Friday, 28 September 2012

An open letter to 'Notinthekitchenanymore'

First up, for context, I’ve only ever trash talked to troll the trash talkers.

Now, for the author of 'notinthekitchenanymore', and for anyone reading this, the point I want to make is that, while I find all of the below repulsive, and agree it should be stamped out, I believe the author does little to help her situation.

You are obviously discriminated against being a girl, and as such the insults you’ll hear are usually centred around that. The insults I personally heard most often were ‘you british ****’ or whatever (being british), and I’m pretty sure if I sounded like a the frog from Sesame Street people would say ‘you ******* green ****sucker, go live in a bin with your ****head friend’. Its not acceptable, but just like in real life, you meet idiots everywhere, ignore their comments, and then avoid them as best you can. We are able to do this because the majority of the population isn't like this.

The second point I wanted to make for anyone reading this, is that just like real life, it’s all about the communities you hang out in. Do you deliberately go to dive bars where 34 leering losers will crack onto you with sneering sexual innuendos? Hell no – nor do I! But as CoD is a very simple, click and shoot game that requires little to no intelligence to play, it attracts an element of the population that want their games to require very little of them, because they have little to give. I’m not saying ‘all COD players are dumb', because mastery of any game requires some level of mental dexterity, but my point is, that certain games are more likely to be filled with certain types of people, just like certain events in real life are filled with certain types of people (Can’t remember the last time I saw a hippie at a gun show)

Assumption time on my part: You play on a console. Again, because of the ease of access to gaming provided by a console you are also opening the doors to a much wider segment of the population than say PC gaming which requires to user to jump through a few mental hurdles to get onto the game. I’m also assuming here, that intelligence and disgusting trash talk are inversely correlated, which may or may not be true, but in my experience, are. Don’t get me wrong, PC games have their fair share of trash talk (oh the joy of chat boxes), but the point is, the console platforms are easier to access for the average (and below average!) member of the population, and thus you are more likely to run into those stupid enough to trash talk.

Lastly, I wasn’t actually aware that anyone really used an open channel for voice chat any more? In the early days of Xbox Live, it was very common to talk to strangers, but over the last few years this has fallen away. Both Microsoft and Sony make it very easy for you to find and play with your friends (and add people you’ve enjoyed playing with), and PC gaming requires you to log into a specific chat channel that usually only you and your friends know about.

So, just like any other member of the population, I am disgusted (but not shocked) by some of the things people say to you, but at the same time, by playing the games you do, on a platform with such a wide demographic of users, and also disregarding the features that have been put in place to help playing with, and talking to. friends or other friendly gamers, it feels like you are walking into the lions den and then complaining that you got bitten.

What’s more, because of the sensationlist nature of what you are doing, you are ultimately giving legions of mature and friendly gamers a bad name in the eyes of those who don’t play online games. By all means bring trash talk into the spotlight, but to be taken seriously by the very people you aspire to have in your community (decent, intelligent, well rounded gamers), you’re going to have to provide a far more balanced view of the situation than a selection of vitriol filled audio clips that make us look like a group of dumb aggressive apes.

Bcoz we aint you du……. Hang on! ;)

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

A second look Inside the Second – the effect of lowering load

Inside the second – the effect of lowering load

After yesterday’s revealing look at SLI frametime delivery in BF3: AK, today we are taking a look at what effect lowering settings has. In theory, with reduced detail, the problem should be minimised. The reason for this is that even in those difficult to render frames, the load on the GPU will be lessened, and we should see fewer frames that take 33.33ms or more to render. It certainly feels smoother when playing (though the drop off in visual fidelity is stark)

So let’s have a look at another 120 second run of Bandar Desert. Same test setup, except this time in medium detail.

During the 120 second run 7155 frames rendered – so an average of 59.62fps. Even with a quick glance at the graph we can see far less spikes into 50ms territory – and indeed only 3 points where the time to render rises above 40ms. To break it down, we have 338 frames that took more than 25ms to render, 90 frames that took over 30ms to render, 11 frames that took over 35ms to render, and only 3 frames that took over 40ms to render.

Side by side we can clearly see the difference in the fluidity of the games at medium and high levels of detail. Let’s not forget that both these run at an average of ~60fps.

Of particular importance are those frames that take over 35ms to complete – equivalent to below 30fps (28.57 to be exact). At high we have 120 of them – coincidentally an average of 1 per second, but at medium details this number drops drastically to just 11, and the number of +40ms frames accounts for just 0.04% of all frames rendered, instead of over 1% at high detail.

It’s a conclusion, but not one that we really like. If you are someone playing BF3 at 60fps, but with the niggling feeling that the game doesn’t feel as smooth as it should be, you need to run the frametime bench on FRAPs and check your frametimes. Though the results might be somewhat shocking, you might decide, like me, that it’s time for an upgrade. Every cloud has a silver lining.

A quick guide to Frametime testing using FRAPS

  1. Download the Free version of FRAPS
  2.  Load it up, click on the FPS tab.
  3.  Tick the ‘Frametimes’ box
  4. Load up your game/benchmark and hit the record button. The frame counter in the corner should disappear.
  5.   When it reappears your benchmark has completed.
  6.  Locate the word file – usually titled with the date and time of the recording and the word ‘frametimes’
  7.  Paste this into an excel spreadsheet. You should have two columns here, frame number and frametime.
  8. Create a third column and title it ‘time to render’ or another name of your choosing
  9.  Select the first free cell (2C usually) below ‘time to render’ and place (=3B-2B). What you are doing here is taking the rendering time of the second frame, and removing the rendering time of the second frame to give you the difference between the two. (Rendering time is a linear scaling number that is a record of the time in a benchmark a frame is rendered. Time to render is the time difference between one frame being rendered and the next)
  10. You should then have a list of numbers that indicate your ‘time to render’

Monday, 24 September 2012

Microstutter Exposed - all hail 'Inside the second'

Earlier this year I was fortunate enough to pick up a Dell U3011. This wonderful monitor was great in every way, except one – its huge resolution was simply too much for a single 570 to handle – especially in Battlefield 3. Not being able to afford a 7970 or a GTX 670/680 I picked up pair of watercooled GTX 480’s. The 1.5GB of framebuffer and combined 960 CUDA cores provides a massive amount of power for very little outlay, and once watercooled the beastly heat output is easily tamed.

With this setup (and a 2500K @ 4Ghz) Battlefield 3 skips along in High at a steady 60fps (Adaptive VSync active), and can even be run at Ultra at 60fps for 99% of the time. I know this, because I always run the MSI Afterburner overlay whilst playing, and regularly run fraps benchmarks.

Previously, playing in high, the game has been very smooth, with the occasional bit of random stutter, but nothing to detract from the (fantastic) gameplay, and average framerates always being 60fps (capped by Vsync remember). In Ultra mode, framerate again averages at 60fps, but in a lot of scenarios it just doesn’t feel smooth. With the very minor visual difference between High and Ultra, I was happy to settle for High.

That all changed last week with the release of the Armoured Kill DLC. Perhaps this is purely down to the size of the levels in the DLC, but performance at High has plummeted to what I consider unplayable. However, this was in no way reflected in the FPS. A 120s run on Bandar desert (the worst offender) showed a MinMaxAve of 55/61/60. vRAM use stayed at around the 1.2GB level – so well within limits.

Clearly pure FPS benchmarks weren’t telling the whole story.

The basic premise is that there are 1000ms in 1 second, and thus at 60fps, 1 frame is generated every 16.66ms (and for example, at 30fps 1 frame is generated every 33.33ms).

In a perfect setup, in one second 60 frames would be generated, one frame exactly every 16.66ms and then delivered to the monitor. In real life though this never happens, as some frames (large explosions for example) take longer than others to be drawn. If we take a 1 second snapshot of a game that is perceived to be smooth running by the user we might see 60 frames delivered in this time (60fps), and a range of frametime delivery between say, 8ms and 25ms. These figures are within the limits of what we’d consider tolerable, as long as the larger frametimes don’t occur too often, as frames are being delivered with sufficient speed (even 25ms, the lowest figure, is still equivalent to 40fps) and also, approximate regularity.

So, to summarise, for smooth gameplay we are now looking at two factors. 1 – how many frames are delivered per second, and 2 – the regularity of frame delivery.

In powerful single card scenarios, this isn’t usually a problem, however with SLI, where two cards employ Alternate Frame Rendering to render those 60fps (one card does the odd frames, the other does even), we have an issue well known to most hardware enthusiasts – Micro stutter. This occurs because for one reason or another one of the cards takes a long time to render a frame, and the other card must wait for this to happen before it can deliver the next frame. Simple benchmarks will tell you you are achieving 60fps, but because within a single second you may have to wait 50ms for one frame to render (equivalent to 20fps) and then have the next frame delivered within 8ms (equivalent to 125fps), what is actually perceived by the user is a giant lag while we wait for the 50ms frame to render, followed by a smooth experience while the 8ms renders. If this happens enough (say, several times a second) we get a high average frame rate, but a stuttery visual experience.

Let’s take a look at this in a way that is easier to digest. Below is a graph recording 120 seconds of gameplay on the Bandar Desert map. In this time the SLI 480’s rendered 7141 frames – equivalent to 59.51 fps (7141/120). Sounds like it would be smooth doesn’t it?

It didn’t feel like it, and the graph shows us why. 

We can see that most of the frames are rendered between about 15ms and 23ms – and in this space we have nice smooth gameplay due to 1. A high number of frames delivered per second and 2. Fairly regular delivery of these frames. Looking closer though we have 574 frames that took longer than 25ms to render, 223 frames that took more than 30ms to render, 120 frames that took more than 35ms to render, and even 74 frames that took more than 40ms to render. This jitter in the regularity of frame delivery is what causes the choppy gameplay I’ve been experiencing and for whatever reason, in the latest DLC, this issue is far more pronounced. 

Ultimately, as Scott Wasson has shown irregularity of frametime delivery is something none of us can escape. However, the best way to mitigate it, is by investing in single fast GPU, rather than two mid range cards - both setups might achieve 60fps, but it will only feel and look like 60fps on one.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Interview with Han Liu, Product Development Manager at Antec

Tom @RigAdvice: First up, could you tell us a bit about Antecs background, how and why it began and who was behind the formation of company?
Han Liu @Antec: Antec, Inc. is the global leader in high-performance computer components and accessories for the gaming, PC upgrade and Do-It-Yourself markets. Founded in 1986, Antec is recognized as a pioneer in the industry and has maintained its position as a worldwide market leader and international provider of quiet, efficient and innovative products. Antec has also achieved great success in the distribution channel, meeting the demands of quality-conscious system builders, VARs and integrators. Antec is headquartered in Fremont, California, with additional offices in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, as well as in the UK, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, China and Taiwan. The company’s products are sold in more than 40 countries throughout the world.
Tom @RigAdvice: More recently Antec are perhaps best known for their 900 series cases. These are focused towards gamers, and as such feature lots of fans, fan mounts and LEDs. When the 900 range was launched in 2006, CPUs like the Intel Q6600 and GPUs such as the 8800GTX were hot and loud, especially when overclocked. As we move into 2012 and cooler and quieter running components are more readily available, is there still a strong demand for high airflow chassis?
Han Liu @Antec: Even so, there are gamers or performance enthusiasts who are always looking for highest performance components that push the technology to the limits and they are hot.  That is why we still need a high airflow chassis.
Tom @RigAdvice: Your other line of popular cases is the Pxxx series. These focus largely on silence and have less flamboyant styling than their gamer counterparts. How do you go about balancing sound proofing and cooling ability in these types of cases?
Han Liu @Antec: For the Performance One series, such as P280 or P183, we have a couple of standard methods to quiet down the case while make them a high performance system.
1.     We use three layers or two layers side and top panels to deadening the sound vibrated from the components especially from the fans. 
2.     Also we use a three layer door to muffle the sound from being leaked to the front where the user is
3.     We use HDD trays with silicone grommets to absorb the vibration from the HDD which is one of major   sound source in a computer.
4.     We create nice and roomy cable management compartment behind the motherboard tray.  Users can hide the cables behind the motherboard tray.  A less clogging system is a less noisy system as users can use slower RPM fans.
5.     Moving the PSU from the top near the CPU to the bottom of the chassis.  This is really benefits the whole system very much as the PSU gets its own cooling intake from the bottom instead of sucking hot air from the CPU.  PSU at the bottom becomes a standard in the gaming and quiet computing society.  However, Antec pioneers this standard in our Performance series first.  Nine Hundred series follows.
Tom @RigAdvice: The P280 followed on from the P180 - one of the most popular 'silent' chassis of recent years. However, it does not share the latters much vaunted compartmentalised design, was there a particular reason for this decision during the design of the case?
Han Liu @Antec: Cost is one of the consideration we’ve decided to abandon the compartmentalization.  Another reason is, we have done our test and found it does not affect the temperature of the system without the separate chamber design.
Tom @RigAdvice: Antec has recently made a name for itself with its 'Kuhler' range of all in one liquid coolers. Currently, the top of the range product is the 920. Like some of your rivals, are there any plans to expand this range with larger radiators? After all, the P280 will easily take half height 240mm radiators in its roof. 
Han Liu @Antec: Yes, we have plan to increase one more member- the 1220.  It is a 240 mm radiator with two PWM fan controlled water cooling system.
Tom @RigAdvice: The two biggest draws of custom watercooling are the cooling ability on tap, and aesthetics. With this in mind, in the future is their an opportunity to offer users different coloured tubing, fluids, or even plexiglass pumps/CPU blocks?
Han Liu @Antec: The 620, 920 and the coming out 1220 are self contained, one integrated system. The most important benefit is that users are no longer needed to be a handy or geek person to handle the old style tube cutting, fluid filling and water pump installation and timeless water leakage or trouble shooting.  I think we will keep this and let not only 2% but 100% of users can enjoy the water cooling benefits.
Tom @RigAdvice:Though you make nods to those using custom loop watercooling such as grommets for external tubing and the aformentioned 240mm mounts in the P280, are there any plans to create a chassis aimed at these users? Or is the market too small to make R&D, design and construction viable from a business perspective?
Han Liu @Antec: I think those users are smart enough to make use of the existing chassis to integrated their custom loop water cooling/
Tom @RigAdvice: Finally, Antec have built a very good reputation with enthusiasts when it comes to their range of PSUs. Aside from the size of wattage, and innovations like modular cabling its hard for the casual user to spot a lot of evolution in the way PSUs have changed over the years, and thus upgrade. Is this the case, and if not, is there anything groundbreaking around the corner for people to look forward to?
Han Liu @Antec: We have “OC Link” technology.  Our coming out HCP Platinum power supply will equip with a special connector that can link two HCP Platinum power supplies together to double its wattage, for example, to link two 1000 power supplies to make a 2,000 watts power supply system.

Monday, 10 September 2012

Getting the best from the second hand parts market: Part 4


Much to the disappointment of those waiting for an SSD price crash to occur in the wake of the floods, it didn''t initially happen. However, since January 2012 the bottom has finally fallen out of the market and 128GB SSDs can be had for less than £50, whilst 60GB/64GB drives are going for less than £30. Granted, these aren’t the fastest drives on the market, but they will still offer the average mechanical disk user a massive boost. As a result, in 2012 an SSD should be on everyone's shopping list as the day to day benefits are huge. With the new prices dropping so low, it is honestly hard to recommend buying second hand unless you are looking to get a premium drive such as the OCZ Agility 4 or Samsung 830 for less than the new price. If money is tight, the SF2281 based Kingston V200 and Indilinx Barefoot based OCZ Vertex Plus will still provide jaw dropping upgrades for those used to mechanical drives.

However cheap they are, avoid first generation drives such as the Intel X25 G1 as these do not support the TRIM commands that keep the drives zipping along. For your piece of mind, it’s worth asking the seller to run an application that can determine drive health such as SSD life, as flash memory does degrade over time.

Best Buy: A new 120GB Vertex Plus (just £40 from Scan)

Friday, 31 August 2012

Mechanical Hard Drives

Getting the best from the second hand parts market: Part 3

Mechanical Hard Drives
Those looking to buy a hard disk over the last year have faced a tricky proposition. On the one hand SSDs still hover around the £1 per GB mark, and are therefore unsuitable for those with large amounts of data to store. On the flipside, mechanical hard drive prices have as much as doubled, making them a tough pill to swallow for those who've watched the prices climb. Happily though, as Western Digital and Seagate slowly rebuild their infrastructure the cost per GB is beginning to return to normal. This, though, means you should think twice about buying second hand drives. Unlike many other components, hard drives contain moving parts in the form of their spinning platters, and this may be part of the reason why they are arguably more susceptible to fault than other components. In addition, should the drive fail, it is likely that all the vital data you have on there will be lost. With second hand 1TB drives selling for upwards of £55, and given the critical nature of their use, you must ask yourself whether coughing up the extra £20 for a new drive would be money well spent. So which one? Due to fixed deals on bulk pricing, a strange quirk has emerged, whereby external hard drives are now appearing cheaper than their internal counterparts. Easily dissassembled 2TB external drives can be bought brand new for ~£80, while a 2TB internal drive will cost you over £100. What is the catch? You can't always tell who the drive manufacturer is, and the speed it runs at, though a little research can give you a good idea. One way around this it to buy a Western Digital or Hitachi external enclosure which at least gives you the guarantee of a quality drive.
Best buy: A Western Digital or Hitachi external drive running at 7200rpm at around £80

Monday, 20 August 2012

Enermax Ostrog Review

Enermax Ostrog Review

Today we are taking a first look at the Ostrog a newly released budget case from Enermax.

It may surprise UK readers that Enermax, best known for their highly regarded PSUs, have in fact eight cases listed on their website. Not heavily marketed in Europe in comparison to some of their rivals, today we find out if their budget friendly 'Ostrog' is worth the meagre £35 asking price.

Technical Details

Colourblackblack / white
Interiorblack coated
TypeATX Midi Tower
Dimensions (D x W x H)480mm x 200mm x 460mm
Drive bays 5,25"4
Drive Bays 3,5"1x external / 5x internal
I/O on top1x USB 3.0, 3x USB 2.0, HD/AC'97 Audio
Air Cooling - Frontoptional: 1x 12cm fan
Air Cooling - Sideoptional: 2x 12/14cm fans
Air Cooling - Topoptional: 2x 12/14cm fans
Air Cooling - Bottomoptional: 1x 12cm fan
Air Cooling - Rearpre-installed: 1x 12cm fan
Max. Length Graphics Cards413 mm (286 mm with HDD cage)
Max. CPU Cooler Height174 mm (150 mm with side fans)
Expansion Slots7x
Liquid Cooling Holes2x

First up, let’s also look at the competition in this price segment. Hmmm. Well, we have few older Coolermaster cases such as the 330/342. We have tested several setups using these cases and found, they offer average at best build quality, little flexibility for your cooling setup and ‘retro’ (read: out of date) styling. We also have the Fractal 1000 series, slightly less financial outlay, but anyone who has used this case will know that it really is just a ‘box for your hardware’, with very few premium features, and a rather loud stock 120mm fan. Any more for any more? No? 

So, onto the Ostrog, and let’s start by get the negatives out of the way, and yes, there are some. First of all panel construction and overall thickness isn’t great. The side panels in particular are very thin and flexible and as such, sometimes require a bit of 'jiggery pokery' to refit once removed. The case also has a lot of fan mounts which has its advantages (read on), but also means they provide very little in the way of sound dampening. There are a total of 6 fan mounts in and about the motherboard area - where of course, most of the system noise is emitted from and as such if you have the case either below or to the the right hand side of you, you'll hear all the hums and whirs your rig creates. The case ships with only one 120mm fan, located in the rear mount, and as such creates a negative vacuum in the case which may lead to dust buildup, as well as a lack of fresh air for any hot running components – GTX 480 and SLI/CFX owners, take note! Cable routing/storage is also an issue here, and space behind the motherbaord tray is limited to about 1cm width. Not too much of a problem, as the HD bays in front of the PSU allow for a decent amount of cable storage if left empty, but could be annoying if you have a particularly thick PSU cable that you want to route around the back. Expansion slot protectors are the ‘bend off and throw away’ kind. Which is fine really, and to be expected, given the price bracket.

It’s important to remember here that this is only a £35 case, so truth be told, we could arguably call these ‘compromises’ rather than true negatives as none of them are deal breakers, just things you want to be aware of when purchasing, and wouldn’t expect in more premium cases.

Now, onto the positives, and by this I mean, things that make this case stand out head and shoulders above the rest of the cases in this price bracket.
The first thing you’ll notice is the cases good looks – admittedly totally subjective, but the Ostrog straddles the line between the clean stylings of the Fractal cases and more NZXT style Gamer cases reasonable well. It has a largely flat and plain fa├žade with a small and unobstrusive Ostrog Logo near the bottom. This is outlined with either a white or black frame, depending on the model you choose. Nearer the top of the case, on a raised section, you can find the usual 3.5mm jacks for mic and speaker, as well as as three USB2.0 ports and a single USB3.0 port. The matte finished plastic here and on the front of the case feels very solid and there are four easy access external 5.25” drive bays and a 3.5” bay too. The bottom two would make a nice spot for a dual 5.25” Reservoir as this would place it squarely in the middle of the case for easy tubing access to the CPU and GPU. Its worth noting though that this case is not ideally suited to CPU/GPU watercooling because the double 120mm mount at the top of the case is placed very close to the motherboard. That said any of the all in one 120mm CPU Coolers from Antec or Corsair would fit just fine on the rear 120mm mount.

Internally the Ostrog steps up to the plate featuring fully painted black interior, as well as easy to use quick release hard drive bays. We’ve used lots of these in the past, and these are the best. Just slide in and twist. Once in place they feel very solid indeed, and I'd have no worries about my hard drives falling about if I were lugging this case to a LAN party. It’s also worth noting that as well as room for more 3.5" drives than it should be legal to own in this day and age (6), we also have a built in 2.5” mount for SSDs or laptop drives. Interestingly, the designers at Enermax have also decided to include a side mounted triple 3.5” bay for those that prioritise easy access to the rear drives over less visibility. Taking its design cues from Antecs P180 this bay can be slid out and replaced with a 120mm intake fan to cool the GPU. This also allows GPUs of up to 413mm to be used – 6990 anyone?

In fact, for such a budget case, the Ostrog has a lot of fan mounts and cooling combinations. More often than not, cases ship with at least one front mounted intake fan and then either a back or top fan mount. The Ostrog eschews this default setup, with the 3.5” in place, and six free mounting points around the motherboard but nothing pre-installed at the front. Cue ringing alarm bells. Except we can’t hear any. In actual fact, we need to ask the question why do you need to draw air in from the front of the case? To cool the hard drives? Most sensible setups these days consist of cool running SSD boot drive and a single, large Media/Steam drive none of which needs significant airflow to stay within operating temperatures. What about GPU cooling? Well, that is taken care of by two 120/140mm fan mounts on the side panel and a 120mm fan mount on the floor of the case. The Ostrog also provides another 120mm mount at the rear and a final two up top (which also take 140mm fans). That’s a total of 6 mounts, all focused around where the hottest running components are located. 

Cases at the bottom end of the market often ship with fans that are either loud or ineffective at pushing air, or both. The stock fan on the Ostrog slips more towards the latter, but isn’t so bad to be considered unusable. Most users will want to supplement it with another one or two depending on their choice of components and aesthetics. We would recommend at the very least mounting a fan on the side panel to feed fresh air directly to the GPU and CPU. That said, with the sheer amount of fan mounts, passive airflow into the case is considerable. Finally, it’s worth mentioning that the bottom mounted PSU comes complete with an easily removable dust cover, which is a pleasant surprise for such a budget offering. 

The evolution of gaming hardware is very easily observed by looking at the case market. It wasn’t so long ago that a black exterior would have cost you extra, and now we have 180mm 'air penetrator' fans, vertically mounted GPUs and water cooling compatible ITX cases. All these military grade marvels eventually trickle down to the lower price tiers and whilst there is always compromise to be made, it’s really very heartwarming to find such a fully featured case in this price bracket. You already know by now that we would thoroughly recommend the Ostrog to those users on a budget. Yes, panel construction could be better, but overall build quality is solid, and at £35 you’d be hard pressed to do better.

Overall Score: 9/10