Mike Swanson

November, 2004

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    Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 Rocks!


    Okay...I have a confession to make. To-date, I've purchased four TiVo units, and I'm currently running the DirectTV DVR that includes the TiVo service. My wife and I are both TiVo addicts, our friends are sick and tired of us talking about it, and I firmly believe that it's the only way to watch TV. Yes, I realize that it runs Linux, but you know what? It's an excellent product, and they've nailed the user interface. However, although the standalone edition allows you to browse digital media, the DirectTV version does not, so we're left with only a partial solution.

    As you can imagine, I've followed our Ultimate TV and Windows Media Center releases quite closely. Believe me when I tell you that I'd love nothing more than to purchase our own stuff. However, I refuse to spend my money on something that I don't believe will offer me a real benefit, and until the recent release of Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005, I didn't believe that we were there yet.

    I had heard so many good things about the 2005 edition (for example, see Paul Thurrott's review) that I decided to try it myself. The software and hardware are now available for OEM sale which makes it much easier to evaluate (as a matter of fact, the software is also available to MSDN subscribers). I've always had a problem with the thought of buying a whole computer just to play back my media. Part of the reason I really like TiVo is because it's an appliance that requires no maintenance on my part. I already have a few computers to maintain...I don't need another one. And I didn't look forward to having a computer with all of its associated cables in my home theater. I want something that looks more like A/V equipment (frankly, like TiVo).

    Because of a recent computer purchase, I now have an extra P4 1.8GHz machine in need of a job. Although the video card doesn't have a built-in tuner, it does have S-VIDEO out, making it a perfect test machine. So tonight, I installed MCE 2005 and connected it to our home theater. The installation was a breeze, the configuration took only a few minutes, and the interface is easy to use from a distance. And even though it isn't an "appliance," Windows XP Service Pack 2 now allows me to configure the system for automatic updates which makes maintenance simple.

    So you can appreciate our situation, my wife and I have ripped over 1,600 CDs to a media server (WMA 192Kbps), we have about 9,000 digital photos, and around six hours of digital video. I'd really like to be able to browse all of our media on our 64" HDTV. We've tried a number of solutions in the past (like the Turtle Beach AudioTron, a good device, but not for that many songs), but we always gravitate back to the Media Center interface. It's clean, logical, and intuitive.

    Well, after playing with the interface and working with media over our 802.11g wireless network, I can tell you that we've finally nailed it with the 2005 edition. It's trivial to find music, even among 1,600+ CDs. We're both visual people, so we enjoy the ability to select CDs using the album covers. But, it's also easy to use the remote to search by artist. Response is snappy, and I'm pleased to find that my MSN Radio subscription works just fine. I'm not sure if I'd ever use it, but I am pleasantly surprised to find that my favorite blog reader, NewsGator, is one of the online services. It's also a straightforward exercise to configure network shares, so I can distribute media across more than one device. Slick.

    I'm sure that I'll eventually purchase something like the HP Digital Entertainment Center z500 series, because it looks and feels more like the appliance that I'm after. Couple that with a few of our new Media Center Extenders, and we can proliferate media throughout the entire house. Tell me...is there anything better than a gadget addiction!?

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    The Final Hours of Half-Life 2


    GameSpot has posted an excellent, 25-page, in-depth article titled The Final Hours of Half-Life 2. The report covers:

    • The choice by Valve Software to develop their own game engine
    • The inclusion of realistic physics and articulate characters
    • Why Half-Life 2 didn't appear at E3 2002
    • The real story behind the September 30, 2003 release date
    • The lawsuit between Valve and Vivendi Universal Games
    • How game levels are envisioned and created
    • How a 21-year-old German named Axel G hacked into Valve's network
    • The fate of the scanner piñata

    The article is a fascinating read with a lot of behind-the-scenes detail that hasn't been revealed until recently. It sounds like the development team put in a lot of 20+ hour days over a long period of time to finish this game (unfortunately, many developers can relate to a work schedule like this). Plus, we get some frank and honest insight from Gabe Newell.

    I have a copy of Half-Life 2: Raising the Bar on order from Amazon. I'm hoping that it's an extended version of the kind of information that's presented in the GameSpot article. It doesn't look like the book has shipped yet, so I probably won't be receiving it before Tuesday...which is most likely a good thing, since my evenings will be occupied in City 17. :-)

    On a related note, based on this GameSpot article and this IGN article, it appears that some stores might already have Half-Life 2 available for sale. I checked our local Best Buy and Electronics Boutique while I was out with my wife tonight, but neither of them had it on the shelves. Unfortunately (or fortunately), since the game requires internet activation by Valve's Steam service, it probably wouldn't do any good to have it early anyway.

    Update: Blues News is reporting the following response from Valve about early activation of Half-Life 2.

    If you have purchased a copy of Half-Life 2, we are sorry you are still waiting to play. This is not Valve's choice. Vivendi is insisting that the game has not yet been released, and has threatened that Valve would be in violation of its contract if we activate the Half-Life 2 Steam authentication servers at this time.

    Thanks for your patience and we will update you when we have more news to share.

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    What About Halo 2?


    I've had a few people e-mail me this morning to ask why I haven't posted about today's release of Halo 2. Well, although I was part of the beta program, and I think Halo 2 is a very good game, I'm personally much more excited about next week's release of Half-Life 2 for the PC. Don't get me wrong...I love my Xbox. But, I generally prefer first-person PC games over first-person console games because of the improved graphics, depth of experience (which isn't always better, but can be), and...


    What!? Controls!? Yes...call me crazy, but I still maintain that a mouse and keyboard player always has an advantage over a console player when it comes to first-person games. I can "twitch" a mouse and leverage mouse acceleration to change my perspective and aim much more quickly and accurately than I could ever hope to achieve with a pad or stick. For games that aren't first-person, I don't think there's as much of a PC advantage. I do owe it to myself to check out the SmartJoy FRAG adapter...I just haven't had the time.

    That said, Halo 2 is fun on Xbox Live, and the graphics are definitely improved. Plus, the ability to simultaneously wield two weapons is sweetness. I thought about going out last night to one of the midnight events at our local Best Buy, but I ended up deciding against it. Did anyone else make it out at midnight?

    Update: Here's a MSNBC article on the phenomenon.

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    Half-Life 2 Review


    Well, it's been almost one full week since I purchased Half-Life 2, and in that time, I've managed to set aside around 18 total hours to play this game from start to finish. Valve has truly created an interactive masterpiece...one that will no-doubt set the bar for other first-person games for quite some time. In the process, they've created a top-notch game engine that renders stunning environments that put both Doom 3 and FarCry to shame. I'm very much looking forward to future games that leverage the power of the Source engine.

    Like many people, I spent about 40 minutes Tuesday night trying to connect to Valve's Steam internet service to activate my copy of Half-Life 2. I received various arcane errors that made it obvious to me that Valve hadn't planned very well for the onslaught of traffic they received on the first day. Needless to say, I was quite frustrated. Not only had I been waiting for 5+ years, but the box and DVD were in my hands! It surprises me that Valve doesn't have a 30-day grace period like Windows XP product activation. Anyway, after a bit of persistence, I was finally able to activate and fire up the game.

    I was elated to discover that I could configure the game to run at 1,920 x 1,200, the native resolution of my recently purchased 23" Sony LCD monitor. I was also pleasantly surprised to learn that the game recommended setting everything to "high" for my dual Opteron workstation. Running the video performance benchmark that's included with Counter-Strike: Source reveals that my system is capable of around 70fps at these settings...more than enough for smooth game play. I guess I made the right decision to delay my computer purchase until this release.

    Unlike the original Half-Life, Half-Life 2 doesn't include a separate training level. Instead, it introduces new concepts as you play the game. When you encounter a situation that warrants the use of a new feature, the system displays a short message on the screen telling you which key to press to access the functionality. They really did a good job with this, because the situations don't seem contrived, and they provide just enough to get you used to the new feature.

    There is a very deep sense of immersion into the environment. As I mentioned, the graphics are downright stunning. Even my wife (who isn't a game player at all) was impressed with the quality and watched me play for a little while. The shadows, light, and surface reflectivity all lend an air of realism to the scenery, and there are some scenes that are nearly photographic. The audio is also extremely good. I was immediately thrown back to the original Half-Life game when I heard some of the very familiar sounds. Also, the weapon effects have a satisfying depth that I found missing in Doom 3.

    On top of all that, the game physics add even more to the realism (courtesy of the Havok engine). For example, you can push and lift many of the boxes and barrels in the game world, and this capability is used for some very clever puzzles. You eventually get a "gravity gun" that allows you to pick up or push much heavier items like refrigerators, televisions, and rusted-out cars. There's nothing like "throwing" an old car at a group of approaching enemies and watching the ensuing rag doll physics. Priceless.

    Unfortunately, I frequently encountered the nefarious stuttering problem that has plagued so many players. But, unlike many of them, I decided to continue playing despite the fact that it tends to jar you away from the storyline. The only other negative that I can think of is the simplicity of game play on even the medium difficulty level. Although I had to replay a few areas many times, for the most part, it was nothing like my experience with Doom 3 or FarCry. This is a minor complaint, since it's still a fantastic journey.

    Overall, Half-Life 2 is an excellent title. If you're a fan of first-person shooters, or if you like interactive fiction, this is a worthwhile purchase. It's smarter and brighter than Doom 3, more moody and beautiful than FarCry, and miles ahead of Halo 2 (which isn't a totally fair comparison, since Halo 2 is limited by the aging Xbox hardware). This is truly one of the best games I've ever played, and as a matter of fact, it might become the first game that I play through a second time. Kudos to Valve for a very polished and immersive experience.

    If you'd like to read another perspective, I found Scott Hanselman's review to be both unique and insightful.

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    Dual Opteron Goodness


    If you follow my blog, you'll probably remember the dual Opteron workstation I ordered on September 29th from GamePC. Well, after waiting a full month (due to industry-wide video card delays), the eagle has finally landed. As a result of the delays, GamePC—on their own—graciously upgraded my shipping method from UPS Ground to UPS 3 Day Select at no extra charge. The machine shipped on Tuesday, October 26th, which meant that Friday, October 29th was the expected delivery date. As soon as I heard that, I was reminded of my Weekend Technology Delivery Axiom which states that anytime a much-desired geek toy is scheduled to arrive before the weekend (almost always on Friday), some unexpected force will inevitably delay its delivery until the following Monday. We've all been there, I'm sure.

    Although I didn't blog about it, I decided that to enjoy the full benefits of my new machine I would need a new monitor. My 21" Hitachi has been good to me for many years, and because I love to play first-person shooters and do a lot of Photoshop work, I've been resisting the urge to purchase a sexy LCD display. Even properly adjusted inexpensive CRTs still have better color fidelity than many of the expensive LCD displays, and CRTs don't suffer from the "blur" problem that slower LCD panels exhibit when there's fast motion on the screen. After doing quite a bit of research and review reading (like this one at GamePC), I decided to purchase Sony’s SDM-234/B 23-inch LCD display. Frankly, even after reading a number of positive reviews and comments from current owners, I was anxious about my choice. Because you earn a 3% credit towards a future purchase for anything you buy from GamePC, I already had enough credit to pay for UPS 2 Day shipping so that it would arrive with my computer.

    Thankfully, the computer Gods were looking down on me last Friday, and both the machine and monitor arrived as-scheduled and in good condition. The computer was packaged inside of the box that the Lian Li PC-61 Black Mid-Tower case came in, and that box was inside of a larger box that contained a generous supply of packing peanuts to keep everything safe. GamePC also sent all of the manuals, cabling, CDs, slot covers, and extra screws that were included with the parts I ordered. It's nice having all of those parts, because it allows me a lot more flexibility as I upgrade the machine in the future.

    I opened and setup the Sony monitor first. As mentioned in the reviews I read, it's a little heavier than other LCD displays, but because of its extra heft, it doesn't wobble like a lot of the lighter LCD displays I've used in the past. The base is made of beautiful brushed aluminum, and the illuminated Sony logo on the black bezel adds a very professional touch. The monitor controls are "hidden" in the right lower corner of the bezel, and they become illuminated when you touch them...very stylish and high-tech. By default, the screen automatically stretches display modes that aren't multiples of its native 1,920 x 1,200 pixel resolution (16:10 aspect ratio). Although you'd think that stretching would make everything look "fat," in practice, it's hardly noticeable, and it looks great.

    Next, I opened up the computer and was pleasantly surprised to find that the Lian Li computer case I had selected (sight-unseen) was gorgeous. It's made of deep black brushed aluminum, and it reminds me of high-end audio equipment. The case has a smooth feel and is obviously constructed very well. Since it's an easy-to-open thumb-screw case, I decided to take a peek inside. It's clear that GamePC prides itself on quality workmanship, because the inside is wired very professionally, and the sound-proofing material has been installed with great care.

    After plugging in all of the cables, I fired it up. I was immediately surprised at how quiet the machine is. Remember, there are four case fans, one power supply fan, two processor fans, one fan for the NVIDIA 6800 Ultra graphics card, two 10,000 RPM Raptor drives, and one 7,200 RPM drive. Whew! Despite all of the spinning mechanics, the machine only makes a very low hum...even when it's feverishly writing to the drives. As a matter of fact, unless I put my ear right next to the machine, I can't hear any of the hard drive activity. Amazing.

    So, I installed Windows XP Service Pack 2, some NVIDIA demos, Futuremark's 3DMark05 Pro and 3DMark03, Doom 3, Unreal Tournament 2004, and FarCry. Without any overclocking, the machine scores around 12,600 on 3DMark03, which puts it near the top of the non-overclocked heap. The NVIDIA demos are impressive, and if you haven't run any of them on your own hardware, they generate some good eye-candy. The dual 10,000 RPM Raptor drives in a RAID 0 configuration make short work of loading up just about any software. And software installations are extremely fast. Everything is almost instantaneous, and I feel a slight bit guilty for wielding all of this computing power (okay...not really).

    But, best of all is the Sony monitor. The Windows desktop has never looked so vast and beautiful. The monitor is very vibrant with rich, deep colors, and although I calibrated it with my ColorVision Spyder, it was already well calibrated out-of-the-box. GamePC has a 30-day pixel perfect guarantee where they'll replace the monitor free of charge if it exhibits any stuck pixels...very nice. Any concerns I had about image editing and color fidelity have been eliminated by this display. As a matter of fact, my trusty and well-calibrated 21" Hitachi CRT now seems to pale in comparison.

    Gaming has never been this good. Let me be clear when I tell you that this 16ms display shows absolutely no signs of blur on fast-motion games. It has no problem keeping up, and video playback looks perfect. Plus, since I'm using the DVI connector, the resolution is rock solid. But here's where having a 23" widescreen display rocks...you can fire up games like FarCry at 1,920 x 1,200, and it plays like you've never seen before. I can't tell you how many times I've been sniped while stopping to admire the Shader Model 3.0 and HDR water in Far Cry 1.3. It's enough make a grown man cry.

    I haven't run a bunch of benchmarks yet, but if you're worried about gaming on an Opteron machine, I can also tell you that your worries are unfounded. It has no problem keeping up with the highest resolutions. My Doom 3 timedemo on Ultra Quality at 1,600 x 1,200 was somewhere around 50 frames per second. Not bad at all. I have Unreal Tournament cranked up as high as it will go, and it plays as smooth as butter.

    Overall, my experience with GamePC has been phenomenal. I've exchanged about 15 e-mails over the course of the month, and all of their replies have been very prompt (usually within 30 minutes) and incredibly informed. I can't remember the last time I e-mailed a technical question and received an answer with more technical detail than I asked for...can you? Plus, since they were concerned about the video card delays, they proactively offered me a chance to switch to the same video card but made by a different manufacturer. Ironically, after I accepted their swap, not a half-hour later did they e-mail to say they'd be getting the original card the next day. The card arrived, they burned in my computer, and the rest is history. I will definitely order from GamePC again in the future, and if you're looking for a new machine and you're picky about the components inside, I'd highly recommend giving them a try.

    Game on!

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