The Addendum

CES 2009: bring it on
— 10:22 AM on December 23, 2008

Christmas is a scant two days away, yet I can't stop myself from thinking about what's coming in two weeks: it's not MacWorld! How many times do I have to tell you guys that I'm not an Apple zealot? No, I'm referring instead to CES 2009. From January 8 through the 11 in Las Vegas, gadgets, extravagant booths, and thousands of slack-jawed gawkers will come together for one of the most exciting trade shows of the year. Wait, now I'm thinking of AVN's Adult Entertainment Expo down the street—oh well, the description applies to both events!

I can't speak for Scott or Geoff, but for myself at least, the planning has already begun: what booths to visit, what swag to go for, and maybe most importantly, what suites to party in. Step one, however, is getting there. With Las Vegas only 280 miles away and gas prices back under the $2 mark, I'll be hopping in the car with a couple of friends and gumballing my way out there. The plan is to leave early in the morning of day one and arrive at the convention center just in time for the booth-crawling.

I've only done something like this once, and I'll be honest, it didn't turn out too well: I left at 3AM on the first day of the Game Developers Conference and proceeded to drive five hours to San Jose. Then, it was time for the show. I spent ten hours running between appointments, four more hours making appearances at parties, and a final four hours in my hotel room writing for deadlines. I was hating life. Thankfully, my schedule isn't nearly as demanding for CES 2009, so the morning road trip shouldn't prove too troublesome.

With my plans slowly coming together, here's a look at what I'm most looking forward to at the show:

  • Nokia's N97: I love Nokia phones—I'll admit it. Sure they're not perfect, but for my purposes I think they're the best handsets on the market. And if I can say it without my sanity being questioned: Nokia's new N97 is dead sexy, and I can't wait to get my hands on it at the show. Now if only it weren't so darn expensive.

  • Sony's PlayStation booth: We don't care about Home and we never will. Stop embarrassing yourself and show us something we actually want on the PS3, like God of War 3.

  • Next-generation Android handsets: If you follow this blog, you already know that I was less than impressed with T-Mobile's G1, the first cell phone powered by Google's Android platform. However, most of my issues lie with the hardware itself, leaving the door open for the next wave of handsets to blow me away. CES should reveal if my hopes are misplaced.

  • Netbooks: I'm still not convinced that a netbook is right for me, but I'm always open to new technology proving me wrong. With the netbook craze in full effect thanks to pioneers like Asus and MSI, I'm interested to see what some of the more mainstream PC vendors like Dell and Sony bring to the table.

  • Less expensive Blu-ray players: With Sony's Blu-ray as the only disc-based format left for high-definition content, there's never been a better time to get the price of entry down and get more consumers on board. HDTVs are finally within most shoppers' price ranges, yet a Blu-ray setup will still set you back around $300. Every month that Blu-ray players stay at that price point is time for streaming solutions from companies like Netflix to gain more traction.

  • The big surprises: The rumor train is going full steam ahead right now about some of the more interesting products that might be unveiled at CES. Stories about everything from a Zune phone to a Blu-ray drive for the Xbox 360 (that one just won't die) have been circulating the web, and we'll know soon enough who guessed correctly.

How many of you are planning on being part of the 130,000+ crowd that is expected to show up, and what are you most interested in? Some of the folks I'm going with have never been to CES (or any trade show) before, so in case there are any other first-timers out there, I've compiled some tips for the convention:

  • Make an itinerary: There are over 2700 exhibitors spread across 1.7 million square feet of floor space. Seeing everything isn't easy, so do yourself a favor and come up with a plan. It doesn't have to be a rigid schedule, but at least know where the exhibitors you want to see are located and plan a somewhat efficient order to visit them in. There's no sense in running back and forth between exhibit halls, let alone taking more cabs or shuttles than you need to.

  • Dress comfortably: Remember all of that floor space I just mentioned? Well don't expect to cruise between booths on a Segway. You'll be getting plenty of exercise, and unless you're meeting with some high-placed executives, don't bother dressing up. Most importantly, wear shoes that you can walk in for several hours. Just don't go too casual and show up in a wolf t-shirt and Birkenstocks with socks. Even at CES, you'll look like a dork.

  • Go to the Sands: It's worth it—trust me. Besides being home to the Innovations 2009 Design and Engineering Awards, there's a certain, other expo (that I've already mentioned) going on there that's at least worth glancing at.

  • Go to the Hilton: You've never seen so many cheap, knock-off products and cell phone accessories under one roof! You know that little cart at the mall with all of the faceplates and LED antennas for phones? Take that cart, and amplify it by about a billion. That's the Hilton's exhibit hall in a nutshell. For added discounts, go on the last day of the show when vendors are desperate to get rid of their remaining stock. Haggling is absolutely recommended.

  • Sustenance is key: Trade shows can take a toll on your body, so be sure to stay well-hydrated and nourished. Water bottles and granola bars are my recommended snacks, but the less healthy Snickers and Coca-Cola are always viable alternatives. Just don't let yourself starve for the sake of technology.

  • You don't need the swag: Put it down—it's crap, all of it! About the only good things I've taken home from CES in recent years have been the rare flash drive or two, and photos of my friend Eric getting tased at the Taser booth. Ah, memories. Even the really cool knight figurine I received from MSI (which seemed to have very little to do with electronics, but who was I to question?) broke after a week or two. Save yourself the extra bags to carry and suitcases to pack and just leave it at the show. Do you really need a Google frisbee? Well actually, that one was pretty cool.

That's it for now, campers. If you've got any requests for me at CES (booths to visit, questions to ask) leave a note in the comments, and as long as it's not going to get me arrested or beaten up, I'll see what I can do. Until then, enjoy the holidays and have a happy and safe New Year's!

12 comments — Last by MadManOriginal at 6:55 PM on 01/02/09

Dissecting the Steam Hardware Survey
— 9:02 PM on December 18, 2008

As a cross-platform gamer increasingly disenchanted with the PC, I absolutely love Steam and what Valve has done for the platform. Over the last five years, Steam has gone from a risky gamble by a small developer to a flag-bearer for the strengths of PC gaming. Valve had made lofty technology promises before (remember PowerPlay?), so launching a digital distribution service just when many gamers were transitioning to broadband was rather ambitious. What began as little more than a streamlined patching service and server browser has gone on to offer an integrated marketplace, voice chat, community organization, and a massive catalog of third-party titles.

Not content to let consoles catch up, Valve continues to be a pioneer, with Steam becoming a champion for indie games like Darwinia, Audiosurf, Aquaria, and others. But that's enough gushing about Steam; that's not what this post is about. No, today I'm here to talk about a less-well-known facet of Valve's service: the Steam Hardware Survey.

Creating games for the PC is a tricky endeavor, particularly due to the vast variety of hardware available. Developers I've spoken with have a hard time coming up with target configurations, especially in recent years. Marketers and the media have become obsessed with touting buzzwords like "64-bit," "multi-threaded," "DirectX 10," and "PhysX," but whenever I ask programmers why they didn't use those technologies, I get the same response: the market penetration just isn't there yet. Why invest a large amount of time and money into technologies that only a few customers can take advantage of? Ultimately, developers have to stay conservative and wait a few years for new technologies to mature.

Obviously, there are exceptions to the norm, with companies like Crytek and Blizzard providing good examples of opposite extremes. Crytek's Crysis was an exponent for high-end PC hardware, and though some would like to blame piracy, its sales were no doubt harmed by its smaller target audience. At the other end of the spectrum lies Blizzard, whose World of Warcraft has become one of the most successful PC games of all time. Sure, it helps that WoW is also one of the best-designed MMORPGs ever, but I attribute a large portion of its success to the low system requirements. WoW will practically run on a graphing calculator, an attribute that's been a hallmark of Blizzard's development style for some time. With the blockbuster status of the firm's Starcraft and Diablo series, I'd say that strategy has worked out pretty well so far. But what about developers aiming for a middle ground: not requiring a supercomputer to get playable frame rates, but not having a game look two years old the moment it comes out, either? How do you know what sort of system to shoot for?

If advertising reflected the PC gaming scene accurately, you'd think everyone has a quad-core setup with two video cards and a 1000W power supply—but that's just not the case. Thankfully, Valve aims to take the guesswork out of the process by leveraging the massive installed base of Steam and periodically surveying its users. With over 16 million accounts, Valve has access to data that few (if any) others do. If the company weren't so busy making money hand-over-fist from other revenue streams, it would likely try to sell this data to marketers and developers. Instead, Valve releases it for free, and the latest update (published just one week ago) even includes pretty graphs! Let's take a look at the some of the more interesting statistics:

  • Windows versions: Windows XP looks like the dominant operating system for PC gamers, with nearly 69% of Steam users holding on to it. However, its presence is on the decline (down 1.28% in November), while Windows Vista is up 1.36%. Vista runs almost exactly 30% of all surveyed Steam clients, though the 32-bit version continues to outpace its 64-bit sibling in terms of both installed base and adoption rate. Do gamers still not realize how cheap 4GB RAM kits are these days? Perhaps PC vendors are to blame for continuing to ship 32-bit systems despite the improved driver support for Vista x64.

    One final note of interest in the Windows data is that there's another OS with a growing gamer user base: Windows XP 64-bit, which was up a minuscule 0.03% over the previous month. Why gamers would be migrating to XP x64 instead of Vista x64 is anyone's guess, because in my experience, Vista actually has better driver and application support. The minds of gamers truly work in mysterious ways.

  • Video cards: Nvidia is dominating AMD (referred to as ATI in Valve's data), with over 65% of sampled Steam users packing Nvidia GPUs compared to just 27% for AMD. (Intel's integrated offerings hold on with 1.76% of the pie, and I can't help but feel sorry for their users.) Nvidia's success over the last two years is no surprise, because the hugely popular GeForce 8800 series made life somewhat difficult for AMD. In fact, GeForce 8800 graphics cards make up the largest single group of samples at 12.43%, even if that population is steadily on the decline.
  • AMD's most represented graphics offering is already the new Radeon 4800 series, which comes in fifth place with 3% of the sample. Although it still has a way to go before it can become top dog, the 4800 lineup does have the fastest adoption rate at 0.51% last month. With 4800-series GPUs now available for as little as $110, it'll be interesting to see how many Steam users make the switch over the coming months. The next most common AMD GPU is all the way down in thirteenth place, showing just how far behind AMD fell in the eyes of consumers over recent generations—1.73% of Steam users still cling to the now five-year-old Radeon 9600 series.

  • Processors: This might feel like deja vu for AMD, because Valve's CPU statistics look pretty similar to the GPU breakdown. This time, it's Intel beating up on them with almost 64% of the Steam user base. Like Nvidia's GeForce 8800 series, Intel's Core 2 offerings have outperformed the competition overall in the past couple years, and gamers have responded appropriately. AMD's presence has continued to decline these past few months, while Intel keeps slowly creeping higher and higher.
  • Perhaps the most interesting CPU-related statistic is the number of processor cores in respondents' PCs. The majority of Steam users are now running multi-core systems, with 49.27% toting dual-core configurations and 10.12% having made the jump to quad-core. If nearly 60% of these gamers have more than one CPU core under the hood, there's no excuse for PC developers not to exploit that as much as possible.

  • DirectX 10 systems: Nearly 46% of the PCs sampled contain DirectX 10-capable GPUs, but the majority of them (53.4%) are still running Windows XP. Gamers must not be sold on either Vista or DirectX 10 yet. Although only 21.43% of Steam users have fully DirectX 10-capable systems (with Vista and DX10 GPUs), developers may want to start investing more in the technology to give the stragglers a reason to upgrade their OSes. The hardware penetration is there, and we're seeing the results in games like Assassin's Creed, Far Cry 2, and Crysis: Warhead that contain DX10 code paths. Time will tell whether Microsoft can manage to convince the holdout XP gamers to upgrade or if those folks will wait for Windows 7 before making the jump en masse.

There's far more data that I can't go over in a simple blog post, so be sure to peruse the Steam Hardware Survey at your leisure. It really is a fascinating read, and some of the statistics might surprise you. In the future, I hope Valve will continue to enhance its presentation methods and perhaps tell us the sample size for the survey. My understanding is that every Steam user is solicited, but it's a safe bet that not all users complete the survey. I'd love to extrapolate some hard numbers, but for now percentages will have to do.

Before I leave you, two additional facts shocked me: Creative's minuscule share compared to integrated audio in a demographic where they should dominate, and the fact that the plurality of Steam users still run their primary displays at 1024x768. I didn't even know that you could still buy monitors that small.

80 comments — Last by titan at 8:38 AM on 12/28/08

The parent trap
— 5:37 PM on December 11, 2008

We've all been there at one time or another: fixing a family member's computer. It's not a situation I particularly mind, since my family has done countless favors for me over the years. Taking an hour or so every once in a while to sort out their computer issues is the least I can do. When it comes to recommending a new computer, however, I've found myself wondering not only about the price/performance ratio of the machine, but also about what choices could be made to prevent possible issues down the line. After all, some forward-thinking purchasing decisions could save me a number of headaches in the future.

The first choice to make is whether to buy a pre-built unit or assemble the machine yourself. Cyril described his experience with the latter in one of his own blog posts, which demonstrated some of the issues I've found with building computers for others. Usually, the biggest reason to build it yourself is out of cost concerns, but I've found this "prebuilt is more expensive than assembling" belief to be less accurate in recent years. Hunt around the web for coupons, or simply look in the Sunday paper ads, and you'll see pre-built machines sold for less than the retail cost of the individual parts. Welcome to the power of mass production and volume pricing.

So, what if you decide you can still beat Dell's prices? When going with parts from Newegg or Fry's, you absolutely must remember that you become the end-to-end support regardless of what goes wrong. Be it failing hardware, software hitches, or just a loose cable—any problem will become yours to diagnose and resolve. That's generally not a big deal for me, but oftentimes I can't get a problem squared away over the phone, resulting in an answer like, "I'll just have to take a look at it next time I'm in town." Now my family member is out of a computer for an indeterminate amount of time, and I'm less excited about my next visit.

Enter PC vendors and their customer support infrastructures. Obviously, this is the biggest benefit to buying a pre-built system. When something goes wrong with a Dell PC, the owner simply rings up customer support and gets walked through a number of scripts in order to diagnose the problem. Dell's been doing phone support for 20 years, so it's (in theory) better prepared to perform a remote diagnosis than I am. In the event of a hardware failure, parts and an in-home technician are on the way. With software, well, it usually falls on me to get it sorted out. Still, PC vendor support can fix a good number of the issues I would normally have to deal with—and it does so in a much timelier manner. It's a win-win situation. Of course, extended or in-home warranties always add to the cost of the unit, but they can prove wise investments. In most cases, I'll recommend sacrificing some hardware capabilities to keep the price down before skimping on the warranty.

Next up: picking an operating system. With most of my family members, I try to keep computer-related activities as simple as possible. Though Windows Vista is probably a better choice than XP at this point, some people just can't be bothered to learn a new OS. My grandmother, for example, knows how to check her email, local weather, and stock portfolio, and she knows how to look up recipes online. That's about all she uses her computer for. While the transition to Windows Vista probably wouldn't be a very disruptive one, she knows how to use XP, so it's just not worth the aggravation of forcing the upgrade on her.

The same thought crosses my mind whenever I consider recommending a Mac (or even one of those slick Eee PCs running Linux). On the one hand, Apple's got the "it just works" appeal going for it. I don't have to worry about an alternative browser, and as of right now, malware still isn't a large concern. iChat even has built-in screen sharing, so I could theoretically walk someone through a task on their computer by showing them. Linux brings similar security benefits to the table, although the open-source community still has some work to do before I can say desktop Linux distributions "just work." Regardless, the biggest issue with recommending anything other than Windows, despite the potential benefits, is that it's change. Change is bad for my less computer literate friends and family. I'd just be trading one type of support call for another, now treated to "why don't my Word documents look the same in OpenOffice?"

How do you deal with your family members and their PCs? Do you build them all yourself, or are you eyeballing Asus' new Eee Box nettops? Personally, I've given up on assembling machines for family members. Pre-built machines with in-home warranties have cut down on my house calls immensely, and they make visits with the family far more enjoyable. With the holidays in full swing right now, I definitely appreciate the relief.

67 comments — Last by Synchromesh at 1:08 PM on 12/20/08

LAN parties: a recipe for success
— 5:07 PM on December 5, 2008

LAN parties have become the great American nerd pastime, at least among my group of friends. D&D is out and L4D is in. (Sorry, d20 fans.) If you haven't gotten together with a bunch of chums, connected your PCs together, and proceeded to frag each other in a caffeine and pizza-fueled stupor until the sun comes up... well, then you just haven't lived. And yes, if just reading that sentence embarrasses you, it is as nerdy as it sounds.

Alright, so maybe you've thought about hosting one, but you don't know where to start. Perhaps you've been invited to one in the past, and you weren't quite sure what to expect. I've been to enough LAN parties over the years to know what works and what doesn't, and in my continuing effort to enrich the lives of people across the globe through my geekdom, I'm going to give you the roadmap to victory.

What to bring as an attendee

  • Computer: You'd think this goes without saying, but somehow it doesn't. Bring a PC that can run any of the games that are likely to be played, and be ready to go. That means having your drivers up-to-date and your system in working order. Don't be the guy who shows up with a box of parts, or worse yet, a half-broken computer that needs someone else to figure out what's wrong and make a Fry's run. Not only are you wasting space, you're preventing other people from enjoying the LAN party.

  • Games: Another no-brainer, right? Have the games that you intend to play installed and patched up before you show up. That goes for mods, as well. My personal favorites for LAN parties are the Worms series, Counter-Strike: Source, Team Fortress 2, and Unreal Tournament 2004. Of course, I can't forget the darling newcomer: Left 4 Dead. Other fun titles include Natural Selection, Warcraft 3 custom maps, and Company of Heroes, but only if everyone knows how to play. The best LAN party games must be quick to pick up, yet difficult to master. If the basic learning curve is too steep, it'll take too long for new players to figure out how to play and they won't have fun. I think that's what makes Call of Duty 4 one of the most successful multiplayer shooters in recent history and such an absolute blast at LAN parties. The fact that it can run on a wide range of computers yet still look great on high-end machines doesn't hurt, either.

  • Monitor: LCD displays are preferred, since they generally take up less space than CRTs and leave room for more people. Sometimes, a jerk like me will show up with a 30" LCD—that only happened once, though, and I won't do it again. I promise. (Before you ask, I'll admit it: yes, I did it for the e-cred.)

  • Mouse pad: You still own one of these, right? Sure, plenty of gamers use their optical mice straight on their desks, but you never know where you'll end up seated at a LAN party: sometimes it's a table, sometimes it's a kitchen counter. Regardless, a proper mousing surface is never a guarantee, so a mouse pad can save the day. I prefer my vintage 2001 Max Payne pad, but any flat surface will do. Just bring a pad of legal paper if you have to.

  • Headphones: Don't be that guy—just don't. Everyone hates that one dude who shows up with his obnoxious 2.1 speaker set, which is always worsened by his terrible taste in music (typically J-pop and techno). Hearing noises from the same game from across the room can also be an annoying distraction, and it makes it that much harder to use sound effectively while playing.

  • Surge protector: In theory, everyone shouldn't have to bring one, but extras can never hurt. The worst that can happen is that your surge protector goes unused and stays in your backpack for the evening.

  • Ethernet cable: Don't put the onus on someone else to have one for you. Bring your own cable to get on the network—the longer the better. Even if you get to sit right next to the switch, someone else might end up further away and need to trade with you for the evening.

  • Extra stuff: Whatever you have spares of, bring to the LAN party. Someone will invariably need them. Also, talk to the host to find what they might be short on, and see if you can help fill the gaps.

What not to bring as an attendee

  • UPS: I realize it can be a terrifying thought that your PC might not properly shut down in the event of a blown breaker (or that it won't receive the clean power such a unique snowflake deserves). But guess what? You can do without it for one night. Bringing a battery you can barely carry to a LAN party only makes you look like a complete dork, which is pretty impressive considering the company you're in. Man up and plug into the same surge protector as everyone else.

  • Your kid brother: He's annoying, and no one likes him anyway. I especially don't like him when I discover he's "just filling in" for me after I walked away for 30 seconds to grab a soda. Get off of my computer and get out of my house, you damn moocher.

  • Your girlfriend: I don't know why people insist on bringing their girlfriends to LAN parties. She'll either spend the night in front of the TV completely disinterested, or she'll sit right behind you cheering on your every move—even when you're losing. Maybe you're trying to show her off, but I've got news for you: she's a girl at a LAN party. She can't be that great, unless of course she's got her own computer and participates in the multiplayer carnage. In that case, she's pretty cool in my book and I'm officially jealous. Mission accomplished, jerk.

  • Your sister: You will hate yourself for it. You're just going to have to trust me on this one.

What to have as a host

  • Space: Lots of it. Inside the house is preferable, but a garage works well in a pinch. The most important things to consider when judging a space for a LAN party are accessibility of power (use extension cords if necessary) and airflow. Densely packed nerds and high-performance computers often result in a stuffy room if windows and fans aren't available. Also, come up with a layout that doesn't require people to climb on top of each other or trip over cords when they need to move. There's nothing worse than having your monitor go black because someone tripped over a power cord while going for a Mountain Dew.

  • Tables and chairs: Banquet tables and folding chairs are the way to go, but improvisation isn't out of the question. Dining tables work just as well, and just about any flat horizontal surface should do the trick, too. I dont recommend the floor, however.

  • Network switch: The size of the switch well determine the maximum number of attendees, but don't be afraid to use more than one. We primarily use a 24-port Gigabit switch, but if several players end up in another room, we'll toss another smaller switch in there with them. That way it's just one cable running between the two rooms. And while Gigabit is extremely convenient for transferring files, it's by no means a necessity for gaming.

  • Internet connection: It's a LAN party, why the Internet connection? Simple: you never know when you'll need a patch, mod, or a driver, so having an Internet connection handy can save a headache.

  • Munchies: Chips, pretzels, Chex mix—I have yet to find a snack that nerds won't consume. Get whatever is cheap and really bad for you. Those are the best LAN party foods.

  • Beverages: Get a couple cases of soda. LAN parties run on Mountain Dew. Even better: if you're of age, grab some alcohol. Drunken Worms tournaments are absolutely hilarious—just make sure you've got room for people to crash for the night.

  • Fast food: Know your fast food in the area, especially what's open late. Midnight In-N-Out Burger expeditions have become a staple of our LAN parties, but ordering in pizza works well, too. It solves the whole "having to leave my computer" thing that nerds can be so vehemently opposed to.

  • Other activities: Let's face it: there's downtime during LAN parties. Games take time to install, food takes time to be consumed, and players take time to argue over what game will be played next. Beyond that, you just need to take a break from marathon PC gaming and unwind sometimes. That's when you'll be happy to have other things to do. A big hit at the events hosted in my home are the billiards and ping-pong tables, and Rock Band has become a crowd favorite in the last year or so, too.

What not to have as a host

  • Non-participatory attendees: Kick out anyone playing MMORPGs or single-player games. I don't care how "phat" their "lootz" are or if it only takes two minutes to show them off. If they're not playing LAN games with everyone else, they're wasting precious space. Tell them to get into the action or get out. This goes doubly for people who show up just to leech files.

That's it! This might seem like a lot to manage, but once you get into the routine, you can have a LAN party set up in less than an hour. Next week: how to properly hit on someone's sister at a LAN party.

64 comments — Last by gtoulouzas at 3:04 PM on 12/17/08

The boneyard
— 2:59 PM on December 1, 2008

Like many of you, I often find myself with a surplus of computers and PC components. Whether obtained as hand-me-downs or merely casualties of an upgrading addiction, I always seem to have more machines than roles for them. Ideas of home theater PCs, media servers, backup gaming rigs, and even "hackintoshes" are constantly kicking around in my mind, but those would just be toys to me, not things I would actually use all too often.

Instead, unused computers tend to rot in my closet for a little while before I get tired of looking at them and simply give them away to friends and family. Just in the last couple of months, I've gifted out at least one quad-core setup, a couple of dual-more machines, and at least one laptop. While I'm sure this is netting me brownie points with their recipients, I still find myself wondering if I couldn't be doing something more philanthropic with my spare computers.

Who knew charities were so picky?
On the hunt for tax write-offs a while back, I looked into donating some of my oldest machines. My first stop was the local Goodwill drop-off site, but they told me they didn't accept computers. Other thrift shops didn't know where to begin with them, either, so I quickly gave up on that method of unloading PCs. The next step was to contact a few local schools, but the school districts in my area must not be feeling the state's budget crunch, because they weren't interested in used computers, either. I realize that accepting PCs requires an organization to have people on staff that actually know what to do with them, but there are dedicated charities for automobiles, which are just as difficult (if not more so) to service. Where are the PC charities?

Tossing "computer charities" into Google brings back hundreds of thousands of results, but many don't clearly state what happens to the computers. Making matters worse, of the organizations that I'd consider donating to, none have local drop-off sites. A good number of the charities also want only Pentium 4-class hardware or better, which is fine for the majority of my machines—but what should you do with slightly older computers? Sure, they won't play nice with Flash or other rich media content, but as long as they can be secured by running Windows XP or a modern Linux distribution like Ubuntu, I would think they have some utility. Office productivity applications alone open up a number of possibilities including resume creation, job training, and typing practice. Is there really no place for free Pentium II or III-class hardware? As a last resort, I've at least found local recycling centers that will take them if they can't be put to good use.

Crunching data for humanity
I've often thought about the idea of distributed computing—putting all of my extra PCs to work for the good of mankind. There are a number of organizations for this, but the two most popular seem to be Folding@Home and SETI@home. Folding@Home has the more noble goal in my mind, using the spare CPU cycles of thousands of users to analyze how proteins fold in the effort to learn more about the causes and potential cures for ailments like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease. PC enthusiasts have been some of the biggest supporters, and our very own Team TR is a large contributor to the cause. You can head over to distributed computing forum to learn more about getting started.

SETI@home employs similar tactics, only instead of protein folding, computers are used to analyze radio telescope samples with the hope of finding evidence of extraterrestrial life. Helping in the hunt for ET certainly sounds like fun, but I'm left wondering about the practical applications. Nonetheless, it's still a charitable way to use your extra computers, and a fun conversation starter to boot. Also, as a math junkie, I'd be remiss if I didn't at least mention GIMPS: the Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search. This distributed computing project is all about the search for, you guessed it, Mersenne prime numbers. Their efforts have helped find the last twelve Mersenne primes, with the most recent finds containing over 10 million digits. If you've ever used Prime95 for stress testing, you're already familiar with their software.

So, why have I said no to distributed computing thus far? To be honest, I really don't have the space to run a number of extra desktops, and I'm more concerned with the energy implications. I live in an energy-conscious state, replete with rolling blackouts and pleas not to run household appliances during the day. Guzzling down expensive electricity with several spare PCs, albeit for the good of mankind, doesn't seem like the most responsible course of action. The desktops that I do have set up are shut off whenever not in use, and I do my best to use the most energy-efficient machines for the task at hand when possible. For those reasons, distributed computing with my extra computers seems to be out of the question. However, in an effort to get involved with Team TR, I'll likely set up the Folding@Home client for my PlayStation 3 in the near future, now that the weather's cooling off and demands on the local power grid aren't nearly as high.

At last, we come to the question: how do you deal with your excess PCs? Do you have a mad scientist lab in your basement for making digital photo frames out of old laptops, or have you found even more practical roles for them? Perhaps you keep an old machine in the kitchen to store recipes and watch YouTube while you cook. Maybe there's a great charity out there that I've missed, just waiting for all of my spare computing power. Is it time for me to stop being so philanthropic and turn to eBay, or even sell locally through Craigslist? Or is your home just a factory for protein folding, helping Team TR climb ever higher on the charts? Leave your thoughts in the comments below, and hopefully one of your ideas will help me get my closet cleaned out before the rapture.

44 comments — Last by cheesyking at 6:25 PM on 12/04/08

Who needs Black Friday?
— 11:01 PM on November 20, 2008

We're about a week away from Black Friday, that glorious day after Thanksgiving when retailers slash prices to absurd lows and offer incredibly limited deals that have come to be known as "doorbusters." Thrifty shoppers camp out up to a day in advance, inexplicably forsaking their Thanksgiving meals for a lawn chair, a blanket, and some fast food. I've worked my share of Black Fridays in the past; arriving at 4AM and not leaving until 8PM. It's fascinating how much going an entire day without seeing the sun can throw off your internal clock.

Thankfully, that won't be the case this year. My years of working retail are well behind me, and now it's my turn to reap the benefits of the fantastic sales. With just a few days to go and the Internet's penchant for ruining surprises, it's a great time to start looking at the ads retailers will print next week and start planning potential purchases. I even had the noble idea to scour flyers from Best Buy, Circuit City, Office Max, and other stores in an effort to find the best deals and share my finds with TR readers. Only one problem presented itself: Black Friday's deals aren't so fantastic.

The most interesting items to me this year are HDTVs, digital SLR cameras, and video game consoles. Accessories like flash drives and portable hard drives are usually discounted heavily due to their high margin, so I'm keeping my eyes open for those, as well. The best deal I've found for an Xbox 360 is in Target's flyer, which advertises an Xbox 360 Pro Holiday Bundle with Lego Indiana Jones, Kung Fu Panda, and a $50 gift card for $299. However, smart shoppers who monitor sites like Slickdeals.net will already know that Dell recently had a 15%-off coupon that made it possible to get an Xbox 360 Pro Holiday Bundle for only $254.15 with free shipping. I'll take $45 and change in cash over a $50 gift card any day, and that's all without having to leave the house. Things only get worse from here.

On the flash drive front, Best Buy will have a PNY 2GB Optima Pro flash drive for $7.99. The only problem is that Amazon already sells it for $4.99, and Newegg's got an even smaller-form-factor 2GB PNY drive for $4.99. Digging through more Black Friday ads, Office Max will have an 8GB SanDisk Cruzer Micro flash drive for $17.99 (regular price: $69.99), while RadioShack will be selling the same for $19.99. Either one sounds like a great deal for 8GB of storage, right? Think again. Amazon's got it for $12.74, and it's in stock right now. How about a 1TB Western Digital My Book external hard drive for $149.99 (normally $259.99) in Best Buy's ad? Whoops, looks like Amazon beat another retailer to the punch. It's already got the 1TB My Book priced at $149.99. So much for scoring more storage on Black Friday.

Digital SLRs are fast becoming must-have cameras, despite their bulky sizes and the fact that many users will never touch half of their features. That said, I've been watching for any deals on Canon's EOS 40D, since it was recently replaced by the 50D, and a healthy amount of stock should have remained for retailers to put on clearance sales. Sure enough, Circuit City will have the EOS 40D along with the kit lens on sale for $1149.99, which is $150 less than its regular price. But you already know what I'm going to say, don't you? That's right, Amazon's got it for less right now; on sale for $1058.94 to be precise. Maybe Circuit City can do better with Canon's consumer-grade digital SLR, the Rebel XSi. Circuit City will have the Rebel XSi along with the kit lens in its Black Friday ad for $699.99. That's a healthy $100 off of the MSRP. Unfortunately for Circuit City, online retailers have bested it once again. You'll find the Rebel XSi at Amazon for $649.95 and at Newegg for $649. Online shopping is the greatest, isn't it?

I don't want to sound like a shill for Amazon (or Newegg), but are consumers still so far behind the times that brick & mortar retailers can get away with these prices—on Black Friday of all days? Shouldn't we all know to check online prices by now? Are they just counting on impulse buys from shoppers who don't know any better? I'm not saying that there won't be some deals to be found on Black Friday, but are the miniscule savings worth the traffic, the crowds, and the lines?

If you're still planning on going out on Black Friday despite my naysaying, I've got a few tips for you:

  • Dress warm. Stores will be opening as early as 4AM, and you can expect to wait outside for a little while before getting in the front doors.
  • Bring food. You'll have a hard enough time convincing someone to save your spot in line to grab something, and you'll need the energy to fight through the crowds.
  • Try to price match other retailers. Some stores won't honor their price match guarantee on Black Friday, but there's no set rule on what to expect. If you can get a store to price match others' ads, you'll save yourself a lot of time.
  • If it's going to be an extremely limited deal, try buying the product in advance of Black Friday, then simply do a price match on Black Friday. Like the previous tip, your mileage may vary on this one. Some retailers don't even have their returns/exchanges counter open on Black Friday.

The only purchases that I've found truly tempting are the numerous TV show series that retailers like Target, Best Buy, and Circuit City sell for $15 per season. All four seasons of Futurama for $60 is certainly a compelling proposition. However, I think I'll be staying home this Black Friday, enjoying time with family, devouring leftovers, and maybe starting my holiday shopping online. That is, of course, unless some thrifty TR readers can find some deals I've missed. Let us know if you've spotted any killer Black Friday deals in the comments below, or if you don't want to let us in on your secret before the big day, feel free to gloat here about your great buys after Black Friday.

50 comments — Last by takealready at 5:07 PM on 12/03/08

It's good to talk about it
— 4:27 PM on November 13, 2008

Everyone has moments that they're not proud of, but it's important to acknowledge and learn from them instead of pretending they never happened. It can also be valuable—almost cathartic—to share those moments in order to gain perspective and warn others not to follow in your footsteps. And before I preach any longer, this isn't about the time I crashed dad's car (or that one CES in Las Vegas). No, this post is all about tech confessions. This is TR, after all, not LiveJournal.

With that said, it's time to share. These weren't huge mistakes, but they're certainly moments that I look back on now and wonder, "What was I thinking?!"

Check out these cold cathodes!
Yes, there was once a time when my desktop PC would have been at home in the latest The Fast and the Furious movie. It was the first system I bought and assembled for myself, so I try to remember it as a learning experience. It all started with the case. For $49, I snagged a generic gaming mid-tower complete with front LEDs in every color of the rainbow, room for six 80mm fans, a requisite side window, and a no-name 350W power supply.

I didn't stop there. Once I had my system set up, I of course had to take advantage of that side window to show off my enviable components and cable management prowess. Why put so much effort into picking the parts, assembling the computer, and running cables behind the motherboard if I couldn't show off my handiwork? Only cold cathodes would do. After velcroing a pair of blue cold cathode tubes inside of my case and not being satisfied with the amount of illumination, I set out in search of another solution. Next on the shopping list: blue LED fans. I snagged the six cheapest fans I could find that lit up bright blue, and I set out to mount as many as I could—noise be damned.

When finally completed, my machine had the healthy blue glow of enriched uranium going critical, and it probably sounded like a DC-10 on its final approach. But boy, was I ever proud at LAN parties. Thankfully, my interest in pimping out my PC (at least aesthetically) didn't last long, and I quickly graduated to a much quieter and more subdued Antec 1040BII full tower, which gave me plenty of room for a water cooling setup. But that's another story.

"Upgrading" from a Radeon 9800 Pro to a Geforce FX 5950 Ultra
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, I had an ATI Radeon 9800 Pro 128MB. It chewed up just about any game that came its way, only took up a single slot (those were the days), and wasn't too terribly loud. Life was good. Unfortunately, having a fast, stable system has never satiated my desire to upgrade before, and this was no exception. Suffice to say I had the opportunity to score a free Nvidia Geforce FX 5950 Ultra 256MB, and I jumped on it. Sure, it was a dual-slot card with higher power consumption than my 9800 Pro, but it was clocked faster and had double the video memory. How could I go wrong?

Without doing much research, I sold the 9800 Pro, slapped the behemoth FX 5950 Ultra into my case, and for a while, life remained good. The FX 5950 Ultra ran most of my games better than the 9800 Pro did, allowing me to crank anti-aliasing and anisotropic filtering to levels I hadn't experienced before. My generic power supply subsequently died. I guess the FX 5950 Ultra was the straw that broke the camel's back (I had been experiencing stability issues without knowing why). After a quick trip to PC Club, however, I was back in action.

Then, one of the most anticipated games of the decade came out. Unfortunately for Geforce FX owners, Half-Life 2 was one of the first titles to spotlight the weaknesses of Nvidia's DirectX 9 implementation. As a result, I had to play the best game of the year in DirectX 8 mode, lest I be stuck with visual artifacts and slideshow performance. In fact, for as long as I used the card, I constantly found myself digging through configuration files for games, hunting for switches to enable DirectX 8 rendering paths and get better frame rates. Though the visual differences between DX8 and DX9 weren't that great in most games, they were always enough for me to feel like I was missing out.

Nvidia slowly improved its drivers for the FX series, but it couldn't fix the fundamental flaws of the NV3x GPU family. Still, I somehow managed to stick with the card for over two years, giving the FX 5950 Ultra the longest tenure of any video card I've ever owned. But it's got a challenger: at the rate my aging Geforce 8800 GTX continues to excel in new releases like Left 4 Dead, Fallout 3, Crysis Warhead, and Dead Space, it may well steal that achievement away. Sometimes, I wonder what different upgrade paths I might have taken if I had simply kept the 9800 Pro—but it's pointless speculation now.

I've had numerous other moments in my tech-centric life when I've genuinely screwed up, including leaky water cooling, accidentally damaging components, failed firmware/BIOS flashes, mistakenly formatting memory cards, watching iTunes delete my entire music library, and more that I'm probably forgetting, but those are best saved for the very entertaining boneheaded tech moments thread over in the TR forums. For now, I'll just continue to learn from my mistakes and look forward to reading some of your tech confessions in the comments below.

92 comments — Last by axeman at 2:23 PM on 11/25/08