Tutorial #24: Tweaking the Asus Tuf Gaming A15


Previously, in my review of the laptop, the only tweaking I had undertaken was an auto-overclock of the GPU which, as per expectation, yielded a performance improvement of around 6% overall with only a slight loss in CPU performance, purely on the basis of the additional available thermal headroom.


During that time I had left the CPU untouched because AMD does not officially support tweaking on laptops and Ryzen Controller did not work for me then. However, later I came across Renoir Mobile Tuning and found it to be operational for this laptop, albeit with a few bugs. I switched to Ryzen Controller again and found that it too now worked well for Renoir with the additional benefit of applying the setting automatically on boot.

With a CPU tuning tool in place, the next thing was determining what to do with it. While these tools often end up as overclocking utilities, my intention couldn't be further opposite to that. The idea was to effectively underclock the system without losing performance i.e. to reduce the temperatures while still maintaining a performance boost over the stock settings.

To cut a long story short, I played around various combination of settings to finally settle on one that seems to work the best. Not that it an exhaustive analysis but rather the most practical among the ones I had tried. Note that I only experimented with the Boost TDPs and the temperature limits. The boost duration seemed pretty logical and I did not want to introduce yet another variable that muddied up the testing. Eventually this resulted in the following changes:
  • Temperature Limit: 90
  • Long Boost TDP: 54 
  • Short Boost TDP: 50
For reference, the default temperature limit is 95 with long and short boost TDPs of 60 and 54 respectively. Also, I auto-overclocked the GPU again to make the most of any benefit available from reduction of the CPU performance. So, how did this theoretical reduction in CPU performance impact the benchmark scores for Fire Strike and Time Spy compared to the ones from the review?


As expected, this has quite an impact on the CPU performance as it has dropped by nearly 5% but on the other hand the graphics score has jumped by 1% resulting in an overall gain of 0.7% on Fire Strike, taking it past 16,000 for the first time. However, the result for Time Spy was more interesting as there was a minor loss instead overall indicating the underclock has more of an impact of DX12 than it does on DX11, which is probably not unexpected. Note that this is an indication of the gain over the gain already achieved by overclocking the GPU originally, so overall the incremental gain is still worth it.

Lastly, the laptop has a secret weapon up its sleeve. Until now, all the tests were conducted using the default Performance mode. However, there is also a Turbo mode which sets the fans whirring to possibly the maximum setting under full load. Yes, it boosts up the scores even further. Below I have again attached a comparison of the Turbo mode performance for the stock CPU settings in comparison to the underclocked one and it is quite the same as earlier. While the DX11 performance is higher with the underclock, it is lower by an equal proportion in case of DX12. 

It has to be kept in mind though that apart from the scores, the underclock has an additional benefit in reducing the overall temperatures and also prolonging the life of the components. Also with the combination of the 4800H with the RTX2060, it is the latter that is going to hit the limit rather easily compared to the former, so a sacrifice of CPU performance for a GPU gain makes a lot more sense.

Finally, I leave you with a comparison of the current profile comprising of a GPU Overclock and CPU Underclock on Turbo with the stock GPU and CPU settings.

A jump of 7.8% on DX11 and 6.6% on DX12 with lower overall temperatures to boot is nothing shoddy. Seems something called as free lunch does exist after all.

Review #65: Asus TUF Gaming A15 Laptop (Ryzen 7 4800H | RTX 2060) ★★★★✭

 Team Red + Team Green - A killer combination!


Introduction:

Ever since Y2K, when AMD stole the limelight for a bit with breaking the 1 GHz barrier and releasing AMD64, AMD as a company failed to impress on me the need to purchase their products. I had opted for Intel just prior to the Athlon breakthrough and every upgrade cycle of 4-5 years led me to opt for Intel. Hence, I was simply enthralled at switching to Team Red after nearly two decades of being stuck with Team Blue. My GPU always has been Team Green but with the integrated Vega 7, there is a dash of Red over there as well.

The Choice:

During the holiday sale 2020, it was between this and the Acer Predator Helios 300 for the princely sum of "not quite" one lakh INR. I could see the reviews racking up for the Core i7 variant on Flipkart and I had even purchased the same but cancelled it as soon as I came across this Renoir masterpiece. It helped that Amazon also offered a much higher exchange price for an old laptop that was lying around, compared to Flipkart.

To put it straight, the Helios 300 has only one thing going for it compared to this one and that is the screen. On the flip side, this comes with a monster CPU, DDR4-3200, a 2000+ Mbps 1 TB SSD from Western Digital, a large 90 Wh battery, lighter weight, higher travel keyboard and about as good a cooling solution as the Helios. It also looks more professional than the Helios, so you can use it in formal environments without having people snickering at you. So overall, it is a win for the A15 over the Helios 300.

Display:

To address the elephant in the room, Asus gimped on the screen, using a Panda panel that has only about 65% sRGB colour gamut and >20 ms response time with quite some screen flex. It pales (no pun intended) in comparison to the 90% sRGB panel with 3ms response time on the Helios, but that is about it. I still managed to get popping colours out of it by increasing the saturation on Radeon Software and calibrating the display from within Windows. Sure, it throws accuracy out of the window in favour of something eye-pleasing but I am not looking to do any colour-work on it and even otherwise, I am looking to connect it to my 120 Hz 4K TV at home for gaming. I am unsure about it, but with the HDMI or DisplayPort output being driven by Vega, it should also support FreeSync directly compared to laptops having output routed through the Intel GPU.

Hardware:


The primary reason for getting this laptop is the Ryzen 4000 series. The 4800H puts the Core i7 to shame. I ran Cinebench after updating the system and without any tweaks. It registered nearly 500 on the single core and 4386 on the multi core, that even the Core i9-9980HK can't touch in most laptops, due to it being a blast furnace rather than a processor. The 4800H did not even touch 80 degrees on the Cinebench multi-core test. It did go past 90 on Firestrike but it never thermally throttled whereas the under-volted 9980HK in my earlier laptop hit 100 degrees within seconds and throttled like it was being asphyxiated.

The RTX 2060 is also the 2020 "refresh" variant with the 1.25V GDDR6 and higher TDP. It passed 15,000 on Firestrike on the first run but with the CPU running much cooler, it opens up the possibility of over-clocking the GPU farther than you can on an Intel machine.

Among other points, the machine ran without much noise on the benchmarks, but I expect it to reach whirring heights with demanding games, something that is to be expected of most gaming laptops. I haven’t checked the battery life and probably never will over the life of the laptop, as I always used it plugged, but the 90 Wh battery with the 4800H will provide a longer battery life than any Intel gaming laptop. The lonely USB 2.0 port on the right-hand side is a bit of a let-down but I have my fingerprint reader permanently plugged in so that I can use Windows Hello. Not having TB3 is also disappointing but I can’t see myself needing it over the lifespan of the laptop as DLSS will most probably help with higher resolutions in the near future.

Tweaking:

As expected, the UEFI on the laptop is barebone. AMD also doesn't support Ryzen Master on laptops, leaving it to OEMs to decide on the thermal envelope. That leaves Ryzen Controller as a tool of choice as it has experimental 4000-series support but with it currently being limited to STAPM settings, it is more likely to be needed to extract more performance rather than to lower temperatures, and thus is not the need of the hour.

However, as I mentioned previously, there is light at the end of the tunnel in terms of extracting more performance from the GPU. As the following 3DMark screenshots indicate, the GPU is able to provide 6-7% more performance using Auto-Overclock at the loss of less than 1% CPU performance. The GPU temperatures too are similar, though the CPU temperature does go up by 4-5 degrees at idle and 2-3% degrees at full load, but still does not throttle.

Warranty:

The unit received from Amazon was manufactured just 2 weeks before as per the warranty registration date. It can be changed to the invoice date by providing Asus with the invoice and a photo of the laptop serial number. An additional year of warranty, after using the 10% off code provided with the laptop, costs about $35 which is quite respectable.

Conclusion:

To sum it up, at the sale price, you can only go wrong with a gaming laptop if you choose Intel. Asus got most things right apart from the screen which is gut-wrenching but not a deal breaker, especially if you use a monitor or TV. In this case, it is what’s inside that counts and this thing is as TUF as it gets.

P.S.: It comes with a huge 16A plug that would probably go well with a microwave in the kitchen. Thankfully, the power adapter has a standard connector as a desktop PSU, so I was able to connect a 16A cable with the regular sized plug. You can also probably get away with a lower amperage cable but it is best to get a 16A one if you can.

Musing #61: Adapting apps for Gear Fit2 (Pro)

While the original post was about the 2048 app, I feel it would be best to have a single post for all my adapted Gear Fit2 (Pro) apps. The original article is still present below for any guidance it may provide in installing the apps on the device. I will be listing the apps along with a screenshot and the link to download the *.wgt files. A short description has been included along with references to the original source/app.

1. 2048: Based on the latest source (Oct 2017) for 2048 posted on Github with suitable interface/colour modifications for Gear Fit2 Pro. Uploaded on Sep 11, 2018.

2. SciCal: Based on an app called 'Kalkulator' or 'Calculator Net 6' for the Gear S, I have renamed it to SciCal as it is a scientific calculator while adding a catchy icon from Wikimedia. The dimensions of all the "pages" of the calculator have been modified so that no scrolling is present. Unfortunately, the interface stays as it is due to the large amount of information involved. Uploaded on Sep 23, 2018.

Original Article (Sep 11, 2018):

It is no surprise that Samsung has artificially stifled the Gear Fit series for it to not steal the limelight from their flagship "S" series. Consequently, Galaxy Apps store submissions for the Gear Fit2 and Pro are only limited to watch faces with partners like Spotify being the only ones allowed to publish apps for the device.

This doesn't imply that the device itself is incapable of running third-party apps. Samsung provides the necessary tools to create, install and run applications for the Tizen platform as a whole and this benefits the Gear Fit2 devices as well. However, without a centralised distributor, it takes a lot more effort to get an app distributed and installed on the device.

The Gear Fit2 is capable of running web apps which are essentially websites stored on the device. Hence, for my first Tizen app, I decided to go with the sliding-block puzzle game 2048 which is freely available on GitHub under MIT license and presents an everlasting challenge, even on the wrist.

Apart from scaling the game to fit the 216x432 screen, I have made a couple of tweaks to the interface so as to optimise the experience for the device. The first is switching the colour scheme to darker colours to preserve battery life on the SAMOLED screen as against the default lighter colour scheme. The second tweak, apart from adjusting the font size and spacing, is to switch the 'New Game' option higher up and to the left to prevent accidental resetting of the game when swiping up, as has happened to me on more than a few occasions.

I have uploaded the 2048.wgt file, as installed on my Gear Fit2 Pro. This implies that the file is self-signed and hence will not install on any other device. Thus, you will have to sign it specifically for your device prior to installation. Detailed instructions on the same can be found on XDA. After self-signing, the app can be installed using the Tizen Studio SDK by connecting to the device using "sdb connect <ipaddress>" and then issuing the command "sdb install 2048.wgt". Details on that command can be found here.

So, test it out and let me know how you feel about it in the comments. You may also share the details of any other web applications that you would like to adapted for the Gear Fit2 devices.

Musing #57: Steam Link on Fire TV


The release (or lack of it) of the Steam Link app caused a lot of brouhaha in the past month. While it it is meant for mobile devices, it undeniably adds a lot of value to the Fire TV and for that matter to all Android devices. It is a must-have that would have certainly made it to my list of  'The Essentials' were it available back then. It is not officially available on Amazon, so your best bet is to sideload it.

As I mentioned previously in my review of the AFTV3, the Ethernet adapter doesn't make a whole lot of sense as it is limited to 100 Mbps. However, it would be more than enough in this case as Steam Link requires a maximum of 30 Mbps for streaming. Unfortunately, I had to rely on the 5 GHz WiFi network (Steam Link doesn't support 2.4 GHz) with the TV being 25 metres away from the router, separated by a wall. This issue is compounded by the fact the 5 GHz receiver on the AFTV3 is exceptionally weak.

After playing with the settings, the only way I could get Steam Link working on the AFTV3 over such a long distance was by switching the 5 GHz channel bandwidth to 20 MHz. This significantly reduces the throughput but is a necessity for my current setup which I hope to change soon. Over the 20 MHz channel and at a distance of 25 metres, Steam Link works unimpeded in the 'Balanced' mode which uses 15 Mbps. I was even able to get the 'Beautiful' mode, requiring 30 Mbps, to work over the 20 MHz channel but it was inconsistent. On the other hand, it worked exceptionally well over the 40 MHz channel as can be seen below, but the AFTV3 was unable to sustain the signal over the distance, resulting in frequent disconnections. Nonetheless, this is an issue that can be easily resolved through some rearrangement.


Steam makes it quite evident that the software is in beta and that AFTV is not officially tested.


 However, as long as the network is up to it, the AFTV is more than capable of streaming.


Inability of the network to stream properly is indicated with the frame loss and network variance.


Setting up Steam Link is extremely easy as it essentially requires pairing the TV with the host PC using a PIN.


Additionally, the Steam Client on PC requested the installation of additional audio drivers once the setup was done, but I presume this might depend on the setup. I had sold my Xiaomi Bluetooth controller a few months back so I didn't have a controller to pair with Steam. However, I did have my Apple Wireless Keyboard and Logitech M557 paired to AFTV which ought to have done the job. 


While the keyboard worked fine with the Big Picture mode, v1.1.3 of Steam Link that I installed initially didn't support the mouse which was subsequently rectified in v1.1.4, indicating that Valve is actively paying attention to user feedback. At present, the lag isn't too bad, but the mouse controls are too sensitive which I presume is due to the fact that the tuning has been done as per analog controllers. It might make sense to pick up the Xbox One S or Steam controller for universal compatibility.

With the initial impression being quite good, one can only hope for Steam Link to work seamlessly once it comes out of beta. Perhaps the Steam Sale will become a lot more attractive for AFTV owners.

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.


Musing #53: Cluedo Champ!


Somehow, my childhood never crossed paths with Cluedo amongst the myriad of board games that helped shape it. Ironically, I watched the related movie several years back without having ever rolled the dice within Tudor mansion. I suppose the ignorance of those days, without access to mobiles and the Web, was a bliss in more ways than one. However, the competitive spirit was fostered by other familiar games as well as ones whose obscurity isn't lessened by scouring the Web.

It is never too late to start with something and hence I didn't bat an eyelid in getting the iOS version of Cluedo once I became aware of its existence earlier this week. I immediately felt like a duck in the water and soon found myself at the top of the leader board without much effort. Who knew that all those years of reading and watching whodunnits would make me such a great detective? Now, if only someone were to accept Cluedo as proof of my real-life logical reasoning skills.

For anyone looking to jump in to the app, I would recommend it with a few riders. The good part is that the digital representation is faithful to the physical one and is certainly captivating. On the flip side, the app has more than a few game breaking bugs, the biggest one being that the murder cards are repeated when there are not many players online and bots make up the numbers (looking at you, GreenToucan838). This can prop up the score if you so wish and I encountered it at least half a dozen times; but such instances are frustrating and I wish the developers had done a better job of it.

While I enjoyed partaking in Cluedo with people around the world, I felt it best to leave at the top. I suppose the screenshot below will immortalise my tryst with Cluedo, even though I am sure that the more persistent players would have beaten it by now. Yeah, that's Scarlett you see as me. I hope that a lot of players harrowed by my existence would now breathe a sigh of relief. Just may be, I have a come back in me somewhere down the line.


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!