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SSDs And Random Notes

Intel Developer Forum, Day Two
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SSDs Really are Better for Gaming

One of the cooler sessions we attended was about SSDs.

Anyone who’s used an SSD knows that the operating system and large apps (like games) can load much more quickly off a solid state drive than off of rotating media. It turns out that modern games can actually run better, too.

You won’t see that reflected in average frame rate numbers, however.

Modern game engines constantly stream data off the hard drive or optical drive during game play. Some level data is preloaded, but today’s games are far too large for levels to be completely loaded into system memory, even on Windows 7 64-bit with four or six gigabytes of RAM. So, the game is constantly making a best guess as to what data to stream to main memory or GPU VRAM in order to maintain smooth frame rates.

Intel noticed that, sometimes during game play, the game would momentarily freeze for a second, for example when the main character in Assassin’s Creed II was running through a level. What happened was the game made a bad bet on which data to load, then had to recover. Intel calls these momentary pauses “hitching.”

Intel recorded uncompressed full-resolution streams of game play and compared them to recorded hard drive load traces and found that these “hitches” or pauses matched up to large amounts of data being loaded in a short period of time, as the game engine recovered from a bad guess.

When the hard drive is replaced by an SSD, the hitching vanishes. This is reflected in the massive decrease in instantaneous load times as seen in the trace chart for the game.

As it turns out, SSDs actually improve the game experience in a visible way, beyond just loading the title and its associated levels faster.

By the way, faster level load times--the more obvious way SSDs improve game performance--turns out to be a competitive advantage in games like StarCraft II. When the game starts, it synchronizes all of the players so they start at the same time. However, if you’re using an SSD, you actually get a little head start, as some latency from the level load is still taking place among the "unfortunate folks" with mere 10 000 RPM hard drives (hah!).

Random Notes

We did spend some time wandering around the show floor. The emphasis on mobility was apparent everywhere, as we noted earlier. One example is this small herd of Atom-based tablets under development. The success of the iPad has created a stampede of small tablets, and it remains to be seen who will survive and who will fall by the wayside.

Intel was demonstrating “Wi-Di” in a number of locations. This is an enhanced version of Intel’s wireless display technology, which shipped earlier this year from Netgear and several laptop PC suppliers (we covered this technology in-depth in Intel Wireless Display: From Your Notebook To The Big Screen). The concept is pretty cool: share your laptop screen on your HDTV without connecting wires, rather than people having to crowd around to watch the small screen.

USB 3.0 is finally gaining major traction. DisplayLink was showing off products built with the USB 3.0 version of its display chip. This allows laptop users to connect to a docking station via SuperSpeed USB and use larger displays. You still won’t get good 3D frame rates, but USB 3.0 should allow for the use of larger displays while maintaining mouse and keyboard responsiveness.

We were disappointed that the one Light Peak technical session was canceled. But a number of demonstrations of Light Peak, Intel’s optical interconnect that may one day succeed USB 3.0, were evident. This one is showing video streaming off a hard drive using Light Peak optical connections.

Finally, we’ll close our Day Two report with this last image. Intel's Developer Forum has always been about the future, and today’s children represent the future of our world and of technology. Intel invited some local students to come in and try out Classmate PCs, Intel’s low-cost educational laptop. Hey, if someone had taken us on a field trip when we were kids and showed off a tiny computer for use in the classroom, we would have been have been enthralled, too.

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