Monthly Archives: February 2016

Daddy needs a new laptop

In pretty much all my conscious life, people have come to me for advice about buying new computers.  Often, they just ignored whatever I said and bought whatever they wanted and then asked whether it was any good.  To which I usually said: “Meh… Will do, you still should have listened to me”.

In the last few years, I have seen a certain trend though: People come to me and tell me “I’d like a new laptop, but it shouldn’t cost more than 400€”.  Fine, I get it.  Many people I know have children now, and they have other priorities.  This blog entry here is based upon a late night Facebook-Chat conversation, where I realized how very confusing and hard buying new hardware has become if you aren’t highly informed.  You know what? Even in this context, I’m not “highly” informed, just a bit better informed.

First of all, you need to realize that a computer is a complex machine, and it’s the combination of all parts that makes or breaks the performance.  In the low-end, there is actually only one part that you can vary and that is the CPU.  CPU stands for Central Processing Unit and you can basically call that “the thing that makes calculations”.  You might wonder how moving a window on screen is maths, but I assure you: it is.  Your computer can only do two things: calculate data and store data.  Everything you see and do on your machine is reducible to those two basic actions.  The “How” is irrelevant for this discussion.

So, back to my acquaintance.  I asked him what type of machine he now has.  It’s a Windows Vista-era machine (Still running Vista, I might add), sporting a Intel Core 2 Duo T7500, 2GB RAM and a 320GB Hard disk.  Given the information I have, I guessed, it was approximately bought in 2007 as a high-end laptop.  I can also tell you immediately that the main bottleneck here will be the 2GB of RAM, but that can easily be fixed with a 40€ upgrade and replacing the hard disk with an 85€ SSD will also give it a boost.  Add in a new battery and you might have infused it a bit more life, if it wasn’t for Windows Vista that is only supported until 2017.  However, is it actually “worth” upgrading this machine?  No.  Not if you can buy a decent new machine.  Can we buy a decent machine would be the next question…

That’s where a thought process of most people kicks in, that has been indoctrinated by our consumer oriented society:  This machine is eight to nine years old, a new one, even a cheaper one must undoubtedly be better.  In certain ways, that new machine is going to be better.  It will most likely use less electricity and have better battery life, but that’s not why you are replacing your machine, is it?  It’s because it’s not doing what you want it to do: it’s too slow for certain tasks.  So, given normal peoples workloads, you will want a faster CPU.  Let’s take a look at budget PCs.  The column called Prozessor means CPU and the one called Speicher means RAM.  Ignore the laptops ones tagged “Generalüberholt”, which means “Refurbished”.

First of all, you’ll notice that none of these machines have more than the 4GB RAM, albeit of a higher speed (which is mostly irrelevant, even though one can discuss endlessly about that).

The second thing you notice that many of them have a Celeron N3150 processor.  Of course, that doesn’t tell you anything.  It might be the best thing since sliced bread.  Also, never mind that CPU model numbers are horribly, horribly confusing.

So, how do we compare these CPUs?  Well, in honesty, you can’t!  Not really.  Mostly we use so called “Benchmarks”, which try to evaluate how quick a certain processor does a certain task.  Alas, some processor do well on task A, but badly on task B.  All benchmarks are pretty much artificial.  From my experience the “Passmark CPU benchmark” gives a quite decent indication on what to expect, but it’s no panacea since you need to be able to interpret results.  Still, I’m going by this.  Let’s look up the scores for the Core 2 Duo T7500 and put them side by side:  There you go: gut feeling correct 1522 > 1274, the T7500 is 84% of the speed of the Celeron N3150.  It’s faster!  Case closed!

Not so fast.  First of all, consider this: a low-end budget CPU, just barely beats the old high-end one (The N3150 is a year old, to be fair), which means you’re going to spend 400€ to get just a minimal speed increase?  Are you serious?  Furthermore, there is a detail that needs to be pointed out.  The T7500 has two cores, meaning two independent calculators.  The N3150 has four of them.  Four is better than two, so, case closed, the N3150 is better!
The thing is: more cores work best in cases where tasks can be split up, and that isn’t true for most tasks.  It’s worse: most user-oriented tasks aren’t like that at all.  So, the speed of a single core does matter and it matters quite a lot.  That’s the line marked “Single Thread Rating”, where you can see for the T7500 that it has a score of 764 versus 418 for the N3150.  For so called “single thread tasks” the T7500 is actually better, much better.

My biggest point is: You’re going to spend money for something that is not significantly better.  A midrange modern day Core i5 with 8GB RAM (example: Asus ZenBook UX303UA-FN121T ) will set you back the double of your budget, but will triple the performance compared to your old machine and you’ll have double RAM, which also has a positive impact.

Finally, there is one last thing I need to stress.  Many people think that computers get slower when they age.  I can think of a few scenarios where that is true (defective or dusty fan and a disk slowly getting bad clusters), but as a general rule: Your machine today is as fast as it was when you bought it.  What may have changed is the software you are running requires more power.  The solution to this is to do an analysis of your needs: What do I need?  List it.  Identify the software to do that and stick to that software and only that software.  It called “having a fixed feature set”, and it generally makes your computing experience more smooth.
If you’re running Windows, and haven’t done that, your machine might be loaded up with all kind of crap over time that you’re actually not using, but still is loaded.  The only solution is then to reinstall the machine, which usually requires specialist intervention. (So does the suggested SSD upgrade, by the way.)  If you feel adventurous, you might even try using Linux.  Talk to your local nerd about it, who might be closer than you think.

If there is one thing you should take away from all of this: Don’t just buy a new computer, because if you do without being properly informed, you might end up with something that isn’t as great as you’d thought it would be.  Or as the Romans already said: Caveat Emptor.

Steam, Linux and Intel Graphics

Jorg… are you using Steam on Linux?
No motivation to pay close to 1000 for a steam box, but an i3/i5 with Intel graphics would be ok price wise… question is, would it be worth it?

Short answer: Yno.
Long answer:

This is a question in multiple parts, namely:

  1. Do you use Steam on Linux?
  2. Does Steam on Linux work well?
  3. Are integrated graphics sufficient these days for games?
  4. What about graphics drivers?

Now, let start with the easy part: Yes, I use Steam on Linux.  I basically only use it on Linux and one of the main criteria for buying games on Steam, or from Humble Bundle, is Linux support.  Steam, the application, works very well on Linux and it comes down to installing a package and that’s it.  That said, Steam is just Steam, being a kind of game library with a useful “Big Screen” (aka, “use it on TV”) mode.  On no configuration, did Steam refuse to run, but nobody runs Steam to run Steam.  What you want are the games.

That’s where question #3 comes in, and sorry, no… Linux won’t compensate your underpowered hardware.  Just as in Windows, you might end up buying a game and figuring out that “hell, fuck no, this won’t work“.  If it’s not because the game doesn’t start up at all, it will be because it is so horribly slow, that it’s unplayable even when turning down all the settings.  Now, in all fairness, my experience with Steam on Intel, limits itself to:

  • Zotac Nano ID61 – Celeron 867 / 8GB RAM / “Intel HD Graphics” (I have given this machine away, I can’t do tests any more)
  • Dell XPS 15 – Core i7-2630QM / 16GB RAM / “Intel HD 3000″ (Paired with an NVidia GT 525M)
  • Acer Aspire S3 – Core i5-3317U / 4GB RAM / “Intel HD 4000″

All run Ubuntu 14.04LTS with Steam installed from the Valve repos.  These are all older chips based on Sandy Bridge (Celeron 867 and Core i7-2630QM) and Ivy Bridge (Core i5-3317U) architectures, so obviously it’s not very representative for modern Intel hardware.  Take everything I say with a huge grain of salt.  Haswell, Broadwell and Skylake based processors might be so much better, especially with the Iris Pro graphics.  Intel graphics are so very diverse and the labels stuck on them make it next to impossible to find accurate benchmarks.  So basically, what it means is that I must go on feeling which really, is very subjective.

However, it’s not the only thing you can go on.  You can simply see what the minimum requirements for some games say.  A very well known AAA type game working on Linux is Sid Meiers Civilisation V.  Go and visit it, and you’ll notice that in the PC world, you damn better do your homework about your hardware and what this hardware means in relation to recommended and minimum settings.  Also, keep in mind this is a strategy game, and really shouldn’t tax your graphics card all that much.  Well, go and look:

  • Windows: Core i3 or better integrated graphics
  • Mac OS X: “Intel GMA (950/X3100), HD 3000″ not supported
  • SteamOS/Linux: Intel Integrated video chipsets (GMA 9XX, HD 3XXX) will not run Civilization V for SteamOS and Linux, and are unsupported.

So, the Zotac is out as is the i7 (using Intel graphics).  The i5 might run it, I don’t think I tried.

Another one?  Let’s take Victor Vran.  I bought this game because the gameplay reminded me of the PlayStation 2 version of Baldurs Gate.  I didn’t check specifications and I tried on the i5-3317U, connected using HDMI to my TV.  The game loads, but it is unplayable at any detail level.  Specs, here you go:

  • Windows: GeForce 8800 or higher, AMD Radeon HD 4000 or higher, Intel HD 4000 or higher (min. 512 MB VRAM)
  •  Mac OS X: OpenGL 4.1 (GeForce 600 or higher, AMD Radeon 5000 or higher, Intel HD 4000 or higher)
  • SteamOS/Linux: OpenGL 4.1 (GeForce 600 or higher, AMD Radeon 5000 or higher)

Hey!  Intel isn’t even supported on SteamOS/Linux.  I should try it on Windows to see how playable the game is, but I doubt it will be a very agreeable experience.

… you’ll notice that neither of these games is even a first person shooter-puzzler.
Indie games will work, right?  Right?

Yeah, kinda… Again better check what the specs are.  Rochard works fine, for example, and is a fun game.  Less graphically intensive games like World Of Goo or Thomas was alone work perfectly.  Rochard and Thomas was alone and are a joy to be played with an XBox controller, which works out of the box on Linux.  Are these your kind of games?  You’ll be happy with Integrated graphics and Steam.

However, not all is perfect. Which brings us to the drivers and question #4.

How are the drivers?  Intel has a good reputation on Linux for drivers, but, and that’s really a but… that’s because AMDs drivers are quite horrible and NVidias drivers are closed.

Are Intels drivers good?  Generally, yes, and it might just be because I use whatever comes stock with Ubuntu 14.04LTS that I have problems in some games.  Most of the issues here are in my i5-3317U (which is what I use for most casual gaming).  First time I noticed that something was wrong was that in certain scenes of Book of the unwritten tales – Critter Chronicles, the characters were very dark.  That’s a point ‘n click adventure, nothing graphically too fancy.  My guess, is that they used a badly implemented shader.  The game was playable, but when it happened, it looked ugly.
Recently I’ve been playing Never Alone, which is very playable on the i5 from a performance perspective.  However, the game uses some shader that is broken.  Probably the same issue as mentioned before, but it’s so much more annoying because the shaders move and look so very much out of place.  Is it playable?  Yes.  Is it pretty?  No.

There is also something strange going on with the i5.  Due to a flash of genius, I had the idea to just connect the laptop to my TV and play on the TV.  I set the TV as primary display and disabled the internal panel.  The surprise came when I tried playing something like Stanley Parable or Talos Principle.  They were unplayable, at any resolution.  Why is this remarkable?  Because I played these games on the Zotac ID61, which is immensely lower spec than that laptop.  Something is going, on, but I have no idea what.  Given these games play fine on the internal panel, my guess is it has something to do with the drivers and how a dual screen configuration is handled.

Back on topic: if you’re using Intel Integrated for gaming (within the range of chips I talked about), you get what you pay for.  I could recommend looking into AMD offerings, as their integrated graphics solutions are better, but you’ll still end up with disappointment.  I was rather happy with my A8-3850 (Radeon HD 6550D), but as a matter of fact, you’ll end up running most games on low settings any way.  I have given up and just got myself an low-range NVidia gaming card.  (Which I haven’t tested properly to tell whether it was a good idea.)

What does this mean?
Linux gaming will work, if you have the hardware to match.  If you don’t the experience will be as crappy or crappier than on Windows.  That 1100€ SteamBox suddenly does look more attractive, doesn’t it?   No, I don’t have that kind of money for toys either, but my fans can of course send me one as a present ;-).  Whether such a SteamBox will actually play games well enough, that, I cannot say.  Maybe consider a Steam Link to your real game box?