(Tiny): Firefox Extension

Written by rob on July 31, 2006 – 3:34 pm -

One of the best things about Firefox is its extensions interface. You can add functionality and features with a few clicks of the mouse. There are hundreds of these extensions available at Mozilla’s official site here. (Hmm.. what a coincidence that the Featured Add-on for today is the Extension that I’m going to talk about in the rest of this brief article) There are many other sites online with bigger repositories, but I just stick with the officially uploaded ones. The second best thing about Firefox is Themes, which are skins you can apply to your browser to make it look different. It will have different Forward, Back, Stop, Refresh, Home, etc. buttons and more. You can get themes from Mozilla’s site as well.

The problem is that sometimes the Themes and Extensions don’t work too well together. Extension developers think you will use the default theme, and so the buttons they use on the toolbar may not have good enough transparency masking to look good with a different background (adding a black theme when you have tons of extensions will show you tons of artifacts around the edges of icons). Another problem is that the icons may be too large if you chose to use a minimal theme (like me).

I recently started using the theme called Breeze. (I should note that the Breeze theme does not work well with Firefox 2.0 Beta 1, as it doesn’t have support for the Tab close buttons.) It uses very small black-and-white icons, and I think it looks really cool. The problem is that one of the extensions I use, the extension has toolbar icons that are way too big. It looks completely stupid to have these giant icons next to tiny browser buttons. Also, it defeats the purpose of using smaller icons since the toolbar itself will be the same size as the default because of the no-good large icons of the extention.

So, what on earth did I do to fix this annoying problem? I tapped into the hidden potential of Firefox’s extension system… the ability to modify them to do what you want. In the case of this extension, I didn’t have to modify anything other than a CSS file, then rename some images. Regardless, my little hack worked like a charm.

I figured I would repack it into an XPI file and share with others that may need the same functionality. You can click here to download it. Firefox will ask you what to do with the file. Just download it to the desktop and then, while inside Firefox, go to File->Open File and double-click the file. It works with Firefox version 1.0 – 1.5.0.x. Enjoy 😉

By the way, just for those of you who care about such things, the XPI files used by Firefox extensions are just ZIP archives with a different extension. You can unzip it with WinZIP or anything similar, or using the CLI with the “unzip” command.

To give you an idea of just how small this mod makes the icons, look at the following image of my Firefox toolbar. This is the actual size of everything:

My Firefox Toolbar

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MMO Gaming: The Present and Future

Written by rob on July 22, 2006 – 12:07 am -

Any semi-serious gamer nowadays has either heard of or played some form of MMOG (Massively-Multiplayer Online Game), usually in the form of an RPG (Role-playing game). World of Warcraft (WOW), Guild Wars (GW), and Everquest 2 (EQ2) are three of the MMORPGs that have taken America, and the whole world, by storm.

Combining addictive gameplay features with tons of collectable items and obtainable levels, these games practically never end. They also receive patches every now and then, of various scopes. Some simple patches address equality within the game world (like, say, a particular race/class combo can get an ability too early, and thus has an advantage, or maybe some ability is too powerful for those it is intended for; the game developers will address this and tone down whatever is causing the problem, in an attempt to make the game world fair for everyone), while other major patches may add whole levels to the game. World of Warcraft is about to come out with an expansion pack called the Burning Crusade that will add new races, areas, mounts, etc. Expansions are like mega-patches that vastly change the game world.

I personally have played World of Warcraft a while ago. I played for about six months with one character, and only got him up to Level 37 (60 being the max in WOW). My game clock (how long I played under that character) was 9 days. As in 9 * 24 hours, or 216 hours! You progress the earlier levels quickly, but once you hit about Level 8 the gaps between levels become many hours. At my Level 37, I had about 8 hours to get to the next level, but I choose to stop playing. I found the game to be a wonderfully refreshing experience, as you get gameplay opportunities not possible in normal offline games. Playing in groups and making virtual friends is a type of fun that cannot fully be described. However, while it was enjoyable, I just reached a point in the game where grinding started to become necessary.

Grinding is one of the inherent problems in the huge online gaming worlds. Simply put, grinding is the deliberate leveling up of your character. It usually involves fighting the same monsters over and over again to get experience points, or having higher-level characters run you through instance levels like Scarlet Monastery (SM). The gameplay during grinding is either totally mindless and tedious or just plain boring because you are watching higher-level players beat bosses for you. Sure, SM may be fun the first five times. But in the road to Level 45 you go there dozens of times for the great gold and XP. One run can take about three hours, so you do the math.

Now before I go on, I want to reiterate how wonderful a game World of Warcraft is. I never played Everquest or Everquest 2, but WOW was a great game. I think its multi-million population now shows that others feel the same way. The gameplay moments from the game are among the best in my gaming experience on ANY platform.

But, I quit WOW for reasons that go beyond the monotony of grinding. I had schoolwork and regular work to attend to, and, simply put, I had to live my life. I played the game very litte… maybe two hours a day on average. This is extremely low for MMO players, as 5 hours a day is not uncommon. Still, I could see that it was eating up my spare time. On weekends especially, I did almost nothing but play WOW. It was fun, but you get to a point where you realize that it is going to take over your life. And here is the sad part: many people have become so consumed by the game that they have given up their jobs, girlfriends, spouses, and even health.

One of the larger patches to WOW was the addition of Battlegrounds, something that enhanced the competitiveness of the game, which in turn means people play longer sessions and more often. Battlegrounds is a system that allows players to make huge teams and play against other players. This PvP (Player versus Player) gameplay expanded as they added a Ranks system. Players who had the most wins and least losses in PvP battles would be ranked in the Top 25 or so, and would receive major rewards for doing so. Each rank reaped a special reward, the best reward of course going to the Rank 1 person. Rewards were usually cool mounts (horses, tigers, etc. that you can use to ride around the world) or armor that you could show off. People would know you were one of the top guys just by seeing your armor that couldn’t be received anywhere else. This would give you a level of pride and bragging rights that among MMO gamers is the ultimate reward. It is all about making other players envy you.

The whole Ranks system sounds real nice until you think about the consequences for the gamers. The magnitude of WOW is absolutely gigantic. The game is played by millions of people worldwide, in countries such as America, UK, South Korea, and even China. But no matter what country the gamers are from, they all know that the #1 rank is what they want to get. There are people who play WOW, as well as people who play any MMOG, that are willing to devote 20-24 hours a day to the game. The fact that players do this, and always will do this, ruins the concept of the present-day MMO. Average players like myself who only devoted a “measly” two hours a day cannot hope to compete. I couldn’t even get to Level 60, a goal most serious players eventually reach. But ranking in the Top 20 on any server requires you to give up a job, all schoolwork, relationships of any kind, and even food and bathroom breaks. And don’t think I’m kidding about that last bit. A guy from South Korea played the game so incessantly that he DIED from starvation.

This is where the massively multiplayer online games go from simply games to become a microcosmic view of the real world, with all the bitterness of reality with it. Inside the game, and also inside your life when you need to decide how long to play the game, comes moral and economical decisions. The average player doesn’t even realize that the world they are emerged in meant the death of somebody. And though the death was an isolated case, there are “gold farms” in India and China where players are paid pennies an hour to grind in the game to gather gold that will eventually be sold on eBay for real money. (more on this later) Regardless of whether people know about the exploitation and starvation resulting from the games, almost everyone is aware of the “envy factor” I introduced earlier.

In the real world, much is driven by envy. The people with the newest gadgets, the newest cars, and the trendiest clothes are often the most popular and have more friends. Generally speaking, people want to be with others that can benefit them. Whether it is a mutually beneficial relationship or not, people just love to live off others. They want what they see and hope that by immersing themselves in the lives of people with money and gadgets that some of it will rub off on to them. This envy that breeds much of the social interactions in modern society is deeply embedded into the MMOG world. In fact, it is a massive factor. Almost the entire appeal of MMO gaming is to show off your high levels and special items. The problem that eventually is bred by MMOGs is that the person with the highest level (and PvP rank) and items is not the most skilled player, but rather the one who can devote the most time to the game. Thus, if someone lets their inner envy and desire to get the in-game wealth and collections of cool items drive them, it will eventually lead to the allocation of hours upon hours a day to the game. This is a dangerous scenario that many people fit into.

Due to the fact that extremely hardcore players are willing to devote innumerable hours to the game, the balance of the PvP ranking system and overall game levels are thrown off. No matter how many times the developers release balancing patches, the issue of people that play at different paces can never be dealt with. It is one of the many inherent problems in MMOGs.

Beyond the vastly varying paces of gameplay, and the aforementioned monotonous grinding, there are other issues in almost all modern MMOGs. The next one I want to bring up was previously mentioned briefly: the in-game economy. WOW uses the standard currency of Gold and Silver. Final Fantasy XI uses Gil, Anarchy Online uses credits, etc. Regardless of what the in-game money is called, the problem is always the same. In the game, by excessively grinding in key areas, players can slowly but consistently earn massive amounts of money. This is a combination of the previous two problems that brews a ridiculously large balance problem. Those who are willing to grind for hours on end can have enough money to out-buy everyone else. Especially in games like WOW where there are auctions and a free-market system, economy is always changing, just like in the real world. Just like if the U.S. government started to print countless $100,000 bills and using them to pay for various things, if someone in a game like WOW grinds for fifty hours to get thousands of gold pieces, the balance of the economy is shifted severely. This makes the money worth less. However, in WOW and most MMORPGs, each quest you complete gives you a set amount of money. If the worth of money is less than when the game was originally launched, then players who are legitimately completing quests are going to get ripped off. There are also those who grind for certain items, like powerful swords or shields that can be sold for massive profits. Not only does this make the person who is making the money rich enough to unbalance the economy of the currency, but it also starts to create the same supply and demand issue with the item in question, lessening its value for those who get lucky enough to receive it per chance, as it was meant to be received. All of this is remarkably similar to how a free market economy can be (ab)used in reality, and shows that these “games” really are closer to reality than we give them credit for.

Beyond the balance problems associated with in game grinding for money comes an even bigger problem, and a problem that is really becoming a huge problem nowadays. People can sell their money that they have in the game for real money (such as USD $) on eBay or on some other services. Many games are coming out with Terms of Service (TOS) addendums that prevent such selling of in-game wares, claiming that all in-game items are the intellectual property of the developer. However, it hasn’t stopped what is now a booming business. As I mentioned before, there are so-called “gold farms” in foreign countries where cheap labor exists. The term “sweat shop” is often used to refer to similar environments where young children or otherwise poor people in foreign countries are exploited for monetary gain. These gold farms are no different. There are rooms full of computers connected to the Internet in China, India, Korea, etc. where people are paid mere pennies to sit and play WOW or other games continuously, for hours. You may be thinking that this could sort of be fun, despite the bad pay. After all, there are those who play extensively under their own volition. However, these gold farms figure out where in the game has the best gold yields or items that can be converted to gold, and the workers are forced to play in the same area for months. Being in the same place in game for hours a day, for weeks, is practically torture. The in game profits generated are usually pooled to one master account that is then used by the gold farm’s owner to distribute in game currency in exchange for real world dollars. Just a simple example, 200 gold in WOW on average costs $20. That is 10 gold per $1. To give you an idea, it takes roughly 10 hours straight in the game for a high-level character in the best possible dungeon to gain 10 gold. That means that you are paying only $.10/hour to the company for gold. And these people make profit, which means the exploited people actually gathering gold make less than ten cents an hour! And you thought your pay was bad? But in all seriousness, this is morally apprehensible at the highest level, and it really makes you wonder how things like this could be allowed to occur. The worse part is that Americans and Europeans who don’t feel like spending the hours in the game to get gold for themselves are the ones who support this foreign exploitation. Even worse is the fact that the makers of Star Wars Galaxy have created a marketplace for people to sell in game money and items for real world cash, obviously taking a commission. That means that the SWG developers are cashing in on the exploitation, profiting off the weak. Gold farms are the single worst aspect of MMO gaming when it comes to the real world, and truly shows how morals can play a key part on MMO players.

One final problem with present MMO games I would like to discuss is the monthly fee required to play the game. Most of these games go for about $49.99 in a store, just like every other game. However, they then cost an additional amount per month. WOW costs $14.99, while some games (I think Matrix Online is an example) cost as much as $20 (or possibly even more) per month. If you consider that a serious player of any of these games will play for at least a year, the cost of the game and the service will be over $225. With that kind of money, you could buy Playstation 2 and three of four normal RPG games. It is ridiculous to consider that people are willing to pay this. And then you have people that complain about the rumored cost of PS3 games ($65, which I do believe is steep, but try putting it in perspective with MMOGs). I think the cost of MMO games was necessary at one point, for the developers to be able to constantly produce patches and pay for servers. However, there is no longer a reason for the fees, as demonstrated by the games that have no monthly fee (Anarchy Online, Guild Wars). This monetary problem is another area where the MMOG may affect your real life, by putting a dent in your checkbook.

I have spent the last couple of paragraphs discussing the detriments of modern and present MMOGs. I am now going to take a look at what I believe the future MMOG should be, by using a model that I believe is the perfect MMOG. I am going to go through each and every problem I discussed, tell you why my “perfect MMOG” doesn’t have that problem, and why the future will correct this.

What I consider to be the perfect MMOG, which happens to be an MMORPG, is Guild Wars, for the reasons you will soon see. The first problem I discussed above was grinding, the monotonous pursuit of the next level or more gold required when quests just didn’t cut it any more. I’m not going to lie to you: Guild Wars has some grinding in its normal RPG mode. Every MMORPG has grinding; it is simply the nature of the beast. However, by having a lot of densely spaced quests, games can combat the grinding. Guild Wars starts off with a mode called pre-searing, in which you can do all kinds of quests. If you take advantage of all your quests here, and take care in progressing your character’s skills, you can get a nice head start on leveling. The quests in pre-searing are available only at that time, so it is best to do them all if you want to grind the least. You make the explicit choice to progress to the main part of the game, so you can choose to do as many or as little of the pre-searing quests as you want. I did as many as I could, and can tell you for a fact you don’t have to grind at all in the pre-searing mode. Just by doing all the quests you level yourself enough to battle with the Charr, which is necessary to get to the main game mode. Anyway, once you get past the beginning stages of the game, there is a lot to do, and a lot of ground to cover. Your ability to prevent grinding is solely based on how far you are willing to travel. If you stick to the first main areas, you will exhaust your quests quickly and find the need to grind in order to do some of the harder ones. The key is to spread out because there are easy-type quests all over that help you rack up experience points and gain levels. By doing all the easy quests, then all the medium, then all the hard, you can remove almost all grinding from the game. Naturally, no one will find every quest and do them in the right order, so there will be some grinding. I know that I am personally stuck in a grinding rut right now with my character because I stayed in one area for too long. Enough with that, though. The bottom line for grinding in Guild Wars is that there is very little if you tackle quests the right way. But what it basically comes down to is you can do as little or as much as you want, and it never becomes a true necessity.

The next issue I discussed was the pace issues, and the fact that there will always be people who play 24/7 and max out their character. This is always an issue, so it must plague Guild Wars, right? Well, not quite. Guild Wars employs this wonderful mechanism that truly eliminates all need for grinding or super-dedicated leveling. When you create your character, you can pick one of two game types: Normal RPG or PvP (the names may be slightly different, but the concepts are the same as what I will soon describe). The Normal RPG mode is what you would expect. You start at level 1, pick a class, and you’re off on your adventure. You gain levels and items and do the normal RPG thing. The maximum level in GW is 20, which is fairly low for a MMORPG. Getting to Level 20 in GW is a lot easier than getting to Level 60 in WOW, and not just because it is a lower number. But that isn’t the point. In the Normal RPG type game this problem of game pace will still exist. However, and where GW really shines, the PvP type game starts you off at Level 20, the maximum. How on earth could this create a balanced game world if everyone can just start at Level 20? Well, if you make a PvP type character, they don’t go through quests or the story mode. You pick every one of the skills the character will ever have right up front, then go ahead and use the character for PvP battles. You never intermingle with the lower-level characters, so the balance issue doesn’t come up. You can solely fight other players, not engage in the RPG world. GW is a very PvP focused game, and so this PvP mode is a very attractive option because it lets people experiment with different combinations of classes and skills without wasting their time grinding and speed leveling. It is in this way that GW really destroys the competition, as it really eliminates the balancing issues of pace.

Another way the game deals with pace is its instancing of the game world. In MMOGs, instances are your own little world. In other words, if you go into an instance dungeon, only you are in the dungeon, despite the fact that dozens of other people around the world are in the same dungeon. Only you and, if you have a group, your group is in the dungeon. In WOW, there are instance dungeons such as the briefly mentioned SM, as well as many others. When you go there, you can go ahead and do the quest without worrying about others getting the treasures before you, as it is your own version of the world cut off the from “massively multiplayer” part of the game. In GW, everything except the cities and towns are instanced. So, if you go to Fort Ranik (a town), you will see the hundreds of other players that are in that town (there are actually multiple versions of each town, especially big cities, to control lag and manageability, but that’s not the point). However, if you step out of the town (through the exit portal), you will be in your own instance, and only you and, if existent, your group will be there, along with all the items and monsters. That being said, if you never make a group, playing through the GW game, except for cities and towns, will feel like a single player game. That is how the pace issue can really be addressed because you can choose to play by yourself and not worry about others if you really desire. So, in essence, GW can be a single player game. There are even “henchmen” you can add to your group who are computer-controlled people to simulate a group. Using henchmen, you can make it through pretty much the whole game without ever interacting with another user. And, of course, if you want to, you can also go the old-fashioned group way.

The in-game economy of Guild Wars is exploitable just like every other game. There is really nothing that could be done about this. However, for what it’s worth, the problem doesn’t seem to be as widespread as in other games. The selling of entire characters, for example, like is popular in WOW on eBay, is irrelevant on GW since you can start at Level 20 if you so choose. Also, the fact that you can play the game primarily single-player if you want makes the economic factor really minor if you want to ignore it. If you do choose to play a part in the economy and use the various trading services provided in game, you will notice the fluctuation of various in-game commodities such as dyes for clothing. Just like any free market system, you can gamble on the increase or decrease in price of these items and profit that way. However, there is really not much room for exploitation, since so few people value gold in the game (it really is a very minor part, as most of the good items are not sellable).

The problem with most MMORPGs’ monthly fee is completely missing in GW. The game is free to play online, once you buy the $49.99 retail package. It thus feels like any other RPG on your wallet, but plays for so much longer, and of course the world keeps growing. The developers of the game can afford to eliminate the monthly fee by placing a heavy focus on expansion packs. GW recently released Factions, an expansion that added two new races, tons of items and monsters, an entire new continent to explore, and also enhanced PvP functionality. I haven’t bought it yet, but I definitely will eventually. Regardless, the expansion adds enough to warrant upgrade, and really doesn’t feel like you are being robbed like with the monthly fee. I know for a fact that much of WOW’s profits are from the monthly fee. There is no way the developers spend over 15 million dollars developing patches and maintaining servers (and this is assuming there is only one million players, which I know there is more when you count worldwide). GW capitalizes on this and believes that they don’t need to rob the gamer, but still can make money just like every other game developer who sells games at fifty bucks a pop. Anarchy Online is a completely different free approach. The game AND the online service is free. Anyone with an Internet connection can go download the game for free right now and play it for as long as they want. AO used to use the expansion pack system as well, but all the expansion packs are also now free! So how does the company afford all of this? They have in-game advertisements. It may sound annoying, but how could you complain if your getting a totally free MMORPG that is one of the best currently out there (the graphics are dated but it is still very fun). All of these alternative business models really make me happy, and the company is still making money. With everyone happy, it’s a wonder why people even spend money on WOW when there are free alternatives. I predict that developers will eventually all have to offer free service, or else GW and similar games will take over.

The future of MMO gaming will look very similar to the innovative GW. The ability to start at Level 20 for PvP eliminates any grinding. Its fully instanced system helps stop economic balance problems by letting the player completely bypass, if they so desire, the entire interactive part of the MMOG. Finally, the business models of both GW and AO that make the online service free are something that will become more and more of the way things work in the future. In-game advertisements, I predict, will begin to pop up all over the place as game developers realize the potential for profit. In games like AO with urban settings, in-game billboards for real products could actually enhance the realism of the game.

In conclusion, GW is all about giving the player choices, and that is really what everyone wants. The ability to play the game the way you want it, without all the hurdles of most current MMOGs, will keep more people coming. I think MMORPGs are quickly becoming mainstream, but as soon as the monthly fees are eradicated and the grinding and balance problems are faced, I think the casual gamer will find themselves right at home with MMOGs. I foresee a future where the MMOG replaces AIM. And by using VOIP and email features, it could replace telephones and email as well. Imagine massively multiplayer online games evolving into massively multiplayer online environments where your grandmother could exchange recipes with her old friends from school. I see computer systems evolving, and telecommunications and operating systems in general, I think, will eventually turn into this world of 3-dimensional avatars and large-scale social interaction. Just as current MMOGs portray society on a small level, I think society can eventually embed itself directly into what we today consider a game, but in the future will be more like a service for everyone to communicate with.

Until this future I speak of comes, enjoy the modern MMORPGs. Even the ones that rip you off with monthly fees and excessive grinding (WOW) are great fun. If you are looking to experience the future in the present, check out GW. This is where the MMOGs of the future are headed, and in the mean time it is extremely fun.

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Overclocking Journal

Written by rob on July 13, 2006 – 11:19 pm -

The new computer that I’ve been talking about lately was built for one reason: overclocking. Why else would I use a processor like the Pentium D 805 that, at stock speeds, is inferior to my old computer’s processor? And why else would I get water cooling?

Overclocking is the process of setting components inside your computer to perform higher than their stock (default) speeds. The main reason why overclocking works is because processor manufacturers want to be sure that their processors will be 100% stable even with the measly fan that is usually included with it. However, if you have superior cooling methods, like the water cooling in my case, you can set the clock speed of the internal components much higher than their desired speeds without any consequence in stability.

A variety of motherboard manufacturers create boards that are aimed at overclockers. DFI, ASUS, and Abit are just a few well-respected manufacturers in the field, but there are truly a lot of boards great for us overclockers. I personally am using a board from Abit called the AW8D, which is most definitely meant for overclocking. Abit even includes a special sub-menu in the BIOS that has all the overclocking options in one convenient location. Even without that, though, overclocking is a rather easy process with modern motherboards. The trick, however, is not setting your components to a faster speed, but rather balancing speed, temperature, power consumption (which is linked directly to voltage), with the desired result of stability. Most people would like 100% stability, so really the only things you then become limited by are your temperatures and power supply’s ability. And, of course, the components themselves. It is really a mix between a science (actually knowing what settings will help achieve stability in certain conditions) and an art (achieving the perfect balance with the hardware and BIOS available to you).

Not every processor or RAM module can be overclocked well. There are certain processors, especially from AMD (AMD actually overclocks their processors a bit before selling them, which makes them less overclockable by consumers), that can barely increase by 100mhz, while there are others that can be pushed to over 150% of their stock speed. Probably the two best modern chips for overclocking (that are dual core) are the Pentium D 805 and the D 930. I chose the 805 because it was $60 cheaper, but the 930 starts at a higher clock speed (3ghz versus 2.6ghz) and so can end up at a higher speed. The 805’s maximum ever achieved is around the 4.25ghz range, with normal cooling (by normal I mean either fan or water… not liquid nitrogen or anything insane like that). The 930 has been known to reach 5ghz in certain conditions.

Regardless, every single processor is manufactured differently, so even if you were to purchase the exact same models of every component that someone else used, your overclocking results would vary. Some processors, just by the nature of their production, have lower voltage requirements. This means that they are better to overclock. It seems my 805 is somewhere in the middle in terms of performance. There are those, like Tom’s Hardware Guide, that can reach over 4ghz. However, there are also people who can’t break 3.6ghz. I made it to 3.8ghz in the end, which I think is definitely respectable (and a definite improvement boost over my previous system).

Anyway, what I would now like to do is go through the steps that I took in overclocking, step by step. Any true overclocker pays attention to one key virtue: patience. As intriguing and tempting as it is to just clock your 805 to 4ghz and hope it boots, it can seriously damage your processor. However, if you take small steps (like 100mhz at a time), then there is almost zero chance you could ever do harm to your system. The worse thing that can possible happen is that your computer fails POST, in which case you reset CMOS and try either upping the voltage, relaxing the memory timings, or admitting your defeat.

Before I begin, however, I wanted to cover the software utilities that I used to determine my computer was stable. First of all, I used the wonderfully feature-filled program called CPU-Z in order to see the actual clock frequencies of my components. If you set the FSB to 180mhz in the BIOS, it will likely only be 179mhz when you boot up. It’s just the way it is for some reason. CPU-Z will show you exactly what the current bus speeds are, despite what the BIOS may want you to think. Also, Windows XP updated the System Properties dialog box to show the amount of RAM, as well as processor speed. Previous versions of Windows just showed the description hard-coded into the processor itself. (Most of the time this says GenuineIntel… that doesn’t tell you much about the processor, now does it?) Also note that CPU-Z can be useful if you want to upgrade your RAM. It tells you the speed of your RAM, which is what you need to know when purchasing an upgrade.

Aside from CPU-Z, the single most useful application is something called Prime95. At first, it seems to be a program only for mathematicians. It does something regarding the Mersenne primes. Don’t ask me what that means, because I have no idea. The general idea is that whatever this prime number calculation is, it taxes your computer to insane proportions. The Prime95 application comes with a Torture Test option that will do the calculations over and over and over again, until you tell it to stop. This is used to recognize stability in computer systems. It is recommended that you run Prime95 between 6 and 24 hours straight to get an accurate idea of your system’s stability. I didn’t feel that was necessary, so I used 4 hours as my magic number. However, I will say that when it did fail, it was always within 1.5 hours (the longest one I had go that failed was 1 hours and 13 minutes). I just did the four hours to be safe. Do realize that if it fails within two minutes, you are going to have major system instability. If it fails after an hour, you may be able to safely ignore it, as Prime95 taxes your computer in ways that even modern games don’t. But I refuse to run my computer if it is less than 100% stable, and I hope you do the same. Anyway, because I have a dual-core processor, I ran two instances of the Prime95 program at once (this is referred to as Dual Prime in the overclocking world). I should probably also note that while running Dual Prime, I was also downloading with Azureus, surfing the net with Firefox, and using GAIM for IMing capabilities. I figured that if my CPU withstood that, it was stable. And I would like to point out that the system was quite responsive at this time, despite Dual Prime doing 100% CPU usage.

Also before I begin (you’re probably thinking I’m never going to say anything, aren’t you?), I wanted to make sure you know where I am getting my temperature units. I am giving two temperatures per overclocking step: idle and load. Idle is the temperature of your computer when it isn’t doing anything. I got this value by booting my computer up and letting it sit for 30 seconds after I was fully logged in and booted. I then took whatever value I saw pop up the most (the temperature changes ever second, usually within a 5 degree range). Load is the temperature your computer reaches when at 100% load. The way I determined this value was to run Dual Prime for 4 hours. During those four hours, I would occasionally (once every twenty minutes), look at the temperatures (which were taken with the utility ABIT includes with their motherboards, by the way). The load temperature I recorded was the HIGHEST value that I saw. Most of the time, the temperature was 2-3 degrees lower than what I said is the load, but I figured I would come out and say the highest value my CPU reaches.

OK, so let’s begin, shall we? My CPU has a stock speed of 2660mhz (we will be dealing in megahertz from now on). It has a multiplier of 20, which makes the stock front-side-bus (FSB) speed 133mhz. If you take 133 * 20, it would equal the 2660mhz of the processor. Thus, to find a processor’s speed, you take the multiplier (this cannot be changed on most Intel processors) and multiply it by the FSB. Also, to find the memory bus frequency (this will be hereby called memory speed, but it is not to be confused with the actual memory speed, which is only two times the FSB… this is what the speed is actually at, but the bus speed is the thing that is often referred to when you buy RAM), you multiple the FSB by 4. So, at 133, my memory speed would be 533mhz, which is good considering I bought memory rated at DDR2-533 (simply put, DDR2 memory meant to run at 533mhz). Simple enough, right?

However, when I first booted up my computer it wasn’t at 2660 for some reason, but rather at 2720, slightly higher than it is supposed to be. I’m not sure what caused this, but the increase is so little that no major increase in speed over the stock would be recognizable. I ran Dual Prime for four hours on this original setup just to make sure my computer was stable before overclocking (and what exactly would I have done if it failed the test? LOL). The temperatures were as follows: Idle 22, Load 35. (all temperatures are in Celsius, by the way. Keep in mind throughout this whole thing that 60 C is considered the safe temperature for Intel processors, while 45 C and below is considered very good.) Now it is time to actually begin overclocking. Nothing really interesting happens for awhile, so I’ll just give you the speed it was clocked at and the temperatures. My first step was 2880 mhz, which yielded 26 idle and 39 load. 3100 mhz clocked in at 25 idle and 40 load. Finally, 3350 mhz was 25 idle, 42 load.

I am going to take this time to introduce some other settings that I have no yet had to change but will shortly. Almost every component you connect to the motherboard has a certain voltage pumped out to it from the power supply, by way of the motherboard. The two main voltages that matter during overclocking are the VCore (voltage of the CPU), and the DDRV (voltage of the RAM). Another important setting are the memory timings. There are four main memory timing settings you can change, and what they mean is way beyond the scope of this document. Just remember that these settings are measuring latency (delays), and so lower values are better. Just know that the lower your memory timings, the overall speed increase of your computer. However, in some cases it is better to relax (increase) the memory timings and get higher speeds. The VCore for my CPU was set to 1.350 V by default, while the DDRV was at 1.80 V. The memory timings were 4-4-4-12 (this is how memory timings are expressed, each number between the hyphens a separate setting).

So, I upped the CPU clock speed to 3520 mhz. To my surprise, the computer would not pass POST. I had to reset CMOS to get back into the BIOS. I figured this would be where our good friend Mr. VCore would come in. I then upped the VCore to 1.400 (from 1.350). The computer now passed POST, but when it started to boot into Windows I got an error about a missing System32 file or something. I knew my Windows install wasn’t corrupt, so I figured it was a problem with my BIOS settings. I then realized that since I was at 3520 mhz for the CPU, that meant my memory was running at 705 mhz. Considering it is only rated to run at 533 mhz, that is a substantial increase. I then visited the memory timings, and relaxed them to 5-5-5-15, which I read in a review about my memory is a good place for them to be during overclocking. With the adjusted memory timings and CPU voltage, the computer could finally boot into Windows XP, and seemed pretty stable. I went ahead and started up my Dual Prime, started an Azureus download, and started to watch some anime in VLC Player. I kept the windows positions so I could see the temperature at all times. Also, you can monitor Prime95’s progress just by lookign at the system tray. The icon will be red if still running, or yellow if idle (if yellow, when you were previously running a test, it means it errored out). I went through about three episodes (50 minutes total) of the show, with the two Prime95 icons still red. Then, somewhere in the middle of the fourth episode I saw that one had turned yellow. The test had failed, meaning my computer was instable! At this clock speed, even though it was instable, I still recorded the temperatures. They were 28 idle, 42 load.

Now, the thing you need to realize about Prime95 is the errors will mean nothing to you. For example, one error I got was “Rounding error. Expected less than 0.4, got 0.49728193.” Thanks for the info, Prime95! But in reality, it actually is very helpful. You see, when I do my Dual Prime test, the first instance is a Large block test, and the second is a small block test. All math aside, the large block test is primarily to generate heat and RAM usage, while the small block test (which can fit inside the L2 cache and doesn’t use RAM), tests the CPU primarily. That being said, I had failed the small block test, so that told me I had a CPU-related problem. This is where Prime95 really shines, because now I knew to up the VCore but not worry about the memory (the timings I set would last me all the way to the end). Still, though, I chose to up the DDRV as well, just to be safe.

So, the next step was for me to up those voltages. I brought the VCore to 1.425 and the DDRV to 1.90 (my RAM is actually meant to run at 1.9, so I figured it couldn’t hurt at this point). I also upped my clock speed to 3580 mhz (up by 50mhz), just because I figured it would be able to work with the new voltages. This is where the art part of overclocking comes in, because the science aspect would tell you that there is no logical reason to up clock speed when trying to fix instability. But, I ran Dual Prime for 5 hours (wanted to be sure this time), with no problem whatsoever. I was officially stable again. This was the first real hurdle during the overclock, and it had been overcome. Temperatures were at 28 idle, 44 load.

However, as stable as the system was, my system started beeping after about one hour of Dual Prime. I checked in the ABIT utility, because I knew the beep was being caused by one of the Abit EQ settings. Sure enough, there was a Beep EQ set for temperature monitoring (it would beep if something overheats, a nice feature). I turned off the beeping so it wouldn’t annoy me, but I had to address the problem. The culrpit was a little sensor called PWM1. That meant absolutely nothing to me, until I went over to the Abit forum (a very helpful place, by the way. MUCH better than ASUS’s site). It seems the PWM overheating is a common problem with motherboards, the Abit one’s especially (because the way they are designed), if you don’t use standard CPU cooling (air). The PWMs on the motherboard are some type of voltage regulators. As it was explained to me, they make sure the components get the right voltage (that you set in the BIOS), so as to not overvolt (i.e. fry) the components. Regardless, when you overclock, your voltages are going to be higher, so these PWMs need to work extra hard. The end result is that they overheat. The way the motherboard is designed, the PWMs are placed right above where the CPU socket is. Therefore, if you use a standard CPU fan, the air it blows onto the CPU will also be blown onto these PWMs. In short, a CPU fan will also cool the PWMs.

However, if you use heat pipe (like most members on the Abit forum) or water cooling like me, the CPU fan doesn’t exist and so no air is blown over the PWM region. This means they will overheat a lot quicker than usual. So, I was forced to mount a fan with L-brackets purchased from Home Depot above the PWM region. You can see a picture of that here. The sky-blue metal things are heatsinks for the PWMs themselves, and so that is where I was aiming (no pun intended) to have my air directed towards. The L-bracket mounted fan, while it increased the noise level of my computer substantially (the case fans in my system are all ultra-quiet, and the water system is also fairly quiet. This fan is the main noise maker in my case, unfortunately) capped the PWM1 temperature to 55 C, while it was previously reached 83 C (80 C is considered the limit). I think that is a substantial benefit: it is an eighty-two degree difference in Fahrenheit!

After the PWM1 overheating was dealt with, I continued the overclocking process. The next step was 3680 mhz. Rather than test it first, I decided to just up the voltages right away. I knew this would require some substantial boosts, so I went ahead and brought the VCore to 1.475 and the DDRV to 1.95. I was now at 3.7ghz, which I considered to be the home stretch. Only 300mhz away from the desired 4ghz. That is why I didn’t hesitate to raise the voltages more than I normally would have. I might as well get them near what I wanted them to be in the end, since it is indeed coming to the end. This clock speed was Dual Prime stable for four hours, so it looks like my voltage increases paid off. Unfortunately, the CPU temperatures took a nice jump, now at 27 idle, 50 load. Pass the 45 C mark, my CPU is no longer in the “very good” range for temperature, but it is still quite far from the 60 C safe range. I just wanted to quickly note that my AMD Athlon XP 1600+, running at stock speeds with the included CPU fan, ran at 48 C idle, 65 C load, with absolutely no problem. A lot of people get really into following that 60 C mark, but you can realistically go up to 75 C without risking damage to the CPU (though you will have to change the thermal paste often), and one guy on the Extreme Overclocking forums has his system running at 102 C load, fully stable! But if you are really willing to go to 102 C , then you would never want water cooling. Most people get water so they never have to see a temperature above 60 C again, and I tend to agree.

The next step was 3780 mhz. I had a couple hiccups in Dual Prime using the voltages from before, so I used a VCore of 1.550 and a DDRV of 2.05. Both voltage values were substantially increased in order to achieve complete stability. I am actually sitting directly on the “safe” recommendation for VCore, which for my processor is exactly 1.550 like what I am now at. The DDRV could probably go up to 2.1 without any problems, so I’ve got a little bit of room with that. However, I doubt it will be necessary because in the review that mentioned the 5-5-5-15 memory timings, it also had my exact memory running at DDR2-884 at only 2.00 V, which is much better than I even thought possible (if my memory reached 884, then it would mean a CPU clock of 4.4 ghz… dream on). This seemed to be about the voltage limit, then, so I was hoping for stability. This was Dual Prime stable, but the temperatures showed the voltage increases. 28 Idle, 56 Load.

My next step was to try 3880 mhz. At first I kept the voltages where they were, but Dual Prime failed extremely fast. Previously, the failures happened after a good 45 minutes of testing, if not more. However, this time it literally failed within 5 – 15 seconds. That was definitely a bad sign. I upped my voltages as far as I was willing to go, with a VCore of 1.600 and a DDRV of 2.10. Still no luck, as the Dual Prime was failing after about 15 minutes now. So, I bought a little bit of time, but it wasn’t stable by any stretch of the imagination. I figured testing a higher CPU voltage couldn’t kill anything, so I tried 1.675 (the max my motherboard allows, and the voltage that Tom’s Hardware Guide used to get 4.1 ghz). However, my motherboard refused to boot at that voltage. I also tried boosting the DDRV to 2.15, but it wouldn’t boot there either.

So, it seems that I have crossed beyond the limit of my hardware. 3780 mhz, or 3.78 ghz, is as far as my system is going to go. The temperatures are still way lower than they could be (I was willing to hit 65 C), so the water cooling is doing its job. I can’t imagine how hot the CPU would be with air cooling… it would probably catch fire! Needless to say, I am disappointed that I didn’t make 4ghz. In all reality, the extra 220mhz probably won’t even make a two frames per second difference in a game, but the 4ghz mark is just such a braggable place 🙂 But hey, this is my first time doing a serious overclock, and I think 1.11 ghz above the stock speed is some great stuff.

Maybe in a year or so, if I really see the need to get a faster CPU (somehow I fail to see a 3.8ghz CPU as a bottleneck, but who knows), I’ll spring for the D 930. I should be able to overclock that to around 4.7 ghz with my cooling setup, a full 1 ghz above what I’m at now. And with the Conroe chips from Intel being released the end of July, the 930 price is set to decrease substantially.

If anyone out there is in the market for a PC, the D 805 is a great option for cheap. With some good air cooling (like the $55 Zalman monster), you could probably make it to 3.4ghz without trouble, but remember that high-end air cooling does not take silence into consideration. I heard the Zalman CNPS9500 is akin to a jet engine :p In reality, though, anyone truly looking for a high-performing PC should just wait for the release of Conroe. Early benchmarks of the stock processors will destroy an overclocked 930 any day. And given the lower voltage and temperatures of the Conroe at stock speeds, it can be overclocked to insane proportions. One fan overclocked an early Conroe version to 4.8ghz, and it’s performance is off the charts. It absolutely blows away Quad-Core computers and the $1000+ offerings from both the Intel EE line and the AMD FX line. It is definitely something to look out for in the coming weeks, and very possibly the thing that secures Intel’s position as market share leader for microprocessors for many years to come.

I will post Excel-generated graphs of benchmarks comparing my old computer, and then the new computer at stock and overclocked speeds. Expect them in a week or so.

Posted in Tech | Comments Off on Overclocking Journal

Register! It only costs…

Written by rob on July 6, 2006 – 7:12 pm -

Well, if you haven’t noticed (you may want to make an appointment with your eye doctor if you didn’t notice), I changed the theme of the blog. I feel that it is a good summer-y theme (also pirate-y! in celeberation of Pirates of the Carribean 2, which I’m seeing tonight, by the way), with the whole sand background and such. Regardless, the new theme means some changes, aside from the obvious visual changes. The comments section of every post now looks pretty terrible, with all of those brown stars. Well, those brown stars happen to be the default avatar for this theme. And, considering none of us have avatars, we all have the default. So it naturally looks pretty ugly.

UPDATE (07-07-06): I have since un-ugly-ified the comments section by manually removing the default avatar and generally cleaning it up. I love this theme, but that section was poorly done. That’s probably why it couldn’t win the WordPress Theme Contest. ANYWAY, I still would like people to get avatars, just because it is so much cooler when you have a picture represent you. Don’t you agree?

So what am I going to do about this ugliness? Simple! I am going to make you pay to change it. All you have to do is Register for this blog (click here to do that). It only costs…

It’s actually free. So, what are you waiting for? Register, then make yourself or find yourself a cool avatar. Then start posting comments so the comments sections can be populated with cool avatars. See the logic? Good. So register and then be happy when stuff becomes un-ugly.

Posted in General Stuff | 3 Comments »