Custom PC, Issue 117

Custom PC Issue 117This month’s Custom PC sees my interview slot taken up with a chat to Nick Thibieroz, senior manager of AMD’s Independent Software Vendor (ISV) Gaming Engineering division, regarding his company’s latest attempt at increasing the immersion of games: TressFX.

If you’re not familiar with the technology, and if that’s the case shame on you for not following my work on bit-tech, TressFX – or to give it its full name, TressFX Hair – is a GPU-accelerated physics engine designed to simulate the interaction between a character’s hair and the surrounding environment. Wind, rain, branches, even the character’s body all interact with thousands of simulated hair strands to create a surprisingly realistic effect.

It’s something the industry has been working towards for years – hardly a SIGGRAPH event goes by without Nvidia showcasing another hair simulation system – but the computational complexity of the task has made it difficult to implement in a working game engine. That’s something AMD has solved, and it waited until it had the system in a shipping game – the new Tomb Raider reboot – before announcing the technology.

The biggest feature of the issue, however, is a special one: an in-depth look at how the development of mobile hardware differs from that of desktop hardware. With input from industry veterans including Nvidia, AMD, Intel and Imagination Technologies, it’s a – hopefully – interesting look at how developing for portable platforms has resulted in some significantly different technologies emerging.

Nvidia is a perfect example: it talks up its Tegra mobile processor as having GeForce-like graphics processing elements, but in truth there’s a distinct difference in how the two technologies work. Interestingly, it’s also the case that development of mobile processing hardware – which has to work in very tight power envelopes – has dramatically changed how the company approaches its power-hungry desktop graphics hardware, too.

It’s a big feature, and one I’m proud to have worked on: hopefully, by the end, readers will be able to better understand how smartphone and tablet hardware – which, thanks to projects like the Kickstarter-funded Ouya console, are increasingly finding their way onto people’s desks – compares to traditional desktop devices.

If you want to learn more about TressFX Hair and its development, or about the development of mobile-centric hardware and the challenges therein, you could do worse than picking up a copy of Custom PC Issue 117 – available in dead-tree format and digitally via Zinio or most other services.

This also marks the last time my column in Custom PC will take the form of a two-page interview spread: big changes are afoot, and I’m proud to say that the column will be taking on a very different – and hopefully more engaging – format from the next issue onwards.

Micro Mart, Issue 1251

Micro Mart, Issue 1251This week’s Micro Mart includes a feature I wrote a short while ago regarding Valve’s plans to release a compact console-cum-computer dubbed the Steam Box. While written before certain facts came to light – the confirmation that the PlayStation 4 would basically be a locked-down x86 PC, for example, and once and former Valve partner Xi3 announcing its own Piston product to Gabe Newell’s dismay – it still covers plenty of interesting ground for anyone into the gaming scene.

Topping 3,500 words, the feature starts with a look at the history of Valve itself, from its founding by former Microsoft staffers Gabe Newell and Mike Harrington in 1996 to the launch of Steam, the company’s incredibly successful digital distribution platform. Next, a discussion of the difference twix console gaming and computer gaming – and Valve’s concept to unite the two in a way that hasn’t been attempted since the days of the Commodore 64GS or the Amiga CD32.

A large chunk of the article deals with gaming on Linux, for one simple reason: Valve co-founder Newell has been vocal in his dislike for Microsoft’s Windows 8, and has confirmed that the Steam Box – expected to launch at retail early next year – will be based on Linux, likely a customised version of the Ubuntu distribution for which Valve has been porting its Steam client.

Following the background, the feature includes industry comment from Valve’s Anna Sweet, as well as Nvidia’s Jason Paul on his company’s Project Shield hand-held console – another Linux-based gaming device that it is hoped will help computer gaming capture more of the market share enjoyed by the console jockeys.

If any of that sounds interesting, pick up a copy of Micro Mart Issue 1251 from your local newsagent or supermarket – but be quick: it’s Dennis Publishing’s weekly, so it won’t be on shelves for long. Alternatively, pick up the digital version via Zinio.

Custom PC, Issue 115

Custom PC Issue 115This month’s interview column for Dennis Publishing’s Custom PC talks to Nvidia’s Jason Paul about his company’s latest surprise hardware launch: the Project Shield hand-held gaming console.

Based around Nvidia’s Tegra 4 system-on-chip processor, which combines four ARM Cortex-A15 general-purpose processing cores with GeForce graphics processing technology and a power-saving Cortex-A9 core for background tasks, Project Shield is a departure for the company. Rather than a reference design or OEM offering, Project Shield is to be launched – first in the US, with the UK to follow later in the year – as a full retail offering.

It’s certainly a novel device: looking like a small TFT glued to an Xbox controller, it provides access to Android games and apps while also connecting to desktop PCs running Nvidia GeForce graphics cards and streaming full-fat PC games – cloud gaming minus the cloud, in other words. Fog gaming? Mist gaming? Whatever.

Paul was full of interesting anecdotes about the project, including the fact that the original prototype of the device – which has been dreamed up, designed, developed and produced in under a year – was little more than a smartphone and a game controller screwed together with a plank of wood.

“I don’t think I would be quite as able to express the pain and agony of cramming all this into a device as well as our engineering team! It was pretty challenging. To give you one anecdote, we got a lot of the device designed and laid out and then realised that we had these amazing speakers that were larger than we had allocated in the device. So, we had to go back and redesign a bit of the area around the speakers to be able to cram in the bass reflex quad speaker audio.”

This interview was actually something of a last-minute change to the planned schedule. A previous interview with open-source engineer Andrew Back, originally due to appear in this issue, will now appear in Custom PC Issue 116.

The rest of the interview appears in Custom PC Issue 115, available in stores now and digitally through the Zinio service.

PC Pro, Issue 222

PC Pro, Issue 222Continuing my features work for Dennis Publishing’s PC Pro magazine, the April 2013 issue sees the publication of The World’s Fastest Computers. A research-heavy look at supercomputers and the high-performance computing (HPC) industry in general, it’s a piece of which I’m particularly proud.

Before getting into the nitty-gritty of the piece, however, I’d like that thank a few people without whom the feature could never have happened: Professor Simon Cox, of the University of Southampton, was a particularly excellent source, speaking to me candidly and at length regarding the realities of running a supercomputing facility and his hopes for the future, and even posing for some photographs to liven up the piece; Nvidia’s Ian Buck, GPU computing general manager and creator of the Compute Unified Device Architecture (CUDA) language, brought years of highly-parallel thinking to the mix, as did Nvidia’s Tesla boss Sumit Gupta; Intel’s Stephan Gillich, director of high-performance computing for the EMEA region, provided a CPU- rather than GPU-led perspective; and finally the Science and Technology Facilities Council was kind enough to provide copyright clearance on several of its historical supercomputing images – including a great shot of a denuded Cray being dismantled at the end of its service, which sadly had to be cut from the piece for space reasons.

The piece is split into three clear sections: a brief history of supercomputing, from the days of the Control Data Corporation 6600 – Seymour Cray’s first HPC design, and the very first system to be described as a supercomputer – to the modern day, followed by a look at what HPC means for education and the industry. The final part, meanwhile, is a look at the future – which, you’ll be amazed to hear, looks very different depending on whether you’re talking to Intel or Nvidia.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the piece, for me, is the performance comparison: using data provided by Professor Simon Cox and a great deal of research, I was able to piece together a rough approximation of a performance timeline. Starting with the Ferranti Pegasus in 1956 and working through thirteen other machines – all of which have, at one time or another, been installed at the University of Southampton – I compiled operations-per-second statistics for each. This, more than anything else, demonstrates the runaway nature of high-performance computing: using a linear graph, all but the last two machines – both versions of the University’s current Iridis supercomputer – drew a flat line.

While there’s plenty of information that didn’t make it into the final piece – I compiled nearly 30,000 words of interview material in all – it’s by far one of the most comprehensive I’ve written, and one of which I think I can be justifiably proud.

If any of that tickles your fancy, PC Pro Issue 222 is available in newsagents, supermarkets and doctors’ waiting rooms throughout the country, or digitally via Zinio or Apple Newsstand.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 122

Linux User & Developer Issue 122This month’s issue of Imagine Publishing’s Linux User & Developer is bursting at the seams with my words, including a special feature of which I’m particularly proud: a piece looking at the Linux gaming market dubbed The State of Play.

First, though, there’s the cover feature: my annual look at the best Linux distributions around. For those who usually read the Windows or Mac magazines, this feature always surprises: one of the biggest strengths of the open-source world of Linux is the sheer breadth of choice available to the user. As well as general-purpose distributions, like Linux Mint, Fedora or OpenSUSE, there are distributions aimed at specific tasks like the penetration-testing BackTrack distribution, or the media-centric GeeXbox. When you’re used to having a choice of one operating system – perhaps in a handful of ‘editions’ if you’re lucky – that’s a real shock to the system.

That strength is also a weakness: with so much choice, it can be difficult to figure out which distribution is right for you. As a helping hand, each year I do a run down of the top ten Linux distributions, along with a quick look at a handful of other distributions which didn’t quite make it into the list. The rankings are based on a variety of factors – DistroWatch popularity, review scores, and whether or not it died on its backside when I installed it into a virtual machine for screenshot purposes. It’s always a popular feature, and one I enjoy even if it does take forever to document.

Aside from those seven pages, there’s also a review of the Olimex A13-OLinuXino-WiFi. Built to compete with the Raspberry Pi, designed in a matter of months and released under an open hardware licence, the OLinuXino is remarkable: for the cost of roughly two Pis, you get a Cortex-class processor with over twice the compute throughput of the ARMv6 SoC on the Pi, 512MB of RAM, integrated Wi-Fi (although a Wi-Fi-less version is available) and real USB connectivity, along with more GPIO than you can shake a script at. As to whether it’s worth the asking price, you’ll have to check out the review.

Finally, the gaming feature. Originally pitched as a look at Valve’s Steam for Linux beta, for which I was lucky enough to receive an invitation, the piece evolved into a full-length feature investigating the recent explosion of interest in Linux gaming. Featuring comment from industry giants including Valve, Croteam’s chief technical officer Alen Ladavac, and the talented Ryan C. ‘Icculus’ Gordon – the man responsible for the overwhelming majority of Linux ports including the excellent Frozen Synapse and the original Serious Sam.

Sadly, there were a few people who were unable to comment in time for the piece: a sudden unexpected Chinese trip for the chief executive and his staff meant that I was unable to get comment from Unity on its recently-launched Linux-compatible game engine, while Nvidia was struggling to get ready for the Consumer Electronics Show – where it launched the Tegra 4 chip and Project Shield games console – and was equally unable to comment in time. With luck, I’ll be able to include them in a follow-up piece when the Steam Box finally launches…

In short, it’s a beast of an issue – so grab yourself a copy from your nearest newsagent, or if you can’t be bothered to leave the house try a digital version courtesy of Zinio. Alternative purchasing methods are available through the official site.

Custom PC, Issue 110

Custom PC, Issue 110In this month’s Custom PC, I have three features: my regular Mobile Tech Watch column, a bonus opinion column, and a how-to guide on constructing a temperature-sensitive LED from an Arduino microcontroller following a reader request on the Bit-Tech forums.

First, Mobile Tech Watch: on the request of editor Ben Hardwidge, this month’s column looks at cloud gaming technologies – specifically Gaikai and Nvidia’s GeForce Grid proejct – and whether mobile gaming is truly turning a corner. Now, this article was written and submitted before high-profile cloud gaming company OnLive closed, sacked half its staff and re-opened to avoid massive debts, but the article’s focus specifically on Gaikai means it’s none the worse for that.

Cloud gaming is certainly generating plenty of interest: offering console-quality games on mobile platforms, and even branching out into Smart TVs – Samsung has signed a deal with Gaikai to put the company’s technology into its next TV sets for console-free gaming – it’s a something-for-nothing deal for the end-user, but can cost a fortune to run. Even using the very latest Nvidia Grid technology, a Gaikai server can only run four simultaneous streams.

Do I think that cloud gaming has a future, or is it a just a fad? Better read this month’s column to find out, hadn’t you?

Next, the cover-gracing LED temperature sensor feature. Following a reader request, I designed, programmed and constructed a temperature sensor that uses an Arduino to vary the colour of an RGB LED. If the case is cold, the LED is blue; as the case warms up, red is added and blue removed until the LED is completely red.

The code is available on my GitHub repository, while a correction to an equation I fat-fingered in the feature can be found on Bit-Tech.

Finally, the op-ed: normally, I only do a single column for each issue, but illness meant there was a last-minute gap as this issue was going to press. To solve the problem, I stepped in and wrote an opinion column on patents, the problem with patents and a suggestion for how said problem can be resolved. Considering the short deadline and the research-heavy nature of the piece, I’m extremely pleased with how it turned out.

For all this and more, pick up Custom PC Issue 110 wherever geeky magazines are sold, or digitally via Zinio.