Part I: The Shadow of Dell
A couple of years ago, I wanted a good LCD monitor and found that the panel I wanted was being used in one of the new Dell widescreens. This was considerably cheaper than the NEC branded equivalent and in addition to costing less lacked the wow-wee glossy coating that seems only good to me for glare and headaches... besides selling monitors and laptops in the store, I mean.
The monitor was a good enough price to buy on its own but if I wanted to buy a package that included a new Dell desktop, the addition of the PC was too cheap not to buy. This was the first time I ever bought an assembled and branded PC and consequently the only time I've ever paid even by proxy for a Microsoft operating system. There was so much Dell crap on the install disc with Windows that I'm running a downloaded pirated copy anyway despite finally having a legal version. This supports my theory that legitimate customers always get screwed out of features, compatability, portability, and quality when compared with scummy people like me that screw EA and RIAA by having games I can actually run from the hard drive and DRM-free MP3s better than 128k.
Part II: Murder by Numbers
So what about the video card? It was important for me to try to explain my behavior of why I purchased the Dell to begin with before I began bitching about it. This wasn't really supposed to be a primary PC. It was just cheap for what it was. However, as it turned out I've been busy enough with console games and pinball tables that I've fallen quite a bit behind on the endless upgrade process of PC gaming. The Dell remains the fastest computer in the house... and the only one with a 16 PCI-e slot. That slot has been occupied since purchase with an ATI Radeon X300.
As most gamers already seem to know, the naming convention for video cards and chipsets used by Intel, Nvidia, and ATI are very misleading. I think most gamers believe this was an intentional confusion of the marketplace and there are lots of ideas for what motives they would have for that. When I began my search for graphics cards info, I quicky discovered 16 page reviews filled with things I didn't understand how to read at first glance and didn't seem worth more than a first glance to learn. I began hopping to the "Conclusions" page (aka page 16) where things were only mildly less confusing.
Through my searching, I finally found what I really wanted. A ranking of video cards. Purists would snub me for even looking at it before they could begin the rant about all the reasons why such "vague" generalities aren't good enough and the fifty or so exceptions for brands of video cards that screwed up the implementation, sourced cheap materials, used faster RAM, underclocked or overclocked the processor, etc. These were the kind of people who wrote those 16-page reviews and it was because of them, that I formed my oversimplified prejudices about which brands were good. After looking around at different web stores, I landed on two brands that were both common and had reputations for being reasonably consistent. These were BFG and eVGA.
Now I just needed to find where I wanted to be on that ranking list. The list goes all the way down to the 3dfx Voodoo card.... the first one. This is good because I was able to find my X300 in there. By my count, there are roughly 100 incremental performance steps in video cards between the X300 and the card I decided to buy. It's amazing that it even works in the same slot.
When it comes to computer parts, I'm a big fan of buying the second best of things. There always seems to be a curve for the price to performance ratio that gets steeper as you near the top then takes one more giant spike for the fastest thing on the market. When there are competing technologies like AMD and Intel, the spike is for the top of each product. In video cards right now, the slots for Nvidia and ATI chipsets are 9800GX2 and 3870X2. These are essentially the same chipset as lower models but with two of each of the major chips. The prices reflect that. Stepping down from there, another kind of spike is visible for the best graphics cards within the next chipsets. In other words, an Nvidia Geforce 8800 Ultra costs considerably more than other 8800 chipset cards in the same way that a Mustang Cobra costs considerably more than a Mustang GT.
Skipping past these, I find the products at the technology level I'm generally more comfortable purchasing. Here there are different brands, overclocked models and RAM variations with only a few dollars difference between each other depending on which card is on sale at which stores. At the time I was looking, eVGA cards just didn't seem to have good enough sales and were therfore quite a bit more expensive than BFG equivalents that seem to have marginally lower performance so it was going to be BFG. The 8800GTX cards were in general occupying the same price tier as the 8800 Ultra. Next in rank was the 8800 GTS which is better than the 8800GT. If that seems obvious to you, note that either of these are better than the 9600GT a back to bewilderment with the rest of us. BFG makes different models even of the 8800 GTS. Ignoring the legitimate pack-in software... for those reasons I explained, it came down to 512 vs. 256 MB RAM and an "OC" model. I don't get why the overclocking actually costs much more except that maybe they go through some kind of testing and have a higher failure rate. Obviously, I could buy any card and overclock it myself. I can't fake the RAM, though, and this one was in stock so finally the arduous task of choosing a video card ended with $220 worth of BFG Nvidia Geforce 8800 GTS 512MB "OC" edition at Fry's.
I once bought the most expensive consumer/gamer graphics card on the market for $200 but this price is mainstream now. The enthusiast models I didn't buy went for $300, $400, $450, all the way to just above the $600 mark. There's something about knowing that other people throw even more money away than I do that allows me to forgive myself just a little for buying something so expensive that I totally don't need just to watch it depreciate into nothing before I even manage to make use of it.
Part III: Evil Shroud of Dellspawn
The Dell I bought a while back just because I wanted the monitor is the only machine in the house with a 16x PCI-e slot so I had to go through the ordeal of removing Dell's plastic shroud of evil surrounding the cpu/heat sink because it wouldn't fit at all otherwise. When that was complete, I couldn't help but notice the clump-wad of thermal compound under the heatsink so of course I had to spend time searching for thermal compound (and actually found it -- knew it was in here somewhere). Then I went ahead and buffed the bottom of the heatsink -- the oxidized copper just absolutely blackened a rag. Next, I used a razor blade to do my best impression of a cake decorating artist to get a nice full smooth layer across the bottom of the heatsink. When i was finally ready to put it back, I discovered that that huge plastic shroud was the only mechanism it had for securing to the motherboard and none of the spare parts I had helped.
That's just as well because I would have had to remove it again anyway. Even with the plastic shroud gone, the large heat sink had trouble sharing space with the ginormous reminiscent of Hercules CGA video card. To make them happy together, I had to turn the heatsink at an angle... which of course made a flange hit one of the motherboard chipset heatsinks. I pulled the heatsink back out and started beating the flanges until they were somewhat folded up away from the motherboard and the heatsink would again rest on the cpu. Getting the video card into the case at all was a lot like moving a grand piano into an apartment. When I finally got it aligned with the only PCI-e slot I had, I couldn't get the card to sink all the way into the slot. I loosened all the motherboard screws in an attempt to push the board back away from the edge a little so the card's lip could sink around the motherboard edge. Still wouldn't fit. I then noticed that the way the thing worked was that it needed to take two sequential slot holes -- one for the video ports, one for the fan exhaust. The new problem from that was that the PCI-e on this motherboard was the topmost slot hole.
Wire cutters. Big wire cutters. I hacked at the case and then tried to smooth out the giant hole I had just made in about the center of the back of the PC case. Great, now it could exhaust properly... but still wouldn't fit due to the lip not having a real slot hole and groves to slip into. Flat-head screwdriver. Big flat-head screwdriver. I pried at the metal framework of the slot holes which were now only attached to the case at all along the bottom. I stripped off some metal shielding to give it a little more room. It was just barely enough room.... almost. The lan port was in the dead center of the motherboard which occupied a couple of centimeters of what the video card needed. I began wondering why the lan port's inside was surrounded by a metal box but couldn't see a clean way to remove the metal box without possibly cutting into the actual port, so I did the next most destructive thing. I used that big screwdriver to push on the lan port bending a folding it away from the slot.
Part IV: Screaming for Vengence
With some effort, I was finally able to sink it into the slot and as barbaric as the operation was, the exhaust port lined up nicely and looked right from the back of the case. The video ports on the other hand, were hidden by part of the slot hole separator on the other side.... so this too had to be bent away in the other direction. Since I still had no way to secure the CPU's heatsink, I placed it atop the CPU and let gravity do the work.... you know, so long as the computer stays on its side perfectly still and it doesn't get nudged. I plugged in the USB, video and power cables. I pushed the power button and was immediately punished for my action by the kind of high pitched alarm that is usually only used as a weapon by the military and ATF home invasions. My tinitis (ringing in the ears) worsened a little from this and more than 12 hours later, it hasn't gotten better.
The alarm was to alert me to the fact that I had not connected separate power supply cables to the inside end of the graphics card. My new style power supply only had one of the old fashioned style power plugs and it was being used for the optical drive. Oh well, sacrifices have to be made, right? I unplugged the optical drive and plugged the power cable into just one of the two power hungry mouths of the video card. Sorting through my misc. wires, I couldn't find a "splitter" or any other way to get a second cable to the video card so I was stuck. So I started the computer again anyway. After all the worst thing that could probably happen would be getting screamed at again.
No scream. Just the reasonable sound of the video card's fan drowned out by the computer's case and power supply fans. It posted. It assaulted me with the Windows loading screen. Then it let me log in. In an unrelated incident, I had screwed up the wi-fi configuration that bridged the upstairs and downstairs routers and without a backup, I had yet to restore connectivity to the Dellspawn. If the network was working properly then I'd get to find out whether my prying and nudging had killed the lan port but alas that news is yet to be discovered. WIth no network connection, I would normally go ahead and boot the CD that came with the product to at least get some kind of driver on it. ...but I used the power cable for the video card. All that for a computer that can't be put back together without overheating, has a hacked up case, and is now running a "generic VGA adapter."
Downstairs, I visited the internet on my laptop and downloaded the current and latest beta drivers for the card. The next goose in the chase is to find a USB drive and copy the files to there. Then I'll have to hope that when I plug the USB drive into the desktop to get the drivers that the additional power strain of the USB drive to the video card doesn't cause my meager little power supply to reboot the computer.
Part V: Exploring Hyrule
To get through these kind of things, I like to pretend that I'm on a quest. Each thing I do fucks something up in some way that requires my next actions. In this way, configuring a gaming PC is much like Zelda. In the darkest times, I ask myself, "What would Link do?" Then when I finally figure something out, the little DJ in my brain plays the "discovered secret" cue from Zelda. If it works, I get the more upbeat, "Yay, I got it!" music. I hope to hear it again soon.