Ghosts of Peripherals Past

Posted by on May 9, 2017 in Featured, Hardware, Virtual Reality

Ghosts of Peripherals Past

Now that I’ve committed to the PSVR, it’s time to justify the purchase.

I picked up Job Simulator earlier this week. It’s one of the highest rated commercial VR titles mainly because it showcases the “best case scenario” for presence and input. As a technology it’s great; as a game, it sucks because there are only a few scenarios, and then practically no replay value outside of having something on hand to watch your friends mime their way through when they experience VR for the first time. I’ve been vacillating on EVE Valkyrie because while the demo was pretty amazing, the full game is apparently a short tutorial followed by endless arena multiplayer battles — not something I’m known to gravitate to.

The “big news” (as in “what Sony is pushing at the moment”) is Farpoint. Sony apparently hopes that this is the tipping point for VR, getting it beyond the gimmicky hand-waving of Job Simulator and on the mantle alongside more popular AAA titles that the platform is known for. Overview-wise, Farpoint is standard fare: two scientists crash on a planet, and have to find a way home. Echoing Half-Life, these eggheads find themselves battling multi-legged creatures on their journey, something you, the player, accomplish with the help of a specially designed gun-like peripheral that comes with the deluxe version of the game, or which can be purchased seperately.

Yay! Giant alien spiders…in VR…my favorite…

When I’d first learned about Farpoint, I thought that this might be the foot in the door that VR needs to show people that it can do more than just handle endless demos showcasing elements of what the tech is capable of. The graphics look solid, and as a shooter, there’s no ambiguity here: point, shoot, progress. What made me scratch my chin in the universally accepted signal of “I dunno…” was the long and sad history of console peripherals.

Nintendo is probably the most eggregeous offender of creating dead-weight plastic, going all the way back to R.O.B., the Power Glove, and the VitualBoy (natch). Microsoft has Kinect, and until Sony wisely opted to repurpose it, they had the Move. Following closely behind is all of the third party junk that all consoles attract: charging stations, console enclosures, stands, and controller add-ons that will supposedly let you “dominate the competition”.

This history was why I had been hesitant to jump on the PSVR in the first place, although I’m the kind of person that once the idea has been planted and the means secured, no amount of convincing to the contrary is going to stop me from forging head. Farpoint was kind of different, though. I could buy the game digitally, as I am wont to do in my old age, but how necessary to the immersion was this gun peripheral? Th product itself looks like someone glued a bunch of PVC pipes together and then stuck a Move controller in the barrel (something which I’m sure we’ll see happen on YouTube once Farpoint launches, if it hasn’t happened already). Couldn’t I just use the Move controllers I have? Supposedly we can use the gamepad, but where’s the fun in that?

See? Once I convince myself…

It’s difficult to look like a badass when wielding something you made from one trip to Home Depot.

Inevitably I did pre-order the deluxe bundle, even with the specter of starting a new peripheral graveyard hovering just outside my vision. Heck, yesterday I bought a combo PSVR display stand-slash-charging station because the idea of just letting the headset sit on the entertainment center was anathema to me. Of course, Sony has gone on record about wanting/hoping/praying to some dark god that other developers will support the specialized controller, which means if it comes to pass means we’ll be getting a lot more shooters in VR on the PlayStation, I guess. You’re not going to see anyone using this for a fishing simulator, that’s for sure. I’d be OK with having a Battlefield in VR, or maybe another Killzone (though I’d rather have more HZD, as I’m sure most folks reading this would agree).

What might end up being the big question mark though would be this: if Farpoint and this peripheral sell well enough, what other specialized controllers should we expect to see? Ideally, the answer to that would be “none”, because I think there’s a tipping point; maybe this general purpose “gun” controller is a natural fit for a hobby where virtual shooting rampages are prevalent and acceptable, but once we start down a path of Power Glove 2.0 we’ll just be re-treading the paths that lead to dead ends in the past.

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PSVR on the PC

Posted by on May 8, 2017 in Hardware, Virtual Reality

PSVR on the PC

One of the reasons I chose the PSVR was because I’d heard of an effort to “hack” the PSVR into the PC ecosystem, which instantly increased the value of the lower-cost headset by orders of magnitude. It stands to reason that since the connections that the PSVR require are non-proprietary — HDMI, USB, and power — then the only gap between the PS4 and the PC is software, specifically the drivers that allow the PC to recognize the headset as an actual VR headset.

I was familiar with Trinus from my limited time with the “low-rent” VR Samsung Galaxy smartphone. Like PSVR, the smartphone VR could be connected to a PC via the Trinus app, which recognizes the otherwise unrecognized VR headset as a legitimate display while also handling positional data from the device’s gyroscope. Since that time the Trinus developer has been busy creating a version specifically designed to bridge that gap between the PSVR and the PC.

What you’ll need

  1. A PlayStation VR headset. These had been out of stock in a lot of places until somewhat recently and can be had new for $399. A word of warning: I wouldn’t rush out and buy one specifically for this. Trinus is still in beta, so the support for this kind of thing is tenuous at best. If you have a PS4, however, I highly recommend the PSVR.
  2. Trinus PSVR. You can download the Trinus PSVR app for free. It will run in “demo mode” for something like 5 – 10 minutes before disconnecting the headset. A license is only about $11 USD ($8.99 EUR)
  3. SteamVR. SteamVR is a free app available through Steam that lets you run standard games and apps in stereoscopic mode.
  4. Patience.
  5. A VR ready game. Although I’ve only tried this with a VR-enabled game, I believe that this should work with any game or app combined with SteamVR. However, to get the biggest bang for the buck, find a 2D game which has a VR mode. Examples from my library include Elite Dangerous, Serious Sam (some variety), Subnautica, and Tabletop Simulator. I’d caution you against spending money on a VR-only title from the Steam store, however, as Trinus is in beta, and might not play well with games that are expecting the full breadth of Vive or Oculus input.

Installing SteamVR

SteamVR is intended for use with the HTC Vive, and possibly to a lesser extent, the Oculus. To that end, a lot of what you’re going to see when dealing with SteamVR (specifically, controller support and “room scale” terms and settings) isn’t going to work with the PSVR, but that’s ok: we’re not using it for the bells and whistles, only to take advantage of the display and gyroscope support.

SteamVR is something that everyone has in their library.

When viewing your normal library, click on the GAMES header next to the search box that sits beneath the SEARCH box. Then select TOOLS

TOOLS is the dumping ground for a lot of apps you might not have known you owned. It’s mostly multiplayer server stand-alone installers, but it has a few goodies provided by Valve just for using Steam — like SteamVR

Right-click and choose INSTALL. It should place an icon on your desktop.

Installing Trinus PSVR

You can get the Trinus PSVR demo from the normal Trinus website. Installation should be self-explanatory. It will ask to install a driver, which you should accept since it’s Trinus’ job to drive the data from the PSVR headset to SteamVR and associated applications.

Install a VR-enabled game or app

You’re on your own for this one.

Install the PSVR

Hooking up the PSVR to your PC is not that different from hooking it up to your PlayStation 4. You plug the breakout box’s HDMI input into your PC video card, the box’s HDMI output to your desktop monitor (you will want to have a monitor hooked up as a failsafe), the PSVR USB to a free USB port (not sure if it has to be 3.x, or if it can be 2.x), and the power supply to an outlet.

Running Trinus

Fire up Trinus. Although you might end up on the MAIN tab, you’re going to want the HOW TO tab first

The CONNECT sub-tab shows you the hookup diagram so there’s no ambiguity when plugging everything in.

At this point, you might be tempted to turn on the headset to see what’s what. If you do so you’ll probably just see an “xUSB” icon in the viewport. Don’t worry: if you’ve plugged the USB cable into the PC you’re all set; this is a generic warning that lets you know that Trinus hasn’t officially introduced your headset to your PC.

Next, you’ll want the INSTALL subtab:

There’s only one option: SteamVR Driver. “But wait!” you might think. “I already installed SteamVR!” What you’re installing here is the bridge between Trinus and SteamVR: this is the actual part that is missing from native PSVR support on the PC, so the driver combined with the settings you can fiddle with in Trinus, and the display handling of SteamVR, provide us with this wonderful hack. You won’t get immediate feedback when you click INSTALL, but know that Trinus has got your back.

One last thing

This system works best when you have more than one monitor because once you activate Trinus, your main monitor will reflect what’s displayed in the headset, which is non-native for a 2D display. It helps to drag app icons to an unaffected 2D monitor because you might have a hard time finding and accessing them if they’re on your main screen once Trinus starts.

Fire it up

The next few steps are straightforward but expect some trial and error. When I first got to this point my main monitor fish eyed so bad that I couldn’t access the Trinus control panel to see what I needed to do. This is why a second monitor is highly recommended.

Here’s a rough guide to what I did that eventually got things working for me, but know that it’s less a science, and more like voodoo (remember: we’re hacking hardware using beta software, so please be kind).

Switch over to the MAIN tab of Trinus. There are a few things to notice here, the most important one being the footer output section. This is where you’re going to get information on what Trinus wants you to know. Notice the line referring to SteamVR — make sure your message is pleasing like the one in the image.

Next, in PC MODE, select SteamVR (which is the default, I believe). For PSVR Display, select a display. This box will populate with all of the display outputs that your system has registered…except the PSVR itself, so don’t go looking for it or another display beyond what you have sitting on your desk. What you’re telling Trinus is which display output you want to show through the headset. My main display where I run my games is DISPLAY1, and that’s where I expected SteamVR to display. Finally, for PSVR MODE, select VR.

Before you do anything else at this point, place your VR Headset on the desk in front of you, facing the direction you want to face when using it. Trinus will calibrate your headset, and it needs to be ABSOLUTELY STILL for this to work. Even keeping it on your head could introduce subtle drift which will drive you bonkers (trust me on this).

In order for Trinus to recognize your PSVR headset, you need to click the broad START button. This will turn on the headset (if you haven’t), calibrate it, and will show the contents of whichever display you selected for PSVR DISPLAY inside the headset. At this point, you can put the headset on to verify that you’re seeing the desktop. It may screw up your actual desktop monitor display in the process. When you don the headset, you will probably get a really disorienting view of the same desktop, with each eye registering different parts of the screen instead of the overlap that we’d expect. This is because we don’t yet have the stereoscopic display that SteamVR provides.

If you can find it on a desktop, fire up SteamVR.

SteamVR has two components: the main visual output which, on a 2D monitor will display side-by-side fisheyes and a view of a gridded dome on a white background, and a small control panel which tells you the state of your hardware if you were using the Vive or Oculus. Assuming all you see are green status values, you’re on the right track. Greyed out icons are OK. If you see red, something is wrong. Sadly, troubleshooting SteamVR is outside the scope of this guide.

You will probably be greeted with a calibration wizard the first time you start SteamVR. For my setup, I chose the STANDING option, and then faced forward for the first step, and then put the PSVR headset on the floor at my feet for the second. Because the PSVR doesn’t use room-scale, nor does it use positioning outside of the built-in gyroscope, this is mainly to “calibrate” the position because SteamVR demands it.

If you’re lucky, you’ll have a complete 3D view inside your headset. You can move your head to move the view around the SteamVR dome and confirm that you have gyro support.

Starting your app

For Elite Dangerous, I had to open my Steam Library, find Elite Dangerous in the list of installed games, right click on the name in the list, and select the RUN VR MODE option because normal Elite Dangerous will tell you that you’re trying to run a normal game in VR mode, which won’t accomplish what we’re trying to accomplish.

I was unable to enact any input at this point. Upon removing the headset, I noticed that I had two game windows: One within the SteamVR view, and a smaller window on the secondary monitor. I had to click within the second, smaller Elite window to give the app focus. What this is doing, then, is running the app on the second monitor, but is — for lack of a more accurate technical term — projecting that app into the SteamVR space. I had tried running Elite normally using its 3D mode from the game’s OPTIONS, but that ran afoul of the weird resolutions required for the side-by-side stereoscopic view; running the game in VR mode from the start takes advantage of SteamVR’s resolution auto-scaling, and helped display a properly sized game despite the actual window resolution being much smaller than 1920×1080.

At this point, I was ready to rock! Input worked fine (HOTAS, mainly), and I was blown away by the sensation of scale when my cargo ship surfaced into the cavernous station where I had parked. While you can use the PSVR for a movie-screen-sized 2D experience (“cinematic mode” is what they call it), having a game which supports 3D VR is really going to knock your socks off.

Tweaking and troubleshooting

If you got this far with a serviceable experience, then the rest is gravy. Here’s a few things that you might want to set up or try within Trinus.

  1. IPD. On the MAIN tab of the Trinus app, there’s a slider labeled IPD. This stands for “interpupillary distance” and is a value which represents the distance between the pupils of your eyes, which is what grants us the power of binocular vision. Ideally, you should use this after getting SteamVR calibrated and before you start your game. If it looks like you’re experiencing double vision when viewing the SteamVR dome, use the IPD slider to adjust; you should see results instantly, allowing you to work visually rather than by some vague numeric value.
  2. Height. Beneath the IPD slider on the MAIN tab is another slider labeled HEIGHT. This may not matter in-game, but if you start SteamVR and find yourself “embedded” in the floor of the dome-grid, you can increase this slider to move the camera above ground to a comfortable height.
  3. Foggy visuals. The PSVR isn’t as resolution-intense as the Vive or Oculus, which is something we’re going to have to accept; the text in Elite Dangerous was rather hazy, for example, and therefore difficult to read. There’s a checkbox on the NON-VR tab of Trinus that may help improve visuals, although I haven’t tried it so I can say what it does or if it works. Alternatively, the game’s native video resolution might be able to help, although this could also knock your headset display out of whack.
  4. Set a RESET VIEW key: On the MAIN tab of Trinus, there’s a RESET VIEW section. I highly recommend setting a key. This will re-center your view to the direction you are facing at the time you hit the key, so make sure you’re facing a comfortable position before doing this (caveat: My experience was that Trinus reset my position to 90 degrees to my right rather than 0 degrees straight ahead. I had to turn my head to the right and then hit the reset button in order to center my forward-facing view to what I’d expected. I have no idea if I screwed this up or if this is standard).
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VR – A Window On The Future

Posted by on May 1, 2017 in Consoles, Hardware

VR – A Window On The Future

I’ve lived long enough to see commercial VR come and go, and then come again. Any comment thread on the subject of the current state of VR will be chock full of people who claim that VR is once again on the outs because the technology is too expensive, has too high a hardware bar for the masses, and that it suffers from a lack of software support.

All true, all true. The cheapest VR experience you can have will run you about $25 for Google Cardboard (assuming you have a capable smartphone which isn’t factored into the cost). This is VR in the way rollerskates are “a way” of commuting to work in the morning: yeah, you can do it, but not only is it horribly misrepresentative of the process, but you look stupid. The good news is that products like Samsung’s Gear VR can bring low-cost VR to the people, but the bad news is that the smartphone will never be able to give you the experience necessary to “sell” the skeptics — there’s only so many roller coaster simulations that people will try before realizing that such things are all that the low-cost option has to offer.

For the real deal, you need to shell out some coin. I recently put together a VR-ready PC which cost me about $1300. If I were to add a VR setup, that would add another $600-$800 to that. These configurations are the Real Deal, though — 1080×1200 per eye which is roughly on par with the current desktop monitor standard of 1920×1080, the sum of which is 2160×1200. While anecdotes relate that a VR headset isn’t as clear as a really good monitor, those numbers are nothing to shake a stick at. Still, no amount of technobabble about resolutions and refresh rates and polling intervals and tracking metrics is going to mean anything to the bulk of potential users if there’s no compelling reason to shell out for the PC and headset.

Right now, software is lacking — in the consumer space. Looking through Steam (Vive and Oculus have their own walled-garden storefronts that I don’t think are accessible outside of the visor) shows that yes, there are a good number of games out there made for or which support VR, but there’s nothing that’s getting traction on the scale of Mass Effect: Andromeda or Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds. What people do know about VR software is usually due to early reports on the technology-focused “gee whiz” proof of concept demos that were made to showcase the tech: Job Simulator, Google Tilt Brush, and a lot of other products which might work well with the concept of VR, but which have that air of “get something out the door so as to be considered to have been a pioneer in VR”. Basically, there’s no killer VR game out there that’s going to silence the nay-sayers, or of the games that are out there, there isn’t one that feels like VR was a logical and the only best way to realize the concept. There is no end to the number of titles that people will throw out as “if only they had a game like [GAME X] in VR, I’d be sold!”, but we’re not at that point quite yet. Eventually, sure, assuming there’s a level of interest that makes VR in the consumer space a continuously viable option.

Consumers like to preach about things from the bottom of their narrow wells (helloooooooo?) but aren’t usually apprised of the whole situation. For example, VR is apparently massive in training, medicine, and therapy. It’s being used to train surgeons on techniques, and psychiatrists are using VR to help people cope with PTSD. Obviously from our perspective here at LC (and presumably your own as you are reading this) gaming is an important aspect of VR, but even if gamers don’t end up adopting the technology, it’s not going to die because its potential for other industries who don’t care about adoption rates and publisher demands are too great.

So why this post now? Over the weekend I picked up a Playstation VR headset. It’s the lowest-cost gaming headset out there, although it only works with the PS4*. I opted to go with the PSVR rather than the Oculus or the Vive partly because of price, but also because the majority of software for the PSVR are actual games of some quality, something I attribute to the fact that the PS storefront isn’t as “Wild West” as Steam is currently. Of course, that means that there are far fewer options for the PSVR, which folks in the industry explain is a result of the lag between the introduction of working dev kits and the amount of time it takes to make a decent quality game (about 2 years minimum, or so the sages claim).

If you’ve never experienced VR, it’s actually difficult to explain its draw. Do we need it? No; I have a smartwatch which I also “don’t need”, but once I acquired it I found that it became far more useful than I could have imagined. The same goes for VR: it’s a “virtual reality”, and if we unpack that we see that we’re talking not just about another way to shove electrons into our eyeballs, like the difference between a 3DS screen, a 40″ 4K TV, or a massive movie screen. We’re talking about a new way of experiencing something. That’s the part that’s hard to get across in words, even with hand gestures. The first time you put on a headset and find yourself standing…wherever…and you move your head around, look down at your “hands”, or up at the sky, it doesn’t feel like you’re where you physically are. At least, until you start to move. The first game I tried, I almost toppled over when I started to move with the gamepad; it wasn’t motion sickness so much as vertigo, the feeling that I was moving while also not moving. There’s a real physiological effect there, meaning that for all the talk about resolution and refresh and cost and software, our senses treat VR as an actual reality. It’s right there in the name: virtual reality, but a reality nonetheless. We’ve only got one reality otherwise, which is really the draw of VR for me. Immersion is supposed to be a key element of great games, but we can’t imagine the level of immersion possible until we’ve put ourselves into a whole different reality.

Throwing VR under the bus because there’s nothing right now that speaks to us as individuals, or because we want to be able to earn street cred with the community says more about the naysayers than it does anything about the technology itself, and that’s really the way it should be: the tech should just keep on keeping on without paying any mind to those who have some kind of axe to grind for some kind of reason. I do agree that the requirements are too high; people should be able to use VR without having to upgrade their PCs. I also agree that the price is too high, but this is gen one, and that’s how technology always works. The software options will keep coming and will get better, but only if there’s a reason for them to do so. If people are adamant about not having VR this time around, then they won’t demand software. If there’s no demand, there will be no software. But it won’t mean that VR is going to end up in a shoebox at the back of the tech closet; it’ll continue in the industries where it’s valued for what it can do.

 

*As the lowest cost solution, the PSVR is a logical target for hackers, and there are already solutions in the works to get the headset working with the PC. The thing is, Sony is poised to be the cheerleader for VR due to the low price, but leaving it only on the PS4 is like leaving money on the table. If Sony were to make the PSVR officially PC compatible, I can easily imagine a much wider adoption of their product, and for VR in general.

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Cutting the Cord

Posted by on Apr 6, 2017 in Editorial, Featured, Hardware, Other Geeks

Cutting the Cord

Yes, it’s 2017, and I am just now getting around to seriously considering getting rid of cable.

Since we switched to Fi and reduced our cellular bill by 3/4* I’m feeling how good it is to make a change that returns money to me. Cellular was easy, as these services are an anti-consumer racket. What’s less easy for my household is wiggling out from under the thumb of Big Cable.

While providers like Comcast will tell us that we have options in our area — like satellite — the honest truth is that it’s not really an option. We have three technology minded people in our house, so we need fast, reliable internet access. I’m sure DSL has come a long way since I’ve used it almost 15 years ago, but it’s built on top of an aging infrastructure and can’t possibly match what we get from coax and fiber. We also really don’t need a home phone line. The bogeyman regarding home phones is that without a landline, we lose E-911 service, although I would hope I’d have the presence of mind in a crisis to do everything in my power to ensure that emergency services find me at an address I verbally provide to them. What has actually been impeding our investigation into cutting the cable has been TV, though.

My hobby is PC based; my wife’s hobby is TV based. Thankfully, I can get to any website using any internet connection, but getting the TV channels that my wife wants to watch isn’t so simple. Every network and broadcast concern seems to want to have their own walled garden (lookin’ at we, CBS!) for a fee. Considering how many channels we might want from an a la carte package and the sum of the prices of each walled garden, our spend would probably add up to as much or even more than what we might pay for cable right now.

Of course, there are services which bundle the channels that make themselves available for such bundling. Sling, Playstation VUE, and now YouTube TV provide a wide selection of familiar faces — but none of them offer everything. For example, local affiliate stations are going to be difficult to come by since these streaming services source from the national feeds. A few of these services offer tiers; the higher the tier, the more channels we get, but we might also end up paying more for a single channel we really want, in addition to getting 10 more channels we’ll never watch (for us, that would be the bazillionty sports channels that seem to be the foundation of all of these services). Since no single service offers everything we might want, the decision needs to be made: suffer without, or subscribe to multiple services?

Subscribing to different services means that we’re looking at platform availability. Most everything is available for Android, iOS, and PC, which is nice but is hardly a set-it-and-forget-it solution that competes with the eggs-in-one-basket cable box. The second best option is a device like the Roku or (*shudder*) Apple or Fire TV. A lot of the services are available through gaming consoles, but there’s a lot of overhead in navigating a console, and as much as I’d be thrilled to do so, I don’t think my wife will agree to buy another Playstation or Xbox for each of the TVs we need to broadcast to. Finally, a Chromecast would work in a lot of situations, but when all  you want to do is sit down and throw something on the TV, it’s not as convenient as a cable box when you need to bring out your phone, wait for it to connect, and then choose the supplier who has the content you want to watch.

So what’s the verdict so far? Apparently, PSVue seems to have the most channels we’re looking for, followed by YouTube TV. PSVue seems to work on Android, iOS, and PC, and of course, the Playstation, but also through the Roku, Amazon Fire, and Chromecast. YTTV works through Android, iOS, and PC, but beyond that, it only seems to work through Chromecast for TV broadcasting. Hopefully, that will change over time.

Then there’s the gravy. A lot of the broadcast services offer cloud-based DVR which is great as it allows you to record whatever, whenever, and watch it whereever you can access the service. This mean that when traveling in the US, we can take a Chromecast or Roku stick with us and have our familiar TV with us even in different broadcast markets. YouTube TV even offers Netflix-like sub-accounts so I could keep my DVR and favorites apart from my wife’s or my daughter’s.

At this stage, I’ve only been collecting information and haven’t yet actually tried any of these services. YouTube and PSVue have free trials, so I might take them up on those offers to see if we can live a month using those services — assuming we can find devices which work on the TVs we have. The kicker will be getting the family to remember to pick up the specific remote for the specific device to access the specific package which has the specific channels we want to watch when we want to watch them. It’s this scatter-shot distribution that is the biggest hurdle for cutting the cord for me, personally because while we might be able to replicate our preferred lineup, we have to span several services and possibly several devices in order to find what it is that we want in order to do it.

 

* At least for my wife and I. We still have to pay for our daughter’s line which is on the legacy carrier, but once the in-laws move off our legacy plan, our monthly bill will still be drastically reduced.

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Downside of DIY

Posted by on Mar 27, 2017 in Hardware

In the long war between the PC Master Race and the Console Peasants (their words, not mine), PC aficionados point to their platforms modularity as being one of its overarching strongpoints. Each console generation, they say, limits users to whatever is in the box. When technology changes the only recourse is to buy a whole new console at full price — often while the current console generation is a long way from being obsolete. PC users, on the other hand, can upgrade piecemeal over time; while the initial outlay far outstrips the cost of a single console, it’s easier to upgrade over time where it counts: a new video card here, more storage capacity there.

Unlike building something like furniture, buying PC parts to build a custom platform has its own dangers that consoles will never (should never) see. To do this, individual parts need to be ordered and arrive in sealed packages. In all honesty, the act of building the PC — putting the parts together — is simple and is well documented both in writing and on the Internet (you do have another PC or tablet that you can use to watch YouTube videos in the event of an emergency, right?). What usually throws things off kilter is the quality of the parts.

Buying an “off the shelf” PC from IBuyPower or Falcon or Alienware is generally looked upon as a cardinal sin by the PC Master Race that views the act of putting parts together in the same way Jedi view building a custom lightsaber: it’s a rite of passage and a display of both mastery and an expression of individuality. What they don’t care to take into account, though, is that pre-built systems usually go through an intense “burn in” period where the assembler lets the system run intensive operations for an extended period of time to ensure that everything is working as intended. When building a custom PC in one’s own home from parts that arrive individually shrinkwrapped, it’s up to the end-user to perform that burn in and should anything arise from the process, it’s up to the end-user to deal with the issues.

This past week I had run into the dreaded (and increasingly rare) BSOD — Blue Screen of Death. It always seemed to happen after playing Mass Effect: Andromeda, which is probably the most taxing application I currently have. Often the BSOD would pop up after about an hour of gameplay, sometimes when just the game was running but sometimes when I was trying to work with the streaming platform Lightstream (which was something that occupied a lot of time this weekend).

BSODs are cryptic and despite the notion that it might be helpful, aren’t very user-parsable. I downloaded some memory dump readers from Microsoft that could help decipher these errors, and I think I had narrowed it down to an issue with the RAM — one of the parts that is always one of the most obvious culprits when things go belly-up. I downloaded and ran an app called memtest+ which boots into a Linux partition and puts the RAM through several tests and reports on error conditions, and when I returned, I found this:

The particulars aren’t important; know that “red is bad…very, very bad” and there’s a lot of red there. Having suspected that the RAM was at fault, I overnighted the same RAM from Amazon and had it sitting on the desk for its inevitable deployment. After the memtest results I took the system down and swapped the RAM, booting straight back into memtest and running it on the new memory which passed without any issues. I have yet to actually try putting the system through the wringer again (i.e. Mass Effect) but the fact that the original RAM showed errors and the new stuff did not gives me a high probability of success.

The problem is that while the RAM was obviously bad…what if the BSODs were a result of something else, and RAM just became the scapegoat? I’ve been monitoring CPU temperatures when playing The Elder Scrolls Online last night and they’ve all been around 40-60 degrees Celsius (for an i7-7700K that’s supposedly a good range). Voltage for the CPU and the RAM is also within normal operating limits as I’ve not gone anywhere near the overclocking abilities of the motherboard. I would hate to have the problem be my video card, although when I was in the case working with the RAM I realized that I had never secured the card to the rear plate with screws, so I fixed that oversight immediately to ensure that the card didn’t rock itself out of it’s PCI slot.

Last time I upgraded my PC I bought an off-the-shelf system because this kind of situation is exactly the kind of thing I didn’t want to have to deal with. Of course, that was almost 10 years ago, and we now live in the age of Amazon Prime and no-hassle returns. After posting this screenshot on Twitter, Belghast mentioned that he was sad that the age of local PC parts stores has faded into memory (no pun intended). It would have been a lot easier if I could jump in the car and drive down to a shop to swap parts, or at least to have had them test the RAM before I bought it. Amazon may be convenient, but it’s still a step back from where we used to be when CompUSA and Computer City were a thing in my area.

My PC will now destroy any console currently on the market (it remains to be seen with Scorpio) but at what cost? I do prefer the PC for gaming for many other reasons, but the potential for hardware issues straight out of the box is a major strike against it at least until the parts have gone through their proper burn in phase.

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New PC: The Aftermath

Posted by on Mar 20, 2017 in Gaming, Glamour Shots, Hardware, Software

New PC: The Aftermath

 

The “before” picture

I finally got around to building my new PC on Saturday morning. I woke up early (about 6:45 AM) in part because I’m getting old and old people eat dinner early and also wake up early, and because it was like gawddamned Christmas. I could tell that it had been quite some time since I’d last built a custom PC, because it took me hours for several reasons. First, the motherboard is a gaming motherboard, which means there’s a lot more gee-gaws on there in the event that the builder wants to overclock, side clock, cock-block, and rock around the clock. Second, the case I had bought was nicer than a sub-$100 case had any right to be, complete with a removable side panel that allowed me to route 98% of the cables out of sight to create the cleanest looking internal configuration I’ve ever had the pleasure to build. Third, I didn’t want to put an optical drive in there because everything is on the Internet now, except that for some reason this board’s integrated network port didn’t work at all without drivers…which were on the DVD that came with the motherboard. I had to open the side-panel, disconnect one of the HDDs and wire in a spare DVD to get the install media that would let me get the PC online.

NSFW

To say that I’m pleased with this PC is an understatement. It used to be that my PC was the loudest thing in the room, what with its aging cooling system ramping up the fans just because the day ended with the letter “Y”. Now, I can hear all kinds of other things from the corners of the basement (and I’m kind of worried about the state of my house as a result) because the fans are software controlled, and the water cooling system is whisper-quiet. Honestly, I still expect to hear the fans whine at certain points of operation and it takes me a second or two to realize why I’m not.

My biggest problem? Finding something that I have that will put the system through its paces. The system I was replacing wasn’t deadweight; it could still handle pretty much everything I’d thrown at it, but looking over the recommended requirements for Mass Effect: Andromeda made me realize that I was only a micron away from falling away from the trailing edge of what I’d be able to run very, very soon.

The first Big Test was probably the biggest game I have that would yield true results: Star Citizen. I had been able to run SC, but not all that well, with visual lag coupled with the motion blur that can’t be turned off resulting in a real headache for me. On the new system, though, SC ran like a real game. I was able to sprint through Port Olisar, jump into my Connie and take off. Moving through the ship was a breeze, and I was even able to get back into the ship when I accidentally shot myself out of the airlock without worrying about mistiming due to lag.

Not representative of temps, but the number of control panels this motherboard offers is staggering

As a consequence of picking up a GTX 1070 from Newegg, I scored a copy of Ghost Recon: Wildlands, a game I’d been cool on, but interested if I could play with others. This game ran exceedingly well and only notched the CPU up to about 68C/154F which from what I’m seeing is either average for an i7-7700K with water cooling, or is on the lower side. In light of that, then, the only issue I ran into thanks to testing with GR:W was with the fact that I’m still using physical platter HDs.

I have an SSD for my main OS drive, and I try very hard not to install anything there, and I have moved all of my high-access content to one of the physical drives (page file, Documents, Downloads, Videos, etc). Everything else is installed to one of these two 500GB physical drives: one specifically for games, and the other for everything else. When running GR:W, then, the only issues that cropped up occurred when the game needed to access data from the disk. It hitched and paused for a few seconds which for an RPG might be OK, but for a game requiring a smooth experience so as not to end up dead, this was nigh unacceptable. Defragging the HD (remember that?) helped, but it got me thinking about what’s called an M.2 SSD.

How retro!

On newer motherboards, there’s a slot for a device that looks like an old-school stick of RAM with its green board and exposed microchips. The port itself is generic, accepting anything from SSDs to wireless and Bluetooth cards. The benefit of an M.2 SSD is that its bus is supposedly faster than a conventional drive hookup (on my board, it’s a 6GB/sec SATA connection), but it’s also low-profile and requires no cables for connection or power supply.

So I’ve been considering adding an M.2. drive to this system, but it’ll have to wait because I’ve already spent as much as I’m able on this system at this time. Alternatively, I’m now in a place where I can consider whether or not to get on the VR bandwagon (or more accurately the much smaller VR Red Ryder wagon). I looked over what kinds of games on Steam require VR, and came away pretty unimpressed. I have Elite: Dangerous already, and while I know what a boon having head tracking is (thanks to having used TrackIR with the game), I’m not sure shelling out hundreds for a VR setup would be worthwhile just for Elite. Other promising items like Star Trek: Bridge Crew sound absolutely amazing on paper, but since I don’t know too many people who also have VR setups, I’d have to play with *shudder* the general population. Really, right now I’m thinking that I should shelve VR until V2.0 or if I’m hell bent on it for some reason, to look at lower cost versions like PSVR (which seems to have a better lineup than what I saw on Steam).

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