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Jun. 22nd, 2013 @ 09:16 am Hardware upgrade
Current Mood: accomplishedaccomplished
Tags: ,
Jiji, the computer we have in the living room hooked up to the TV, is getting long in the teeth. Specifically, when it comes to rendering subtitle effects in fansubs, audio and video will diverge -- depending on the effect, this might be tens of seconds! Nothing that can be fixed by repositioning the stream to another time indicator. But it's kind of a drag to have to get up from the couch and do that, just because there's a piece of translated text on the screen. And with the current hardware almost five years old, it was certainly defensible to invest a bit into an upgrade.

I have played Skyrim on the PS3 extensively. And you can't be on the internet and play Skyrim and not see the tons of mods that have been made for the game. Mods ranging from new content (dungeons, but also new guilds), to new behaviours for NPCs, balance-breaking mods (both overpowering and underpowering) and, of course, hordes of female followers in skimpy chainmail bikinis (or sometimes even less clothing... Though there is also a 'modesty mod' which makes the (female) citizens of Skyrim cover up more). Some of those mods are really cool, and I would love to play around with them -- but of course, the PS3 being a console, mods don't work on there: you have to have the PC version to be able to mess around with mods.
The upgrade for the living room PC offered a chance there. But I don't want to get stuck in the upgrade treadmill that is so typical of PC gaming: I don't fancy spending several hundred euros for the next big thing in videocards. And I don't want to have a power-hungry component with lots of additional fans in the case just because I want to play this one game.

Of course, this November, Skyrim will be two years old. Ancient by game standards, which means you don't need the latest and greatest video equipment to play it with a modest setup. And AMD has a line of APU's, which is basically a CPU and a video card integrated into the main chip. The A10 680K seemed to have pretty acceptable framerates in Skyrim (I mean, who needs 60 frames per second? 30 is more than enough), and the CPU itself should be powerful enough to render most subtitle effects. At 135 euros at launch, it is a great value for a budget gaming rig that can play yesteryear's games -- so I ordered one the day after it was released.
I added a motherboard to support the APU, and 8GB of the fastest memory I could get -- the APU uses a chunk of RAM for the video memory, and the speed of that chunk can add or detract from the video performance. All in all, the components cost less than EUR 300 (excluding shipping). All the other stuff (case, power unit, harddisk etc) would be recycled from the current machine. I thought I'd use my Windows XP setup for this.

The APU came without drivers, and of course the motherboard drivers did nothing to detect the integrated graphics. Utilities that offered to detect my hardware and collect the correct drivers did not work. Bad experience there -- installing Windows is always a chore, Ubuntu just works!
Anyway, I had to find the newest Catalyst drivers myself on the very unhelpful AMD website, only to find out that Windows XP was not supported anymore. Which is reasonable, I guess: WinXP is ancient. Which means I had to get a new Windows license! I chose Windows 7, because that's what I'm familiar with because it runs on my work laptop -- adding to the cost of the build...
To Microsoft's credit, installing Win7 is a breeze, and after some driver setup, I was all set! Video playback is smooth (as was to be expected) -- we haven't yet encountered any subtitle effects that gave a stutter, so that's good. However, my own mediacenter software doesn't work anymore: it's a 32-bit application, and it can't integrate the 64-bit Windows Media Player on a form -- adding to the work. But at least we can watch our fansubs and stream from Crunchyroll, so that's good.

I bought an XBox 360 controller (man, those things are big!) with a wireless USB receiver, installed Steam and bought the Skyrim Legendary edition (which includes the three DLCs). Yes, I bought a game I already had in another format... But it was 'only' 40 euros, so the price per hour will be pretty good, I think.
And then: mods! I've already explored a new dungeon, sped up my mining, made civilians flee indoors when a dragon attacks and added some effects like condensation when speaking in cold weather. The experience is both familiar and fresh, which is interesting. And the APU runs things quite nicely on High settings -- though I switched off Anti-Aliassing because I had some slowdown near waterfalls. Also, I don't install mods that offer higher textures and enhanced visuals: that's only for people who invest 300 euros in their video card, not for people who invest 300 euros in the full upgrade!

I'm pretty pleased with the setup. All I have to do now is to re-write my software to run on Win7...
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