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Verdict

It was a bad stick of RAM.

No, seriously.

In retrospect, a kinda “duh” moment. I mean, I had never before knew that bad RAM could make your PC just hard shutdown and (presumably) burn a graphics card. At the same time, I did get Furmark and a CPU tester to run for 15+ minutes using my 560ti card without a crash for a while there, with all temps being normal. Plus, I replaced the PSU and the PC booted up (before crashing later). All that was really left was a RAM issue.

I declined the $30 labor costs to install new RAM, but went ahead and spent $60ish to get the Microcenter guys to remove my liquid cooler on the CPU and install a mid-line fan. I’m a parsimonious miser for most things, but even I have my limits – possibly squirting liquid coolant all over my machine or having to disassemble my own rig to prevent that, is one of the lines.

As mentioned though, the 970 card is definitely still dead. I just submitted an RMA request and we’ll see what they say. It’s within the 2-year warranty period, but I’m a “worst-case scenario” kind of guy when it comes to corporations. I’m guessing this will be a 2-3 week process, at best.

In the meantime… well, WoW works perfectly fine with the 560ti. And isn’t crashing anymore. Which has allowed me to convert all but 100k or so of my in-game gold into $180 Blizzard credit.

So yeah. There’s that.

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Famine

I haven’t been able to play games this week, for reasons unrelated to the move.

The issue started when I booted up WoW. I was able to play for about 5-10 minutes – enough time to try purchasing more WoW Tokens – but then the game froze for a moment, recovered, then after another 5 minutes my PC just reset. Immediately afterwards, I heard the fans on my GTX 970 turn on full blast but there was no monitor signal. About a minute later, the PC sounds like it is functioning okay, but again, no monitor signal. I reboot and the PC turns on fine.

“Weird,” I think. Turn on WoW again, and the PC resets again after 5 minutes. Again, the 970 fans kick into high gear. This time though, resetting the PC does not bring the monitor back up.

I moved the 970 card to another slot, I used a different DVI port, I unplug the PC from my UPS to plug directly into the wall outlet, and so on. Plugging the monitor cable directly into the motherboard slot, e.g. the integrated graphics card, works however. I eventually dig out my old 560ti card, and that also works. Okay, great. Maybe the 970 card died?

I run Furmark to stress the 560ti card to reproduce the error. Temps stabilize around 70c. I ran a CPU stress, and they are within acceptable limits as well. Boot up WoW, play for another 10 minutes, and hard reset yet again. “Okay, not playing WoW, gotcha.” I turn the PC back on, start filling out a RMA request for the 970 card, and my PC hard resets while inside a browser. As of today, the monitor will display nothing no matter what card or slot the cord is plugged in.

Now, the primary culprit is currently suspected to be the PSU. According to a coworker, the 12V “bridge” which powers graphics cards often goes out first. I ended up inadvertently ordering two PSUs – one was 500W, which is not likely enough to power the rig, but Amazon wouldn’t let me cancel the order – and they should be arriving soon. I’ll have to cross my fingers regarding the GTX 970 card still being functional. It is technically within the 2-year warranty/RMA period, but I’m expecting some potential pushback should the card be fried when there were PSU issues afoot.

Of course, it might be something else entirely. Maybe the motherboard.

I don’t consider myself to be particularly tech savvy as much as software savvy. Replacing the PSU is going to be the most complicated PC-related task I have completed since I installed the GTX 970 card in the first place. Prior to that, the most complicated task was installing a new SSD. It is not so much the physical actions that worry me, but rather than possibility (and repercussions) of failure. “Oops, I bricked the $300 video card.”

In any case, we’ll see how it goes. I dive into the case Thursday night.

Edit: I spent a little over 2 hours last night replacing the PSU. GTX 970 card still is not working. Moved the entire computer to a different outlet, same deal. Swapped in the 560ti card and everything booted up fine. Then I went for the test: logging into WoW. About 10 minutes in, power shutdown. Plugged monitor into integrated video slot, left the machine idle for a bit. Power cut off again.

At this point, I am at a loss. The rig is old – I bought it around 5 years ago or so – but I no longer have any idea what could be wrong. I’m going to try and take it to a Microcenter near me for diagnosis this weekend. Depending on the verdict… I dunno. Maybe I “cut” losses and go back to gaming laptop like I did in my computer prior to this one. Maybe I try to save what I got.

All I can say for the moment is that I feel lost. Everyone has a thing that keeps them centered when the rest of life gets weird. Sometimes it’s a person, sometimes it’s a game, sometimes it’s a phone. Mine is a functioning computer. Or perhaps a personalized virtual space, if I want to be more specific. I don’t have that for the moment, and it sucks.

Falling Behind the Curve

As you may have noticed in the sidebar and/or prior post, I have picked up Dragon Age: Inquisition. I have not played it as much as I should have been however, because it is the first PC game in which I’ve ran into a hardware wall.

I am still strategically turning settings down, but I’m talking about Medium settings and getting maybe 40 FPS on a good day. Yesterday, my gaming session was cut short by the game randomly diving down to a literal 4 FPS level every 30 seconds. I “solved” that issue by spending a long time on Youtube weeding through arcane practices, many of which sounded suspiciously similar to “blow on the dice to make them roll high” from D&D players. One of the suggestions was to turn off FRAPS and other FPS counters; I was, of course, unable to ascertain whether it actually worked or if things ran better because I was unable to actually tell how bad it was running.

In any of these sort of situations, I come back to my experience with Skyrim. Basically, if your game doesn’t look as good as Skyrim on my machine, that’s your fault. Perhaps it’s not entirely fair to have that as a benchmark – I do notice a lot more NPCs milling about in Inquisition – but I still end up questioning whether my rig is truly outdated or if the designers got lazy with the PC optimization.

Regardless, my Inquisition FPS woes motivated me to start looking at weak points in my gaming rig:

  • i5-2500K Processor (4x 3.30GHz/6MB L3 Cache)
  • 8 GB [4 GB X2] DDR3-1600
  • NVIDIA GeForce GTX 560 Ti – 1GB – EVGA Superclocked – Core: 900MHz

Now, I’ve heard a lot of people talk about getting GTX 970 cards recently, so I figured that my ole 560ti might finally have been gotten to its obsolescence phase. On the other hand, I am not about to spend $300+ on a new graphics card either. What I want slash need is a way of determining the price points of various GTX cards in terms that I can understand.

For example, while I like this chart, it doesn’t really tell me much:

Again with the numbers.

Again with the numbers.

Actually, the chart did tell me quite a bit, as I was very seriously considering the GTX 750ti because bigger numbers equals better, right? I would have been quite pissed at that $100+ purchase for the tiniest of gains, let me tell you. But off-hand, I have no idea what 20,000 more… units translates into FPS terms. Eyeballing PCPartPicker.com shows that a 760 costs $170, the 770 is $260, and the 780 sits at $283. Which is a little weird considering the performance increase on the chart, and the fact that the rest of the 780s on the list are north of $400, above even the the 970s.

What ended up further confusing me is the fact that YouTube videos like this one exist. For the click averse, the title is “Battlefield Hardline ULTRA SETTINGS – NVIDIA GeForce GTX 560TI 1GB DDR5 @ AMD A-10 6800k 4.30Ghz.” And it looks like it runs okay, although there is no framerate counter in the corner. So… what gives? I’m pretty sure I wasn’t playing BF4 on Ultra on my rig. I think the person might have been playing at a lower resolution than 1920×1080, but would that make that big of a difference? I’m pretty used to 1080p at this point though, and am not sure I want to give it up even if it magically fixed all my problems.

From my research on the processor side of things, I have heard that the i5-2500K is still pretty pimp as far as things go. I did verify the speed at 3.3ghz, which means it has not been overclocked. I basically know nothing about overclocking other than what I have read on the internet, so I’m not sure whether that is an avenue worth exploring versus the risk of my machine bursting into flame. Then again, it is liquid cooled, so… yeah.

What this post boils down to is this: I’m open to any suggestions. It could be Inquisition settings, GTX card comparisons (I’m sticking with Nvidia), overclocking guides if that would actually help, and so on. As it stands, it’s still early enough in Inquisition that I likely won’t miss much by turning down settings before I get too invested in my characters actually looking good, but I’d prefer that they do. I mean, come on, Far Cry 3 and Tomb Raider and Titanfall looked fucking fantastic. Why can’t Inquisition? Bah.

[Fake Edit]: I did end up finding this site that compared Inquisition FPS on Ultra settings across multiple cards. The short version is that the 760 gets 30, 770 has 39, and the 780 hits 45. The 750ti is the closest equivalent to my own card, and it eked out 22 FPS. Which, let me tell you, is not indicative of in-game FPS at all at Ultra settings. Still, at least I have some sense of scale now. Will I spend hundreds of dollars on a new card to get 8 more frames per second? Well, I don’t actually need Ultra settings, so hopefully that 8 multiplies out a bit on, you know, High settings or whatever.

Insert Coin

Random!

  • Beat Deus Ex: Human Revolution a few days ago; the more formal review will be forthcoming. Short version is: game was goo… *crash to desktop*
  • Steam holiday sales annoy me to an extent. You see, what is the point of having entire catalogs on sale from 33-50% off, when they routinely turn around and toss up seemingly random selections from those same catalogs for 75% off? The only purpose I can ascertain is to piss people off.
  • For example, Space Marine was 33% off for the pass week, now is 50%. Torchlight was 50% off for the past week, now is 75%. I learned my lesson when I was burned in this way a year ago, but it still boggles my mind they pull the same shit year after year. All it encourages me to do is to wait until the very last moment to buy anything lest it go on sale a day later, and thereby potentially miss the deadline entirely and not buy anything.
  • I generally avoid the stupid Steam contests that involve you having to (re-)download multiple 10 gb games you already purchased but haven’t played yet in order to unlock achievements that result in lumps of coal. I did however do so on a whim with the Orcs Must Die! one. I have been playing the game every since.
  • Sometimes I hate buying shit off the internet. There are two monitors on Amazon, both Viewsonic 24″ widescreen LEDs: the VX2450WM (originally $368, now $179.99) and the VX2453MH (originally $270, now $189.99). For the life of me, I can’t seem to understand the difference. The latter has 30 million: 1 contrast as opposed to 20 million:1, is “ultra thin,” can be turned into a picture-frame looking thing for god knows what reason, and weighs 0.9 lbs less. The former can be mounted on a stand or something, and has roughly three times as many reviews (both are 4.5/5 stars).
  • My first instinct, I shit you not, was the former simply because “You Save: $188.01 (51%)” vs “You Save: $80.24 (30%).” With logic like that, I’m surprised I haven’t already ruined the Monster cables hooked up to my Alienware by spilling Grey Poupon all over them. Good thing I’m still covered under my Black Tie GeekSquad 5-year Best Buy warranty, ya?
  • Grey Poupon. Poupon. Poupon.
  • You now have an angry French guy in your head. You’re welcome.

Have a happy whatever you celebrate or not celebrate, as the case may be.

When In Doubt, Update Drivers

As I mentioned in the last post, I was extremely nervous about my computer “investment” considering the choppy performance in Deus Ex: Human Revolution thus far. When I re-downloaded Fraps, I finally saw the full scope of the depravity: ~15 fps standing still in the outdoor environments, single digits walking around. Keep in mind, that was with the lowest texture settings, AA set to one notch above “none,” and a 1440×900 resolution. As is often the case in these things, Google was fairly useless other than letting me know that people with lesser machines were miraculously getting better performance.

Then, in my darkest… half-hour, I fell back on my most basic of training: when in doubt, update drivers.

The Nvidia driver update did not actually solve anything. But in the process of updating it, I noticed a Virtu Control Panel button in the System Tray. Screwing around with the settings there did nothing. That was when I chose the “check for updates button,” navigating to their website for the latest driver. Which said:

New games added

  • Battlefield 3
  • Shogun2
  • Crysis 2
  • DiRT3
  • Deus EX Human Revolution

From what I gather, the Virtu program basically creates a virtual GPU that combines the power of your processors + your normal graphics card. Or, in my case, prevent my computer from using the goddamn graphics card. No, seriously. Once the driver was updated, I loaded up Deus Ex and had a maximum settings, 105 fps orgasm. We’re talking Perpetual Motion Machine lubricant smooth. This feels like an entirely different game than I was playing for the last 15 hours. I almost feel like starting the game over entirely.

So, when in doubt, update drivers. Including the drivers for shit you didn’t even know was installed on the machine.

Deus Ex: Cardboard Box Revolution

Been playing DE: HR for about 11 hours now, and I have come to some early conclusions.

  • Many of the design incentives are all screwed up.

It is one thing for your reward scheme to be rote enough that a player can earn XP for knocking out a guard, and then earn even more XP for killing the unconscious guard. Or that there are obviously invisible XP triggers in the duct-work, that encourage players to actually wander around up there long after there was a need to. Those are fine, whatever.

Where I begin to draw the line is the differences between hacking a computer and using the known passcode for the same computer. It is not just the XP that you get for doing the former: the hacking bit is actually fun and rewards its own loot. Not getting the hacking loot might be considered an acceptable “cost” for someone who never bothers to upgrade those skills, sure. But the game design in regards to hackers doesn’t make sense on two levels. 1) Using the passcode prevents you from playing the fun minigame, and 2) it makes no goddamn sense that you couldn’t unlock those secret files with full administrative access to the computer. If I can find secret files while hacking, why can’t I find secret files when I enter the password?

Of course, many people have commented on the above inconsistencies months ago. While I haven’t gone around killing the guards I knock unconscious or running around in the duct-work unnecessarily for the XP, I find the hacking bit to be especially jarring. That could be a sign of my atrophied “simulation is important” organ lurching back to life, but I prefer to think of it as the principal of the thing. If I’m a hacker-type and get your password, I should automatically get all the goodies on your computer. It’s only fair.

  • I’m getting nervous about my computer investment.

Perhaps its unrealistic expectations, but I honestly thought I’d boot up the game and play on the highest settings at 60+ FPS. That… is not the case. I turned some settings down, usually the ones with the acronyms that they don’t bother explaining, and am at a point where everything still looks good and plays smoothly. Considering Kotaku pointed out a deal today on a laptop with a i5-2430M, GeForce GT 555M for $695.20… I’m concerned I may not have got $500 more oomph for my money. Ultimately, it will come down to how BF3 plays, since that was my primary impetus for the purchase.

  • Did this game begin as a cardboard box simulator?

Seriously, you cannot walk 15 feet in-game without half a dozen cardboard boxes being highlighted in helpful yellow. At first I was confused about all this seemingly pointless interactivity. But that was before I got to the basement of the police station…

Nothing out of the ordinary here, Mr. Camera.

Directly behind me was a keycard reader I was hacking; behind the boxes is an oscillating video camera with its helpful green beams. In a break from FPS tradition (Bioshock, et tal), hacking in DE:HR forces you to stand up and do so in real time. After some close calls with attempting to disable the camera with my stun gun and hack my way through the door while getting all the goodies, I came upon the more… practical solution.

32GB At A Time

The new computer has arrived.

Remember that photo from the 5 Stages of PC Shopping? Yeah, that basically showed up.

Asian (unfortunately) not included.

Although I have technically had this rig – and it physically qualifies as a “rig” – for a day and a half, I have not actually played any games on it. As it turns out, somewhere inbetween the last time I bought a new computer and this one, I have accumulated a lot of shit that does not like being moved around. iTunes, for instance, was an adventure; you can’t just copy the iTunes folder over and be done with it. It’s fickle. So fickle, in fact, that I ended up having to change the way iTunes was stored on my laptop (moving everything to D:/), then renaming my hard drive on the new machine from E:/ to D:/ (for some reason the Blu-Ray drive was D:/), copying it all onto a 32GB thumb drive I bought today for this express purpose, and then finally shifting it to the new machine.

The whole operation felt like a Kidney transplant, complete with a fear of rejection by the host. And now that I looked it up on Wikipedia, it took around the same amount of time. My Steam transplant, by comparison, was more akin to a vasectomy: just a little snip-snip, followed by recovery.

Hopefully I will be back up and running at full steam (oh ho ho) by the weekend at the latest. Although I had half a mind to chase the Skyrim bandwagon before it completely faded from view, Deus Ex: HR was technically here first in the “I wish my computer could play this” category. And screw being topical anyway (when you are already so far behind the curve)!

Re: PC Shopping

Thanks everyone who commented earlier about the 5 Stages of PC Shopping, as I have officially broke the cycle. Le specs:

  • i5-2500K Processor (4x 3.30GHz/6MB L3 Cache)
  • 8 GB [4 GB X2] DDR3-1600
  • NVIDIA GeForce GTX 560 Ti – 1GB – EVGA Superclocked – Core: 900MHz
  • 64 GB ADATA S596 Turbo SSD (for Windows, games)
  • 500 GB HARD DRIVE — 16M Cache, 7200 RPM, 6.0Gb/s (for data)

The rig came to $1260 when the $75 (!) shipping was added in, all via iBuyPower.com. If you’re interested, their Black Friday sale has morphed into a Weekend Sale that will undoubtedly segue into a Cyber Monday sale, so you probably have some time.

I suppose the “cycle” is not permanently broken until I start buying and assembling the computer myself, but given I haven’t had a computer tower in years I figure I’ll be more comfortable next time around. When I priced the components individually on Newegg, it came to ~$818 before shipping and without certain features like liquid cooling and such. I paid a premium, but it’s an okay premium. For now.

In unrelated, albeit possibly interesting news, I will be playing the SWTOR beta starting in the afternoon.

The 5 Stages of PC Shopping

Stage 1: Denial

I just got a new computer about two years ago. Everything runs completely fine!* What would I even do with the old computer? You know those people who buy a brand new car every other year, and how much you hate them? Don’t be that guy.

Besides, you have plenty of indie games and MMOs to keep you busy practically for years to come. Who cares that everyone is talking about Skyrim?

Stage 2: Anger

Why do developers do this shit?!

I paid something stupid like $1400 on a computer two years ago and already I’m being priced out of videogames? I could have spent that money on a PS3 and XBox 360 on launch day and been good for the next seven years! This is why there will always be a market for consoles; what kind of insane person buys the equivalent of $700 videogames?

And when did the computer component world pass me by? “Sandy bridge” my ass.

You know, I had a real handle on graphics card models back in the day. I could explain that a NVidia  8700 was more powerful than a 9500 – the trick was that the first number was a model number, and only the last three digits meant anything important. Nowadays, the NVidia guys are telling me that their goddamn GTX 295 outperforms their GTX 560. Sounds sorta like the old system, right? But wait! The GTX 480 spanks them both. You can’t explain that!

Stage 3: Bargaining

Okay, you win. I spend probably close to 90% of my free time using the computer, and two years is like a decade in internet years anyway. If I just cave and buy a console, I’ll miss out on all those ridiculous Steam deals; the money I’ll save probably makes the price a wash. Nevermind that my computer monitor is larger than any TV in the house… and I really, really want to play Battlefield 3/Skyrim/etc.

I don’t need the bleeding edge stuff. Maybe something that, you know, is done bleeding but still warm. For about $1000.

Stage 4: Depression

I have no idea WTF I am doing. NVidia helpfully says I can buy everything off of Newegg for ~$700 and then build it myself. That’s great… until I start reading shit like this:

Static electricity is the biggest danger to the expensive parts you are about to assemble, even a tiny shock, much too small for you to feel, can damage or ruin the delicate electronic traces, many times smaller than a human hair, that make up your CPU, RAM and other chips. It’s important to use your anti-static wrist strap to prevent damage to these components. Once you have the power supply installed in the case, clip the end of the wrist strap to the outside of the power supply. (Never plug your computer in while you are connected to it by a wrist strap.)

[…]

Installing the CPU, and the CPU’s heat-sink and fan, are by far the most difficult steps you’ll have to complete during your build. Here, more than anywhere else, it will pay to read the instructions carefully, look at the parts, study the diagrams that came with your CPU and/or third party cooling solution, and make sure you thoroughly understand what you are going to do before you try to do it.

There is no getting over the sense of impending doom that is knowing it is possible to destroy a CPU with static I won’t even feel, and can probably launch just by looking at it funny. Christ, I cannot even look at a Micro SD chip without getting an insane urge to put it in my mouth.

There is no way this is going to work.

Surely though, with components at $700 I could find some place willing to build it for me for like $300, right? Everyone tells me its easy, so that should be an easy $300. Except… not so much. Oh wait, this computer looks pretty cool. Hmm, let me check out the comments.

Negative Newegg.com comments make me mistrust all technology, everywhere.

I don’t know what to do anymore. Maybe I shouldn’t scrimp on a computer. My current computer was like $1400 at the time, so maybe I should look at the higher end machines and just go for it.

Wow… look at this $1600 machine. Liquid cooling is badass. Alright, having the liquid cooling leak all over the inside of the computer during shipping sounds less cool in the comments. I suppose I could at least look at the Youtube video they provided.

Holy mother of Christ, is that Asian chick just tiny or is that case really the size of a goddamn diesel generator?

You know what? I can’t do it. I just can’t. That thing costs about 1/4th of what I spent on my car, and is about 1/4th the size of the car to boot – at this point, I would be shopping for a new desk just to have somewhere to place a computer, a new chair to fit the desk, and renting a crane to lower the case through a recently installed skylight. All the while praying to any god that would listen so that some component I cannot begin to touch without frying it did not come loose in shipping.

I can troubleshoot software no problem. But I know just enough about hardware to know I will A) screw it up building it myself, B) get screwed buying pre-built machines on the cheap, or C) get screwed buying expensive pre-built machines only 1% better than the half-priced prior generation machines.

Stage 5: Repeat Stages 1-4.

Until I break down and buy something from Best Buy simply because it offers the safety of having a physical location to direct my ire. Not that any of them ever have an idea of what they’re talking about, aside from sending the computer off to Asscrack, Alaska for the next eight weeks.

But hey, the devil you know…

*For given amounts of fine. For example, my audio-out only delivers sound from the left speaker. Headphones work fine, but I have bought 3 different sets of external speakers over the years, and all of them had the same problem. Of course, none of the audio cables fit in all the way, but I’m tired of spending $20 a pop guessing.