Atomic I/O letters column #89Originally published 2008, in Atomic: Maximum Power Computing Last modified 16-Jan-2015.
I purchased a slim barebones Media Center system with integrated video 12 months ago, with the intention of playing a few games on it at some stage, not realising that half-height video cards were such rare beasts.
Can you suggest what I should be looking at? Ideally I'd like it to be capable of playing 3D games (WoW, but not necessarily Crysis at high settings), but not sounding like a 747 taking off when watching TV. Happy to purchase through Aus PC Market if they have a suitable card.
World of Warcraft is, fortunately, quite undemanding. Its "Recommended" video card (not the "Minimum", which is always laughably inadequate) is only a "64Mb GeForce FX 5700 class card or above".
It's not too hard to find a low-profile card with quite a bit more grunt than a GeForce 5700. Even if you want a card with a fanless heat sink, to keep the noise down.
One recent entrant in the slimline-card market that would probably suit you quite nicely is the Radeon HD 3450. It's based on the same R600 core as the rest of the HD two- and three-thousand-series cards, but is way slower than the more glamorous members of the three-thousand series, the HD 3850 and 3870. That's partly because the 3450 has considerably slower RAM, but it's mainly because it has only 40 "Stream Processing Units", versus the HD 38xx cards' three hundred and twenty.
There's also an HD 3470, which has 800 and 950MHz standard core and RAM clock speeds to the 3450's 600MHz core and 500MHz RAM. It's still only got about a quarter of the fill rate of a 3870, though, and I don't know whether you can get a low-profile 3470. If you can find one then it should only cost $AU20 or so more than a 3850, at which price it's a good deal, but the only one currently available in Australia seems to be a passively-cooled Sapphire-branded full-height version, which is useless to you.
The slimline 3450 usually comes with a full-height bracket on the back, which you can swap for a low-profile bracket if you like. Note that you may have to pay extra to get a low-profile bracket. If it's not mentioned in the product listing, assume you're only going to get a full-height bracket.
There are two kinds of low-profile bracket. The first is just a shorter version of the standard one-slot bracket. This type doesn't have much room for connectors, so you'll only be able to use the DVI and TV-out connectors, not VGA.
The other kind of bracket is double-wide, like the backs of big video cards that need a double-thickness cooler. The double-wide bracket will stop you from putting anything in the adjacent expansion slot, but the trade-off is that the VGA connector moves to the second half of the bracket; the 3450's VGA socket is on a little cable, not part of the video card proper. So that's the type I'd go for.
(Note that I'm assuming you've got a PCIe graphics card slot in your computer. This is not necessarily the case. It's unlikely that a recently-bought computer will have an old-style AGP slot, but it's perfectly possible for it to have no slot for a discrete graphics card at all - just a couple of plain PCI slots, if anything. It may have an "AGP" or "PCIe" graphics adapter built into the motherboard, or a slow motherboard-chipset integrated video adapter; name-brand computer companies have been selling boxes like this for many years, and many users have been disappointed when they bought a graphics card for their "AGP" computer before opening it up to make sure there was actually an AGP slot on the motherboard.)
As I write this, Aus PC Market have a Powercolor-branded HD3450 with a double-wide low-profile bracket, 512Mb of memory and a big passive heat sink for $AU96.80 including delivery anywhere in the country. (Australian shoppers who'd like to order one for themselves can click here to do so!)
Note that if you go with a card that has a passive cooler, you'll need to make sure the computer has reasonable through-flow ventilation. If all it's got is one low-powered fan at the back of the power supply, you may need to add a little more airflow. One more quiet 80mm fan ought to do it, though a low-speed 120mm fan would be better, if there's somewhere to mount it.
There's a review of the 3450 here which includes tests on various recent games. It turned in predictably miserable results in World in Conflict and Call of Juarez, but it actually did a pretty good job (after a bit of settings tweaking...) with Enemy Territory: Quake Wars at 1024 by 768. ETQW is not a demanding game, by current standards, but anything that can run ETQW decently should be more than fast enough for WoW. And pretty decent for lots of other older 3D games, like Half-Life 2.
And, to put it all in perspective - you know that Radeon 9700 Pro you bought for $700 back in 2002?
Well, the humble HD 3450 is about three times the speed of the 9700 Pro.
Quite modest video cards can work well in home-theatre-PC applications, because even huge digital TVs don't have a lot of pixels. If your TV's a 1080p monster then it'll have 1920 by 1080 pixels, which is slightly more than a 1600 by 1200 computer display, and requires at least a mid-range graphics card if you want to play recent games. A 720p widescreen TV, though, only has 17% more pixels than 1024 by 768. It doesn't take too much effort to paint that much screen at a reasonable rate.
Aus PC Market, by the way, have a handy-dandy listing for all of their low-profile cards. It covers every expansion-card category, not just graphics cards.
I have a wireless router with RJ45 ports. The problem is I'm planning to move to ADSL which requires an RJ11 port. Is it possible to use this wireless router for my ADSL through an RJ45 to RJ11 converter?
It's actually possible to plug an RJ11 phone lead straight into an RJ45 socket; you don't need a plug adapter at all. Unless the device you're plugging that phone lead into can switch the socket to work as a phone connector as well as an Ethernet connector, though, doing this is at best pointless, and can in theory cause damage. The "on-hook voltage" of a standard Australian phone line is 48VDC, which turns into 85VAC when the phone rings. You don't want to be hooking that up to an Ethernet card.
The designers of the RJ pinouts foresaw these sorts of mistakes, though, so it's actually unlikely to hurt anything. A standard single-line RJ11 phone connection uses only the two contacts in the middle of the plug, and those two contacts aren't connected to anything in a standard 10BaseT or 100BaseT Ethernet socket. 1000BaseT "gigabit Ethernet" uses all of the terminals, so you might fry a gigabit device if you plug a phone line into it, but slower devices should be safe. But they still won't work if you plug them into a phone line.
You can still use your router, though. All you need is an ADSL "modem" (actually a "terminal adapter") with its own RJ45 Ethernet connection - which is to say, pretty much any ADSL adapter. Then you can plug the DSL adapter into the router, and the adapter will appear on your network like any other device, and you can then set it up using the Web-browser interface that all normal DSL adapters have these days.
I've got a TViX 5130SH PVR running optical and coax into Logitech Z-5500 speakers, but when watching Hi Def digital TV through the TViX, the sound cuts in and out. On closer inspection, the signal is inconsistent to the speakers - it says it receives digital, then suddenly says no digital, then back to digital. Can't work out why this is.
Is there such a thing as an optical amp that could feed a consistent signal to the speakers, so they don't turn themselves off?
My first guess would be that the tuner in the TViX box is having trouble hanging onto the signal. This may be because your antenna's not good enough or not well enough aimed, but the antenna could also be perfectly adequate; some digital TV tuners are just better than others.
Note that if it's a tuner problem, it shouldn't make any difference whether you're using the digital or analogue outputs from the PVR. If the digital audio outputs cut out but the analogue output doesn't, then the problem lies somewhere else. But I bet everything actually cuts out at once.
(Oh, and if the optical digital connection is flaky but none of the other audio outputs are, it may just be a damaged TOSLINK cable, or even some fluff in one or both of the optical sockets.)
If all you've got a problem with is a cheap set-top box, then switching to whatever other cheap set-top box the local TV-shop people say works best in your suburb will solve the problem. When the tuner's part of a more expensive appliance, as it is in your case, then fixing tuner problems is of course more of a pain. Fiddling with the antenna may, with any luck, be good enough.
But I'd definitely look for tuner problems first, rather than hunt for problems with the connection between the PVR and the speakers. By all means try a new TOSLINK cable, but if that doesn't help, it's probably the tuner.
I've finally decided to join the world of high definition, and purchased a 32-inch Sony LCD TV.
I swear I didn't plan it this way (or so I'm telling the little woman), but it turns out that the TV has an HD15 jack and supports PC input. This obviously means I need to build a PC for my new TV.
My plan is to build a fanless SFF box (I'm leaning towards something based on a VIA Eden CPU) with integrated graphics, one optical drive and one hard drive. The main use would be for surfing the Web and playing legal backup copies of old 8- and 16-bit console games. The one thing I'm debating is whether it would be worthwhile to use a Blu-Ray drive for the optical drive.
Would I be able to view Blu-Ray movies in true Hi-Def over a VGA (well, technically WXGA) connection? If so, would something running off an Eden with Via's integrated graphics be able to handle this, or would I need more processing power?
Blu-Ray movies aren't meant to be viewable in high definition without an HDCP Copy Control Crap chain all the way from the player to the display device. It's impossible to send HDCP over any analogue output, so plain old VGA-out ought to be a non-starter.
(HDCP can be sent over DVI and HDMI outputs, but getting a computer to actually do that is a whole other problem.)
As you'd expect, though, it's possible to get software and hardware solutions to let you walk around the DRM bollocks.
"HDCP strippers" are hardware devices that take a DRM-ed DVI or HDMI signal and turn it into an unencrypted one. As with the old "signal enhancers" that were actually bought by people who wanted to copy VHS tapes, the stripper boxes are sold as "DVI amplifiers", but are usually used for another purpose. If used for that purpose, they violate DMCA-type "circumvention device" laws.
Strippers work by using decryption keys that the content companies can just "revoke", though. If they do that, all movies released since the key revocation will become un-decryptable by that particular model of stripper.
So, as with DVDs in days of yore, software anti-DRM measures are a better solution. The Blu-Ray and HD-DVD encryption scheme was completely cracked in early 2007; that made it possible to extract the device keys from any high-def disc player, and use them in some other piece of software, which can then output the decrypted data in any way it likes, including to any old computer monitor. I think SlySoft's commercial package AnyDVD HD was the first to let you play or rip Blu-Ray movies without DRM (and, eight months after the people who made the more advanced "BD+" anti-copying system declared it'd be unbreakable for the next ten years, SlySoft cracked that too...), but now there are various others.
So that's all fine, if more annoying to set up than it should be. But no, a low-power Eden system probably won't be able to handle HD-video data rates.