iTunes Without the iTunes Part

I have been archiving all of my purchased media for quite some time now, I like the flexibility of a digital copy, but also flexibility to view it how and where I choose (i.e. Plex).  That usually means a lot of disc ripping, and I have set up a decent system and workflow to do it.

Most of my movies come with a digital copy, usually on iTunes.  This is handy and useful, since I can stream to most of my devices that way.  Movies on iTunes sometimes have really good deals, and it’s tempting to grab something that way.  And once in a while, my physical media is damaged – sometimes incredibly slightly – and I am just unable to rip it.

Files contained in Apple’s digital library aren’t perfect though, since if I want to watch a movie at someone else’s place, it either means bringing my precious physical media (if I have it) or bringing a device to their place to watch it!  I can’t make a more highly compressed and smaller versions for those odd times I want lots of movie in little space.  It’s the inconvenience of DRM.

After a bunch of Google searches TuneFab M4V converter caught my attention.  They claim to be able to remove the DRM from my iTunes library and give me a high quality version I can use in more ways, including the above.  I thought I’d give it a try.  They offered either a free license (for high-volume bloggers) or a 30% off coupon for a review.  I’d probably review it anyway, so I’ll try for the coupon!

They offer the product on two plaftorms, Mac and Windows – separately licensed.  The first thing I tried was to download and install a version on my Mac.  When I ran it it came up with a message stating that High Sierra was not supported.  Since Mac OS has well moved on to Mojave as of this writing, I wonder if there’s a future in the Mac version of the app?  If you only have a Mac, be careful before purchasing this.  Apparently they’re looking into it, but for now… I hope you have Windows.

I downloaded and installed the Windows version.  The first thing I discovered when launching it was a big white screen like this:

Blank-ish screen
Yep, that’s most of it

You can’t see from the screenshot but the window is slightly larger than the available screen space, was not resizable and has its own non-standard window controls (close, minimize etc).  These window controls are glitchy and vanished after moving the window around a bit… the only way to exit the app was to Alt+F4 or right-click on the taskbar icon.

Their intention was to look cool and clean but honestly it causes some major issues.  (I have 3 monitors, so likely that was the problem.  I think they could fix it quickly by not centering the window across all monitors but only the active monitor).  TuneFab is not alone in falling into that trap, most Windows apps these days seem to want to blaze their own trail and make things look unique.

The options screen is very sparse as well – though it does have standard window decorations yay!  It’s not resizeable either.

2 options, it’s very roomy though.

Wait!  Don’t give up!

But I won’t be looking at this app all that often. I have a number of extremely valuable apps that are sadly pretty ugly.  So I’ll let the UI issues slide for now.  The TuneFab team is welcome to contact me to test some fixes for this.  The more important question is… does it work?

I click the very apparent “Add Files” button.  Ah, tells me I need to download a file through iTunes first before encoding.  Fair enough, it can’t work with what it doesn’t have.  I wonder if it would be possible through the iTunes scripting interface to get a list of movies in the library and trigger a download?  Still, another compromise I can understand and am willing to make.

So I downloaded a movie and clicked on “Add Files” again.  It tells me I need to have downloaded a movie.  But I just did?  Could they add a “Refresh list” button?  Eh whatever.  I restart the app and there it is, it shows up, along with other iTunes playlists listed in the sidebar.  At the bottom have appeared three buttons labeled “Add”, “Add All” and “Cancel”…

And… just as I was noticing this, my machine threw a BSOD.  Yikes.  Windows kinda makes it hard to cast the blame.  Is it a video driver?  Is it iTunes?  Is it this app?  All three together?  If it was Mac, it would almost certainly be the app, but I can’t exactly find out.

But BSODs happen.  We’re all friends and not looking to point fingers here, but try out an app.  I reboot and relaunch, select the movie and hit “Add”.  Nice, it comes up with video and codec information. 

Codec information
Looking good so far!

Off to the right (not shown) is a gear that gives you audio and subtitle information.  I had 4 tracks (AAC and AC3 in English and French) and all of the subtitles available.

Once I did all of that, I clicked “Convert”.  Since this is the trial version I only get the first 5 minutes, so let’s see.  It’s very quick on this machine (considerably faster than real time).  I’d guess it took about 20 seconds to run through 5 minutes of movie…  and boom the movie appears in the output folder!  Quality looks great and includes multiple audio tracks. 

I was able to take that file and run it through Handbrake for another resolution so yup the DRM is definitely gone!

The only option given in the Windows media player is to open a separate subtitle file (e.g. srt).  I ran CCExtractorGUI and the subtitles are definitely there.  I don’t use subtitles, but I know some of you really need them.

Value

Listed price is $49 USD, with a (temporary?) $5 discount, so $44 USD.  Is it worth this cost?

The polish on the app UI honestly isn’t great.  I expect more for an app this cost.  Maybe this is only an issue with the Windows version?  It appears they seem to be using Qt, and cross-platform toolkits tend to have these kind of issues.  I couldn’t test the Mac one so who knows?

But value for its functionality?  Let’s figure that out.

Well, if you figure a flexible backup of your existing iTunes movies is worth $11 each, it would pay for itself in 4 movies.  Or to look at it another way, if you can save $11 per movie by buying on iTunes instead of on disc, you’d break even in 4 movies.

Or, if you rip your movies, then maybe you can calculate the time it takes and average it out that way.  For me it takes almost 3 hours to rip and encode a Blu-Ray.  I don’t mind that much but this is much easier and faster – with the consideration that you still have to take the time to download a HD movie in advance.

So, it depends on your use and value of your time.  Personally, if it was $29 I wouldn’t even bother to calculate the time, it would be worth it.  Add another 10-20 bucks and it makes me stop and figure out things like this.

Wait.  If I get the 30% off coupon… (quick mental math).  DUDE.

Bottom line:

Once I got it installed and running, it was really impressive.  Very fast with excellent results.  The UI is very buggy but the engine works great.  If you want a DRM-free copy of your iTunes movies, this may be the way to get them.

M-Audio StudioPro 3 repair

First of all, let me say “hi there, Googlers!”

I owned the M-Audio StudioPro 3 speakers for quite a few years before they started to fail on me.  They were not too bad, gave decent sound at reasonable desktop volume.  In the last year or so, the right speaker conked out.  Well, it played, but was really really quiet.  I replaced the cable a few times, and tested with an oscilloscope that yes, it was actually receiving signal, but very weak.

I opened it up and couldn’t see any immediate issues, like loose connections or popped capacitors.  I tried making a better solder joint on the wire leading to the right speaker jack, but didn’t notice an improvement.

I would probably have been wise to obey this

Much of my research leads to the understanding that these units will eventually fail, even if I fixed it now.  I decided I might as well convert the speaker into a passive speaker, and bypass the amp entirely.  I first thought this was as easy as attaching the speaker terminals, then I realized I still need the crossover, of course.  I just needed to find it on the board.

With the help of this page (thank you Yashar), I found at the very bottom of the page a rough estimation of what the crossover will look like in this speaker.  It is slightly different from the AV40, but the general layout of the two inductors helped me locate the general area I was looking for.

Armed with that and a little function generator I was able to find the spot after the power amp and before the crossover.  Here it is, with the original output wire removed from its spot and soldered on to an existing joint.

I removed it shortly after and threaded the wire through the hole alongside the zip tie for a small amount of strain relief.  Now the 1/8″ jack, instead of sending amplified signal OUT to the right speaker, is an input for amplified signal.  In other words, it is now a passive speaker, just like the right side one.

I can leave it unplugged from AC and still use it, as long as I have a small amp, like the little LEPY amps on Amazon/AliExpress.  The speakers seem to be rated 10W and 4ohms so I certainly can’t drive them hard with that little amp, but I think I can easily get a lot more life out of them, especially with the right one being significantly less dead than before.

I can’t guarantee that I did this right, and maybe someone will correct me, but I think I found a simple solution to save these.

Here’s the full bottom side of the PCB

Clown Sized Phone

Despite my earlier misgivings, I got a biggie size phone – the iPhone 8 Plus.  After lots of research and analysis, I realized an error in my previous logic.  I said:

It loses the magic of convenience that is so important to me in the iPhone.

That seems now to be a matter of perspective.  Yes, you lose convenience of always having your phone in your skinny jeans.  And yes, you lose convenience of easily reaching every corner of the screen with one hand.  But is that all “convenience” is about?  I also said:

when I got my 5s, I immediately wished it was a tiny bit wider to make landscape use more viable.  Typing any document in landscape only left me with about half an inch of displayed space.

So with a smaller phone, I actually gave up the convenience of seeing more of my document/ssh session in order to keep single-thumb use… and with any context that requires a bigger display I probably wouldn’t use a single thumb anyway.

With a larger phone, it seems that I don’t strictly need to use landscape in order to benefit from this.  I just have more to work with.

And, in landscape mode, the phone absorbs some of the power of the iPad.  The OS presents extra columns of information, panels that weren’t visible before are now on-screen.  This is called a “regular size class” to iOS developers (vs a “compact size class”), and it’s amazing, and frustratingly obscure.  I had to actually own one of these to get why it’s so different.  Side note: the iPhone X does NOT have the regular size class in landscape.  It’s just as cramped as ever even though it has loads of extra pixels available.  For “horns”.

Even including the onscreen keyboard, I have at least 5 usable lines to enter text.  With an external keyboard I have way more.

So, bottom line.  Is it convenient?  No, definitely not.  But is it convenient?  Oh yeah, definitely.  Maybe I’m one version behind everyone else, but I really like this format.

Mounting Cloud Drives

Cloud drives are everywhere. OneDrive, Google, Dropbox, Amazon, Box, and a dozen others I haven’t remembered.  You can create your own with OwnCloud or even just WebDAV if you need.

But the problem with having a half-dozen cloud drives (and we all do) is a half-dozen sync apps to interface with them.  That can go from annoying to crippling depending on the app.  Even when you have them working together well, do you always want a sync or do you sometimes want cloud storage instead, so you can free up local drive space?

Leaving the reminder that a cloud-only file is not backed up and should be considered a transient storage solution, what can you do?  Well if you’re on Windows, look for ExpanDrive, StableBit Cloud Drive or NetDrive.  I have no opinion of the Windows version of these, as I run a Mac.

So what do I use on the Mac?

I have both ExpanDrive and Eltima CloudMounter.  I bought the latter first, because it was on a ridiculous deal in the Mac App Store, but I always considered ExpanDrive appeared to be the premier app for this purpose.  I bought it for that reason, plus the fact that it supported Amazon Cloud Drive, which at the time of my purchase was unlimited*1!

ExpanDrive

Pros:

Supports Amazon Cloud Drive

Available on Windows (and Linux in private beta)

Cons:

Amazon Cloud Drive is super slow, much slower than the native uploader.

Copying large amounts of files hangs up Finder.  It seems like it splits files into proprietary chunks with a database interface.

No per-file progress indicator.  One global menubar indicator, an if you drop down the menu you will see the file currently being transferred.

CloudMounter

Pros:

Nice Dropbox-style icons to show queued, encryption and uploading status.

Yeah, you saw it… client-side encryption!  This could be significant.  You can transparently encrypt your sensitive files and upload them.

Fast!  Caching seems to handle on a per-file basis.

Cheaper – including a competitive upgrade discount, and many bundle deals include it.

Cons:

No Amazon Cloud Drive

No information about encryption.  Based on a single password, so it’s probably crackable.  It would also be nice if there was an open source decryptor so you could retrieve your data if your Mac ever blows up, or at least you know that you won’t irretrievably lose your sensitive data.

Again, the encryption – apparently you can configure only specific directories to be encrypted but I can’t see any way to do it.

Conclusion

Each app has its own advantages that the other lacks.  I wonder the real advantage of the Amazon Cloud Drive interface, as nice as it might be.  The first-party app seems to do the same thing, if a little more clumsily.  The encryption for CloudMounter was just released today, so it may have some development and documentation coming soon.  As it stands now, I think I am most impressed with CloudMounter.  I expect development and improvement from both products soon.

The Open Solutions

You can get a couple of open source products like acd_cli (for Amazon Cloud Drive only), the speedster google-drive-ocamlfuse (for Google Drive) and a super cloud-storage toolkit rclone (for several cloud drives).  These can each be used with FUSE so you can mount the remote drives into your file system and use native tools, at least for reading.

The Update

Before I even got a chance to polish and publish this, ExpanDrive came out with a major update to v6.x.  They fixed the responsiveness and added amazing features to their product.  Namely:

It appears now that they are using at least 4 threads to upload, and you can monitor progress in the menubar dropdown (percentage complete).

You can browse the filesystem right from the menu, without opening Finder.  Search files also (which is extremely quick, at least on Google!)

Finder integration, Offline file sync support, file versioning, and probably a few other things.

All in all this is a fantastic upgrade, and reverses my preference from CloudMounter to ExpanDrive.  A solid, solid release.

  1. Which they quickly throttled, then revoked.  Now you get 1TB for that price – which would be reasonable if it wasn’t so slow, unreliable and inaccessible

Rescuing Encrypted files on ACD

So Amazon is shutting out Linux users.  But what if I have a bunch of encrypted files there using old encfs and acd_cli scripts?

I can copy down the encrypted files using their client at any point, but how will I know which one is which?

I did the following.  First, create a temporary directory.  I did this in my $HOME on my Mac.  Find a way that still exists to mount the drive (I used ExpanDrive).  Once that is prepared, change to the mounted and encrypted ACD directory and run this command:

Let it run for a while, it may take several minutes.  This will create in $HOME/temp the identical directory structure as on the remote drive, and the identical filenames – but they will all be zero bytes!  What good is this?

Thanks to the consistency of encfs, you can mount and decrypt this skeleton directory like this:

Now, use some other tricks to find the matching filenames and you can manually download the specific encrypted files you want.

Amazon Drive Shutouts

Amazon is in the process of revoking API keys for a number of apps used to access their Cloud Drive product.  They started with acd_cli and have now banned rclone, and apparently Stablebit CloudDrive.  As more users of these products filter into fewer and fewer available options, the API hit from those products will certainly increase, possibly leading to more bans.

Why?

Amazon is theoretically overselling cloud drive capacity.  They call their service “Unlimited” but are counting on the fact that no sane person will upload more than a few hundred gigabytes of data.  Using their client, yes, that would be true.  (To be sure, their client has improved considerably in the last 6 months or so).  The above clients, though, allow you to mount your remote drive like any regular network-attached drive, and work directly off it.  With that ability, it is worth putting terabytes of files on a cloud drive and freeing up local resources.  Some files, like video files, are ideal for this application.

Some very sane people started storing 5, 10, 50 and more terabytes on their service.  Can you imagine the accountants panicking?

But I said “theoretically” overselling.  Is that true?  Are these cloud drives really losing money by allowing large amounts of storage?  Let’s calculate the cost of storage, in a grossly oversimplified calculation.

I looked up the price of a 2 TB hard drive this morning.  It was on sale for $89.  If I wanted 2 TB of cloud storage for one year, at that price it should cost ($89/12) $7.42 per month.  Do you know any cloud services that offer that price?   Amazon’s Cloud Drive is $60/year for “unlimited” space.  Based on the price of this drive (and I know this bears almost no parallel with reality), they are expecting to split the purchase cost of this drive between ($89/5) 17.8 people, who each store a maximum of (2000/17.8) 112.3 GB each.  Would you pay $5 a month to store only 112 GB of data?  Me neither.  Amazon naturally doesn’t expect that either, so it likely means their cost is far, far cheaper than that.

Where’s the “value-line” for you at that $5/month price though?  500GB?  1TB?  2TB?  I’m guessing it’s somewhere around the 1TB mark, with options for a little more.  (Incidentally, that’s kinda the price of Office365, including 1TB of storage and, oh yes, a full office suite thrown in for “free”).  Would you pay, oh, $7.42 a month for that capacity?  Wait, that is totally coincidentally the price of a 2 TB hard drive!  And you get to keep it after a year, get a second one for replacement or expansion, every. single. year.

Their business is NOT based around cheap, small hard drives at retail prices.  They run a staggeringly huge data warehouse with storage pools.  Their pricing is a fraction of what ours are, allowing them to pay for the rest of the overhead with attaching that drive to the Internet.  They can likely afford a few hundred outliers.

So it’s not just about storage space.  It’s about reliability, availability, and convenience.  Kinda those things you lose when you shut out third party apps eh, Amazon?

So if I can’t effectively store my video backups up there, and if they close off more of their API so I can’t use Arq for backups… my practical use for ACD drops way, way down below my “value-line”.  It may be time to migrate.

Managing Encrypted files on Amazon Cloud Drive

I have implemented a file system on Amazon Cloud Drive for a lot of media with the great acd_cli.  To protect my privacy, I have run this through an encryption layer encfs.  My writeup will follow.

A problem I was trying to solve in my mind though, is how to manage – rename and delete files once they’re all scrambled up and I can’t discover even the path and filenames.

Ultimately this would be seamless.  Delete a local file stub and it traces back to the encrypted remote file, but it doesn’t quite work that way.  I discovered how to do this on my Linux host.

Once I realized that the filesystem for encfs has the same inode numbers for the encrypted and decrypted files, I had a clue.  First, let’s find out what that file number is:

149 is the part we want.  inode numbers are unique per partition/filesystem, and seems to persist between the encfs pairs.  Now, to find a file in the encrypted path system with inode 149… find to the rescue!

I won’t even try to copy/obfuscate the number above.  Try it if you want to see it.  It would be almost impossible to track that file without the number.  Size and date are much harder to nail down the exact file.

So, to stitch these two together first you want the inode number only:

Now this is something we can use in a delicious Linux command chain.

This is easy enough to make into a little bash script, and allow passing arguments and quoting to protect against embedded spaces, as well as including the explicit Amazon Cloud Drive working area:

Works great for specific files, not so much for directories.  You would have to change the ls command to use a -ldi parameter just for those cases.

Now that we have the filename, we can manually delete that filename on Amazon, either through the web interface or using acd_cli’s command line trash argument.

A Dip in the Music Stream

Music streaming has become a big deal in the last few years.  People don’t seem to care about bandwidth, they know its a resource that seems to be basically infinite (if metered).

My problem is that it almost seems like the users are treating music the same way.

I reflect back to my discovery of music.  It started off as a social thing – you wanted to hear the new stuff that other people were talking about.  These were the days of carrying a boombox around so you could play your tunes for everyone who surely would like it as much as you, right?

After not long though, I realized there were things that others liked that I didn’t.  Why?  If it was popular, wasn’t it automatically good?  I realized that music can be something very personal, you can find some lyrics or tones that speak to your soul, but not those of the people right around you.  And, you know what, that cut both ways.  Maybe music I really enjoyed was never going to be the favourite of others 1.  I think I am still learning this, actually.

This is not to say that music lost its social aspect, sometimes it defined it.  This may have been an operation of the teen years as well, but there were times I selected or prioritized friends based on their music tastes.  I want to reject this as immature, but perhaps there is some small bit of validity to this…

Nevertheless, over this time, I began curating my own collection.  Thanks to Columbia House and BMG I gained a stack of CDs (vinyl was from record stores).  Much of it was familiar but I could afford to experiment a bit.

Music was tangible.  Music had a measurable value.  When I got a physical CD, it was an investment.  Sometimes I didn’t really like it on first listen, but since I paid for it, and I only had so many of them, I’d better get into it.  Sometimes I loved it from the first listen – yet I would usually limit myself to one listening a day, so I didn’t get tired of it.  Leaving it running all the time was absurd and wasteful.

To me, digital music downloads were the same thing, the lack of a physical disc didn’t cause a disconnect between the music and “some thing of value”.

This finally leads back to streaming.  I have tried a few services.  I ran Rdio for a long time, it was quite good, and I discovered some new artists I really enjoyed.  Then I tried Spotify for a month, it was also good, and I occasionally used some of the stations.  I ended up getting Xbox Music Pass for a year.  I tried Apple Music, and Google Play Music.  Back to Spotify for a few months.

But sometimes when I listen to stuff on any of these streaming services, I can’t shake the feeling that lots of this music isn’t worth much, and that has absolutely nothing to do with the compositions or the performance.  It seems very temporary, and that bothers me a little.  Why am I wasting my precious listening time on “throwaway” music?

I’m slowly coming around to the value of streaming.  I have discovered a few outstanding bands and songs that are valuable to me and exist only in that context.  But like air and clean water, maybe it’s something we have to stop ourselves and think about their value.

In the meantime, I’m gonna dial up some Big Country and Flock of Seagulls.  Enjoy, my public.

  1. I know, seriously?

The Best eBook Reader, Again

I came to the realization a few years ago that the eBook reader Marvin was hands down, the best ePub reader for me.  Very flexible, configurable and some (still) unique features made it well worth the price.

That was, as I mentioned, a few years ago and I started to get a little frustrated with a few important (to me) missing features, such as ePub 3 features like aside (pop-up footnote) support, syncing and a few other small things.  The lack of these was one thing that bothered me.  The fact that the same developer released a second, free ePub reader app that offered these features was even worse, and quite frustrating to those that paid for the original app.

It wasn’t simply an easy task to switch from Marvin to Gerty though.  It wasn’t designed as a generic ePub reader, but rather a sort of book-journaling app.  What was the developer thinking?

It turns out he was thinking.  And working hard.  He was rewriting Marvin from scratch.  Today, he released Marvin 3.  This release adds, and far surpasses my original wish list.  Now there is full iOS9 support, including document picker, spotlight integration and split-screen support.  The icing on the latter part of that particular cake is that there is a second, nearly identical app, called Marvin SxS (“Side by Side”) that lets you have two copies of Marvin installed on the same device and you can have two ePubs open at the same time in devices that support split screen.

Marvin on an iPad
Marvin on an iPad

There are lots of great built-in fonts, whether you are a sans or a serif fan.  There is also OpenDyslexic built in.  If you aren’t satisfied with any of the bundled (and system) fonts, you can sideload others.

Margin size, line spacing, paragraph spacing, indent size are all configurable.  There are themes.  Multiple columns available in both landscape and portrait.  Textshots and auto-bookmarking on close.  Reading location syncs automatically to iCloud (zero-config).  And then there’s annotations – all those things that were in Gerty are now in Marvin 3.  You can of course highlight with a load of colors, but also add notes and photos to a book.   Apparently there are multiple map-viewing modes (you can read maps in here?)

There is native comic book (CBR and CBZ) support, and it’s really, really good.  I have, and love, Chunky Comic Reader, but in practice, there are only a few significant advantages Marvin 3 lacks – PDF comics, landscape for dual-pages and ComicStreamer support.  The page thumbnails (with long-tap to preview the page) are wonderful.  The zig-zag mode is much like Chunky’s “pan” mode.  You can scrub through the comic and have page previews show you where you are.  Given that Chunky is iPad only, I might find myself using Marvin for some of my comic reading, depending on the amount of dual-pages I might expect.

I have only touched the surface.  The only other reader that comes close regarding configurability is Moon+ Reader Pro on Android.

It is not a free upgrade.  There are two in-app-purchases to unlock full screen use and color themes, $3.99 USD for the former and a variety of “tips” for the latter, although you only get certain themes depending on the amount you “tip”. Kinda sounds to me like a purchase and not a tip… The SxS version is a full purchase without IAP unlocks – other than the themes.  To me, the regular IAP (or outright purchase) is well worth the cost.  The colours, not so much, but that is merely an opinion.

The bottom line is, if you’re looking for the best ePub reader, get Marvin 3.

Steam Controller

The visible and eminently tactile part of the Steam hardware experience is the controller. Steam took a leap and designed something significantly different from the standard twin stick/d-pad “standard”.
The fundamental reason for doing this is that Valve is designing a controller for their platform and not for a subset of games that are already suited for controllers. This is a tall order, and needs to take in FPS games, adventure games, strategy, racing, and everything in between. And it kinda almost works.

I tested a few games to see how it worked.

It’s easiest, though perhaps unfair, to compare to the well known (and loved) Xbox 360 controller.

The Steam Controller has an overall totally new tilt. It is designed so that your thumbs are in place to float over the touchpads, instead of the A/B/X/Y buttons. The shape is more concave than convex, like virtually all other gamepads. The grips of the controller sit nestled in towards the palm/heel of your hand.

Out of the box, the controller feels rather light, when you add the batteries it feels better, more balanced.  It is still lighter than most gamepads, but probably partly because of the different style of haptic feedback,rather than weighted “rumble” motors.

Since the touchpad is central to the operation, the buttons have been bumped down and to the left. Unfortunately this requires a reach, instead of them being instantly available, and locatable by touch. Another side-effect is that the bottom left edge of the touchpad is a dead zone to prevent hitting there when you use the B or Y buttons.

There is no D-pad at all, though the left side can work as one. Since it is a touchpad, though, you can slide up and down (for things like mouse wheel actions), amongst it’s many configurable layouts. This offers a lot more ability, if a little finicky. Both touch pads can be clicked.

The trigger buttons are analog with two “steps” of pull. You can half-pull them for one action and pull all the way to perform another (there is a slight click). There are digital shoulder buttons above that, and a wonderful “squeeze” button under your middle and ring fingers.

Above all of that, there is apparently a gyro inside (motion/tilt tracking, not the delicious Greek food). To wrap all of that up, there is naturally a clickable analog left thumb stick, as well as a few ancillary buttons.

The most powerful part is the software. Without any third-party add-on drivers or utilities you can make extremely fine customizations to the functions of every control, from mouse-vs-joystick type controls, to haptic feedback, to sensitivity. You can configure an outer ring for each trackpad to a different function. You can use a key as a mode switch, to double the number of commands. It is certainly possible to program the controller to handle all but the most complicated and confusing keyboard and mouse scenarios.

You can set up a configuration for each game (and download community-created ones too), and one “Desktop configuration” that can be used to make the controller a general purpose input device, so you can play games without running through Steam. That being said, I haven’t figured out a suitable Minecraft setup yet, and yes that makes me sad.

With that ability comes the caveat. You will need to customize it. You will need to spend time playing with the settings instead of playing with the games. By now, thanks to the preorder and early release, there are the above-mentioned community-provided profiles for pretty much any game. It’s easy to pick one that looks reasonably familiar and tweak it from there.

Nevertheless, it is a totally new design of a controller. You can only pick it up and be instantly familiar with it for some games here and there, maybe like some racing games, platformers and so on, but anything else needs you to relearn what a controller feels like and can do. It will take some time. F1 2013 was instantly comfortable, Portal Stories: Mel took a little getting used to, some various RTS games were and still are a big challenge for me.  Tomb Raider Anniversary was tremendous.

I think it has a lot of promise, and I am still not totally comfortable with it. Valve can easily influence game authors and publishers to build controller support in to the games, and in fact they may already have done so.

We as gamers are not totally strangers to innovation, but maybe we usually expect it from Nintendo. PC gamers are perhaps more locked in to their keyboard and mouse mindset, but this controller is definitely not designed to completely displace the desktop input devices.  Will it displace traditional gamepads?  Time will tell.  Perhaps version 2 or 3 will be even more devastating to them.

Bottom line is, there’s a entirely new niche of game controllers that has been created, and it is currently occupied solely by the Steam controller.  It can control all of your Steam games, and that’s a pretty impressive resume.