Piano Wizard Review

This review is unique, simply because of the bizarre path of estimation I took when reviewing Piano Wizard. Like most reviews, I kicked off with a passing glance at the product, garnering a first impression, before putting it aside for a later in-depth analysis. That first-pass at the software revealed a fairly amateur approach – something akin to a $20 shareware knock-off of Guitar Hero, but with a keyboard. A passable piece of software at best. Blurry, scaled graphics, and a somewhat kludgy menu system. Read on to find out how wrong I was.

Piano Wizard Basic ModeIn the basic mode, you use a USB midi keyboard, modified with coloured stickers on each key that match with a coloured keyboard on the screen. Just like Guitar Hero, coloured indicators move up the screen, and you hit the keys in time as they reach the top. “It’s a game”, I thought to myself, teaching nothing more than the fact that different keys make different sounds. With some prompting, I was able to get my 5 year old to transfer some of the simple tunes to our traditional piano, although the lack of colour coding on the piano keyboard confused him.

As a game, it has a lot of settings. Kids can choose from a number of different backgrounds (e.g. space, undersea, dinosaurs). It will also allow you to import any MIDI file you can find online (like from this website) to use as a source of music. Bear in mind that most MIDI files you find online will be incredibly complex and far too difficult for all but the most experienced user to play in this game mode.

The keyboard provided with the review kit is quite a nice M-Audio 49 key model. Importantly it’s velocity-sensitive, meaning that like a true piano, the harder you press the keys the louder the notes sound. You should note that the keyboard is simply a MIDI controller. That is, it does nothing without being plugged into a computer with MIDI software, or other MIDI device. You can’t use this keyboard as a standalone digital piano.

So like I say, I put the software and USB keyboard aside after my 5  year old played the game a number of times, to his great enjoyment. Some time later, I sat down to start writing this review. The first thing I did was review the price of the software, and just about fell off my chair when I saw that the base software was NZ$399. You can get additional packages: software plus a tutorial DVD for $499, and add the keyboard in my review kit for a $799 package.

Stunned by the price, I presumed I must have completely missed something, so I dug further. I popped the tutorial DVD in the PC to watch. The tutorials are very professionally shot (if a bit scarily ‘American’), and broken down into 5 weeks. They show an approach to take to gently introduce kids and first-time players to the software. They also show that the software is capable of a heck of a lot more than I gave it credit for.

PianoWizard Advanced ModeIn the advanced modes, the keyboard is switched sideways to better represent the association of the keys to the staves in musical notation. If I’d had something like this back when I was learning piano as a child, I think it would have made a heck of a lot more sense and I wouldn’t have given up at Grade 3.

As you increase the difficulty settings in the advance mode, the colour-matching is removed, and eventually the keyboard view can be removed altogether, leaving you playing music along with standard notation. The theory being, if you progress through the levels as your ability increases, eventually you should be able to transition to traditional sheet music on a regular piano. I can’t see why this wouldn’t be the case.

So is the software worth the price? After using it for a while, the only real issue I can find is the screen resolution. It defaults to something like 800×600, and will stretch to fit your LCD monitor, which makes it look pretty bad on my 22″ widescreen. If Piano Wizard can fix that issue and implement a proper scaling interface, I’d be hooked.

As it stands, $399 is a wonderful deal if you compare it to the equivalent price of a lifetime of piano lessons. The $799 price including the keyboard is also a good deal compared against the equivalent of an electronic piano and piano lessons. I’m going to be completely unscientific and say that Piano Wizard is never going to make you a concert pianist like one-on-one tuition would. But if what you want is an easy way to learn how to read and play music on a keyboard, Piano Wizard is probably a damn good alternative.

Review: Lego Mindstorms NXT 2.0

Lego Mindstorms NXT 2.0Back when we had two incomes, no mortgage, and no kids, I found it scarily easy to succumb to the attraction of the original Lego Robotics Invention System. It was quite the achievement at the time: two motors, a bunch of basic sensors, and a whole heap of Technics. The software was barely stable, but if you worked at it you could create a line-following robot or perhaps a humanoid that could take a couple of steps before toppling over.

Since then, Lego have revised their robotics kit completely with the original NXT, and are now set to release the Lego Mindstorms NXT 2.0 kit. The kit will be available in New Zealand from September, with a retail price of $499, unless you can grab it in a Toyworld sale. So what do you get for your money?

  • The NXT 2.0 “brick”. This is the nerve-center of the kit. A chunky brick that takes 6 AA batteries. It has three motor outputs and four sensor inputs. It connects to your PC via USB or Bluetooth to receive program updates, and can talk to other NXT bricks via Bluetooth too.
  • The NXT 2.0 software for your PC or Mac. This is what you’ll use to program your NXT brick. Don’t think of it as esoteric code with FOR loops and semicolons. Everything is done via drag-and-drop. Blocks for turning motors on and off, sensing colour, and playing sounds all slot together as easily as physical Lego blocks.
  • Three honest-to-goodness servomotors (I’m not positive, but I don’t believe they are stepper motors – can anyone inform me otherwise?). In the old days you had to turn the motors on for a predetermined time, and just pray that they ran at the right speed for the right number of rotations. The NXT kits use feedback to determine how far the motor has turned, so you can command them to turn 90 degrees, or 4 rotations, and they’ll do just that (or churn through batteries trying to).
  • Two touch sensors – just basic momentary switches as far as I can tell.
  • One ultrasonic distance sensor, designed to look uncannily like a pair of robot eyes.
  • One colour sensor (including a tri-colour LED lamp). This was the only real issue I had with the kit: the colour sensor didn’t work so well in bright sunlight. It worked fine at night or indoors in the shade.
  • A metric vatload of technics parts. I’m not going to list them all here, but serious Lego geeks can check out a comparison of NXT 2.0 parts vs the previous version, or a complete breakdown of parts in the kit.

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