that allows you to talk with someone over your internet connection. Sound simple doesnít it? After all, most of us get our Internet connection via our telephone lines, and telephone lines were designed to let us talk to each other. Well, it's not quite that simple, although most telephone exchanges are now digital, the connection between us, the users, and the exchanges are still analogue.

In order to send a voice over the Internet it must first be converted to digital data. It then gets compressed so it's physically smaller and finally it gets chopped into smaller "packets" before getting shipped off into the ether. At the other recipient's end the whole process has to be repeated but in reverse.

In actual fact the mechanics of VoIP isnít important to you; all you need to know is that calls to other PC users are free, anywhere in the World. You can also use VoIP to call standard telephones (including mobiles), but then you do incur a charge. This varies depending on the provider you use.

Getting started is fairly simple. You need a VoIP service provider such as Skype or TalkScan, VoIP software which is usually provided free of charge by the service provider and speakers or headphones so you can hear and a microphone so you can be heard.

There's a slight drawback to using speakers rather than headphones; the person on the other end hears their own voice when they speak due to your microphone picking up your speakerís playback. The slight delay in it getting back to the person talking means it sounds almost like an echo and can be quite off-putting if not annoying. For this reason headphones are a far better option, and headphones with a built-in microphone, generically referred to as "headsets", are considered the best option of all.

Today's review will look at two pieces of hardware aimed at making VoIP easier, one is a traditional headset while the one I want to tackle first is a microphone, though it's a microphone with a twist as it comes built into an optical mouse, seriously.

Click to enlargeThe Optical MicMouse looks like any other three-button mouse on the market. It's a fairly high precision (800dpi) optical mouse. A semi-transparent scroll wheel which glows red is between the two buttons.

The integrated microphone is marked out by a silver circle behind the scroll wheel with 19 tiny perforations in it. My initial concerns of it being covered by my hand during use failed to materialize.

Consistently good sound quality does come with penalties. To achieve good quality even with your hand hovering over it, ACT-ON have had to fit a very sensitive, omni directional microphone and this means it's really good at picking up background noise.

More of an issue than the tendency to pick up background noise is the fact that you can't use the mouse while you're speaking. Itís not that the mouse is disabled (no collective awww, please) but the other person in the conversation will go insane with the barrage of amplified button clicks, the whirring of the scroll wheel and the dull hum as you slide the mouse around. ACT-ON claim to have integrated the microphone in such a way as to minimise operational noise from the mouse but in reality it remains fairly intrusive and you're unlikely to be thanked for talking and working with your mouse simultaneously.

As a mouse the MicMouse works as it should. The 800dpi sensor worked well on a variety of surfaces and showed no signs of skipping even when moved at speed, this makes it suitable for most gaming situations, particularly using TeamSpeak, which is very similar to regular VoIP but which tends to be favoured by gamers.

The MicMouse needs to be hooked up to your computerís microphone jack as ACT-ON havenít integrated it with the USB connector. The MicMouse also comes with a pair of in-ear headphones which arenít the best quality but more than adequate for VoIP conversations and music if youíre not overly fussy.

The MicMouse combines a decent optical mouse with a decent microphone and as such it's one less thing to pack for a trip or to have stood taking up space on your desktop. Equally at home with left or right handed users, it's a very nice product provided you understand and accept the limitations and are prepared to stop working with it while you chat.

Next up is Lawrence looking at the Steelsound 5H professional gaming headset.

Headphones are big business in the gaming industry. True gamers don't use speakers as they are disallowed at all major LAN events and professional competitions. Headphones also manage to concentrate sounds 'into' your ear. The unit I've had been trying on is the Steelsound 5H headset from Soft Trading. Known for their mouse mats (Steelpad and Icemat), gaming headsets are a logical progression for a gaming peripheral supplier. So is this headset any good?

Click to enlargeYou'll note I refer to the Steelsound as a headset not headphones. That's because it features a retractable microphone so you can communicate with teammates during game without having a separate device clamped onto your shirt or on your desk.

The whole unit is designed very well with the retractable headphones proving enough reach so as not to seem obtrusive in front of your mouth neither too far away to require shouting. The inline volume control also features a three way switch allowing for the microphone to be turned off or have two levels of 'responsiveness'. It works well both in games and in general conversation through programs such as Skype.

The earpieces are covered with a woolly fabric and the padded headpiece makes it comfortable to use for prolonged periods. With more than ample cable provided, you won't have any worries about pulling plugs out of your computer.

Installation is fairly simple, with the drivers needing to be installed first. The headset can be connected directly to your computer's sound jacks but if you don't have that facility there is a USB dongle which provides all the sound capabilities you need. Overall the Steelsound has you covered whether or not you have a sound card already installed on your system.

As the Steelsound is aimed at gamers I didn't carry high hopes for the sound quality. My fears were misplaced though. Although it's not going to win any awards with audiophiles, in games the sounds were full and explosions were crisp and immersive. Music playback was good too, although lacking in bass but nothing to complain about.

The Steelsound headset is an well made and quality product. If you are in need of a replacement headset for gaming and need built in microphone features then the Steelsound is an excellent choice.



The MicMouse has a MSRP of $22 and is available, amonst other places, from HERE
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