Sunday, July 23

tweaking the old PC

It started out as an exercise to improve Google Earth's performance on my oldest PC (a Sony Vaio PCV-J150, which came with the SiS 630 video chipset - no longer made).

There are two tiny, almost insignificant problems:
1- This PC randomly reboots every few weeks, and XP points to "an unknown driver" causing the problem.

2- Everytime I'd do something "interesting" in Google Earth (zoom in, pan around, tilt to 3D mode) the app crashes, and the video goes into a minimal mode (640x480x16 maybe). A reboot is needed to fix things.
I was in the mood for a better video card. I waddled up to Fry's to look around. Eek! There must've been more than 100 cards from which to choose .. maybe 200. I hate making a choice In The Store, and decided to come home and research: which card will be my best option? I'm fairly sure I'll be choice-limited given the age of this PC (800 MHz AMD Duron - and maxed out at a whopping 512MB memory).

I dug out the Sony's manual and noticed two things:

1- indeed, there is no Accelerated Graphics Port (AGP) - PCI only.

2- the (shared) video memory is adjustable via the BIOS! The default (current setting) is 8 MB; the User Guide says I can bump it to 16 MB. Once I'm in the BIOS setup, I see a third option: 32MB video (so much for updated docs). That'll drop the memory available for applications to 480MB (512-32), but I'll try it.

Reboot Windows XP and start the application:
Google Earth: Strongly Recommend 'DirectX'
(x) Upon investigation, we find that your particular graphics card does not support Google Earth in 'OpenGL' mode. You are likely to encounter severe problems with Google Earth if you proceed. We apologize for the inconvenience but we would like to switch you to 'DirectX' mode. Do you want to follow this recommendation? (Yes or No)
I accepted that invitation, then updated the video driver, and relaunched Google Earth. The message eased to:
Google Earth: Recommend 'DirectX' mode
You are starting Google Earth in 'OpenGL Software Emulation' mode, which will work but runs more slowly. We recommend you try 'DirectX' mode for the bext Google Earth experience. Would you like to switch to 'DirectX' mode? (Yes or No)
"Probably just a little slower," I thought and tried OpenGL. Egads: it's now Pig Slow! Slowly, I'm getting the message that DirectX is The Way To Go, and I should forget the OpenGL (Google Earth default) setting.

Now, I'm not sure why, but something told me there's a more recent driver. I found version 2.09, available as a ZIP archive. Extracting the file took a lonnng time (15 minutes?), but eventually I installed it and see this correlation:
dateWindows XP
v1.08 29 Jul 2001
v2.03a 8 Jan 2002
v2.09 11 Dec 2002
The most recent driver is still over 3 years old, but that's 16+ months fresher than my old one. Odd: the most recent 630 driver on the SiS website is version 2.08d. Hmmm .. where'd 2.09 come from?

Throwing caution to the wind, I tried the app in OpenGL mode, and it's back to the "Strongly Recommend DirectX" message. Okay, okay .. enough already; at least now I can pan and zoom and rotate without a crash (knock wood). Also, the dxdiag utility confirms I have 32 MB of video RAM. I'll try this for awhile and see if it's stable.

RANT: Every month, I've been a Good Little Soldier and ran Windows Update, but not once was I advised of a more recent video driver. Whose fault is it? Did SiS forget to tell Microsoft they have updated drivers - over 3 years ago? I can only hope this exercise fixes my tiny, almost insignificant problems.

Now that the video adapter's updated, if the PC continues to periodically reboot, I'll waddle over to the local computer store and buy a replacement video adapter, assuming they're still made for PCI (non AGP) relics. Argh. That'd probably occupy another Sunday afternoon. Maybe I'll wait. And wait some more.

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