Monday, January 22, 2007

Essential Vista?

NVIDIA has a logo with the words "Essential Vista" associated with their GeForce 8800 products, and the 8800GTX and 8800GTS graphics cards are the first to support the new DirectX 10 introduced with Microsoft's Vista operating system.

One would assume that a product designed for Vista will work in Vista, right? A lot of people believed so when they ran out to buy these cards when they were introduced late last year. Unfortunately, they did not read the fine print.

I read the fine print - there were and still no device driver for these graphics cards from NVIDIA.

I knew this fact when I bought the BFG 8800GTS but I had no plans on using it with Vista immediately. Until this past weekend, I was only using the BFG 8800GTS card with Windows XP MCE 2005.

Last week, a driver (alpha or beta version?) was leaked on the Internet - Version 100.30 for both Vista x86 and x64. Reports from the brave souls who installed this driver indicated that although short on features, this driver actually worked and allowed the use of Vista's "Aero" interface, albeit with some problems here and there.

I took the plunge and installed the Version 100.30 driver on Nighthawk. I am usually not this adventurous, but Nighthawk is a test system.

The driver installed without any problem, but I encountered the first problem after re-booting. I have 2 monitors connected to Nighthawk, and the driver decided to swap the monitors, i.e., physical Monitor #2 (on the right) is now Monitor #1 and physical monitor #1 (on the left) is now Monitor #2. Confused yet? I was! Other individuals have confirmed this problem.

No sweat! I switched the monitors in Vista's "Display Settings" and specified Monitor #2 as my main monitor and extend the desktop to Monitor #1. This solved the problem.

I noticed another minor problem where the mouse pointer would be left in the "home" position (upper left-hand corner) of Monitor #1 (now the monitor on the right) as I moved the pointer from the right monitor to the left monitor. To get rid of this problem, I would simply move the pointer back to the right monitor to "retrieve" it.

Why would one put up with a driver with obvious defects and incomplete feature set (the Control Panel is severely lacking in features)? Because beggars can't be choosy...

I re-ran Vista's Performance Check to update my Windows Experience Index base score and Nighthawk scored 5.8! After the new base score was updated, the "Aero" interface was automatically enabled. Alright!

A more serious problem happened later when my monitors were automatically turned off after 20 minutes. Vista with the Version 100.30 driver is unable to turn the monitors back on! This problem has been confirmed by other users as well.

I was reluctant to simply turn off the power to Nighthawk using the power switch on the case. I did not want to introduce any data corruption in Nighthawk's RAID0 arrays. I would have taken the chance if Nighthawk had RAID1 or RAID5 arrays instead of RAID0. I knew that Nighthawk was still running since I could access a shared folder on Nighthawk from Blackbird.

How can I perform an orderly shut down of Nighthawk while blind, i.e., no video? I decided to take a break for lunch and think about it.

The first step was to determine what state Nighthawk was in so I could visualize what would be displayed on the screen. I remembered that I had set "On resume, display logon screen" on Nighthawk's "Screen Saver" setting. Since the monitors powered off, the "logon screen" would be the only screen Nighthawk could be on.

I used Blackbird to memorize the keystrokes required to properly shut down Nighthawk. Using the mouse without a video signal is impossible.

The keystroke sequence I used:

"Home" to position the cursor at the beginning of the password field.

"Shift End" to highlight and select whatever was in the password field since I was trying different key combinations prior to this.

"Delete" to delete whatever was in the password field.

My password. (I won't be sharing this with you.)

"Start" (or "Windows" key) to bring up the "Start" menu.

"Right arrow" three times to navigate to the "Shut down" options.

"u" to select "Shut down."

And Nighthawk gracefully shut down!

After restarting Nighthawk, I promptly set the "Power plan" to never turn off the monitor.

I immediately decided to run the 3DMark06 benchmark to compare performance in Vista to Windows XP MCE 2005 using the same exact hardware platform. Unfortunately, a problem with the Version 100.30 driver prevents 3DMark06 from running the benchmark. I know it's not a problem with 3DMark06 running on Vista because I am able to run it on Blackbird with my BFG 7950GT graphics card.

Vista displays an error message: "Display driver stopped responding and has recovered." This is one huge advantage of Vista over Windows XP. A similar problem on Windows XP would have caused a BSOD (Blue Screen of Death).

3DMark06 also displayed an error message (and did not crash): "IDirect3DDevice9::Present failed: Device lost (D3DERR_DEVICELOST)"

Hopefully, NVIDIA will have a "real" working driver for the GeForce 8800 graphics card as they have been promising when Vista is made available to the general public in 8 days.

At least Nighthawk's "sight" has been partially restored. Its sense of "hearing" will be the next focus of my attention. The sound output works with the default Microsoft driver, but no sound input works.

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