David Murphy Jun 25, 2008

Philips amBX Gaming Peripherals

At A Glance


The fans keep you cool on hot days.


Its just not cool enough to warrant the insanely high price.

We’ll try anything that immerses us more deeply in a game. We dig hardware that breaks down the barriers between a fantasy universe and our everyday real world. But we had to suppress a giggle when Philips first demonstrated its amBX system of colored lights, whirring fans, and vibrating wrist pads.

Maybe it’s a cultural thing. European men of all ages run around the beaches at Cannes wearing bathing suits that would get an American male laughed at. Go to Amsterdam and you can smoke hallucinogenic herbs at most any coffee shop without raising an eyebrow. Come to think of it, Amsterdam is just 66 miles from Philips’ headquarters in Eindhoven. Hmm. Could that explain how this bizarre concept got off the drawing board, into a factory, and onto retailers’ shelves without someone asking, “Why?”

Yes, we’re kidding, but bizarre might be too timid a word to describe the amBX (it’s pronounced am-bee-ex, by the way). The wrist rumbler—think force-feedback for your wrists—wasn’t ready for prime time, but Philips did manage to ship us an amBX-equipped 2.1-channel speaker system, a pair of desk fans, a control unit with a built-in “wall-washer” light, and the software to go with it. We eagerly plugged the entire shootin’ match into our Nvidia test bed, and much hilarity ensued.

The amBX concept reminds us of the lava lamp of the 1970s, except this light show isn’t necessarily random. Clusters of LEDs mounted in the wall-washer unit, atop stereo speakers, and in columnar enclosures without speakers glow, flash, pulse, and sparkle to add context to what’s happening on the screen. The small, variable-speed fans—capable of spinning at up to 5,000rpm—blow air at you in a similar fashion. Philips takes pains to emphasize that games need not be amBX-enabled for a gamer to enjoy amBX effects, but the experience is clearly, well, it would be a stretch to say better, so we’ll just say different, when playing amBX-aware games.

Philips sent us one of the only games currently supported: the old-school—and piss-poor—THQ adventure game Broken Sword: The Angel of Death. It didn’t take long for the effects to make their appearance; in fact, by the time the title character made his ghastly debut, the fans had spun up and blown our notes off the workbench. Wow! Wasn’t that exciting!
We had the same reaction to the lights. We placed the wall-washer unit behind our 23-inch ViewSonic monitor but quickly discovered that without a white wall onto which it could project its three independent sets of multicolored lights, you couldn’t even tell it was on. We were only mildly more impressed after we stuck a panel of white cardboard behind it. The LEDs in the speakers, meanwhile, glow and flash with varying intensities of only one color at a time (red, green, blue, white, and so on). These lights don’t require a vertical surface to bounce off, but they didn’t project enough light to change the environment unless the room was almost completely dark.

The self-powered speakers in which Philips has integrated amBX aren’t bad—the satellites deliver crisp highs and satisfying mids—but they’re nowhere near the realm of the best from Klipsch, M-Audio, or even Logitech. But we have a real problem with the subwoofer; not so much with the way it sounds but rather with the way it’s constructed: The speaker cone faces up to form a perfect bowl in which to spill your refreshing beverage. Even if you’re a neat freak and never drop anything in there, dust will inevitably filter through the metal grill to rest on the cone and inexorably color its sound.

You’ll need only one cable to plug the entire system into your PC’s USB port, but you’ll have to wrangle seven more into the control unit to get everything working.

You can purchase amBX systems in a variety of configurations: There’s a $200 “starter kit” that includes the wall-washer control unit and two lights, sans speakers; a $300 “pro-gamer kit” that includes the wall washer, a subwoofer, and two satellite speakers with integrated lights; and a $100 “extension kit” that adds the wrist rumbler and two fans. If you want to go all out, Philips offers the $400 “premium kit” that includes everything—this is what we reviewed, minus the wrist tickler.

Philips has clearly sunk a great deal of time and effort into the amBX, and we’re not talking just about marketing hype: The company has been working on the idea since 2000. It has developed a sophisticated user interface that can be used to create custom effects sequences; there are plugins for Windows Media Player, so you can use the system while listening to music or watching movies; and the company is actively courting developers to support the technology in new games. Gas Powered Games’ upcoming RTS epic Supreme Commander will be one of the first.

Maybe we would have enjoyed Philips’ amBX peripherals more if we’d been in an altered state of consciousness during testing. All cynicism aside, we do think there’s the kernel of a good idea here, so we’ll keep an eye on this technology as it progresses. We’ll let you know if it gets any better; for now, it’s pretty damned hokey.


Philips amBX Gaming Peripherals

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