Archive for the 'review' Category

when things explode

Friday, November 28th, 2008

5:38 PM. A small figure darts furtively across the landscape. He keeps to the shadows, but keeps the nearby hills in sight, watching for movement.

He slips into the ruins of a townhouse, emerging a few moments later with a disappointed look on his face. The next two homes are more successful, his pockets laden with more pre-war cash (not legal tender, but still worth trading in the cities) and ammunition for his pistol. He pauses by an old-fashioned letterbox long enough to fish out a bottle of water, and drop the little red flag.

He stops and turns at the edge of town, opens the bottle, pockets the cap, slowly takes in the destruction of a village that once thrived with shops and laughter and babies and skilled labour. A feeling of loneliness and desolation washes over him, and he has to sit and rest, his legs suddenly out of energy.

The water burns in his throat. He spots the uneven crater that used to be the town centre, notes the telltale signs, pours the rest of the radioactive water down the back of his neck to evaporate and cool his skin in the evening heat.

A willy-willy catches his attention, and he notes the remains of three people, now little more than skeletons, scattered on the ground near the burned-out husk of an intercity bus. It is a bad omen, and it makes sense to leave – it would serve no purpose to stay, and it was possible that the same terrible creature was even now lurking nearby, hoping for a fourth victim.

He sighs and heads up the hill, towards a nearby train depot. The underground rail network was the safest and quickest way of moving around nowadays, and plenty of wasteland communities had settled beneath the scarred earth.

Some he allied with, and traded pre-war relics for food and arms. Some he destroyed, killing the weak and taking what he needed anyway. Some had information, and information was the most precious commodity of them all; the anti-radiation medicine and stimpacks gave him more time, but couldn’t tell him where his family had gone.

He had followed his father from the fallout shelter he was born in, through the capital wastelands, through to places far from anything resembling civilisation. He would consider his father already dead if not for recent news, and had tracked down this community for help.

Maybe they could tell him where his father had gone. Where he was going. He started down the tunnel, the silenced pistol feeling cold and strong in his hand.

Fallout 3. It’s good.

Vista, Radeon, PhysX: pick two.

Sunday, November 9th, 2008

This has been pursued in forums everywhere for some months now, so I thought I’d summarise my findings on the matter and hope for a prevailing Google breeze to save others the trouble.

Here’s the thing: It’s late 2008, and the most powerful single video card you can buy for your PC right now is ATI’s Radeon HD 4870 x2. NVidia’s 280 GTX lags behind it a bit, but supports something called PhysX. In short, GPUs are very good at massively parallel tasks, which lends well to the simulation of physics, and NVidia’s Geforce video cards from the 8-series on up supports the PhysX engine and can do more realistic explosions and collisions and such.

This means games like Unreal Tournament 3 can look prettier when drawn by a Geforce, despite getting a higher frame rate on a Radeon. Naturally, the owner of a modern Radeon – like, for instance, my own 4870×2 – might be curious about PhysX support. A lot of the internet has hit upon the idea of using a grunty ATI video card to do the drawing, and a Geforce sitting next to it to do all the extra physics work. This is the golden age of running multiple video cards; surely it can be made to work?

Let’s ignore all the political issues here – PhysX support in games isn’t as widespread as you’d imagine, there are other more established physics engines already in use, it’s all a big money-making conspiracy and so on – and see what can be done to make UT3 look even better.

Annoyingly, nothing can be done just now. The facts are thus:

  • While you ought to be able to get a Radeon and a Geforce working as video cards in the same computer, it’s logically impossible to do so in Windows Vista. Due to something technical to do with the new-in-Vista Windows Display Driver Model, you can’t run more than one video driver at once; you can either have NVidia’s drivers and use the Geforce for video and PhysX, or ATI’s drivers and use the Radeon on its own, and the other card just sort of flaps uselessly in the breeze.
  • Geforce PhysX won’t work without the Geforce drivers running anyway, and NVidia obviously had no reason at all to do it any other way (why wouldn’t you want to run the NVidia drivers, except perhaps to get around other limitations and use it in conjunction with a rival’s hardware?).
  • Windows XP does not have the WDDM limitation; the Radeon-video-plus-Geforce-PhysX thing has been done, but of course you’re stuck with DirectX 9, and XP’s interface, and XP’s hardware support, and all the other reasons plenty of users go with Vista instead.
  • You do have the option of buying an actual standalone card; Ageia designed PhysX cards before they were bought out by NVidia and made to do it on their cards instead. While owning such a thing would be pretty cool, they’re now rare, very expensive, and I can’t help but think it’d be pathetic compared to a modern Geforce card at what it’s designed to do (I have no knowledge whatsoever of how powerful certain cards are compared to others, but I can’t help but imagine a GTX280 would handle it better than a two year old PCI card).
  • There was a lot of talk about PhysX running on a Radeon, but efforts to make it a reality seem dead in the water despite valiant efforts.

Windows 7, the successor to Vista, will avoid the single-WDDM-driver problem, and at least one enterprising nutter has already had his 8500GT running numbers for a 4870 in an early test build. 7 is apparently slated for release in mid-2009, so we may only have six or seven months to wait for an OS that will do what we want.

It just remains to be seen whether my now-redundant 8600GT will have found a better home in the meantime.


It works in Windows 7 – see my other post for details!

i have found the perfect aftermarket bluetooth adapter.

Tuesday, June 24th, 2008

The world of Bluetooth radios for computers are, as far as I’m concerned, a wretched hive of scum and villainy when it comes to quality, compatibility and honesty. USB Bluetooth adapters are exactly the kind of merchandise that comes from Asia and floods the market with bizarre variations.

The problems are numerous. You need specific, proprietary driver and software packs to use the things, they won’t exactly conform to standards, they’ll use weaselly words on their packaging to puff up their apparent feature lists, it’ll randomly not work with some devices or some operating systems, it’ll overheat and have to be unplugged for 10 minutes every half hour, and most probably you paid $9 for it on eBay and it’s not worth the hassle to chase up a refund. Nice work, if you can get it.

And don’t think that by sticking to big brandnames you’ll get the best, either. I recently went to Officeworks and paid $35 of my glorious, hard-earned dollars for a USB bluetooth adapter purportedly made by Swann. I’ll tell you right now that this device is identical to the crappy ISSCBTA dongles, down to the supplied driver CD being a cheap CD-R some kid in a factory’s burned the same old software to.

You face the same problem with laptops. Don’t ever buy a new laptop without a factory-fitted internal Bluetooth adapter, because adding them after-market is just painful.

This colourful little dingus is an internal Bluetooth adapter for Dell Inspiron (and probably other) laptop computers. I did the stupid thing and bought it off eBay, and wound up with a device that Just Doesn’t Work.

I’m too embarassed and prideful to say how much I spent on it and the cable, or to get a proper quote from Dell for the same, guaranteed-to-work parts. I don’t need to, either, because I’ve found a bluetooth adapter that doesn’t completely suck.

Yup. It’s a tiny notch of plastic and electronics on the rear end of a USB plug. That’s an 80mm CD “single”, too, not a full 120mm 700MB job.

The box it came in says “HI-SPEED USB 2.0, CLASS 2 + EDR, RANGE 30 M”, which I think means it’s a long-range Bluetooth 1.1 device, not 2 (I’ll doublecheck and update this when I know for sure). I don’t care how fast it is or how far it can shout; I basically use it to copy the occasional photo off my phone and zip other files around when it’s too much of a hassle to find the right cable for a particular device.

Here’s the good thing though: It works out of the box on Windows XP and Vista. You don’t even need the driver CD, and you can use Windows’s own inbuilt Bluetooth software, which turns out to actually be quite excellent:

And here’s the punchline: It costs US$12 delivered anywhere in the world, from DealExtreme. They’re a weird bunch based in Hong Kong who sell all kinds of electronic crud cheaply with free postage, and unlike eBay actually CARE about what they’re selling. I’m not yet brave enough to buy an “iFone”, but for most things like memory cards and card readers and such they’re perfect.

There are slightly cheaper ones available, but I paid $12 instead of $9 for the smallest one possible. Here it is, plugged into my faithful old Inspiron:

It doesn’t stick out very far, and the plug is tight and holds on like crazy. It’s not going to fall off by itself, and as long as you don’t stuff the computer in your bag USB-side-down, you can basically leave it there forever. The only downside is the bright blue LED in it that flashes ceaselessly, but if that’s a problem, scribble over it with permanent marker or something.

Stop trying to find drivers for other adapters. Buy this one instead.

things that shouldn’t exist

Friday, May 9th, 2008

ASRock aren’t the best known company in the world, but their products are common enough. They’re basically the budget arm of ASUS, who make great boards. Wikipedia would like to point out they put expensive features like WiFi and long-life caps on pretty cheap boards.

I like them for a different reason entirely: they make some of the coolest shit I’ve ever seen. Read the rest of this entry »

why i hate consumer hardware

Friday, April 4th, 2008

My hate-hate relationship with the D-Link DSL-G604T continues:


Point 1: I am using a G604T again because my other modem died. Again. Right now, I don’t recommend the NB6W either.

Point 2: I had to power cycle the modem when I got home today before it would connect (it just sat there blinking its ADSL light slowly).

Read the rest of this entry »

voice recognition on an asus eeepc

Saturday, December 22nd, 2007

“Computer, calculator.”


“Computer, cal-cu-lay-torrr.”


Read the rest of this entry »

review: Shuttle SD32G2 small form factor PC

Sunday, October 21st, 2007

Desktop computers aren’t getting much smaller. Whitebox PCs often still come in a full “midi” tower case, brandname department store things are usually microtowers, and then there’s a bit of a gap until you’re looking at laptops (pretty much as small as you can make a computer while still keeping it usable by ordinary humans).

There’s good reason for this. A full ATX board will give you six or seven PCI slots (or some combination of those and PCI-E), micro-ATX usually has two or three, and until recently, you often kinda needed that room to expand. Onboard sound was frequently crap, and rarely had better than two channel (stereo) output, so you’d want a decent PCI soundcard; onboard video was generally the same; and there was that tender period before onboard SATA where controller cards for that were useful.

Small form factor PCs have been around through most of this, but were never really popular. They were often cramped, full of nonstandard and irreplaceable parts, and way too expensive for what you ended up with.

Now, though, everything’s grown up a bit more, and you can get a very decent computer the size of a shoebox for not a lot more than you’d pay for one a lot bigger.

Read the rest of this entry »