Wednesday, July 20, 2011

My PC Upgrade Adventures, Continued

My quest to get a reasonable framerate out of my contemporary PC gaming continues, after more than a decade of not really tweaking my PC hardware for modern gaming purposes.  The last desktop I bought was more than 7 years ago, and was fairly expensive, so I was happy to pick up an HP Pavilion desktop machine with a healthy 8 GB of RAM, 2.9 GHz quad-core AMD processors, and a 1.5 TB hard drive for less than half that amount.

The price was reasonable, but the integrated (I am starting to understand that that's a key word meaning "limited performance") ATI Radeon HD 4200 graphics hardware was... unsatisfying.  If anything, my initial testing gave me new respect for my laptop's Intel graphics hardware; even though the new desktop machine was manufactured a couple of years later, it only managed to beat my trusty laptop by about 20%.  And that's not an impressive result -- it was actually SLOWER on the simple 3-D graphics test, managing 130 frames per second compared to 180 on the laptop, and only a little bit faster on the medium complexity test -- 60 fps compared to 50.  On the complex graphics test, it managed only about 11 fps, compared to 9 on the laptop, and while it could run the highest complexity test that my laptop could not run, it was very chuggy at less than a frame per second.  Granted, I've done some tweaking to the laptop's graphics optimization in an attempt to balance performance and power consumption, but it's now clear to me from experience that integrated graphics hardware just isn't generally up to gaming performance.

So I went back to the store, to find a PCI Express (x16 bus) graphics card of some kind.  I ended up with a VisionTek card using an ATI Radeon 5760, with 1 GB of onboard DDR5 RAM.  It's not a top-of-the-line card, but I figured it had to be an improvement, and if it proved inadequate I could always take it back and buy something heftier.  And it was on clearance sale at 40% off, so the price was right, under $100, though that did make me wonder if my selection was not a popular card for some reason that would reveal itself in all its horror at some future date.

When I got the box home, opened up the PC, and took the graphics card out of the box, it became apparent why a dedicated graphics card is really important for gaming.  This thing has an onboard fan of its own to draw heat away from the hardworking ATI chip, promising some degree of graphical prowess.  And I had no trouble slotting it into the PC, where it slid in a lot more easily than I remember old PC cards doing, and happily assumed responsibility for the system's video output with no coercion on my part.

And, even better, my initial benchmark tests and informal application testing left me more than satisfied.  The new card turns in over 2000 fps on the simple 3-D test, 300 fps on the medium, and a respectable 59.5 on the high complexity test.  The real push on the highest-level test yielded only 10 fps, so it won't run Crysis 2 with any degree of aplomb, but at least you could tell that there was animation on display, and not just a sequence of still frames.

Then I fired up Tales of Monkey Island, Chapter 1, because the storm effects, long-range/close-up camera usage, and depth-of-field effects in the intro sequence tend to give anything I've tried it on quite a bit of trouble.  With full detail on at 1400 x 900 (my old widescreen monitor's rather odd 16:10 aspect ratio resolution), everything ran cleanly, smoothly and beautifully.  Anti-aliasing is working, all the wind/rain and glow effects look the way they should, and all the textures are rendered at full detail.  Back to the Future: The Game looks good too, and even Puzzle Agent 2 looks cleaner and smoother, probably because the game's hand-drawn textures were being scaled down for my laptop's limited graphics memory.

Just to make sure something more demanding would work, I also ran the Duke Nukem Forever demo, with full detail on, and everything worked well except the gameplay itself.

So this little project was worth the effort, with less actual work than I expected, and I am sure I can convince myself it was worth the expense; the Steam library and occasional sale prices will do a lot on that front, I'm sure.  And I'm sure that someday I will start to notice a few little glitches or performance issues, and the cycle will begin again.

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