Atomic I/O letters column #61

Originally published in Atomic: Maximum Power Computing
Reprinted here September 2006.
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.

 

Consoles vs PCs, part LXVIII...

With the release of the Xbox 360, I have found myself seriously questioning PC gaming. Each year I fork out the usual $1000 for the latest and greatest video card. Normally, as this would give me the best gaming performance, I don't question the extremely high price. Now that you can get a new generation system for less than the price of a single video card, why should I bother any more?

Developers are making more and more games on both PC and consoles, with more focus on the consoles. Call Of Duty 2 and TimeShift are both probably better on the 360. Add to the mix a huge TV, and the experience is undeniably better on console.

I love playing PC games, but I will certainly buy a PS3 before I get another video card. At the end of the day, products have to represent value for money, and the PC just doesn't do that!

Matthew

Answer:
This sort of question has been coming up for years. Now that you can play high-res online multiplayer games on consoles, a couple of the traditional PC gaming strengths are under attack. And consoles have always been pretty much a plug-and-go proposition. That, for most people, outweighs issues like how hard it is to play a first person shooter with a joystick.

PCs with console-ish capabilities, however, aren't actually that expensive, even when the consoles they're competing with are brand new and exciting (which the Xbox 360 still almost is).

There are plenty of people, especially in the Atomic demographic, who do buy a thousand-Australian-buck video card every year. When the first small shipment of RadiForce 25000 Ultra-Omicron cards comes in, they'll always sell, at pretty much any price.

But unless you're one of the few, the proud, the owners of 30 inch 4.096 million pixel monitors, you don't actually need to buy such a card.

Never mind Colecovision software like Half-Life 2 and Doom 3. Let's take F.E.A.R., a real card-grinder, as our example game.

If you've got a GeForce 6800 GT - 2004's Quite Expensive Card, now replaced by the more or less equal and relatively inexpensive 6800 GS - you won't be able to run F.E.A.R. at better than 800 by 600 with 2x FSAA. A lot of the time your frame rate will be fine with higher settings than that, but when everything hits the fan (sometimes literally, given the "Woo! I've got a physics engine!" nature of the game) it'll dive hideously, as will your health points. Arbitrary CPU power will not help.

So 800 by 600 it is.

There's going to be an Xbox 360 version of F.E.A.R. Real Soon Now, but I don't know much about it. Let's be charitable and assume that it runs in the 360's best HDTV output resolution, with the minimum 2x FSAA that all 360 games have to support.

That best resolution is 1280 by 720 at 60 frames per second - "720p60". The Xbox 360 supports 1080i output as well, but games don't necessarily use it, and HDTVs that can display it cost more. And, because it's interlaced, 1080i doesn't look as good as 720p anyway.

Suddenly, "360 quality" doesn't look like such a difficult target. 1280 by 720, 2x FSAA, at 60fps? Hey, 2003 called, they want their graphics mode back.

I've made a shaky assumption about the frame rate, too. CoD 2 is smooth as an infant's tushie on the 360, but Quake 4 ain't, and that doesn't bode well for a version of F.E.A.R. running on the 360 at full resolution.

Taking all this into account, I don't think it's unfair to say that despite its considerable architectural differences from a PC (and the very PC-like original Xbox), the 360 is not actually up there with a current cutting-edge PC. Which is fair enough, since the proper non-"Core" 360 does only cost $AU650.

Given the frame rate thing, actually, you'd probably be able to beat the 360 with one of the cut-down relatively cheap versions of the big-numbered GeForces or Radeons. $AU300 cards are definitely in the running, now.

All of this is also, of course, ignoring the few thousand dollars you have to pay for a 720p-capable HDTV - a bit less, if you shop around for a 720p video projector.

You can avoid that expense by getting a "VGA HD AV Cable" for your 360 and plugging it into a plain old computer monitor, but that monitor had better be an LCD, or the 60Hz refresh rate will boil your brain at typical computer-screen viewing distances.

It's never been sensible to buy brand new top-spec graphics cards, much less pairs of 'em for an SLI/Crossfire box. The fact that consoles frequently compete well against the PC hardware that's available when they come out doesn't change that. It just makes people feel even sillier when they wake up with a headache, a policewoman's helmet, and a $1000 graphics card.

 

Remote control

Is there a way to use my laptop as a console for servers/PCs?

By that I mean to attach cable/s from my laptop to the server's VGA and PS/2 sockets, then control the server from my laptop.

Michael

VNC in action
Four computers, one monitor, no problem.

Answer:
You can't do that, exactly, but there are other options.

There are devices that let you set up a remote monitor and input devices for a computer miles away. Ordinary extension cables are OK if you only need to get to the next room and don't want a high resolution monitor. The next step up is something like this - an everything-over-Cat5-network-cables setup, which gives a 150 metre distance limit for a few hundred bucks.

One of those, along with a keyboard-video-mouse (KVM) switch at the server end (there are various KVMs that can be remotely switched via keyboard input), will do what you want.

If computers are networked together, though, you can use remote control software to operate any one (or several) from any other. The most popular cross-platform software for doing this is Virtual Network Computing (VNC), available for free from RealVNC. It's easy to use, and you can get versions of it for lots of OSes, so you can have any computer's desktop in a window (or full screen view) on any other. Or on its own, if you're feeling silly or make a mistake.

If all of the computers are running some reasonably recent version of Windows, you can use Remote Desktop (previously known as part of Terminal Services) instead. It's pretty easy to use if you've only got WinXP boxes, and it's faster than VNC, because it hooks into Windows' interface libraries rather than just treating each display as an arbitrary picture.

If you're working with nothing but Macs, by the way, Apple have their own Remote Desktop.

 

Battery boost

I have an APC Smart-UPS 1000. Being the cheapskate I am, it was a freebie because the batteries are dead. Continuing my cheapness, I do not wish to pay for its proper batteries (two 12V units in series) if I can do the job cheaper.

I'm not concerned about battery size, as I may be removing the inner workings to transplant into another box.

In your DIY UPS article, you suggest putting batteries (I'm aiming for a wet cell car or motorbike into it) of a higher rating in certain quality power supplies is not recommended.

I believe the model I have can be upgraded somehow, so would suggest to me a higher battery rating can be reached, but I don't know what would be required to do this.

More info can be found here, however mine is an older version so I don't know how much may have changed. Also of note - I'm in the UK, we use a 230V mains, and the battery looks to be two unmarked 12V batteries in series.

Will it be fine sticking some wet batteries in, and what rating should I go for?

Tim

Answer:
Various APC UPSes can accept external plug-in batteries. I don't think you have to do anything special to tell them the new battery's there. Many other UPSes are also happy if you hack in a much bigger battery, an area of endeavour I have explored recently. This means oddball battery configurations will probably work with your UPS, but I've never tried it myself with an APC unit.

I think all of the 1000s, and plenty of other APC UPSes, are meant to use this kind of 12Ah 12V battery. It's a standard size, but not a very commonly seen one (they're in the Maplin catalogue, but discontinued).

The smaller 7Ah sealed lead acid (SLA) bricks can be found in every half-decent electronics store, though. Four of those in series-parallel would be extremely likely to work, not cost much and give a little more run time, though you wouldn't be able to cram them inside the original UPS casing.

You have to be a bit careful using ordinary wet lead acid batteries as indoor toys. You'd probably be OK with "maintenance free" wet batteries, though. They're not actually very technically different from maintainable wet batteries; they just have sealed caps, and last exactly as long as a maintainable battery that you don't choose to maintain.

Unless you need heroic run time, though, there's no reason to even try using really high capacity hernia-inducing models. A couple of basic 12V motorcycle batteries in series will do the job as well as the standard two 12Ah 12V units. A couple of small car batteries will quadruple your run time.

 

Keyboard Of Mystery

Do you know where I can find the driver for my beloved IBM KB8926 keyboard?

I have been searching for three months now, without result.

Here's a picture of the left part of the keyboard.

Odd keyboard

What driver should I use for it?

Dirk

Answer:
What you've got there, m'friend, is a Dutch keyboard [that dumb Microsoft link may require Internet Explorer to work; here's an IBM one that doesn't].

(It made me feel awfully clever when I noticed the symbol lurking under the S, yet no substitution of Y for Z, and so figured it had to be a vaguely Germanic language, or at least from close enough to Germany that there was some reason to have alt-key access to , but wasn't actually German.)

All you should have to do to make this keyboard work properly is select the Dutch keymap in your operating system of choice. In WinXP you change keyboard map in Control Panel -> Regional and Language Options -> Languages -> Details.

When you press, say, the Z key on your keyboard, it doesn't send a signal to the computer that means "Z". It just says "key ID [some number] has been pressed", which the OS then interprets as, usually, a Z. If you're using a German keymap, though, you'll get a Y.

If you just plug your keyboard in and use the default US English keymap, most of the keys will do exactly what you expect them to, and the odd ones will do whatever that keycode corresponds to in the US English keymap. Some will work fine, some will work as does the key of the same designation in the standard keymap (so, for instance, the key below Escape will give you backtick and tilde rather than the characters printed on it), and some may do nothing.

Keyboards that're made to be world-compatible but equipped with different keytops for different markets often have some blank keys, in the English version, that don't seem to do anything at all unless you select the appropriate non-English keymap.

There were a lot of those around in the early days of the "Windows keys", when manufacturers only had a few models of Windows-keyed hardware and wanted to be able to sell them everywhere without changing anything but a few keycaps (and sometimes not even that).

 

This is a reprint of a column originally published in Atomic: Maximum Power Computing magazine here in Australia. The e-mail address for the I/O column is io@atomicmpc.com.au, but I can't answer all of the letters I get.

If you're not an Atomic reader, then sending mail to their letters address is somewhat perverse. Use this alternative instead.

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