Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Heard That One Before, Part 3: System Viagra

This post is part of a series of things that are just not useful to say when you're working with Phoenix/Firestorm to troubleshoot an issue. For background, the series begins here.

3) "My computer is brand new / has 20 gigs RAM / has a graphics card that can beat up your graphics card / is on a super-speed connection / could launch a space shuttle if I told it to / has some other uber-awesome characteristic that ought to make it unrealistically powerful in SL."

…or what I like to call System Viagra. This is the reaction we sometimes get in response to the mere suggestion that the problem might be related to the user's system, as if their hardware were an extension of their (figurative -- we get this from women too!) hardware.

There are variations. In one, folks get offended if you suggest they shouldn't be maxing out certain settings. Or sometimes they enter the conversation already convinced the problem lies with the grid or the viewer's failure to adapt to their computer's demands. As you can probably surmise, having a ridiculous ego about your machine is deeply unproductive to the troubleshooting process.

We do want to know what your system is when we're helping you, but there isn't a direct relationship between how new or high-quality your equipment is and whether or not you have problems in SL. That's kind of like saying that the problem with your Ferrari can't be under the hood -- or in the driver's seat -- because it's a Ferrari.

Of course certain components can give you somewhat better performance than average. Of course people spend a lot of money on "gaming systems" to use with SL and MMORPGs. But newer/bigger/better/faster/more doesn't make you exempt from any troubleshooting step. It doesn't make your computer magical or give it superpowers. It doesn't change the rules for you.

Perhaps a particularly sticky area is the realm of comparison and the "But it gets twice the FPS on < other viewer or virtual world X >" remark. Saying, "Firestorm should get the same performance as Phoenix" is comparing apples with oranges. The codebases are different, and different results are entirely normal, albeit inconsistent. Comparing Firestorm with the client you use for World of Warcraft or another MMORPG is more like comparing apples with… well, sauerkraut. Not that there's anything wrong with sauerkraut; it's just not apples (though apples and sauerkraut can go pretty well together in the right salad, but I digress). 

Even without faulty bases of comparison, sometimes folks get full of "should" for arbitrary reasons. As in, "I 'should' be able to run my bandwidth setting up to 10,000," or, "My computer 'should' be able to run on Ultra with shadows all the time because it has so much RAM." Don't be full of "should."

An ironic bit is that sometimes those on the strongest System Viagra prescriptions end up with loads of presumably "performance-optimizing" software on their computers. Some of these behave very poorly with Second Life and may even drag performance down or increase crash rates. Part of the troubleshooting process will be to ask you to turn these off.

Here are my tips for avoiding the System Viagra effect while troubleshooting:

i) If you start with assumptions about how your computer "should" or "is supposed to" perform with Second Life, then you're setting yourself up for issues. Instead, listen to what your computer wants to do. If you learn how to respect it, you may find you have much more control over your performance than you realize. The more you know about different settings in your viewer, the better you'll be at this, as well. Just remember the golden balance: higher settings mean slower performance. For everyone.

ii) Put things in perspective: an FPS of 50 is amazing regardless of what you used to see. If you complain to me that it used to be 100, I will whip out my very, very little violin and shed a single eensy weensy tear. At 50, you're still getting twice the framerate you see in the movie theater or on television. If you dropped from an average of 30 to 10, then I would be much more concerned and motivated to figure out what's wrong.

iii) Know the proper bases of comparison. When it comes to Firestorm, the best comparison is Viewer 3, whatever version of it is closest to the version of Firestorm you're on. If there is a significant difference between those two, while in the same locations and surrounded by the same number of avatars, then is the time to be concerned about viewer issues.

iv) Always troubleshoot performance issues at moderate settings or lower, not at the settings you might think you "should" be able to get. If the problems go away at Mid level graphics, then I'm sorry to say that your system ego may need a little deflating.

Well, not really that sorry, if I'm being honest. System ego is one of the sillier barriers to troubleshooting.

Tune in next week for 4) "Fine then, I'll just use a different viewer."

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