The Act-Labs USB PC Light Gun
Review by James McGovern
Back in September of 2003 Kevin reviewed the older model of the Act-Labs PC USB Light Gun, but since then there has been an updated model released. The new model sports a much different form factor and actually looks like a real pistol having shed the previous model's "ray-gun" look.
The newer "007" Act-Labs light gun and the older "ray-gun" inspired model - (not to scale)
This new model deserves a fresh look to see what else may have changed that will effect your retro gaming experience if you consider purchasing this newer, more ascetically realistic offering from Act-Labs.
Up close and personal
The findings in this review parallel some of the findings as published by Kevin in his September 2003 review. With this in consideration, I have kept the same format found in his review in order to attempt an apples to apples comparison of the two units which should help those wishing to compare the two devices and their respective reviews.
At this point I really need to note that the review unit used in this article was provided by Rick Baretto at Dream Authentics. While the pistol and other hardware provided by Rick will be the same that you will get if ordering from Act-Labs, it is possible that there will be some differences in what is shipped with the gun and how it is packaged.
The gun as shipped from Dream Authentics
The pistol was shipped in a plastic tray which contained all of the controller components and connectors as well as a three page (two-sided) instructional manual.
As I am not very familiar with various types of actual pistols, I asked the good folks at Build Your Own Arcade Controls what real gun the Act Labs controller was modeled after. After a few false starts, the answer became clear and it is fairly obvious that the newer design is based on none other than the trusty Walther PPK sported by English Secret Agent, James Bond. Thanks to Markvp at BYOAC for the help!
007's weapon of choice - The Walther PPK
Like its ray-gun predecessor, this model has a silver and black color scheme, though the grip is plastic rather than a rubberized material. It is very lightweight, coming in at about 0.24 Lbs, and 0.58 Lbs if you factor in the full weight of the cord.
As reported by Kevin on the previous model, this one to has some plastic "creak." If you grip the unit tightly or apply pressure to any area of the gun, there is a noticeable creaking which detracts a bit from the fantasy of bearing a true weapon. Under normal game play this is not noticeable.
The trigger on this unit emulates a left-mouse click and the hammer emulates a right-mouse click. This is called the reload button in the documentation. There is another small black button on the right side of the gun that is connected to the "hammer reload" function. In all you have two inputs available.
The hammer "reload button" and the calibration lever
I did not like the feel of the small black button on the right side of the gun as it has a very small diameter and profile making it hard to press repeatedly. It feels and looks as though some finished button top was not added.
The small black "reload button" above the trigger
There is also a button located on the front of the gun's grip that sadly appears to be glued solid. It would have been nice if this were operational and provided a third input to map for games like Turkey Shoot in which you need more than two (fire, grenade, gobble).
The grip button that sadly is glued in place
Lastly you have a calibration lever (pictured above) that is located on the left side of the gun. Pushing this down engages the calibration routine and pushing it back up resumes normal display and game play. More on this below.
As mentioned above the gun came with a three page instructional pamphlet that is easy to read and very straight forward. No complaints there at all.
The installation of the new model is exactly the same as installation of the previous model so I have included Kevin's notes from that review below. One note to add though is that you should be careful when connecting the gun to the light gun control box. This connector, on the review model, has a small metal tab or dimple that is supposed to line up the other pins properly before inserted. What I found was that there is some play there and it is possible, I know because I did it, to bend a pin that does not line up correctly. I bent one and had to use needle-nose pliers to straighten it out. Be careful.
The review unit installed
The calibration too is the same with both models so again I include Kevin's notes below with some additions.
You'll need to re-calibrate the gun each time you change screen resolutions, but it's fairly painless to do this, and only takes a second. Gun accuracy is greatly increased by calibrating it."
I did experience some calibration issues early on, but after reading the docs at the Act-Labs site I realized my error. You need to make sure you do not have black space around the the game screen, it should take up the entire screen. For best results hold the gun between 1 and 3 inches from the screen to calibrate. More on the calibration procedure can be found on the Act-Labs FAQ.
My notes in this area are similar to Kevin's findings with the previous model. The gun is generally very accurate when calibrated properly. As with the older model, it is important to re-calibrate when you load each game as different games have different resolutions.
Partly due to my failing eyesight, though I was using a 25" monitor, I found the gun to be most enjoyable at a distance of only a couple feet from the screen. For some games like Turkey Shoot that required me to be able to reach the control panel, this was a necessity. Again, more inputs would have been a great addition to the gun.
mmmm...them Turkeys is good eatin'
This model, like the older one, also has the white flash onscreen when you pull the trigger. This is a by-product of how the gun determines where your shot has landed. There is a decent explanation of this process at "How Stuff Works."
The other by-product of this process is that unless the trigger has been activated, the game you are playing has no idea where the pistol is aimed. In games that have cross hairs for targeting purposes, the cross hairs are generally useless. They will not reposition until you fire and then they will simply appear at the location of that shot. They will not move again until you fire again.
Out of the box with Mame32, off screen reload does not work either. This can be a real bummer, but MAME Analog+ is purported to have a workaround that will enable this feature with the Act-Labs gun.
As with the older model, the newer gun requires a PC with a Windows 98SE, ME, 2000, or XP operating system. There is still no support for LCD/TFT displays and the controller requires a VGA monitor. It does now support a higher resolution of 2048 x 1940 which is a step up from the previous model's limit of 1600x1200. This model too has support for 3D cards.
While the previous model did not officially support two guns, Kevin did note that he had seen it done with MAME Analog+ and Windows 98.
If you do not want to try this trick, Act-Labs does offer a gun that has been enabled for two-player support. You will need one normal USB PC gun and one "Dual 2-Player Enabled PC USB Light Gun" in order to take advantage of this new feature. We did not test this so we will have to take it on faith from Act-Labs.
The test bed used in the review
There is also a TV-Out version available for those who game on the boob tube. Again this is a separate gun so you need to make sure you know what display you will be using before you order.
Kevin reported limited light game game support for the previous model in 2003, but it would appear that this has changed since that time. On the Act-Labs site, I found a listing of over 100 PC compatible games, though I only tested this unit in Mame32.
Overall I was happy with the controller and being able to try out the gun games in Mame without having to use the mouse was a nice enhancement to my home arcade. I think with some additional inputs and maybe a little more attention to the fit and finish, this would be a nearly perfect option for use on a Mame cabinet.
One big change from the previous model is the price which I found a bit high. The older ray-gun model sold for about $35 retail, while the newer PC USB gun will set you back $79.99 from Act-Labs. The dual player version and the tv-out unit are each priced at $99.00.
Once you get past the price though, the difference between a system WITH a light gun and without makes it worthwhile in my opinion. But then again, I'm not in this hobby because I'm practical.
Throughout the process of reviewing this device, a number of people helped out a great deal. Early on I realized that the cabinets I had would not be good test beds for this review or others still pending. In order to complete this review I had to begin the process of building ANOTHER MAME cabinet, much to my wife's chagrin. I drew upon the resources of some I have known in the hobby and others I only just met and they all came through in a big way to help out. I am seriously thankful for their help and it reminds me again why I love this hobby as it just wouldn't be the same without folks like this.
Heck without Rick Baretto's help we would not have had the two great light gun giveaways nor this review at all. Make sure and stop by Dream Authentics to say thanks and see what Rick and the gang is up to! - http://www.dreamauthentics.com
Anyone that knows Matty will tell you he has a huge heart and is the definition of a standup guy. Matty runs a great classic pin and vid store in Woodstock, Ga and can be seen frequenting auctions all over the South East. He has helped me out too many times to list and this time was no exception. Matty came through with the 25" monitor I needed to complete this review at a time when the retro coffers were opposite of full. If you are ever in Georgia be sure to look him up, or just look for the big smile and spiky blond hair at the next auction...it's probably Matty! - http://www.playpinball.net
At least that is how he is known on BYOAC. Travis is a local collector who does really great work on classic arcade cabinets. I met him when he came to pickup an old Double Dragon cabinet that was ratted out and I was giving away. He did a top-notch job of restoring the cabinet to its original glory and continues to get more projects all the time. Travis did the initial repairs in the Nanao 25" monitor used in this review and saved me a load of time along the way. Thanks Trav!
The Internet is a helluva thing. With it I was able to contact Joey at his shop via email after he was referred by Travis. Without his help this review would have been further delayed as he helped to sort out the final issues found on the Nanao monitor used in this review. I was able to relay the issues by email and Joey came back with concrete solutions that solved the problems quicker than I would have imagined possible. This guy knows what he is doing folks! - http://www.jomac.net.au/
Anyone who has ever dealt with Andy knows he is the cat's meow when it comes to great products and even more so when it comes to support and service. In gearing up to get the test cabinet running, Andy helped out whenever I needed him and allowed me to move along rather than sit and scratch my head. Top notch guy and real class act. Everyone in the hobby is lucky to have him here. - http://www.ultimarc.com