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Thoughts on Steam

October 30, 2010 Leave a comment

Steam is probably the most interesting product Valve has ever created. Starting off on shaky ground, it’s grown to become pretty much the dominant digital game distribution platform on the internet it seems. More and more games are tying into Steam, whether for copy protection or for the whole caboodle of patching, achievements and so on.

With the falling ADSL prices in South Africa, I decided to reinstall my copy of The Orange Box a week ago. I’ve been sitting with this bundle for well over 2 and a half years now, during which I installed it once on Windows XP, played for a while then lost everything when I moved over to Vista.

I began the process by getting the latest Steam installer off the Steam website. It’s a small MSI installer, which automatically retrieves up to date files from the internet when it’s installed, roughly 40MB worth of data. Once that was done, I inserted my Orange Box disk 1 and chose to install everything. Luckily, the installer didn’t overwrite the newer Steam install with the older version on disk. The installer went ahead, download roughly 300MB of data from the internet and then installed off of my 2 dvd’s.

Once running, Steam had to apply a number of updates to the games, which chewed up a lot of bandwidth. As I mentioned above, ADSL data has become a lot cheaper in SA over the last year, and with uncapped starting to make a mark for itself, these download sizes are no longer such an issue.

My experience with the Steam client so far has been mostly positive, it seems to work as expected. It does seem a little fragile at times though, hanging for a while before suddenly becoming responsive again. As I haven’t bought anything over Steam, I can’t comment on how the shopping procedure actually works. Perhaps my minor stability problems were due to Windows 7 x64, though I must stress that the incidents were pretty random.

After really making use of the product for a bit now, I’m left mostly impressed. Increased broadband penetration and falling ADSL prices means that the huge bandwidth requirements are not such an issue like when Half-Life 2 first launched back in 2004. The range of games on offer is pretty impressive, though there are quite a few games not available. I think this is partly due to regional restrictions, as well as some publishers using alternate digital distribution platforms.

Personally, I’m a bit old school and prefer the feeling of a game case, printed manual and game DVD in my hands over a purely digital download, and even more so with things like Collector’s Editions of games. Still, for all the old school folks like myself, there are plenty others who love the convenience of Steam and digital downloads. Steam has become a juggernaut, and rightly so. Valve did their homework and took their time building their platform. They were in the right place at the right time and have developed something that the rest of the industry can only look at with envy.

3D Mark Vantage Fail

October 25, 2010 Leave a comment

I recently obtained a new graphics card, an EVGA GTX480. My old Asus 8800GTX card died about a month ago for whatever reason, so I decided to purchase a new performance card that would last me. The card is running great so far, so I thought I would load up 3D Mark Vantage to run some benchmarking tests, as 3D Mark is the synthetic benchmark king. I’ve enjoyed the previous benchmarks in the past, so I was looking forward to seeing Vantage.

After installing, the fun begins. It doesn’t run with Aero on in Windows 7, so switches to Windows Basic colour scheme. I guess this is to reduce graphics load for benchmarking, so while annoying, it’s understandable. What is totally unforgivable however is that the benchmark will not run if your monitor does not support the 1280×1024 resolution. Try as I might, I could not get the benchmark to run, and searching the net pretty much told me that I had no chance in hell of running it, short of using another monitor capable of that minimum.

While I understand that it is a good thing to drive towards a standard level for all benchmarks, locking out all functionality unless your monitor supports that resolution is just plain stupid. Suffice to say, I’ve since removed Vantage, and I won’t be installing it again, nor will I install the next 3D Mark version either.

It seems many websites are moving away from 3D Mark as well as it is too synthetic, and after this debacle, I know why. Futuremark is also alienating customers by no longer offering a free edition of the tool, only a 1 run trial or the paid editions. Guess I’ll be looking at other benchmarking software then, products that are either free or that actually work as claimed.

Pity really, as I was really keen on trying out Vantage.

Windows XP is 9 today

October 25, 2010 Leave a comment

Nine years ago today, Microsoft unleashed the now venerable Windows XP on the world. Debuting in two editions, Home and Professional, the OS came at an interesting time. In the previous 3.5-4 years, Microsoft had released Windows 98, 98 Second Edition, ME and 2000. As the story goes, 2000 was supposed to be the culmination of the DOS and NT lines of Windows, but Microsoft couldn’t quite get it right in time for 2000. With XP, they finally did it.

When it launched, XP was a resource hog, the interface was strange and the activation business upset a lot of people. Software ranged from compatible to unusable. There were the usual cries of “They’ll take Windows 98 from my cold dead hands” and so forth. Immature drivers often caused system crashes and blue screens in the early days, despite the improvements made at the lower levels. Eerie to think that the hoo-haa surrounding Vista years later sounded much the same.

In terms of a security track record, XP has had a pretty dismal run. It’s been the target of just about every piece of malware imaginable. Service Pack 2 brought many much needed improvements, but it still couldn’t truly fix the problem. Of course, this has helped security vendors stay in business. If more people turned on Automatic Updates, the whole computing world would also be a safer place.

Despite all these negative points, XP went on to become the most used OS in the history of the computing world. Due to its age, it became familiar to almost everyone who used a pc. A truly vast software catalogue was built up for the platform, including a huge number of games. By the time Vista arrived on the scene, many people had XP running on their computers like a well tuned and oiled machine. When it broke, people knew how to fix it. It just kept running and running. It’s only in the last year with the introduction of Windows 7 that XP’s market share has started to dip.

I have made it clear in previous blog postings that I no longer care for XP, and using it for me is always a pain. For all that though, I tip my hat off to it reaching 9 years of age. I don’t see it going anywhere anytime just yet, as many people are not going to want to upgrade to Windows 7 or buy a new computer. As long as that massive software library still runs on XP, it’s going to take a long time for the OS to fade away completely. If you think about it, no other OS has reached that age and still remained truly usable. Take a Linux distro from 2001 and try to use it daily. Mac OSX was also in its infancy, although it may still be usable, depending on the software.

Happy Birthday, Windows XP.

Internet Explorer 9 beta

October 11, 2010 Leave a comment

I’ve been following the development process of IE9 since right near the start. I’ve played with 2 of the platform builds Microsoft put out, getting a feel for the speed of the engine. Even on my lowly computer at work, I was impressed. The speed was there, and it seemed website compatibility has only gone up with each build. However, on September 15, Microsoft released the first beta version of IE9. Curious as always, I downloaded it and installed it onto my home computer.

The installer for the X64 edition weighs in at about 36MB. It extracts itself, only to promptly download about another 40MB before it actually installs itself. I believe these are some Windows Updates needed to run the new browser. My install was on Windows 7, I wonder if Vista users have more updates to download.

A reboot later, I was off and away.
 IE9 #1 IE 9 at startup on my PC.

 

The first thing I noticed was the startup speed. IE9 opens like a rocket, unlike IE8 which can feel very plodding at times. From my informal results, I would say that it is about as fast as Chrome 6 on my PC in startup speed.

Browsing the web itself with the browser is quite nice. Pages are loaded far more quickly than my 384k ADSL connection seems capable of. It seems the idea to accelerate the process using a graphics processor was a wise idea from Microsoft. The whole experience is smooth and doesn’t have that odd tearing and smearing sometimes seen in earlier IE versions.

Page compatibility is high, but not perfect. Many sites I visited had buttons in the wrong place, adverts skewed out of place and other anomalies. Usually, a click of the compatibility button did the trick, but this is far from ideal. Hopefully, as IE9 matures, site compatibility keeps going up. There is no reason why it shouldn’t, as IE9 is so far ahead of IE8 in standards compliance it isn’t funny.

I’m still mixed on the pared down interface, I think it needs some work still to achieve the right balance. There are other annoying issues as well, such as me unable to find out how to add a RSS feed to IE9’s feed reader. In IE8, you had a button that would light up when it found a feed, which you could click to open and add the feed. I see no such thing in IE9, yet strangely enough, one can easily work with existing feeds. Minor interface issues really.

Overall, I’m pretty impressed with the IE9 beta. The speed and standards support should go down well with just about everyone. I think that some users may have no reason to switch to another browser after using IE9, as it does just about everything it needs to. Combine that with the stunning power of Group Policy controls for the corporate world, and you have a winner. IT departments who were looking to shift to another browser will no longer need a reason to, unless they are still running Windows XP of course.

Well done to Microsoft, and I look forward to the next beta or whatever else they have in mind.

Day 3 of the Schools ICT 2010 conference

It’s a few days late, but here is my wrap up of the last day of the conference. I wanted to post this on Tuesday evening, but due to my graphics card dying, I am only doing so now.

Day 3 offered little new or interesting in comparison with the previous 2 days. I did attend one very well spoken lecture on how to set up an ICT committee for a school, to help drive technology adoption. For me however, this was more academic than anything else, as our school already walked this path years ago. The other lectures I attended simply did not have enough meat to be interesting.

There was a highlight however, when we attended the Bottle Rocket course. It was fun, practical and taught some interesting concepts in an easy straight forward manner. If science could always be that fun, I may have paid more attention back in high school. Surprisingly enough, our team ended up “winning” the competition, as our rocket went the highest and stayed up the longest. For me, that was a lot of fun.

The rest of the day after that pretty much dragged. The closing ceremony was almost painful to sit through, as it was a prize giving session. The part that was irritating was that every time a poor school won a prize, a lot of the fellow teachers rose up ululating and celebrating. While one can understand their enthusiasm, once is enough. Repeating these scenes every time only kept the whole shebang running longer than it needed to be.

My colleague and I were discussing the possibility of running a course ourselves at the next conference, something more in depth and technical. We’ve got roughly 2 years to think about it, so there is no real rush. We also discussed the idea again of hosting a conference dedicated to Network Administrators, teachers in charge and so on, so that we could exchange real first hand knowledge. Another idea that may go somewhere eventually.

Overall, I ended the conference feeling somewhat let down. It wasn’t what I expected it to be, and while not a waste of time, there is lots of room for improvement in the future. Let’s see what the future holds.