|Right out of the gate, wireless
controllers are appealing. Undoubtedly, the worst thing about living-room console setups
is the massive tangle of cords and controllers. Beverages, breakables, and ankles are
constantly in peril, and difficult terrain makes it tough to get out of the way when an
innocent bystander is caught between the television and the gamer. Until now, us console
jockeys had no choice but to put up with the annoyance.
However, Eleven Engineering has brough us Airplay, the first radio-frequency wireless controller. We met some of the folks from Eleven at E3, and they seem to have their hearts in the right spot. As they said, gaming is changing at a fever pitch, and as new niches arise, new problems and solutions follow. The console gamers of yesterday, content to squat mere inches away from the TV, are now all grown up and theyve worked hard to acquire that perfectly proportioned home theater. Why tether yourself to a few feet away from your digital 6:9 ratio Panasonic wall-mounted TV? (We do all play our video games on such luxurious systems, right?) Even if the example is a little blown out of proportion, its apt. Freedom of movement and placement is essential if consoles are to break out of the playroom and into the family room. Nobody will accept a gaming system as a valid addition to their entertainment system if it involves a whole bunch of clutter. Plus, cords are so passe.
The Airplay controller solves this problem unlike any other wireless controller before it. Previous wireless solutions used infra red technology to carry the signal from controller to console. Anyone with a remote for their television and a sibling can tell you how easy it is to block that kind of signal. And the same person will probably attest to how annoying such a disturbance of transmission is. The Airplay uses radio frequencies to transmit the information, negating the need for a line of sight. You plug the receiver unit into the PlayStation and make sure the antenna is well-positioned, and youre good to go.
The radio wireless solution is perfect for multiplayer games, too. Up to 16 Airplay controllers can be accomodated in a single room, which means you could have two PlayStations, each with two Multi-Taps, raging with 15 of your closest friends. With normal controllers, such a convergence of gamers would create a treacherous tangle of wires that would be nigh on impossible to navigate. With the Airplay the situation is moot. And even in smaller numbers the Airplay is desirable, especially when switching out players and passing the controller.
In addition to the solid radio transmission, the Airplay controllers boast another major feat of engineering: They need only one AA battery to work. Wow. No other wireless controller has needed just a single battery, and no other controller has sported such a nifty power monitoring and battery replacement method. Using the reLOAD system, the Airplay pays attention to how much power is left. When low, the reLOAD light blinks. When the power gets so low the system might shut off, it automatically pauses the game and blinks a warning. You can replace the battery without a break in power, too. The AA goes into a slot at the top of the controller. The slot is open on the top and bottom, so to replace a battery you simply push a new one in from above. The old one pops out the bottom and youre ready to roll.
The controller also sports the basic perks of third party peripherals. You can configure macros and set any of the different buttons to turbo. Unfortunately, these settings are erased any time the controller powers down. You can suspend the auto shutdown, so on those all day playathons youll be able to take a pee break, but once you turn it off youll lose those settings. In addition, the whole thing seems damn near bulletproof. The design is solid, and we can attest that it will withstand a good amount of abuse, ranging from hardcore button mashing to being repeatedly dropped.
It all sounds too good to be true, right? Well, it is all true, although there are some trade-offs. The biggest one is that a Dual Shock version of the controller is not yet available. The main reason given for this is that implementing the Dual Shock would require more than one AA, and economy of batteries was a priority. I can sympathize with that, and can tell you that Ive logged a good 30 40 hours on one AA and not had it run out yet. However, its not the rumble that I miss, its the analog joysticks. The introduction of the dual analog sticks caused some game developers to really seize the opportunity to increase control horizons, and it feels like a step backwards to pick up a controller without these sticks. Also, it makes some games entirely unplayable with the Airplay controller, which means youll always need that Dual Shock backup.
The dual joystick issue may seem small, but Im not even as addicted to the analog sticks as many other gamers. Another relatively minor complaint is with the "Power Grip" design of the controller. Again, for me the controller feels very comfortable and natural. It is designed with a molded grip for your fingers, and the innovative shoulder button design really made it much easier for me to manage two shoulder buttons with one finger. However, some of our reviewers with longer fingers found the shoulder button configuration uncomfortable and awkward. Also, some gamers with small hands may not really fit the grip, which makes reaching the L and R buttons difficult, too. And because of the custom design, it is really difficult to use the standard four-finger approach to the shoulder buttons. So you might want to try one on for size before you pick up the Airplay.
My last criticism goes to the radio wireless system. On the one hand, the Airplay does a remarkably good job. It transmits over a long distance (well over 20 feet) and can utilize any of 16 channels, so you can generally find a really clean one. But you will still have to futz around with it a little to get a system figured out. It works much better if your PlayStation is not at ground level. Anywhere from a foot above the floor to the top of the entertainment system worked well, but when the PlayStation was on the ground the Airplay seemed to have a really tough time finding it, and would only work from a few unweildy positions. So if you get one, and you have a problem, do like the instruction manual says and get your PlayStation to a better location. The process of finding a good spot for transmission is made more difficult by the placement of the receivers connection light, which gets covered up by a memory card. Still, the radio signal is not 100% perfect. I would put it at 99% reliable. There is always the random trucker driving by or your neighbor talking on their telephone. I dont know exactly what it is, but interference comes and goes. Usually switching to another channel is no sweat, and works fine, but occasionally youll find yourself hopping around a little excessively. Also, 99% reliability is great for most games; many times you wont even notice that youre not getting a constant transmission. But when youre going for that big air on THPS2, the last thing you want is to Ollie prematurely, and its experiences like these that, despite dozens of flawless play sessions, we remember.
Overall, Im keeping my Airplay plugged in. I found that the convenience it offers outweighs the hassle, and because Im a D-pad fan I dont have a hard time adapting. I also found the ergonomic design to fit me well, although you might want to check the comfort factor for yourself. The PS2 version of the Airplay controller does include Dual Shock and the analog joysticks, as well as the additional DVD control buttons the Dual Shock 2 will introduce. At that point in time, a wireless controller will be a must-have peripheral. Unfortunately, it will require several more batteries, although I imagine we can count on a long battery life. Airplay is undoubtedly on the right track, indeed, theyre leading the radio wireless revolution. Expect many imitators, but dont expect them to be as quality as the Airplay controller.