Category Archives: Personal Computing

My Time With The Nokia N900

N900, iPod Touch, SonyEricsson k800i Top View

The bubbles! There was an earthquake at the time... I swear!

For a while now, I have been shopping around for a new cell phone. In a recent discussion on the UDP forums, some random fool named Q brought up the Nokia N900. At this time, my sights were set around either an iPhone, Motorola Droid, HTC HD2 or Palm Pre.

My distaste for Nokia phones is known. I have always thought of them as toyish. The build qualities fell a little short and their designs were uninspired and Symbian felt like using Windows 95. Meanwhile, iPhones and Blackberries have been rocking the world. Now, Android OS based phones are flooding the market and people are saying some really good things about the Droid and Google’s Nexus One, to name a few. Needless to say, Nokia’s stagnation in phone design and usability has really hurt it.

I narrowed my choices and did some reading about the N900 (600MHz processor, 256MB RAM/768MB Virtual RAM, 32GB internal storage)  as well as the HTC HD2 (1GHz processor, 512MB (ROM)/448MB RAM). After some time thinking about it, I chose the N900.

What I got

Weight
Thickness comparison: N900, iPod Touch and SonyEricsson k800iThe N900 is a mini-brick. It’s not a light phone and it’s not a thin phone. One of the reasons why I liked the HTC HD2 because it was thin (but big). My wife has a N95 and that is also a brick. At the time she got it, I was not too impressed with it but it did way more than my SonyEricsson k800i. The phone is in two parts, the display and the slide-out keyboard/battery part. I can’t tell which part is heavier than the other.

Regardless of weight, this phone does not take up a lot of space. It’s as wide as my iPod Touch (2nd Generation 32GB) and as thick as my k800i. But now, at least I don’t have to carry both the iPod and the k800i every time I go out.

Display
Display magic: iPod Touch/N900The display is 3.5″ and a resolution of 800×480. The N900 has a ambient light sensor which will brighten or darken the screen depending on the light in the surrounding environment. The display is a Resistive touchscreen display meaning that you have to push a little harder/longer to execute functions on the screen. It’s not the wispy fairy magic touchscreen that devices like the iPod/iPhone provide. It’s a man’s touch screen.

Maemo 5 currently does not support multi-touch so, you cannot pinch to zoom in and out like you can with other devices. You can double tap to zoom. There are other gestures Maemo 5 supports. Another zoom technique is to twirl you finger on the screen. You can also use the volume controls to zoom.

UI/Programs
The N900 comes with the linux-based Maemo 5 operating system. Icons are well-designed. Animations are mostly fluid but not as fluid as the iPhone OS. The N900 is essentially a mini-computer with a phone so, using the N900 is just like using a computer. You have access to all of the functions and settings you have on regular phones. With the N900 you get four desktops. You can slide your finger across the screen to either the right or left to access one of the desktops. By tapping once on any part of the desktop you can add widgets and shortcuts. You can change where you place widgets and shortcuts by dragging them with your finger or the stylus that is provided with the N900.

N900 File ManagerYou also have access to files through the file manager. You can copy, paste, move, rename, delete and sort files. You can also create new folders.

The N900 comes with the Mozilla-based Maemo browser. I have been able to view full sites and I have not been redirected to “mobile versions” of some sites. Flash works out of the box and the browser follows web standards, for the most part. It handles loading JavaScript and AJAX rather well (I have noticed a problem with window.onresize). You can also scroll through pages as they load. I cannot do this with my iPod Touch as the page freezes while the page loads (I have read that this is no longer an issue with the newest iPhone). The browser UI is pretty basic. You can manually enter in a URL, scroll through or add bookmarks. You can browse through your history, download add-ons and extensions and do some other basic configuration.

While the Maemo browser does have Flash, this is where the browser becomes a little strained. In many cases, playing Flash videos works really well. I watched a couple of videos on YouTube. Videos were smooth and sounded great. I tried to watch a video on CNET and the video stuttered. I think that the quality of Flash video playback can depend on what else the N900 is doing, the size of the video file and the quality of the connection between the device and the server the video is based. My wife tried to play Farmville on the N900 and she said it was unplayable.

N900 X TerminalFor all of the Linux Command Line Interface junkies, the phone comes with X Terminal. This sets the N900 apart from other devices. From here, I believe you can obtain root access so you can get funky with Maemo’s system files and do all sorts of stuff with the N900. My experience with Linux CLI is basic. Before Ubuntu, I spent some time fooling around with SUSE (before openSUSE) and I had to use the CLI to do things like fail miserably at getting the WiFi to work on a laptop. I also have some experience with Windows CLI so, when it comes down to actually having to use the X Terminal on the N900, I won’t shy away. I have already used the CLI to create playlists for the media player based on which the folders certain genres of songs are housed. I doubt that this will be the last time I use the X Terminal.

N900 Media PlayerSpeaking of the media player, the N900 comes with a media player. It’s hard to be really excited about the media player because it does not do a great deal. It plays audio files like MP3 and AAC and video files like MP4, MPEG and AVI with DivX/XviD encoding. You can create playlists but support for on-the-fly playlists and management of created playlists is crappy. As I stated in the previous paragraph, if you want to manually create your own playlists, you have to use the CLI. The iPod Touch has better support for on-the-fly but lousy support for manually playlist creation.

You can view your audio files by Genres, Albums and Artists. However, especially with Album view, the media player slows to a crawl because it’s trying to load all of the album art. To be fair, while viewing your audio file collection by Album in the iPod Touch works really well BUT [for me] using Cover Flow makes the iPod crash to the desktop. Eventually, I would need to reboot the iPod.

One of the deal breakers for me was that the N900 comes with an FM Transmitter. Before I got the N900, I used a FM transmitter attachment for my iPod that I bought from an Auto Zone while I was visiting my family in the States. This is one of the main reasons why I carried my iPod with me when I would go out. But using the transmitter attachment became a pain in the ass because I had to partially remove the iPod from it’s case because the case is too thick for the transmitter to stay attached to the iPod.

You can access the FM Transmitter in the N900 in two ways, by going to the settings window or through the media player (incredibly convenient). For the best sound quality, the N900 must be close to the radio .

N900 FM Transmitter SettingsN900 FM Transmitter Switch

You got mail
N900 Compose EmailThe N900 comes with “Mail For Exchange” and connection to your POP account(s) through whatever connection you use to get your email. You can change fonts, bold, italics and add attachments to your emails. You can also configure whether you want new emails to be sent in Plain Text or HTML, when you want to check your emails and the intervals your email should be checked.

If you have used SMS on the iPhone, the N900’s SMS is configured in the same fashion where your text messages between yourself and another person are arranged in a IM conversation way. On normal phones like my k800i, SMS is separated into, for example: “inbox”, “sent”, “saved”, etc. Using the “Conversations” widget, you can look at your SMS and IM messages. You can also add new IM accounts to your device. I have my Skype account added to my N900. Support for Windows Live Messenger is not included (maybe later?).

N900 New Message/Action GlowWhen you receive a SMS, email or IM message your phone will give the proper alert sound and it will display a gold bubble on your desktop. This notification bubble does not stay on your desktop for too long. Fortunately, you can see if you missed a call or a message by the glowing indicator next to your system tray on the desktop. You can see the notification bubble in the picture below.

N900 Message Bubble

GPS/Connectivity
N900 GPS On Map Route, Ovi mapsAnother feature I was looking for in a new phone was support for GPS, which the N900 has. GPS on the N900 works very well with a couple of exceptions. The first exception is sometimes it does not return your exact location correctly. This happened mostly when we were standing still in one position. While this did not happen all the time, it can be annoying when you are setting a driving route. Case in point, I had my wife test out the driving directions and on map route from a local grocery store to her parents’ house. We sat in the parking lot of the store (east of a local highway) while she set it up and the GPS did not return our correct location. The GPS had us sitting to the west of the highway. We took our chances and drove to her parents’ place. This is when the GPS shined. The GPS positioned us perfectly throughout the drive.

N900 GPS Route ConfigWhile driving along, my wife noticed that the GPS route had us going through a road that has not been built yet. This is somewhat disconcerting considering you might find yourself lost in the middle of nowhere and the GPS routes you through roads that do not exist. I think part of the problem is that the N900 uses Nokia’s Ovi Maps. Ovi Maps has a somewhat bad reputation for not being quite correct and it’s being destroyed by competition like Google Maps. But, at least it’s free!

The interface for the GPS is fairly easy to use. You can turn GPS on and off whenever you wish. You can find your current position on a map by pressing the red circle on the left side of the map display, zoom in and out of a map and switch between Satellite and Terrain views. You can also allow the GPS to use your current location as a starting point for configuring a trip.

The N900 comes with WiFi (IEEE 802.11 b/g), Bluetooth 2.1 and you can use the N900 in 2G, 3G or dual modes. I have a broadband data plan so I can access the internet and use GPS wherever.

Camera
Picture comparison photo between the N900 and the Canon SX200 ISThe N900 comes with an integrated 5 Megapixel camera with a Carl Zeiss lens and digital zoom. To be quite honest, I haven’t got a clue who Carl Zeiss is. With that said, taking pictures and video is quite easy. To activate the camera/video, just push the cover (which fits snug into the cover… very nice) to the left and the camera/video will activate. The picture to the right shows the difference between taking a close-up flash photo with N900 and my wife’s Canon SX200 IS. Not much of a difference. The N900 takes pretty good photos with flash. Below you can see how the camera takes pictures in a low light setting and of a monitor with a video playing.

N900 Picture Low lightN900 Picture, Monitor with moving video

You can also take a photo and share it to a social network site like Facebook.

It has a phone?
N900 Call typesYes, believe it or not, the N900 comes with a phone. And while it feels funny to be holding a mini-brick to your head, I don’t have any complaints about the call quality. I have not heard any complaints from my wife either. So, in a nutshell, the phone works! The phone is also Skype enabled for those who wish to use VoIP instead of cellular. While most calls can be initiated through your contact list, you can also manually dial by using either the on-screen number pad or by sliding out the keyboard and pressing the numbers.

Keyboard
N900 Slide Out KeyboardThe slide out keyboard is a “full” QWERTY keyboard. In low light situations, the keyboard will light up. The keyboard is fairly easy to use, but I don’t have big hands. It will be somewhat of a problem for those with big hands. The slide out “full” keyboard was a selling point for my wife. She doesn’t like the alphanumeric pads used with portrait type phones. You can access the number and special characters by using the function key (the blue arrow on the left side). You can also access the standard Windows/linux keyboard shortcuts like copy, cut, paste, select all and more using the Ctrl + <key> method. Ctrl + Shift (the white arrow) + P to take a screenshot.

Personalization
As I stated earlier, you can changes themes (the N900 comes with 2), backgrounds, add widgets and shortcuts to your four desktops (you can turn off any of the desktops). You can also add shortcuts to any contact you have. In the previous picture, I have a shortcut to my wife’s contact information. From there, I can call her cell or send her a message. You can enter addresses, email addresses, work numbers, home numbers and more to one contact. You can also tie pictures to your contacts.

Unfortunately, you cannot set a different ringtone for each contact. This is the only thing that my k800i beats the N900 on. You can, of course, choose your own ringtone for the phone but it will be the only ringtone.

N900 Status Bar WindowThrough either the Ovi Store or Maemo.org, you can download applications to use on the N900. This is one area where the N900 will fall behind. Since I am not much of an app downloader, this is not much of a problem for me. With that said, I did download a few useful apps:

  • Flashlight – Open the camera lens cover and the LED flash can be used as a flashlight.
  • 3G/2G/Dual Mode Selection Applet – One press phone mode activation.
  • Load Applet – Shows CPU and memory usage. One press screenshot and screencast.
  • Currency converter
  • Celluar Modem Control Buttons – Allows you to switch to a “tablet mode” which shuts off the phone capability but allows you to use WiFi.

In conclusion

After reading about the N900, I realized that this was the device for me. It has almost everything I wanted. The fact that the N900 can be pushed to do much more is just icing on the cake. After all, the N900 is more little computer than phone. The future of the N900 is a little murky at this time because it’s not really known if you can install Maemo 6 on it. The other reason is the annoucement of MeeGo. According to this post, once Maemo gets QT 4.6 support, it should be possible for the N900 to have MeeGo applications. This still doesn’t explain the future of the N900 but, at least it won’t be left in the dust. Right?

Some helpful information

  • The N900 was unable to find my Access Point’s WiFi signal until I changed the channel, on the AP,  from 13 to 6.
  • To access the special, special characters (ex. < or >) on-screen keyboard press the function key and then press the Ctrl key. You do not need to press these keys at the same time!
  • To show the open programs (multitasking window) press and hold ctrl and then press the back arrow key (backspace).
  • To create specific music playlists, first create specific folders for the music. Then, open X Terminal and do the following: 1. type cd MyDocs; cd NameOfMusicFolder 2. type cd SpecificFolder 3. type ls *.mp3 > playlistname.m3u
  • How I encoded/formatted a video to play on the N900(Tested with a 350mb, 624×352 XviD avi): 1. I downloaded and installed Handbrake. 2. Downloaded and installed this preset in Handbrake. The preset is called Baseline@3.0 (Imported). The preset converts the video into the m4v format but this would not work in the n900. I converted the video again and changed the format from m4v to mp4. This worked and plays the video beautifully.

The iPad… It’s A Giant iPhone!

What happens when you spill Miracle Grow on your iPhone? This:

Photo credit: Engadget

My first impressions of the iPod/iPhone could be summed up as, “Hey, this is cool. Daddy like.” When I saw this, all I could think was, “Um, what the hell?” Seriously, all you could shove in there was 16, 32 or 64GB? IT’S AN IPHONE…. ERR IPOD… ERRRRRRR……………………..

K, I’ve gone cross-eyed.

The real deal

After a night of sleeping and not thinking about the iPad. I have had some time to digest Apple’s latest creation. Here are the specs:

Processor: 1GHz
Screen: 9.7 inch LCD, Resolution: 1024×768
Hard Drive: 16GB, 32GB or 64GB
Wireless: Built-in 802.11n with Bluetooth. 3G capable.
Battery life: 10 hours
Weight: 1.5lbs/.7kg
Connectors/Ports: The usual Apple 30-pin dock connector

In typical fashion, Apple has once again disregarded hopes for a USB (mini-USB) port in favor of it’s 30-pin dock connector port. I was under the impression that agreements have been made regarding the standardizing of the mini-USB port on all devices. This agreement rids everyone of collecting different types of cables for any portable device we carry around. I guess either Apple didn’t agree to this or they just don’t care. Whatever works I guess. In all fairness to Apple, one 30-pin connector should work on most of it’s portable devices. I’m sure Apple will ship a cable with the iPad, like they do with the iPhone and the iPod.

The iPad also does not have room for expansion. The hard drive cannot be upgraded and there are no SD card slots. While Apple will have proprietary devices/docks for external drives and SD card readers, the whole point is for the consumer to spend even more money.

What’s the deal with Flash?

This is a really good question. Tech enthusiasts have been pointing out since the inception of the iPod Touch and iPhone that these devices lack support for Adobe Flash. So what? The problem with Flash is that it’s a beast. A big Flash file can be tough on decent laptops and desktops. Flash is good for portfolio type sites much not much else. Flash ads have become commonplace at the expense of memory and processing power. HTML 5 is coming (someday…) and with it comes the new Video tag. Several major browsers already have some support for this tag including Firefox and the WebKit-based browsers, Google Chrome and Apple Safari. Flash is a thing of the past. Now, if only everyone could come to some agreement over what codecs to use. There’s always something….

Some thoughts

I assume that the iPad is supposed to be a netbook killer. At first glance, this is the killer. The iPad is a nice looking device and will suit low-tech users just fine. This would probably be the perfect device for my dad since he uses his iPod Touch for more than music. He also does a lot of reading and this would be perfect for e-books. This is for anyone who bought or is considering buying a netbook.

I’ve been reading comments on Ars and Engadget. Supporters of the iPad are universal in their argument that the more Tech savvy reviewers and commentators are being far too harsh in their criticism of the iPad. Well, they are tech sites and I am a tech blogger. We want all kinds of crap shoved into our machines. Also, in this economic environment, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to point out the fact that people will have to shell out more money for proprietary devices to connect to the iPad.

In the end, I know the iPad isn’t for me. I have an iPod Touch and it serves me just fine as a (more than music) portable device. And it will be that way until I get a smartphone. The iPad is for people who don’t want a lot out of their portable but want a faster browsing experience, and bigger real estate. If you can deal with the fact that you won’t be able to put this in your pocket, then the iPad is the way to go.


Tech Tidbits

A refreshing change of pace from the usual bitching and moaning. 😀

“There’s not enough free space to run Steam”

Are you getting this error message when trying to install Half-Life 2: Episode One from the DVD? I just did. Copy the contents of the install DVD into a temporary folder of your choosing and run the install program from the folder. Disco!

Windows 7 God Mode (LOL)

While some tech sites are referring to this easter egg (of sorts) as “God Mode”, I will just call it something cool and useful to know.

You can create a new folder, and name it “GodMode.{ED7BA470-8E54-465E-825C-99712043E01C}”. This creates an icon that will link you to every single item under the Windows 7 Control Panel. A decent little trick. The problems is that this has apparently been around for quite a while and it is not limited to just the Windows OS environment.

Another fun fact about this is that what works the magic has nothing to do with “GodMode” but it has everything to do with what comes after it, “.{ED7BA470-8E54-465E-825C-99712043E01C}”. In fact, instead of using “GodMode…”, I used “Control Panel.{ED7BA470-8E54-465E-825C-99712043E01C}”. That worked just fine. Here’s a couple more hints via a commentator from the CNET article.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R… whuuuut?

Anyone play that funny little game called Stalker: Shadow of Chernobyl? Awesome story and great concept until you run into bugs and bad programming. A while ago, a person named “Artistpavel” created a mod called STALKER Complete 2009. This greatly improves the quality of play and graphics in the game. Download it from here. This mod will automatically install into your Steam directory if you have the game via Steam. This will work in Windows 7 64-bit. Make sure you download and install the 1.4.3.2 patch!!

You will have to create a new game in order to use this mod within a game!

A couple of things about it. To use the black and white night vision instead of the crappy green night vision navigate to the anims folder in the gamedata folder which is in the root stalker shadow of chernobyl directory. You will see two files there: nightvision_bad.ppe and nightvision_good.ppe. Change the extension file extension of nightvision_bad.ppe from ppe to bak. Next copy the nightvision_good.ppe and paste it into the same folder (anims). Rename the copied file to nightvision_bad.ppe.


Missing/Invisible Windows VISTA Update Items Update

(Updated Feb. 21st, 2010)

After the list disappeared around the 15th, it reappeared – by itself – in the last day or two. Really wierd…

In this posting, I talked about how the updates list had disappeared from Windows Update (Windows Vista). I found a solution on the MS Support forums and I will share with you the steps you need to take to [hopefully] resolve this. Remember that I am not responsible for any damages that may occur because you did not do something correctly.

This solution was actually the answer to another problem. People could see their updates in Windows Updates. The problem was the updates they installed were still on the list after they had updated.

  1. Download the Windows Installer Cleanup Utility and install this program.
  2. Download MSXML 4.0 Service Pack 3. DO NOT INSTALL THIS YET!
  3. Run the Windows Installer Cleanup Utility program. Open the Start menu and click on All Programs it will be in that list. Search the list for any program listed as “MSXML”. There was 3 MSXML 4.0 Service Pack 2 entries in the list for me.
  4. Remove all instances of this and reboot your computer.
  5. Once you are back into Windows, install MSXML 4.0 Service Pack 3. No need to reboot after this has been installed.
  6. Open Windows Update 🙂

Missing/Invisible Windows VISTA Update Items

As the title states, I am missing a list of items that I can download via Windows Update on Windows Vista. I can see the lists on my wife’s computer (also Vista) and on my Windows 7  computer. I cannot see either the “important” updates or the “optional” updates. I think that if I clicked the “Install Now” button, the updates will download and install but I like to know what I am downloading first. The screenshots are below.

Windows Vista Windows UpdateWindows Vista Windows Update Item List

I don’t have a solution to this problem yet. As soon as I have a solution, I will update this post. If anyone, who runs into this posting, has a solution. Please leave a comment and point me in the right direction. Thanks!


Firefox Overheating CPUs… Oh Noes!!

Like my sensationalist headline? Grabs your attention does it? Well this is what happens when media makes a big deal about a story that is almost much ado about nothing.

I say almost for a reason…

According to CNET, the computer processor usage by Firefox is causing overheating problems in laptops and netbooks. Fair enough, but there is more to this story than the fact that Firefox is turning into a CPU/memory hog and that it will burn up your computer like Drew Barrymore in Firestarter. Apparently, this is such a story that Finnish network MTV3 has devoted some of it’s web space about it (in Finnish… the headline reads “Firefox could overheat your processor”).

The issue of space

For those that have never been inside a laptop or even a netbook, it’s cramped in there. There’s not a lot of real estate to work with as there is in desktop computers. Laptop/netbook manufacturers can only shrink parts so much and even then they are practically sitting side-by-side with another part. This brings on another problem, which is airflow. Because there is almost no empty space in a laptop or a netbook, there is no airflow. Yes, laptops have vent(s) and a fan that blows out the hot air from the processor. However it’s not enough. And if you are playing video or surfing the web, this makes the processor work. Just moving your mouse an inch or two make the processor work. The processor is essential to your computer. It’s the brain and it’s the engine.

Your computer runs on electricity and electricity moves through the insides of your computer when it is running. Basic science tells you that electricity is hot. Laptops/netbooks, while designed to use less power, still have power running through them. If you have your computer on for long enough, the parts inside it will eventually heat up. All of that heat has to go somewhere. Unfortunately, current technology limits how much heat a laptop/netbook can get rid of and that’s not good for it’s parts. Computer parts work better the cooler they are.

It’s not just Firefox…

The above statement is true. Firefox is not the only browser that can heat up your processor. Some commentators of the CNET article mentioned that IE actually doesn’t use the CPU like the other browsers. Also, some fanboy was screaming at the top of his lungs about Opera. I made sure to include these two browsers in my little test.

Test sepcifications

  • Windows Vista Home Premium OEM 32-bit
  • HP dv9000 series laptop
  • Athlon Turion 64 X2
  • nVidia 8400M – Yes, one of the mobile GPU chips that suffered the huge overheating problems. Yes, the motherboard has already been replaced once.
  • 3GB RAM

Besides the browser and a wireless connection, Object Dock, Adobe Photoshop (no open documents) and Windows Live Messenger were also open but running in the background.

Below you can view screenshots I took of various browsers and the Windows Task Manager.

Google Chrome CPU UseIE 8 CPU UseSafari Windows CPU UseOpera CPU Use

In order: Google Chrome 3, Microsoft Internet Explorer 8, Safari 4 and Opera 10.10

As you can see each browser pictured above is using a sizable amount of processor power to run one tab displaying the MTV3 Firefox story page. Every page is displaying no less than 3 Flash ads and there is a fair amount of JavaScript being used on the page.

Google Chrome fmi.fi CPU useIE 8 fmi.fi CPU useSafari fmi.fi CPU useOpera fmi.fi CPU use

In order: Google Chrome 3, Microsoft Internet Explorer 8, Safari 4 and Opera 10.10

Not so busy anymore, is it? The web page pictured above is to the Finnish Meteorological Institute’s website local weather page. This page displays 0 flash ads and very little JavaScript.

The point of the story is that the media has chosen Firefox to be the culprit of your overheating CPU. While Firefox obviously uses your processor, so does every other browser. They have to use your processor. Not only do they need to just open and stay open so you can use it, they have to display the Flash ads and video you watch in your browser and process the programs that help you use web sites more efficiently.

In the end, there is just far more to the heat your laptop/netbook generates than you think. Don’t be fooled by media stories like this that try to scare you. Just remember:

  1. Laptops and netbooks have very little space to where heat can escape.
  2. Today’s web sites use technology which needs your computer’s power to run.
  3. There’s no need to panic, the sky is not falling. Just remember that if you are not using your computer for a period of time, either close your browser or if you need to keep your browser open then put your computer to sleep or put it in hibernation. Putting it to sleep or in hibernation will save what you are doing to your computer’s memory or hard drive, respectively. This way, you can let your computer cool off and when you want to use your computer again, all of your information will still be there.

Building A Custom System Using An Antec 1200 Part 4

And finally we are at the end of my series about building a custom computer system using an Antec 1200. In this final posting, I’m going to throw numbers your way. I ran some gaming and performance benchmarks. But first, I must tell you that I am not a professional reviewer. One of those guys stuck in labs, running test after test on computers and then kicking your ass with the logic. Sometimes it’s better to hear it from the random guy on the street. Here I am.

System specs refresher

You don’t need to scan through the other postings to see my specs. I’ll list them right here:

  • Antec 1200 computer case, 5 120mm fans, 1 200mm fan
  • ASUS P6T motherboard with Intel X58 chipset, 3-way SLI and Quad-Crossfire ready, onboard Realtek HD Audio, onboard Gigabit LAN
  • EVGA GTX 275 1792MB GDDR3
  • 6GB Corsair Dominator PC3 12800 @1600, triple channel
  • Western Digital Caviar Black 1TB SATA (3.0Gpbs) HDD, 32MB cache @7200rpm
  • Corsair TX750, 750W power supply
  • Samsung SATA DVD-RW drive
  • Windows 7 Home Premium

How does it run?

Windows 7 System Info WindowIt runs well, but I am not surprised. Programs like Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Dreamweaver start up fast. Games load maps fast. I had a really good experience using Windows 7 Ultimate RC, both on this laptop and on my gaming system. It was almost stable with few problems. I have removed RC from this laptop and have gone back to Vista. Man, I really don’t like Vista.

If you have clicked on the picture to the right, then you have noticed that the Windows Experience Index is only 5.9. For those that do not know, the Windows Experience Index, introduced to us in Vista, is Windows’ benchmarking tool. While it’s not as telling as PC Vantage or 3D Mark, you get the general idea of how well Windows 7 will work on your system.

Windows 7 Experience IndexHere is a snapshot of the Windows Experience Index screen and you can see how my system measures up according to Windows 7. My system gets mid 7s in all categories except the HDD transfer rate. For me, this was not unexpected. My hard drive is very large and only 7200rpm. It takes the system longer to search for files on this drive. Maybe an SSD would be good for this system. However, I want large capacity and SSDs are expensive the bigger they get. So the HDD will remain the part that – sort of – holds this system back.

The Intel Core i7 quad-core CPU is the engine that keeps my rig running fast. To the right, you can see the Windows Task Manager. Windows 7 has detected all four cores plus Hyper-Threading for each core. Intel’s Hyper-Threading technology virtually duplicates parts of each core. This is why Windows Task Manager shows eight CPUs instead of four. However, as you can see, not all eight “cores” are being used. This will probably remain the case until someone comes out with a OS, software or game which can use all four/eight at the same time.

For now I am happy with my choice of CPU. As a test, I timed Any Video Converter as it converted a 730MB AVI video file into a MP4 video for my iPod in 25 minutes. It takes my HP dv9000 series laptop a couple of hours to complete this task. The video looked good and the audio was on track.

PC Vantage and 3D Mark 2006

Since I am cheap and poor, I only used the trial versions of these programs. Both made by the same company, PC Vantage tests the performance of computers running Windows Vista and higher. 3D Mark is the standard in graphics performance testing for the masses. Because I only used the trial versions, I was severely limited in settings and how hard I pushed my system. So, these are the results:

  • PC Vantage: 8401 PC Marks
  • 3D Mark 2006 (Res. 1280×1024, no AA): 16911 3DMARKS
    SM 2.0 Score: 6822
    SM 3.0 Score: 7634
    CPU Score: 4962

Game Benchmarks

GPU-Z

GPU-Z displaying my graphic card's specs

When I play games, I created a gaming theme which switches to Windows Basic and removes the wallpaper from the desktop. In my experience, turning off Windows Aero does have some impact when playing a game. I ran my gaming theme while running these benchmarks. These are the games that I have and tested: Crysis, Far Cry 2, Grand Theft Auto IV, Left 4 Dead, Left 4 Dead 2 Demo, S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Call of Pripyat.

Note: My monitor’s native resolution is 1920×1080

S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Call of Pripyat (зов припяти) Benchmarking Tool

Yes, this game has not been released yet but GSC Game World has released a benchmarking tool for us to use. This tool runs the test four times by testing different configurations. Each loop tests the same sequence in different weather environments: Day, Night (with Lightning), Rain and heavy sunshine with sun rays the demo calls SunShafts. The results:

High preset. Enhanced, full dynamic lighting DX10

  • 1920×1080
    Day: 85fps
    Night: 79fps
    Rain: 86fps
    SunShafts: 31fps
  • 1680×1050
    Day: 94fps
    Night: 89fps
    Rain: 96fps
    SunShafts: 35fps

Left 4 Dead

Unlike other games, Valve’s Left 4 Dead relies more on the processor than the video card. Not that a video card doesn’t help!!! For this, I recorded a demo of me playing the single player in The Woods, the 1st map of Blood Harvest. I fought my way from the first to the second picnic table.

Max settings. The timings are: 1)No AA, Anisotropic filter 2x 2) 8x MSAA AA, Anisotropic filter 16x.

  1. 1920×1080 – 130fps
  2. 1920×1080 – 77fps
  1. 1600×900 – 150fps
  2. 1600×900 – 102fps

Left 4 Dead 2 Demo

Just like the first L4D, L4D 2 also relies on the CPU. Just in case you didn’t play the demo, the demo takes place on The Waterfront map. The 1st map of The Parish campaign. I recorded a demo of me playing from the riverfront to the backdoor to the restaurant kitchen.

Max settings. The timings are: 1) No AA, Anisotropic filter 2x 2) 8x MSAA AA, Anisotropic filter 16x.

  1. 1920×1080 – 148fps
  2. 1920×1080 – 105fps
  1. 1600×900 – 163fps
  2. 1600×900 – 133fps

Did you notice that the numbers for L4D 2 are higher than L4D? This is because The Woods is more graphically intense than The Waterfront.

Grand Theft Auto IV

Unlike the other games that I tested, GTA IV has a benchmarking tool within the GUI of the game. Just click on “Graphics” then click on “Benchmark” near the bottom of the submenu. The preset demo shows a race on mopeds through the lighted streets of Liberty City. The submenu also shows you how much graphics memory you are using.

All settings are high and draw distance is mid-range.

  • 1920×1080 – 60fps
  • 1680×1050 – 61fps

Far Cry 2

Far Cry 2 comes with a benchmarking tool. You just have to find it! At first, I found it on the DVD but it would not work. Finally, I found that it had been copied onto the computer during the installation. I found it in this directory C:\ProgramFiles(x86)\Ubisoft\Far Cry 2\bin. I used the demo Ranch – small.

My current game settings, DX10 All settings VERY HIGH.

  • 1920×1080 – 57fps

DX10 All settings ULTRA HIGH

  • 1920×1080 – 50fps

DX10 All settings VERY HIGH

  • 1680×1050 – 59fps

DX10 All settings ULTRA HIGH

  • 1680×1050 – 53fps

Crysis

GPU-Z Sensors

GPU-Z after a round of Crysis.

Crysis is pretty much the current king of all benchmarked games and internet memes (“Yeah, but can it play Crysis?”). Crytek pulled out all of the stops when they made this game. It’s taxes, even, the most powerful gaming rigs and mine was no exception. I just recently bought this on Steam for 10€. I downloaded a benchmarking tool and the demo was a bird’s eye view of the island.

All tests were done in DX10, 32-bit. The timings are:  1) No AA, High quality 2) 8x AA, High Quality 3)  No AA, Very High Quality

  1. 1920×1080 – 43fps
  2. 1920×1080 – 38fps
  3. 1920×1080 – 28fps
  1. 1680×1050 – 46fps
  2. 1680×1050 – 38fps
  3. 1680×1050 – 32fps

Final thoughts

There is one lingering problem that I have had since Windows 7 RC. I make it a habit to put my computers into Hibernation instead of completely shutting them off for the night. My system tends to bring itself out of hibernation. I have set the sleep timer to 10 minutes and it goes to sleep. This happens every night. I turned “Hybrid Sleep” off so I could actually use Hibernation. I also disabled “Wake-on LAN” and “Magic Packets”.

I really enjoy building systems and this was no exception. What made it even more special was that my rig has quality parts and it is a high-end rig. Maybe it could use a Creative sound card and a LCD temperature gage and fan control. But this works just fine and it really didn’t break the bank. And if you look at the last picture just above, you can see that after playing Crysis, the EVGA card is only 76C. I have never seen that temperature reading above 79C. Plus, the area where my computer sits really is not any hotter than it normally is when the computer is off. So, it’s getting sufficient cooling thanks to the airflow provided by the fans, cable management and space of the Antec 1200. Good luck in building your gaming rigs!


The ATI Radeon HD 5970: The Fastest Video Card… EVAR!

Well, that’s according to Tom’s and they are not short on sensationalist headlines. Well, I’ll give them a pass this time because, the new Radeon HD 5970 is, currently, the fastest high-end card on the Market.

Coming in at an inch longer than it’s predecessor, the HD 5870, the HD 5970 is a beast.

And the comparisons…

ATI Radeon HD 5970

  • Computing power: 5 TeraFLOPS
  • Idle power consumption: 168W
  • Load power consumption: 476W
  • Dual-GPU
  • Core clock: 725MHz
  • Memory: 2GB GDDR5
  • 2 DVi ports, 1 mini-DisplayPort
  • Price: 650 – 700€

My EVGA GTX 275 1792MB

  • Computing power: Around 1 TeraFLOP
  • Idle power consumption: 143W
  • Load power consumption: 343W
  • Single-GPU
  • Core clock: 633MHz
  • Memory: 1792MB GDDR3
  • 2 DVI ports, 1 S-Video port
  • Price: 250 – 300€

You can go to Tom’s or Anandtech to read comprehensive reviews on this card.


Bioshock And Realtek HD Audio

Are you unable to play Bioshock because you can’t hear anything at all? Maybe this might help you. But first, let me give you quick specs of my computer:

  • Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit
  • ASUS P6T
  • Onboard Realtek ALC1200 which is using HD audio software and drivers, downloaded from the ASUS support website
  • Audio ports on the motherboard and in the front of the Antec 1200 case via wire from port to motherboard
  • Bioshock purchased and downloaded via Steam

History of the problem

I first encountered this problem while I was using Windows 7 Ultimate RC. The sound in the game worked just fine until after the plane crash at the beginning of the game. Of course, I googled for the problem and it took me some time. Most suggestions had to do with downloading and installing Windows Visual Basic 2008 Redistributable. There were also suggestions to download an older version of Direct X 9. When Bioshock was installed, it also installed an older version of Direct X and Windows Visual Basic 2005 Redistributable.

None of these suggestions worked for me. I eventually found this solution via an obscure forum posting. For the life of me, I cannot remember the address so just take note that I did not come up with this solution all on my own. 😀

The solution

Just remember that if you are not using Realtek HD audio, this might not work. Not everyone’s specs are the same. It doesn’t hurt to try this. Oh, and I am not responsible for any damage that might occur for whatever reason.

Realtek HD Audio MenuIn the notification/status area of the taskbar, right click on the Realtek HD Audio icon and select “Audio devices”. From here, a window will popup. This window should have four tabs: “Playback”, “Recording”, “Sounds” and “Communications”. Even if it doesn’t have 4 tabs, make sure that it at least has the “Recording” tab.

Realtek HD Audio Recording Tab MenuClick on the “Recording” tab. In the picture to the left, I have two devices which are currently “not plugged in”. Now, right-click inside this window and select “Show disabled devices”. Any device that is disabled should appear in this window. Now right-click either “Stereo Mix” or “CD Audio” and select “Enable”. A green circle with a checkmark should appear next to the device. The picture below shows the disabled devices and the right-click menu to enable them.

Realtek HD Audio Recording Menu Disabled

Enabling the device in the "Recording" section.

Now you should be able to hear sounds in Bioshock after the plane crash. These are pretty exact instructions for a setup with Realtek HD audio. So, no one should mess this up. If this does not work, then you might be experiencing a problem somewhere else.


The PC… Err… Nerfed Version of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2

*Update: Activision responds to comments about IW nerfing PC CoD: MW2.

According to Tom’s Hardware, Activision President, Mike Griffth has responded to Kotaku concerning the comments by saying they are, “Watching this very carefully and paying attention to it. But we’re not overly concerned about it.”

Quite honestly, Activision does not have to worry about it. As I already addressed in the original posting below, IW’s and Activision’s bread and butter for this game will come from sales of the game to console owners. He admitted that Activision and IW have intended for the PC online experience for this new game to be similar to the “friendly consumer experience” enjoyed by console game players.

The problem with this is that no one told Activision to change the way PC gamers have been playing multiplayer games for more than a decade. If there is one thing that I have not heard since playing PC multiplayer games myself (1998) is “Gee, I wish someone would reinvent the way we all get together and play on a server because it’s just too goddamned hard as it is.”

In the end, pointing at the console sales charts is nothing more than an excuse to be lazy. Activision and IW have decided that just not enough people buy the PC version of the game to justify caring enough.

Some of the commenters in the Tom’s article are obvious console fanboys. You want to play games on a console? Go right ahead because I, personally, will not judge you. I mastered Super Mario on the NES. I played Pitfall on the Atari and Intellivision. I am the proud owner of a Wii and, hopefully, some day a 360 or a PS3. Fanboys are people who just don’t see both sides of an argument. They are right and everyone else be damned. I pose this question to console owners: How would you feel if Activision and IW said to you, “Sorry guys, but the PS3 and 360 versions of MW2 are single-player only. Console sales just do not justify us making any kind of effort for online play.” You would be pretty ticked off. And you would know how PC gamers feel right about now.

To be honest, my personal interest in this game was for the single-player side only. But now I need to seriously reconsider buying it or waiting till Steam sells it for dirt cheap before I pick it up. In the meanwhile, I’m behind in my games so, it would be no immediate loss for me. I feel bad for all of the players in the CoD PC community.

 

*Original posting

As reported on Tom’s Hardware, Ars Technica and probably a billion other places, the newest release of the Call of Duty franchise by Infinity Ward comes with severe limitations that are guaranteed to piss off CoD PC fans and the established online CoD community.

During a podcast and a Best Buy chat, Infinity Ward gave out more details about it’s newest game that have enraged fans by limiting the amount of players on a server to 18 , no more dedicated servers and no custom controls via console commands.

Online play

IW has setup CoD: MW2 so that the game will automatically pick the host of the online match, based on predetermined criteria. Basically, those people with the best bandwidth and the computing power out of those who wish to play in the match will host a game. You will not be able to pick what player will host the game. There will also be an, at-least, 5 second pause during a host migration just in case the original host quits – for any reason.

The problem that comes into play here is that many ISPs have rules and regulations against it’s customers hosting any kind of server. Many ISPs will simply throttle bandwidth if a server has been detected. The game will then pick the next player who is capable of running the “server”.

For those who are hosting games, they will experience latency so their “connection” will match the rest of the players.

The ability to remove problem players from a game has also been taken away. So, this leaves PC players of the new CoD game left with almost no ability to use the game as a base to make their own modifications and help make online play better for their fellow gamers.

As for recording of games. Demoing matches is a staple of online play. I used to do it when I used to compete with clans in Quake 3 CTF and RtCW matches. With YouTube, players can upload their gameplay vids so everyone else can experience what the player experiences during play. When asked by a questioner if the ability to record games is in the game (and then begging for a “yes”), they were told “No”.

Balance

Apparently, “balance” is the new buzz word at Infinity Ward. In response to a question about console commands, graphics tweaking and other tweaking, IW’s Vince Zampella said, “We would like you to play the game the way we designed and balanced it.” This also means that there is no longer any lean (when you can peek around a corner to see who is coming without being shot). leaning would ruin the balance of the game, according to Infinity Ward.

The good news for players is that you can still customize your controls, use text chat in-game and change graphics settings. I guess doing this won’t ruin the “balance” of the game.

So why do this?

Piracy

That’s a really good question and one that cannot be easily answer even by Infinity Ward. Chatter around the campfire is that some of this has to with piracy. With IW completely at the helm, they don’t have to worry about pirates, cheaters and the rest of their ilk. But the problem with this is that, as we have seen recently with EA’s DRM debacles, instituting draconian measures and DRM just drives users to download pirated games. Users who would not normally pirate games can now enjoy a much better experience playing a game than if they had bought a copy from the local store.

I always encourage people to buy a game if they want to play it. I’ve been called a “goody-goody” for it but the thing is that this newest fanning of the flames by IW is exactly the knee-jerk reaction which makes the lives of everyone a lot harder. If you do download a pirated version and you like it, go buy a copy and spare the rest of us from having to deal with this bullshit.

And before you think otherwise, I am very much against draconian DRM and other measures that developers and distributers are now taking to combat piracy. They are losing the battle and the rest of us gamers are caught in the middle.

Consoles are where the money is

Let’s face it, without the need to break out statistics, sales of consoles and their games pretty much blows away the PC gaming market. It’s been this way for several years now thanks to big, cheap flat panel TVs, the Nintendo Wii and HD gaming via the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 with integrated entertainment systems wifi or wired net capabilities. Who needs to spend 1200€ on computer hardware like I did when they can get a console a fourth of the size of my computer case for a third of the price?

There are fanboys on both sides who claim that PC gaming is dead. Steam and the games it provides to the public is one of many fine examples of why that cannot be any further from the truth. I think the real problem here is the game developers are starting to go down the same path the recording industry did. The recording industry latched onto a huge source of revenue while becoming very complacent in their position. Quality suffered at the hands of quantity. The same thing is starting to happen with the gaming industry. The only thing we are missing now is a cartel “representing” the gaming industry suing every man, woman and child within a 1 mile radius of a DVD drive.