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The Warranty Is Your Friend

While confronting the main boss at the end of Act 1 of Neverwinter Nights 2, I made some steady progress in Neverwinter Nights 2, confronting the main boss at the end of Act 1, or at least what I interpreted as such. After the fourth reload, it had turned out to be a very tough fight. So tough, it seems, that it broke my video card.

Figuring it was probably overheating to cause such nasty 3D artifacts, I shut down my computer before the whole thing melted. When I brought it up again 10 minutes later, I discovered the surefire evidence of Video RAM damage: streaks across the plain text screen of the CMOS startup. Windows booted readily enough, but with corruption on plain 2D textures and absolutely fubar'd 3D geometry in NWN2. It was time to face facts: My Radeon All In Wonder 9800 Pro had seen its last boot cycle. Incredible, I don't even overclock my hardware and it breaks.

I had picked up the 9800 Pro in February of 2005, so a one-year warranty wouldn't have done me any good. Fortunately, I'm in the habit of taking out 2 year warranties. For a mere $40, burnt out equipment magically becomes worth its retail price when newly purchased in CompUSA's eyes. I now had $300 to apply towards a video card upgrade. Suddenly, CompUSA ranked up there with Santa Claus.

Almost anticipating my very needs, there were two $299.00 choices available for AGP, an NVIDIA and a ATI card. I grabbed the ATI card, a Radeon X1600XT, without a second thought. But now I'm having those second thoughts: ATI was recently bought out by AMD, will that turn out to be a good thing or a bad thing in the long run? Since there were no All In Wonders for trade, I ended up shelling out $70 for a video capture card. Since I was no longer relying on the primary card for video capturing, the option was available for me to take advantage of NVIDIA's better 3D Shutter Glass support. I also didn't have very good Tom's Hardware charts with me at the time, having only an obsolete the 2005 AGP comparison under the incorrect rationale that their latest charts didn't cover any AGP cards. A little research now that I'm home revealed that the other option, which was probably a NVIDIA 7800GS, runs about double the speed. Clearly, my haste to simply swap out the dead ATI for a new one prevented me from applying optimal techniques to milk this golden opportunity.

While it's certainly in my complete rights to use my 30 day money back guarentee to swap this ATI X1600XT for the NVIDIA 7800 GS, I just can't justify being picky about a windfall. It was a "free" upgrade, not counting the $70 capture card and warranties for everything that ran the total bill up to about $125. Despite 3D Bench 2001 barely picking up a higher score and Vana'Diel Bench clocking in at half speed, actual gameplay experience reveals a considerable upgrade to be found in the Radeon XT1600XT. Considering the rediculous amount of on-card RAM, 512MB which is double that of the 7800GS, maybe I made the right choice in the long run. (It's not like AGP is really cutting edge, all the new CPUs are on PCIe motherboards these days.) In the end, while I may have blown my eating out budget for the month, I'm sitting pretty so far as an AGP system is concerned.

Well, actually, it turns out that there was one somewhat significant issue with my new card: On some 3D apps it hangs the system with a black screen of death that the ATI "VPU recover" function is unable to fix. Poking a round ATI's support page, I discovered that this is could be a power supply issue. Apparently the X1600 series cards require a 350W power supply and while I'm not sure if I'm running a 300W or 350W, I probably am pushing things with 2 HDD, DVDROM, 2 or 3 case fans, a 3 1/2" drive, and 2 PCI cards. Is it possible that different apps put different loads of power on the card? Supporting this hypothesis is that Oblivion started working consistently when I swapped the power supply going to the card from the cord that supported 2 HDDs to a cord that just supported the DVD rom. Unfortunately, Sam & Max: Culture Shock isn't working an exhibits identical faults. Neverwinter Nights 2, Phantasy Star Universe, a Dark Messiah of Might and Magic Demo, and (most recently) Psychonauts all seem to work quite well at high detail settings. I guess homocidal lagamorphs require more rendering power than your average game.

Next paycheck, I'll shell out for at least a 400 Watt power supply and see if that fixes it. If not, I hope COMPUSA still has some of those 7800GS around. In the meanwhile, I've been playing around with my new card and appreciating the knowledge that I can suddenly run the overwhelming majority of games in existance with excellent performance. It's almost depressing knowing that few games can justify such a powerful card. Another thing I want to do with my next paycheck is resubscribe to City of Villains and/or EverQuest 2 and see how my video card handles those behemoths. It would be a substantial nail in the coffin if I determined that one or the other caused the same problem Sam & Max is encountering.

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