Sunday, November 8, 2020

Trak Racer TR8 is here!

This weekend has been busy building and setting up my new Trak Racer TR-8 racing simulator. For this blog entry I wanted to take a look at the build process and trying it out with a few different games, even running Outrun with MAME using it. Let's dive in :-)

For those who don't know, I am a big F1 fan. Actually, I enjoy watching lots of different motorsport categories of racing, but F1 is my favourite. I have watched every F1 Grand Prix since 1988 :-) 

I have played F1 and other motorsport games on my various systems with a variety of wheels and pedal sets over the years, but always temporarily attached to my desk.

This is annoying as you have to keep clipping it on, unclipping it when you want to use it. Also, with my floors using a chair is tricky too as the pedals and chair keeps moving during play..

I have always wanted a proper dedicated simulator cockpit, but the cost for one was a bit high, and in my old house I could never fit such a thing anyway..

During the COVID-19 situation this year I was made redundant and luckily I found a new role quickly, so  I resolved to get one this year with the remains of my redundancy money.

The issue is getting one. 

They have been out of stock for most of 2020 as stock dried up when people (who were having to stay at home) quickly snapped up all the local Australian stock. With lockdowns affecting production globally and the subsequent restrictions on shipping to Australia due to removal of most flights, it was also not possible to buy them from overseas to ship. In any case the shipping costs are really scary due to their weight, even if you could ship them...

A Melbourne based company called Trak Racer makes some really good simulators and the pricing is reasonable compared to similar options from PlaySeat, etc.

I checked the feedback and reviews from various people trying out the TR8 and I decided this was the one for me. The price was AUD$1200, which was 1/3 of a PlaySeat similar setup, and shipping was local and much more reasonable costs too.

But, they didn't have any stock. Since at least April 2020 in fact.

Finally, a week ago, they came out of enforced lockdown in Melbourne and also advised that they finally had stock again after 7 months. So I ordered it straight away and it shipped to me within a week!

The TR8 came in four big boxes (Normally 3, but I ordered the mat which came in a separate box):

Now, as you can imagine, installing a rig like this is not the work of a moment. 

In fact, I needed to carefully plan out how I wanted to set it up, connections to all the systems I wanted to use it with, and connect the setup to my Live Streaming gear setup. This needs a lot of new cables, switch boxes and bits and pieces.

I went to a local Jaycar electronics store and made the manager very happy, buying a bunch of stuff I needed for the new setup:

The HDMI 4K switcher is needed to take the inputs from the various systems, to then output to the Elgato HD60+ which is connected to my Mac using USB3, and passes through the HDMI signal to my screen.

Important part is that it supports 4K resolution at full frame rate.

Next part is the need to split the output of the HDMI from the Elgato HD60+ to two different screens, depending on which one I am using. 

In normal (non simulator use), I use a 4K Dell screen with the PC for gaming, demos, etc. For the simulator I plan to use a lower resolution 1080p 32" screen. This is because most games run terrible at 4K anyway due to me using a 1080GTX graphics card on a PCI-e bridge to the Alienware 15 laptop that is my PC. This artificially reduces the performance a bit to the limits of the bridge connection to the Graphics Amplifier external case that contains the 1080GTX graphics card.

So I need a splitter for the HDMI so it will split out the signal, auto switch the screens and support downscaling to 1080p when the second screen on the simulator is in use. And here it is:

Here is a closer look at the HDMI Splitter:

The guy in the shop told me that it is important that the 4K screen is plugged into the 1st HDMI output port, as apparently the onboard logic detects the first ports HDMI resolution as what it should be set to for both ports automatically. So unless you want 1080p on both ports, put the 4K screen in Port 1, the 1080p in Port 2!

So here is a closer look at the cabling for this part for those who might be interested. 

Below you can see the HDMI splitter on the left, connected to the output of the Elgato HD60+ (top middle). The input to the Elgato HD60+ is connected to the output of the HDMI switch box. 

For those observant folk, this HDMI switch box is not the one I bought earlier. I already had one. The problem is that I only get 5 input ports. Once I connect the PC, Switch, Xbox, PS4, ESXi servers and Raspberry Pi 4, it is all full. I can't connect any more devices without another HDMI switch box which is cascaded on one of the input ports. I haven't hooked that up yet, but I will do so I can connect my AmigaOne X1000 and Surface go to this setup too. I can then use the remote control on the new HDMI switch box to control which device feeds into the other HDMI switch box.

I moved the USB hub for the PC to a location close by the location for the Xbox so I can easily move the USB cable connected to the steering wheel in the TR8 simulator when I want to use the Xbox with it.

Next on the shopping list is a second keyboard, a wireless integrated small sized mouse/keyboard I can easily access while using the TR8 simulator without having to get out to use the keyboard and mouse on my desk when they are needed. I am sure there are better ones out there than the one I chose, but this was relatively cheap and I don't need to use it much. But when you do, you are so glad it is there.

I also got a 5 metre USB3 extension cable for the wheel to connects to the USB hub of the PC, some RCA to phono 3.5 inch plug audio cables, to connect the audio from the two screens to the speakers. At the moment I have them both going to the same Logitech speakers, as the Subwoofer accepts two audio inputs.

I was debating if I needed dedicated speakers for the TR8, as that means additional cost for speakers, the extra add-on speaker mounting brackets for the TR8, etc. The speakers are less than one metre from the TR8 in any case so I will try it like this and can still add that later if I find I really want it.

I had to move my record player and records to make room for the simulator. I also needed to swap around my Mac and PC (they used to be the other way around) to make the connections to the TR8 easy and not needing long expensive cables to make it all work.

This is a closeup of the desk with my Dell 4K display connected to the setup you saw above. 

I did this setup first to make room for the TR8, and also to make sure the setup with all the new bits all work before I proceeded with the TR8 simulator build. 

I needed to make sure I had all the cables I needed, the right lengths and that it all worked as I planned quickly, just in case I needed to return any of the new devices to Jaycar. 

As it turned out, it worked well, with a few little things I found when I started gaming properly on it. More on that later.

Opening the boxes, I came across the new fibreglass seat first, which is very light and looks the part:

I then removed all the other bits and put them out in my room, disinfected all the parts since they came from China (never be too careful!), and now ready to start assembly.

The instructions - a single page two-sided step by step. 

Trak Racer optimistically reckons it takes 1 hour to install this. Trust me, it doesn't. It takes a lot longer because you need to make sure everything fits your size and how you want the pedals to be aligned, the seat, the gearbox holder, and so on.

The great part is that so much is pre-assembled and following the instructions was easy enough. A few steps in, I take a photo of the progress with the main tubing frame now all connected up:

Attached the steering wheel platform to the main rig:

I pulled apart my 32" LG 1080p screen to remove the stand so I can attach it to the VESA mounting included with the TR8 simulator:

With the stand now removed, it is time see if the VESA mounting screws line up. Fingers crossed.

All good, it does. 

I realised that I didn't have the required screws to mount the screen to the frame. The TR8 didn't included any VESA mounting screws...I would need to go to the shop for that, so I decided to press on and come back to that later.

I have a Logitech 920 Steering wheel and pedal set which I was using with my PC before (using my desk to mount it). It is fully supported by the TR8 and has the correct location screw holes to secure them to the TR8.

To mount them though I needed to first remove the desk mounting part of the Gearbox, which is secured with 4 screws. Two visible on top, and two requiring a long screw driver to reach.

I then set to work mounting the Pedal set to the pedal mounting plate on the TR8. I only found two of the four holes lined up for where I wanted the pedals to be located, but this is more than enough to secure it to the plate and it definitely doesn't move.

One lesson I learnt though. I tried to be clever by unscrewing one end of the pedal plate and pushing back towards the seat to make it easier to locate the screw holes for the pedals. But once attached I couldn't push it back as the extra height of the Logitech pedals didn't clear the bar to push it back into position. So  I had to unscrew the other end screws and reposition it and put the screws back in. Not a problem, but lesson learned!

So above you can see the VESA mounting bracket holder is installed, the wheel, pedals and gearbox holder on the correct side for people who drive on the left side of the road (like we do in Australia).

As the screen needed screws to be useful, I hooked the TR8 to the 4K screen to test out the setup, seat position, pedal position, gearbox position until they were how I wanted them:

It is a fiddly business as everyone likes a different position, and it takes a bit of playing around to get it exactly how you like it. Fortunately the TR8 is very flexible in the positions of everything. The seat has three different height in front, two at the rear, and has a horizontal seat adjust like on a normal car with a bar located under the seat to pull and adjust as needed.

I played with the wheel position a bit before I was happy with it. Initially was a bit too high but I got it sorted in the end:

With that done, I turned my attention back to the LG screen. I looked up the LG model information but it didn't really say what VESA screws it needs. There are multiple types so this was frustrating...

I tried a few screws I had lying around until I found one that felt it fitted in the holes correctly. I then checked the VESa specifications which said a M4 screw should work for screens a little smaller than this one. For screen over 31 inches, it should be a M6 or M8 screw. But those were clearly too thick to fit in the LG screen.

So I went to Jaycar again and bought some M4 screws and washers (above) to secure the LG screen safely to the mounting frame as the screws are not very wide at the top. They fitted perfectly:

With that done I could finally put the screen onto the TR8 - it swivels on the connection point freely, so it is easy to adjust:

Next I setup the wireless keyboard. As you can see it is quite small and light, exactly how I wanted it.

I was wondering where to store it where I could easily get it during play. I know Trak Racer sell a optional keyboard/mouse arm for the TR8, but I didn't like the two level mount with the mouse on top, and the extra space needed for the arm.

I spotted the answer between the Gearbox holder and the main TR8 chassis. The perfect shelf:

Here is the keyboard sitting in that spot perfectly:

Here is a close up of the Logitech 920 steering wheel mounted on the TR8:

Time for testing the setup, using Assetto Corsa Competizione, driving a Ferrari 488 at Bathurst, Australia famous Supercars and GT racing circuit.

With everything now working with the PC and the TR8 setup, it was time to move it to the final position in the room, on the mat I bought with it that fits it perfectly. It is a heavy setup and definitely doesn't move while gaming (once in position). It can be moved by one person with some effort lifting it!

I wanted to maximise the space to walk around it to the cupboard so I pushed it forward a bit on the mat and it looks fantastic:

Game time, starting with a full race at Bathurst on Assetto Corsa Competizione which I won!

One of the criteria for buying this setup is that it didn't take up too much space. It is 66cm wide and around 1.2 metres deep, so it is a nice manageable size.

Nice to start TR8 gaming with a win! I found that for PC games I needed to make sure the VSync option is set, otherwise I was getting an out of sync error with my LG screen setup. The Elgato HD60+ was outputting ok to the Mac, as was the 4K dell screen for the pass through HDMI. Just the LG 1080p HDMI screen was doing this. 

I traced it to the HDMI splitter, and the need to set VSync on for all games. It then works perfectly.

For a change of speed, I switched to MAME emulation and trying the Outrun Arcade version first up. 

I needed to reconfigure the MAME UI controls to use the analog joystick up/down/left/right rather than the default joystick controls which cause the highlight cursor to permanently scroll downwards...This then allows you to navigate the game selection screens from the wheel.

I then adjusted the accelerator and brake to be reversed so they worked correctly.

I also needed to adjust the Analog pedal inc and dec settings (using TAB key in game) to use the left/right cursor keys on the wheel gamepad.

I also needed to assign the coin 1 and 1 player start buttons to buttons on the wheel so I could start the game from the wheel.

Last but not least, I needed to adjust the Paddle settings (Wheel axis) to be much more sensitive and faster so that the turning is usable under the emulation.

With that all done, I could then enjoy some Outrun arcade gaming goodness on my TR8 simulator. :-)

Tricky playing the game and trying to take a photo with an iPhone at the same time. Try it sometime :-)

I then switched to Virtua Racing, another favourite arcade game of mine. Note that you need to be selective with which games you use the wheel, as many games don't work well with it.

You also need to do the setting customisations I did for Outrun for Virtua Racing too:

Virtua Racing is a lot of fun. I enjoy playing the almost perfect arcade conversion on the Nintendo Switch, but playing the original arcade version with the TR8 and a proper wheel and pedals is just like playing in the original arcade cabinet (minus the actuated cockpit effects I admit).

This proved to be quite the distraction:

At this point I had both the 4K screen and 1080p screens on, and found that the splitter outputs to both simultaneously. You can turn off the other screen at any time without affecting things.

Last but not least, I played another old 3D polygon racing arcade favourite of mine, called Winning Run:

Again, I had to set all the customisations for the settings for the game to use the wheel correctly. It works, but the steering is a bit tough at times. I need to play with the settings a bit more I think.

I also briefly played Projects Cars 2, this time on my Xbox One, which ran fine but had some annoying force feedback effects I needed to play with the settings to minimise as it was a bit too much.

In conclusion, the TR8 is a great rig, very comfortable and feels like the real thing. I am glad to have it to enjoy racing whenever I like, with very little to do to start racing. I expect to be live streaming from it soon so keep an eye out on my live streams at Twitch or Facebook live!

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