Atomic I/O letters column #48Originally published in Atomic: Maximum Power Computing Reprinted here August 2005.
Last modified 16-Jan-2015.
I have a Panasonic TH-42PA20 plasma TV, and want to hook it up to my PC so I can play games on the big screen with 5.1 channel sound. But I only have a Radeon 9200. So I need a new graphics card.
Since the resolution of my TV is only 852 by 480, do I only need to buy a 9600XT or similar and play games at the lower resolution (with highest detail, highest antialiasing etc), and spend the savings on a better CPU and more RAM? Or would you recommend I buy something like an X800, and just let the TV downconvert the high resolutions to 852 by 480?
I've currently got an Athlon XP 2000+ and 768Mb RAM.
Your plasma TV, like a lot of other current plasmas, will indeed accept a range of computer inputs, and automatically scale them to match its own resolution. That's quite a step forward in itself; fancy giant TVs with enough resolution to display some kind of computer image have traditionally had strict input scan rate restrictions, often accepting only one input resolution and refresh rate, which made it basically impossible to drive them with a normal PC.
But, as you say, your "Enhanced Definition Television" (EDTV) plasma only actually has 852 by 480 pixels. That's an excellent match for DVD and rather better than most regular TVs can manage (hence the "Enhanced"), but it's still piddly by computer standards.
There's another piece of the puzzle - refresh rate. Your screen accepts a wide range of horizontal scan and refresh rates, and like an LCD monitor it's constantly illuminated and so doesn't flicker. But also like an LCD, it still has its own hard refresh rate - the number of times per second it updates its screen.
This refresh rate puts a cap on the maximum frame rate you can actually display. Go higher than the real screen update rate and you may just get "tearing" as seen on computer monitors when VSync's turned off for a game, or you may get a sequence of whole frames capped at the update frame rate. It depends on how the plasma's video preprocessor (which does the resolution conversion stuff) works.
Panasonic don't publish an update rate specification for the 42PA20, but if it's higher than 75Hz, I'll eat my hat. Since this isn't a high end plasma, it may only be 60Hz.
What all this means is that any graphics card that can manage full eye candy (including FSAA and anisotropic filtering) at 852 by 480 and 75Hz, in your games of choice, will look as good on your plasma as anything can.
If you have trouble setting that exact resolution - you should be able to do it with some config file editing in many modern games - then a higher 16:9 resolution will work as well, and you'll probably be able to keep the frame rate up by reducing or disabling FSAA, since the plasma's resolution scaler will have a similar effect anyway (ugly nearest neighbour interpolation is now, fortunately, a thing of the past).
A Radeon 9600 would be more than capable of the frame rate you need, but doesn't support the fancy shader effects in recent games. A plain (non-GT) GeForce 6600 would do the job better. A GeForce 6200 or Radeon X300 will pretty much manage it, too, but the X300's only available in PCIe (so was the 6200, until recently). And I'd definitely get the video card before considering any other upgrades; your current CPU may turn out to be perfectly adequate.
Is it possible to use an LCD TV as both a TV and a computer monitor? I'm hoping to invest in this idea for power savings, saving space, and displaying higher resolutions while watching DVDs through the video card's TV out function or standalone DVD player.
Yes, it's possible; there are many models of LCD TV that have VGA ("RGBHV") inputs. Because they're TVs, though, they typically have unexciting resolution specs compared with PC monitors. They only need HDTV pixel counts, at most, so something like 1366 by 768 pixels is about all you can expect from an 80cm-ish widescreen unit. Which won't be cheap.
Basic 4:3 aspect ration non-HD LCD TVs can only be expected to deliver 640 by 480, and seldom have computer input.
Heat sink performance depends on surface area, right? Wouldn't it improve a copper cooler if you electrically deposited copper onto it, from copper sulfate solution or something? That way the copper would grow on in lumpy crystalline dendrites, which must have higher surface area.
It's not just surface area; it's ability to move heat from that surface to your coolant - in this case, air.
In normal manufacturing scales - things you can cut or extrude - ridging up the surface, or putting pins on it, or cutting slots, will indeed improve the ability of the heat sink to move heat to the coolant. On very small scales, though, things get trickier.
Fluid flow over small-scale uneven surfaces can be peculiar - which is why sharks, whose skin is covered with tiny toothy scales, experience less water friction than they would if they were smoother. Microturbulence in the water stays in the grooves, if it can, and acts like a bunch of tiny liquid rollers between the shark and the main body of water, with little mixing (and thus little heat transfer, as well as little friction).
Tiny-scale unevenness on a heat sink might well work the same way, causing fluid flow oddities that'd make the sink work worse, or at least no better, than it did before.
In these days of sliced bread, not to mention self tapping screws, one would think that by now, the masses could attain storage nirvana with a cheap NAS. But it seems that "cheap" and "NAS" are seldom used in the same sentence. So, rather than selling an organ to finance an out of the box solution, I started looking for a DIY setup, and found this.
Looks like a pretty neat idea, and not particularly expensive. Do you have any experience with these things? Is there a cheaper way to the path of reliable mass storage?
The reByte embedded Linux boot card is indeed neat, but it's limited by the reliability of the computer in which it's installed. If you're repurposing an old machine (probably with a fresh drive or two), some part of it may be on the way out.
And yes, there's a cheaper way - as long as all you want is your basic NAS gadget, not extra auto-backup stuff thrown in. You can, of course, add auto-backup in various ways yourself once your NAS device is working.
Check out Linksys' NSLU2, which is a plug-and-go Linux-based appliance that accepts one or two USB external drives and turns them into SMB shares, poof, like that. It's quite hackable, too. Now there's the one-box EFG250 as well, a hybrid of the two from Maxtor (not terribly expensive here in Australia), and there are probably cheaper off-brand versions available now, as well.
Personally, I'd like to see a thing like this that allowed you to run more drives - through a hub, even - but a couple of non-RAIDed 300Gb drives will do for most people for the time being, and that's now pretty affordable. The NSLU2 sells for about $US100, not including drives.
I'm wondering whether you know of a way to get Amiga disk images back from PC to Amiga (as you know PC 3.5 inch DD disks are 720Kb, Amiga is 880Kb). I have DOS-2-DOS, but that's Amiga reading DOS disks, which are too small to fit the Amiga data on.
I tried making a cable and software to transfer the files using the parallel port, and the printer "ready/not so ready" line to pulse the data, but I forgot I was interfacing with a Windows platform. You may ask, why not use a good emulator? Because PC joysticks suck, always have, always will.
Also, my mate and I play Bubble Bobble every other weekend (with Action Replay - love the free lives!), and the disk farked right up, no recovery possible, and I'm beating him 3-2, which I guess is a main contributing factor to wanting to transfer the data.
Alternatively, a high density Amiga drive would probably solve the problem, and wouldn't cost you much, but good luck finding one, or an adapter for a PC drive, in eBay's Vintage category.
More expensively, a CD-ROM drive for the Amiga would do the trick nicely. If you've got an Amiga with an IDE controller (A600, A1200, A4000...), you should be able to plug in any standard ATAPI ("IDE") CD-ROM drive with only a pin adapter for the laptop-style connector the Amiga has. Otherwise, an old SCSI drive (not so old that it can't read CD-Rs...), and an old SCSI controller, and away you go. Either option is easier to find than the big floppy, and more useful.
(You can't have my old triple speed caddy-load NEC SCSI drive; a friend snaffled it some years ago.)
Oh, and is there some reason I've forgotten why a null modem cable and terminal programs were out of the question? That'd only take a couple of minutes per disk image, tops, at 115200 bits per second.
People did some hacking on the old Amiga ParNet parallel port file transfer system (for which I still have a cable, home made of course) to make it PC-compatible, too, but that was back in the days of DOS, and you don't need the speed for files this size anyway.
Given hardware like that, emulation ain't that bad an idea, if you're willing to buy some extra gear. UAE (go here for the Windows port) is apparently decently game-capable these days.
Regarding the feeding of your addiction to Bub and Bob, one might suggest MAME and the real live arcade Bubble Bobble ROM, which my psychic powers tell me zips down to only about 178k. But that would of course not be legal, unless you already owned the physical ROMs.