03 April 2008

Kewlage: Second Life's New Automated System Requirements Test!

As a Second Life Volunteer for almost two years, I've come across my fair share of technological cluelessness. For many people, a computer is something that you plonk out of a box, plug in and push your needs around with. If the PC has a 'Dual Hamster Wheels' CPU and two blackboards manned by tiny radioactive weevils, who cares as long as it works?

For many applications these days, provided you spend a not-unreasonable amount (and it is not a very big amount either), that is exactly what you get: a box that will service your spreadsheets and help you keep track of your media collection (legitimate or otherwise), and run most ordinary applications.

Unfortunately, some applications are a bit more fincky. Second Life is one of them.

Despite using a relatively modest generic graphics engine (even with recent upgrades considered), standard full-service Second Life viewers demand a higher level of grunt from the PCs they run on. It's a world where the only things that are 2D in nature remain so because abstracting them to a 3D metaphor is inefficient or sheer stupidity - script editing or menus, for instance.

It's a world where your view changes with alarming regularity and broadness in a way that is rarely seen in your garden-variety MMO. That places serious demands on your Internet connection in a way that recommends against most connections below a certain level of speed, latency and potential for forced retransmissions, especially if you teleport regularly through the world.

There have been times when I have met residents in world who are experiencing issues that are more often than not the product of running Second Life on a rig that either fails to meet minimum requirements or just barely glides over the limit.

When faced with a lack of hardware hindering the ability to use Second Life, the best thing that a Resident can have is another person who is at least conversant with reading system requirements and/or arranging for the necessary upgrades to get their PC up to speed. That is not always a possibility. Sometimes, that leads to wasted money as someone buys a new PC to enter Second Life, only to be told either by a passing Resident or (worse) actual bizzare visual or connectivity issues that whatever they bought isn't going to cut it.

For the less technically inclined who run Windows PCs and lack such close-range technical support, Linden Lab recently introduced a browser-based test that allows users to check that their PC can run Second Life properly @
http://secondlife.com/support/systest.php which is provided by a company called System Requirements Lab (Apparently a company with more technical bones than imagination...) .

Currently, Linux and MacOSX users are SOL, still stuck with the old 'look up yon system config and system requirements' schtick that has existed ever since someone decided how nice it would be to start diversifying what you could put into a computer all those years ago, but in theory there's no technical reason why the same tools could not grab the same details from such computers as well, so here's hoping that's exactly what happens.

Setting that slight niggle aside, I don't have to tell you just how much this eases entry into Second Life for potential newcomers on Windows-powered PCs.

What the test does in absolute terms is check your Windows PC for certain hardware details, such as CPU speeds , memory availability and video cards, and compare them against what Linden Lab believes to be minimum and recommended requirements for accessing Second Life.

(Disclosure: pitting my standard RL working laptop, a earlier model Inspiron 5150, against this test put me almost halfway to having a recommended rig for Second Life. As noted on so many technical forums and blogs dedicated to laptops, the GeForce FX5200 2 Go is a dog, and this alone blew away my ability to meet recommended system requirements. But I'm still happy. And no, this is not a reason for me to be so 'shiny' about this new test.)

What the test does, in plain English, is tell you as well as it can whether Second Life will run properly, well, or at all on your rig.

Like many browsers and other forms of media viewer, however, even a system that meets recommended system requirements for Second Life access may not necessarily be a panacea for all issues.

For one thing, Second Life's biggest cause of lag beyond what you can control, is pretty much the entire world: Grid glitches (as regularly experienced), poor internet connectivity, abusive script use in a sim, the presence of large numbers of people, even poor in-world design decisions (spraying a truckload of 1k x 1k textures on everything you own is being a poor neighbour and a major cause of lag, people!). And with Linden Lab continually developing and improving the grid and the way it operates, system requirements will inevitably change. Your world beater of today will eventually start gagging on Second Life several years later, I can practically guarantee that.

In the end, maybe all that anyone really needs (aside from a computer that meets or barely exceeds the minimum sysreqs) is an open mind and a sense of personal rightness to have fun in Second Life. Just ask the thousands of people who dance in nightclubs every night to framerates that nobody in their right mind would accept in supposedly more 'visceral' things like first-person shooters...

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