Play Where You Like!
By Jeff "nonick" Solomon
Under the hood, Linux is awesome. If the Linux community can rally behind the issue of the system's complexity and effectiveness in typical consumer environments, Linux will become a serious competitor to Windows. This might very well happen. Until that day, however, Linux will be primarily for expert gamers only.
Be. The OS, not the philosophical statement. The Be OS is a new operating system for PowerPC and Intel processors that comes from Be (not surprisingly), a company founded by Jean-Louis Gassée, who was formerly an influential engineer at Apple Computer back in its heyday (some people, I suppose, might argue that now is Apple's heyday, but I'm talking about the mid-eighties). The Be OS is designed around the premise that digital media is the key to the future of computer content development ("The Media OS," as they refer to it), and it's engineered to work as efficiently as possible with audio and video. And does it ever!
Everything in Be is new, and the system reflects an incredible degree of contemporary thinking that should appeal dramatically to gamers. I'll let the system speak for itself based on a demo that I saw recently at PC Expo.
The demo, which was technically a beta version of the OS, was running on dual 300MHz Pentium IIs with 64 megs of RAM, a vanilla IDE hard drive, and a standard video card. Apart from having two processors, this is pretty much a middle of the road PC- nothing worth getting terribly excited about. At one point, this system was running four movies (in large windows at least four times the average QuickTime window size- and one of them was Star Wars, which proves that Be's got its heart in the right place); two instances of the hardware intensive game Descent; three 3D rendering windows with full motion video clips mapped to the constantly changing surfaces of the objects; a 44.1 kHz, 16-bit sound clip; and several Web browser windows! To recap:
At this point, the CPU monitor finally showed both CPUs working full force, but performance was still much better than any demo that I've ever seen that comes close to being as fatalistic as this- the audio was perfectly smooth, the videos (all seven of them!) were chugging away at nearly full speed, and the system responded to mouse clicks on menus instantly.
Of all the things the Be OS does right, its unprecedented support for pervasive multiprocessing is most impressive. Linux is only beginning to approach stability in multiprocessor environments; NT fares slightly better, but performance does not scale well with more than four CPUs; Mac OS X will offer limited multiprocessing support; and Windows 95/98 offers none whatsoever.
The Be OS has been designed from the ground up to support multiple processors, and the entire system is threaded in a manner that allows for efficient distribution of tasks between processors. For gaming, the ability to do this well reveals unveils a world of potential. Consider a game that takes advantage of the Be OS's internal networking- the ability of the OS to network multiple CPUs in one machine. In such a scenario, a player could open two copies of Descent on one machine and have them play against each other - each with a different IP address. Rendering tasks can be offloaded to one processor while another handles physics. The possibilities are endless, potentially limited only be imagination.
The Be OS is very new, and it's by no means perfect. There are plenty of rough spots that need to be addressed before it's practical for a large number of users to try it (such as increased hardware and applications support and time-tested bug fixes and tuning to the core system). In this regard, the Be OS is in even worse shape than Linux, which at least has a very strong and growing user base, and the support of several large software companies (Corel and Oracle, amongst others) that will help propel it forward.
Unfortunately, it will be very difficult for Be to make significant inroads into the PC industry due to the simple fact that there are few programs that are designed for it, and few systems that are currently supported. id is currently working on a Be OS port of Quake, and others may follow suit. Hopefully they will. If the Be OS catches on, prospects for higher quality gaming on PCs will be dramatically improved. If not, at least the other OS vendors will have a system to look to for inspiration.
All of this PC talk is not intended to completely overshadow the console world, of course. The Sony Playstation and Nintendo 64 are still alive and kicking, and exciting new developments in the console world are fast approaching.
The future of console gaming, however, has been dramatically influenced by the developments in the PC industry. The line between console and computer based systems has been blurred for a while, but things are about to get even more complicated. No one would argue against the statement that the original NES and Sega systems were clearly distinct from PCs in their internal workings and software support. Both used solid-state media and processors that were designed expressly for audio and video processing. They had unique programming environments that were very different from PCs. There was simply no mistaking the NES for a PC.
The CD and modem add-ons to more recent console systems, however have incorporated PC technology into consoles for added flexibility to compete with PCs. No system epitomizes this trend more than the forthcoming Sega Dreamcast system, which is a console system that is essentially a very specialized PC.
On the outside, the Dreamcast looks like a modernized console system. It's a single unit system, replete with controllers and AV-out cables, which attaches to a television set. Enough to satisfy the basic definition of a console system. However, the Dreamcast's guts very closely resemble a PC. The Dreamcast uses Microsoft's Windows CE operating system as its core logic, and DirectX as part of its API. There is a low-level Dreamcast API underneath CE, but the vast majority of system functions can be accessed through CE and DirectX, which means programming for the Dreamcast is little more than a porting job.
On the hardware front, the Dreamcast uses a 128-bit Hitachi processor that has been heavily tuned for graphics operations, an NEC 3D accelerator chip, a Yamaha sound processor, a 12 speed CD-ROM drive, and a 33.6Kbps modem. These components have been implemented with the purpose of providing extreme gaming performance, but they closely resemble the basic architecture of a PC.
In an interesting development, the Dreamcast will incorporate a small, PDA-like device, dubbed the Visual Memory System (VMS), which is essentially a hyper-powered version of the memory cards that are used by the Sony Playstation to store data.
|Credits: Illustration © 1998 Mike Sanzone. Play Where You Like! is © 1998 Jeff Solomon. All other content is © 1998 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited, so don't do it, dammit.|