Categories
PC Hardware

Temptation, thy name is upgrade

So yeah, I’m dropping $1300 on crap I really don’t need. But it’s computer crap so I just can’t resist. I’m buying it all from my very favourite computer store PC Village in Markham, Ontario, just north of Toronto. Here’s my shopping list:

Asus M2N-SLI Deluxe
$168

I figured I’d grab an SLI board to help future-proof my purchase, assuming my video card will still be for sale by the time I deem mine outdated. This bad boy has the brand new AMD AM2 940-pin socket, a 2GHz FSB supporting up to 800MHz DDR2 memory, dual gigabit ethernet, 8 channel sound with SPDIF, some new application-specific overclocking engine, and a cool looking copper heat pipe drawing from the chipset. A sturdy backbone for some heavy components!

Unfortunately the board has 6 SATA2 plugs and no IDEs so I have to fill one of the 3 PCI slots with a $30 Promise PCI IDE controller for my 2 optical drives. I briefly considered investing in a $130 Plextor DVD-RW but decided against it.

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AMD Athlon64 X2 Dual-Core 4000+
$379

My first foray into dual-core! I’m a little concerned about gaming performance since I’m coming from an Athlon 64 3400+ at 2.2GHz and each core on the X2 4000+ is only 2.0GHz. Current games that don’t support dual-core CPUs will only run on one core, but upcoming games will start supporting both soon enough and then I’ll be sailing. I originally opted for the 4200+ which was only $35 more, but changed my mind when I saw that it only had 2x512KB L2 cache vs the 4000+’s 2x1MB. I might see a hit in performance in physics-heavy games. Will double the cache make up for 200MHz? Hope so!

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BFG GeFORCE 7900GT OC
$339 ($299 after $40 mail-in rebate)

This beauty has been the apple of my eye ever since I heard about it! The 7800 series blew everyone away at launch, but the 7900 bent over its predecessor and paddled it like Peggy Hill! Not only are 7900’s significantly faster, they also have FEWER transistors which means a shorter data path and less voltage, thus less heat. The 7900GT is the “lite” version of the beefy 7900GTX, but it offers about 80% of the speed for half the price so that’s good enough for me! This thing is actually faster than the 7800GTX! I can’t wait to pop this baby in and play some 16-colour Leisure Suit Larry 3!

The BFG brand came highly recommended as the company features high quality parts, overclocked GPU and RAM out of the box, and an unprecedented lifetime warranty. From what I’ve read there’s a huge overclock ceiling on this card using only the stock cooler (thanks to the low transistor count) but no doubt that will blow the warranty. I’ve had bad luck due to my inexperience in overclocking with my well-loved 9800Pro so I’ll probably dine with this beauty queen sans-makeup.

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Kingston 1Gb ValueRAM DDR2-667 x2
$114

While budgeting this little summer vacation-substitute I incorrectly assumed that DDR2 was backward compatible, so I’m grabbing a pair of 1GB DIMMs of DDR2-667. A friend of mine has 4 gigs but I think that’s overkill. There’s room to expand this way, though my next memory upgrade might replace these sticks with some 800MHz brutes.

My HDD, CD-RW and DVD-RW drives, and my old case and PSU will be all that’s left of my old box by the time I’m done. I’ve got to figure out in advance how to install a fresh copy of XP on my SATA HDD with no floppy drive, but assuming the new nForce chipset has easily copied SATA drivers I should be able to inject them into a custom XP install using the amazing freeware nLite app.

Once I’m up and running and have installed my necessary apps I’ll give Prey another play-through and hopefully write up a review! That game runs great on my current system and I can’t wait to see my new hardware eat it for breakfast!

I’ll post some before and after benchmarks as well.

The parts come in Tuesday! Can’t friggin wait!!!

Categories
PC Hardware

Bodies in Motion

A recent Slashdot article on my favourite whipping boy, Oblivion, has gotten me thinking about the hot-off-the-presses Ageia PhysX (site down at time of posting) physics processing unit (PPU). In my comment on the topic I make the unprecedented move of defending the topic with my argument, quoting several areas in the game that are cliches of single player CRPGs that could be improved with this revolutionary new technology.

The Ageia PhysX is a CPU on a riser expansion card that is dedicated to processing 3D world physics – mass, viscosity, friction, malleability, flexibility, fragility, and all-round explodability.

But let’s back up a little first.

Lifelike physical behaviour of game worlds is something we gamers have been trained to take with a grain of salt. In most games, world physics haven’t evolved much at all since Qbert hopped onto the scene, one cube at a time. Most of the world is absolutely static and unflinching, as if every object was nailed down to the one below it, while select items have simulated but scripted lifelike properties. For instance, you might be able to push around and pick up a book on a desk, but a bookshelf is just an unmovable elongated cube with wood and books painted on for effect.

To some extent this design shortcut is the product of laziness – time is money, and it takes a lot of both to assign weight, density, and other properties to every single item in a game world. Even if this feat were feasible, modern CPUs would have a very difficult time calculating the interplay of objects while still presenting the game onscreen in a timely, smooth, playable fashion. Not every game can afford to be a newtonian masterpiece, nor do they need to be to steer the player to the end of each level. However, physics as superfluous eye candy has always been welcome.

Some games classified comfortably in the “retro” category do a great job of emulating realistic physics while keeping the CPU free for more mission-critical calculations. For instance, missile weapons and many interactive objects had weight and velocity constraints in the first-person CRPG Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss (fun fact – the physics were programmed by pere du Xbox Seamus Blackley). The game’s immersion factor, which may seem laughable by today’s standards, was unparalleled due to little touches like these, drawing the player head over heels into the subterranean unknown beneath the land of Brittania (as occurs literally in the Ultima games). Make no mistake – Ultima Underworld was Oblivion before the Pentium days.

Game designers took note of gamers’ acclaim of such immersive worlds, and physics became adopted more and more into gameplay. Full blown physics simulators such as flight and driving sims became far more realistic and challenging with the introduction of dynamic wind, weather, temperature, and craft damage. Makers of games in other genres took notice as well, showcasing experiments in gameplay such as the destructable environments of Red Faction 2 and the exhilirating physics puzzles of Half Life 2.

Which brings us to today. Ageia, a company we’ve never heard of, wants to convince us that a $250 PCI or PCI-Express 4x expansion card will enrich our gaming experience beyond our wildest dreams. That’s a rather hefty price tag to peg on a technology that will only be supported by 5-15 titles on or around launch. Of course, this situation is very similar to that of a little company called 3DFX, makers of the first 3D-accelerated video cards, and we’ve all got one (or two) of those in our systems these days.

So what can PhysX bring to the table? Ageia founders Manju Hedge and Curtis Davis shed some light on this technology:

The Physics Processing Unit (PPU) is a dedicated processing unit that was built from the ground up to accelerate the algorithms required for physically based simulations. This includes things such as Rigid Body Dynamics, Collision Detection, Fluid Simulation, Soft Bodies and Fracturing of objects. It will revolutionize your CPU/GPU system by unlocking the potential of the system by allowing each of the processing components to do what is best at. The PPU makes the games move and interact! We are really bridging the gap between the visual appearances and the movement of games that should go along with the graphics of today.

A high-level summary, but it succeeds in whetting some nerdy appetites! With CPUs branching into the realm of dual and multi-core designs, dedicating processors to tasks seems to be the wave of the future. This is interesting to see, as servers have recently evolved in the opposite direction with virtualization, running multiple operating systems simultaneously on a single computer.

This idea could flourish or fizzle depending on the strength of technical and marketing muscle, and could have wide-reaching ramifications for PC design in the future. For instance, perhaps PCs of the future will forgo the powerful CPU entirely, dedicating individual tasks to RISC (reduced instruction set computer) chips that excel at one or few specific tasks. Enthusiast products like Sound Blaster’s X-fi sound card platform already take advantage of dedicated processors to offset CPU load.

But these technicalities are pretty dry and meaningless for the average consumer. Nobody’s going to open up their computers to plug in a $250 administrative assistant for their CPUs without some coercing in the razzle dazzle department. This is the area of debate, as it was with 3DFX, and will make or break this venture.

As physics enhance moving demos but don’t do much for static screenshots, the onus is on Ageia to provide many high quality video demos such as this one in order to entice prospective customers. Cell Factor is a multiplayer deathmatch shooter akin to Quake 3 whose environments are littered with movable and destructable objects. Smacking these objects around with gunfire and flailing corpses will constantly reshape the arena, forcing players to adjust strategies on the fly and bend the landscape to their advantage. Strategy isn’t illustrated very will in this video clip, but the eyecandy certainly causes some sugary pupil caveties!

Cell Factor is definitely how I pictured launch titles for this technology – zillions of cubes and pyramids flying all over the place like a commercial for the new Batmobile shooting its missiles at those uber-cool pyramids of icecubey blocks. I don’t find this implementation particularly interesting. I want to see this processor chugging subtley behind the scenes.

I started thinking about PhysX while watching a Stanley Cup game the other day. One burly gentleman gave an opponent a nasty lesson in physics with his shoulder and hip, sending his adversary to the ice barely in one piece. The commentators remarked at how this crushing hit could have been absorbed by the larger recipient if he had kept his head up and compensated by shifting his weight. “YES,” I thought to myself, “this is precisely what I want to see in PC hockey games!” Animating 12 players and a few refs on a static playfield must be child’s play for a powerful PPU. The same goes for a basketball game, cars on a track, planes in the sky, or the rippling gelatinous masses of two sumo wrestlers! I’m not much of a sports fan, but this technology makes me excited about the very fundamentals that make these sports challenging in the real world.

I’m also interested in the prospect of objects decomposing and splitting realistically. Half Life 2 did a lovely job of simulating this, as acquiring my crowbar and going to town on some wooden planks near the start of the game was a giddy and gorgeous prelude of things to come! Just imagine HL2’s gravity gun in a physics-enhanced environment! Firing a cement brick at a car would result in the front 2/3 of the brick pulverizing into powder, denting the thin car exterior and wrapping the roof around the internal roll cage, causing the vehicle to sway slightly and displace the sand beneath in a concave divet.

Of course, the game will have to be written to specifically take advantage of this hardware. Some developers are enthusiastic about this technology, but others are pessimistic. Says Kevin Stephens of Monolith Studios, makers of horror shooter and physics playground F.E.A.R.:

“To be honest I don’t think gamers will spend money for dedicated physics hardware (unless it’s included in something they already buy like their video card) so I’m not sure if this will ever catch on…

However, if dedicated physics hardware could be guaranteed the improvement to the physics realism in games would be incredible.”

I reiterate; the success of this evolutionary and powerful technology is dependent almost entirely on the strength of its launch lineup, the silverness of its PR tongue, and of course the body count of its first killer app. Ageia will really have to hit the pavement to prove the worth of their little miracle, as its benefits are entirely unapparent in static screenshots.

Will the PhysX card usher in a new era of realism in realtime computer animation? Is Ageia the next 3DFX or is it doomed to be the next Virtual Boy? Please leave a comment and share your opinions!

Categories
PC Hardware

A Tale of Two Vidies (yes, groan)

So my girlfriend bought a new video card to replace her failing 9800pro (which wasn’t actually failing, still has problems, don’t even ask). She got an Asus 6600LE which, to some extent, puts my Sapphire Atlantis 9800pro to shame. Being of the male persuasion this predicament came as swift kick to my 64-bit gonads so I shortly thereafter ordered myself an Asus 6600GT.

I was hoping for a slightly better card but my options were limited. I’ve got a Socket 754 motherboard which not only means I’m stuck with AGP for now, but if I want to upgrade to the new stuff I’ll have to buy a Socket 939 motherboard with PCI-Express, a 939 pin Athlon 64, plus a new video card all in one go. That’s a hefty investment, especially since I’m drooling over the uber sexy 7900GTX, so I thought I’d get a little something to tide me over. I was hoping to nab a 6800GT but those are out of print for AGP, as is most everything. I read about the 7800GS for AGP which is a hefty $330 CAD, but I was advised against it by my favourite local computer store, PC Village Canada, who warned that it was a pretty good card but didn’t give bang for the buck. I had my sights set on the BFG brand 6600GT since theirs are overclocked and have a lifetime warranty, but despite the fact that the store advertised a $50 mail-in rebate for the card, it too has apparently been discontinued all of a sudden. So the Asus 6600GT it was. It ran me $207 with tax.

I like the look of the card, as it’s a one-slot profile which is a lovely change from my previous card’s 2-slot profile which was, ‘ow you say, coocoo for ze cocoapuffs. The low profile alone will undoubtedly allow for nicer airflow in my already crowded case. The card has only 128MB of DDR3 which I wasn’t crazy about, but I figure it’ll last me at least another year or so or until I can afford a proper upgrade. The package came with a bunch of CDs, none of which I cared about, though it came with Joint Operations (which Otto might say is “flagrant false advertising”), a DVI to VGA coupler, a short SVHS to RCA video out, and a poster (!?!?) with quick install instructions.

I benchmarked my old 9800pro with 3DMark 2006 which scored 256 on the first 2 tests and gave me a lovely slide show.

I uninstalled all ATI drivers and software and booted into safe mode. I ran Driver Cleaner Pro to gut out any ATI remnants and I shut ‘er down. I opened up my old girl, ripped out the 9800, plugged in the 6600 with ease and after one false start (turned the on PC, beep, no video. Turned off and on again, eureka.) my monitor was singing the CMOS calypso.

I booted into Windows… well, almost. I got stopped just before the desktop, prompted with a lovely message serenading me to the tune of “Your hardware has changed significantly since you activated Windows. I suspect you of the heinous crime of trying to fool Microsoft so you have 3 days to verify your honesty by reactivating, you (probable) scumbag!”

I selected the option to activate over the internet, but it prompted me with a web proxy config screen. Pretty roundabout way to say it couldn’t connect to the internet. I hit cancel and clicked the activation bubble in the icon tray after my desktop displayed. Sure enough, my firewall prompted me to allow access to the app. I accepted and the bits and bytes went on a wild and wacky ride to Washington.

“This CD key has been installed on too many computers. Please enter another CD key or call this number toll free to be grilled under a 1000 watt spotlight.” This is a damned legal copy of XP by the way. Microsoft Genuine Advantage indeed.

So I called the number and was greeted with a chipper voice recognition fembot. With her feminine wiles she coaxed from me the 48-digit verification key displayed in my activation window. I had to speak slowly and in monotone and it took a good 3 minutes to relay the whole thing. I swear she got more and more hot for me with each relayed sextet.

And my reward for entertaining this cybernetic chatty Cathy? “The key you have provided is invalid. Now connecting you to an agent.”

So I’m connected to an Indian woman on quaaludes who asks me to repeat the first 6 numbers of the huge code. She asks whether I’ve installed Windows on more than one PC (I figure she probably knows the answer better than I do) and I say I might have put it on a laptop but I can’t remember. She dreamily and throatily dictated a new 48-digit verification code which I inputted, I clicked Finish, and voila!

I installed the drivers and rebooted and everything was hunky dory! Well, mostly.

First order of business was to benchmark this baby! So I loaded up 3DMark and was happy to see that all the greyed-out tests had now been enabled. I flagged the first 2 to make for an even test and put ‘er in gear. The first few seconds looked very promising, but when all was said and done the new card scored a paltry 250 – a full 6 points LOWER than my old card!! Yikes!!!

But benchmarks aren’t everything so I booted up some games to get the real scoop.

Guild Wars undoubtedly ran faster. I went into a heavily populated town with a big smokey bonfire in the middle and enjoyed about double the frame rate I used to. I whipped the view around and was confident I was getting some good GPU results.

Half Life 2 was surprisingly choppy, but I wasn’t too concerned since that game is optimized for ATI. I tried the free tech demo The Lost Coast which makes heavy use of pixel shader model 3.0 and that ran brilliantly! HDR (High Dynamic Range – simulates pupil dilation reaction to light changes) is really something else, and the way Valve accentuated it with bloom for overbright colours is really striking! Strangely, when I looked right down at the ground the framerate plummeted – like less than 1 frame per second – but when I looked forward and saw that same ground texture tiled 300 times it ran smooth as silk (at 1024×768). Very odd.

Call of Duty 2 was a bit disappointing, but the game is in fact a notorious PC gobbler so I wasn’t terribly dismayed. Having recently finished the game in DX7 mode (which looks like a beautiful CoD expansion pack and runs solid at 60 frames) I wasn’t terribly inclined to give it another go.

I then decided to go for the gusto and installed F.E.A.R., a certified GPU slayer which ran like ass crack on my 9800. I was VERY impressed at the improvement on my 6600. The game has a very handy benchmarking utility which reports the high, low, and average framerates and what percentage the scene was rendered at certain framerates. I found a very happy medium of great graphic quality above 25 frames and recently finished the game. When it’s at a playable frame rate this game is quite awesome. Not as good has Half Life 2 (or 1 for that matter) but a great game with awesome AI and the best bullet time since Max Payne.

Finally, I picked up Elder Scrolls: Oblivion which ain’t running too bad. We tried the game at my girlfriend’s place and found that it looked fantastic at nearly full quality at 800×600 with 2xAA. I gave this setting a try at home and was very impressed and surprised at the image quality, smooth frame rate, and clarity of textures and fonts at this low resolution, so it’s a keeper.

So after a few code blue coronaries I can safely say that my new video card eats my old one for breakfast with Canadian bacon. I am also proud to declare that my additional $70 bought me about 3 frames per second more than my girlfriend’s 6600LE which of course is mandatory for me marbles.

And I’m happy to declare that, since construction on her floor has concluded, my girlfriend’s PC hasn’t crashed once. I suspect the power tools and open hanging wires made her power fluctuate below normal levels. A weekend of Oblivion was certainly a fair test since she was stable all weekend (and so was her computer).

So buy a video card! It’ll make you happy! Wee!!

Now back to my Kahjiit archer agent and his feisty feline exploits!