HT's HTPC, Part V
With the SilverPC up and running, (check the August and September issues for that), it comes time to talk about software. After all, you can't run a PC without software.
Vista and DirectX10
As I mentioned briefly in the last installment of this series, Vista isn't necessary. Well, I ought to say that Vista shouldn't be necessary. If you're looking to get the best video performance out of the latest games, Microsoft forces you to upgrade to Vista to get DirectX10.
DX10 is the latest version of Microsoft's own API, or application programming interface. It is essentially what allows every game to talk to all the hardware (and operating system) on every PC. Anyone who remembers gaming in the DOS era will have a hard time faulting DirectX, despite its many, er, faults. The geniuses at Microsoft are requiring Vista for DX10, which, come to think of it, is rather genius, as I can't think of any other reason to upgrade.
Visually, DX10 is a leap beyond the aging DX9. Of course, you'll pretty much have to take my word for that, as all the images available from Microsoft showing the difference didn't seem like actual game-play screen shots. As games written for DX10 come out that also have a DX9 version, we'll post screen shots of both versions at www.HTGamer.com. Suffice it to say, if DX10 looks half as good as the seemingly doctored images do, then we're in for a treat.
Blu-ray and HD DVD
In order to play Blu-ray and HD DVD movies on your PC, you'll need a drive and software to run it. I received Cyberlink's PowerDVD Ultra, which will play back both formats and all the codecs. It's not cheap, but it works and works well. The picture quality is excellent.
Like DVD when it first came out, decoding the video and audio codecs requires a substantial amount of horsepower. Even with a top-of-the-line processor, you really need a video card that specifies hardware decoding of H.264 and/or VC1. Both of the big video-card companies now say they have cards that will work, and, amusingly, both say the other doesn't do it correctly. I haven't used the new ATI cards, but the NVIDIA 8800 GTX in the SilverPC ran every HD DVD and Blu-ray I threw at it without a hitch or hiccup. And according to NVIDIA, the cheaper 8500 and 8600 actually perform the decoding better.
Free, and Vital
There are a few other pieces of software that every PC needs. You must have good anti-virus and anti-spyware programs. You could go out and buy these programs, but there are excellent programs available for free that do just as good a job.
The first is AVG Anti-Virus (http://free.grisoft.com/). It's not pretty to look at, but it works, and it's free. I've had it on all my computers for years, and I've never had a virus. That certainly isn't conclusive, but it's something. They also have a version to buy if you're feeling generous.
The next is a program called Ad-Aware (www.lavasoftusa.com). It's a free anti-spyware program that scans your computer and deletes any spyware. I run this once a week, and it usually finds something it quarantines. Spyware slows your computer at best and steals your personal data at worst.
Every PC has a built-in defragmentation program thanks to Microsoft. There are certainly programs you can find that will do the job (possibly better), but even if you don't want to splurge on one of those, run the built-in version often. Moving, downloading, and deleting files leads to a lot of fragmented files on your hard drive. And pieces of files spread across a hard drive slows performance and can cause slow load times with games, as well as stuttering in video played from your hard drive. Defrag often.
Most new video cards come with extensive software to manage your video output. The latest have extensive resolution options, color and gamma adjustment, and more. Keep in mind that getting the DVI output of a video card to talk with your display is rarely plug-and-play. Check your display's manual for what resolutions it can support and whether it can accept video signals from a computer. Believe it or not, not all can. If it says it does or doesn't, the opposite can be true (gotta love digital). Also, if you want to watch HD DVD or BD via DVI, you'll need a display with HDCP. Over RGB, this isn't an issue.
Game That HT
Gaming on a big screen is a whole new level of entertainment. However, that is just one reason to have a computer in your theater. Massive storage space for CDs and video, checking your e-mail without getting off the couch, and upgradeability to play the latest formats are just but a few more. It's not the easiest thing to use (and no, Microsoft's Media Center doesn't help), but for those of us who are looking to be on the cutting edge and like our games too, a computer in the theater makes perfect sense.
The main purpose of this build was to assemble the ultimate gaming PC. Of course, even several months after its completion, there are really no DX10 games to take advantage of it. But with Vista finally here and the holiday season approaching, dozens of long-awaited games are finally coming out. Check www.HTGamer.com for reviews on those. We're looking forward to Bioshock, Crysis, World in Conflict, Gods and Heroes, and a bunch more. For right now, here's a couple available as I write this that require Vista:
Yet another mediocre game in a mediocre franchise that inexplicably requires Vista to run. Halo could have been so amazing, but the Xbox neutered it. Yes, I'm still bitter.
This multiplayer-only game looks pretty good and has some cool game-play features. If you want to play with someone other than yourself, you essentially have to pay a fee each month on top of the $50 for the game. Forget it; go play CounterStrike.
They're not DX10 or Vista, but check out: Company of Heroes, one of the greatest real-time strategy games ever made.
Lord of the Rings Online—it's no World of Warcraft, but it's a well-made alternate with a great atmosphere if you're a Tolkien fan.
Logitech G9 Gaming Mouse, $99
Sure, the easiest solution for big-screen gaming is a wireless mouse, but I'm not a fan. I have Logitech's G7 cordless, and while its dual-battery design minimizes downtime, there are still those few seconds in the middle of a match where you can lose your mouse. The latest corded mouse from Logitech is the G9, which has all of their mousy goodness and several new features. I prefer a big mouse, and one of the G9's shells fits that bill. If you prefer a thinner mouse, they include a shell for that as well. You can switch the scroll wheel between clicking like a normal wheel, and a seemingly frictionless free-wheel mode that makes scrolling down Web pages incredibly fast and easy. It's such an amazing feature, you'll wonder how no one came up with it before. Then there's the adjustable-weight, on-the-fly adjustable sensitivity, and tons of other customizable options. If I sound enamored, I am. This mouse is awesome.
Logitech G25 Wheel, $299
If you're a fan of racing games, you owe it to yourself to get a decent wheel. It completely changes the experience. And the best part is, most will work with your PlayStation, so when Gran Turismo 5 comes out next year, you'll be all set. The leather-wrapped G25 has a solid, weighty feel, with strong force feedback that is quite realistic. The pedals have just the right amount of resistance, with the brake pedal feeling different from the clutch and the gas. The only downside is the six-speed shifter, which looks the part but feels flimsy; it's the only component in the set that feels more like a toy than a real car. Even so, the wheel and the pedals make this a must-have for racing sim fans.