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spikegifted - Changing life of a PC gamer (December 22, 2004)

 

Back in the old days, Changing times, And then some, And then some more, What now?, Moving on, Update

I am a PC gamer!

I won't even try to deny it - I'm a PC gamer! There. I said it. I think it is important to get that out of the way for I feel that as a PC gamer, my approach to what's inside that box that I call a PC is substantially different from what an average PC user.

Back in the old days...

Of course, to be a PC gamer, I needed a PC. I got my first PC back in November 1993. It was a 486 SX25 and, back then, the top of the range PC would have been a 486 DX2 66. If you have the two sets of specifications next to each other, my PC would not have looked all that bad. It was the same generation of technology and it was coping just fine. Having said that, Intel's original Pentium processor was launched almost as soon as my first PC arrived at my front door. If I had only waited for an extra month, I could have picked up something more powerful for the same amount of money. Lesson #1: Before taking the plunge, thoroughly research the market place and find out future plans via 'roadmaps'. I can give you some of the spec of my first rig: 25MHz 486 processor, 4MB of RAM, 170MH HDD, 14" CRT monitor, no CD-ROM, no sound card, onboard VGA with 512kB of VRAM and an single channel IDE controller, so I can only have a maximum of 2 storage device in the box. Compared with todayís PC, that was laughable.

So I had my rig. Of course, the reason for getting the rig was not for the sake of gaming - I was about to start my masters program and I needed a rig to help with my work. Well, intention was one thing, execution was quite another. Other than the office productivity software I needed to do the course work, the first piece of software I bought, and used extensively, was games.

Back in those days, it was MS-DOS 6.x and Windows 3.1x. It was cool to use Windows for office productivity software but little else. Every game that was worth playing was in DOS. If you hear older computer folks (read: geeks) talking about the 'good old days' wrestling with autoexec.bat and config.sys just to get an extra kilobyte of base memory out of their setups and don't know what they're referring to, count yourself lucky (or unlucky if you listen to the 'older folks'). Literally every piece of hardware in the rig requires a driver and these drivers consume memory - CD-ROM drives, sound cards, graphics cards, etc. To add to that, some games were very demanding in their base memory requirements. Two that immediately come to mind was Falcon 3.0 and SimCity2000. I ended up having different profiles in my boot files so that I can load different hardware setups at boot time to for different needs. Of course, each profile was optimized as much as possible to free up as much base memory as possible.

It is obvious that all that hard work had to have a purpose and what a 'noble' purpose it was too - hours of gaming fun.

Looking back, you really need to be young, single and completely lacked any other kind of commitment to advance in 'geekdom'. Imagine that I were a heavy drinker, I would have spent more time recovering from my periodic alcoholic abuse than spending time tweaking my rig and achieving gaming perfection. While my social life was healthy and active, I didn't cohabit with my girlfriends until I met the Ruler_of_spike. Most importantly, back then, I had almost boundless amount of energy - for a typical weekend, I could have a social life and spend whatever was left of my waking hours gaming non-stop and still managed to show up to school or work on Monday looking relatively fresh.

Life was good... or so I thought. 

Changing times...

Then I caught the 'hardware bug'. Well, I don't know anyone who actually caught the hardware bug overnight, I certainly didn't. It was a very gradual process. Just over six months after getting the rig, 'multimedia' was all the rage and every new rig had to have a sound card (SoundBlaster16) and a 2x CD-ROM drive. So I got those and a new 500MB HDD (all those games and course work were filling the 170MB drive, even with DoubleSpace/DriveSpace). I got all of those in one go and installed them. You remember that my rig at the time only allowed two storage devices. Well, I actually blew out on an 'Enhanced IDE' controller which allowed a total of four devices to be connected to it. By the end of all of that, I think I had well and truly caught the hardware bug.

The first thing that came in after that was the processor. A 486SX didn't even have a built-in math coprocessor, meaning that it didn't handle non-integer processes too well. I bombed out on a 486DX2 66MHz which, of course, was no where near top of the range anymore. The fastest 486 processor at that time was a DX4 100MHz unit and the speediest Pentium was a P90. However, I was constrained by the motherboard with an aging chipset that did not support higher multipliers and had the wrong socket for the newer processors. Then comes a stick of 16MB SIMM. Wow! You cannot imagine how expensive that was - my monthly rent was cheaper! Then a 17" CRT monitor at a similar price range.

By that stage, I had a good rig. Then I discovered Falcon 3.0. For those who don't play flight sims or (god forbidden) play them just using keyboard and mouse, I'll give you one tip: To really enjoy a flight sim, you need, at the bare minimum, a flight stick and a throttle. And because Falcon 3.0 was all about the F-16 Falcon (and because nearly every key on the keyboard is mapped), there was only one setup for it - Thrustmaster's HOTAS: the F16-FLCS flight stick, the F16-TQS throttle control and F16 rudder paddles. If you go to Thrustmaster's website now, you'll find the HOTAS Cougar, which is not bad, but the F16 kit was just leagues ahead, even compared with the Cougar. With this kit, I had a gaming rig. Long before people were having Quake deathmatches in dark corridors and dimly lit halls, I was in LAN parties where I spent weekends duking it out with some other 'pilots' over desert landscapes at Mach 1. Life was good... 

And then, people move on in their lives - they get married, they move to other cities, they have life-changing moments, they have new jobs, they discover new hobbies and our little group of 'pilots' melted away.

To be completely honest, flying single-person mission in Falcon 3.0 can be a little dry after all the hot action I had in team play. Lesson #2: Outside gaming, there is a real world out there. Well, I could be sitting here telling you how great it once was, but before I knew it, I was hooked on Quake. Having played all the various version of Doom many times over, I was no stranger to first person shooters (FPS). So when Quake came out, I lapped it up quicker than you can say 'what's that?'

I have to admit to this, but Quake was probably the first game ever that 'convinced' me that I need to upgrade my entire rig. It was the first popular game that utilized 3D graphics. If you werenít there when it happened, you won't know how big a deal it was to play a game in true 3D graphics for the first time. I'm not going to use all those over-used words like 'amazing', 'jaw-dropping' or 'stunning'. They simply cannot describe that first impression Quake left with me. However, it was quite an unsatisfactory experience - the game was running so poorly that it was like watching a flip-chat. Well, when you come to think about it, it wasn't entirely surprising. Playing Quake in 3D really needed a 3D accelerator. My rig didn't have a 3D accelerator, it had onboard graphics from Cirrus Logic, which was ok in 2D but nothing else. So all the 3D work was done in software, which mean that my 486 DX2 66MHz was not only dealing with the game engine and the AI, but also the software render. It is not surprising that I was watching a flip-chat... I've seen PowerPoint presentations which went faster than Quake on my old rig.

Having caught the hardware bug and upgraded my rig to the edge of its capacity, I was ready for the next big step - building my own rig. As you can imagine, the whole point of building the new rig was to accommodate that 3D accelerator. At that point in time, the only 3D accelerator that really mattered was Voodoo! from 3Dfx. And here comes the reason to build a new rig: the Voodoo! was a PCI card and my rig didnít even have a single PCI slot, it had a single ISA slot with a riser card stuck in it.

To help to raise to the overall level of gaming my rig was capable of, I went with the fastest processor I could afford: a Pentium 133. My new rig also have 64MB of RAM, an excellent 2D graphics card (Matrox Millennium PCI), a 2GB HDD and all the other goodies and the all-important Voodoo! card. When that rig was completed, I was in truly gaming heaven. The only part of the rig that wasnít super high-end was the processor. I had more RAM, more powerful graphics, bigger display, bigger storage than the top-of-the-range boxes you can get from the likes of Dell and Gateway. The only letdown was the CPU, the fastest at the time was a Pentium 200MMX.

Eventually, the CPU got upgraded also. First to a P200MMX, then a P233MMX. Of course, when the Voodoo2 came out, I bought one almost immediately and as soon as I could afford it, the second Voodoo2 to allow scan-line interleave. I could claim that I was running Quake 2 faster than anyone I knew. To add to that, I had an excellent sound card - Creative Labs launched the SoundBlaster! AWE64 and I picked one up early on. I could honestly claim that I really enjoyed Nine Inch Nails' performance in Quake.

And then some...

I stayed with that particular setup of quite some time, largely thanks to cash flow, or the lack of. Then one day, I broke down and built a new rig.

The Pentium II and the Celeron were all the rage at the time and I just felt that I had to have such a rig. To add to that, 3D graphics technology was moving ahead and nearly all the products that worth having require AGP interface and my motherboard didnít have that. That simply wonít do! Having learnt Lesson #1, I did a fair bit of research first before hitting my shopping trail. Having splashed out a bundle, I ended up with rig that had a Pentium 2 400MHz, nVidia TNT2 AGP 2D/3D video card, an Aureal 2-based sound card and a bunch of other stuff. Buying the TNT2 was particularly painful for me as I have already invested in my 2nd Voodoo2 card, and I thought I was king of the street. However, nVidia had other ideas. The TNT2 was performing better than a pair of Voodoo2 in SLI mode in some of the games. The problem was, 3Dfx was excellent at pushing Glide (and OpenGL) games, but Glide was proprietary. The TNT2 was better on DirectX games and at the time it was gaining support. So, I ended up adding the TNT2. Likewise, this applied to the SB64. Aureal2 was head and shoulders above and beyond what Creative could offer. Lesson #3: Technology doesn't stop; if you commit to one technology yesterday, it doesn't mean a better technology won't come along tomorrow. However, I really thought I had the good stuff here, but it would appear that I didn't research thoroughly enough as the Pentium II was about to give way to the Pentium III. I was one whole generation of CPU behind again. 

This was also the first time I dabbled in overclocking. To be completely honest, the PII 400 sucked when it came to overclocking and I wasn't getting enough MHz out of my rig. Then I read reports that the Celeron actually overclocked very well, thanks to the smaller size cache, and as gaming applications are programmed in such a way that the small cache on the CPU actually doesn't really hurt performance. So I went out and bought a Celeron 333 CPU. With a multiplier of 5, I managed to bump the bus up to 100MHz  and, bingo, I had a 500MHz CPU. So I ended up with a cheaper processor that ran faster than the 'real thing'.

At that point in time, I was thinking that if I couldn't keep up with the CPU technology, at least I could be up to date with the video processor, as it was video accelerators that were moving faster at that stage. So blowing my money away for video would keep my gaming rig more 'current'. So when the GeForce256 DDR came to the market, I snapped it up almost immediately. Of course, this meant that I pull the plug on the Voodoo2 SLI, which was rather painful.

My gaming rig was holding its own, but then I had a rare opportunity. Intel realized that the original Pentium III core was approaching its limit and with the pressure from AMD, who took away the 'speed king' title with the Athlon K7, came out with a new version of the PIII: Coppermine. There was a die shrink, as well as putting the L2 cache on-die and rumor was that these little beauties were really good overclockers. Additionally, Via Technology had an excellent chipset for the new higher bus speed Coppermines, which means I could get the most out of my potential overclock. I was planning a trip to Hong Kong to visit my folks and with the Sterling to US Dollar (the HK Dollar is pegged to the US$) at a very favorable exchange rate, I could get more kit for the same money. To cut a long story short, I managed to pick up a Coppermine 550MHz, the Asus P3V4X and some PC133 RAM. When I came back home, I put my new purchases into the box and fired it up. After successfully booting up and installing the OS and other essentials, I upped the front side bus to 133MHz and everything was fine. Next stop was 150MHz FSB and it was still going strong. I managed to get it to boot at 155MHz, but it wasn't stable. This has to be my best overclock, ever! A 50% increase over stock.

As a significant part of the budget blown on the new motherboard, new CPU and RAM, I wasn't really in position to upgrade anything else for a while. So by the time I picked up a GeForce2 Pro, the GeForce3 was already out in the market. A sideway move was made on the audio front - Aureal went bust and their products were no longer supported, so it was back to Creative and the SoundBlaster Live! card.

AMD had really continued the progress made by the original Athlon K7 and scaled it to higher clock speeds. It was clear to me that whatever happens next, I would need to get a new motherboard - the P3V4X was a Slot1 board and both Intel and AMD have moved back to a socket interface for good. After the the x86 processors broke through the 1GHz barrier, I was looking around to see if I can find a good platform to build the next gaming rig around. While I'm not suggesting that competition doesn't benefit the consumer, but it forces the consumers to make a decision which may or may not be based on all the available facts. Certainly, it really helped that by the time I came to make such a decision, the Athlon had been around for long enough to prove that it was viable. To add to the basic raw performance of the processor, the platforms which supported it were growing in maturity and stability. The decision to move away from the Intel platform was not a difficult one to make.

I picked up an Abit KT7A-RAID and an Athlon 'Thunderbird' 1.2GHz. I picked these because of the known overclocking abilities of the board and CPU. At first boot, I dropped the multiplier from 12x to 10.5x and moved the FSB from 100MHz to 133MHz. The rig immediately benefited from an increase in clock speed and an improvement in bandwidth, which the Athlon demanded. I pretty much kept all the other components and my gaming rig was performing well ahead of the rest of the market, with the exception of the graphics department which was stuck with the GeForce256 DDR until I picked up the GeForce2 Pro. I tried a higher clock and bus speeds, but it won't boot.

Was life good? Well, it was, with the exception of graphics, I was well up there with the curve.

And then some more...

Having moved to a new platform, I was happy with the performance. Furthermore, having picked up a new GeForce2 Pro, I was happy that I was just one generation of graphics away from the tip of technology. My rig was no longer the latest and greatest, but it was still running all the latest games with good frame rates and it was good enough. Of course, the progression of PC technologies never stop and while my rig was good enough at the time of the upgrade, it was falling behind as time goes on. I was looking around for ways to get more out of my setup.

Then ALi came out with its MAGiK1 chipset which promises to allow good overclock up to 166MHz FSB. When it was finally available, I went out and bought the Iwill XP333-R which was based on this chipset. My experience with this board was not entirely overwhelming. It did everything that the KT7A-RAID did, but not much else. Lesson #4: Before rushing out to invest in the latest technology, think realistically long and hard on the investment cost and the potential benefit, or the lack of. The money that I blew on the new motherboard could have been used for something else, like contributing towards the next graphics upgrade. However, after spending money on the new board, I didn't have the budget for a graphics update. There was one thing I could do - the storage sub-system. The XP333-R had onboard Promise ATA-RAID, so I went out an picked up a pair of ATA133 HDDs and created a RAID0 array. So least I could reduce my load time, if not anything else.

The setup pretty much stayed as it did until I saw another opportunity to get great value from overclocking the Pentium 4 'A' Northwood. For a while, there was a buzz in the the market about how well the P4A 1.6GHz was overclocking. There were some really impressive results around, with people managed to bring their FSB up to and beyond 150MHz (from 100MHz). That's the kind of overclock I like to attempt - even if I wasn't lucky enough to pick up the really good parts, I've a good chance of getting something that I could get some real 'value' out of.

As planned, I picked up the P4A 1.6GHz and the Asus P4B-266E which had a dual channel DDR RAM memory specification to deliver all the bandwidth that the CPU required. The reason why I went with that board is because it also had Promise ATA-RAID, which meant that I could transfer my RAID0 array over without the need to rebuilt the array and reinstall all the games. Unfortunately, the CPU I picked didn't overclock as expected - I could (only) manage 119MHz FSB, which gave me 1.9GHz. It wasn't the worst overclock I achieved, but it was way short of what I was hoping for, which was around 2.1GHz. No amount of cooling could make the CPU run faster. I was disappointed, but I learnt another lesson that I should have picked up long ago. Lesson #5: When it comes to overclocking, your mileage may vary.

So I was stuck, again! I blew a load of money on a platform that didn't overclock as well as I hoped it would and consequently I didn't get as much 'value' out of it as I had hoped to. To add insult to injury, the new platform wasn't necessarily that much better than the one that it replaced! - the P4 has very long pipeline to help the processor achieve high clock speed, but it is not really efficient, so the performance of an Athlon ĎThunderbirdí 1.4GHz wasnít that far off the overclocked P4 at 1.9GHz in terms of raw performance. I was miserable! But what could I do? Well, nothing, to be exact. Hardware companies don't allow people to RMA their stuff because 'they didn't overclock well'. Since I'd blown my budget, I didn't have any more money to try out another CPU or board. So I lived with it for a while. Meanwhile, I vented my frustration by getting myself a Creative SoundBlaster! Audigy card, the first update to the audio solution for years.

Finally, the i845D was overtaken by the i845PE chipset, which officially supported 133MHz FSB (effective 533MHz). I waited for the right board to come along. After reading a bunch of reviews, I went for the MSI 845PE Max2 FIR. After installing the board, I tried overclocking the P4 1.6GHz to see if it would go any higher. Well, the answer was 'no'. Well, at least I knew that the processor I had wasn't a great overclocker and another CPU would probably yield better results. At that time, the 'sweet spot' for Intel Pentium 4 was the 2.4GHz unit with 533MHz FSB. This CPU yielded better results and hit 166MHz FSB straight away, peaking out just below 3GHz. That was a 25% overclock - it was certainly nothing great compared with the more 'hardcore' overclocking results of other enthusiasts, but at least I didn't feel 'cheated'. To add icing to the cake, this was another board that had onboard ATA-RAID from Promise and my RAID0 array just moved over.

As things turned out, ATi came out with its Radeon 9700 Pro VPU, which meant that the previous generation Radeon 9500 Pro was suddenly knocked down in price. As far as I could tell, there wasn't much difference between the newer and the older generation of cards, so I think I got a good bargain.

What now?

As you can see from the above, my current gaming rig is not the most up to date PC in the world. Most of the parts in there are at least a year old, with some over two years old - that's a long time in gaming technology terms. Am I saying that it is slow? Not at all - my gaming rig would be consider blisteringly fast for many people. However, from a truly high-end gaming perspective, it has been left behind by time. One difference now compared with several years back is that I don't go to LAN meets anymore, and so the rig can be a little more delicate.

There are some very exciting developments in the hardware world in the past few months. It looks like when I eventually get round to upgrading my gaming rig, it is going to be one heck of an upgrade. What are the exciting developments? Well, foremost in my mind is nVidia's SLI technology, but there are plenty of others. While nVidia is pushing the nForce4 SLI chipset to be the exclusive platform for multiple graphics operations, there are others who have explored slightly cheaper route of enabling that technology using the nForce Ultra chipset. Another graphics company (ATi) is investigating an alternative SLI to improve performance.

You may wonder why I'm only looking at AMD Athlon64/FX platforms and not Intel's Pentium 4. The reason is that based on my research, AMD's current generation is better gaming performer than Intel. Also, Intel's only platform that supports SLI is a dual Xeon chipset. While I'm a big fan of SMP and I think that there is a case to argue for using a SMP platform as a gaming solution, I don't believe a SMP platform delivers the price/performance optimum I'm seeking. Finally, nForce4 supports ATA RAID, so it means I can keep my storage solution and extend its service life for another generation.

Having selected a SLI platform, it would be rather dumb of me not have two graphics cards. Right now, the GeForce 66xx solutions seems to provide the best bang-per-buck. However, as I'm not seeking to upgrade immediately, but am hoping to do so when the next 'speed bump' of the current generation of nVidia solutions. Hopefully, I'd be able to secure a pair of 68xx GT/Ultra cards immediately after the speed bump some to the market. Of course, I'm relying on DirectX 9.x to be with us for a while and current generation of graphics architectures will survive long enough.

Moving on...

Based on the above, I hope I'm applying four out of the five lessons I've learnt (or hope to have learnt) over the years. However, there is one that is not immediately obvious - Lesson #2. To be totally frank with myself, gaming is not as important to me now as it was a few years back. Personally, I think it is important to recognize that. Unlike a few years ago, I'm now married and of course cohabiting with the Ruler_of_spike and we're planning to have children. The Ruler_of_spike is not a PC gamer and I like that - she gives me another perspective and an alternative to persistently behaving like a geek.

In my case, I now consider spending vast amount of time gaming and vast amount of money following the latest technological trend is just plain selfish. Just like my former LAN gaming friends, I've moved on. I haven't forgotten my PC gaming 'roots', so to speak - I would continue to search for games that I'd enjoy in my spare time and I would continue to follow technological developments. However, at the end of the day, there are more important things in life than gaming.

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Updates:
 

June 30, 2005
Since writing the above, my gaming rig has changed substantially, but not in the way I envisaged. To cut a long story short, I had too many rigs and I decided to use one of the rigs which I marked for disposal and convert it to a new gaming rig. After converting the rig, I took a good long look at it (read: spent some time playing games on it), I decided that it will do the job. The only thing that really needed to be upgraded was the graphics. The only problem was that with the proliferation of PCI-Express-based graphics cards, good AGP cards were more expensive and not easy to find. Finally, after considering the cost of upgrade, likely noise level and the likely longevity of the 'new' rig, I decided to invest an ATi X800XL-based AGP card. I didn't go for the 'blow out' that I dreamt above - frankly I have better things to do with my money these days.

August 31, 2005
I just read a very interesting article from the BBC News website: it's about how gaming, and more specifically online gaming. In the rambling above, I described how I searched to create my own optimum gaming PC, while mentioned a few games that drove the process along. However, online gaming is less demanding on the hardware, as the 'baseline' developers have to allow for is lower, to capture the widest possible audience. However, the people in the article touched on an area that I merely hinted - the addictiveness of gaming. It's interesting to see from other people's perspective.
March 14, 2007
FiringSquad is one of my favorite gaming website. One of its long-time reviewer, JCal, has just turned 40 (a milestone that I shall be reaching sometime in the not-too-distant future). He has written a short but interesting article, called Being a 40-year-old Gamer, there he looked back some of the significant gaming moments for him and looked forward to some exciting developments in the future.
April 26, 2007
One of the eternal questions many people have for geeks is: "why do we keep all these old stuff?" The typical answer is that we might need them, sometime in the future. Like all people who are involved in technologies, we know that things break down and we don't want to be caught short. The underlying psychology is neatly summed up by Andrew Thomas over at The Inquirer - Real geeks never chuck anything away. Some things are just meant to be thrown away... 

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