Epic Game Store

I’m not on the hype wagon that Epic Game Store (EGS) is a new type of cancer on gaming.  Not surprised at the amount of gatekeeping present in gaming circles, but hey, to each their own.  People fear change, and Steam has been the mainstay of PC gaming for longer than gaming memory.  (Side note, the last “successful” launch of anything Valve related was DOTA 2 in 2013.  Aside from the twice-annual fire sale of  every PC game ever made.)

Does EGS offer everything that Steam does?  Hell no.  Neither does Origin.  Or Arc.  Or Battle.net.  Or the dozens of other storefronts/launchers.  Is EGS coming to take your babies?  Maybe.  Will it activate your webcam and stream you out to Russia?  Certainly.

And exclusives are a problem now?  Remind me how again I can purchase Diablo 3 on Steam?  Or Anthem?  Right.  (There’s an irony on this point that I get to later.)

Does it suck that I have to remember yet another password/id?  Sure.  Just like I have to remember 50 different ones for every website/service.

Gamers are notoriously fickle, and the things on reddit are often so blown out of proportion.  Mainly due to the fact that the largest complainers have the least amount of spine.

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Real effective boycott…

Game companies have learned to navigate through the sewers of gamer miscontent, and find out what motivates players.  And that point is almost entirely based on money.  If EGS has the same games as Steam, but offers them cheaper… then guess where people are going to buy their games?  Doesn’t matter if you have achievements or not.  Or trading cards.  Or wish lists.

I-Win Button

The thing that many people are skipping over is that Epic already has a multi million (~250m at last estimate) player install base.  Across every single platform.  PC, XBONE, PS4, Switch and heaven almighty – mobile.  That simply dwarfs anything else.

And the next logical step?  Cross-play.  Let’s be clear on one single and vital point.  Console companies have been notoriously proprietary – Sony worst of all.  Fortnite broke Sony.  10+ years of people trying.  EA certainly pushed hard.  Yet a single game, in about 2 months effort, broke Sony.  You can play Fortnite on any device – with a single account.

From a developer perspective, this is a major benefit.  Online games win/die by the amount of players available (since they are often the content).  Imagine having a game suddenly have 6x more available players due to a code change.  You haven’t sold more boxes… just allowed them to see each other.

Mark the Calendar

Epic released cross-play SDK tools in December. 2019 is the year that cross-play becomes an expectation in gaming. In an ever connected world, Epic managed to break down walls with barely a whisper.  I am both amazed at the quick transformation, and terrified as to what comes next.

 

New Rig

All that fussing and I decided to just go with it.

Of all the features I listed previously, there were really only 2 options that presented themselves – either the MSI Raider or the ASUS ROG Zephyrus/SCAR.

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Lots of pretty keyboard colors

As you can tell, I went MSI.  Three main reasons.  1) MSI is significantly less expensive for the same specs (I’m essentially losing out on Thunderbolt) , 2) it’s actually available in Canada, and 3) it has an expandable storage slot.  It also shipped in 3 days, which is pretty neat.

The slight quirk in this is that the model I wanted, the GE73 Raider, was practically impossible to find at a decent price.  I ended up spending $200 more for the GE75 Raider, which came out in January.  Four things impacted – the display (120mhz vs 144mhz), the graphics card (RTX 2070 vs GTX 1070), the display bezel is much smaller, and the lid doesn’t have strobing lights – yay!   Honestly, I didn’t realize what a difference a small bezel had.

I took the 500GB SSD main drive, with a 1TB HDD.  It has an extra NVMe / PCIe slot so I can add another super fast SSD later.  16GB of RAM, expandable to 32 if need be. The setup phase is the fun part, and to avoid having to download GB of games, I’m in the process of transferring what I can from Steam et. al to the new box.  Thankfully that’s pretty straightforward – just

One of the good bits is that MSI doesn’t have much bloatware.  One game optimizer, one to controls the keyboard lights (I turned them of to give 90mins more battery life), and Norton (which will soon be removed).

Anthem

The game doesn’t load all that much faster, which is a real disappointment.   I’m running it off the NVMe drive that has the highest possible read/write on the market.  The computer boots super fast, and other items are near instant… so this is clearly an Anthem issue.

I disabled motion blur, and have a few more tweaks to apply on the video.   It runs ultra smooth, with significantly more detail, and the display is so much crisper.  Feels a lot like when I swapped my my standard TV for an HD version.  I’d have to run FRAPS or something similar to get a FPS reading.  This is not the RTX 2070 MaxQ (that’s a smaller form factor).

I’ll need to run some other bits to see how it goes.

Other Bits and Bobs

I like the keyboard and numpad.  Good size, distribution, movement and weight.  That looks weird when I type it out, but people who use a computer daily understand the value.  Trackpad actually works, which was a concern for me with MSI.  Not that I actually use, what with a gaming mouse.

The sound is ridiculous.  It has 2 speakers and 2 woofers, which is better quality than all my bluetooth speakers.  The sound range is impressive.  The speakers point down, which isn’t much of an issue since I have a cooling pad.

Tons of lighting and performance options on this rig.  It’s going to take a while for me to figure it all out.  I have never been a fan of keyboard backlighting (it’s off now), but lighted USB ports in a dark room isn’t a bad idea.

The fans max out with Anthem, and are noticeable.  Less so than my older Clevo/Sager, but you know they are present.  Can barely hear them at normal mode – or when casting a video through Chrome.

While the same screen size, it is an all around smaller laptop.  Fairly close to 15″ laptops I use from work, as they have a larger bezel.

Older Laptop

I’ll need to reset some of the settings and clear some room to make it a family laptop.  More than capable to keep running for a few more years without needing to pump out ultra settings.  I’ll certainly need to transfer some things to the NAS, and other bits to the new box… and as with everytime I do this, I’m going to forget a few things.

Nice Gift

I am not a frivolous spender, and I tend to over research things.  Pretty obvious if you’ve been reading this blog the past few months.  It took a bit of self-convincing that this was the right time, and that the funds could be spent for what I wanted.  The good news in this is that since the bitcoin mining phase is dropping, now’s a great time to get a GPU.

Gaming Laptop Redux

When I was a kid, I really dug into every PC spec I could.  I spent hours building the darn things, and from x486 until about 5 years ago, I would help other people build theirs.  It was ridiculous the amount of info required to make that work, especially in the pre-internet days.  But then again, most people had a sound card and not a video card – and here we are with the ability to link multiple cards together, and have a hard drive the size of a business card.

 

Technically, the foundations of PC builds are relatively the same.  It’s the extra flavor bits that make it interesting.  The video above is both fascinating (200fps is bonkers), and worrying in that the amount of POST/OC config options take an engineering degree.  (Side note, the RTX2080ti used in the video goes for about $1200US.  There are 2 in this box.)

I’ve mentioned the debate on PC vs laptop a few times now.  Laptop just seems the most practical way forward for my particular situation.

Honestly, 95% of this drive is because of the technical issues with Anthem.  Sure my rig isn’t brand new, but it was top of the line 3 years ago.  I’ve played most anything on ultra/high without problem.  Yet Anthem makes CPU/GPUs melt, leverages Denuvo (I think) which makes HDD melt, and pretty much makes any non PC-enthusiast rig look like garbage.  Let’s just say that the bar to entry to enjoy Anthem is at the highest I have ever seen.  Day 1 patch is trying to lower that bar, otherwise I don’t see how consoles could ever make this work.  Reddit seems to think that the patch did address this.  Maybe not perfect, but the 90s load times from the beta seem closer to 30s.

Anyways, back to specs.  As much as there are advances in the desktop space (PCIe NVMe bridges!) laptops are not that far ahead.  The good news is that it’s a simpler affair, with only a few places where it will muck up.  Let’s go over the basics.

CPU – i7 Gen 8 – 8750H

There’s very little reason to go i9 on a laptop, as you’re going to end up with a tank of a machine, for minimal value.

RAM – 16GB, DDR4

Most games will take 8GB, so having double and room to expand again is important.

Storage – 256GB SSD boot, 512GB+ NVMe M.2 PCIe

This is really interesting!  SSD for boot, I think it a given.  Sizes are all over the place, and experience says 128GB is going going to be running near 80% capacity.  Active drive is more fun.  Traditionally laptops come with a 7200rpm HDD as the 2nd drive, and maybe a 2nd drive for NVMe.  The important part here is to note that not all M.2 drives are the same – there are SATA and PCIe variants, with the latter being much faster.  GEEK ALERT – SATA3 = 0.5GB/s, while PCIe = up to 15GB/s.

GPU – GTX 1070

While RTX are available, the gains are minimal and only 1-2 games actually support ray-tracing.  The question then becomes which one in the GTX10 field.  1050s are too old.  1060s will give 1080p, which in practical terms is going to give you ~60FPS.  1070s will not reach 4K, but they will get you to the 120FPS mark.  1080s are 4K ready and real beasts.  Also cost an arm and a leg, and can cook an egg.  There are sub variants of GPUs as well here, like a MaxQ.  Just don’t.

Display- 17″ with 120Hz refresh rate

17″ screens are found in really small form factors.  They also allow for a larger battery.  15″ I find I am squinting for details.  The refresh rate is tied to the FPS.  Well, not technically but they are close enough that you can map.  60fps = 60Hz.  If you can get more than 60fps, then get a better display.  Unless you are loaded with money, a 4K laptop is out of the picture.

Networking –  Killer

Not much debate to be had here.

Ports – 2x USB 3 + USB-C/Thunderbolt

Need at least 1 port for a cooling pad (with fans) that also acts as a USB hub. Maybe could get by without.  1 port for the mouse.  You need powered USB ports!  Rest usually works itself out.  The USB-C/Thunderbolt port is gravy – massive transfer speeds and is the best way to get a docking station / external monitor to work.  This is the hardest bit to find in a laptop, you need to know the exact model you’re looking for.

Ergo/Placement/Battery – Personal

I want a trackpad on the bottom.  17″ laptops should come with a numpad.  Speakers should be on the top of the keyboard tray.  Cooling is out the back/bottom.  Thin is ok, but a “standard” size is fine too.  I’m done with the giant 10lbs bricks.  Battery life should be at least 4 hours for non-gaming.

Summary

I’ll be honest, it took nearly a month to get that shopping list complete, with daily research bits.  Finding the exact machine that has all these parts in it… I won’t lie, that is a friggin’ challenge.  Right now it looks like a GE73 Raider.  Maybe a STRIX/Zephyrus.  The Alienware boxes are just too expensive.

Time to set a product watch and wait for a decent deal

Mock-Up Prices

I’m Canadian, so we pay for things in Timbits.

Let’s start with assumptions first – any piece that is listed as the same for PC and laptop, the laptop variant will have at least 15% less performance.  HDD and RAM are the only 2 components that can be swapped on laptops – restricting upgrade paths.  PC have much larger screen areas, and much better options.  I used the canadian version of NewEgg  as the price search tool, just for consistency’s sake.

Now understanding that this is not ever going to be apples to apples, at least conceptually it should be close.  The requirements are then:

  • i7 8700 (8th gen CPU)
  • 16GB DDR4 3000 RAM
  • 512 GB SSD HDD1
  • 2 TB HDD2
  • GTX 1070TI video card

Laptops

Given the fact that I can’t build a gaming laptop, I will be paying a premium for the build.

  • ROG Zephyrus M is $2500
  • MSI GP series for $2100
  • MSI GS series (thin) for $3600′
  • Razer Blade 15 (GTX 1060) for $2100

A “regular” sized laptop with a 1070 and a 60mhz screen seems to be the best price point, just around $2100.  It’s ~$500 more for a thin version, and another ~$500 for a 144mhz screen.

PC

This is more complicated, since I need all the parts, and arguably there is 10x more selection.  For the sake of simplicity, I will add baseline parts that are “middle of road”.

CPU  i7 8700K 500
MB Asus PRIME Z390-P LGA1151 160
RAM Corsair Vengeance LPX 16GB (2x8GB) DDR4 3000MHz 185
1HDD Samsung 970 PRO NVME M.2 2280 512GB PCI-Express 3.0 x4 SSD 220
2HDD Western Digital Purple Surveillance 2TB 3.5″ SATA HDD 100
VIDEO Asus GeForce GTX 1070 TI 8GB GDDR5 570
COOL Corsair Hydro Series H60 90
SUPPLY EVGA 750 B3 750W 80 PLUS Bronze Power Supply 100
CASE Corsair Carbide SPEC-06 Tempered Glass Black Mid Tower Case 120
WIN Windows 10 180
Total 2225

Now, I could shop around for better price points, hopefully all from the same supplier.  I still would need a new monitor.  And again, this rig would be ~15% more powerful than the laptop, perhaps a bit more.

Getting a custom PC build with this setup is ~$600 in extra costs as a minimum.  Some places had it closer to $1500.

One suggestion was to build a cheap box with my kid as a learning experience.  A quick search on that comes to around $700, assuming I don’t want it to catch fire.  Pretty much everything is 50% less cost, the video card is $0 (for onboard instead), and the CPU is around $100.

Conclusion

There is no viable conclusion on a blog, when cost comparing PC parts.  That’s farcical.  However, my gut telling me that I can pay near the same price between two products and get more for my money is quite attractive.  Further understanding that the PC build will last longer since it’s parts are inherently replaceable is also motivating.

I guess religion, politics, and PC/Laptop are topics that have no easy answers!

Technology is Crazy

Or maybe we’re the crazy ones.

After my daughter and I finished up her hockey practice, I decided to go and pick up the RAM for the laptop.  I had already done some digging into which specific specs I had in the box.  I need to properly set the picture.  We had stopped at Booster Juice so she was standing in the computer store with this big container and straw, looking at what most sane people would call a junk store.

Anyhow, I catch the guy at the counter and he asks if I have the old stick.  I don’t, but I spit out the important bits:  DD3, 8Gig, 1600Mhz, 1.35volt.  (Say that out loud for a second.)  The look from my kid like I was talking some sort of space language…It’s enough, and he looks through a wall of RAM to find what’s needed.  This tiny little thing and we leave the store.

There were a lot of questions in the car ride back.  I start explaining what all that jargon means, and she asks that golden questions “why is it so complicated?”, followed by the geek question “can we build a computer?”.  To answer “to make people feel smart” and “sure, but we need to to some studying first.”

Computer Jargon

Or perhaps, I should say the abundance of ridiculous choice.  There are a half dozen viable choices of thermal paste today.  RAM comes in multiple sizes, speeds, and voltages.  CPUs are near indistinguishable (i7 has been around for 6 years).  It’s near impossible to pick a motherboard, or know what you’re buying.  And video cards…sweet baby jeebers – the GTX1080 has 3 variants (base, VR, TI).

And that’s aside from things like proper cases, power supplies, hard drives, and cooling systems.  Feels like I need an engineering degree so that I have a chance to see reflections in a puddle.  It’s such a ridiculously high barrier of entry.

I won’t talk about POST tests… argghgg

Simple Solutions

The PC market isn’t dying, it’s simply getting a smaller form factor.  I do get that PCs are even more niche now, but let’s be honest, laptops are the way forward.  At $500 you can get one that can do nearly everything you need, including some basic gaming.  For $2500 you can get a super slim ultra powerful laptop too – know that it’s entirely covered by warranty, and that it will work when you boot it up.  And with decent power management options, it can get through a day of work without charging.

I could build a PC for half the cost, but it would be physically stuck in a single place and 3x the size.  It’s pretty hard to “co-game” with someone with a PC, while a pair of laptops is stupid simple.  A port replicator gives that desktop feeling too.

Next Steps

As much as I would like to build a PC, I think for practical reasons it will be easier to get a gaming laptop.  Practical in terms of use, not purchasing.  Looking at options:

  • Sager/Clevo custom build (exact specs, great price, massive size)
  • MSI make some amazing rigs, at different form factors.  Stealth is almost an ultrabook.  Titan is a tank.  Raider seems a reasonable size.
  • Alienware was bought by Dell and reports are all over the place.  Build quality is strong, but cooling & fan noise seem to be a problem.  They look amazing.
  • ROG fits in-between the last two, with odd price points.

Key points I’m looking for:

  • 16GB of RAM
  • 256 SSD + 1TB of hard drive
  • Upgradeable storage/RAM
  • Thunderbolt 3 port (for docking/daisy chain to other things)
  • GTX 1070
    • Not enough games actually support ray tracing, and this card is still gives 4K, at less than half the price of an RTX2080.
  • 8th gen i7 CPU
    • 9th gen is marginal performance (5%) for ~$100 more.
  • Solid cooling to keep CPU < 80, and physical laptop < 32
  • Low noise levels when fans are at load
  • Screen size isn’t all that important, but a 17″ would be nice

That fun stuff runs around $2500 – with that Thunderbolt port being the tough one to find.  More digging required…and no real rush either.

Gaming on the Move

I’ve been building PCs since middle school.  Not sure why it clicked back then, but it was a pretty big deal for a long time.  And frankly, back then I could build a PC in about 30 minutes – with the OS build being the longest part.  Today?  It’s still easier than most people think, but it’s more of a science.

It’s been about 10 years since I built my last box.  I certainly enjoyed it, and the super flexibility of applying upgrades over time.  Replacing RAM or a video card is pretty simple.  Replacing a CPU… well that gets rougher.  Cooling options were starting to get a bit too complex for my tastes.  The next upgrade was a gaming laptop – a Clevo tank.  It provided all the benefits of desktop gaming, but allowed me to move around with it.

There are downsides to laptop gaming.  Replacing parts is more complicated.  Hell… just getting the parts is hard, as most video cards are only sold to resellers.  Plus, it’s not like you can get a new keyboard, or a new monitor.  It’s a complete package, and you’re going to pay a premium for it.  Plus, the thing can get hot as hell so a laptop tray is often a good call.

The last one I purchased in 2015.  Solid box at the time, with a 970M card.  The 1070M  is ~100% better, but I can’t really find one to buy.  Box currently has 8GB of RAM, which could certainly use a boost to 16GB.  CPU is an i7 but a 4th gen.   I am pretty sure I can upgrade to 7th gen, if I can find a chip, again not exactly common.  I can’t get an 8th gen (let alone 9th), that will require a new motherboard and new RAM – essentially a new laptop.  So really the only viable option here is more RAM – $50 should be able to get a new 8GB stick.

I think I’ll spend the new few weeks scoping out other options.  I like the idea of building a great gaming rig and then streaming that in the house.  Pretty sure I could build an entire super rig for ~$1500.  Another top end laptop, that’s more like $2500.   Been a while, and the rust is showing.  Still, fun to shop!

 

Facebook and Ethics

Zuckerberg’s face is all of the media right now.  Quite a few items remarking on his poor social abilities.  He’s clearly on the autism spectrum and if I recall it’s more in-line with Asperger’s.

That generally means that the switch inside the head doesn’t register non-vocal feedback, and that the social skills never truly develop.  Socially inept.  We’ve all met people where social cues just go right by.  This is more evident in high school and college settings, where everyone is showing tremendous social growth, while others seem stalled.  As adults, the social aspects are usually screened out during the hiring process.  Or in.  Or the individual has learned some tricks to manage that lack of skill.

Or, they deploy a data harvesting tool with the guise of connection building, and become a billionaire.

Privacy

I work in IT.  Specifically at the intersection of consumer functions and security/privacy controls.  I know more than I should, or at least some days I’d prefer to know less.  First point – if you’re online you are giving up privacy.  Full stop.  Either you pay to control it (part of it at least, or the appearance of control), or you do it for free and give up that control.

There’s a reason it’s so easy to DOX someone.

The internet may be temporary – sites come and go – but it’s all archived somewhere.  It is both permanent and impermanent at the same time, making it really quite hard for people to navigate.  What people were doing 10 years ago is still being used to screen new hires.  That is not going away anytime soon.

Ethics

Ethics are a social construct.  We don’t eat dogs in North America, rarely eat horse.  In other parts of the world it’s a regular meal.  Ethically we have issues with that, while other do not.  That’s at the national level.  Even at the community level this changes.  Find two churches and you’ll find two different sets of ethics.

Now throw in someone who has no ability to understand the social implications of ethics.  They are not un-ethical in the sense that they purposefully go against ethical norms, but more so in that they just don’t understand the nuances of ethics.

For better or worse, this also means that they are immune from international ethics.  Say in one country, it’s entirely acceptable to scrape all user related data to make a giant database of behavior (China).  In another, the company must disclose all private data to the users (Germany).  A company working in both areas has to find the right balance, let alone their corporate policies to manage their service.  That Facebook said it would apply GDPR is a good step.  Considering that they fought it tooth and nail, is more like a thief admitting guilt after caught, but it’s still some progress.

I will say that for all the faults, the EU seems to take this more seriously than most other countries.  Canada would be wise to integrate those policies, as we tend to align the same way.  I mean that in the context of post-national ethics.  We’re all humans before we’re nationals after all, much more alike than dissimilar.

Silicon Valley

Generally run by people with poor social skills focused more on the what can we do, rather than why should we do it.  There’s a really good reason why so many harassment issues have come out of the woodwork in these companies.  A psychopath is someone who lacks empathy – they are not not just serial killers.  A lack of social skills is right in line with that behavior.

Many people are driven by power/money, and once bitten by that bug, it’s hard to go back.  People get blinded by their own agenda that they lose sight of the impacts of their decisions.  Uber simply didn’t care that there were existing markets, they just dropped down illegal cabs, paid a few fines and disrupted an entire market.  There’s only a small difference between that and WalMart moving into a small town, closing all the mom and pop shops, milking the town dry, then closing their shop down for good.

And we let them.  Because it’s practical.  Or it’s cheaper.  We’ll sell our souls to the devil without a blink of an eye.  Most times, we won’t even realize we’re doing it.  Or we think it doesn’t affect us.

Some Progress

The conceptual idea of adding more connections is certainly good.  It’s the foundation of the internet after all.  We are too soon into that space as compared to other social advances, for a web of ethics to have developed.  By breaking down the geographical barriers, we have exposed the sensitive nerves of ethic boundaries.  It’s much easier to ignore dog eating in China if you don’t ever hear about it.  Much harder to do when it’s on the newsfeeds, websites, and social media.

We’re growing.  We’ve taken a long swim in the infinite ocean and lost our footing at times.  The “go local” movement is meant to ensure we have both a foot inside our real space and the virtual one, and a better appreciation for both worlds.  There’s still a lot of work to do.  I’ll be spending my time educating myself and my family on the risk/reward facets of internet use.  Paying more attention to the terms of use, changing permissions on my devices, removing myself from some tools.  Still being involved, but under my terms.

And if it costs me more, or takes more time.  So be it.