Musing #60: PC Overclocking

Having grown up through the megahertz and subsequently the gigahertz war, I can only say that speed matters. Over the years, I fought to get the last ounce of performance out of the system that was "machinely" possible. This was the case until Sandy Bridge arrived. On one hand, it offered the most value for money in an eternity and on the other, set a trend where overclocking meant buying in to the most expensive processors and motherboards.

Hence, it was a practical decision at the time to go with the i5-3470, a processor with locked multiplier, along with a H77 chipset motherboard that was not meant to assist overclocking. It still offered the option to run all the cores at the turbo frequency of 3.6 GHz instead of the base frequency of 3.2 GHz and that is how it ran for nearly 6 years. It met every requirement I had of the system and a bit more so as to not be concerned about upgrading.

However, as is always the case, my hand was forced, like it was in the past when I upgraded to the GTX 1060. Only this time, I had no intention of upgrading the trio of processor, motherboard and RAM considering the inflated memory prices as well as with AMD's Zen 2 and Intel's 10nm processors around the corner. For the first time, I was left in a rather peculiar situation where I needed to change a component for a platform that has been discontinued for years.

Luckily, there is always the web that one can turn to. Scourging the tech forums for a desired motherboard is akin to hitting the lottery and sure enough I didn't luck out. Then, I decided to go with one of the B75 chipset motherboards that were still mysteriously available on Amazon, only to discover that they were OEM boards with a locked BIOS and lacking compatibility with my RAM. So, after I made the most of Amazon's gracious return policy, I decided to uptake the final resort and go ahead with the purchase of a used motherboard, admittedly with my fingers crossed, on AliExpress.

The shipment had its fair bit of drama over a period of 3 weeks but finally made its way through and was surprisingly well packaged. The absence of dust was a welcome sight, though the rusted socket screws immediately gave way to the fact that the board was used. All things considered, the motherboard was in good condition and thankfully the mounting bracket was included.

The board, an Asus P8Z77-V LX, opened up CPU overclocking opportunities in ages, albeit limited ones on account of my existing hardware. Overclocking can't be thought of in isolation as due consideration is needed to be given toheat. Intel's stock cooler is anything but the perfect foil for overclocking and hence I had to first stock up (pun intended) on an after-market cooler. For this, I again first turned to the used market and amazingly found an open box Deepcool Gammaxx 300 for INR 1200 ($17) as opposed to a new unit price of INR 2000 ($29). It isn't something on any ardent overclocker's wishlist but it gets the job done with its 3 heat pipes and a ginormous 120 mm fan.

To capture the difference that even a budget after-market cooler can make, I ran the stock cooler back-to-back with the Gammaxx 300 on the exposed motherboard. To check the stress temperatures, I simply bumped up the CPU multiplier over the default settings. Even in this setup, the Gammaxx 300 lowered the temperatures by over 20 degrees when under load while also ensuring a much lower idle temperature.

The bigger test however is ensuring lower temperatures in a constrained environment. In that sense, my cabinet (a generic old one at that) is not located in the most optimum position due to cabling constraints. Hence, I was expecting the temperatures to be much worst than they actually turned out to be. It also indicates that using the stock cooler was not even an option, unless you are looking for fried eggs and expensive paperweights.

Being out of the overclocking game for so long, I read up on the motherboard's features while the board was still in transit to fathom some of the newer terms and pretty much decided on a list of settings I would go around changing in my pursuit of performance with the lowest power consumption and heat generation. Thankfully, up until Ivy Bridge, Intel provided limited unlocked multipliers 4 bins above the maximum turbo frequency. This meant that my i5-3470 with a base multiplier of 32 and turbo multiplier of 36 was capable of being run at 40 multiplier. This doesn't imply that all 4 cores can simultaneously hit the 4 GHz mark as it is limited to 3.8 GHz by design. However, what it means is that it can certainly hit the magical 4G mark when one or two of the cores are loaded. I suppose there is some satisfaction in finally getting an old horse to learn new tricks.

Setting the multiplier at its maximum is easy and can even be done using the Auto or XMP overclock option. The difficult part is controlling the temperatures while also finding the limits of the RAM. To that end, I found the Load-Line Calibration to be an indispensable tool in tightening up the voltages and thereby lowering the offset. After much trial and error, I was able to set a stable CPU offset of -0.045V with the high (50%) LLC option which lowered the temperatures by a few more degrees and ensured next to no vDroop.

Running quad-channel RAM from different manufacturers is always a tricky proposition, even when the timings are the same. I had my initial CAS 9, DDR3-1600, 2 x 4 GB Corsair Vengeance teamed up with a similar GSkill RipjawsX set from 4 years later. This meant the job of overclocking the RAM was anything but easy and involved numerous failed boots. Eventually, I was able to get them to run stably at 1800 MHZ, CAS 10 with only a minor bump up in voltage to 1.53V. However, the impact on memory performance was not insignificant.

I suppose it makes sense to go all-in when you have entered the game. Hence, I decided to overclock my GPU as well. For over 2 years, I never overclocked the Zotac GTX 1060 Mini, being as it is, a single fan device. Size can be misleading though and the added CPU cooler certainly aids the overall air flow. It didn't take me long to figure out the memory isn't going to be up to the task, which is understandable considering it is not protected by a heat sink. In the end, I conservatively increased the memory clock by 100 MHz and the core clock by 200 MHz without touching the voltage.

A final tool available in pushing the clock even further is the base clock. Unfortunately, after setting up the overclock for all the other components, I found that the base clock increment to even 101 caused significant instability. Increasing the CPU and RAM voltage brought some modicum of stability but inexplicably reduced the performance across all benchmarks while simultaneously raising the temperature. Thus, there was no use pursuing this path any further.

The performance comparison presents of the overclocked system with the default one certainly provides some satisfaction. The XMP overclock is set to use the maximum CPU multiplier of 40 but it was unable to run the RAM at 1800 MHz at the same time. Going by the incredibly higher temperatures, it is obvious that the XMP overclock pushes the voltages a lot higher. The only upside here is that it is capable of running all the cores simultaneously at 4 GHz which produces a minuscule performance advantage. However, the manual settings are more than a match and come with a significant upshot in memory performance with much better thermals.

While the upshot in CPU and RAM performance is quite evident looking at the table, the GPU performance is not. As it happens, PCMark doesn't stress the GPU much whereas Hitman seems to be constrained by the CPU. Thus, the need of the hour was a GPU intensive benchmark which came in the form of Heaven. As can be seen in the results, the overclock results in an FPS improvement of over 8% compared to the stock speeds. At the same time, it makes sense to set a custom fan curve as it can keep the temperatures down under full load.

To round up the post, no overclock is worth its salt without a stress and torture test. The idle CPU temperature of 27 is pushed up to 63 by AIDA64's stress test and then stratospherically to 77 by Prime95's torture test. However, this is well within the processor's specifications and represents the worst possible scenario that normally doesn't manifest itself in the most taxing of daily use cases.

To conclude, this entire episode was brought about by an unforeseen failure in ageing hardware and hence the overclock exercise is strictly incidental, but the thrill of it as much as anyone would get when setting up a new system.

P.S.: If you followed my earlier post on Meltdown and Spectre, then you'd know it is something I thought of when buying the motherboard. Like with the ASRock boards, there was a helpful soul patching the unsupported Asus boards as well. However, when I went about flashing the BIOS, I found it to be incompatible due to the way it was packaged. Thankfully, Microsoft has fully patched Windows to support the latest microcodes from Intel (1F in the case of the i5-3470). It wasn't auto installed over Windows update and I had to manually install the KB4100347 patch for Spectre.

Tutorial #15: Running Comanche Gold on Windows 10

There are those indescribable moments in life when you come across a relic from the past and are instantly flooded with fond memories. This was precisely the case when I stumbled across a mention of Comanche 3 on the web, one of the earliest PC games in my life that I spent countless hours on at a friend's place (though candidly it was more of watching than playing, ala wingman to the PC occupier).

This meant I couldn't resist the temptation of digging through my treasure trove for the Comanche Gold disc. Comanche Gold is essentially Comanche 3 for Windows with few extra missions and being 32-bit meant it could be run natively on current 64-bit PCs without the need for virtualisation. The geek in me couldn't resist the challenge of getting it running once again on Windows 10 (Creators Update Build 15063.413 as of this writing) and hence this guide details out the steps to getting it done.

First things first, you need to have the following things on hand:

1. The Game Disc, of course, though I recommend creating an image of it for sheer convenience. The image can be directly mounted on Windows 10 as a DVD drive, can be archived and used on tablets that lack an optical drive.

2. Comanche Gold Patch Pack: I had come across various mentions of patches for Windows 7/8/10 but most of the links were long dead. However, the most recent mention of it can be found here. All credit is due to the original author(s) and contributor(s) of the patch. Since things tend to get lost with time, I have uploaded a copy of the patch to Google Drive.

3. DXGL: This seems to be the real differentiator in getting the game to run properly on Windows 10 with the correct video mode. As of this writing, the version used was 0.5.11.

The ideal scenario would have been that I just install the game and replace the files with the patch as depicted in the forum post from SimHQ that I have linked to previously. However, that is not how it panned out for me and I had to engage in some trial and error to get the game working. Below are the fruits of my labour laid out in sequence.

1. Install the game to a simple directory structure (eg.: C:\Games\Comanche Gold) using the 'Large Install' option. Installation to the default 'Program Files' directory resulted in the game starting in the 'Multiplayer only No-CD' mode, despite the fact that the patch contains an exe that removes the CD verification.

2. Extract the contents of the Comanche Gold Patch Pack to the root game directory, overwriting files wherever necessary.

3. Install DXGL, add the Wc3.exe file and retain all the default settings. The only change I made was to change the Video mode to 'Aspect corrected stretch' but you can easily change this to 'Stretch to screen' in case you are not a fan of letterboxing.

4. At this stage, I still couldn't get the Wc3 exe to launch as it only lead to a Windows error, none of which could be rectified using any of the compatibility options. Turns out the game needs the obscure 'DirectPlay' feature in Windows to be enabled which is a long deprecated DirectX API.

As it turned out, this was the last hoop I had to go through. Thereafter, the game launched in full screen mode and I was able to push the resolution to 1024*768, though 1280*1024 led the game to crash. Considering the age of the game, I would say it is an achievement to get it working perfectly two decades later. Love it or hate it, Windows compatibility and its legacy support is worth its weight in nostalgia, in spite of all the cruft.

(Originally published on July 4, 2017)

Update #1 (May 12, 2018): The game installs and works fine on the April 2018 Update of Windows 10 (Build 1803) with the same instructions.

Things are now much easier as even the default settings on the current version of DXGL (0.5.13) work fine and Windows automatically prompts the installation of 'DirectPlay'. I would still recommend using the 'Aspect corrected stretch' option as otherwise Windows changes the resolution rapidly and pops up a 'fix blurry text' prompt on first run.

Review #49: Masters of Doom ★★★☆☆

It is not all doom and gloom!

This was a strange choice of book to begin a new year with but it is one of those things that pique your interest and you follow through with it. Stranger still is the fact that I never completed a level in any of the id games, let alone Doom. I do remember starting up the shareware version of Wolfenstein 3-D and the demo for Doom 3, but the session never lasted more than a few minutes. In fact, I remember returning a copy of the Quake II to a vendor stating technical issues when in fact I disliked the game. Gratuitous violence was never my thing. Yeah, I am one of those ‘story’ guys that John Carmack might have so despised. The only game I could relate to throughout the book was Deus Ex, which incidentally happens to be my best game of all time.

Musing #46: Saitek R440 Force Feedback Wheel

There are some items that you hold fond memories of but there comes a time when you have to let it go. I suppose I am attaching a bit too much emotion to an inanimate object, but the Saitek R440 Force Feedback certainly evokes them. After all, it happened to be my first and only gaming wheel.

For its price, it was hard to beat the R440. The price certainly made it easier to convince irate parents who would otherwise be bothered at having another wasteful "toy" around. But, the R440 was anything but that. It did most of what any of the more expensive wheels would do, if you could temper your expectations. It was built like a tank and the exaggerated force feedback certainly provided one of the best arm exercises you can get.

It was then, very difficult to let it go, especially as it still worked the way it did when it was first unboxed, eons ago. No sim or arcade game was ever an obstacle, unless the game manufacturer chose to not support custom wheels. As a swansong, I couldn't help but immortalise it through the following YouTube video.

For those still hooked on to the device, following are some useful links and instructions that might come in handy.

Drivers: They can be downloaded directly from the Saitek website by browsing to the Saitek section and scrolling down to 'Saitek R440 Force Feedback Wheel'. The site also has links to the Saitek Smart Technology profile editor that I personally never found a use for.

Fixing the Force Feedback problem: I think the drivers are originally for Windows 7 and hence the force feedback encounters some issues on modern versions of Windows. However, this can be easily resolved by following the instructions below:
1. Delete any folder in the registry starting with "VID_06A3" in the folder HKEY_CURRENT_USER\System\CurrentControlSet\Control\MediaProperties\PrivateProperties\Joystick\OEM".
2. Delete the two entries referring to the R440 wheel in the device manager, make sure to select the checkbox to delete the driver software when doing so.
3. (Re)install newest driver package from the Saitek website.
To the purchaser of my device as well as to any other R440 users around: May the Force be with you!

Tutorial #15: How to get official licenses (Windows/Office) for cheap

There was a time when piracy was considered to be a necessity. The unavailability of the software locally along with dollar pricing made it impossible for anyone to even contemplate purchasing the software. However, things have changed a lot since then. Local availability along with local pricing has made these products far more accessible.

But, and the big but, is affordability. The pricing is certainly competitive from a commercial perspective but personal users would still find the price prohibitive, especially when the usage is limited to writing personal documents and filing income tax returns. Piracy can't be condoned, so what other valid options are available?

By valid, I refer to the ability to download and register the software using official sources. I remember getting a Windows 8 license for less than $10 during its launch due to a Microsoft promotion and I wish they were generally generous in their pricing in developing countries. However, I presume Internet anonymity has made it difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Hence, it becomes necessary to take recourse to other options. One of the most prominent ones is the Microsoft Software Swap Marketplace on Reddit, though there are other forums available. The prices are certainly competitive compared to retail pricing but still on the expensive side for those not dealing with USD as local currency. Hence, the best option is to head to good old The price fluctuates from seller to seller and availability is entirely dependent on timing. However, if you are in luck, then the prices range in low single digits, as far as USD is concerned. Local credit cards might not work directly with but PayPal comes to the rescue. Do keep in mind to use your bank conversion since the fees are usually much less than PayPal's, the premium mostly being less than 5% depending on the size of the transaction. The proclamation is that these codes have been salvaged from scrapped machines and hence it is legitimate to resell the same. What I can confirm is that the codes work fine with and are instantly redeemed along with the download links for any Microsoft account. Similarly, Windows activates just fine with the supplied key, if used with a fresh installation.

If you prefer Office 365 instead, then there are Educational subscriptions available that offer multiple year access for about the same price. This one certainly feels a bit dodgier because you are restricted to an academic email address being governed by administrators. However, it offers multiple installations and 1TB of SkyDrive space, though it is difficult to trust an address you are not entirely in control of.

Whatever be the case, there are certainly legitimate options available that if nothing else help protect from options that are untrustworthy and laden with malware, at a significantly affordable price.

Review #39: AmazonBasics USB 3.0 Extension Cable (1 meter, 3.3 feet)

The pursuit of (not) back breaking speed!
I can't imagine this cable being useful to anyone else other than the poor souls whose only option to experience USB 3.0 speeds is through the ports on the motherboard at the back of the desktop cabinet. I have had to call my gymnastic skills to action on a number of occasions, re-enacting Mission Impossible style laser grid scenarios to simply plugin USB 3.0 devices. External hard drive manufacturers must be in cahoots with cabinet and motherboard manufacturers by providing the shortest USB 3.0 cables possible and thereby exacerbating the situation.

In my case, I wouldn't blame the motherboard manufacturer for they have provided front USB 3.0 headers. But I can't for the life of me convince myself to buy a new "box" and hence the decade old cabinet with USB 2.0 front panel continues to thrive. I had alleviated this situation a few years ago by purchasing a USB 3.0 hub but, as if by design, it barely made it to the top of my table. Thus, it has been a constant tussle with gravity when using the hub. Moreover, the infatuation of laptop and tablet manufacturers to only include a single Type-A USB port ends up making the hub a travel companion and thus subject to frequent unplugging from the desktop. Thus, my decision to purchase the USB 3.0 cable materialised.

In the past, I have had really troublesome experiences purchasing cables online as well as offline since cables are difficult to judge by appearances alone. It is true that you can filter out the worst of them on the basis of the thickness of the cables and the moulding of the ports, but beyond that it is complete guesswork. Hence, AmazonBasics has become a go-to brand for me for cables as it offers a modicum of peace of mind in terms of quality. Going by the quality of other AmazonBasics products, I can expect it to be a barebones product that does the job. It is always true to the specifications even as durability remains a question mark over the long term. But that is true of any cable and Amazonbasics is best of the bunch in that regard. I imagine a rotten apple seeping through once in a while but in all other cases, there simply isn't anything better for the price you pay.

Tutorial #14: Tips on a fresh installation of Windows Creators Update

For all the cruft that had built up since the Anniversary Update, I decided to do a fresh installation of the Creators Update released earlier this month on my tablet (Dell Venue 11 Pro 7140). Re-installations are much easier now than a decade ago with cloud backups eliminating the worries of losing data. However, it still takes some effort to reduce installation time and to ensure that Microsoft's data acquisition and bloatware installation is limited. Following are my tips learnt from experience.

1. Direct ISO downloads are a thing of the past as far as Microsoft is concerned and it wants you to rely on the Media Creation Tool instead. That's fine for the most part, but it happens to download a device specific ISO. So, if you happen to have multiple Windows devices, especially with different editions of Windows 10, then it is best to download the international ISO.

2. USB installations are undoubtedly faster than disc based ones. However, SSDs are much faster than standard USB flash drives. In my case, I have converted a discarded 64GB M.2 SSD into a USB 3 flash drive which reduces the initial installation process to just 5 minutes.

3. Rufus is by far the best tool to write the ISO to the USB drive. In order to write to SSD flash drives, make sure you enable the 'List USB Hard Drives' option.

4. After installation, when you boot to the profile setup screen, I would recommend not connecting to the Internet. This causes the PC to reboot into the offline setup mode and you don't need to link your Outlook account. It is said that an offline account limits the telemetry sent to Microsoft, though I can't vouch for it personally.

5. For additional privacy, you can disable all the privacy options presented on the setup screen. If you need any of them, you can always enable them later.

6. Make sure you keep the drivers from your manufacturer handy before the installation. You can copy them to the USB drive that you use for the Windows setup. In my case, Dell provides a single CAB file containing all the drivers and I usually place the extracted CAB file on my USB SSD drive for easy access. This enables the manual installation of the correct drivers using the Device Manager.

7. A very important step is to disable installation of hardware drivers from Windows update in case you already have all the manufacturer drivers. In my case, I found that the drivers from Microsoft for my device caused a lot of issues, especially with the display and battery management. Hardware driver installation can be disabled from Advanced System Settings > Hardware > Device Installation Settings.

8. Microsoft also tends to install a lot of sponsored apps like Candy Crush Saga on the device as soon as you connect to the web. Hence, it is a great idea to open the Start Menu and remove all the icons for the apps that are awaiting download. Note that you can only do this in case you didn't connect to the Internet during the setup process.

9. Whenever you login to Microsoft Apps like Mail or OneDrive, make sure that you sign in only to the app and not associate it with the Windows account. This again ensures better privacy and account management.

This just about covers the most important things to keep in mind when undertaking a fresh installation of Windows. It maximises privacy and minimises the conflicts that you may encounter, thereby streamlining the installation process.