Friday, November 26, 2010

Black Friday Best Deal?

This time last year I picked up one of my favorite Black Friday treats, the very laptop on which I'm now typing. A year later and none the richer, I was looking for even better deals to sweeten the holiday. How about a nice Android phone? Or a new Android tablet? (ok, you can tell what's on my mind)

But what do I really need? Ever since upgrading my desktop from Windows Vista to 7, graphics performance has taken a nosedive. Yes, for some reason, Vista has been superior. Previously, I could cruise the skies of San Francisco on FlightGear with wings like eagles, but lately I've been stuttering the skies at 1-2 frames per second on the same simulator. I didn't even bother testing Need For Speed. And it certainly couldn't handle the stunning and intensive graphics of tXtFL (j/k).

So this Black Friday, I thought I'd treat myself to a new graphics card. I'd always been wary of my low-end ATI Radeon X1550 graphics card. My Dell Inspiron 9200 isn't the newest, and one could potentially argue for a complete system upgrade instead, but I'm actually quite fond of the machine. My buddies even told me that I could pick up a handy dedicated graphics card for the likes of $10. As much as I like that deal, $10 can buy you at least 6 sodas at the cafeteria, so I tried an alternate route they suggested.

I tried out a graphics card stress test called FurMark (don't ask me why it's named that). I was reassured that the 32-bit version works on my 64-bit machine, but to my surprise, it aborted a test with an error message saying that my card was not OpenGL 2.0 compatible. Aha! That sign very likely meant that my card was underperforming because subpar graphics drivers forbade OpenGL 2 capabilities. The default Win7 drivers were probably the generic type and unable to tap into the latent graphical prowess of the X1550.

A little forum searching later, I learned that Vista graphics card drivers up through version 9.1 are compatible with Win7. Fortunately, these drivers are freely available and installable. Moments later, FurMark was churning away at graphics card benchmarks, and I was flying my F-4 Phantom through the San Francisco fog. And all at the price of one download, I think it's my best Black Friday deal thus far.
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