Hardware Updates – Headphones, Video Cards, and Connectivity October 10, 2013Posted by Wilhelm Arcturus in entertainment, Hardware.
Tags: 8800GT, AT&T, Comcast, GTX 650 Ti Boost, Internet Connectivity, LagBuster, LagBuster Does Nothing, U-verse, Xfinity
A while back I wrote a post looking for recommendations for several real world things.
I haven’t gone with a new video editing package as yet, but I haven’t had the yen to do much in the way of new videos recently in any case.
I did, however, make headway with the other items on the list. So it is review time I suppose.
This is a long block of text and not very gaming related, so I am going to put it behind a cut.
If you are not interested in a discussion of my experiences with headsets, video cards, and internet connectivity options, you are excused from going further.
On to something akin to hardware reviews.
A Headset with Mobility
I was looking for a replacement headset. I wanted something with a powered/boosted mic, because I tend to speak quite softly.
Several people mentioned the Logitech g930 wireless headphones in comments on the original post. As it turned out, people in our (ir)regular Saturday night group use this headset as well. So that pretty much made up my mind on the subject. I ordered up a pair from Amazon.
These are nice headphones. They are comfortable, which isn’t always the case for me. I have a fat head and big ears to match. The microphone boosts my voice sufficiently, so people on voice coms (or conference calls for work) can hear me clearly. The controls are on the headset itself, with a roller control for volume in easy reach. Mute is activates by pushing the mic boom all the way up to the vertical position, at which point a red LED lights up at the tip. This means I do not accidentally mute myself, as I often did with my old Plantronics headset, which had a mute button on the cable.
And, of course, this headset does not have a cable because it is wireless. The range on that is better than I expected. My office is in one corner of our house and I can wander around pretty freely until I hit the sink in the kitchen or a point a few steps from the back door at the opposite end of the house before the headset cuts out. I greatly appreciated this new mobility during the war in Fountain when there were a number of times where we just sat on a titan waiting to go for extended periods of time.
Finally, clicking the button to turn on the Dolby 7.1 surround sound emulation can be quite a treat. It really jazzes up games and makes conference calls sound like you’re holding them in the Deadmines, which is often an improvement.
Of course, all is not perfection. When is it ever?
The headset is comfortable… not as comfortable as the Turtle Beach Ear Force X11 headset I had previously… but still good, and the cans are big enough to cover my large ears without resting on them. They also are very good at blocking out external sounds when you have them on. This might be a good thing in some situations. Sounds of the outside world are subdued. However, when your wife has a habit of just starting to talk to you from the other room, you may find you are missing out on conversations and wife aggro may ensue.
The close fit and sound insulation can also heat up your ears. When waiting on ops or otherwise not on an in-game conversation, I often push the unit forward so that it only covers the tops of my ears, with the head band across my forehead. This is as much to be able to hear what is going on in the house as it is to let my ears cool off. During an extended gaming session, my ears can end up feeling so warm that I get visions of any wax in my ears melting and pouring out. It isn’t a pleasant sensation.
Then there is battery life and battery charging.
Being wireless, the unit runs on a battery. Fully charged, the battery lasts long enough for my needs. It will get through our “three hours on a Saturday night” gaming session or through most fleet ops. The claims for a 10 hour battery life seem to be an exaggeration (or only happens under very specific conditions), but when the battery low indicator pops up on your computer screen, you can plug the unit into its charger/wireless base station via a cable and carry on in a tethered mode… so long as the battery hasn’t drained too much.
If the battery is really drained, then the unit starts to cut out now and again. You will know this because everything will go silent and, after a little bit, you will get the quiet chirp that indicates that the unit is connected again sound will suddenly resume. This is happening with the charging cable plugged in, which the guide assures me should sufficient to power the unit for operation.
Charging the unit is also a bit hit and miss. As far as I can tell, the unit does not charge, or charges very slowly, while in operation. Basically, my observation is that it can be running or charging, but not both. Only once the headset is powered up and has established its wireless connection to the base station, it does not like to be turned off. I have verified the headset as off only to look over and see it lit up again on my desk while I was attempting to charge it. The only way I can guarantee that the headset is charging is to pull the wireless module out of the top of the base station (it is a USB stick sized unit) so that there is no signal. Then the unit stays shut down and will actually charge. Not the end of the world, but it can be mildly annoying.
Overall, I am pretty happy with the unit. Warm ears will be better once winter comes. The charging issue is the only thing that irks me about the whole package.
The Inevitable Video Card Upgrade
I have, in effect, been using about the same video card for the last five years or so. Originally I had an nVidia 8800 GT, which LOTRO managed to melt during the warranty period. I got replacement from the company, which LOTRO also proceeded to melt. After that, we went on hiatus from LOTRO and so the third card lived to the end of its warranty.
While I do not have anything like a scientific level of scrutiny to back up my claim that LOTRO melted the video card, my observation of temperatures when playing LOTRO, versus playing any other game I had, showed that LOTRO managed to drive the card to heat up well beyond the peak of any other application. I think the third card survived because I found a manual fan control utility for nVidia products and took to cranking the fans to 100% before launching the game. I certainly wouldn’t assign blame to LOTRO for the dead cards. The card should have been able to handle a game pushing it that hard.
After that, there was the problem I had in WoW, where the game would crash every time I was in Dalaran, a difficult situation which seemed to be related to the video card. So the 8800GT got swapped out for an ATi, and then another nVidia, ending up with a 250GTS at about the time Blizzard fixed the issue at their end with patch 3.2. I still do not know what the actual problem was, except that it was and the line item in the patch notes was a vague “fixed an issue people were having in Dalaran” level of entry. But everything was fine, so I stuck with the 250GTS.
The 250GTS was a cost reduced redesign of the 8800GT that ran cooler and sucked less power. I was happy with that. My wife, who inherited my old machine, is still using that card.
However, with upgrades to World of Tanks earlier this year and some new games on the horizon, I began to think it was about time for an upgrade. For me that means months of comparing cards and reading reviews and pondering the possibilities. There is a joke in our house about me not going shopping. I go buying. And if I don’t see what I went there to buy, I return home. But when it comes to some things, I will spend a lot of time shopping… at least shopping via specs and reviews.
I had just about decided on the nVidia 650 GTX Ti Boost (which sounds vaguely like a 70s BMW model to me) when Gaff, also in the market for a new video card, bought one. He declared it good, so I pulled the trigger and bought one as well, and it was good. Raw performance was pretty much double or beyond on all fronts, which I suppose is to be expected considering how old my baseline was, and it runs nice and cool even with LOTRO. I am very sensitive to that last bit, given my history. It also did not require me to upgrade my 550W power supply.
So there was really no downside to this, aside from the need to spend about $150. Color me happy.
LagBuster – It Does Nothing
Well, it does nothing if you have a PC.
I mentioned the LagBuster in passing in the previous post linked at the top, wondering if it might be a short-term solution to our household networking sharing issues. I was playing World of Tanks which, as a shooter, is very sensitive to latency. At the same time my daughter decided that streaming videos from YouTube was a pretty neat way to listen to music. The two did not mix well on our 3.0 Mbps DSL service.
This lead to much shouting in our household.
I would declare “Daddy tank time” and forbid YouTube, only to have my daughter “forget” in about 10-15 minutes, usually at a key point in a match, when suddenly my latency would go to four digits and any hits made by me would be purely accidental. We needed a solution.
For the short term, since faster internet seemed dubious at our address (we’re just in the middle of Silicon Valley, why would there be high speed internet at our location?), I started looking at the LagBuster. The idea seemed simple enough. It is, essentially, quality of service settings for gaming. I have been dealing with that for more than a decade at the office. I know the limitations. It ought to have worked for our environment.
Except, of course, it did not.
The reasons were not all the manufacturers fault. I spoke to them on the phone. They are small. They have to focus their resources. And they see the sweet spot for them as being shooters on consoles. If you want to improve your Call of Duty action on your Xbox 360, Lag Buster may be just the thing. They even have a synchronization algorithm that will improve your performance with the server even if you are not having latency issues. But on the PC… well… there were some pretty dials, but little joy.
They have support for a very limited number of games on Windows, and none of mine were on the list. The allow you to set up custom profiles, which sounds good in theory, but in practice is not a viable solution. First, their custom profile space was not well documented and very limited when it came to the number of entries you can have.
Four entries is what you get. I hope you can cover yourself in that space.
Actually, I am not sure that the space limitation matters that much to the average user, as you won’t be able to figure out the values to enter in any case. Have you tried to figure out what port ranges a specific game uses? The game companies don’t like to put that data out for public consumption. That is telling hackers where to look. Googling for the ports will give you conflicting and often inaccurate information. And having played with a couple of tracking utilities on my system at home, the port range being used is often dynamic and you can spend a lot of time trying to figure out exactly what the range of values needs to be.
I knew this going in, as I had already tinkered with port forwarding with out wireless router. I was hoping that Lag Buster might have some sort of port discovery mechanism. It does not. You are on your own.
When I spoke with them, they mentioned that they were working on a better method for end users to cover specific games they had not setup themselves. That was expected to be in beta at some point this year and they promised to put me on the list to try it out. That was back in April. They had an update for console titles since then, but not much else. Since the device was not doing anything for me… and since its presence on the network seemed to actually harm a couple of games… Rift, for example, dies when Lag Buster is running… I unplugged the unit, put it back in its box, and stuck it in a closet.
I could not recommend this device, unless you are playing console shooters that they support directly. All the positive press blurbs mention only those games and it seems to be where their focus is.
Xfinity for the Win
And so we get to the last bit, U-verse versus Xfinity.
Back when I wrote the original post, both AT&T and Comcast were hedging a bit on whether they could actually deliver high speed internet to my home.
AT&T actually said they could, but from all I had heard, they would only go the full distance, bringing their fiber optic line to your house, if you opted in for television service. Comcast, meanwhile, suggested I check back at a later date. So I let the summer slide by. I stopped playing World of Tanks, in part because of the latency issue caused by my daughter.
August rolled around, school started, and I decided to try again.
AT&T continued to hedge on the phone. They would happily sell me a bandwidth upgrade. They said that if I was ordering just internet, it would be a self-install. I would just have to hook up a new device to the phone line to get U-verse internet service. However, when I pressed on the concept of the copper wire running from the pole to the back of our house, which somebody from the phone company hooked up in the early 1960s, being up to the task of delivering the bandwidth they were promising, I was informed that there were no promises on that front. This seemed to confirm what I had heard previously about the “no TV, no high speed internet” connection.
Meanwhile, Comcast seemed quite certain they could hook me up. I figured this might be the case since our neighbors had just ordered the full boat TV, phone, internet package from them, having rage-quit AT&T phone line quality issues. They had the whole house rewired because AT&T told them their quality issue… static… was happening in the house. When the rewire didn’t make the problem go away, AT&T said it might be at their end and they would look into it.
I did have to get on the phone with Comcast, as their online ordering system insisted that I could do a self install and refused to schedule a technician. I knew this was not true, as the DirecTV install crew hijacked the 1970s era coax install for our satellite dish, a fact about which I am still mildly unhappy. On the phone I was able to convince the the agent that I did need somebody to come out and that I only needed 25 Mbps of bandwidth for my needs. I called them on a Friday, they came out and installed on the next Monday. The tech, after a bit of coaxing, just pulled a new cable to the house, ran it to my office, looping it up and out with a connector by our TV “just in case” we wanted their TV service at some future date.
He took the ID from the Motorola SB6121 SURFboard cable modem I had bought in advance, since I didn’t want to rent one for $8 a month, activated it on the system, and I was online. Piece of cake. Now, what sort of performance would I get?
I immediately started patching games to see the result. The first two I chose had patches too small for them to even be up long enough to calculate the throughput. Rift, which I hadn’t patched in a while, had a 1.5GB patch drop since I had last logged in. That was perfect.
On our old 3 Megabit per second DSL, I would expect to get ~320 Kilobytes per second throughput, with the patch taking about 90 minutes.
With our new 25 Megabit per second cable modem configuration I saw 3.44 Megabytes per second throughput and the patch took 8 minutes.
Bandwidth solved our competing resources issues, as you might expect. Now I can play with nice two-digit latency times while my wife watched YouTube and my daughter streams HD programs on Netflix. I also have not seen any issues on the “sharing resources with the neighbors” front that was a big deal back when cable modems were introduced. Of course, that might have to do with the demographics of our neighborhood, which trends a little older than us. 70 is the new 30 on our block.
Of course, while I don’t have to make sure I patch up days in advance of wanting to do something any more, there is a new danger. Games on Steam are suddenly available as impulse purchases. I can actually buy and expect to play in a reasonable time frame. I might have to watch that.
But so far, so good. Now to see how Comcast performs over the long haul.