A trip down memory lane

There are few things that I dread more than moving. Transporting a household from one location to another is miserable enough, but throw the Benchmarking Sweatshop and its back catalog of old hardware into the mix, and the job becomes even more daunting. So I did a little pruning before my latest move, discarding the antiquated remnants of past reviews that simply aren't worth the closet space they consumed or the effort involved in trucking them to a new closet across town.

Years of reviewing a seemingly endless stream of PC hardware have generally dulled any sentimental attachment to components that have been gathering dust on my shelves since the last move, and yet there were a few bits and pieces I couldn't bring myself to leave at the mercy of my scavenging friends. None of these preserved relics have much in the way of true vintage credibility or actual value. However, each is special, if only to me.

We'll kick off this tour of the cardboard box that has become my old hardware museum with the elder statesman of the collection: a SpaceOrb 360. This novel attempt at designing a game controller explicitly for 3D environments never caught on, but it was a superb idea. Instead of a 2D directional pad or thumbstick, the controller employs a large plastic, er, orb that users can twist, push, and otherwise manipulate through six degrees of freedom. The SpaceOrb was easily the best way to control Descent, and while it worked reasonably well with more traditional first-person shooters, it couldn't compete with the ubiquitous keyboard and mouse.

I've kept the SpaceOrb for years now, perhaps in the faint hope that I'll be able to break it out for a new Descent game one of these days. Or, with user interfaces moving toward the third dimension, perhaps it will come in handy for something completely unrelated to gaming. Either way, I can't help but preserve this ingenious and innovative throwback.

The next relic of note is my 3dfx Voodoo 2. Back in the day, 3dfx changed the face of gaming forever with dedicated 3D accelerators that plugged in alongside a system's primary graphics card. The Voodoo 2 was the performance king of its day, and more than a bit prophetic. For example, rather than featuring a single graphics processor, it packed three GPUs. The Voodoo 2 also ushered in SLI—you could pair up two cards for even more Glide goodness.

While there are rarer, older, and more interesting 3dfx cards than the Voodoo 2, this Diamond card will always hold a special place in my heart. She was not only my first 3D accelerator, but the first PC component I purchased explicitly to play games.

The graphics card world has given us countless interesting products over the years, but Nvidia's GeForce FX 5800 Ultra is arguably the most notorious among them for being such a complete and utter disaster. First, the card was plagued by delays, causing it to hit the market well after ATI made a big splash with its Radeon 9700 Pro. Nvidia also made numerous architectural choices with the FX 5800's NV30 graphics processor that ultimately hamstrung the chip's performance in games designed for DirectX 9.

An even more serious problem afflicted the NV30 GPU and the then-advanced 130nm fabrication process used to build the chip. Yields were poor, and the silicon that did make the grade ran so hot that Nvidia was forced to resort to an incredibly loud dual-slot cooler that became known not-so-affectionately as the Dustbuster. Rumor has it that Nvidia actually cribbed the cooler design from Abit, which had strapped a similar dual-slot contraption to a factory overclocked GeForce Ti 4200.

Ultimately ill-equipped to compete with the dominating Radeon 9700 Pro, the GeForce FX 5800 Ultra never hit the market in any kind of volume, which I suppose makes it a bit of a rarity. To this day, it's also the loudest graphics card I've ever tested—a distinction I hope it never loses.

Once upon a time, even after 3dfx was swallowed up by Nvidia, there was a viable third option in the graphics card world: Matrox. Best known for its multimonitor pioneering and excellent analog output quality at a time when that sort of thing was a big deal, 3D performance was never Matrox's bread and butter. With the Parhelia-512, however, Matrox looked like it might just have something capable of taking on the high end of ATI's and Nvidia's respective lineups.

Unfortunately, despite oodles of transistors, gobs of memory bandwidth, and numerous unique features, the Parhelia-512 failed to impress in games, where it couldn't keep up with its competition. The card was simply too expensive for the performance that it offered, and while features like 10-bit/channel color and Surround Gaming were certainly impressive, their appeal didn't make up the performance gap for most folks. Matrox would eventually give up on gamers and enthusiasts altogether, choosing instead to settle into smaller niche markets like medical imaging. My Parhelia-512 remains as a decadent reminder that, once upon a time, there were alternatives to GeForces and Radeons.

For a very long time, motherboards weren't much to look at. They'd come on printed circuit boards colored inconspiuously in green or brown, and they'd be buried inside a case where no one was going to see them. And then there was color. Lots of it. Too much of it. Or at least too many clashing, brightly-colored neons competing for attention on motherboards that looked like they were designed midway through an acid trip.

Sapphire's PI-A9RX480 is a child of the multicolored motherboard era, and while its stark white PCB is certainly striking, the board's designers showed some restraint when selecting the rest of the palette, to great effect. I still think this is one of the best-looking motherboards ever, although it wasn't all that competitive in its day. A high price tag and problematic peripheral performance tanked what might otherwise have been a popular product. But the A9RX480 still looks good today, and that's why it's the only board I've bothered to keep around past its prime.

The Raptor WD360GD is a perfect example of enthusiasts defying carefully-crafted product positioning and adopting enterprise-class hardware for their own desktops and gaming rigs. For years, the spindle speed for desktop hard drives was stuck at 7,200 RPM. 10,000 RPM was for SCSI drives only, putting it out of reach of the vast majority of enthusiasts. Then Western Digital went and built the Raptor, which combined a 10k-RPM spindle speed with a standard Serial ATA interface that plugged into common desktop motherboards. The drive only offered 36GB of capacity, which wasn't much even for the time, but performance-obsessed enthusiasts flocked in droves to the Raptor and its successors.

Western Digital eventually grew hip to the Raptor's broader appeal, and the company even developed a special windowed version dubbed the Raptor X that specifically targeted enthusiasts. Of course, most enthusiasts probably opted for the windowless version of the Raptor X, the WD1500ADFD, which cost $50 less. What can I say? We're a practical bunch, and while hard drive windows are very slick, they just don't match the smug satisfaction that comes from plugging server-class hardware into a standard desktop system.

That about does it for reminiscing today. As I look around the mess of boxes that still litter my new office, I can't help but wonder what I'll cull from this collection of more recent hardware. Perhaps the original X-Fi will merit a spot in my little museum as what may be the last 3D audio processor. Zalman's Reserator will surely have a place, if only because it's still by far the most phallic PC accessory around. And surely, there will be room for an erratum-afflicted B2-stepping Phenom processor, because never have fanboys so vociferously made excuses for a broken product. Ahhh, the memories.

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