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Scott's Column
Revolving Desktop, DirectX 10, Future of Laptop

September 1, 2007
By Scott Lewis

Introductory paragraph goes here.

Current Topics:

Revolving Desktop

Last month I made brief mention to my desktop computer being damaged when the transformer to my house was struck by lightening. I also mentioned I was going to tell more about the hard drives I removed from my old home server. Let's start with the hard drives. When I purchased a new hard drive form my home server I intended to donate the two old drives to a friend that was activated in the reserves and sent to Iraq. He had become the defacto "IT support" guy for his unit when they are off duty. He wanted to put together a file server over there. A bunch of us at work decided to chip in components and build him a server.

Well, my boss thought it would be cool to send him one of our old servers that recently was retired. Since this was a "personal" endeavor we all chipped in to pay the shipping costs to send over and old server with a few spare parts from this servers twin brother (they were originally two nodes in an active/passive cluster). One guy at work brought in an old PC. It had two Pentium III 600MHz CPUs. Yep, two processors, not just two cores. We built the machine before the final decision to ship the real server.

The other guy said he didn't need the PC and I could have it. So I brought my two hard drives home in a used PC case. It took a bit of work to get it running. Whenever I tried to install anything I had troubles. I wondered if this machine was too old to recognize a 120 GB drive. I was trying a number of things at the same time so I don't know exactly what combination of things finally allowed be to install and operating system. The co-worked who let me have the PC said the CD-ROM drive was flaky, so I used the CD-ROM drive that I previously borrowed from my desktop (to use in rebuilding my server) and installed it into this machine. I also tried running the original Western Digital utility that came with this drive. It offered to prepare the drive, but only gave these operating system choices:

Windows XP (optionally with SP1)
Windows 2000 (optionally with SP3)
Windows ME
Windows 98

That is not a typo, it offered Service Pack 1 for Win XP. I used that and let it do its thing on the hard drive. I then tried installing Ubuntu 7.04. I had success. I don't know exactly what combination worked, because I tried too many things at once, but I suspect I could have gotten it working with just my CD-ROM drive. By the way, I ran the Western Digital CD-ROM utility from the original flaky drive. I also tried installing Linspire, but it would always go through its entire installation, have me reboot only to discover it did nothing. So, the moral to this story is that you should not try 2 and 3 things at once if you really want to know is wrong.

With Ubuntu loaded it would only display at 800 x 600 resolution. I made notes the last time I had to fix this and got ready to do it again. I needed to reboot the computer for some reason (I can't remember the reason as I write this), and the computer boot into some weird video mode with the screen all garbled.

I decided to try Freespire (the free version of Linspire). In fact, I decided I would take this opportunity to try a few Linux distributions. I want to run one distro for two to three weeks at a time and see what it is like. Freespire was the first because I wanted to use the free trial to the Click-N-Run (CNR) service. Because of how slow this machine is (especially compared to what I had before lightening hit) I am using this desktop as an internet terminal for my kids and me.

Next up, my sons hand-me-down laptop got broken. The hinge holding the screen on the left side of the laptop broke, and the screen can't stand up. Since this was my wife's laptop up to a few weeks ago we don't want to write it off. So I set it up in the computer room as a desktop computer. I attached it to my monitor and mouse. However, I had to borrow a USB keyboard for the laptop because my keyboard was still an old PS/2 style keyboard.

Until we can afford to take the laptop in to be repaired at least my son can use the laptop for e-mail and such.

I'll keep you informed how this goes. While my son's laptop is set up this way I will not be testing Linux. Ideally I need to save up for the parts to rebuild my desktop computer into a decent gaming machine. Which leads to this month's next topic...

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DirectX 10

I had planned to write an article on DirectX 10 (DX10) and what it would take to upgrade my current desktop computer to run DX10 games. DirectX is Microsoft's video architecture, and DX 10 is the latest version. However, it is only available on Windows Vista. As I understand it Microsoft does not plan to make this available for earlier versions of Windows.

I am now in a different position than when I started this article. Lightening took out my desktop PC. So instead of writing what it would take to upgrade my machine to DX10, I will have to cover what it will take to get my machine running... and get it ready for DX10. Those two objectives may be the same in theory. After all, I am assuming the motherboard is the component that needs replacing, and that is part of what's coming below. However, if the need to get my machine running becomes more important than playing DX10 games I may have to compromise to the point of not not getting satisfactory DX10 performance. You'll understand in a minute.

As I understand it, if your video hardware cannot support DirectX 10 features Windows and that game would play without those features. This will include my laptop which has a very nice GeForce Go 7900 GS video chipset... a DX9 hardware compatible chipset. I am not sure exactly how this will work in the long run, but I would expect that eventually there are going to be games that will only run with DX10 compatible hardware. Because of this I am going to show what I believe to be the minimal acceptable components to get DX10 compatible hardware. But will that be enough to actually play DX10 games?

I have seen video footage of Cyrsis and it looks totally amazing. Night and Day better than FarCry, and FarCry was the absolute best looking game I played when I bought it. Crysis is going to be a DX10 game. But it is not out yet. What are its hardware requirements going to be? Good question, which I don't have an answer to.

You should always consider upgrades together. I wrote a while back that you should consider upgrading the CPU and motherboard together. When I upgrade my motherboard and CPU it will require upgrading my video card and memory. My current video card is an AGP card, and current cards are PCI-Express. Of course, the goal to get DX10 already includes replacing the video card. That just leaves memory, which would also need to be upgraded because my old memory will not work in current motherboards. My old article tells us to upgrade the CPU and memory with the motherboard, so this is all falling into line with my previous upgrade suggestion.

That makes my upgrade a four component upgrade. Motherboard, CPU, memory and video card. Hopefully the lightening damage does not extend further than that. Regardless, this could get expensive. With the components we need determined let's take a look at what's available today (All prices were current on NewEgg as of 7/28/2007). By the way, I am a fan of nVidia's hardware, so I only looked at nVidia video cards. If you prefer ATI hardware there is plenty of competition at each price point, so feel free to do your own research.

Our least expensive foray into DX10 compatible hardware includes a nVidia GeForce 8500 GT video card:

GIGABYTE GA-945GCM-S2 LGA 775 Intel 945GC ATX Intel (2GB Max)      54.99
Intel Core 2 Duo E4400 Allendale 2.0GHz LGA 775                   139.00
Kingston 1GB 240-Pin DDR2 SDRAM DDR2 800 PC2 6400 (2 @ 45.99)      91.98
GIGABYTE GV-NX85T512HP GeForce 8500GT 512MB GDDR2 PCI-E x16        99.99
                                                                  ------
                                                                  385.96


However, reading ExtremeTech's article on Affordable DirectX 10 Graphics Cards, shows that the 8500GT card will probably not play any real DX10 games at a playable frame rate. What's the point of buying DX10 compatible hardware if we are not going to be able to play DX10 games.

Reading that same article we see that the GeForce 8600GTS video card actually reaches playable frame rates on all the games tested except Supreme Commander. To plug a GeForce 8600 GTS card into this equation nearly doubles the cost of the video card itself. I thought it prudent to move up the processor ladder. I also thought this would be a good time to explore the possibility of using two video cards. No, I did not include two cards, but the motherboard must support nVidia's SLI technology for using two cards. Here's our second set of components:

ASUS P5N-E SLI LGA 775 NVIDIA nForce 650i SLI ATX                 126.99
Intel Core 2 Duo E6400 Conroe 2.13GHz LGA 775                     186.00
Kingston 1GB 240-Pin DDR2 SDRAM DDR2 800 PC2 6400 (2 @ 45.99)      91.98
XFX PVT84GUDF3 GeForce 8600GTS 256MB 128-bit GDDR3 PCI Express    189.99
                                                                  ------
                                                                  594.96


We could always add a second card to this setup and achieve better video performance later, which can spread the cost. This setup should be able to get comparable frame rates to the ExtremeTech article, with the potential to add more video capability later. However, even the 8600 GTS only reached 35 frames per second (fps) on the one DX10 game tested. 35 fps is acceptable, but will not provide a great gaming experience. I have previously read comparisons between two lower priced cards running in SLI mode versus one expensive video card. The general consensus is that one really fast card is faster than two lower end cards. Given that, let's see what happens when we move up to a GeForce 8800 series video card. Of course, I bumped up the CPU another notch since we were pushing $300 for a video card.

ASUS P5N-E SLI LGA 775 NVIDIA nForce 650i SLI ATX               126.99
Intel Core 2 Duo E6700 Conroe 2.66GHz LGA 775                   318.00
Kingston 1GB 240-Pin DDR2 SDRAM DDR2 800 PC2 6400 (2 @ 45.99)    91.98
PNY VCG88GTS32XPB GeForce 8800GTS 320MB GDDR3 PCI Express x16   279.99
                                                                ------
                                                                816.96


Notice here that I used the GeForce 8800 GTS card, and not the GTX version. This is a little more affordable than the GTX, but should make for an acceptable DX10 video card. Just for fun I decided to see what would happen if I added a quad core CPU to the mix. I also upped the memory on the video card.

ASUS P5N-E SLI LGA 775 NVIDIA nForce 650i SLI ATX                 126.99
Intel Core 2 Quad Q6600 Kentsfield 2.4GHz 4MB L2 Cache LGA 775    659.00
Kingston 1GB 240-Pin DDR2 SDRAM DDR2 800 PC2 6400 (2 @ 45.99)      91.98
PNY VCG88GTSXPB GeForce 8800GTS 640MB GDDR3 PCI Express x16       379.99
                                                                 -------
                                                                 1257.96


Ouch! Over $1,200. I will not be spending that much. At the $800 price point I would be stretching my budget considerably. Maybe I could mix the CPU/Motherboard from our second combination with the 8800 GTS card for $684.96. Regardless, it is going to be an expensive upgrade.

My goal - when I do buy the components to get my desktop running again - will be to play Crysis. FarCry was used a lot in video card benchmarking. I expect Crysis will be used in the same way to test all kinds of DX10 compatible hardware. I will wait until I see benchmarks on specific cards using Crysis. At that point I will revisit this topic and get a final component/price list.

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Dreamweaver vs. Expression Web

I promised to cover Dreamweaver in more depth. I have switched to Microsoft's Expression Web for working on this site. I did this because it is easier to use. But I should tell the story why I switched back and forth between them. Then I can give you a couple of key details why I went with Expression Web.

When I started redesigning my site at the end of 2006 I tried using Microsoft's new Expression Web product. The product was still in beta, and it felt that way. Some things would not work and there was some polish missing. However, the beta was good enough to get me to drop FrontPage.

I embarked on designing this site using "template" pages. In essence a template page is just another HTML based web page. But you put special tags in place where you want to put content. Then you create content pages from the template and add your content in those place holders. This allows you to put the design in the template and the content in a separate page. As you generate more and more content pages you can always change the look of the site by changing that one template, and all your pages will get the changes to the template.

This was a key feature I wanted when designing this site, and Expression Web had it. So I designed this site to use it and launched it in early 2007 with a new look that was developed in Expression Web.

When Microsoft initially refused to make Expression Web available on MSDN I decided to use Dreamweaver. I had an old copy of Dreamweaver MX 2004. So I reused all the graphics for this site and built the same look in Dreamweaver. Dreamweaver also has template pages, so it was not too difficult to make the transition from Expression Web to Dreamweaver. I built this web site that way and continued to do so during March and April of 2007. Then Microsoft caved in and put Expression Web on MSDN. It didn't take me long to switch back with the main reason being Expression Web is easier to use that Dreamweaver XM 2004.

I spent about a month with the trail of the production version of Expression Web, though I did spend time with it under beta. I think I gave Dreamweaver a fair shake by using it exclusively for 2 months. There were just a few quirks of Dreamweaver that made me want to switch back to Expression Web. When I heard Microsoft put Expression Web on MSDN I immediately made the switch back.

I find working in Expression Web easier overall, though I prefer Dreamweaver's file/upload management. For instance, Dreamweaver has a tree structure of your site in a pane on the right. You can highlight any item and click the upload button to upload that one page. To do the same in Expression Web means going to the main site navigation, bringing up the remote site and then highlighting and publishing your page. If your site has a lot of pages just bringing the remote version up can take a while. Dreamweaver doesn't care about your remote site unless you want it to.

Unfortunately, that was the only feature of Dreamweaver that I found compelling, and not compelling enough to stay. Expression Web is easier to user overall, and does at least as good if not better than Dreamweaver at basic page design. I like the way Expression Web deals with CSS, though it is really not much better than Dreamweaver. It just seems a little more polished. Also, Expression Web does a better job of rendering pages within the WYSIWYG editor. Dreamweaver needs help in this department.

I also like the way Expression Web deals with template pages. I found this feature a little more trouble in Dreamweaver. Dreamweaver had slightly different quirks in this department, and those quirks were important to my switch.

Where Dreamweaver is easy to just highlight a file and upload it, it does not let you do a simple drag and drop operation to copy a file and then rename it. This is easy in Expression Web. Just right click and drag a file and it make a copy... even in the same folder. I could not find a way to do this in Dreamweaver. If it is there and I could not find it then that goes toward Expression Web's ease of use. I should mention that if you do copy pages in Expression web this way it breaks the template page it came from, nad even messes up the template features. You have to create each page anew if it is going to be a template page. So maybe this drag and drop copying is not really important.

Next thing on the easiness of Expression Web is actually a carry over from FrontPage. Auto thumbnail. I use this literally every month. I insert an image and then Auto Thumbnail it. Expression web remembers this operation and copies both images to the web site and automatically creates the link to the larger file. I could not find anything like this in Dreamweaver. Also, when I inserted a picture in Dreamweaver it always asked if I wanted to copy the image to the site, and started its dialog box at the root of the web site. It could not remember where I just saved the last image. Expression Web asks you to copy the images all at once when you save the page, and it remembers where you opened and saved images. This is a huge time saver.

Here's a simple thing missing in Dreamweaver.. typing in extra spaces. I can type in spaces like this:                 in Expression Web and it puts in the non breakable spaces that you see. In Dreamweaver you have to go into the code and manually put in th escape characters that will allow this.

That's about all I can cover now. It is not really fair to compare Expression Web, a 2007 product, to Dreamweaver MX 2004, clearly by its name a 2004 product. What I really need to do is try out Dreamweaver CS3, which just recently came out. And I will try to do just that. As soon as I can find some spare time I want to install the trial version of Dreamweaver CS3 on a Virtual Machine and see if it is worth the price. As we know from my recent foray into educational versions of software, Dreamweaver CS3 is about $189, compared to Expression Web at $99. Is Dreamweaver CS3 twice as good as Expression Web? Should I really compare based on educational prices? We will answer those questions in the coming months.

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The Future Of My Laptop

My laptop is just over a year old. It still feels like new. Maybe that is because I have installed Vista, and removed Vista and reinstalled Windows XP. This gave me a clean slate, and a new feel to the laptop. I have been toying with the idea of running Linux on my laptop, and wrote that on my blog. Since I use Expression Web for this web site, a Microsoft/Windows product, I can't make a complete switch. And I really like Expression Web. It has very few flaws for how I use it. To run Linux as my primary operating system I would need to run Expression Web in a Windows XP Virtual Machine.

Before my desktop died I had installed VMware Player and built a Windows XP virtual machine under Ubuntu. It worked, but I never took it further than that. I would still need to install Expression Web and get it all working as I want. I don't think this will be much of a problem. At least not for Ubuntu.

Then there is the Vista question. We bought my wife a new laptop. It is pretty nice, and came preloaded with Windows Vista Ultimate. Since my desktop died I have not had Vista easily available. I only run it on my laptop in a virtual machine if I need to test something.

The reason I switched my laptop back to Windows XP from Windows Vista was because I could not play games with the quality of the drivers Toshiba/nVidia had provided. I only recently found information on nVidia's web site that states they do not provide drivers for laptops directly. They provide the drivers to the manufacturer of the laptop and they can add any hardware specific stuff they want.

So I checked Toshiba's site and found more recent bVidia drivers. However, the recent versions of the nVidia drivers were not listed for my specific laptop. I don't know if I can use the newer drivers on my laptop, but I suspect I can. nVidia has always been good at building drivers that cover a lot of hardware. What could Toshiba be doing to teh drivers that should prevent me from using them. The big question then is whether these drivers will provide good gaming performance? The only way to know is to test this by installing Vista again.

Finally, I recently discovered the OSx86 Project web site. This is a site that provides help trying to get Apple's Mac OS X running on an Intel based PCs. This sounds cool. I can't imagine I could screw up my laptop beyond the need to reformat the drive and reinstall Windows from scratch.

What to do? I want to try Linux. I want to retry Vista. Heck, I wan to try Mac OS X. But everything is working perfectly now. Trying any of these means massive backups of my laptop, and I have it working so well right now. Do I really want to change... for the sake of change?

I am going to go out on a limb here and announce that my next laptop is going to be a Mac. I will keep my current laptop until it is three years old. At that time I am going to buy a MacBook Pro laptop.

As you read above, my desktop is currently out of commission. I would like to get my desktop running before Christmas. If I can swing that expense then I won't care about Vista on my laptop.

I have to wait two years before getting a Mac. I can hardly wait. Yet what do I do in the mean time with my current laptop. Vista? Linux? XP? Mac OS X?

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Conclusion

That's it for this month. I have too many ideas bouncing around in my head right now. I am in the process of downloading OSX images to try and load OSX on my laptop. I will definitely report on that. Maybe I will give Vista another run. Maybe I will try to run Linux as a primary OS with XP in a virtual machine. I don't know yet. I am also incredibly busy at work, and that is going to start spilling over into my free time at home.

Come back next month, or better yet subscribe to my newsletter and you will be notified when the articles are posted.

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