Friday, July 18, 2014

GuildCraft Dev Diary: Part VII

This post is a general review of the Surface Pro 3 (i5 8GB RAM model) and how it works as a gaming machine. As I mentioned in a previous post, I will also be reviewing how it works as a game development machine. That review will be up at the end of July. )

Before we get started, I should point out that I am a desktop computer user. I do not like laptops. I do not own a laptop. I have never owned a laptop. I have a laptop that I use for work that sits in a dock all day. This is written from the perspective of a dual-monitor desktop user that does not consider laptops portable enough to be worth the trade-offs. I am interested in the Surface Pro line of products because I think they are finally offering something close to the correct mix of power and portability.
Aside: I'm not a fan of Windows 8.1's tablet UI. I kept the machine in desktop mode and used Start8 as a start menu replacement.
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Image stolen from Free marketing for Stardock.

Microsoft's online store made a mistake with my i7 Surface Pro 3 pre-order, so I decided to try out an i5 version from a retail store instead. I've used it for about a week now for a variety of tasks. The physical hardware is impressive. It is amazing how much of a real computer they have fit into such a small and light package. I also really like the 3:2 aspect ratio of the screen. 3:2 is strictly superior to 4:3 and 16:9, and feels as good as my 16:10 monitors to look at. I hope more manufacturers start adopting this aspect ratio.

There has been a lot of discussion online about Microsoft switching the pen technology from Wacom to N-trig. The vast majority of people spouting opinions about the pen are idiots. Speaking as someone who has used both the Surface Pro 2 pen and the Surface Pro 3 pen, the third iteration is a clear improvement. It is more accurate than before (because the N-trig panel technology is thinner) and you can draw all the way to the edge of the screen. Instead of comparing 1024 vs. 256 levels of pressure, people should be comparing the thickness of the screen between the pen and the display. If you have those numbers, feel free to send them to me.

The reason I returned my Surface Pro 2 was because of a conflict between the bluetooth and wifi signals. Whenever I was downloading something, my mouse starting dropping information and it became impossible to use. Driver updates and Microsoft support could not fix the problem. I have no problems to report while using wifi + bluetooth mouse + bluetooth headphones with the Surface Pro 3.
Aside: Over a year ago when I was looking for a small, reasonably priced, Bluetooth mouse I was very frustrated to find that almost every wireless mouse being produced involved a USB dongle. That didn't make any sense to me, as even traditional laptops have a limited number of USB ports. I ended up buying the only product that I could find under $50, which was the Gigabyte GM-M7700B. I am very impressed with it. In addition to working as expected, it has excellent battery life. I am still using the batteries that I put in it for my Surface Pro 2, even though I left the mouse 'on' in its case for at least 6 months. It seems to intelligently shut itself off if not in use for a few minutes, and turns back on when you touch it. It also comes with a hard-shell case for travel. If this mouse were a movie, I'd tell you to go see it at the threatre. )
The first jpeg I've uploaded to this blog. I feel dirty. Those hands look small.

The keyboard, power cable, display clarity, kickstand, etc. are all slightly improved as you would expect. I've read that the trackpad on the keyboard is also improved, but I have no idea because I hate them and one of the first settings I changed was to completely disable the trackpad. For me, the touchscreen works better than any trackpad when a mouse is not available. The pen can be used in the (rare) situations where a finger is not accurate enough.

Now let's discuss using this generally fantastic hardware for gaming. If you are interested in emulating console games, emulating android "games", or playing tablet "games" from the Windows Store, this i5 machine certainly has enough power to do that.

This is the end of the positive section of the review.
Aside: Everything I say below likely also applies to the i7 version of the Surface Pro 3, as its Intel HD 5000 GPU is only about 15% faster than the HD 4400 and the related issues are software/driver problems.
The Surface Pro 3's display resolution of 2160x1440 is too high for its Intel HD 4400 GPU to play modern games. Consider that to keep up, every single frame the GPU would need to render 35% more pixels than my 24" desktop monitor has. It does not have the power to do this, even for a relatively basic Unity game like Hearthstone. Divinity: Original Sin loaded quickly thanks to the SSD, but even though that is a turn-based game, it was not playable. The only positive thing I can say is that Primordia (an adventure game that runs at 640x400) was more enjoyable to play in bed than at my desk. ) )

The traditional solution to this problem is to play a game at a lower resolution. That works a lot better for CRT monitors than it does for LCD monitors. Even if you are willing to accept the visual artifacts that occur, the 3:2 aspect ratio of the Surface Pro 3 causes some other issues. Most games do not support the 3:2 aspect ratio at this point. Microsoft attempted to address this, but the driver/software solution they have in place is not working correctly. For example, when attempting to run Hearthstone at a lower resolution in full screen mode it is stretched and distorted, instead of aspect-stretched and letterboxed as Microsoft intended. If you attempt to change the resolution of your display manually before launching the game, you run into a very(!) curious graphical glitch.

Hearthstone thinks it is full screen, and Windows is giving it an area that is 1920x1080 physical display pixels, which do not equal 1920x1080 aspect-stretched pixels when the display's resolution is changed.

I also noticed that when using older games at lower resolutions the pen and touch input was offset by a large amount and I was forced to use a mouse.

I contacted Microsoft support with my display findings. They claimed that it was a problem with Hearthstone. Not a very good support answer when it affects multiple programs. I also contacted Blizzard about the unsupported 3:2 resolutions. No response to my bug report. These companies are both pretending the fault lies with the other, when in reality they both have work to do that should have already been done.

By now you are probably wondering why I didn't use the graphics card's control panel to work around these problems. The answer to that is simple: the Intel HD Control Panel is disabled by Microsoft on the Surface Pro 3. Based on the information I could find, forcing it to install via custom drivers requires more technical savvy and risk than is reasonable and may negatively impact battery performance.

The biggest oversight here is that Microsoft does not offer a quarter-resolution option in its display settings. 1080x720 would work well for the the size of the device and quadruple gaming framerates. The individual pixels are small enough that upscaling each pixel to a 2x2 block would still look okay. Something similar is available for non-game applications via the global scaling factor.

The high density display can also cause problems with other applications when they ignore rendering hints from the operating system. For example, Chrome renders blurry text while the same page looks amazing in Internet Explorer.

Verdict: Overall the Surface Pro 3 hardware is excellent, but the graphics card is too weak for gaming. My next post will review it as a content consumption and content creation device.


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