Saturday, February 28, 2009

it’s a trap! the many scams of pc gaming

yes, honey, we know what you think it is One of the things PC advocates like best about their dear platform is its potential for expandability and customization. If you want to play a brand spanking new game on your PC but it has a three-year old graphics card in it, there’s no reason to worry! All you need to do is drop $300 for a graphics card that will play a game you could just as easily play on a $200 console! It’s really that simple.

Sorry, PC gamers. I sympathize with your cause. If I hadn’t done the above, I wouldn’t make fun.

Customizable and capable as PCs can be, they’ve also got the potential to be real money pits – overpriced graphics cards are among the more legitimate add-ons you can purchase, believe me. What happens if you’re really jonesing to throw some money down a hole, though? Well, you’re in luck – the PC market is chock full of manufacturers who are ready, willing, and even excited to make a quick buck off of people who feel that running Counterstrike at 176 frames per second instead of 172 is vital to their success. I will say this now: if you have ever spent good money on any of the following products, you are an idiot.

First up, a blanket statement – anything bearing Jonathan “Fatal1ty” Wendel’s name is a waste of cash. This guy was a relatively successful professional gamer – you can tell he has been doing it for awhile because only one of the letters in his handle has been replaced by a number. Over the last few years, his name has been plastered all over everything from mousepads to motherboards to graphics cards. Here’s a news flash – all of these components use the same off-the-shelf parts as anything else on the market. If you think that having someone’s name taped to something is going to win you some extra LAN parties at your friend Jeff’s house, you’ve got a long way to go.

By the same token, you should never invest in ridiculously expensive high-speed or low latency memory chips. It’s true that both of these factors can improve performance by a measurable amount – it’s just that the measurable amount is almost never more than two or three percent, depending on the particular task you are trying to accomplish. In memory, total amount has almost always been more important than speed or latency, but you can pay more than twice as much for special “gamer” memory that delivers these near-imperceptible performance benefits. Don’t get suckered in by their flashy heatsinks or pretty logos, people – you’d be better off spending that money on some magic beans or stock in General Motors.

In my next paragraph, I will use Aegia’s PhysX card to demonstrate a larger rule – try to resist the urge to be an early adopter. Early adopters nearly always get burned. They’re the ones with red-ringed first-run Xboxes, HDMI-less HDTVs, and HD-DVD players in their home entertainment centers. The PhysX card was another expensive add-in card with the ability to render complex physics in real time – the technology was promising, but the software was never really delivered. As is sometimes the case, someone with deeper pockets saw the potential usefulness of this technology and took advantage – graphics card maker NVIDIA managed to, with a relatively simple driver update, implement the capabilities of PhysX into all their 8-series or later graphics cards. For the person who has no idea what that means, essentially they added for free into every single card in their current product range functionality for which some early adopters had paid a couple hundred extra dollars. Hoo boy.

At least the PhysX card was well-intentioned, though. They were trying to push the boundaries by doing something no one else had done – others don’t even have the good grace to do that. Bigfoot Networks’ Killer NIC is one such product – you know how they give the name “vaporware” to something that is continually promised but never delivered? Well, the Killer NIC is what I’d like to dub “stupidware,” something that has made it to market in spite of being phenomenally ill-advised. It uses mysterious voodoo magics to deliver “unprecedented gaming speed on your PC” - please, Bigfoot Networks, give me the chance to give you two hundred fifty American dollars to pay for something that has been built into every $50 motherboard since 2002. I promise I won’t squander the opportunity. Again, your cash is better spent on a better graphics card or processor or a faster Internet connection or, hey, you could save it or take your lady out or something.

These are just a few of the products you’ll be tempted to waste money on if you’re trying to build a nice new gaming PC. Over the years, I’ve slowly distanced myself from the troublesome platform, but as a guy who once enjoyed the heady rush of building his own systems I will give you this advice – these days if you spend much more than $800-1000 for a nice new gaming PC, OS and monitor included, you are almost certainly doing it wrong.