Game for IT!

PC gaming isn't just fun and games, it's a serious business for manufacturers striving to create the very best gaming experience possible.

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By  Peter Branton Published  June 30, 2004

Introduction|~|gamefeaturesecond.jpg|~||~|Hard to believe, but the peak of computer gaming excitement was once two big white sticks hitting around a tiny white blob. Take a gamer from the 1970s into today’s world, and he really wouldn’t know what has hit him: today’s gaming experience is a whole new world in more ways than one. What’s driven that change of course is an explosion in the power of the hardware (and to a lesser extent, software) available, so that the PC gamer of today has access to technology which was pretty much science fiction way back when. And tomorrow’s gamer will have access to even more power. According to a recent report from Deloitte and Touche, Moore’s Law applies every bit as much in the gaming arena as elsewhere, with the firm claiming that the typical home PC in 2010 will be a gamer’s paradise, with a 1,000 gigabytes of storage enabling games to be longer and more complex with enhanced visual details, sound effects and music. Indeed, while PC gaming may still not have the best image to outsiders, the gaming market can be said to be driving the entire PC industry: the demand from gamers for ever more powerful systems is pushing manufacturers to deliver. Chipmaker AMD has promoted its Athlon 64-bit processor on its appeal to gamers since its launch last year. “Extreme PC enthusiasts and gamers have long been the drivers of the industry, shaping and influencing what new technology ultimately reaches mainstream gamers,” said Dirk Meyer, senior vice president of AMD last year. “We custom-made the AMD Athlon 64FX processor for these power users. Now they can spend more time playing, imagining and creating.” Far from smiling indulgently and letting its rival futilely expend its efforts in a niche sector, Intel hastily responded to the Athlon’s launch by launching its own processor targeted at high-end users, the Pentium 4 Extreme Edition. So why are manufacturers so keen to target this market? Well, for one thing, its an area where bigger is better, and where users are willing to pay a premium to get the latest kit. According to Grand Computers, a company responsible for assembling computers for gaming cafes in the United Arab Emirates, die-hard gamers have the biggest budgets of all specialist computer users, even bigger than graphics designers. Plus, its a sector where recent kit really is recent: while Microsoft has had to slow down the pace of its support cycle to accommodate the fact that people hold on to their PCs for longer, the refresh rate on gaming-related products can be very high. ||**||Getting graphic|~|gamefeaturethird.jpg|~||~|Nowhere is that truer than for a part of the PC that, a few years ago at least, nobody previously paid a lot of attention to: the graphics card. Recent years have seen graphics developers make some truly stunning strides, breaking ground with new technologies. To help them do so, they very cleverly got on board with a part of the industry that could help them sell the products they developed: the games developers themselves. “In the gaming world, you have two very different sets of people: you have the creative artists and then you have the programmers,” says Nils Horstbrink, head of technical marketing for ATI EMEA. “We try and bring the two together.” ATI doesn’t do this because it believes in fostering good relations between different communities. Instead, as Horstbrink explains “We listen to developers and find out what their next generation games would need.” By working closely with the gaming industry, graphics card developers are helping to ensure that ever more demanding games are constantly coming out, driving demand for more powerful graphics cards. The more complex the graphics in the games become, the more powerful the engine needed to drive them has to be. This has led to some pretty hefty performance improvements in graphics cards in recent years. While a few years ago a graphics card might have been seen as a standard component on your PC, now it can be far more important than that. When Windows Middle East conducted a high-end graphics card grouptest in our June issue, all the cards we tested came with 128MB or 256MB: an amount that wouldn’t have been seen as shabby on an actual PC not so long ago. And there’s no reason to think it will end there. "Graphics and gaming do go hand in hand and the gaming market is demanding better graphics day by day,” says Sunny Narain, senior sales manager for Pine Distribution, which handles the XFX brand. “Being a graphics card specialist it is self-explanatory as to how important the PC gaming market is for us. Better games and smoother play will require more powerful graphics boards which we shall continue to provide. In fact, all our Nvidia graphics boards also bear our seal ‘For Gamers By Gamers’. There is so much more power that can be unleashed by a graphics board today that there is definitely a lot more to offer both the developers and the gamers.” Albatron is another example of a graphics card company that works closely with the gaming community, engaging in joint promotions with prominent companies such as NC soft and Lineage2. “A large portion of Albatron’s business focuses on the PC gaming community and targets those customers demanding high-end graphics performance with overclocking features,” says Tomasz Swatowski, assistant manager, Marketing Department, at Albatron. “The PC gaming industry is always striving for more 3D realism on a par with the special effects created by today’s high-tech cinematics industry. Also, we expect the online gaming community to push for more sophisticated graphics processing,” he adds. ||**||Graphic image|~|gamefeaturefour.jpg|~||~|This collusion between graphics card developers and game developers doesn’t just affect the top end of the market of course: even if playing games is likely to be a secondary consideration on your IT purchasing, you’ll still see better graphics on a regular or even budget graphic card, thanks to the push at the high-end. “The high-end of the market is that part of the market that has a lot of influence, for a company like ATI or Nvidia, you have to be very good on the high end side but then you can feed that technology back into the mainstream and budget sector,” says Horstbrink of ATI. Note that when it comes to your PC’s motherboard, most experts say you should go for one that comes with an AGP port only , rather than integrated graphics, or both. This is because a motherboard that comes with integrated graphics is designed for it, and there may be display conflicts or other glitches with a separate card. Moreover, integrated graphics share your computer’s memory (hence its name of shared VGA). This can slow down your system. While today’s graphics cards sit in the AGP (accelerated graphics port) slot on your PC, and most now support the 8X standard’s 2.1Gb transfer speed, the new PCI Express Bus Architecture is going to offer twice the bandwidth, and VGA cards featuring this should be readily available in the Middle East this year. One of the first off the mark was FIC, which just last month announced its AX800XT and AE600XT graphics cards, based on ATI’s PCI Express technology. Both video cards are built with an advanced 3D architecture, high bandwidth capabilities, Direct X 9.0 programmability and efficient pixel pipelines, enabling customers to experience extreme performance, high resolution imaging and detailed visual effects, the company said. “PCI Express is going to be a very big change indeed,” says ATI’s Hortsbrink. “It helps us because you get a massively increased bandwidth that you just didn’t get before.” As well as bigger bandwidth, PCI Express features 16-lane bi-directional serial connections, allowing data to travel in both directions simultaneously, from the Visual Processing Unit (VPU) which powers the graphics card to the PC’s CPU. This increased speed in turn means that developers will in future have more freedom to develop more complex games, keeping the upgrade cycle.||**||Monitor movements|~|gamefeaturefive.jpg|~||~|While it is undoubtedly true that innovations in the graphics card are driving the gaming industry (and vice versa), that’s not to say that the only improvements that have been made are on the graphics side, or that there isn’t more to a good gaming machine than a good card. For a start, the best graphics in the world won’t be much good without a good monitor to watch them on. Here, as in other areas, gamers expect the best. For a long time, when it came to serious gaming there was only one choice of monitor technology. While liquid crystal display (LCD) monitors may be more svelte, they lost out to their cathode ray tube (CRT) cousins because of relatively poor pixel response times. Lest you think this is something to do with slow movement in one of the characters in a Lord of the Rings-type game, it means the time a pixel stays illuminated after the pixel has been turned off, creating a smeared effect as objects move across the screen. When this ‘ghosting’ effect occurs, images appear to stay on the screen for a moment when they’re actually supposed to be gone. In general terms a poor pixel response rate would be classified as over 30 milliseconds per pixel and hard-core gamers may want considerably better than that, games sites recommend at least below 20 ms pixel response time. Happily, for those that want their monitors to be a bit more on the trim side, many LCD displays are now achieving those sort of response times. For instance, in our May LCD monitor grouptest, all the models tested came in at no more than 25 ms response time, with a number hovering around the 16 ms mark. Which is not to say that CRT monitors are ready for the gaming scrapheap just yet. For one thing, CRTs offer great bargains: similar performance to an LCD can be achieved at a fraction of the price, allowing the user who is trying to get the best possible specs for his buck to spend a bit more on say extra memory, or an even better graphics card, while enjoying the benefits of watching Lara Croft on a 21-inch monster monitor. CRT monitors also have multisynch capability, which in plain English means the electron gun inside the cathode ray tube can adjust itself, offering users different display resolutions and refresh rates. This can come in handy for gaming, where multiple resolutions can come in useful. Add in very fast refresh rates, and its not surprising that many gamers are sticking with bulky CRT monitors, at least for now. What is important to gamers is to have a flat screen, to reduce distortion. ||**||Equipment|~||~||~|As we mentioned before, if you want to get serious about gaming you may soon find that it is one area of computing where people expect to spend - and spend and spend. “Gaming enthusiasts are like kids souping up hot rods, they’ll upgrade their machines every few months, putting in more memory, the fastest CPUs, and so on,” says Saeid Marashi, senior regional sales manager at Western Digitial Digital. “When it comes to gaming PCs that’s really where it gets exciting for us. You’re pretty much open to do whatever you like.” The product that Western Digital pushes for the gaming community is its Raptor, and Marashi says that the company has had considerable success with it in the region. While some companies, some as Alienware, make specialist gaming machines, these are few and far between in the Middle East. Also, the nature of gaming enthusiasts means that many of them prefer the assembled machine route, giving them the option of choosing the hardware they want. This has helped bare-bones makers such as Shuttle to do very well “The things that are driving us, that keep us awake at night, are performance, integration and ergonomics,” says Ken Huang, product management vice president, at Shuttle. “We love it when people say ‘Oh, that’s cool! Why doesn’t everybody do it that way?’” he adds. Gaming is certainly an area where people like to go to town on peripherals. When choosing your ideal gaming system, you want to ensure that you have a number of USB ports available, so you can hook up game controllers, external hard drives, and so on. Wired, rather than wireless, keyboards and mice offer faster response times, but choose a optical mouse rather than relying on an old-fashioned mouse ball. Also, additional buttons to allow you to program them to perform various functions can be useful. Real gaming die-hards will have a range of joysticks, gamepads and steering wheels to choose from. A useful feature is force feedback, which allows you to feel, for instance, the impact when you collide with another car or a crash barrier in a racing game, trollers, external hard drives, and so on. Wired, rather than wireless, keyboards and mice offer faster response times, but choose a optical mouse rather than relying on an old-fashioned mouse ball. Also, additional buttons to allow you to program them to perform various functions can be useful. Well, that’s a quick run-down on the gaming technology available right now and a few pointers on what to look out for. The PC gaming sector is certainly one where we expect to see a lot happening this year. Good luck for the future and happy gaming! ||**||

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