Part two of Personal Computer World's guide to getting the most from your system.
Twenty five top tips for trouble-free computing, which could save you time, money and sleepless nights.
26. DVI output
A fairly recent addition to graphics cards is the DVI connector. DVIstands for Digital Video Interface and it offers superior image quality compared to the humble D-Sub. To take advantage of the DVI output, your monitor needs to be equipped with a matching DVI connector. So far these have only really appeared on flatpanels, but Iiyama has recently released a 19in monitor with DVI support.
The advantage of DVI is that the video signal, in the case of an analogue monitor, doesn't get converted to analogue by the graphics card, but rather in the monitor, thus keeping a higher quality signal for longer.
If you're using a flatpanel, the benefits of DVI are even greater, as the signal is digital all the way and you won't even have to set up your display because, with DVI, this is done automatically to ensure optimal image quality.
The only downside to DVI is that the maximum resolution is currently limited to 1,280 x 1,024, so if you want a higher resolution than that, you'll have to stick with analogue.
27. Detail settings
If you're experiencing slowdowns in games, have a look at the detailsettings you?re using. It's more than just the resolution that affects the speed of games; things such as the draw distance of objects, the colour depth and the complexity of the graphics will have an impact on the performance.
As a general rule, using 16bit colour will improve game performance,although with some graphics cards (notably Kyro/Kyro 2-based cards) you won't get a huge performance gain by using 16bit colour. Depending on your graphics card, try different settings and see what works best for you.
28. Transform and Lighting engine
If you're the proud owner of a graphics card that features a T&L engine (Transform and Lighting), you should enable this in all games that support it, as it will improve performance. However, some older games might prove to be incompatible with T&L and you'll have to disable it in the driver.
T&L allows the GPU (Graphics Processing Unit) to take over a lot ofcalculation work from the CPU and thus improve the overall speed of games. In some games it does improves the image quality, as the T&L engine on the graphics chipset is usually more optimised for the task than the system processor.
29. Combating screen flickering
If you've noticed a lot of flicker in some of your games, it might bebecause the game has defaulted your screen's refresh rate to 60Hz. This is far from ideal and it might give you a headache after extended gameplay.
To overcome it, click on Run in the Start menu and type in 'dxdiag' to start DirectX diagnostics. Select the More Help tab and click on the Override button. Here, there's an option to force the refresh rate to your own preference. Make sure you set it within the limitations of your monitor, or it will be outside of its scan range and you won't get a picture at all.
A couple of things that will improve the performance of your graphics card is to enable four-speed AGP, if the card supports it, as well as AGP fast write. However, your graphics card needs to have support for AGP fast write or your system will crash.
So far, AGP fast write has been a feature of Nvidia-based graphics cards, although it's getting more and more common on all AGP graphics cards.
31. Enabling CPU Level 1 and 2 cache
When hunting around inside your Bios, the first thing you should check is whether CPU Level 1 and 2 cache is enabled. If either is disabled, your system will most likely slow down to such a degree that it will almost reach a standstill. This is because the cache is a small amount of very fast memory from which the processor retrieves its instructions, rather than having to resort to reading from the comparatively slow system memory.
32. Smart capabilityA fairly new addition to the average Bios is hard drive Smart capability. Smart stands for Self Monitoring Analysis And Reporting and it allows the early prediction and warning of impending hard disk disasters.
It's difficult to recommend enabling or disabling this feature, as it does slow down your hard drive marginally; but if you're worried about your hard drive failing, it may be worth using. Don't forget to run regular Scandisk sessions (see Storage tips earlier).
33. SD-Ram CAS Latency Time
SD-Ram CAS Latency Time is one of the most important settings when itcomes to memory performance. How you set it depends on the memory modules you have in your system, and it controls the time delay that passes before the SD-Ram starts to carry out a read command after receiving it.
Almost all generic or standard memory modules are of the CAS 3 type and you will have to spend a bit extra to get CAS 2 memory. If your system is equipped with DDR memory, you'll find that you have either CAS 2.5 or CAS 2 memory. The lower the value, the better.
34. SD-Ram Cycle Time and RAS-CAS Delay
The SD-Ram Cycle Time and SD-Ram RAS-to-CAS Delay are similar to the CAS Latency, and if you have a recent system you should set these to the lowest value available to get the best performance out of your memory. However, if you're facing system stability issues, increase these values to the higher setting.
35. SD-Ram RAS Precharge Time and Cycle Length
SD-Ram RAS Precharge Time and SD-Ram Cycle Length are very similar to the two above and you need to set them to the lowest value available to increase performance. If your system is unstable, increase the value and the stability of the system.
36. SD-Ram Bank Interleave
SD-Ram Bank Interleave is one of the most performance-enhancing settings in the Bios when it comes to memory tweaking. This feature enables you to set the interleave mode of the SD-Ram interface. Interleaving allows the banks of SD-Ram to alternate their refresh and access cycles. If there are four banks in the system, the CPU can send one data request to each of the SD-Ram banks in consecutive clock cycles. This fastest setting is called four-bank interleave.
You must have 64Mbits or larger SD-Ram chips to be able to take advantage of this feature. Older memory will only support two-bank interleave and, even though it will give you a performance boost, it won't be as high as if you had used four-bank interleave. This is the one memory tweak that shouldn't cause any stability issues.
If your motherboard doesn't support SD-Ram Bank Interleave you might want to check your board manufacturer's website for a Bios upgrade.Alternatively, you may find an option in your Bios labelled Force Four-Way Interleave, which does exactly what it says. This will increase the performance of the system, but do keep in mind that you still need to use 64Mbit or larger memory modules (all SD-Ram Dimms above 64MB are 64Mbits or larger).
37. AGP aperture size
AGP Aperture Size is another confusing Bios setting about which there has been many a dispute - nobody can decide what the correct setting is supposed to be. Basically, AGP aperture size is set using following this formula: maximum usable AGP memory size, doubled, plus 12Mb.
If your graphics card has little graphics memory, you should set as large an AGP aperture as you can; up to half the system Ram. While increasing the AGP aperture size beyond 128Mb won't hurt performance, it is best to keep the aperture size to somewhere between 64Mb and 128Mb so that the Gart (Graphics Address Remapping Table) won't become too large.
Setting a 64Mb AGP aperture doesn't mean that 64Mb of your Ram will be used up as AGP memory. It will only limit the maximum amount that can be used by the AGP bus to 64Mb. As the amount of graphics memory increases, there's less of a need for the AGP aperture size to increase beyond 64Mb.
38. AGP mode
With today's high-end graphics cards it's important to set the AGP mode correctly. On most modern motherboards the options are four-speed or two-speed AGP, but on some older boards you'll also find one-speed AGP.
The AGP slot is the fastest bus in a modern PC, operating at 66MHz,compared to 33MHz of the PCI bus. This is still not fast enough fortoday's high-end graphics cards, which is why there's an option to double or quadruple the speed of the AGP bus in the Bios.
This is done by transferring data on the falling and rising edge of the signal in two-speed mode, and in four-speed mode it's done in a similar way to that of the 400MHz bus in a Pentium 4 system.
Some older graphics cards won't work in AGP four-speed mode and, if you are experiencing problems with your card, try setting the AGP mode to two-speed. Expect to see systems with eight-speed AGP mode in the near future. These will allow for even higher throughputs for the latest graphics cards.
39. Electromagnetic Interference
From time to time there is talk about EMI, or ElectromagneticInterference, which can cause severe system instability. EMI is extreme values or spikes created by the board's clock generator, very much like a power spike.
There are several ways to decrease EMI in the Bios, even though some of them might decrease the overall system performance by a notch or two.
The most common setting that decreases EMI is Spread Spectrum Modulation (SSM), which reduces the EMI generated by modulating the pulses so that the spikes of the pulses are reduced to flatter curves. This is done by varying the frequency so that the clock generator doesn't use any particular frequency for more than a moment.
If you're experiencing EMI problems try enabling this, but start with the lower values, or if there is a smart option, use this, as if you set the SSM too high you'll only lose performance rather than just getting a stable system.
If you're overclocking your system, make sure you disable SSM, as this can cause extreme fluctuations in the processor speed of up to 50MHz if you set SSM to +/-0.5 per cent on a 1GHz processor.
Another way of decreasing EMI is to enable the Auto Detect Dimm/PCI Clk setting in the Bios. This will switch off any unused memory and PCI slots in your system and decrease the EMI interference, as well as the overall power drain of your system.
This might inflict a small performance decrease on your system, but it's a small price to pay.
40. Bios reset jumper
The most important thing to remember when you're changing settings in the Bios it not to touch anything if you don't know what the outcome will be, or you may cause your system to malfunction. However, almost all boards have a Bios reset jumper that will return all settings to the manufacturer's defaults.
41. Taking the strain
Playing any audio puts a great strain on a PC. Even just playing an audio CD through Windows Media Player hogs the majority of the CPUbandwidth.
Running multiple audio tracks through an audio sequencer can overload the system, leading to system and program crashes. The use of external devices, particularly samplers and sequencers, can take the strain off the sound card and CPU, as they need only manage tiny Midi messages between devices.
If you are not familiar with Midi, try one of the basic tutorials found on the web, such as www.borg.com/~jglatt/tutr/miditutr.htm.
42. Setting up your Midi
What makes Midi more complicated than most PC interfaces is the use of so much external equipment and, more importantly, the difficulties that arise when setting it up. Samplers, sequencers and sound modules are often involved in even the most basic of arrangements, and each piece of equipment must be connected correctly or nothing will work.
The most important thing to remember when setting up a Midi system is that all connections are serial, so a 'daisy chain' must be made. Do note that as the keyboard sends control messages to the PC it needs to be separated from those devices that receive the messages, as the system needs to process these messages before transmitting them to the output devices.
43. Through port
Some Midi devices have Midi Through ports in addition to the moretraditional In and Out ports. If a particular external device in yoursetup has a Midi Through port, it is worth considering whether using this would be beneficial or not. Midi Through ports receive data directly from the Midi In port. This is in contrast to Midi Out ports that carry instructions that are either generated or modified by the device.
Using a Midi Through port means that not only will the data be unaffected, but also the latency between a message being sent by the system and received by the Midi device will be dramatically reduced. As timing is so vital, those few milliseconds saved could work to your advantage.
If your Midi setup has multiple external devices, it may be worth considering investing in a 'Midi Through' hub. This takes the data stream direct from the CPU and delivers that signal via multiple Midi Through ports.
44. Freeware players
The internet has been a major source of discovery and downloading of music for years now, but as most users do not yet have access to broadband technology, streaming audio can be a broken and jagged affair, as it frequently suffers from interference due to Internet congestion and bandwidth issues.
Unfortunately, most of the time there is little you can do except bepatient, but your choice of player can make a significant difference. Real Networks was the first to develop a consumer-friendly streaming audio, and its player is often the fastest when it comes to startup, but suffers from frequent breakdown in streaming. Windows Media Player tends to be the most stable.
These two are considered by many to have the best audio quality, but there is no harm in experimenting with some of the hundreds of freeware players available for download, many of which can be found at www.hitsquad.com.
These are very fast to load up, principally due to their tiny file sizes, but some can be less reliable.
45. Keeping updated
As with every PC component, the correct drivers are essential for a Midi card to function at its best, so regular visits to manufacturer websites are thoroughly recommended. The latest version of DirectX is also recommended, as latency is reduced with each revision, reducing the disparity between audio and video playback.
It is also wise to ensure your whole system, particularly the motherboard, CPU and memory, is running at optimum levels, as the sound card has little effect on the speed of sound production, focusing more on the sound quality.
46. Audio Stream Output Technology
If you're serious about manufacturing or editing music in your PC, ASIO will be familiar to you. Audio Stream Input Output (ASIO) technology is a standardised method of communication between software and hardware audio devices, developed by PC audio king, Steinberg, over three years ago.
The aim is to bypass much of the operating system mechanisms that can hog processor time and cause the ever-dreaded latency between the PC and any external hardware. Not all manufacturers support this system, so it is wise to check before investing in hardware or software that is not up to scratch.
47. Improving the quality of your audio
If you feel the quality of audio coming from your system is not living up to expectations, and you're not sure where the problem is coming from, there are many programs that will investigate the problem for you.
Applications such as Soundchecker, which is available to download at www.cl.spb.ru/asm104/downlod.htm (yes, really 'downlod'), tests audio equipment to determine the location of the weakness. It does this by checking for non-linear distortions (which appear as spikes in the waveform) and measuring the amplitude frequency response and the all-important Signal to Noise Ratio (SNR). Sound cards, mics, amps, speakers and headphones can all be checked.
47. Speaker setup
Regardless of the quality of your internal sound card, speakers play a vital role, and their setup can cause just as many problems when it comes to the quality of the sound. Crackling, hissing and pops are all common problems, and can normally be fixed by simply turning the volume down. This reduces the current transmitted to the speakers, therefore reducing the electromagnetism that causes the hiss and crackle. It will also cut down on the number of sharp fluctuations in current that causes popping.
Also, ensure that microphones and other such devices are kept well away from the speakers as these can cause feedback when turned on.
Finally, as basic as this sounds, check which jack the speakers areplugged into. Speaker Out jacks are designed for non-amplified speakers; therefore, in most cases, the Line Out socket should be used.
49. DTS setup
Nearly all new systems come with DVD drives, and many with six-channel speakers, making them ideal fodder for a Dolby Digital or DTS setup. But if these are not set up and positioned properly, the end result is less accurate positional information, more a muddled collection of sounds.
In an ideal world, satellite speakers should be placed in the furthest corners of a large room. The centre speaker needs to be in the middle, but beware: speakers have strong electromagnetic fields, and can cause permanent damage to the screen if placed too close, so if possible do not place it on top of the monitor.
Many users hide the subwoofer under sofas or any available furniture. This keeps it out of the way, and its positioning is less relevant as we find it harder to determine where bass sounds are coming from.
It is advisable, however, to hide the subwoofer underneath the screen, as this tends to keep the focus on the action.
50. Positioning your speakers
The human ear is designed so that sounds are better received below you when in front, and above when behind you. It is therefore advisable to position speakers to compensate for this, with the front left and right satellites slightly below ear height and the rear speakers towards the top back corners of the room. Finding the elusive 'sweet spot' between speakers is never easy, especially when in a more confined environment.
You are unlikely to remain within the sweet spot for long periods of time, but to get the best out of your surround-sound speakers, point them in your general direction and try to stay in the middle as much as possible.
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