April 19, 2012
Chasing Pixels: My PC Journey
by Guest Writer James "Ajay" Russell
I was just reminiscing about the various upgrades, both minor and major, I have shelled out so I can pretend I am a WWII combat pilot. I am never going to get to fly a Spitfire, be a belly gunner in a B-17, or land a Komet on a wooden skid, but I can lose myself for a few hours at a time and try and emulate the stories I read as a kid by chasing pixels on a screen.
Sitting at work around late 2001, I was looking at some aviation site on the Internet and stumbled on a picture of a flight of B17s, taken from the cockpit of a fighter. Smoke streaming from burning bomber engines, and it was in a game — but what game had WWII planes? I had never been in the PC loop at all and had only mucked around with a few PS2 and older games every now and again with mates. I was generally quickly bored with them, although Allied General was a stand out, cars were way more at the fore of my interest and I never really even thought about sims or PCs — until I saw that picture.
I did a quick bit of chasing and found out it was something called European Air War (EAW). So I sussed out a few sites, saw the myriad of other planes, campaigns, you could download and put it into the game... sweeeet. I needed to check this stuff out! My offsider at work had to pry me away from the PC that day so we could actually get some work done!
So off I go the next weekend to a big electronic retail place (Harvey Norman) and shelled out just under 2 grand (yes, 2000 Aussie dollars) for a supposed top of the line rig with Windows XP, an Athlon something or other, whatever... I showed the clerk the EAW box and asked, "Will it run this?" His answer was affirmative. I grabbed a MIcrosoft Sidewinder joystick, a copy of EAW and Microsoft Flight Simulator (MSFS), drove home and had myself in the air that same night.
I found the SimHQ Forums via a link from the CD and wandered into the EAW Forum room. I grabbed the fix for the rocket launch lockup — my first ever fix for a game. I learned what to tweak and how to get maximum eye candy.
I was downloading stuff like a madman, and flew for months offline. I was astounded by redoing things I had only read about as a kid, heading over the channel in a 109 in 1940, taking off from Tangmere in a Spitfire! Totally mega insanely awesome!
EAW ran flawlessly, as I thought it should, running the latest software and a top-of-the-line machine. I was mildly interested in the internals as I saw post's about upgrading cards, RAM, mobos, etc. But what did all this mean? Surely I would never have to delve inside this shiny metal case? Wizardry went on in there and it was alien to me. If it had pushrods, a crank, cams and a carbie I could tweak it, work it, upgrade it easily to get more grunt. But a box full of wires and boards with shiny bits on it? Didn't you just buy a new one when the need arose? Like when your PS2 refused to work, the fifth one you had brought in a year?
I think the first time I got realistically interested (well, I had to) was when someone asked my specifications because of a CTD issue (even the funny acronyms these guys used were alien to me). I had to do some investigation into the box to find out what I actually had shelled out hard-earned money for. It ended-up being... taking a deep breath...
A Compaq Presario 6000 with an AMD 2100+ @1.73GHz processor, a GeForce2 video card, a 350w power supply unit, and 1 x 256MB stick of "no name" RAM.
Well, the RAM had a name, but I could not find any listing of the manufacturer on the Internet. I remember when posting my specs for some unknown reason in the Community Hall, some guy named "Panzer-something" stated simply... a Compaq? ...my condolences. Hmmm, maybe he was just jealous? At the time it had come with a 17" CRT, a keyboard, mouse and two speakers. To me, it was uber cool, and I was flying. I had learnt anything really good was uber... epic would come later.
I started venturing into the SimHQ Screenshot Forum and was blown away by the then still very new sim, IL-2 Sturmovik. I was still captivated with EAW though and was now working on skins and putting together campaigns with a few of the boys as well as being part of an online war at Kali, but man, did IL-2 look good! I just did not have time for two sims and the general feeling I got was there were EAW flyers, and then there were the IL-2 crew. So I stayed faithful, still all the meanwhile drooling at the screenies. Then a few months later I saw a picture of the famous black tulip Hartmann skin on an IL-2 Sturmovik 109. I had just finished painting that skin for EAW, and this latest IL-2 screenie did it. I had to have it. I had read that you needed a really good rig to play the game, with the "perfect" settings enabled and the trees pumped out. Well, I did have a top end rig, didn't I? So I downloaded the demo.
Beautiful! I was drawn in immediately. I was flying the demo IL-2 heading for a harbor full of allied ships over an old school carpet colored greeny-brown landscape. the cockpit was lovely, the lighting, the plane itself. Man! Then there were clouds. CLOUDS! I headed straight into them, not caring for air combat, and immersed myself in the whiteness. Totally mega insanely awesome! once again. I was sold and MUST get this game.
Being a late IL-2 bloomer, by 2003 it had already evolved into IL-2: Forgotten Battles, so I headed off and picked up a copy. Loaded the game in anticipation, and flew around for a while. Hmmm, stutters at some points, plus if I ramped the water graphics, staggery stutters. But it was flyable with just me in the air and I did get to see the nice water effects... at 5 frames per second. Soooo, I needed to get some more grunt out of this machine.
I was starting to understand that more RAM and a better graphics card meant a better looking more playable game. From what I could glean, the ATI 9xxx video card series offerings were the shiznit at that moment. So I decided to pull my card out and go to a PC shop and see if I could get myself a new one. Being mechanically minded, it did not seem too hard. Open the case, unscrew the retaining screw and pull it out. Simple.
At the shop I realized the ATI 9800 PRO was out of my price range. Beside's that, what I held in my hand was my network card... umm, a what? I told the clerk my high-end rigs specs and what I had paid for it, and said there was not anything in there that looked remotely like a graphics card beside what I held in my hand. I could see the smile in his eyes and it dawned me on right then that I had been stitched.
Spotting a dumb ass noob, and being a good guy who had no doubt seen this episode many times before, he said the first thing I should do is increase my RAM and see how it goes. "Spend a minimum for maximum" I think was his quote. So I walked out with a 1GB stick of RAM. That stick cost me $159 if I remember correctly. I held it like gold. This was going to get me flying with the big boys!
I rang my sister who knew a guy who knew computers and organized for him to come and put the RAM into my beloved computer. I didn't really want to touch it, still being bit scared of the shiny box — even though I had already pulled out and refitted the network card. So I sat at home waiting like a expectant child on Christmas eve. He never showed. Same the next night. The third night I pulled the side off my case and looked inside. Okay, there is what looks the same as what I have here in this cool little plastic box. Unclip the stick. Clip in the other one. Make sure it is seated properly. shnick! Lovely. Boot. Woah! A whole bunch of numbers flashed by, it recognized the new stick of RAM, then off to Windows XP. It was actually faster! It worked! Instantly! I'm a genius! I was bedazzled. The game loaded faster and I had a lot less stutters... but, I still could not run the cool water without the game still sort of chugging along. On excellent settings I could get more planes in the air and actually have a few good battles. But I needed — no, must have — that "perfect" water. It was inevitable. I needed a new video card to achieve my goal. Well, I needed A video card, being that I found out my video was "onboard". What did that mean anyway? Where was it sailing too?
So around comes the next payday and I'm off to visit my new found PC shop best friend. I walked out with a shiny ATI 9600XT, and not the much admired ATI 9800PRO, but I was about an extra foot off-the-ground when I cruised out of there with my very cool looking graphics card box. I think I opened it twice whilst stopped at traffic lights on the way home just to perve on it. I had researched how to swap out cards, uninstall drivers, driver cleaners, registry cleaners, vacuum cleaners. So I uninstalled the graphics drivers and rebooted. Ugggh! Butt-ugly big icon hell! I ran the downloaded driver cleaner. Ran the registry cleaner. Rebooted, then shut it down. Next I took the side off the case again, and inserted insert that shiny new red card. Put the side back on the case, plugged-in the monitor and restarted... Yes! It worked! My machine lived! I'm a genius! Again! And the card even had a little red glowing light on it! I installed the drivers off the provided disk and then went for a play in the new ATI Control Panel. Didn't mean a whole lot at the time but anything that seemed to mean "will make game graphics look better / crisper / prettier" got the nod. I went straight into IL-2: Forgotten Battles and voila! nice water with no stutters. Yeeeesss! I was owning my PC. The master of my rig.
What I learned so far was, do not buy an off-the-shelf machine. Build your own. Same as what I already knew about motors. I had purchased a middle-range machine for top dollar. Sucker. Never again would I purchase a complete retail package.This stuff seemed fairly easy, and not over-the-top expensive. Well, excepting the initial outlay. It was not too long after this the Aces Expansion Pack came out with Spitfires. And I think Aces brought with it the option of water 4? I grabbed another stick of RAM and upped my baby to 2 gigs. Pumping!
Then out of nowhere came death in the form of a virus. I had to reformat and lost a lot. I had backed-up our pictures and downloaded game files to discs as well as my earlier EAW work. So it wasnt all bad. But it was late 2004ish and I was sick of juggling my tiny 32 gigs of space. I needed a new rig, and I could palm this one off to my missus. So I started talking to a guy at work who could source cheap PC parts and asked him for a price on a complete rig. We pick the parts. I pay. He builds it. I still had not installed an OS or done anything from scratch and the shiny boxes and OS installation were still a bit daunting to me, but i was learning. I had started to sus out overclocking, partitioning, the page file, what you could do in a BIOS and what it meant, what parts went with what, tweaking, voltages, overheating... I was getting pretty keen on this stuff. So it's 2005 and now I badly wanted a new rig. Not one that sold with 2 year old parts at top dollar. Something we could build cheaper... faster...
Enter the wrench in the works. My trusty old daily driver 308 V8 needed a rebuild. The old Corolla wagon we were using as a kid hauler had seen better days. We were nearly down to zero cars. The upgraded Compaq was going to have to suffice for a while longer. The wrench in the works had a flip side though. I was doing good at work and had been thrown the keys to a work car and a fuel card! So I thought i can shelve the V8 rebuild for a little bit longer... and spend some money on the PC! I knew i would not have enough for my envisaged machine, but there were other areas that needed attention as well: Sound, the monitor, mouse, keyboard, joystick. The spending possibilities were endless!
There was a contest in the SimHQ Community Hall. The first correct poster to a trivia question won a new Saitek Eclipse backlit board. I missed out by a shinizzle but SimHQ threw a keyboard across the Pacific at me anyway! Awesome, and I am still using that keyboard this very minute. I was thrilled. Scratch one item off the list.
Ok next, sound. A x530 5.1 surround speaker system for $180 dollars on a special sale. Soooold!
A month later I grabbed a 19" ViewSonic LCD. I was not very impressed and returned it for a different brand. Somehow the colors and smoothness of the CRT were gone, but I had more screen area so I adapted.
I grabbed a wireless mouse with side buttons. It had a really nice weight to it with the batteries and it felt great when playing Call of Duty back when CoD was still an okay game.
Now for the joystick. The Sidewinder Pro was okay, but not enough buttons or hats for IL-2: Sturmovik, so enter the Saitek x52 base model joystick. My first HOTAS! Loved it even though it was a bit light and loose. I found an unlikely solution... a plastic bottle cap. I sliced it to the middle, cut a hole out of the middle, then inserted it under the bottom spring. Voila! Now it is tighter.
Pacific Fighters popped-up and was added to my IL-2 installation.
So my old rig plugged along through the rest of 2005 and stretched into 2006 without an internal upgrade.
I added a NaturalPoint TrackIR2, some headphones and a microphone. Brilliant! My flying paraphernalia was now complete and I was firmly entrenched on Hyperfighter in the Zekes vs. Wildcats server a few nights a week, settings on "perfect" with nary a stutter. I refused the "excellent" setting even online.
To help the rig along, I had replaced the thermal paste under the heatsink and incredibly (to me) noticed a difference in temps before and after. I even cut a big square hole out of the side of my pc desk so the fans could draw in cooler air.
Finally in mid 2006, I could see light at the end of the tunnel. I had purchased the lady of the house a new set of wheels (don't ever buy a Vectra is all I can say about that!), put a reverse cycle air conditioner system in the lounge room, installed roof fans, and had helped build a new kitchen and bathroom. Feeling that I had done my manly things to provide for my woman, I thought I was now allowed to splurge a bit on my rig. Hah! So balancing the dollars but wanting something that I thought may run Storm of War (as Cliffs of Dover was then known as) which was due out any day now, I went for the following...
A Core 2 Duo E6600 @ 2.4GHz
with a ASUS P5N32SLI premium mobo, two x 7900GS video cards, Zalman fan, 4 gig of RAM, a 550w power supply, 250 GB hard drive with my old 32 GB as a backup. All this was wrapped up in a new Sidewinder case... with the lights removed.
We did a dual boot Windows Vista / Windows XP setup and I exchanged my Saitek x52 for an Saitek x52 PRO as it was having a spiking problem. Lucky for me it was still under warranty and double jackpot, they were not getting any more x52 standard sticks so I walked out very happily with a new Saitek x52 PRO instead.
After some more SLI research I upgraded the power supply to a 700w unit.
Some fiddling with this setup and I managed to get a comfortable 2.8GHz, which provided good 3D Mark scores and more importantly, excellent temps.
I launched her into what was now IL-2: 1946, everything pumped... maximum water and maximum trees. Splendiferous! 60+ B-17's in the air, escorted by Spits and attacking forces of 190s and 109s, on "perfect".
For some reason, the rig hated ArmA though. Just could not get it to run nicely on one or two cards, so a disappointment there.
I spread my wings a bit and grabbed Lock-On and then the Flaming Cliffs expansion, but I just couldn't get my head around these planes or more specifically, the controls. I'd read all of the guides, trolled the forums, and spent hours trying to get this button to do that switch but just simply no luck. Fail. I was a prop head apparently, and that was that. So at this stage I was beaming anyway. I didn't need to spend any more money. I certainly was not keeping Vista. It only lasted about a month before I sacked the dual boot idea and reverted back to Windows XP. It was happy times.
A sidenote. The old faithful Compaq
was reformatted, and I installed Windows XP after the new rig was up and running. I painted it pink and gave it to my little girl for Christmas along with some Barbie Doll house games, music, and learning programs. It gave up the ghost in 2011, but now resides in my cupboard with all of the other dead and outdated PC parts.
The only game that came along in 2007 I was interested in was Crysis. After some fiddling, it ran great and looked spectacular even with some settings dumbed-down. It still had its stuttery moments, but I don't know if anyone got through the whole game without some glitches.
Then in very early 2008 — the hammer incident. I wont go into much detail, but somehow a hammer found its way into the side of one of the 7900 video cards after the computer was dropped on its side... on a tiled floor... from a height. Yeah, gotta love relationships. So the PC front went quiet for about seven months. Storm of War was looking more like Duke Nukem, and the more I read about it the less it seemed my planned rig would run it. Especially down one video card.
After the domestic scene had settled, and I became one with my manliness again (read divorce... my choosing) and knowing that seven or so months is a long time in the PC upgrade world, I started looking around again thinking about replacing the 7900GS with a single video card and not worrying about going SLI. The latest offering in mid 2008 from NVIDIA was the 9800 series of cards, so I grabbed a 9800GTX+. What a huge card! Having some extra moola, I walked out with a new 22" LCD monitor as well. IL-2 was beautiful, and benchmarking showed it was faster than the the SLI setup.
I went through Crysis again from start-to-finish, and it was a better experience this time around. The graphics were pumped to maximum settings and it was running beautifully.
The power supply died in early 2009, and it was replaced it with an 850w unit.
Splashed out again and found myself staring at a 24" LCD monitor which was even more lovely!
My cupboard of old and unused parts was filling up!
This setup lasted me until mid 2010 when the ASUS mobo decided to capitulate and call it a day. Death of a fine friend, we had spent many nights tweaking together and i knew it inside out. It was a sad moment in my PC life. So what now? Just replace the old one with an LGA775 socket type or upgrade the whole lot?
Windows 7 had arrived and Windows XP had given me a good ride, but I decided on newer setup. I mean, Storm of War was really nearly out now. Really! Honest!
I went for a cheaper budget build this time...
|Gigabyte H55M UD25 Socket1156, a Clarkdale i5 processor @3.33GHz,
4GB of Kingston DDR3 RAM, and a TB HDD. I kept the 9800GTX+ and 850w power supply
I was silly enough to grab the 32-bit version of Windows 7. Don't ask why i didn't go 64-bit. This was my first OS install and I attacked it armed with a six pack of icy cold rum and a fistful of good tips I had gleaned from the Internet. Everything went smoothly and I didn't even get halfway through my six pack before I was looking at the latest version of Windows on my screen. Even Homer was excited when the little green light turned on for the first time!
I added a cheapie 19" Samsung so I can challenge Panzer and post twice as much. It actually comes in very handy when using a tablet and drawing as I can use the bigger monitor for my drawing and the smaller one for organizing paint palettes, brushes, watching tutorials, etc.
My mouse finally gave up the ghost and I am currently using a super cheapie Logitech. No side buttons. No cowbells and zero whistles. I also discovered that there is a use for the extra ports on the graphics card. More monitors!
By this stage I wasn't flying too much anymore, my boy and I only cranked up IL-2 briefly every now and again, and there wasn't any other games I was very interested in. IL-2 still looked great, especially with all of the updates and modders work, but I had been flying her for longer than the actual war lasted. I needed something new to excite me. I could not go through Crysis again so most of the PC time lately was spent watching YouTube vids, checking out SimHQ, doing some video/music editing, and mucking around in graphics programs whereas the kids were using it to play Internet games and watch movies. It had turned into a TV more than anything else. It also did other things like work. What I did during the day I could now bring home and do at night. The joy.
Then in January 2011 the video card died. Yes! I got to fiddle with something! I grabbed a budget GTX460SE 1GB for under $200. A nice little card for the price.
Now where the heck was Storm of War? Errrr, Cliffs of Dover. C'mon, I had been anticipating it for years and years. Every time I brought a new computer part I thought of SoW. Dammit, I mean Cliffs of Dover.
I really don't know how I missed the whole Rise of Flight saga. Really, it just slipped by me. It seemed like ages since I had been for a virtual fly. Then finally, Cliffs of Dover was out! And it ran like poo. I cried a little tear that night as I looked at the Cliffs of Dover box on my desk. All this waiting... for this? The details have been gone about endlessly and I wont go into them any more here than suffice it to say my rig now runs it beautifully after patches and tweaking. And on a machine that cost a lot less than my first PC I brought over 10 years ago.
I still have the same Saitek x52 Pro, the same Logitech x530 speakers, the trusty old NaturalPoint TrackIR2, and of course the Eclipse keyboard. And believe it or not, the same Sidewinder case — with a side that just does not fit quite right after its impact with the tiled floor. I have to forcibly hold it in place while I do up the rear screws.
Like most, I have acquired a cupboard full of old cards, mobos, PC cases and power supplies, but it has come in useful. just this past weekend I breathed new life into the good 7900GS card. My boy got hold of an old system that had a corrupted hard drive. We installed Windows 7 on it, slotted in an extra 512MB RAM stick and the card. As I write this he is somewhere over the Russian steppes in a Yak.
All I would like now is an SSD, a newer video card, Windows 7 64-bit, some more RAM...
I figure I'll just have to sit around and wait for something to croak, or be hit by another blunt instrument. Until that magical moment, I will continue my journey in the Hurricane, 109 or any other WWII era plane that developers want to throw at us and keep my old trusty Compaq as a reminder of my first foray into this cool little electronic world.
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