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Twice as Nice?

Are dual-core systems worth the trouble?Dual-core systems are all the rage this year, and with good reason. The new darlings in the PC world (currently, only AMD and Intel offer this option) have two processors, which means that in theory, one processor will run background tasks while the other is free to execute programs such as your Web browser, art program, or newest 3-D game. I say “in theory,” however, because it doesn’t always work out that way.

I recently purchased a brand spanking new Gateway GT5034 system from Best Buy. The PC boasts an AMD Athlon 64-bit dual-core processor that runs at 2.2GHz and contains 2GB of RAM. It also contains the nVidia GeForce video card, a TV tuner, and Windows XP Media Center 2005. That last addition is the one that has caused me the most trouble, but more on that later.

The first problem I encountered was with Paint Shop Pro 8 (reviewed in last month’s column.) One of the first things I did after setting up the hardware, of course, was to gather up all of my CD-ROMs and install them, and PSP8 was on the very top of the stack. Imagine my surprise, then, when it hung during installation. No problem, I told myself, and tried it again with the same results. Hours later, frustrated and without a clue, I wrote Corel tech support and immediately got an answer.

If your system is dual-core (check) and you happen to have a GeForce 6x or 7x video card (check) then PSP won’t load properly. Apparently, it’s a driver conflict. It was nVidia’s fault–when they released driver versions 81.85, 81.87, 81.94, 81.95 and 82.12, they managed to break something. In order to fix it, you have to uninstall the driver and install either v78.01 or beta v82.56. The first option didn’t work for me, but the second one did, and voila–Paint Shop Pro roared to life on my screen. (And I do mean roared–compared to my old 2.0GHz, 1GB RAM single-core processor system, the new PC booted PSP8 in no time flat.)

Keep in mind, however, that v82.56 is beta and that while I haven’t found any conflicts between it and the rest of my system, you might.

While the Paint Shop Pro problem was unique in that it involved a conflict between the video driver and the dual-core processor, some programs just won’t work well with two CPUs no matter how many drivers you change. There is a workaround to this, and it involves binding the process for a particular program to just one of your two processors.

How do you do this? Open task manager (Control-Alt-Delete,) click the Processes tab, locate the process you’re having problems with, and right-click on it. Select Set Affinity, and unclick CPU 0 or CPU 1 to bind the program to only one processor. You might have to try both to see which one works better for you. From now on, that process will run only on the processor you’ve assigned it. There are programs that will do this for you (such as ROPE, available at www.innes.org) and monitor the results, but in my experience going the task manager route seems to do the job just fine.

I mentioned before that I’ve had the most problems with Microsoft’s Windows XP Media Center 2005. Everything worked fine at first–I could watch and record television as well as access all the extras, such as a near-limitless list of music videos from MTV and VH1, movie trailers from TV Tonic, and programs like “The Daily Show” from Comedy Central.

But then, as I started to add more programs to my system, things began to break down. Video became choppy or would freeze, and recorded programs would fail to burn to DVD because Windows told me the files were too large.

I’m convinced that Media Center 2005 is a memory hog and that, even with 2GB of memory at its disposal, the program needs to be fed more RAM. If I reboot and don’t do anything but watch television, everything works great. But if I’m just going to watch television, well, the actual TV in the living room fills the bill much more effectively than my monitor.

The DVD burning problem isn’t unique to my system. Windows MCE creates huge files, often as large as 3GB for a mere half-hour program. There are external program out there such as Power Compress that allow the user to seamlessly convert the .dvr-ms files created by the Media Center into WMV or MPEG format, which then allow you to use another program (such as Nero) to burn the files to DVD. Why MCE doesn’t just do this automatically on the fly is a mystery greater than even I can solve.

Despite all the gripes and caveats listed above, I heartily recommend AMD’s dual-core processor. It is, after all, a new technology, and as such always has a few kinks that need to be worked out. Software developers will adapt to the new standard (hopefully soon) and these conflicts will begin to dwindle and, eventually, disappear altogether.

All things being equal, a 2GHz dual-core processors system will run a lot faster and more efficiently than its 2GHz single-core cousin. And if it’s important to you to be able to, say, burn a DVD in the background while playing Texas Hold ‘Em online in between working on spreadsheets and bidding on bobbleheads on eBay, AMD’s chip will allow you to multitask better than you ever have before.

Being on the cutting edge of technology means you might bleed a little from time to time, but in the end, once you get everything working in concert with the rest of your system, it’s all worth it.

Contributing Editor Joe DeRouen writes Windows Advisor monthly for ComputerUser.

 

 

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