Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Too Many Computers

The New Mac Pro came today. I'm very excited about this computer because it may be the first computer that can render an entire set of global scenery on its own in under three days. We've always had to apply multiple computers to the problem, sometimes in different cities, and synchronize the data. Being able to do the render on one box is a nice simplification.

A few immediate observations:
  • Man is it expensive. If you aren't Warren Buffet and your work isn't buying it, think long and hard about why you need it. The iMac is a more reasonable X-Plane computer. (And from what I understand, both Radeon HDs and GeForce 8's have driver problems on OS X; until Apple fixes this, consider BootCamp. With the new iMacs you can pick which next-gen card with "work-in-progress" drivers you want.)
  • Buy third party parts...not only will you save money, but you'll get the joy of installing them. Since the "blue and white G3" Apple's cases have been on par with well-designed PC cases for accessibility. The Mac Pro is nicer though - hard drives and memory are all installed on rail-guided slide-in parts; two hard drives and two DIMMs took about 5 minutes and a single screw-driver.
My office is going to explode. Here's a rough list of all of the Macs we have in the house now:
  • Mac Pro (the new scenery rendering machine, also graphics with 8800, will be triple-boot).
  • Aluminum iMac (mostly for testing graphics code on Radeon HD, but it's now the DVD burning station, runs Ubuntu 7.10).
  • Mac Book Pro (old X1600-based, portable dev machine, triple boot but LILO is dead).
  • G5 (the old rendering machine, kept around to regress bugs on PPC, R300 chipset, OS X 10.3, etc.).
  • Dell P-IV 2.6 ghz - mostly used to record music, but it does have a GeForce 6 in it, and it's a good low-end test system. (A 2.6 ghz P-IV doesn't get you real far, the FSB is slow, and it's only got 4x AGP.)
  • G4 laptop (800 mhz) - case is falling apart, but if I ever needed to try to run on a really low-end system. Actually at this point the laptop is so far below min specs that it probably isn't worth it.
  • Mac Book - got this for my wife, but if I begged she'd let me regress Intel X3100 bugs on it.
So there are two points to note here, and neither of them are "Ben has a lot of computers" and "Ben's office is a mess."
  1. X-Plane 9's use of graphics hardware has caught up enough with the bleeding edge that I now basically have to have "one of everything" to really debug the sim. We'll have some major updates to shaders in future patches, so having accumulated all of this hardware in-house (a lot in the last few months) will help me debug these things faster. A lot of these setups are due to "X doesn't work" bug reports specific to certain hardware/OS combinations.
  2. It's really handy that Macs now have x86 chips because it cuts down the number of boxes. The new Mac Pro will give me an nVidia DX10-type platform not only for OS X but also for Vista (first Vista machine in the house, not because I want Vista, but because someone in the company should have at least one copy) and Linux too, if I can make it work.*
So the next time we release a beta and it immediately crashes your computer, please bear with us. It really did work bug free on some computers we own...we're getting closer to a complete matrix to catch more of these incompatibilities early on. But even with that huge mess of hardware we're still missing a lot of combinations.

* Triple-booting Mac/Win/Linux is a much bigger PITA than double boot. The problem is that the old MBR-type setups only give you four partitions, of which one gets eaten for the firmware. That leaves you three partitions and three operating systems, but by default Linux wants a second one for swap (a good idea). So you need to either stick a fifth partition
on and fix the MBR by hand or reconfigure Linux to use on-main-volume swap-space. In summary, with only two operating systems, eitiher Windows or Linux "just installs", but to put three on one drive, you get into customization.

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