Saturday, June 28, 2014

One Console to Rule Them All


In honor of the first 2014 Summer Steam Sale coming to a close, I've decided to do a post on a recent project I completed (with major props to Kevin Brown on the Nvidia tech advice):  

Building The One Console to Rule Them All.



Last year as the newest of the new consoles came out, I looked down at my little Xbox 360 and said to myself: "Self, do you really want to drop $500 on a new console for gaming hardware that's not only at least 6 months out-of-date, but also has parts that are the cheapest and flimsiest available?" (I've been burnt by a few Xbox360 RRoDs in my time). 

"No!" I said back with audacity, "There was a time before you became this shell of a gamer, self, putting disks into overheating TV boxes and only being allowed to buy full-priced Microsoft-approved DLC for the latest AAA tripe like COD:BLOPS:Zombie Pirate edition.  A time when the console didn't rule the living room; a time when graphics, processors, and memory were upgradeable; a time when you were free to load strange mods and fan-made levels created by independent programmers into epic adventure games like Baldur's Gate, Ultima, and Thief!  It was the late 1990s, and was a golden age of PC gaming...and it could be AGAIN!"

So in lieu of dropping a load of cash on the new Potatostation (*derisive snort*), I decided to get back into the saddle of PC building and build myself a gaming rig that could not only play every game I own at UltraMegaSuperFamicom settings, but also be ready to play future games at max settings that I'm looking forward to (most notably Witcher 3, coming out Q1 2015).  With the release of the newest GTX 750 TI Nvidia cards, I decided to build my system around one of those.

Since I wasn't going to replace my everyday Desktop PC, but instead build an entirely new system for the gaming room, I couldn't recycle anything off my current system.  So I set myself a budget slightly higher than a new console.  But I knew I'd make up the difference in the sheer cheapness of games on PC when Steam Sales roll around.  Plus I planned on using the SteamOS and teaching myself Linux...at the time that is...

Note that its a lot easier to build a PC than in the olden days, mostly because there are plenty of tech journalists who write whole articles on the subject.  The easiest way is to just find a recent one and go from there. 

Here's all the components of my rig:

PNY GTX 750 Ti 2048MB Graphics Cards VCGGTX750T2XPB-OC (Amazon - $149.99)

Elite 110 RC-110-KKN2 Computer Case (Amazon - $43.00)

Intel Core i5-4570 3.2GHz LGA 1150 84W Quad-Core Desktop Processor Intel (Amazon - $196.98)

Seagate Barracuda 1 TB HDD SATA 6 Gb/s NCQ 64MB Cache 3.5-Inch Internal Bare Drive (Amazon - $52.92)

G.SKILL Ares Series 8GB (2 x 4GB) 240-Pin DDR3 SDR (Newegg - $74.99) 

Corsair CX430M CXM series 430W ATX 80 PLUS BRONZE Modular Power Supply  (Outlet PC - $49.98)

ASRock B85M-ITX Intel B85 LGA 1150 SATA III Mini ITX Motherboard (Outlet PC - $81.96)

 
Saavy readers will notice that the hard drive is not a solid-state drive.  I can already hear the comic book guy neckbeards rolling their eyes and saying "I'd put an SSD if I were building a gaming rig..."  Yeah yeah, I hear you, but SSDs are still hella expensive for anything above 150 GB, and I wanted at least 1 Terabyte for <$60.  I can always clone my main drive later and move it over to an SSD when their price comes down, which I will do in a few years.

Anyway, here's some pics of the process.

The packages arrive:
 Mmmmm, the smell of shrinkwrap.


First things first, the CPU.

Slotting a new processor into a new motherboard is some straight up TechPorn if you ask me. 
Oh so satisfying.

Next, squeeze in some memory.  Note that PCs don't have to be towering monoliths anymore.  Next to the motherboard is my swiss army card, its basically the size of a credit card and shows you how compact the motherboard really is.

The case is only slightly larger than the motherboard, but its got two large fans, one on the front and a second on the back.  That along with the fans on the graphics card and above the CPU keep the system nice and cool.  (Banana for scale)

 
 Mounting the motherboard.

 Add the Hard Drive...

The rest of the components (Graphics card, Power Supply, case fans) pretty much filled up the whole box and getting them in there will scrape your knuckles something fierce.  At that point I really couldn't get a good picture of the conglomeration (the banana picture above is actually everything put together).
 
Here's where the true experiment began.  SteamOS.  A Linux-based free operating system openly available for building gaming boxes that can run through Steam... (still in Beta)

SteamOS loaded fine and looks awesome.  It ran smooth as silk, and was controllable by both mouse or Xbox360 controller.  But there were two problems (besides the fact that from that screenshot you can see that I actually own Colonial Marines):
  1. Turns out most games out there are not compatible with Linux.  I probably should've suspected that already, but there you go.  So only 24% of my games were actually playable on my new gaming PC, and most games that are Linux-compatible are Indie games that use retro-style pixelation graphics.  I built this rig to play high-intensity first-person shooters at max res and 60fps, so obviously this was an issue.
  2. To load any other software on there, i.e. Netflix, you need to do some workaround Linux magic.  I'm not a Linux guy but I thought this would force me to learn it.  Well, I got Netflix working, but it didn't make up for the fact I couldn't play most of my games.  So back to Windows it was for me.
I had a decision to make.  I knew I needed a Windows-based OS, but had to decide which one.  Do I go with Windows 8.1 that's supposed to be made for entertainment rigs?  Or do I go with good old Windows 7 (64-bit), an operating system I know and love?  Fortunately, Amazon was selling an OEM Windows 7 64-bit license for only $70.  Decision made.  Windows 7 installed and hooked that baby up to my basement entertainment center.

Now I've got a PC rig that can play Metro:Last Light at such high settings that you can smell post-apocalyptic Moscow, and can run Tomb Raider so fast you can see each individual strand of Lara's hair move as she falls to her death and is impaled on a piece of rebar.


Also paying $60 for any new game is a thing of that past, because PC games don't cost that much.  That price is for console owners.  PC games are often $40 max at release, and there are 20-30% off sales all the time.

But more importantly, in-game load times are basically a thing of the past.  As an Xbox owner, I've gotten used to watching loading screens and reading the moronic tutorial 'hints' they display ("Press B to crouch") while waiting for a zone to load because I inadvertently opened a door to a new part of the map by accident.  But PCs games don't have load times anymore.  Things flash from menu screen to game in just a couple seconds.  Its amazing.  So much more time actually gaming and not watching developer splash screens.
So if you've bought a new console already then I hope you enjoy it.  That's great.  But for those of you on the fence on whether to invest in these new consoles I tell you, its time to come back to the PC.  It's prettier, faster, easier and better than it has ever been.  Join us on Steam, and GOG, and Humble Bundle, or wherever you want to play games. You don't have to be locked in to any single game provider/developer. Just join us on PC, and leave the Gamestops behind.

Join usssssssssss......

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PS: I almost forgot, if you need to convince your significant other that a new entertainment PC is a good investment, make sure you mention that they can watch/surf Netflix, Amazon Prime, ESPN 3, HBOgo, Youtube, Fox, ABC, CBS, NBC, History Channel (Nazis edition), History2 Channel (UFO edition), Animal Planet (Bigfoot edition), Reddit, 4chan, or whatever, just like you can on your laptop at work, only its on your epic living room TV set.
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