Friday, February 20, 2009

Mike Reviews His PC Gaming Setup

Reviewing, bragging... what's the difference?

Okay, a little backstory here. When I built my computer, I only had a handful of PC games, as I'd considered myself a console gamer. I was just setting out to build a powerful computer in case I wanted to play a game, because my previous computer was five years old, not that great, and couldn't really handle one of the few games I did have.

Having built the computer, I kinda wanted to put it through the paces, so to speak. Around the same time, a Half Price Books opened nearby, and they actually had a pretty good collection of older games. So, it started with the original Call of Duty, which I'd got cheap, and Crysis, which I'd got new. After playing those, I was getting the hang of playing with a mouse and keyboard, and I was adding new cheap games to my collection left and right. It was convenient... I'd bought a laptop for my wife before I built my computer, and she was enjoying surfing the net while watching TV, and playing games in my computer corner meant that we weren't going to argue over who got to use the TV. I came to prefer gaming on my computer.

When Gamestop started taking reserves for F.E.A.R. 2, I reserved the PC version without thinking twice. After all, I'd already bought, beat, and loved the original F.E.A.R. on PC. But I downloaded the demo on Xbox Live, and the demo got me thinking that for a game like F.E.A.R, directional sound is probably a big deal. So I had to get new speakers. And when the game turned out to be widescreen only, giving me naught but a little band of game across the middle of my aging 17" 4:3 monitor, I had to upgrade the monitor, too. Which brings us to the total.

A quick breakdown:

The computer, seen on the left, is a totally home-built system. It's in a full-size (and very heavy) Antec P182 case. Inside the case is a DFI Lanparty P35 Dark motherboard, a 3.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo E8400 "Wolfdale" processor, and 3GB of PC2 6400 Kingston Hyper-X RAM with heat spreaders. A 650 watt Antec TruPower Trio helps pump out enough juice to run a BFG GeForce 9800GTX+ Overclocked Edition NVIDIA graphics card.

The monitor, seen in the middle, is a Samsung Touch of Color T220 22" widescreen LCD monitor. Samsung advertises a 20,000:1 contrast ratio, although what defines those numbers is hardly standardized. What is standard, and important for a gamer, is the 2ms response time. Response time, for those of you who aren't familiar, is the time it takes for a monitor to receive instructions on what to display from the computer to the time the monitor actually displays the information. The lower the number, the faster the monitor. While this isn't going to be a big deal for most people who just browse the internet or type documents into Microsoft Word, response time is important for gamers. At 2ms, this monitor is a little over twice as fast as most modern LCD monitors, which usually clock in around 5ms. The monitor supports a 1680x1050 resolution. Images and text are very sharp, and colors are vibrant and rich.

The speakers, seen to the left, right, and clipped to the top of the monitor, are just part of the sound story. There's a pair of speakers for rear channels, and a subwoofer under the desk. Combined, they're the Logitech X-540 speaker system. At 70 watts, it's not going to outperform most home theater setups, but considering that those are for whole rooms and the X-540 is just for my desk area, they do the job. Highs are a little tinny for music, but the midrange and low sounds are great, and the overall effect is a very full sound that's great for gaming. The remote (the source of the green light to the bottom left of the monitor) is also nice too... while it is tethered to the subwoofer, it provides easy access to the volume and bass knobs, the power key, and a headphone jack. It also has a button to turn on matrix mode. Matrix mode takes a stereo source and plays it over all five speakers, sort of like Dolby Pro Logic. I almost never use it, though, as I think that music that's recorded in stereo sounds the most natural when it's played in stereo.

The mouse and keyboard aren't anything fancy. It's just a Microsoft Wireless Desktop Elite Keyboard and a Microsoft Wireless Intellimouse Explorer 2.0. The keyboard's target audience is the web-browsing, Office-using, media-playing average user. There are media keys, internet shortcut keys, and Office shortcut keys. Nothing special for gaming, but gaming keyboards are expensive. And really, as long as it's got WASD keys (plus R for reloading, C for crouching, space for jumping, F for interactions, and numbers across the top for switching weapons) it's got everything I could want. As for the mouse, the handy thing with it is the two small buttons near where my thumb rests on it. I can't even recall what function Microsoft suggests for them, but I simply mapped them so the one in the front is G and the one behind it is V. Then I always set my shooters so that the right mouse button is for aiming down the sight, G tosses grenades, and V performs a melee attack. I find that handy, because my right hand can take care of any attacks I need to make, while my left hand can concentrate on movement without fumbling for keys too far from the WASD keys.

Also not shown is my desk chair. It's a comfy padded-leather executive chair. Not much more to say than that.

I could find some flaws with my setup. I could have used a quad-core processor, or an SLI-compatible motherboard. But the fact is, by the time there are enough applications that can actually take advantage of more than two cores, I might be thinking of replacing this entire computer with one centered around a Core i7 processor. In the mean time, instead of buying a second 9800GTX+, I could just replace the card with a single GTX 2-series card. I saved $100 by sticking with the Core 2 Duo, and $200 versus a comparable SLI capable motherboard, and given that the only games that have come close to stressing my system are Crysis and Crysis Warhead, it was a pretty fair cost/benefit trade-off. And frankly, even Crysis with the settings tweaked to give me 30 frames per second looks better than any games I've played on either my Xbox 360 or my PlayStation 3. And sure, I could have hooked it up to a beefier sound system, or hooked it all up to a bigger monitor that supports an even higher resolution. But I don't need beefier sound for my little computer corner, and 22" is more than enough for as close as I sit to it. The biggest thing that could use some improvement would probably be the mouse and keyboard, but the ones I have still do the job. So really, pointing out what could be improved (or in some cases, upgraded down the line) is really less about genuine flaws and more like nitpicking.

Bottom line: I can walk into a store, pick up any game off the shelf, take it home and install it on my computer without even looking at the system requirements, and run that game at or near the maximum settings, on a simply gorgeous display with surround sound. People who just use their computers for the internet might not see what all the fuss is about, and kids with more (of their parents') money than brains might brag about how they built a computer with a Core i7 processor and a trio of Radeon HD 4870s Crossfired and look down on my setup, but the simple fact is my setup is elegant, functional, more than enough for what's out there now, and upgradeable for when I do encounter a game it can't handle, which is all most PC gamers could ask for.

Final Score: A

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