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Scott's Column
The Upgrade Continues, Firefox

May 1, 2005
By Scott Lewis

Last month I left off with my computer running a P4 2.53 GHz CPU with 1 GB of memory and a new nVidia GeForce 6600 GT video card. Performance on some games was great, while on others it was poor to frustrating.

This month we will solve my problems once and for all. The games I am doing all my testing with are FarCry (new purchase), Halo (new purchase), Return to Castle Wolfenstein (purchased in 2002) and Need For Speed Underground (borrowed).

I came across a series of articles on upgrading a computer to play games. They used Doom 3 as one of the games to see how it would perform with different video cards, CPUs and memory. Hmmm. Sounds right up my alley since playing Doom 3 was the goal of my upgrades.

The article did not use a GeForce 6600 GT video card, but it did use an ATI Radeon 9800 Pro card. I have seen other benchmarking tests and my GeForce 6600 GT performs pretty close to the 9800 Pro, so I can see how the 9800 Pro does to get an idea how my card should perform. They also tested the P4 CPU at speeds of 1.6, 2.2, 2.8 and 3.4 GHz. I am in the middle with 2.53 GHz.

Reading between the lines of the article I should definitely be able to get a playable frame rate with my hardware. But FarCry is too slow to play. FarCry has been out for a year, months longer than Doom 3. Should I be worried about Doom 3 performance? Yes!

I can't stop thinking something is wrong, which is why I can't even play Castle Wolfenstein or Need For Speed Underground (read last month's article for the details).

CPU and Motherboard

I went to a local computer show. I was going to pick up a stick of memory for my brother-in-law and I wanted to look for a cheap 5.1 sound system. I saw an ASUS motherboard and an AMD Athlon 64 3000+ CPU combination priced at $229. This is only $60 more than what I paid for the 2.53 GHz P4. Hmmm. What the heck. I knew I still had a few days left to return the P4, so I bought the AMD chip and ASUS motherboard. I made sure that the ASUS motherboard had built-in LAN and sound (6 channel in this case). I also saw that it had overclocking capabilities (in one MHz bus speed increments). If I get ambitious I can overclock it. BTW, the video drivers that shipped with my GeForce 6600 GT also include overclocking capabilities.

I swapped out the motherboard and chip. All went fine except Windows would not run. The computer just kept rebooting. I ran the repair of Windows from the install CD and it would boot further, but still rebooted. I decided to just install Windows from scratch.

All is fine, except I forgot to backup my system before doing this. I recently reformatted the hard drive to get the most out of the GeForce 6600 GT, so all I lost was a week or two of e-mail messages. What I should have done was boot Windows into safe mode and uninstall any remnants of Intel drivers/software from the machine. Since I didn't try this I will never know if it would have worked.

With the OS installed and enough things running I started reinstalling games. Let's start with Halo, because I was playing that quite well. For starters, Halo remembered my profile and left me off a ways into the game. How can this be? I reformatted the hard drive. Ahh! Halo uses the My Documents folder to store its information. I had backed that up when I was working out the issues of backup and recovery after the last reformat. I must have backed up some of Halo's data. Cool.

WOW! Halo looks GREAT! The game defaulted to its highest settings with the AMD/GeForce combination. I saw smoldering grass that was not there before. Apparently Halo was doing a great job of matching its settings to my hardware level because I had no idea I was missing anything.

Let's try Need For Speed Underground. WOW! It looks and runs fantastic. In fact, it is too good. I had to turn off the road reflections. I have never seen buildings reflected off the streets in real life, plus it gave the game a cartoonish look. I turned on the motion blur effect (recommended from the friend that lent me the game). It is wild looking. Everything gets blurry as your speed increases. It is unusual and I eventually turned it off because it was too distracting. Besides it made me wonder if my contacts we getting blurry and not the game (now I know to blink a few times when I see a blurry image). Overall NFSU is a lot of fun. I have gotten tired of the drifting in the game. It seems to be way to hard to control the car in a skid. I can control a real car better than this game. Also the drag racing events require an exact touch to get in the lead. Fortunately there are plenty of regular races, which I enjoy a lot. My youngest son likes it. I hooked up an old Microsoft Sidewinder game pad controller I had from years ago. It works well enough for my son to play NFSU like he plays Need For Speed Hot Pursuit 2 on his GameCube.

Let's try Castle Wolfenstein. It runs perfectly. It defaulted to fairly low graphic settings. I manually cranked everything up. WOW! I saw moving fire that was either not there before or at least not memorable. This looks cool and it is very fast. I may have to play this game again (I finished this game a couple of months before I started this upgrade process).

Time for the ultimate challenge... FarCry. 5 CDs of installation later I ran FarCry. I immediately jumped into the game. It looked just like it did before, but it was very fast. Why didn't it look better than it did with the P4. Hmm. I remember seeing individual blades of grass before I had to turn the graphics down with the P4. Let's check the settings. Everything is set to low, except the resolution is 1024x768. Let's turn it up to high. Yuck! everything has a weird light/dark coloring that looks like crap. What gives? Turn it back to low and everything looks normal. Let's start turning up each option one by one. Sure enough the last setting was the problem, causing the weird lighting. It can never be the first setting that solves the problem. With the "bad setting" identified I tried the unthinkable, I set the graphics to ULTRA then backed down just that one bad setting to low.

WOW! Have I said WOW too much. Sorry. This game looks gorgeous. You really do see lots of grass and plants. You can see the individual leaves on some plants. The detail is amazing. I can't believe it. I even look forward to seeing flocks of birds flying in the far off distance. I can't believe how much detail they packed into this game.

Oh, but wait... there's more. I read that AMD and FarCry have teamed up to make an AMD 64 patch to FarCry that will take advantage of the chip's capabilities. I did a search on Goggle for FarCry and AMD and came across this page that shows screen captures of the differences between the regular version and the AMD 64 version of FarCry. This page says the patch is available now, but when you click on the link to download the patch you are asked to sign up for an announcement when it becomes available. I starting playing FarCry for a while and it is very addictive. It is also pretty challenging. I had to stop myself because I don't know if I will want to play it twice once I get the 64-bit patch. Play time FarCry is on hold. I haven't decided if I want to uninstall it until the AMD 64 version is available. I could use the 4 GB of space for other games in the meantime, but then I would probably have to start over. What a problem. Decisions, decisions.

Note: I recently received a notice that Microsoft was making the x64 version of Windows available as Release Candidate 2. I can download and try it out as part of my MSDN subscription. I think I have read that the x64 version was going to be coming out by the end of April. Microsoft was touting gaming as a benefit to the x64 version of Windows. So, do I need to install the x64 Version of Windows to make use of the AMD 64 FarCry patch? I will have to wait until the patch is actually available. I already reformatted my hard drive twice... I don't know if I want to start over again. (However, I am starting to receive some rebates from various purchases, maybe I can by another hard drive fro my main machine and install Windows 64 on that drive and dual boot.) I'll keep you posted.

With these four games all working beautifully I went a little crazy. I installed a copy of Thief: The Dark Project. This is an old game that I never got around to playing. I recently read a review of it and it piqued my interest. The game didn't initially run. I did a search on Thief and nVidia and found a patch that works with nVidia based cards. The game works, but it still has video "issues." It is definitely playable, and I did make my way though the tutorial. The video is slightly messed up in the top half of the screen, but it is only a minor distraction. If I like playing it I may buy the recent sequel to the game (developed by another company). This game is a stealth first person action game. I have also read that the Tom Clancy Splinter Cell series does a great job with this sub-genre of game.

In reading old reviews on CNet.com (the reviews are mostly from Gamestop.com) I was intrigued by the No One Lives Forever series and the Max Payne series. I was able to find the first and second game in each series at Outpost.com. Three were $9.99 and one was $12.99. I ordered them up and I have installed the first of each of those series. After all, I need to play them in order. Both look just fine, and I expect the newer versions should look as good, if not better.

Finally, I have an old copy of Half Life: Day One. This is an OEM version of Half Life. An OEM version is one that was included with some hardware. I assume it came with a video or sound card that I installed in a computer I built for someone. I have a tendency to keep the game discs that come with hardware when I am building a computer for a non-gamer. Since they don't care about games, and they don't know that the game was ever in one of the boxes, there is no harm done. This is also how I ended up with Thief: The Dark Project.

All-in-all, I will be playing the heck out of a lot of games for a while. Good, that gives me plenty to do until Doom 3 gets down to 20 clams and the AMD 64 FarCry patch arrives.

Halo Ends

Alas, Halo is over. I finished the game. I played it right to its very anti-climatic ending. I was expecting a lot more. I was really pissed off when the main character, Master Chief, took off his helmet for the first time as the camera angle prevented seeing his face. That's not right. I paid good money and invested a lot of hours. I should at least see what the character I was playing looks like. Oh well, maybe when they port Halo 2 to the PC I can find out. Since I won't pay more than $20 for a game, and Halo 2 is not out for the PC yet, I expect it will be a very long time before I get to see what Master Chief looks like.

What Game Next?

I would like a game that is slanted more toward adventure. I saw a Myst Collection at Best Buy, but it game on DVD discs. My gaming machine only has a CD-ROM drive. Maybe I can buy Myst and use Virtual CD to make copies of the DVD discs (I know this is possible because I accidentally did this with a DVD disc of my kids). That is an awful lot of data to be copying onto my server, so it's a good thing it has a new hard drive.

Does anyone have any ideas? I am not the role playing type. I definitely won't be playing online role playing games. In fact, I don't have the time to play games online. I thought about getting the Balder Gate series, but after reading an old (but very favorable) review I don't think it is for me. I really should install Warcraft III and play through its campaign. The problem is that i was spoiled by playing Warcraft II and Starcraft online. I just don't have that kind of time anymore to get good at a game before going online.

If you know of a good adventure game, with a decent story and some action let me know. Since I have this great gaming system I also want a game with a lot of eye candy. Finally, it should be a game that is reasonable to play in front of (or with) my two sons. Please pass on any suggestions.

The Cost

Some of you may be wondering if all this was worth it. I think yes, but maybe you need to see the details to know.

When I original put this computer together it was from pirated and extra parts. I spent $296 back in early 2003. Now I spent $229 on a motherboard/CPU combination, $203 on a video card, and $120 on memory. So I upgraded a $296 computer with $552 in upgrades. Oh, and I bought a Creative Labs 5.1 speaker system for $70. My grand total for everything is $918 spread out over two years. Not bad for a great gaming machine. And let's not forget that I basically have a 1.7 GHz Celeron with 256 MB of memory sitting on an Intel Motherboard in my closet. All it needs is a case, hard drive, keyboard, mouse and monitor to be a useful computer... though not a gaming computer. If I need another computer around the house I am ready again with a bunch of spare parts. Maybe next year I can get the LCD monitor and a nice wireless keyboard and mouse. We'll see.

Conclusions

I think I was dealing with some strange incompatibility between the Intel motherboard and the GeForce 6600 GT video card. That's why NFSU and Wolfenstein behaved so poorly. My guess is that FarCry was dealing with this incompatibility too. I say this because of the way FarCry detected my hardware. With the 1.7 GHz Celeron and 6600 GT combination FarCry defaulted to medium, but would not run. With the 2.53 GHz P4 and 6600 GT it defaulted to high, but again it would not run (or ran very slowly). With the AMD and 6600 GT it defaulted to low, but ran great all the way up to ultra. Maybe these games use a feature that the Intel chipset could not handle and things just went south. I have seen enough benchmarks with FarCry and the GeForce 6600 GT video card to know it should play at over 30 frames per second. The P4 2.53 GHz was far above FarCry's minimum requirement of 1 GHz. I know, the minimum is unrealistic, but with two and a half times the minimum I should at least be able to play it with the settings at their minimum.

Now I have a killer gaming machine. I have managed to spread the cost out over time. I really didn't go into this wanted, or expecting, to upgrade the motherboard. Next month I will talk about building a system for upgradability. A friend is saving up for a system that I will build for him. I will look at some of the issues I have dealt with in this upgrade and at current and upcoming technology to let you know where your money is best spent if upgradability is a primary concern... whether you buy or build a computer.

Firefox

I previously wrote about Firefox. I am now taking back some of what I said. At the moment my biggest gripe with Firefox is its startup time. We have a new project at work and we are going to be using Oracle 10g. I am the "acting" DBA, so I am doing most of the database work. Do not confuse database "work" with database design. There have been two full time people and three part time people involved in the design. I am one of the full time design people. By "work," I mean getting the tables into Oracle and setting up the indexes, tablespaces, etc.

We are using Oracle's web based front end to do this work. Since I know Oracle doesn't like Microsoft I figured this was a great chance to use Firefox for the browser. Alas, Firefox takes a significantly longer time to startup than Internet Explorer. In fact, it is so much slower it was painful when I needed to get into the database quickly for a small change.

Sorry Firefox, but I need a quicker loading browser and IE beats you.

Until next time...

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