Friday, September 23, 2011

The latest and greatest...

Seems that the economic woes of the past few years have put a bit of a damper on the upgrade mill.  Oh sure we got some new offerings from AMD/ATI and an ugly misstep by Nvidia.  We've seen the emphasis change from raw CPU speed to ever increasing processor core count at more pedestrian clocks.  There's been less of an emphasis on enthusiast class hardware and more on pushing the concept of a whole computer on a single chip.  AMD leveled the first blow by beating Intel to the punch with an integrated memory controller.  Intel followed suit and a few years later we have integrated video, control of the system bus as well as memory all on one die from both team green and team blue. 

What that's left us with are offerings aimed at improving the market segment where casual web surfing, productivity applications and light gaming are the rule.  After all if you don't have throngs of customers that can afford $1000 CPU's, $900 Video cards and $500 motherboards you'd better offer up something your customers can afford.

I've always been a value buyer.  That doesn't mean I go for the cheapest hardware but I go for the most bang for the buck.  When everyone else was going nuts over the then new Core I7 X58 plaftorms it seemed that the Core- I7 920 processor was the darling of the budget enthusiast crowd.  I looked at the available offerings at the time and between the 920, 940 and 960 I chose the 940.

 Yes it was twice as expensive as the 920 but for me it was worth it. It had more overclocking headroom with a higher base speed and it ran cooler than the 920's. It also consumed less power and did everything I wanted it to do with a lot less fuss. If you remember back that far there were whole batches of problematic 920's. Luckily, I managed to avoid such issues.

I remember that when I built a system based on a P55 Chipset Core I7 860 I specifically chose that processor instead of the next lowest Core I5-750 because I wanted hyperthreading capability. It cost twice as much but I appreciated it when I started working with VMWARE and played a few games on it.

Note in the previous two stories I didn't necessarily equate "value" with "cheap"  Also note that the top offering in both platforms was never a consideration.  The price differential between middle and top end was nothing more than marketing fabrication.  All that extra cash got you access to features important to only the most diehard of overclocking fiends with liquid nitrogen pulsing through their veins. 

Now it seems the enthusiast class is making a comeback with a few twists. Intel and AMD have new CPU families with chipsets ready to take advantage of them. The latest mainstream rage is USB 3.0 which finally offers transfer speeds on par with ESATA which itself has had a recent upgrade to 6GB/s speeds with SATA 3 (or 6 as it's sometimes called) This could effectively make hooking up external storage as fast with USB 3.0 as ESATA (5GB/s USB 3.0 6GB/s ESATA (SATA 6)).

Of course faster external devices are all well and good but I don't see them as enthusiast features unless you like to spend your days measuring disk transfer speeds with Sisoft Sandra.  No, Fast hard drives are quickly giving way to SSD's as the performance storage medium of choice for the enthusiast crowd.  SSD's are now akin to your carry on baggage where you keep all the stuff you want fast access to with traditional spinning platter drives relegated to the stuff that ends up in the luggage compartment. 

Still that's not quite sexy enough for enthusiasts.  Faster storage speeds are almost a given these days and any SSD can improve the performance of even the most mainstream PC.  Once the price per Gigabyte barrier is broken making SSD's price competitive with standard HDD's of the same size it won't be long before SSD's will be the new storage norm.  At that point only the most desperate of technology editors will be touting the event.  The rest of the world will already be jaded enough to express little more than a collective yawn.

No, the latest excitement is swirling around PCI-E 3.0.  In short PCI-E 3.0 is the newest standard for performance on the PCI Express interface offering twice the data rate (per lane and direction) and bandwidth of PCI-E 2.0. (Data Rate PCI-E 2.0/3.0 = 1000MB/s to 500MB/s Bandwidth 32GB/s to 16GB/s) The base clocks are 8Ghz vs 5Ghz for PCI-E 2.0 which translate to the same numbers just expressed as GT/s whatever that means.

All those numbers look very impressive on face value.  Twice as much of anything is usually a good thing as performance goes at least as far as the marketing slides go.

The problem shows up when deciding on building a new system for your ultimate gaming rig.  Surely the price premium for the latest chipset and support for the latest standards will bring the most bang for the buck right?  Maybe not.  Let's look at USB 3.0 for example.  There's still a price premium for devices that support this standard and availability still isn't ubiquitous for them.  PCI-E 3.0 currently has no devices available that could take advantage of the interface. 

"So what!", you say,  "the market will catch up and I'll be future proofed."  Well, the sad fact is that unless your monitor is the size of bedroom wall with 20000 pixels per inch you'll never see any benefit from all that bandwidth.  HardOCP did an article about a year back that bore this out when they were investigating the performance hit of two high end video cards running in SLI in X8/X8 mode.  What they found was there was virtually no difference until you started hitting multi-monitor resolutions around 5760x1200 and then the effect was negligible.  Even in PCI-E 2.1 you're going to be hard pressed to saturate that data channel. 

You could wait a few years for the market to catch up and validate your "future-proof" argument but by then your hardware would be very much behind the curve.  It's likely your system would be too obsolete to take advantage of any gains and likely ready for another round of upgrades.

Don't get me wrong, I'm all for pushing the technology envelope.  I just tend to skip the first generation of any new technology until the rest of the supporting components can catch up.  I like automotive analogies so I'll use one here.

Anyone who's attended a custom car show has undoubtedly seen a few hot rods with big scoops atop huge carburetors sticking through the hood.  They look very impressive and to the less informed gear head they may think, "Hey! I'll go get a bigger carb for my car and I'll go faster!' 
What they end up with is a car more sluggish than before with horrible mileage because the engine wasn't designed to use the extra air and fuel.  A Bigger anything is only better when the whole system can take advantage of the upgrade. 

In short, I see nothing in the current enthusiast marketplace that's going to make my Portal 2 experience any better.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

A peek ahead??

So like the other something million of you out there I've downloaded and installed the Windows 8 Developer Preview.

Let me be clear from the outset, I'm not a smart phone guy.  Hell I just want the damned thing to ring when someone calls.  I can care less about 3G, 4G or WiFi and you can add to that cutesy interfaces designed to waste even more of my time trying to figure out what to swipe to make a call.

So what do smart phones have to do with gaming and windows?

If you haven't taken a look at the developer preview yet I'll clue you in.  Windows 8 has changed the user interface to closely mimic Windows phone.  It's designed first to be a touch controlled OS (Think tablet) and everything else comes second.

That means that getting around the OS takes some getting used to.  The Start Menu is gone replaced by a set of "tiles" that are meant to provide the same functionality.  On first blush that actually seems kind of cool for a gaming PC. Your own arcade is available with just a single click, swipe or whatever without drilling down through menus. 

I tend to organize my gaming PC so that I have easy access to my game shortcuts either on the desktop (kind of messy) or corralled in a folder named "games" that sits on my desktop.  That means that if you're anything like me you rarely use the Start menu to get to your games.  That makes the "tiles" concept a bit easier for me to get used to.  In a perfect world that works just fine.

That changes if something goes wrong, however.  Right clicking on a Tile doesn't bring up the usual floating menu of properties and other options.  Instead you get a taskbar with two options: Advanced and Unpin.  Advanced offers some some of the functionality of a normal right click menu but is obviously not designed for any intense modifications. 

Note that I'm talking about a "Tile" here.  Tile's live in the "Metro" user interface.  Metro attempts to shield users from all that old Windows ugliness by taking the desktop shortcut model to the extreme.  Click a tile and your application starts up with no muss and no fuss...

Assuming the program works that is....

If it doesn't you don't get much indication of what's gone wrong.  It just doesn't start.  If you manage to find the event viewer you may see a message about an app crashing but from there on things get messy again.

As I understand it Windows 8 is an attempt to unify all Microsoft operating systems so that the experience is largely the same no matter what device.  A smart phone, a Tablet, A PC or the interface to your fridge all have a common look and feel.

The difference is that PC's get Metro AND a desktop.  The Desktop, however, is treated much like any other "Tile" in Metro.  The desktop offers much of the feel of Windows 7 but again the Start Menu is gone replaced by a Start button that flings you back into Metro.  The desktop is your best bet for tweaking program settings but it's been somewhat neutered by the focus on Metro.  It's more of a compatibility tool than a control center. 

I've managed to install Steam and then a few games just to see how the OS reacts.  I realize this is a developer preview so not everything is locked down yet but it is supposed to be complete enough to allow programmers to code for it.  That means that some user features may be a bit wonky and crashes more common than a release candidate.  Still, to develop on a platform the guts have to be in place or it's pointless to even try. 

Steam works albeit slower than normal and there were some issues with the download section not keeping track of a download's progress.  I've managed to install Borderlands, Portal and Half Life 2:Lost Coast.  Portal and Lost Coast seem to work just fine and without any custom drivers from NVIDIA I was able to ramp up Lost Coast visual settings to their highest level with Multi Sampling and Anti-Aliasing at max levels. 

Apparently Nvidia has made an effort to provide Microsoft with a decent driver which is a nice touch especially with an OS platform that is so reliant on graphics.  It's not all guns and roses, however...

As I said I had success with Portal and Lost Coast but Borderlands tries to load and immediately crashes to desktop.  It didn't matter if I tried to launch from Steam or from the program folder.  Something about that game doesn't jive with Windows 8.  I eventually found compatibility options and even ran the troubleshooter to no avail.

My guess would be that unlike Windows 7's desktop interface, the desktop "app" in Metro doesn't provide enough control over the OS to allow a game like this to run correctly.  Remember, the focus is on apps conforming to Metro.  Backward compatibility is apparently deprecated in favor of that.

I've heard that there will be versions of the OS that don't use the Metro interface equating to the "Professional" edition that may solve this irritation.  Server editions only use Metro for administrative tasks.  You have to ask yourself if it's worth the upgrade to get functionality you already have in Windows 7. 

Every new OS tends to shed the baggage of it predecessors to some degree.  We saw that with the change from XP to Vista and with MAC's with the change from OS9 to OSX.  So we all have to eventually accept that our favorite games from the 90's may not work without a lot of work if at all. 

Still, for a title as new as Borderlands that's been designed to work with a new OS to crash while older titles work almost without issue seems a bit strange. 

Maybe one of the developers for whom this version is truly intended will develop some better compatibility with newer titles.

I've said for years that Microsoft wants to be your toaster's OS.  I think they may reach that goal with WIndows 8 and Metro.

Friday, September 9, 2011

When convenience isn't very convenient

In the part of the country I live in there's a chain of convenience stores named Circle K.  At these stores you have a cross-section of items generally available in any supermarket albeit with fewer options and higher prices. Still, if the wife sends you out for "feminine" products at 3 AM  (This really happened to me) and nobody's open no price is too high...

I have no idea why I wove that example into this but whatever...

So convenience is nice but it costs. 

I like Steam, it's very...convenient. 

I have some nice games that I picked up for some very reasonable prices (so long as they're not EA titles in a few months) The fact that I can access my purchases from any PC I own using just my credentitals is a godsend.  In fact I think Steam was the reason why you saw the relaxed licensing of a lot of PC titles.  It seemed ridiculous that you had to completely uninstall a game just to play it on another PC you own.  Steam makes it simple, if you log on another PC with steam active the first PC disconnects and won't allow reconnection without logging out of the other connection.

Simple, The very definition of fair use.  No reason to buy 4 copies for 4 PCs if you don't plan to play the game on all 4 at the same time.  Of course some EULA's allow 3 or more installations so this limitation can become a problem if you can't run the game outside of steam and/or the game has no local LAN option separate from Steam. 

I've run into that a few times but not with any recent titles I've played so it may be a moot point.  I have to wonder if EA's Origin service will be so accommodating considering their rather draconian licensing and copy protection schemes of the past.

So we've established that there's lots to like about the Steam game distribution system.  One could even say it's one of the forerunners of all this cloud stuff everyone's nuts about.  It's taken your software and detached it from your hardware from a licensing standpoint. 

Here's where it falls on its face...

Steam is a successful and robust delivery system and a model likely to be followed by Origin.  The problem arises when Steam has to deal with the publisher's strange delivery mechanisms.  I'll give two examples.

First, Borderlands...

I truly enjoy this game almost to the point of love (except for the zombie missions because the creeps keep coming up behind me unexpectedly...)What I do not enjoy is the way the DLC content works with Steam. 

When I purchased Borderlands on Steam I did so in a combination deal that gave me all the DLC (Downloadable Content addons).  Instead of these packages being pre-installed or pre-licensed with the installation it waits to activate itself till a player happens to venture into one of the DLC content areas while playing the game.

This would be fine if the process was easy but it's not.  On two of my PCs I had the same issue with activating DLC content for this game as did a friend of mine with his own copy.  What happens is that you venture into the DLC area, get a loading screen and instead of popping up into the map you get an endless "loading" loop. 

Only when I got curious and did an ALT-TAB did I discover a dialog had been raised in it's own window otherwise unreachable from the game environment.  Worse I had to keep Switching to ALT-TAB to get the window with the activation prompt to become active.  Since I own a digital copy that lives on Steam I have my installation keys available except that the steam console became unavailable during this process...

A long and boring story short, The only way around this contortion was to:

1. Get out of the game entirely by killing it in the task manager because I was trapped in the "Loading" screen

2. Pre-load the proper DLC key into my clipboard memory from the relaunched Steam console

3. Launch the game again and load the offending DLC area again

4.  ALT-TAB a few times to get access to the zombie'd activation screen

5. Get the activation screen to become active after another round of ALT-TAB so I can then paste the DLC key into the activation dialog and continue with the game once the activation process completes. 

Fallout:New Vegas did much the same thing but then I don't really care because I'm done with that game....

The bottom line is, that's a hell of a lot of work just to activate something I paid for.  I've seen less work to load a cracked copy of commercial software.  This is the point where EULA's and copy protection schemes become intrusive.  This whole process wasted about 1/2 hour of precious game time till I figured out the process and there was no guidance on how to deal with it.

I know it's not just me because my friend had the same issue and I saw it on two completely different PCs. 

I appreciate Steam and appreciate the convenience but I don't appreciate a convoluted process to access content I paid for.  There needs to be tighter integration or recognition by game publishers that delivery is an important  part of the purchase.  Less and less content is being delivered on physical media which demands that bugs like the scenario above are eliminated.

Since publishers have a channel that they can completely control from purchase to installation there's no excuse for copy protection schemes to cause these types of issues.  Let's divert a bit of that revenue from your AR departments to improving your delivery systems.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Gaming as an entertainment medium

I heard somewhere that gaming (PC or otherwise) was approaching the same level of revenue as Hollywood movies.

I can understand that...

I see maybe two movies a year mostly because the pickin's are pretty slim and I don't believe in wasting time or money on a lost cause...

I'm just not into vampire chic, dismembered co-eds, bad comic book adaptations, foo-foo chick flicks or comedies written by pre-pubescent 12 year olds.  I look at the pile of refuse offered up and I have to wonder about the collective intelligence of the U.S. if this junk passes for culture; popular or otherwise.

Then again I do live in a country that can't get enough of worthless people abusing each other on boring reality shows.  Sorry Big Brother and Survivor, you've been voted off my TV!

So where's the creativity gone?  Not much found in movies or TV but what about gaming?

Ah, there it is. 

As gaming platforms have become more powerful the opportunity for a more interactive experience has come to light. 

Sure, back in the day Freddy Kruger and Jason were pretty scary running around hacking up teenagers but that wasn't an interactive experience so you didn't have any real skin in the game (pardon the pun).
Remember how cool it was when a character on the movie screen would suddenly turn and act as though they were talking to you?  The best interactive experience you cold hope for was a midnight showing of the Rocky Horror Picture show and that, could get a little weird...

With a good narrative game that hint of interactivity is compounded a hundred fold.  So long as the developer doesn't destroy the illusion with convoluted controls or bad camera angles that is.  Anything that takes away from interacting with the narrative can quickly ruin an otherwise brilliant storyline.  Take a look at my recent post of Fallout: New Vegas for an example of a bad interface and poor narrative.

An example of a good narrative? Well that's largely dependent on  personal taste but I've personally enjoyed earlier Dungeon Siege titles, A few Need For Speed iterations like Undercover and even a shooter like Borderlands.  In each of those titles I had to care about the narrative if I had any hope of succeeding in the game.  The key to success is to hook you into the narrative just enough to keep you continuing on .  It still has to be fun with attainable goals, however.  After all, like a movie, you're supposed to be entertained not frustrated by sadistic level design. 

There's been a lot of crossover of Hollywood talent to the gaming world over the past decade.  So much so that now it seems that most of the summer blockbusters that aren't based on comic books are based on game titles. 

And why not?!  The talent and creativity involved in a good game title can provide 90% of the material for a decent movie.  It can even be woven into a franchise of gaming and movies if the movie studio doesn't screw it up (Think the DOOM movie)

It may be the case that gaming provides a less restrictive outlet to Hollywood talent than a movie studio could ever stomach.  Other than a sternly lettered ESRB rating there's not that much to prevent a creative idea to be fully realized by its creator provided the market allows it. 

I think the future holds a lot more interactivity in our entertainment choices.  It's inescapable actually with a culture demanding ever more interaction with their surroundings Hopefully it can prove to be a catalyst for more intelligent pastimes that don't involve wasting time on reality TV douchebags.