Showing posts from 2010

Games for Netbooks: FreeCiv

Netbooks are great for trips, but too limited to play most modern games. Lots of great games are playable, however, if you are willing to look a little further back in time. Today I discuss FreeCiv, an open source Civilization II+ clone, which is perfect for Netbook play.

FreeCiv is a turn-based strategy game that plays a bit like a cross between Sim City and a wargame. Starting from a single city, you build up a large empire, while researching the necessary technology for fast expansion or powerful armies, or whatever suits you strategy. Towards the middle and end of the game empire building takes a back seat to fighting your opponents, trying to find the right combination of units and terrain to take their cities by force.

The game seems very hard when you first start: in my first 3 games I couldn't win against the novice AI in the tutorial mode, even after 10+ hours of trying! This highlights one big issue with the game: it's pretty easy to pick up and mess around with the empire building, but really hard to master anything beyond that. The in-game tutorial get's you started, but leaves way to much unstated for any hope of being able to win against even a most novice computer AI. More detailed web-based tutorials fill in the gaps, but even then mysteries remain, such as how to take over even moderately defended cities.

As it turns out, this is because there are a couple rather arbitrary game features which are critical to success, but are rather non-intuitive. One is to switch your mode of government to a republic as soon as possible, (perhaps researching ships first), and second is to incite 'celebration/rapture' once you have size 3+ cities, because this causes them to grow every two turns, independent of the amount of stored grain. That will grow your empire in a hurry, faster than anything else you can possibly do. Two unit types are also very important to military success: ironsides, because they allow you to rule the seas, and marines, combined with transports because marines can attack from a transport, making them very effective against coastal cities. Being first to get to these unit types seems to decide the game, more or less. Finally, although the tutorial suggests that you start building a military fairly early, in my experience (at least against the AI) it's better to focus on expansion until you first meet the other players. Figuring all this out takes a lot of reading of the manual, as it's rather non-obvious what's going on, in game.

Once I mastered these techniques the AIs in the game are all quite easy to beat, though it still takes quite a while to finish a game (3-5 hours). So it seems like the game doesn't have that much long-term appeal, at least against the AI, though there are lots of game rule tweaks you could try out if you like variety. More promissing is the large online community (including play by email) which means you could play against much more challenging opponents where deeper strategy would come into play.  Plus, since it's open source, new versions are coming along all the time. So if you are into turn based play, and like playing online, this might well be worth your time.

What is the best web browser for Notebooks?

Lots of ink (bits?) have been spilled over the question of what web browser is best. I'd hazard that in most cases it's personal taste. For Netbooks, however, with their extremely limited screen size, I think there is an objective case to be made that Chrome is the best. Consider the side-by-size screenshots of FireFox, Opera, and Chrome, below (maximize this window in order to be able to see the full width of the picture).
Assuming you use Tabs, Firefox shows the smallest amount of the page. Opera is a significant step forward, but Chrome is the clear winner. Note at right, I've marked the lines where the other browsers cut off with FF and O, respectively. This is assuming that you do something with the start menu (auto hide, or locate it on the side of your screen) so that all 600 vertical pixels are available for the browser.  If not, Chrome's relative advantage will be even bigger. On the flip side, I've adjusted WinXP's title bars to be smaller than normal, which increases the usable area in FireFox and Opera, but has no influence on Chrome's custom title bar.

Note that I didn't include IE 8. It shows about 4 vertical pixels more than Firefox. That is, it's not a contender. To be fair to Firefox, you can hide the status bar, at the cost of knowing where your links are taking you, and other useful information, and you can always work in non-tabbed mode, thus making it competitive with Opera. Opera and Chrome have no such modes. Chrome, at least, however, puts the tabs where other browsers have the title bar and menus, which are mostly dead space.

It's worth noting that all 3 browsers have a full-screen mode, which is worth using if you are spending a lot of time on  a single web page, but I find myself switching pages too often for that to be very user-friendly.

One other factor to consider is that Opera has a "turbo" mode, which connects to the web via a proxy server that compresses webpages by about half. If you tend to frequent locations with limited or slow connectivity, this feature may well tip the advantage over to Opera.

How to install Windows XP on a Netbook (use a flash drive) - a method that actually works!

Summary: simple, industry standard tools can install WinXP onto a Netbook without a CD.

WinXP was designed to be installed off of a CD, but Netbooks, more or less by definition, do not have a CD drive. The solution is to put the install files on a thumb drive, but it's much more complex than it sounds. There is a wealth of info on the internet with various suggestions of how to do this, and I've tried them all. Almost all fail. Shameful! In particular, don't be tempted by unetbootin (only works with Linux!), Microsoft's ISO to USB/DVD tool (only works with Win7), or trying to install from a DOS boot disk. In addition, there are various scripts around which patch your current WinXP CD in various ways to make it bootable off of a flash drive. I can't say I'm super comfortable with that (just how well tested are these scripts, anyway?), plus at least one script included a tool that was marked as having a Trojan in it. Surely there must a be a way using well-known, well-trusted tools? Yes. The major tools used here are BartPE, and the Windows install program itself, winnt32.exe. The whole process is pretty simple, assuming that you don't need to partition. No links to the software you need are included, since it's usually easier to find the most up to date website for each tool with google.

Summary: Make a thumb drive that can boot a stripped-down windows (with BartPE) and then use that to start the WindowsXP install program, instructing it to copy all of the necessary files to your hard drive, which are then automatically fashioned into a working WinXP installation on your next reboot.

  1. does your drive need to be re-partitioned? I had Linux on my drive, so the answer was yes, unfortunately. This was a pain. If you are just wiping an old Windows install, you can skip this step. I used the HPUSBDisk.exe program to write Win98 DOS bootdisk to a thumb drive, and updated the FDISK.exe to use freedos's FDISK.exe (in order to be able to work with >128GB partitions). If you don't have a 3.5" floppy drive on your desktop, you can use vfd (virtual floppy driver) to mount the disk image. Boot your netbook off the flash drive, type fdisk, and follow the prompts. You just need one giant partition. NOTE: In theory you could do this with BartPE, but for some reason it's not possible to start diskpart when BartPE is running from flash.
  2. Build a BartPE image. BartPE is a tool that makes a bootable CD that runs a very light-weight WindowsXP, created from your WinXP install CD. Just run the PE Builder and use all the defaults, except instead of burning a CD or an ISO, just have it output to a directory on your computer.
  3. Write BartPE to your flash drive with PEtoUSB. The program is pretty self-explanatory. Make sure you check "enable file copy".  
  4. Copy the I386 folder from your Windows install CD to the thumb drive.
  5. Boot BartPE on your netbook.
  6. Format the netbook's hard drive. Start a command prompt, and type format c: /fs:ntfs /q (the /q makes it faster, if you don't need to verify your HD for errors, leave it off).
  7. "Install" a complete Windows Install onto your hard drive. Rather than installing windows directly we tell the installation to copy itself to the hard drive. Start a cmd prompt, and type:
    winnt32.exe /syspart:C: /tempdrive:C: /makelocalsource
    (note: there are spaces before each slash).
  8. Reboot without the flash drive. Installation will start automatically.
  9. Unless it doesn't. For some reason winnt32 didn't write a new MBR to my hard drive, so it tried to boot my now non-existent Linux install. Fix this using the free MBRWizard, which you can copy to your BartPE drive, and then run from the cmd prompt. You want the /repair=1 option.
That's it. It might seem like a lot of steps, but really it's all quite simple and doesn't take much fussing around.  Certainly, it's simpler than many of the other approaches I've seen online. Plus, it actually works. I have a WinXP SP3 install on my Lenovo S10-3 to prove it.

MSI 770-C45 AM3 motherboard review summary

A good AMD motherboard should have at least  the following features: 4 DIMM slots and an AM3 socket. This MSI 770-C45 motherboard meets those requirements. Other notable specs:

6 SATA, 0 eSATA.
2 PS/2 port
1 COM port
No onboard video.
6-core CPU support.
NO Core unlocking.
No floppy connector. 

There aren't any mainstream reviews of this board.

This blogger has a short post for the PRO version which doesn't say much more than you can learn from reading the specs.Note: I'm discussing the non-PRO version here, which has 1 more SATA, one less eSATA, and no crossfire support.

Trusted Reviews - doesn't say much more than reading the specs will tell you.

Newegg has 102 customer reviews. The following negative comments were noted:

  • 12 DOA
  • 7 people had stability problems
  • 4 failed fail in the first couple months
  • 2 people said the manual was unreadable/useless. 
  • 1 person said the on-board audio quality was "terrible"
The NewEgg reviews are quite negative. I would avoid this board, as it doesn't seem to offer much over more highly rated boards that cost only $10 more. 

ASUS M4A77TD AM3 770 ATX AMD Motherboard review summary

A good AMD motherboard should have at least  the following features: 4 DIMM slots and an AM3 socket. This ASUS M4A77TD motherboard meets those requirements. Other notable specs:

6 SATA, 0 eSATA.
1 PS/2 port
1 COM port
No onboard video.
Express Gate - Instant on Linux distro.
Turbo Key (a blast from the past!) use the power button to cycle over-clocking features on or off.
6-core CPU support.
Core unlocking.

There aren't any mainstream reviews of this board.

This blogger has a short post for the PRO version which doesn't say much more than you can learn from reading the specs.Note: I'm discussing the non-PRO version here, which has 1 more SATA, one less eSATA, and no crossfire support.

Newegg has 103 customer reviews.

  • 3 people flat out couldn't get it to work at all;
  • 1 had problems getting windows installed
  • 1 had stability problems 
  • 1 had a failure within first week of use. 
  • 3 people complained about the sound card, but didn't explain why (not Linux users). 2 more said Linux support for the sound card was difficult - they had to make sure they used the latest ALSA drivers. 
  • several people marked their reviews down an 'egg' because it supports legacy ports (COM/PS2, parallel). What idiots. This highlights the problem with trusting newegg reviews. 
Postscript: I decided to buy the m4a77TD, and have set up the m4a77td blog, with a full review and discussion of  various issues, etc.

    ASRock M3A770DE Motherboard - AM3 socket notes

    A good AMD motherboard should have at least  the following features: 4 DIMM slots and an AM3 socket. This ASRock M3A770DE motherboard meets those requirements. Other notable specs:

    4 SATA, 2 eSATA.
    2 PS/2 ports
    0 COM ports
    No onboard video.
    3 PCI - but one is blocked by Floppy connector and CDROM analog audio in port.
    Instant boot - software addon that speeds up WinXp/Vista boot time.
    Core unlocking support.

    Price (4-25-10): $60 from newegg.

    ASRock is a spinoff of ASUS, so they should be relatively trustworthy.

    The big plus of this board is the price. The minus: 2 less SATA ports than most, and no COM port (most don't have these anymore, though).

    Tweaktown has a review. It doesn't really say much you couldn't tell from reading the specs.

    Newegg customer reviews are mostly positive. Out of 74 reviews, the only negatives that showed up were

    • The raid support is not very stable
    • One person had lots of stability problems that sounded like a bad MB
    • One person had a heat-sink pop off.
    • 3 people had the board fail within a few hours of first use (I wonder if it is heatsink problems?).
    • One person found that a CPU which could be core-unlocked on another MB would not unlock and run without crashing on this one (plenty of other people comment that core-unlocking did work for them). 

    Sounds like a reasonably high quality board, especially given the price. On the other hand, $25 more buys you an ASUS MB of similar specs + 2 more SATA ports.

    Selecting an AMD motherboard for 2010

    There are a lot of cheap motherboards in the $60 range, and a lot in the $100 range. Going cheap, however, may be more expensive once you factor in the cost of other components.

    For instance, DDR3 2GB ram is $60/piece. DDR 4GB ram is $250 (prices So if you get a cheap MB with just two ram slots, you are pretty much limited to 4GB of ram, at least at economical prices. 4GB might be enough for anybody (today) but for how long? Ram usage seems to go up a lot quicker than CPU usage.

    Selecting a CPU for 2010

    According to Tom's CPU charts, there is a measurable difference between the fastest and slowest CPUs they tested in 2009. This is not surprising. But the difference is not that huge, either.  For now, I'm considering AMD chips only, due to Intel's offensive use of patents and lawsuits over the years.

    For instance, 3DS Max rendering can be sped up by a factor of 2.2 by upgrading from a AMD Athlon II X2 240 Regor 2.8GHz ($53) to a AMD Phenom II X4 965 Black Edition Deneb 3.4GHz ($186). Not all benchmarks benefit as much, though. MP3 encoding with LAME is only 1.2x faster.  Adobe Premiere is 2.5x faster, and FarCry has 1.4x the FPS. The difference between scores has to due with whether the application is multi-threaded. Content creation, therefore, has the best chance of significant speed-up, but it's certainly less than linear, with respect to cost. Modern video games benefit as well, but will tend to depend much more on your video card. 

    This suggests that the cheap-ass approach would be to buy a good MB with a cheap CPU now, and then upgrade later.  Unfortunately, the latest AM3 sockets don't support AM2 CPUs. So you'll have to buy the cheapest AM3 CPU you can find ($53, as quoted above), if you want the longest upgrade path (AM3 was released in Feb 2009, so it should be around for a while).  AM3 supports DDR3, whereas AM2 only supports DDR2.

    DDR3 costs $120 for 4GB ( DDR2 costs $116-$134 (depending on speed) for the same GB. So it looks like the price has mostly equalized. Meanwhile DDR1 is $300 for 4GB, which goes to show: don't get stuck on an old technology - it's not going to be cheaper forever.

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