Retr0briting a white PS2 controller

This spring I came across a Japanese Playstation 2. Not just a Japanese Playstation 2, but a white Japanese Playstation 2. For like $50. Normally fat J-PS2s run $80-100 so getting a non-black one half that was pretty sweet. It even came with the original white controller. At least, it used to be white.

Yeesh.
Yeesh.

Yeah. It’s kind of gross. I’m not sure if it’s UV damage or smoke damage, either way it’s pretty nasty. Maybe it’s supposed to be pale yellow? Let’s find out.

Top half of the controller compared to the inside of the bottom half.
Top half of the controller compared to the inside of the bottom half.

Oh no. Hell no! Ew, ew, ew! Not only is it gross yellow, it’s also filled with dirt. Since we’re going to attempt restoring the plastic we’ll need to tear it apart and clean it anyway, so let’s do that.

I'm done.
I’m done.

How? How?! At least this is the last time this controller will ever be this dirty.

After the bath I mixed up some Oxy-Clean and hydrogen peroxide. The peroxide was only 3%, not the recommended 6-12%, and I didn’t have xanthan gum to make it into a easy-to-apply paste, so I just had to dunk the top half of the controller into the liquid  solution (I couldn’t fit both halves in the container) and pray.

Brightened top compared to the yellow and original white.
Brightened top compared to the yellow and original white.
Brightened vs as-is.
Brightened vs as-is.

It looks surprisingly good but it’s still not where it should be. I’m guessing it was because the hydrogen peroxide was too diluted. Time to try a more powerful solution.

The top half of the controller looks yellow because of the lighting.
The top half of the controller looks yellow because of the lighting.

Continuing my testing on the top half I gave it multiple coatings and sessions out in the sun and didn’t see much of a change. Most of the reports I’ve read claim that it only requires 60 to 90 minutes in the sun, but after 2 hours I wasn’t seeing much, if any, change.

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While not being white-white it’s certainly much better than it was (go back and look at the first picture again). I think this is as good as I’m going to get, so time to move onto the bottom.

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It was hard to make out in photos but the lightening on the bottom was a bit uneven. I recoated it and let it sit longer but didn’t get a better result. I think the liquid hydrogen peroxide diffuses the light, lightening the plastic more evenly than using the hair cream. Regardless, the controller looks white at a glance, especially with indoor lighting, and it doesn’t feel like touching it is going to give me emphysema, so overall I’d say this was a success. Maybe in the future I’ll find a really yellow piece of plastic I can chop up and do some scientific testing.

Gameboy Advance Restoration – Day 2

In the last post I had finished taking the Gameboy Advance apart and scrubbing it clean. It made no difference at all but the prep-work was important for the next step: hydrogen peroxide and lots of sunlight. Note: The photos in the previous post were taken with my DSLR; these photos were taken with my phone so they’re going to look quite a bit different.

I wasn't able to get all the air bubbles out so I had to weigh the parts down.
I wasn’t able to get all the air bubbles out so I had to weigh the parts down.

At about 8 in the morning I set the container out in the sunlight. It was supposed to be sunny all day long so I figured this would be a perfect time to test how well the hydrogen peroxide works. What I didn’t realize is that our patio would be cast in shadow around 9 or 10, and since I was at work I couldn’t move it.

I probably should have left it at this state but I figured there was more color to be brought back.
I probably should have left it at this state but I figured there was more color to be brought back.

So this is the result after basically a full day of shade. It looks pretty good (by which I mean it isn’t that greenish black anymore) but I was curious if I could get the purple back if I left it in direct sunlight. I rinsed the parts, replenished the hydrogen peroxide, and placed it somewhere it would get full sunlight all day.

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You can see the richer purple on the bottom of the system.

Once it was done I washed it again and put it all back together. It is purple, but it’s a faded, sort of ashy-looking purple; not quite what I was expecting.

With all the black banished from the plastic it’s time to restore the color. I had recently restored the plastic trim on my car using Back to Black, so I decided to try that on the GBA’s plastic shell. The bottle claims it repairs “light oxidation” but is “safe for all colors”, so why not give it a try?

Top half recently treated with Back to Black.
Top half recently treated with Back to Black.

The initial difference is pretty staggering. I was a little worried about the darker areas, not sure if they were stress marks or what, but it was just from there being a heavier layer of gel on those areas.

After a complete application.
After a complete application.

After treating the whole surface I buffed the remaining gel off and compared it to the correctly-colored plastic. In my mind it was looking a little better but comparing the before and after photos it pretty much looks the same. I noticed that where the gel was applied very liberally the color looked perfect before buffing and drying, so I did something a little crazy.

There's no kill like overkill.
There’s no kill like overkill.

Yes, that is exactly the color I was going for! Absolutely perfect! I knew it wasn’t going to last, but maybe it would at least help.

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Maybe… maybe a 5% gain? I want to believe it looks better but honestly it looks pretty much the same. At this point I have fewer options. I could:

  • Wet-sand the top layer of plastic to bring fresh plastic to the surface, but lose all texture and effectively ruin the shell.
  • Paint it, and ruin the shell.
  • Replace the case with a new one.
  • Live with the faded case.

The unit cost me $15, plus 2 or 3 more for a replacement battery cover, and another $2 for the hydrogen peroxide. Average price for a Gameboy Advance is $30. A new shell is roughly $15 shipped, so if I go that route I’ll have spent the same amount of money, if not slightly more (plus time and gas) but I’ll end up with a basically brand-new unit. Not sure what my next move is going to be just yet.

Gameboy Advance Restoration – Day 1

A few days ago I was out thrifting and game hunting with a friend and decided to buy an atomic purple Gameboy Color. I’ve never owned one, and since I had no other way to play my GBC games I figured I may as well pull the trigger. It was pretty dirty for being bought from a store, but it wasn’t anything a little scrubbing couldn’t fix.

Today I checked Craigslist for a Gameboy Advance, looking specifically for something that needs some work so I could have a little project to work on. Instead I found a working unit for $15 with the only issue being a missing battery cover. With the retro game expos coming up I figured I could get a replacement for virtually nothing. After some typical Craigslist shenanigans I finally met up with the guy and noticed something interesting about the unit.

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At first glance you’d think this is a black Gameboy Advance. In the sunlight, though, it’s hued toward a greenish yellow. And if you flip it over…

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It’s purple. Except for the left side, where it’s kind of black.

It looks like the unit is suffering from some pretty extreme UV damage which gives me a few different options: A) Use a hydrogen peroxide solution to restore the plastic, B) replace the shell and side bumper things with new ones, and C) paint it. While I’m sure I could do an okay job painting it I have a lot of concerns about thickness and feeling of the paint. If I replace the shell I’ll be looking at another $12-15 plus shipping so I’ll be back up to the going rate of the unit, saving me no money at all. That leaves hydrogen peroxide. The typical recipe uses OxyClean (which I had but has since gone missing) but I’ll be attempting it with just hydrogen peroxide and a whole lotta sunlight. The next couple days are supposed to be very sunny so I’ll set it out for a day and let it sit for a second if it seems to be working.

Before that, though, it needed to be cleaned. So with the dark powers of Mewtwo to guide me I set to tearing down the system.

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It was surprisingly clean. Not much dirt, no rust, just typical surface residue and a little button gunk. Hot water, scrub brush, and set it out to dry.

Tomorrow it goes in the hydrogen peroxide bath for about 12 hours and I’ll report back.

An Unlikely Friendship – AMD A8 and nVidia GTX

A while back I built a system for streaming; something inexpensive, portable, and powerful enough to record and stream multiple video inputs. I settled on an AMD A8-7650K. The price, performance, and beefed up integrated graphics proved to be an excellent combination. While building the water cooling system in my main rig my GTX 970 was laying around as well as my GTX 460. So naturally I did the unreasonable and compared the performance of the integrated Radeon R7 to a dedicated solution. But is it really all that unreasonable? The R7 proves to be an inexpensive platform for “console quality” but ideally a budget-based build leaves room to upgrade, so let’s see what happens when you do.

The system is composed of the afore-mentioned AMD A8-7650K APU overclocked from 3.4 GHz to 3.8 GHz in an MSI A68HM Grenade motherboard with 2x 4 GB sticks of Corsair DDR3 memory at 2188 MHz. Storage is a pair of Western Digital 750 GB Green hard drives in RAID 0. Power is courtesy of a 750 watt Corsair power supply. All of this is housed in an Antec P50 micro-ATX case which is badly in need of exhaust fans. During testing the stock APU cooler spins to defining levels despite the dual intake fans spinning at their maximum speed. The side panel was removed to exhaust hot air and keep the system ironically quieter.

For this round of tests the 460 will represent the “hand-me-down” video card you might get for free from a friend who’s upgrading their system. The 970 represents the “tax return” video card. Between these two cards we should be able to make reasonable estimates for how other cards, like a 780, might perform in a system like this.

The first test is 3D Mark’s Sky Diver test; a light snack for modern GPUs but provides a good baseline for integrated graphics and older video hardware. Unsurprisingly the integrated Radeon R7 was slaughtered in any test that woke up the GPU. Physics scores, which are CPU dependent, stayed the same across each test.

3D Mark's Sky Diver benchmark
3D Mark’s Sky Diver benchmark

Similar results can be seen while running the standard Fire Strike test.

3D Mark's Fire Strike benchmark
3D Mark’s Fire Strike benchmark

It should be worth noting that Fire Strike Extreme and Fire Strike Ultra can’t run, or shouldn’t, run on the integrated R7 or the GTX 460 due to both processing and VRAM limitations. Only the GTX 970 was able to run these tests. With each level of Fire Strike the graphics scores dropped quickly but the physics scores remained stable. Since only larger textures and resolutions are being used it makes sense that the physics scores wouldn’t change.

3D Mark's Fire Strike benchmark with the EVGA GTX 970 SC
3D Mark’s Fire Strike benchmark with the EVGA GTX 970 SC

Synthetic benchmarks only tell half the story, though. To get the other half let’s see what Lara Croft has to say about each of our GPU solutions.

Average framerates in Tomb Raider's benchmark tool
Average framerates in Tomb Raider’s benchmark tool

720p should be considered the default resolution for the integrated R7. If your computer spends its days plugged into a TV like this one does you’ll be hard pressed to notice any difference between 720 and 1080p. The game looks beautiful at normal settings and plays very well, even during scenes with explosions and collapsing caves. If you want to play with enhanced details or resolution you’ll need to add a dedicated GPU.

Average framerates in Tomb Raider's benchmark tool
Average framerates in Tomb Raider’s benchmark tool

That said, if you need 1080p resolutions the R7 may not be the best an option, depending on how demanding the game is. This is where the dedicated GPU solutions really shine.

Average framerates in Tomb Raider's benchmark tool. 1440 @ 2xSSAA, 4K with no AA.
Average framerates in Tomb Raider’s benchmark tool. 1440 @ 2xSSAA, 4K with no AA.

And of course, when you toss in your “tax return” card, you can start playing at 1440 and 4K resolutions, even on a 1080p display. By enabling nVidia’s Dynamic Super Resolution (DSR) your video card will render video at a higher resolution than your display, then downscale it to match your display’s resolution. The idea is that you get smoother, finer detail in things like hair, grass, object edges, etc. During my testing I lowered the anti-aliasing down to 2xSSAA on all of my tests and removed it entirely for the 4K tests.

So what’s the takeaway from all these charts and figures? The A8’s integrated R7 GPU does an adequate job at lower resolutions but is unlikely going to be a replacement for an Xbox One or Playstation 4. If you already own one and want to turn it into a medium-duty gaming rig a dedicated GPU will do the job just fine but you may still be limited by the raw processing power of the A8 APU.

PAX South 2016 – Days 2 & 3

With a correct perspective on what PAX South is we were able to start making the best of it. At PAX Prime our focus was on finding the key booths, playing the games we were the most excited about, and finding the most relevant panels. Down in Texas, though, we were able to dedicate all of Saturday to walking the show floor and sampling everything the vendors had to offer.

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Yo, this is the convention center! At least, part of it. Seattle, step it up!

What games did we play? A few highlights would be a card game called Poop, Elite Dangerous, Cards and Castles, Freedom Planet (imagine if Sonic stayed 2D and 16-bit), Gungeon, Angry Video Game Nerd II: ASSimilation, a game like Mr. Driller but competitive, and a game where neighborhood kids use home-made weapons to fight monsters. We also entered as many raffles as we could which paid off big time. Well, maybe not “big time” but I did win a copy of Elite Dangerous and another member of our group won a SteelSeries mouse pad that’s probably the same size as her desk. Free games, free product (not just swag), beautiful weather, what’s not to love?

Frontier's Elite Dangerous booth. Boy have we come a long way since Descent.
Frontier’s Elite Dangerous booth. Boy have we come a long way since Descent.

I also go to meet some rad-ass dudes: Geoff Ramsey, who I was super awkward at but he was really kind and patient, and Matt Peak and Joel Rubin who are also really kind and patient. Seems to be a running theme with everyone at Rooster Teeth.

Matt Peak (right), Joel Rubin (left). Crouching because I tower over both of them.
Matt Peak (right), Joel Rubin (left). Crouching because I tower over both of them.

Hardware vendors were out in force with booths from HyperX, Zotac, DXRacer, OCZ, EVGA, Intel, AMD, Gunnar, and even a standind desk manufacturer who’s name I can’t remember or find in the program. Basically every part you needed to build and enjoy a PC you could look at and talk to someone about. Zotac even let me hold their AMP! Extreme 980 Ti (which I mentioned in the last post). Pretty cool stuff.

It's a magnet of the Zotac AMP! Extreme GTX 980 Ti! Adorable!
It’s a magnet of the Zotac AMP! Extreme GTX 980 Ti! Adorable!

A sign of how the industry is moving, PAX South saw not only Twitch in attendance but also XSplit (used for streaming to services like Twitch), GameWisp (a 3rd party solution for allowing streamers to subscribe outside of Twitch’s program), and Hauppage (makers of video capture hardware). There were also multiple panels on streaming, advising on proper ethics and work habits for prospective streamers.

PAX just wouldn’t be PAX without the Omegathon. Our group makes a point of always watching the final round to bring our PAX weekend to a close. We were skeptical that the Penny Arcade folks could out-do themselves after Spy Party and Mario Maker wrapped up PAX Prime 2014 and 2015. But they did, in glorious 64-bits, with Rare’s GoldenEye on the Nintendo 64. And because they’re evil they left the joysticks inverted.

After each winning one round and going 9 kills each in the third first-to-10 match, which included a 1v1 double-kill, Palpitatertot took the final kill and the victory over RugPisser.

[post video here]

Of course, video games and shiny video card’s aren’t what make up the soul of PAX, it’s just the shiny paint. The real reason PAX is so amazing is the people. People that run the event, you meet, and the friends to go with.

Our crew.
Our crew.

Our crew, the Juans of Gamelon, traveled thousands of miles and sacrificed sleep and sanity to experience San Antonio, at least within walking distance of the convention center. If I went by myself it would have been miserable.

Our King!
Our King!

There’s not much else to say. Games are awesome, friends are awesome’r. If you have the chance to adventure with people to a cool new place, do it. Do it, do it, do it!

PAX South 2016 – Day 1

The gaming club I belong to, the Juans of Gamelon, decided to make a pilgrimage to the Penny Arcade Expo. Except we already live in Seattle and attend PAX Prime every year. So instead we decided to invade the great Republic of Texas for PAX South in San Antonio.

Our flight over left at 11:00 AM PST and we eventually landed in San Antonio at 9:00 PM CT with a layover in Denver. There’s not much to say about the trip over, other than I got some quality time with Undertale and Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam.

Having attended the original two years of PAX and the last three years of PAX Prime I had certain ideas of what PAX was, of what it should be. It wasn’t really any of that, which is kind of nice. Even before getting here there was a marked difference in tone. Individual day passes were still available what must have been a couple months after going on sale; unheard of back in Seattle. (Edit: Friday and Sunday passes are still available!)

When we got to the convention center there was a long line to get in but it moved fast. Once inside and in the exhibit hall there was… space, a lot of space, separating the video games from the tabletop games. In the darken end of the hall with the glowing Twitch and Intel signs there was more missing. Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo, Sega, Square-Enix, Bethesda, EA, Ubi; the place was completely void of AAA studios and publishers with the exception of Capcom. Even the well known indie guys like SuperGiant Behemoth were nowhere to be found. Instead we saw a lot more hardware manufacturers like Intel, Zotac, DXRacer, and Kingston (parading as Hyper X) and small studios making small games. While jarring at first I don’t know that I actually dislike it. PAX Prime is a madhouse; not compared to PAX South but compared to something on the scale of E3. PAX South, on the other hand, felt like a reminder of those first couple years of PAX when it was in Bellevue’s quaint Meydenbauer Center. Do you want to talk to someone that works in the studio of the game you’re looking at? They’re right there. Want to see where the lead developer gets their inspiration from? They’re probably 10 feet away. Want to play a card game called “Poop”? By god it’s right there with no line and a friendly person eager to show you how to flush. It’s like a kid wearing their parent’s clothes and I absolutely adore it.

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On the other side of the exhibit hall’s massive divide was the tabletop area, home to the Magic: The Gathering tournaments, various venders and studios, an PAX’s freeplay area where you can borrow virtually any game under the sun and make bitter enemies out of once close friends. This place was huge. Like, original Xbox huge. ‘Day-one patch’ huge. Not just huge, but full of gamers shuffling cards, rolling dice, moving figurines, cooperatively lifting objects with cranes attached to their heads… (yes, that was a thing). It was inspiring, like the shining yellow save points in Undertale. It just felt good.

* (The sound of shouty nerds fills you with determination.)

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So despite all of the would-be short-comings of the event I think I actually prefer it this way. It’s like a breath of fresh air after the chaotic holiday season. I can’t really blame the bigger studios for not making an appearance, either. With most studios shipping back in November or pushing back until summer it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to invest so much money when you’re not in a position to see a return on that investment.

It’s now 3:16 AM on what will be day 2 of PAX South in under 7 hours. Tomorrow’s missions are to get this article posted (since our free hotel wi-fi isn’t connected to the internet), win Zotac’s raffle, and play every indie game I can put my hands on.

Oh, and a side note: Zotac let me hold their AMP! EXTREME GTX 980 Ti, a 2.5-slot tall graphics card that taller, wider, and longer than any card I’ve ever seen. And it costs $650-$700. What in the…

Passive Water Cooling Memorandum

I get inspired by a lot of things. Sometimes I’m inspired by idiotic and impractical things just because I find them fascinating and I want to apply the logic in more reasonable scenarios. After watching the Linus Tech Tips series Whole Room Water Cooling Project I started thinking about impractical ways to water cool my own system while keeping it as quiet as possible. For some reason I decided on using a fish tank to act as both a reservoir and passive radiator, relying on convection and evaporation to provide a powerful one-two punch of cooling.

Instead of jumping into the deep end I started with a very simple setup, opting to cool only the CPU since I wasn’t sure exactly how effective the tank would cool the water. The loop starts in the tank, flows through a water-feature pump submerged in the tank, though a soft tube to the water block, then back into the tank. The dimensions of the tank where a huge unknown since the volume determined how long the water would take to heat up and the surface area would determine it’s cooling characteristics. After a lot of research and goofing around in Excel I came up with this chart to determine how long it would take to heat a given volume of water with various heat loads (that is, how many components I added to the cooling loop and if they’re at idle or full load).

tank size

The processor I was using at the time, an AMD Phenom II X4 965, had a maximum heat output of 140 watts. Given that, we can use a range of tank sizes to determine how long it would take to heat the water. For example, it would take 6.6 hours to raise 10 gallons of water 30 degrees Fahrenheit, or from a normal room temperature to around 100 degrees, my target maximum water temperature. Given that a 100% workload across all four CPU cores for over 6 hours is not a reasonable workload I figured this was a good size, providing cooling under a worst-case scenario.

What the chart above doesn’t take into account is cooling; it only addresses heating the water. This system has essentially three sources of cooling: radiation through the sides of the container, surface radiation, and evaporation. Based on testing I did the tank was able to radiate 48-70 watts, depending on temperature, through the glass sides when the top was sealed. According to this chart a 30 degree Fahrenheit difference between water temperature and ambient temperature produces 130 watts of cooling per square foot. However, the tank I’m using has a surface area of 1.2 square feet, producing a total heat loss of 156 watts. That puts our total at 204~226 watts of cooling meaning the water should never actually reach 30 degrees above ambient. So far everything looks good, but how does it work in practice?

prime95

To test the real cooling performance of this system I ran Prime95 for five hours then let it idle overnight (I didn’t take measurements while I was asleep so there are no data points). We can see the average difference between CPU temperature and water temperature is 9.2 degrees Celsius which has more to do with the water block’s performance than anything. More importantly, the peak CPU temperature came in at 38 degrees Celsius. To put that in perspective, on the all-in-one water cooling solution that was previously on this same CPU I was seeing temperatures in the high 50s under gaming load which is much less stressful than Prime95 and on standard air cooling you might see high 60s, low 70s, or even higher if you’re overclocking. Compared to that, 38 degrees is absolutely frigid.

case and tank

At this point we know it works both on paper and in practice, but what is it like to live with? Let’s start with the bad parts.

It isn’t silent. Seems insane for a passive system but it really isn’t that simple. It’s quiet, sure, but only sometimes. The pump is cheap and meant to be used outdoors. The pump itself vibrates, meaning I can’t use its suction cup feet to mount to to the walls of floor of the tank as pictured above because it transfers that vibration straight to the glass and into the room. My solution has been to position it so that it sort of floats in the water, not contacting anything but the water. It still makes sound but you really only hear it when the rest of the system is off. Speaking of which, there are still other system components that generate noise. The biggest offender was my dual GTX 560 Ti SLi setup which, under load, sounded like four jet engines in a screaming match. When those were idle the case fans are the source of noise. Not much, but when the rest of the system is so quiet little noises become moderate noises. Basically by removing the one fan cooling my CPU I did little if anything to quiet the rest of my system down at all.

With evaporation being responsible for half my system cooling a lot of water evaporates. It takes a long time but the occasional trips to the drug store for more distilled water are a bit inconvenient. Summer time makes the system operate at a higher overall temperature, too, which increases the evaporation that much more.

It’s not all that pretty. I had bought the blue glass rocks to spice up the tank and had some plans to make it look nicer but I just never bothered. It takes up a huge amount of space and cleaning it between refills isn’t fun.

It’s not all bad, though, the cooling performance is insane and it cost half of what a typical water cooling loop would. In all this system should cost around $130 USD which is about the price of a radiator and reservoir alone.

If your goal is silent computing this isn’t the way to go. High quality air cooling can do much better with little to no maintenance. Traditional water cooling loops can achieve similar performance with quieter results assuming you’ve invested in high quality fans. That said, if your goal is to build a cheap water cooling loop that works well then I can’t think of a better solution.

 

GTX 560 Ti SLi vs GTX 970 SC

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The comparison no one asked for but here it is. I’ve always been fascinated by nVidia’s SLi technology, shotgunning multiple videocards to multiply graphics performance. Of course, it’s not a perfect technology. You’ll see the same or better performance investing the same money into a single better graphics card, performance doesn’t scale 1:1, and the difference between minimum and average frame rate typically grows as you add cards (citation). So why do it? For me, I was adding a second card after I had owned the first one for a while. Prices dropped and and it became reasonable to invest a few extra dollars to increase my system’s performance. Later I was simply given two identical cards that were a whole generation newer, so I had no real reason to run a single card. Now that I’ve been gifted a GTX 970 SC it’s time to compare multiple older cards to a single current one.

The system the cards are being tested in consists of a water-cooled AMD FX-8350 overclocked to 4.415 GHz, 16 GB of DDR3 at 2427.9 MHz, and an ASUS M5A99X-EVO motherboard packed inside an NXZT H440 case with stock cooling. The dual GTX 560 Ti cards are from Palit (I hadn’t heard of them either) while the GTX 970 SC is from EVGA.

First up is the most standard test, 3D Mark Firestrike. Thanks to consistent settings across all systems this is the most reliable test for comparing performance, though it’s arguably not “real-world” performance. The highest score I was able to manage utilizing the dual GTX 560 Ti configuration was 5332. With the single GTX 970 SC my score jumped 62.9% to 8685. While this is a pretty huge jump I wasn’t completely satisfied since my score was still slightly below the “Oculus Rift spec” of 9271. To combat this I moved the card up to the top PCI-e slot, figuring the lower slots might be limited to x8 speed. Moving the card up brought my Firestrike score up to 8854. This could be because of the added bandwidth afforded by the x16 slot or it could be the result of, well, any number of things. I didn’t move the card down to see if that brought the scores back down, but it was at least an interesting change.

Next was the 3D Mark Sky Diver test. I scored 16,082 with the dual 560s and 24,612 with the single 970; a gain of 53%. It makes sense that the jump here wouldn’t be as big as we saw with Firestrike since it’s using older rendering technology and throwing memory and DirectX 12 support at it doesn’t really help here.

3D Mark, 2x GTX 560 Ti vs GTX 970 SC.
3D Mark, 2x GTX 560 Ti vs GTX 970 SC.

The most impressive by far test was Tomb Raider. Using the default settings on “ultra”, a resolution of 1680×1050 @ 120 Hz and V-sync off I got a minimum frame rate of 90, maximum of 140, and an average of 116.4 frames per second. With the new setup those figures increased to 130.1, 198, and 165.7 frames per second for a gain of 44.6%, 41.4%, and 42.4% respectively. That in itself isn’t impressive but when I changed the settings to “ultimate” (identical to “ultra” but enables TressFX for rendering hair as strands rather than a single mass) the frame rates fell through the floor on the old setup. Minimum, maximum, and average frame rates were 3.6, 35, and 13. The minimum frame rate was under four frames per second and the average a meager 13. With the new system we saw a minimum of 82, maximum of 132, and an average of 107.9 frames per second. That equates to a gain of 2,177.8%, 277.1%, and 730%.

Min, max, and avg. frame rates in Tomb Raider.
Min, max, and avg. frame rates in Tomb Raider.

One benchmark came back with kind of the opposite result of Tomb Raider. Cinebench’s OpenGL test came back with 89.57 points with the 560s and 82.32 points with the 970, a gain of only 3.1%. I also ran the CPU test, just for giggles, and that resulted in a gain of 4.7%. Initially I thought that maybe the test only ran on the CPU using software but the reporting in Cinebench also tells you what GPU is being used so I’ll have to investigate.

Going back to trying to match or surpass the Oculus Rift spec score, when I ran Firestrike Extreme and Firestrike Ultra (neither of which could run on the 560s due to only having 1 GB of memory) I somehow got better results. In Extreme I beat the Oculus Rift score 5,136 to 4,926, and in Ultra I beat it 2,746 to 2,596. Other users are supposedly getting over 10,000 points in the standard Firestrike test using the same CPU and similar GPUs so I think there’s still some work to do.

Another observation, outside of performance, is noise. My 560s and my 460s before that both started to sound like aircraft taking off when they started to sweat, even after cleaning and reapplying thermal compound. I’ve supposedly thrown some pretty demanding processes at this new 970 and it never seems to break a sweat. In fact I can never tell if the fans are even spinning (which they don’t at idle). After running a benchmark the temperature drops from an already-cool low-70s to low 50s within seconds. I’m honestly baffled at how this is even possible but I’m not complaining; I’m just not sure if the 970 is even being taxed at this point.

Conclusion: Shockingly, a single modern, high-end video card is better than two old ones taped together.

How-To: Play Import Playstation Games

For most gamers importing Japanese games is a novelty, allowing us to play slightly different versions of games that eventually made their way to North America. Maybe there was a change made during localization, like the post-race animations in Super Mario Kart, or maybe the game simply never officially left Japan. Games like Konami’s Beatmania only ever saw one release, giving Americans only a small taste of the over two-dozen Beatmania versions available for the Playstation and Playstation 2. Over the next few weeks and months I’ll be detailing, step-by-step, the process of playing import games on the various consoles I own.

The Sony Playstation is perhaps the easiest system to play import games on, not counting consoles that don’t have any type of region lockout like the Playstation 3 or Nintendo DS. While most systems that are easy to play imports on requires at least some amount of modification or extra software the Playstation only requires a North American game disc and a zip-tie. This guide assumes you’re using the original style Playstation. I don’t own a PSOne so I can’t say for sure how to do this on that style of Playstation or if this method even works with it.

  1. Trick your Playstation into thinking the lid is always closed.
    Open the lid and locate the round button at the back-right. When the lid closes a plastic tab depresses this button which tells the console the lid is closed. Push down on the button with the square end of the zip-tie and insert the flat end in the gap between the button and the well it sits in. Use a pair of scissors to cut the flat end of the zip-tie off so that it’s somewhat flush with the rest of the case. You’ll want to leave the tray open during these steps but once the game loads you can close the lid.
  2. Turn on the Playstation with a North American disc inside.
    I’d suggest using a disc you don’t care about, like a demo disc or a sports game due to the aggressive handling you’ll have to do with the disc. During this step the system is looking at the disc content to verify its a legitimate game disc from the correct region.
  3. Pull the disc out and pop in the import disc.
    After the Sony Computer Entertainment logo and its white background fade to black pull out the disc and replace it with the import disc as quickly as possible. I believe this is when the console is reading the table of contents from the disc so it knows where different key assets are physically located on the disc.
  4. Put the North American disc back in.
    Once the console detects the presence of the disc it will spin at its normal read speed. After about six seconds the disc will slow down noticeably. You should have a pretty large window of time to swap discs here.
  5. Put the import game back in.
    After the North American game is swapped back in the Playstation should try to boot it. As soon as the Playstation logo disappears pull out the North American disc and put the import back in as quickly as possible. The screen will probably stay black a second or two longer than normal, then you should see the opening cinematics.

That’s it. Assuming you already have a game from your region and a zip-tie this method should cost you nothing but the time it takes to jam the button and swap the discs back and forth. If the instructions here don’t quite click I’ve also made a video detailing the steps above.

#ProjectDream

Today I was notified of #ProjectDream. Initially I was flooded with stories of Sega’s long fabled Dreamcast 2. Current speculation says the Dreamcast 2 would be a small form-factor PC running an Intel Core i5 CPU and a GTX 740 GPU, would be backwards compatible with Dreamcast games and potentially Saturn games, and cost less than building your own PC. Adding fuel to the fire, Project Dream, the gang perpetually insisting their members are hard at work infiltrating Sega to make the Dreamcast 2 a reality, has posted a countdown timer on their website insinuating that some revelation will be revealed at the end of 2015. SEGAbits already has a lengthy article going into the history of this nonsense but here’s some key points that show this as being complete horse-ass:

  • Why would Sega invest in a new console?
    Really they wouldn’t. If any of this were true it would essentially be a Steam Machine, but then why build PCs at all when you can let other companies handle the financial risks of building these computers? Sega’s arcade hardware is already based on Intel x86 processors, nVidia graphics chips, and TDK solid state drives, why not repackage the software for distribution on Steam or a propritary storefront like EA’s Origin or Ubisoft’s Uplay? In a best-case scenario Sega could rebadge a special edition of an existing Steam Machine and call it a day.
  • Who’s going to pay for it?
    There are conflicting reports of it being both crowd funded as well as Sega interns, also members of Project Dream, working on proposals to bring to Sega’s higher-ups. Theoretically Sega could buy enough hardware in bulk to reduce the price of a consoles/PCs to below typical market rate but again, why? It’s a huge risk for a company that’s already struggling. Relying on crowd funding is laughable. History has shown that large-scale operations like this simply cannot be Kick Started; at best it would be supplemental to corporate funding.
  • Who’s going to buy it?
    Gamers already have a huge pool of hardware to play games on; Xbox 360, Xbox One, Playstation 3, Playstation 4, Wii U, 3DS, Vita, tablets, phones, laptops, and dedicated gaming PCs. What incentive is there for gamers to drop another $4-600 on a box that only does things other hardware already does?
  • What are they going to play?
    The main selling point I’ve seen for the Dreamcast 2 is support for original Dreamcast games. There are three huge roadblocks here: physical media, licensing, and everything else.
    Dreamcast games came loaded on GD-ROM discs, basically CDs with a higher capacity. The current story being told is that games could be inserted into the Dreamcast 2, “installed” onto its hard drive, and played “natively” in 1080p over HDMI. Who is going to make new GD-ROM drives in enough capacity to make it cost effective? If there’s an optical drive it would need to support at least DVD, more likely Blu-Ray, meaning they’d need to manufacture a single drive that supports CD-ROM, GD-ROM, DVD-ROM, and BD-ROM all in one slim package. Once the games are somehow inside the system can they even be played? Legally, probably not. As many of us have seen with Xbox 360 emulation on the Xbox One and Playstation 2 emulation on the Playstation 4, most of the supported titles are are first-party with third-party titles rolling in over time. Aside from licensing the games, each game typically has music licenses which are very strict about how the game, and thus the music, can be used. So assuming the game is on the system and it’s legally allowed to be played, how is the game going to run? Sega would either need to reproduce the original Dreamcast/NAOMI hardware in a very small package (think Gamecube support in the Wii) or find a way to perfectly emulate the Dreamcast hardware with over 99.9% accuracy. If the Dreamcast 2 can’t play Dreamcast games it becomes a PC, so again, why would Sega invest in building gaming PCs?
  • Who is behind the countdown page?
    It sure as hell isn’t Sega. Aside from being hosted on ProjectDream.co, the name of the group unaffiliated with Sega, the background video announcing things like “Powerful”, “Next Gen”, and “Dream” is hosted on a YouTube channel called Games For You with the title “DC Revival Petition.” The rest of the videos are Shenmue gameplay with one video showing a copy of Shenmue running on an Xbox 360 emulator. Sounds official to me. Also the font used is Take Cover. Usually companies like Sega or the agencies they contract work out to don’t use free fonts.

So what could Sega be up to? Well, probably not much, but if they were going to make another push into the home market I have two theories. First, since their arcade hardware is all off-the-shelf PC hardware they could theoretically open up a distribution platform on PC like Steam, Origin, and Uplay, allowing users to buy arcade games with some restrictions to prevent arcades from building their own cabinets. This could upset arcade owners and potentially cut into Sega’s arcade business so that seems unlikely. The second possibility, which in no way do I think is even remotely plausible, is building an emulation layer, like the Xbox 360 emulation in the Xbox One, allowing users to download and play games from Sega’s arcade library. At that point, though, they may as well port the games and package them on compilation discs.

Any hopes of new Sega hardware in the home have been crushed, but there is some good news! There was once a real thing called project Dream, an RPG developed by Rare between Donkey Kong Country and Banjo-Kazooie. Check out the video for a brief history.