Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Saints Row 2 (XBOX 360)

WARNING: MINOR SPOILERS (nothing story related)
- Picked it up from Fry's for $53 plus a free t-shirt.
- I spent 30 min on just character creation. There are a ton of options to mess with.
- First night I played around 7 hrs straight until close to 5am. I haven't done that with a game in a LONG time. No lockups so far so it's already more stable than the first Saints Row (pre patch). I've only done about 4 missions and 3 activities. Activities only go to level 6 now. Helicopter Assault is a blast! I forgot how much more I like the vehicle controls in SR2 than in GTA. It got easier once I figured out you can guide your missiles while it is in flight. In fact you can fire, and then get the lock on and you'll usually hit the target. Crowd control was kind of meh I finished the suburbs one, and all I got was a clothing discount. I finished the helicopter assault (Bario) and have 15% reduced bullet damage.
- Got the unlimited SMG ammo (snatch downtown). That level 6 snatch in downtown sure did take me a while. One memorable moment was when I had my last 3 hos, my car was smoking and getting smashed around a lot. I come around the final turn, and I can see the drop off point. I catch on fire and decided to push it. Just as I enter the blue circle, the hos are getting out, screen starts to fade to black, boom, we all die, and I fail AGAIN. Still, lots of fun. Two more tries, and I finally finished that one. You know, a stretch limo really should hold more than 4 people. This should be your top priority activity since unlimited SMG ammo makes the rest of the game a lot easier. I started messing around with the unlimited SMG ammo. I sat on top of the airport and was just blowing up the police. Did you know you can take down police helicopters with about 2 clips of dual wield SMGs (I forget which one but the one that holds 50 rounds so X2 = 100).
- I did quite a bit of clothes shopping. There is a lot of variety. It also increases your respect bonus for completing missions/activities.
- I've been staying up until past 2am everynight playing this game. It has gotten me really hooked. I worked on some more activities. Finished both insurance fraud ones. Go for the one in factories first since it gives you infinite sprint which is very handy. It's pretty easy if you just keep quiting the activity (push down on the d-pad twice) and just restart until you get the saints row territory. Ignore the increased adrenaline spots and just head up onto the freeway. Just keep throwing yourself in front of the big trucks. There is no shortage of vehicles on the freeway, and they usually don't stop or slow down. Expect about 15-18K each throw until you get adrenaline. Then, you can get up to 200K in one throw if you can juggle your body long enough. The other one in museum (reduced vehicle damage) I just restart until I get downtown district. Head south to the big bridge that connects the top land mass with the bottom land mass. Just do the same thing there. There are lots of speedy traffic and trucks.
- Finished Snatch (chinatown). There are a lot of shortcuts through the back and over wooden bridges. Using those it was pretty easy to complete all 6 levels and get 3X health regeneration.
- Finished Sceptic Avenger (suburbs) for 15% improved weapon accuracy. It was pretty easy. Just remember to use left trigger (e-brake) to stop and hose down all the targets. By level 6, don't stop too often or the cops will eventually blow you up.
- Finished Trail Blazing (downtown) for reduced explosion damage. It's just memorization of where to go. Don't forget to set waypoints if the checkpoints are a bit far apart. Just try and hit as many cars and pedestrians as possible to get the time bonus. Level 6 took maybe 5 tries.
- I'm working on Escort (red light) to get free vehicle delivery.
- Finished all the brotherhood missions. Played 13:50. 33% completed, 20 missions completed, 16/45 neighborhoods owned. No lockups so far. I'm enjoying the story so far. I think I've unlocked most of the stuff I'm interested in so I'll probably focus on story line missions for a while though I still want that free vehicle delivery. If you can't tell already I'm loving this game and can't recommend it enough!

UPDATE: 10/22/08
- Finished Escort (red light) and got my free vehicle delivery. The trick was to keep moving and always be turning. Blow through the roadblocks, take short cuts, drive against traffic, just don't go straight for too long. I've pretty much unlocked what I wanted, and I have a ton of respect so I'll probably be hitting the story line missions hard. I'm working on the Sons of Samedi missions now. Also, I'm buying up all the business for my controlled territories. I had my first lockup last night right after buying a business.

UPDATE: 10/26/08
- Finished the storyline.
69% completed
55 missions completed
45/45 neighborhoods owned
25:08 time played
853608 respect
total money earned $1,077,049
41 deaths
style level 7
style rating 7541

2 lockups

- The story was better in this one with pretty good writing and great voice acting.
- Mission design was overall excellent with some nice variety. I never got frustrated because of the well placed checkpoints.
- I think I've bought all the business. Still lots of activities and distractions to do. Also, I haven't even tried the multiplayer/co-op yet.

Highly recommended! Hands down this is my favorite open sandbox series.

UPDATE: 10/27/08
- I went back and finished the secret mission. It adds a nice bit of story and some closure especially if you've played the first Saints Row. You can read here on how to activate it.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Dell Inspiron 8600 near end of life refresh

Original Configuration:
- So I bought this laptop back in October 2004. Dang, I've had this thing for 4 years now. Here are the specs as they were when purchased:
Intel Pentium M Processor 725(1.60A GHz/400MHz FSB)
15.4 WSXGA+ (1680X1050)
Microsoft Windows XP Professional
512MB,333MHz 1 DIMM
30GB Hard Drive
Wireless Networking Cards Intel PRO/Wireless 2200 Internal Wireless (802.11 b/g, 54Mbps)
NEC CD ROM/DVD ROM 8x CD/DVD burner (DVD+RW/+R) with double-layer write capability
Network Card Integrated 10/100 Network Card and Modem

Initial Upgrades:
- I did some minor upgrades right away after purchasing the laptop.
- Added internal bluetooth (installation diagram). Part #2U381; cable - 5X617. I ordered directly from dell's parts department:
Dell Spare parts
Home/Home Office Accounts - 800-247-9252
- Dropped in another 512mb of ram for a total of 1gb.
- Swapped out the hard drive with a hitachi 7200rpm 60 gig HD with 8mb cache.

New Hardware Upgrades:
- So I used the laptop for many years in that configuration. In the past year the laptop was feeling slower and slower. Boot times were taking forever. Just launching firefox took forever. I was having S3 sleep and even occasional hibernation issues. It really is time to get a new laptop but I was thinking I could do some upgrades and maybe use it for a bit longer. Installing winxp sp3 didn't help much (I was still on the ORIGINAL factory winxp install....yeah I know I know). So I'll document all the things I did to basically give me what feels like an almost new laptop. All it takes is a little time and money and a jewelry screwdriver. I did all the following upgrades spread over the last year.
- Upgrade the bios to the latest version (A14).
- First up was upgrading the ram to the maximum of 2gb (2x1gb sodimm). When it comes to laptops I usually like to start at http://www.crucial.com/ and use their memory advisor tool to confirm which memory is compatible since laptops can be a tad more picky than desktops. After that I just hoped over to newegg and picked up two sticks of:
Crucial 1GB 200-Pin DDR SO-DIMM DDR 333 (PC 2700) Laptop Memory - Retail
- Next, I swapped out the hard drive again. 60gb is just too tiny by today's standards. Unfortunately, 7200 rpm 2.5" PATA drives weren't being made in the larger sizes. Those were all sata. So I had to settle for:
Western Digital Scorpio WD1600BEVE 160GB 5400 RPM 8MB Cache ATA-6 Notebook Hard Drive - OEM
which was the largest PATA 2.5" drive at that time (250gb 2.5" pata drives are now available).

Speed isn't so bad on these newer higher capacity and therefore higher density platter 5400 rpm drives. In fact, the hdtach scores were pretty close to the old 60gb 7200prm drive.
If you want to copy your OS to the new hard drive I recommend VANTEC CB-ISATAU2 SATA/IDE to USB 2.0 Adapter - Retail (I picked up a bunch of these last year on black Friday at Fry's for $10 each) along with Acronis True Image. Just connect the new 2.5" drive up to the laptop using USB and run True Image. True Image has the option of creating a bootable cd with true image on there (boots up a version of linux) which is my preferred way of doing things. I took the old 60gb and bought another hard drive caddy from ebay for only a few dollars. This way you can use the old hard drive for experimentation, installing alternative os's, etc with the ability to swap drives by removing just one screw.
- I swapped out the optical drive with a samsung which is much faster and more reliable. You can read the complete details of this upgrade here:
Samsung Slim DVD Burner SN-S082H
- My optional battery that fit into the modular bay (part 4r084) died a year or so back. You can get used ones from ebay for around $20 shipped. My main battery still works ok. I get around 2hrs out of it. If you need a new one zbattery has one for $123 or you can try ebay for around $50. I've never bought a replacement laptop battery so I can't vouch on the quality of either product.
- I've also ordered a SDHC capable (plus memory stick) PCMCIA Cardbus card reader from ebay for around $15-20 shipped. It's just one of those convenient things that most modern laptops have. Since my pc card slot is sitting empty most of the time I might as well put a card reader into it. UPDATE: Be very careful about most of those ebay card adapters. Most of them are old 16 bit pcmcia cards. They work, even read sdhc, but really slowly (say around usb 1.1 speeds) and will use 100% cpu so you can't really do anything else. You can tell by the silver stripe near the connector end of the card. 32bit cards have a gold stripe (here is a pic). I'm still looking for a 32bit pcmcia sdhc card reader that sits flush. I'm not sure if one exists.

Operating System:
- After all the hardware upgrades I was still not happy with the performance. I figured it was time to install a clean copy of windows. I've subscribed to technet which gives me access to all the operating systems and office products. My subscription is only a year but the keys I get are good for life. Also, you get 10 keys for each product. So if you have a lot of pc's in the house this is the most economical way to go. The regular price is $349. If you dig around you can get that closer to $200ish after a coupon. Once in a while you can get an incredible deal for around $100 which is what I did. Yeah that's right. Every flavor of office, windows xp, vista, most of the server versions (except home server), and much more for $100. But even at the regular price Technet is still a pretty awesome deal if you own multiple pc's. Forget buying OEM copies from newegg. Technet is a much much better value in most cases.
- So now came the time to either reinstall xp or go for vista. Yes, I was one of those Vista haters earlier this year but in the last 6 months after building my two quad core desktop machines with Vista, I've gotten use to most of Vista's quirks. It's actually kind of grown on me. I like aero glass. So I decided to go with Vista Ultimate 32bit. I was a little wary since I would be installing Vista on some pretty old hardware. I do have experience with this. I even got vista working on a socket A - athlon xp pc. So I'm pretty good about finding old win xp drivers and shoehorning them into vista 32bit.
- So I backed up all my data and reformatted the drive doing a clean install of Vista Ultimate 32bit with sp1. Everything went suprisingly smooth. Almost all the hardware was automatically detected fine/installed drivers including audio, the built in ethernet, wireless networking, and bluetooth. There were only a few things I had to go hunt down.
- Obviously no new drivers have been released by dell for ages since this laptop way predates Vista's existence. For video drivers I used this:
which let me install the latest catalyst drivers which seemed to work fine with my mobility 9600 pro turbo. I tested guild wars, some source games over steam, gametap, and Knights of the Old Republic 2. They all ran fine though not with the greatest framerates. Considering the age of this laptop I was pretty satisfied. Running at 1280X800 works pretty well and maintains the 16:10 aspect ratio.

- For the touchpad I used the following drivers:
Alps GlidePoint/StickPointer, v., A00
- Broadcom BCM Internal Modem. I used Newest - V.92 Data/Fax/Voice version 3.5.25 for Windows 2000 & XP. Even though it says it's only for xp it seemed to install fine for vista.
- I use the TRENDnet TEG-PCBUSR 32-bit Gigabit CardBus PC Card for when I want to burn something over the local network at a full 8X. It works great in vista as long as you use these drivers:
Do NOT use the realtek reference drivers!

I have to say this little project was well worth the effort. Current prices as of this writing put the hardware upgrades around $200. It almost feels like I have a new laptop. Everything loads and runs faster. Vista is plenty snappy. All the hardware works just fine. Games work fine. I have a good amount of memory and plenty of free disk space. My DVD burns are quick and reliable. Sleep is working great now. I can just close the lid and it drops into S3 standby (killawatt shows only 4 watts being used in this state). Open the lid, and I can almost instantly start using the laptop. I'm happy, the wife's happy. This should let me put off buying a new laptop for at least another year (well...unless a cheap dual core atom netbook shows up then I might not be able to resist).

UPDATE: 8/30/09
- So I decided to install Windows 7 Ultimate x86 (MSDN) today. I backed up my data, reformatted the partition, and installed a clean copy.
- Things went pretty smoothly. There were just a few more driver issues. First, the wireless networking drivers didn't install (wired was working fine). Now, I also noticed later that I had the radios turned off (wifi/bluetooth with fn-f2) so that might have been part of the issue. But if you need to install the wireless networking drivers manually these worked fine for me (that is if you opted for the intel wireless instead of the dell brand):
Intel Pro/Wireless 2200BG
- I also had to install audio drivers:
Sigmatel STAC 9750 AC97
- The above glidepoint, broadcom internal modem, and trendnet gigabit drivers that I used for vista worked fine in windows 7.
- Finally, I ran into some video driver issues. First, I used the mobility modder along with the recommended ati catalyst 9.3 drivers. It installed fine and directx was working but I lost all ability to scale to full screen. The options were just missing from CCC. This is pretty critical for such an old laptop. I typically run games at lower resolutions (1280X800) and then have the video card scale the image to full screen. Instead everything was playing in a tiny box surrounded by a large black border. I ended up uninstall those drivers and installed these instead:
DNA ATI Modified drivers
These are based off of catalyst 8.9 and installed just fine. I got all my scaling options back, and it's working great with my games.
- Another option worth checking out is I noticed a lot of drivers have been moved into windows update. So make sure you check the optional recommended updates for any potential missing drivers.
- Everything else worked just fine in windows 7 including bluetooth. S3 sleep seems to be working fine too. No problems with fn + sound/brightness. Overall, well worth the upgrade. I really like windows 7 and the new taskbar. It performs quite well on old hardware too.

Linksys WRT310N, DD-WRT, and 802.11n

- So it was a sad sad day when I accidentally fried my Buffalo WHR-G125. I did something really stupid. Don't plug a 12v ac adapter into a device that only takes 3v (that's what happens when you are moving your router and DSL modem at the same time and accidentally cross the ac adapter wires). There was an instant burning smell, and umm yeah all I get is the diagnostic light on all the time. It was a really great router, ran dd-wrt great, and was only $25. Oh well, out with the old and in with the new.
- To replace it I was still considering the linksys wrt54GL for around $50-60. But then I read up on the linksys wrt310n which also fully supports dd-wrt. I got it from buy.com for $95 with 2 day shipping.
- I completely ignored the included CD and the LELA garbage. I don't want it or need it.
- It's only single band (no 5ghz).
- NO jumbo frame support on the built in gigabit switch.
- I really didn't test the original firmware at all since I knew I wanted dd-wrt on there as quick as possible. First, download dd-wrt v24 sp1 from here. You'll need both dd-wrt.v24_mini_generic.bin and dd-wrt.v24_std_generic.bin. Flash the mini generic first then the std generic. Flashing was even easier than the buffalo. I just hit the router with my browser (default ip:, logged in (default password: admin, leave user blank). Go find the firmware upgrade page: administration|config management. Browse for the appropriate dd-wrt file you d/l above and away you go. Again, FLASH AT YOUR OWN RISK!
- I made a few changes to the settings which I got from this thread:
Changed the TX Power to 28 (wireless|advanced settings)
Changed the TCP timeout to 120
- Heat: It does get pretty warm. Using my IR thermometer gun the top is around 112F and the underside gets up to 125F near the center. I decided to prop it up on some blocks just to let some more are flow down there.

- So far stability has been very good. I've been running it under heavy load for about 10 days now without issue. No reboots needed. Heat doesn't seem to be an issue.
- Performance, Qos, ping tests, etc are all pretty much identical to the buffalo so just read that review for the details. I'll focus on the wireless-N which is the only thing significantly different about this router. For QoS I'm still using HTB, up 500, down 4800.
- Pings with QoS still look good. Ping maxpc/pcgamer tf2 server, Qos ON - fully saturated internet download:
C:\Windows\System32>ping -t
Pinging with 32 bytes of data:
Reply from bytes=32 time=66ms TTL=115
Reply from bytes=32 time=65ms TTL=115
Reply from bytes=32 time=72ms TTL=115
Reply from bytes=32 time=67ms TTL=115
Reply from bytes=32 time=67ms TTL=115
Reply from bytes=32 time=71ms TTL=115
Reply from bytes=32 time=68ms TTL=115
Reply from bytes=32 time=74ms TTL=115
Reply from bytes=32 time=65ms TTL=115
Reply from bytes=32 time=68ms TTL=115
Reply from bytes=32 time=62ms TTL=115
Reply from bytes=32 time=68ms TTL=115
Reply from bytes=32 time=61ms TTL=115
Reply from bytes=32 time=72ms TTL=115
Reply from bytes=32 time=58ms TTL=115

Ping statistics for
Packets: Sent = 15, Received = 15, Lost = 0 (0% loss),
Approximate round trip times in milli-seconds:
Minimum = 58ms, Maximum = 74ms, Average = 66ms
- Resource load looks good

Wireless N
- To test 802.11n I used my dell inspiron 8600 laptop (vista 32bit ultimate) which only has intel based 802.11b/g built in. So I also picked up a few N adapters. WPA2 AES is enabled for all tests.
- I used the same network benchmark methedology as I did on my Gigabit ethernet upgrade.
receiver: pcattcp -c -r -f m
send short: pcattcp -t -f m -n 5000 %1 (%1 = machine name of receiver)
send long: pcattcp -t -f m -n 100000 %1
- First, baseline numbers with the built in wireless 802.11g. Finding a good channel number is imperative to getting a good signal so I went and tested pretty much all the channels. 8 was the best for me. The router is located in an upstairs bedroom. I tested in 3 locations:
1 - really close (just a few feet from the router),
2 - in the master bedroom (through 2 walls)
3 - downstairs in the family room.

All 802.11g tests were done in mixed mode.
1: 40960000 bytes in 16.16 real seconds = 19.33 Mbit/sec
2: 40960000 bytes in 16.66 real seconds = 18.75 Mbit/sec
3: 40960000 bytes in 16.91 real seconds = 18.48 Mbit/sec

- airlink awll6070 from fry's onsale for $20. I did NOT run their install disk since I didn't want any extra wireless management software to gunk up my OS. Instead I grabbed the latest drivers from here:
Extract them, plug in the usb N adapter, then browse for the driver to where you extracted them. I'm fine with using just the built in Vista stuff to manage my wireless connections.
1 (N only, ch 3): 40960000 bytes in 13.94 real seconds = 22.42 Mbit/sec
1 (N only): 40960000 bytes in 15.90 real seconds = 19.65 Mbit/sec
1 (mixed, auto channel): 40960000 bytes in 20.81 real seconds = 15.02 Mbit/sec
3: 40960000 bytes in 21.57 real seconds = 14.49 Mbit/sec

- linksys wpc300n v1 wireless-n notebook adapter. $30 shipped from newegg. Again, I wanted just the raw drivers installed and did not install the linksys management software. You can get the latest driver here.
1 (N only, 20hz, ch 8): 40960000 bytes in 20.91 real seconds = 14.95 Mbit/sec
1 (mixed, ch 8): 40960000 bytes in 21.25 real seconds = 14.71 Mbit/sec
2: 40960000 bytes in 29.19 real seconds = 10.70 Mbit/sec
3: 40960000 bytes in 16.82 real seconds = 18.57 Mbit/sec
- You can see it shows a high connection speed but it doesn't show up in the tests:

- I think test #3 was the best because of how the antenna on a pc card faces. It works better when it's in a vertical plain from the router.

- Basically, wireless N is a complete bust in it's current draft form and implementation on dd-wrt. I tried other settings which are available in N-Only mode like channel width and setting wireless channel to auto to no avail. I didn't see any speed increase or better range from MIMO than what I get over good old 802.11g. From what I've read performance is much better if you use the same hardware across the board and the original firmware. Since I flashed dd-wrt right away I didn't get a chance to test with the original firmware. Since it's all draft still, many of these companies still use proprietary algorithms and tricks to improve performance. Obviously dd-wrt doesn't have access to these. Maybe things will improve once 802.11n is finalized. Either way It's not a big deal to me since I'll take dd-wrt and QoS over increased wireless speed any day. If I need speed that's what wired gigabit ethernet is for. Most of the time I'm just surfing so N is moot. It just would have been nice to have a bit of a boost for the rare times I copy large files to/from the laptop. I ended up returning the airlink but I think I'll hold on to the linksys for now on the off chance that things improve once 802.11n is finalized. Also, it might help that the pc card is the same manufacturer as the router.

Highly recommended. It's still a great router even if the wireless N is kind of pointless when using dd-wrt. It still has a gigabit switch built in which is handy. 802.11g works as good if not better than my buffalo. DD-WRT is stupid easy to flash and has been working very reliably. Price is a bit high. I guess if you don't need the gigabit ethernet, and you don't want to make the bet that maybe 802.11n will improve when it is finalized (and dd-wrt is updated to use 802.11n final specs, and the pc card has a firmware update and/or driver update, so yeah that's quite a bit to bet on), then the linksys wrt54gl would probably be the better value.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Rock Band 2 (XBOX 360)

- Picked up the new Wireless Drums from Fry's when it was on sale for $80.
- I tried them out first at the store and I really liked the feel of the new drums: it has a nice bounce, much more quiet, things fit tighter together like the poles into the base and the pedal all stay put when picking up the drums and moving it around, slots for optional upgrades like the up and coming cymbal pack, metal plate on the pedal, and of course wireless. That was enough for me to upgrade.
- That sad part is my drums were defective: First, the battery compartment is right underneath the drums. It takes three AA batteries. The battery cover does have a strip of foam that is suppose to help keep the batteries in place. Well it didn't. After banging out a few songs the batteries would lose connection, and the drums would power down. This happened a few times in solo mode but was much worse in online play since my band mates were saving me as I was scrambling to get power back up. I folded up a piece of paper and crammed it under the cover which seemed to help.
- A much more serious problem was my halo 3 wireless headset would NOT work with the drums. No matter what I tried (different power on sequences, etc) I could not get the headset to sync to the same slot the drums were on (controller position 1). You can read more about this issue here:
That first night I played online I had to dig out my old wired headset. Well apparently the rb2 drums do NOT include the little extension cable adapter. I had to go dig up my old one that came with the rb1 special edition. Just more annoying things for an over priced peripheral that you would expect they would get everything RIGHT since this is their SECOND time around.
- So I decided to do the express RMA option where they cross ship you new drums. Make sure you use IE since Firefox didn't work on the Rock Band warranty site. It took about a week for the RMA drums to arrive. I set them up, and these new ones work perfectly with my wireless headset. Not only that the batteries seem to fit much tighter in these new drums so it fixed my power issue too. So if you have these issues don't hesitate to do an RMA.
- Game wise I'm really enjoying it a lot. I found calibrating with the drums gave me much more accurate results than with my old rb1 guitar. I know the rb2 guitar has auto calibration but I don't think it's worth the money. Besides, I have yet used a rb guitar that doesn't have the overdrive sensor all screwed up. No fail mode is nice if you have younger kids. Character creation is better. Overall band/character management including assigning subs is all handeled really well and much more flexible. The set list is growing on me. Online world tour and challenges are a blast. There are some nice training modes above and beyond the basic tutorial for drums. Those patterns can get really tough especially at the higher BPM's.
- The quickest way to unlock all the songs is start a band in local tour mode, challenge mode, do all the decade challenges (just the regular ones, not the marathon ones). In just a couple of hours you should have most if not all the songs unlocked. I did this on hard drums.

I highly recommend the game but so far the new drums have been a bit frustrating. I would let this first bad batch of drums get out of the retail channel before buying them. If you get a good working set of drums, they are quite nice though I'm not sure if they are worth the cost.