Tuesday, May 29, 2007

ATI's Basic Display Driver + ATI Tray Tools = Freedom from Catalyst Control Center

This is a quick guide on how to remove the ATI Catalyst Control Center (CCC), improving system performance by freeing resources and in some case increasing system stability . This guide uses ATI's standard display drivers and ATI Tray Tools, and is intended for users of Windows XP.

1. In your Device manager, uninstall the driver for your ATI video card. Do not restart yet.
2. From the Device manager, uninstall the video card itself as well. Do not restart yet.
3. Open Add/Remove programs, and uninstall all of the ATI related drivers and Catalyst Control Center.
4. Download the newest standard display drivers from ATI (currently 7.4). Do not install yet!
5. Download ATI Tray Tools. Do not install yet!
6. Restart your computer, and Cancel any attempts by Windows to find your drivers.
7. Install the ATI standard display drivers and ATI tray tools. ATI Tray tools takes the place of the CCC, and allows you to control various video settings including Anti-aliasing and Anisotropic filtering.

Notes: I noticed a performance increase after following the above steps. To my knowledge, ATI Crossfire users must use Catalyst Control Center for that feature.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Linux and Windows are the same thing, I've just been using Windows longer

After reading various debates on Digg and other places where Windows vs. Ubuntu is debated, I've come to the conclusion that the reality of the situation is this: Windows and Ubuntu, actually, operating systems in general have basic things you have to do in order to use them, and many, if not most, users don't know how to do them even in Windows. This is why a Windows computer comes pre-configured with drivers, software applications, etc. Ubuntu and Windows aren't easier than one another- there's steps you take with either operating system to get it functional from a fresh install.

I was getting ready to reinstall Windows on my PC for performance reasons (In my experience Windows XP's clean running life is 2 years with a single major application and 1 year with various applications and frequent installs/uninstalls). I'll mark everything that a large segment of PC users can't do or do effectively in red:

Installing Windows:

Run installation CD, set up users and passwords
Load desktop, fix default resolution and now I'm at a blank desktop.
Video drivers
Monitor drivers (for proper refresh rate detection)
Chipset drivers/Audio drivers/wireless drivers
Install anti-virus software (I oftentimes I help people choose anti-virus software, and something that happens a lot is installing Norton antivirus over mcafee trialware plus a "good antivirus program" suggested by a friend, plus a large number of viruses, system instability, etc.)
Install OpenOffice.org
Install Firefox
Install Trillian
Install games

Turn off auto-loading programs through their own menus
Open Run dialogue and open msconfig, uncheck any startup items that I don't want that oftentimes are hidden
Clean off desktop, delete files and update drivers to regain stability
Defragment hard drive (effectively), run spyware scans and anti-virus scans, keep auto-detection on and update virus definitions

Windows XP is a pretty good operating system. I've used it for years and years, know the ins-and-outs of it and know it's limitations. I've played tons of games on it both indie and large corporation, every kind of software app imagineable, etc. I can say at this point and time, aside from what feels like a ticking time bomb of system instability that goes crazy almost every calendar year (most likely from the registry getting more and more complicated), Windows XP has worked fantastically for it's lifetime.

For someone who has made Windows XP an artform, i.e. your "Windows poweruser", there's not much incentive to switch to any other operating system. And the politics of free/open source software aside, I've always been willing to pay for quality and respect that developers put time into their work and oftentimes they would like to be compensated.

The arguments of opensource OS's and apps vs. Windows and closed-source nonfree apps shouldn't be the realm of your typical user. Users need to evaluate:

1. What will do what they need to do
2. What is most cost-effective

And that's it. If the answer to those is Ubuntu (see my post, Dell Chooses Ubuntu), then go for it. But say for example, as of right now (May 18th, 2007), you can't easily play all major game titles in linux. The driver support and industry support aren't there. So install Windows XP, keep it healthy and reinstall once a year and be happy. If you don't need to play major game titles and don't have irreplaceable Windows-specific programs, go with Ubuntu. The reality is both operating systems require tons of tinkering at times, any OS will, and the end-user should use what works best for their situation.

The only problem in this seemingly simple equation is Vista. The moment a near-perfect Linux Desktop OS arrives this happens:

1. Directx 10, the newest gaming API-thingumy used by game software developers, is Vista specific, nearly forcing gamers to upgrade to something that has typically reduced computer game performance to 90%ish of it's former self, if not worse
2. Vista is expensive
3. Doesn't add much new functionality
4. Windows XP updates, patches and software company support will eventually die out, and users will find themselves reading the backs of boxes to see if the programs they need support an outdated OS, much like Windows 2000 SP3/SP4 users might today.

It's much like a new edition of a textbook. Not much is added, a little is changed, it's expensive, everyone is inconvenienced, and people find a way around it.

One can hope Ubuntu's popularity will create a new operating system paradigm for software companies to move toward in light of these difficulties. Or maybe Windows XP will be greeted with a new service pack and a DX10 support patch. PC users will have to wait and see.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Dell chooses Ubuntu: An overview

Yesterday (May 1st, 2007) Dell and Canonical both confirmed the rumors and officially announced that the popular Linux distribution Ubuntu would be found on 'select consumer desktops and laptops'. This decision was made, according to dell, 'by popular demand' through Dell's suggestion site, IdeaStorm. Many users also speculate the decision was influenced by Michael Dell's use of Ubuntu on his laptop.

Through the warring on various blogs, forums, and Digg submission comments, there's a lot of speculation and very little full-blown fact-seeking. Here's what I've put together:

Support. Basic non-hardware support will be provided through the Ubuntu community. As seen in the Dell website's support section on "How to install Ubuntu", Dell has no problem with pointing users in the direction of Ubuntu's established peer-to-peer support base. Canonical makes it's money by providing profession tech support for Ubuntu installations- which would easily answer where paid support would be purchased when buying a Dell PC.

Cost. Ubuntu Dell machines may very well cost as much as or slightly more than Windows machines. While this has not been verified by Dell or Canonical, each Windows installation on a Dell PC is subsidized by large amounts of trial software and bloatware from various corporations such as AOL and Earthlink. According to some sources, adding bloatware or trial software to Ubuntu, while possible, may be more difficult because of Ubuntu's trademark policies. Apparently to be an official Ubuntu distribution, certain requirements must be met that may keep Dell from adding any trial software to it's Ubuntu PCs.

However, one might say that with reduced technical support on it's shoulders, Dell could technically make up a lot of it's costs through that area.

Benefits of pre-installed Ubuntu. Many users are asking why anyone would opt for a PC with Ubuntu instead of Windows when one can obtain a cheap Windows license and install Ubuntu for free anyway. Here's some reasons:

A. When buying a Dell Ubuntu PC, you would be purchasing a pre-installed, pre-configured Ubuntu installation with all the necessary drivers.

B. All of your hardware, of course, would be linux-compatible and ready-for-use. If you purchase a Dell laptop with built-in webcam, all-in-one card reader, nvidia graphics card and built-in microphone, all of these would be linux-friendly and pre-configured to work out of the box. Of course, Dell could just slap a fresh Ubuntu install on it's PC's and ship a headache-in-a-box to all of it's customers, but with it's IdeaStorm website and choice to offer Ubuntu to customers many believe Dell is taking a turn in a new direction with it's customer relations. We can only hope.

C. How really useful is a OEM, Dell, bloatware/trialware infested Windows Vista Home Basic license key/cd? A large number of customers who were forced into buying Vista before Dell offered XP again complained of having to install XP over it anyway.

(Alternatively, if you need Windows Vista, my recommendation is to get it via an OEM distribution. Windows Vista Ultimate and Home Premium are at hugely discounted prices by this method, but you miss out on Microsoft support. Dogpile, then Yahoo, and now Google have been my Microsoft support sites for years anyway.)

Are you a potential Ubuntu user? I've helped hundreds of people make decisions on what kind of computer they need to do what they want to do. Ubuntu vs. a Windows machine is a very easy decision from that aspect. From the basic computer uses:

Ubuntu can easily do:
-Web browsing (via Firefox)
-Photo viewing (I never looked at what program handles this in Ubuntu, which is a good thing)
-Office software (through OpenOffice, which is basically a free office suite that is nearly identical in functionality to Microsoft Office 2007 Standard Edition)
-E-mail and calendaring (through Evolution mail manager, but of course a lot of people use web-based managers such as Gmail)
-Image/photo editing (through The Gimp, which is an awesome bit of software that I was using years and years ago to make a website in middle school, i.e. pretty easy to use and gives a lot of room to learn more as your editing needs increase)

What's tricky on Ubuntu:
-Gaming in general: A lot of games are supported through a program that lets you run Windows programs/games in Ubuntu called Wine, however for you to be truly sucessful with this an Nvidia graphics card is a near-requirement and you need to make sure your favorite games are supported before going for it. Most gamers will want to keep a Windows installation on their computers as well to switch to for gaming.
-Making financial and tax software made for Windows work in Ubuntu. TaxCut, TurboTax, Quicken, QuickBooks, etc. don't have viable alternatives in Ubuntu to my knowledge.

What's nice about Ubuntu:
-The operating system is rock solid. My parents use Ubuntu 6.06 on an old IBM machine, 400Mhz Pentium II with 384MB of memory on a 40GB hard drive. It sits on a desk in the corner of their living room and it is used to surf the web, send e-mail and read the news. Ubuntu runs flawlessly, the computer is never turned off or starts slowing down after extended periods of time between restarts. This kind of flawless performance compared to the previous Windows installation makes me very happy with Ubuntu overall. The number of tech problems they have run into with a Firefox (internet) icon, Openoffice Icon and a folder to save their files is zero.
-99% of the software is free and is easily installed from incredibly fast Canonical servers with nearly zero configuration by the user. Open add and remove program, search for the kind of program you need, check the box and hit install. It shows up in your Applications.
-All of the software installed like that gets automatic updates that are easy to install, are done quickly and don't greatly effect system stability in any way.
-Codecs are downloaded after a quick prompt (much like Windows Media Player), and the download and install is quick and fast. After removing all of my codecs and trying to play mp3's, avi's, ogg's, ogm's, mkv's, and wmv's I had all my codecs installed and better configured than my manual installation from previous Ubuntu versions (6.10).

Most people sit down at their computer, write a paper, surf the web, check e-mail and organize pictures from the net, e-mail or their digital camera. For those purposes, there is no better operating system than Ubuntu, period. It's reliability, ease of use and security are second to none. Dell's decision to include Ubuntu as an OS option for customers was an excellent move and I hope it becomes a sucessful venture for the company.

All images are copyright of their respective owners, including Dell and Canonical.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Beryl 2.1.0, Ubuntu Fiesty 7.04 default, is buggy confusion

After upgrading my Ubuntu 6.10 installation to 7.04, two things happened: my video drivers weren't installed properly, and Beryl wasn't working.

I use an ATI card. The standard 'ati' opensource drivers don't cooperate- I have to use FGLRX. Using the restricted drivers manager made installing the drivers easier, but I still needed to configure them, specifically:

sudo gedit /etc/X11/xorg.conf

and adding

Section "Extensions"
Option "Composite" "Disable"
Followed by:

sudo aticonfig --initial
sudo aticonfig --overlay-type=Xv
These steps were -essential-. When I was having problems getting this stuff to work I initially went straight to Google for answers which led me in circles for a long time. I should I have stuck to the basics!
Check http://wiki.cchtml.com/index.php/Ubuntu_Feisty_Installation_Guide before doing anything else!

The second culprit was the newest Beryl version, 2.1.0. This was something I didn't know about until I found myself at this thread at the Ubuntu forums.

Ubuntu forum member Eode details how to escape the 2.1.0 trap and use version 2.0.0 of Beryl, which fixed all of my Beryl problems.

Image used is copyright of it's respective owners, obtained from http://wiki.beryl-project.org/wiki/Icons

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

My experience with line conditioning

In January I was given a very nice Viewsonic CRT monitor by a friend. It worked and looked great, but after some use I was noticing some odd things about it. I had seen the screen in use before, and it had always seemed much brighter and clear at those times compared to when it was in my home. Soon after that, I began noticing an even more annoying problem- to the right of any very dark or bright parts of the monitor, there were dark or light streaks that were more noticeable in line with how much the section of the monitor contrasted the rest of the items of the screen.

This problem soon extended into videogames and movies, where any characters, buildings or other figure would have a shadow. So, I decided to investigate why this was happening. It was the first time any kind of electronic device that looked fine during constant use before it was in my home could be seen functioning poorly with the same kind of use in my home.

Several different factors led me to believe it had something to do with my home and not the unit itself:

-While my previous monitor (another flatscreen CRT, 17ish inches from vpsMatrix) didn't have the streaking issue, it was much smaller, but it did share a similar problem: it's brightness was always much lower than it should have been, leading myself and others to have to turn the brightness up to very high amounts (eventually a solid 100 in it's configuration) to get it to look right. This shift took about 5 years and while the monitor worked fine otherwise it never looked right.
-The power in my home is very flaky. The breaker box pops easily and the lights dim when things like space heaters are turned on ( especially the outside air conditioning units).
-My stuff works better at other people's houses. Every LAN party was pretty confusing: My computer would perform many times better, my screen would look somewhat better and I never knew why.

So, after asking around and googling like crazy, I concluded that A. the problem was power related and B. the problem was likely caused by low voltages and line noise in my house.

Line noise is caused by a multitude of different things, but here are some (all of which are found at my house):
-A recent (within years) increase in the number of houses running off the same power at the street.
-Lots of heavy-power usage devices and those that use electric motors, such as a refridgerator, ceramic space heaters, 2 air conditioning units and 2 central heat/air systems, etc.
- Wireless phones at 900Mhz, 2.4ghz, 5.8ghz and a wireless network, as well as a wired network with a total of 200ft of cabling through the house.
-Plenty of other electronic equipment, projector, xbox360, surround sound system, all on the same power section of our circuit breaker.

After a great deal of research in favor and against line conditioners, I decided to buy one and see how it goes. I decided to go with APC since I'm familiar with the brand, but I'm pretty certain other companies such as Tripp Lite would be just as good. The APC website is kind of tricky- it's matching service definitely has an affinity for pushing one toward the battery backups that are 1200-1500VA and cost $100-200 or more. While I didn't really need the battery backup, since the higher end battery backups come with Automatic Voltage Regulation (AVR), and APC customer service responded that all their UPSes definitely act as noise filters, I was pretty much sold on one for around $150-170 because while the lower end UPSes did have AVR, they didn't both boost and trim the power signal.

However, while playing the price/shipping comparison I ran into something that both wasn't made a big deal about on the APC website... and happened to be exactly what I was looking for.
The APC Line-R 1200VA (LE1200) automatic voltage regulator that boosts, trims, and explicitly is listed as a noise filter as well. It was $52 with "free saver shipping" on Amazon but while I appreciate free shipping, the only reason I didn't get it from Newegg was because I couldn't find it there (didn't use the right search terms), even with a shipping charge.

I ordered the LE1200 from Amazon, and a week or so ( :( ) later it arrived in it's full 10lb. glory. My brother hooked it up before I got home and when first looking it at it, I was not impressed at all. The dark streaks were still there. I figured it might be latent noise or something like that, still stuck in the various capacitors, etc, so I unplugged the monitor and let it sit for a while. After plugging it back in, it still had all the same problems. I gave up, figured it would cost an arm and a leg to send a 10 pound glorified surge protector back to Amazon anyway so let it sit as a testament to my being swindled by fancy 'line noise' talk and how the naysayers of line conditioners were right.

However, soon my attitude changed. A day or so later, my heater kicked on while I was using my computer. I heard a distinct "click" and looked under the desk at the line conditioner. It sat there humming away, it's middle green light on indicating a normal voltage. I grabbed the heater remote and turned it off and, while watching the line conditioner, turned it back on. There was the same "click", as well as another indicator light switching on showing the drop in voltage. If the AC unit would come on, there was another click just as the lights dimmed. I was pretty impressed with the fact that I could at least actively see this thing do something worthwhile... but that wasn't the end of it.

A few days later, I had a firefox download dialogue opened over a white page.. and I couldn't see the streaking. I looked more closely and moved the box around, and then noticed it finally, but only as a faint greyness in an otherwise normal looking screen. Eventually, the streaking completely vanished, I haven't seen it in games or movies, in Windows or Ubuntu since. So, the LE1200 really did work, but oddly enough took a few days and was a gradual change instead of an instant one that I expected. My computer has been running better than it ever has (I have both the monitor and computer power supply running from the line conditioner) and every time I hear it "click" I become more satisfied with my purchase. I got exactly what I was looking for for 1/3rd the price I was willing to pay. I haven't had to turn up my screen brightness to play games effectively in over a week or two and everything on my screen seems brighter and colors look better (probable due to the loss of shadowing blurring the image).

While they are a source of debate, if you have any similar problems to those that I was having and have the same kinds of electrical issues (my house is around 20 years old or more), I definitely suggest a line conditioner for electronics/computers that are worth the $50 investment.

Monday, April 2, 2007

Solution to Live CD Lockups for Ubuntu

After seeing videos of the Linux OS Ubuntu in action with the 3D Desktop Beryl and Kiba-dock, I decided to give it a shot. After using an older computer as a guinea pig for the installation process without any major difficulties, I attempted to install it on my main desktop in a dual-boot configuration with Windows XP.

However, when trying to boot up the Live CD and choosing any option that causes the Ubuntu logo+loading bar, I would run into a complete lockup either at the end of the loading process or the black screen that follows it. I asked in #ubuntu on irc.freenode.net, an IRC room dedicated to helping newbies transition over from Windows and troubleshooting things not covered in the Ubuntu forums. Their staff is made up volunteers and they do a great job, but it took some serious trial and error to get this fixed on my own. There were actually several other users who were experiencing the same problem at the time and there seems to be questions about this all over the net with no clear answer.

The problem I was running into is tricky for several reasons.
1. It's not completely hardware specific.
2. It defies typical Live CD troubleshooting logic (which centers around verifying the download's accuracy, checking the quality of the burned CD, making sure the CD/DVD drive is functioning properly and checking the status of possible bad RAM chips, which is where the temporary Live CD OS is stored).
3. The solution isn't specifically for LiveCDs or Ubuntu, but really Linux and it's handling of video cards and drivers in general.

If this sounds familiar:
"Reproducing the problem is as follows:
1. Boot from the Live CD, and choose either the first option (Boot from Live CD/Install) or the Safe Graphical Mode option.
2. Kernel is loaded, green loading text appears momentarily at the top of the screen.
3. User is presented with a Ubuntu logo (in some cases off-color in either grayscale or orange with "artifact"-like problems oftentimes occurring).
4. After a moment, the back and forth movement ends. The bar becomes a true loading bar, fills, and the screen goes black.
5. The black screen persists as your monitor stays active (greenlighted), your CD drive stops moving (and actually wont open during this in my situation!), and you stare at the screen ad infinitum."

Then there is a solution (After step 6 is ATI specific):
1. You have to use the Alternate Install CD. Completely install Ubuntu (with a boot loader in my case).
2. After installation, when given the option of a normal boot or a ¨recovery¨ boot, choose the recovery.
3. At the prompt, type ¨sudo dpkg-reconfigure xserver-xorg¨
4. Follow the prompts to accurately setup your video, both your monitor and video card. Choose VESA as your video driver.
5. After that is done, type startx at the prompt/console.
6. This will load your desktop, congratulations, we are almost done. (If moving windows are very stuttery, dont worry its normal at this point.)
7. Open http://wiki.cchtml.com/index.php/Ubuntu in a Firefox window, and open a terminal window from Applications -> Accessories.
8. Choose your distro (currently shows 5.10, 6.06, 6.10, and 7.04), and follow the directions by copying and pasting the commands in the terminal.
9. The last direction is a copy+paste of a reboot command, after the reboot choose the normal startup, it will load your desktop and you can set your preferred desktop resolution and refresh rate.

images copyright Canonical and any other owner :>

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Five of the best mods for Half-Life 2

A little over two years after it's release in November, 2004, mods for Valve's Half-Life 2 are finally coming into large scale betas and releases. While dozens of small mods have been available for HL2 since the days following it's release (mostly co-op or deathmatch mods with limited gameplay and graphical changes), the major mod teams have been working for the last two years modelling, milestoning, mapping, sound producing, web developing and innovating to produce the most unique and engaging mods.

Mods were incredibly important for the success of the original Half-Life. Upon purchasing Half-Life 1, players were presented with a huge amount of original and fun content from third party developers. After wading through the huge amount of unreleased, unsupported, uninteresting and uninspired mods listed on sites such as HL2 Mods and ModDB, I've created a list of 5 of the best HL2 mods that have been released so far.

Pirates, Vikings and Knights II
Pirates, Vikings and Knights for HL1 was a must-have mod. Featuring several classes per faction and a frantic, fun style of gameplay, you could jump into any match, pick and side and start fragging the other team to complete whatever odd objective the map required of your team. PVKII is just as fun as the original and includes a ton of custom graphical content, makes full use of the Source engine's graphics (including HDR) and includes a fairly intuitive melee system.
YouTube Gameplay Video by kemita (low res)

Iron Grip: The Oppression
Iron Grip, an FPS/RTS mix, sets a team of players who select from a set of "hero" classes, each with unique weapons and player model, against an RTS-style player, who uses upgradeable soldiers and vehicles, in a battle over various strategic points strewn across the mod's fairly large maps. The FPS players (as "heroes") can easily be overwhelmed by the RTS-player controlled forces and must work together to ambush enemy advances and assassinate the enemy Officer.
YouTube Gameplay Video by ModDB

3. Insect Infestation
Insect Infestation, or II, pits various insect factions against one another in a competition over resources to produce structures, upgrade available insect-forms and dominate the other insect team(s). While ants and termites are currently available, there are plans for a third faction which should include various other yard insects.
YouTube Gameplay Video by Furluge

The Hidden
The Hidden is one of the most suspenseful games I've ever played. One player, as The Hidden, is a super-enhanced killer armed with a knife, a couple of grenades, and Predator-like stealth. The opposing team is armed with various weapons and gadgets to either track down and kill The Hidden or survive. This game has been released for some time and is very polished.
YouTube Gameplay Video by GPAEZK

GoldenEye: Source
Based on the original Nintendo 64 version, GoldenEye: Source features updated graphics and physics while attempting to recreate the GoldenEye experience. Those who played the N64 version will feel at home in this game's near-perfect recreation of maps and weapons.
YouTube Trailer by the GoldenEye: Source Team

Honorable mentions (released):
Garry's Mod (Newest version is not free)
The Battlegrounds

Look forward to these (unreleased):
World at War Mod
Firearms 2
Science and Industry 2
Nuclear Dawn

If you think I missed any excellent HL2 mods that have been released, feel free to let me know in the comments section.

Any images are copyright of their respective owners.