Questions lead to queries which lead to quandaries
Originally published in June 2000.
Many of my friends, relatives, and associates consider me to be knowledgeable about everything computer-related. That is, they consider me to be a computer-geek. As such, they often come to me for advice on what computer to buy. This is a difficult question to ask a computer geek, especially one who plays and writes about computer games. When I buy a computer (or build it), I’m looking for the most bang-for-the-buck. No computer will ever be powerful enough for the hard core gamer. This is because computer games are constantly pushing the hardware to their extremes. And at the extremes is where I want to be. That is just the nature of serious, hard-core computer gaming. However, not everyone is as zealous and, consequently, not everyone is willing to pay for that extra bit of computing power. This means that I must always temper my responses to such queries with several preliminary questions concerning the reasons for buying a computer.
The first question to ask when considering the purchase of a computer is: What will it be the computer’s purpose? Now, more often than not, the response to my question is that the computer will be used for word processing, home bookkeeping, schoolwork, and the Internet. This is the standard, pre-programmed answer. There seems to be a social stigma associated with an impractical answer like, “I want to play computer games, especially that cool game with the 3-D graphics.” I know this, because that is always the next question to ask: Do you want to play computer games?
More often than not, the person considering a computer purchase will say that they have no intention of ever playing computer games. Of course, some six months later they invariably call on me to help them get this game they just bought to work on their 6-month old bargain-bin computer. The fact that they said the computer was to be strictly used for storing cooking recipes and not for gaming seems to have slipped their mind. I’ll dub this the, “I wish I had spent more money six months ago” quandary. Don’t let the quandary get you.
It is my considered opinion that computers or computing devices will be used for home entertainment more and more, finally reaching the point where the line between television, radio, and computers is blurred beyond distinction. I know this impending media convergence has been predicted for years, but I think it will eventually come to pass. But lets take that one step further. As the technologies of television, radio, and the telephone matured, consumers found reasons to own and use several of these appliances per household. I believe that in a similar manner everyone will eventually own at least two computing devices. I think four computing devices connected to the Internet in some fashion will be the norm. The technical elite already have at least two devices, but I predict that, even if you don’t have a computer now, you will have at least two in the future.
One computing device will be for word processing, maintaining household finances and for other mundane everyday tasks. The second device will be for entertainment. The entertainment device could be a powerful PC with high-end graphics and CPU cycles clocked in excess of a gigahertz or it may be a console device connected to the family television. Whichever flavor you choose, once you accept the proposition that there are at least two computing devices in your future, the purchase of one computer becomes a little less extraordinary.
For those of you considering the purchase of the entertainment device in this scenario, you have several choices to make. Some of the console platforms currently in the development pipeline will hold their own against any lower-end PCs. In fact, Microsoft’s X-Machine is essentially a low-end computer tweaked for gaming. One of these devices may be all you need for the entertainment side of this two computing device equation. Personally, I avoid consoles because they lack the versatility of the personal computer. So, assuming a gaming computer is what you are looking for, the next question is what CPU to purchase.
Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) and Intel are running neck-and-neck in the latest, greatest, fastest CPU contest. The difference in speed between the AMD Athlon and the Intel Pentium III is negligible. The determining factor at this point is really price. As I write this column in the middle of May 2000, the Intel at optimum speeds is slightly cheaper. The best rule of thumb I can offer in the most-bang-for-the-buck consideration is to buy the second or third fastest CPU offered by either company. A CPU over 800 MHz will have you in gaming heaven for several years to come.
However, the gaming bottleneck in a computer system’s power has not been attributable to the CPU for some time now. The proper graphics video card, hard drive, and memory configuration are the components that make or break computer gaming machines. The various nVidia GeForce 256 cards (see the March issue of Louisville Computer News) are widely considered the best 3D video graphics cards to buy. Hard drives have gone through a major transformation over the last three years. Faster, sturdier and with capacity beyond contemplation only last year, big, super fast hard drives are the norm rather than the exception.
Of all the possible gaming machine components, the most future potential improvement lies with the memory, especially when considering overall speed. Several new technologies have reduced this last bottleneck. Double Data Rate (DDR) technology, RAMBUS, and the new Quad Band Memory are all technologies that make your RAM scream with speed. Currently, DDR is the technology that gives you the most for your money.
Before the end of 2001, we will be seeing computers with obscene specifications like 2GHz processor speeds, video cards capable of photo-realistic graphics at 30 frames-per-second, terabyte hard drives, and high-capacity memory subsystems handling gigabytes per second of bandwidth. Now, if that is just a bunch of meaningless numbers to you, let’s just say that such a system will support on-the-fly “Toy Story” graphics on your desktop.
What does all this mean? Well, for me it means that computer games are about to reach a level of unprecedented technical sophistication. Technical superiority, however, does not guarantee superior gameplay, but that is another column. So, what do you do if you are in the market for a computer now? My best advice is to be honest with yourself. If you are going to play games, buy a computer system that can play the computer games you want to play. My recommended sweet spot is an 800GHz+ CPU, with 128 MB PC-133 RAM, GeForce 256 video card with DDR, 30 GB hard drive, and a 19-inch monitor. Other features include a solid 3D sound card, Ethernet capability, digital force-feedback joystick, and a CD writer. Good luck and good gaming.