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Chapter 4. Playing with Hardware > Optimize PC Video Performance

Hack 44. Optimize PC Video Performance

Run the best PC video you possibly can.

In 2003, there was a vacuum in the PC power versus gaming software performance race due to delays in the release dates of games such as Half-Life 2 and DOOM III. You could sit back and relax with PCs that ran everything that the software developers threw at you with ease; current PC graphics cards were much more capable than anything the emerging crop of games could challenge them with.

Games in 2004 push the limits again (Far Cry!). With the current lineup of consoles already showing their age, developers who want to use radical physics engines, advanced AI, and revolutionary graphic effects must target the PC market. Graphic resolution in games isn't merely upscaled from standard resolutions like VGA (800 600) as in years past. Instead, developers are taking advantage of today's powerful hardware to support resolutions all the way up to UXGA (1600 1200). This amount of screen resolution represents a six-fold increase over an Xbox running at 480p. Consoles are inexpensive for a reason: they are yesterday's technology.

True, you can purchase all three consoles and a game or two for the price of a single top-end graphics card, but the experience is different for the first person shooter, real-time strategy, or flight simulator fan. Combining the right game and a powerful gaming PC makes any console look like a foofy pocket calculator. As your graphics card and display capabilities become more advanced, your experience will scale to match.

4.11.1. Buying the Right Video Card

With quarterly model changes, the computer industry moves faster than any other in the world. For the high-end gamer, this is good, when new innovations and technology hit the market regularly, and bad, as top-flight equipment rapidly becomes mediocre. A little research will tell you quickly whether or not a high-end or budget mid-end card is the hot ticket for today's games. I won't try to explain which cards are a good deal right now, because the technology changes so fast it wouldn't even be relevant tomorrow. Instead, read independent third-party review sites that conduct in-depth testing of graphics cards. Sometimes they test the card on games that you own or want to play with the new card. Good review sites include HardOCP (http://www.hardocp.com/), AnandTech (http://www.anandtech.com/), and Tom's Hardware (http://www.tomshardware.com/).

As you wait for Half-Life 2, the bargain bins host a ton of classic games that don't require spectacular graphics chips. If you haven't played titles like the original Half-Life, Deus Ex, Thief, or Homeworld, rescue them today and enjoy. I won't tell anyone that you haven't finished them.

4.11.2. LCD Monitors

When it comes time to upgrade your monitor, consider an LCD system. A big, bright display that doesn't take up a bunch of desktop real estate seems like a dream come true. It is, but with a couple of caveats.

LCD monitors respond more slowly to motion than do traditional CRTs (glass tube monitors). This technology is rapidly advancing, however, so motion looks better now than it did a few years ago. The single biggest performance criteria when considering an LCD is the response time, the time in milliseconds that it takes for a pixel to toggle from fully off to fully on and then off again. LCD displays that have a pixel response time rating of under 20 ms—approaching the performance of a traditional CRT—are leading-edge technology today.

The other two important factors to consider are overall brightness and contrast ratio. Brightness is measured by cd/m2 (candelas per square meter); the higher the better. More important is the contrast ratio of the monitor. Contrast is the degree of difference that a monitor can display between white and black. Brightness and contrast ratio on an LCD are closely interrelated. As brightness increases, contrast generally decreases. Sadly, manufacturer specifications are unreliable due to loose rules for monitor ratings. Trust your own eyes instead.

When hooking up your LCD, use a digital video interface (DVI) connection if possible. Many modern graphics cards and displays support this DVI connector. Because LCD displays are natively digital, attaching them with an analog connection means that they must then convert your signal to digital before the information passes to your screen. Worse still, the graphics card must convert its information to analog to pass it through the VGA cable! Each conversion takes its toll on the quality of the signal. Connecting your card and monitor with a DVI cable allows them to converse without any translation and can improve display quality remarkably.

Hacking a Mac Display

You've done your research and have your heart set on a great big LCD monitor. You've also noticed that Apple offers widescreen LCDs at a very attractive price. The only problem is that they use an Apple Display Connector (ADC) connection.

ADC is a DVI-compatible video format that combines USB and DC power for the monitor in a single cable. While innovative and clutter-reducing, you might think that this type of connector makes these monitors incompatible with your PC. However, Apple makes a DVI-to-ADC converter that works with a DVI-enabled graphics card. Even when you add the cost of the converter to that of the monitor, you will still pay several hundred dollars less for a Macintosh 23-inch Cinema HD than for a standard PC LCD display of similar size from any other manufacturer. The best part is that this monitor requires no other prep work; hook up the ADC converter, and it is plug-and-play from there with Windows XP.

Be careful to use only the first-party Apple ADC-to-DVI converter, however. Third-party products such as the Dr. Bott DVIator can produce unwanted artifacts if you use a Mac monitor with a PC.

4.11.3. Calibrating Your Display

For the same reasons that you should calibrate your television ( [Hack #42] ), you should also tune your computer's display for optimum performance. Brightness and contrast performance are extremely important on your computer monitor. If you use an LCD/DLP based setup, the optimum settings will be very elusive. There are a few calibration programs available out there for graphics professionals, but you can start with DisplayCalibration.com (http://www.displaycalibration.com/) a very good free calibration web site.

4.11.4. Setting Up the Optimum Playing Environment

We have already discussed controlling light in order to limit direct sunlight on your monitor's surface, but playing games or watching movies in total darkness can be a buzz-kill as well. If you view something in complete darkness, the only light your pupil reacts to is onscreen. As scenes change from dark to light, your pupil will change from fully dilated to fully closed, fatiguing your eyes in the process. This is why even in a movie theater, there is usually at least some light in the seating area. To prevent this, add a small light source to your gaming area to prevent full dilation of your pupils and eye fatigue. The best place for this is right behind the monitor so that it doesn't reflect directly onto the screen,

Other small sources of light can come from your peripherals. Auravision manufactures a line of backlit keyboards and mice that use Indiglo technology called Eluminx (http://www.eluminx.com/). These keyboards are a godsend for the WASD crowd that wants an optimized darkened environment.

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