Friday, October 28, 2005

You know, it ain't about punk. And it ain't about "the scene."


I've been helping Andrew make decisions as he gets ready to build his own computer. (I'm not doing that great a job at it - flubbed a CPU/Motherboard combo.) Since it's been two years since the last time I was really looking at hardware, I learned a lot while doing some groundwork for him. PCI Express? I had no idea it existed.

I also caught the upgrade bug, between Andrew building a PC and Pat shopping around for a TV. So it really didn't take all that much prompting for me to head out myself. I've more or less convinced myself that the video card is the one thing holding back my Civ IV experience. As previously blogged, Civ IV is very playable on my current setup, but there are some annoying audio skips and I'm not getting any of the nice video effects (animated units, combat scenes, dynamic terrain, etc.). So, I figured, what the heck. I haven't splurged on anything since I moved out here two months ago, so I'd go ahead and get a card.

This actually is a difficult psychological step for me. More than any other computer upgrade, graphics cards make me angry. The only reason to get a good graphics card is for gaming; even complicated movies and most rendering runs fine on a basic card. And any time you look at cards you realize why consoles are dominating the industry. A top-of-the line graphics card will cost you SIX HUNDRED dollars. This is a pure status symbol; nobody needs that much power, even for Doom III or HalfLife 2. And even at the lower level the price makes me pause. The card I settled on cost about $150; for the exact same cost, I could buy an XBox or a PS2 or 1.5 Gamecubes. Yeah, this card will generate better graphics than any of those, but getting a console takes you completely out of the regular upgrade cycle and into a much more reasonable 5 year stability period.

I only buy graphics cards when I need them to play specific games. I don't know whether this makes me a smart consumer, for delaying my time between upgrades, or a dumb consumer, for spending money on something when I will end up playing very few games on it. For a while I'd considered swearing off PC games altogether and switching to console-only, which would drastically reduce my system requirements, but things like Civ IV remind me why I game.
Anyways. The first card I ever bought was a Voodoo 3. This was back in the early 2000's when Ultima: Ascension finally came out. I've been a huge Ultima fan for a while (despite [or perhaps because of] never playing VIII), and I was stunned by everything I saw. When the game was released, I spent some time hitting up the message boards, and found that everyone with a Voodoo card got great graphics, while those with ATI or a small new company called NVidia were slow or crashing. So that's why I bought a Voodoo. The game ran great for me; for the first time Britannia felt like a real living world, and the wonderful immersion provided by the graphics went a long way towards assuaging my despair at the poor quality of the game itself. I was also pleased to see HalfLife looking better than ever before.

I built my new Linux-only PC in the summer of 2002. Everything I had read told me that Nvidia was the only company with even adequate 3D drivers on Linux; by now Voodoo was defunct and ATI just didn't seem to care about Linux. So I got a Geforce 4 MX, which at the time was a mid-range card. I play very few 3D games so I didn't feel like I needed a Ti, but I did want to at least run 3D games and have some acceleration for RTSs and other Linux games. This card served me very admirably through my stable of Linux games: Call to Power, Soldier of Fortune, Return to Castle Wolfenstein, Myth II, and countless free downloaded games (which, granted, tended to not put much strain on 3D). Ever since the summer of 2001 I was increasingly doing my gaming on my PS2, and as time went on and requirements climbed, I deliberately tended more towards the PS2 rather than risk getting a game that didn't run well.

I finally installed Windows on this PC a few months ago, due to some Windows-only software I needed for work. Since I had it, I finally started messing around with some Windows-only games that I'd been meaning to play for a while, like Medieval: Total War and Deus Ex. Everything ran great, but these were REALLY old games by now. I still enjoyed them because of the gameplay, but was hardly wowed. I also bought Morrowind after seeing the XBox version at a friend's house. I've covered the game itself elsewhere on this blog, but once again I was kind of surprised by how crummy the graphics looked. Not because of any lack of power in my card, just because the game was that old (about four years!) and had not kept up with the advances seen in my PS2.

So I was a little surprised when I finally encountered a game that pressed the limits of my three-year-old card. It was Sid Meier's Pirates!, an extremely thoughtful Christmas gift. I still need to blog about this game, it is absolutely wonderful and fills me with nostalgia, but for the purposes of this pots, for once I wasn't able to set all the graphics sliders to maximum and had to endure the occasionally jerky animation (although at least the sound worked in that game!).

Still, it was extremely playable once I got the settings right, and I never seriously considered upgrading. Now, since Civ IV is so very important to me, it was time to bite the bullet and do it.

Video cards are probably the single most complicated component to evaluate. Most components have at most three primary variables to consider: with RAM there's the form factor, speed and capacity; with hard drives there's the seek time, capacity and transfer rate; with CPUs there's the bus speed, slot size and clock speed. With video cards, though, there's an incredible variety of factors to consider. There's the actual chip; there's the onboard memory; there's the speed; there's the output connectors; there's the slot type. Add to that the incredible variety in software support and things quickly get hairy. There are people with four-year-old Geforce 3 cards that run Doom III with flying colors but can't even start Civ IV; these cards have plenty of raw power but lack the latest pixel shaders used in Direct X 9.

I considered the following questions when selecting a card.
  1. Do I need to upgrade at all? The reason I'm doing this is for Civ IV, and I probably won't buy many other PC games in the future. I decided that, while I didn't NEED it, I wanted it enough to justify a fairly thrifty upgrade.
  2. What chipmaker to use? The serious choices are ATI and Nvidia; Ati sells complete cards while Nvidia just makes chips and lets other manufacturers build the cards. I opted for Nvidia, because I'd like to retain the ability to play games in Linux.
  3. What slot size? Here's where it gets tricky. I have an AGP slot, but AGP is a dead-end technology, and newer motherboards don't offer it. Did I really want to spend $100+ on a card that wouldn't work in my next board? The alternative would be PCI Express, the future of graphics cards; these cards are actually cheaper than their AGP counterparts, but would require a new motherboard now. But if I got a new motherboard, I would want to get one that also supports 64-bit processors. But those boards aren't backwards-compatible with my Athlon, so I'd need a new CPU too. I did some mental math and decided it made sense to stick with AGP; the rest of my PC is running fine (I upgraded my CPU about 18 months ago), and I can afford to defer this painful upcoming upgrade cycle.
  4. What chip? Here I hit the boards and dug around a bit. While older cards are cheap and provide plenty of raw power, I wanted to get a newer one that supported pixel shaders and other snazzy technologies. Again, since I'm getting this card specifically for Civ IV, I want something that will look good on it. At the same time, I absolutely refused to pay for a cutting-edge card. The 6600 seemed like a reasonable choice. It's well-reviewed, has the latest Direct X 9.0 support, comes with plenty of power, and is overclockable. It's also quite a bit cheaper than higher-end AGP cards, so it hit the sweet spot of price and performance.
  5. What manufacturer? My last Nvidia was from PNY, and I haven't had any trouble with it, so I decided to buy from them.
  6. Where to get it from? As always the cheapest prices were online. However, if I bought in a store I could use it this weekend. I found a Comp USA deal that, with rebates, gets me close to the online price, plus a free 256MB flash drive. Done and done.
This is the first time I've bought components from a big-box brick-and-mortar store since 2001, and I'm not eager to repeat the experience. It took me ten minutes for someone to open the case where they keep the good cards, and there was just one cashier handling everyone, and one person was returning an item that probably cost $5 and it took them nearly ten minutes to process the return; and finally, almost 45 minutes after I'd entered the store, I was setting off the alarm on my way out. I'm sorry, Newegg. It won't happen again.

So I got home around 9PM last night, when a horrible thought hit me. Did my motherboard support AGP 8x? It took some searching online and I found contradictory answers (the manual said no, just 4x; the boards said yes, 8x), but finally, I found a post on Nvidia's site saying it would run in 4x mode if it detected the Mobo was limited to that. So I smiled, tore open the cellophane and took out my card.

Installation took approximately 30 seconds. It still isn't working. I can get to POST, and by typing blind get into Windows, but the monitor never gets a signal. This is, of course, very frustrating. I've upgraded all my drivers and flashed everything I can except for my mobo, which requires a 3.5" floppy disk. Who still has those? (That's a serious question. If you do, and you're in California, can I borrow one?)

The only credible explanation I've heard is that my power supply is insufficient to run the card. That seems unlikely to me, as the card requires a 300W supply and that's what I have. The more I think about it, though, that might be the issue. While I don't have a TON of extra stuff, I do run a full case with five drives and an Audigy. I tried unplugging some of that stuff to see if it would help. It didn't, but I still think I'm going to get one. The power supply was the next thing on my upgrade list before Civ IV came around anyways; my current one was a cheap $30 stopgap employed when my previous unit died. It (my current PSU) annoys the heck out of me, it is incredibly noisy, and it wouldn't surprise me at all if it's putting out less than the advertised amount of power.

So, my current plan is to swing by Fry's after the birthday party at work today. I've checked out some PSUs and there are a few promising ones. I had originally considered getting a Phantom 350, an ultra-sweet totally silent power supply, but my prior splurge for a video card gave me the backbone to reject this as unnecessary. Plus no store around here has it. I'm leaning towards a few 430W supplies that are well-rated on Newegg and available for pretty cheap. I'll see what Fry's has in stock, pick it up, then mutter fervent prayers under my breath as I install it and power back on. IF all goes well, my life will fill with joy and I will see pictures on my computer screen. If there are problems, I will cry, then watch my recorded Colbert Report programs, then decide whether to buy a new motherboard or call PNY's technical support. I know companies occasionally ship defective products. It's entirely possible I got one of them.

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