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Old 09-15-2008, 05:50 PM   #1
gunbo13
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Video: Video Card Architecture Guide

Initialization: 09/15/08
Summation: Branching off from the general system guide, here is a guide meant to enlighten members to the world of video cards. As with the other guide I will not delve too much into pricing, brand naming, and e-commerce links. I will also refer to AMD as the manufacturer regarding their graphics cards as that is the proper label.

Video Card Models
Current dominant video cards from Nvidia/AMD:
Geforce 9 Series [9800GTX, 9800GX2]
Geforce 200 Series [GTX260, GTX280]

Radeon 4800 Series [4850, 4870, 4870x2]
*
Performance cards shown

Video Card Architecture
The current video card architectures in the gamer/enthusiast markets are very complex. They use advanced processing techniques, using cryptic terminology that goes right over the head of the average end-user. However there are terms that should be known by the smart computer builder.

So what do I need to know then?

(GPU)Graphics Processing Unit
If a CPU crunches numbers, a GPU crunches graphics. The GPU of a video card is the heart of its processing. The GPU is in charge of processing data that basically builds the graphics you see in front of you. The GPU builds the graphics which utilize polygons mapped with textures. Vertices are manipulated to produce the dazzling effects you see in modern game engines. Special algorithms such as anti-aliasing and anisotropic filtering are also calculated with the GPU.
(vRAM)Video RAM
A video card needs to store/retrieve data just as a CPU does. Textures are especially taxing to data storage if you have ever worked with 2D images on a computer. Imagine drawing thousands of 2D images every second. That's how taxing texturing actually is. Large demanding algorithms and their data is also stored in vRAM. The GPU of the video card interacts with the video ram sending/receiving data constantly while rendering graphics. If there is not enough vRAM available the data pool is to shallow resulting in the GPU not being able to keep up with the game engine. This will cause large drops in frame-rates and other game engine related issues.
Shaders
Shaders is a term used to define the actual physical units that process the 3D computer graphics. If CPUs have processing cores then GPUs have shaders. Usually the more shaders, the more processing capability. However the design of how the shaders function means that a higher number doesn't always far better performance. Shaders are in charge of processing the data that the GPU will eventually output.

Polygons, vertices, textures, HDR, particle effects, and more
Computer graphics feature tons of constructs for rendering. When you analyze a 3D scene you have to factor in all of the activity that is going on. The look of the gun, sun rays shining on the terrain, fire burning in the background, foliage blowing in the wind, and much more. When dealing with graphics architecture you don't need to know how all of these effects are generated and what they actually do. The main issue with rendering constructs is support.

So you mean the graphic cards need to support constructs for 3D graphics?
Yes. Presently video cards from Nvidia/AMD have almost reached equality with graphical support. There are very few variables that one side has that the other doesn't. One of the few support issues that remain is API support.

What is API support?
Lets move to the next stage beyond hardware; the software API.

APIs
(API)Application Programming Interface
Programmers need to write code to run game engines. In order for graphics hardware to communicate with this code a standard programming environment needs to be utilized. If the graphics card does not understand the structure of the game code then it is the equivalent of someone trying to understand a foreign language.
DX(DirectX)
Microsoft designed an API for game programmers to use. This API is very popular because Microsoft consistently upgrades the language and developers are also willing to work with the operating system based company. DirectX has gone through many version upgrades with the latest support being DirectX 10.1 DirectX 11.0 is rumored to be coming next year.
OpenGL
OpenGL is the open-source graphics API. While you need special licensing to use DirectX, OpenGL is open to anyone. However lately there has been more difficulty in accessing the API's source code due to changes in policies regarding the company in charge of the API.

OpenGL is not as popular as DirectX. Using an analogy if DirectX is Windows, then OpenGL is Linux. Both operating systems have specific areas where they excel however one is adopted well above the other. The choice is modern APIs comes down to the business aspect of game design.

There is however a few companies that still work with OpenGL including id software, the famous company behind the Doom, Quake, and Wolfenstein franchises. John Carmack, their lead engine programmer, only works with OpenGL.

So is there a difference with the APIs aside from the business side of things?

Absolutely. However a very common misconception is that designing a game on one API results in a very different final engine then using another API. This is certainly not true and I frequently try to correct this misconception.

APIs are graphic languages. The PC programming world also has its own set of language with c, c++, c#, java, html, and many many more. However APIs are very similar in implementation. While a language such as HTML renders web page code and c++ could be used for designing business software, OpenGL and DirectX both create game engines. So a solid comparison is to think of OpenGL and DirectX in correlation with c++ and java.

The languages are different but the end result can be achieved with either API. It is similar to how world languages work. English and Japanese are vastly different languages however they are translatable between each other and most of the time a common meaning is achieved. DirectX and OpenGL are the same. The rules are different but if you want to achieve the same desired result on either API you can.

So if they do the same thing, why use one over the other?
Besides the business side of things there are many reasons to use one API over the other. Firstly there is platform support. Contrary to common belief APIs are used on every platform for 3D graphics including video game consoles. The Xbox360, a Microsoft product, uses a version of the DirectX API for programmers to utilize. The Playstation 3 video game system has support for OpenGL based coding. Even Macintosh PCs support the OpenGL API.

Because OpenGL is not based on one company's efforts it is used on many platforms besides Microsoft implemented hardware. id software has frequently been one of the few companies to port their games to MAC hardware because they use the OpenGL API. There is also no reason why it isn't a doable effort to port their engines to platforms such as the PS3.

By using the multi-platform functionality of OpenGL you can come to a conclusion that both APIs can achieve the same results. A perfect example is the Unreal 3.0 engine.

You keep talking about engines, WTH are engines?
Let's move on to the next level of design.

Game Engines
Game engines are the blood and guts of video games. They are dynamically programmed to handle user input. When you shoot a gun on screen you are interacting with the game engine. It is designed to handle an infinite amount of possible inputs to create truly dynamic game experiences.

The important aspect of game engines is licensing. Many companies such as Valve, id, Crytek, and Epic create engines to be licensed by other companies. This is important because if every company had to create an engine from scratch the rate of PC releases would drop dramatically.

Are there any "big" engines out there?
I would say currently the Unreal 3.0 engine, designed by Epic Games, is the major engine being used on many platforms. It not only powers Epic's own games with Gears of Wars and Unreal Tournament 3, but also outside developers such as Ubisoft (not the publisher) and Bioware have licensed the U3 engine.

The most advanced engine on the market right now is CryEngine2. It is designed by Crytek for their PC title Crysis and its expansion Crysis Warhead. However while the CryEngine2 is extremely advanced it is also extremely demanding on PC hardware. This steep demand has had a major impact on outside developers using their software.

So tie it together please. Engines, APIs, GPUs, what does it all mean?
Engines are programmed to be compatible with APIs which translate the information to the GPUs. The information is processed and your gaming environment is rendered.

Wait, so what about my latest quad processor and system RAM?
The majority of 3D graphic calculations are done by the GPU. However that does not mean the rest of your system is static. Your CPU is still asked to do mathematical calculations that impact the gaming environment. And your RAM is still used by the PC to work with this data. Basically with regard to physics and lighting there are tons of calculations going on. Now the video cards handle even some of what the CPUs can also handle, however it is at times optimal to offload the processing to the CPU. As far as true graphical constructs however those constructs are reserved for the GPU. This means that the CPU is helping with the math that is surrounding the graphics, which manipulate the information onscreen, however the CPU is not actually rendering most of what is going on.

So I know how a game is made and how the graphics are process, what about all the video card models and numbers!?
Now that you understand how the video cards are given information it is a good time to look at the differences between them.

Video Card Comparisons
Nvidia and AMD are the major players in the graphics market. Intel is making a future effort to become the third competitor in the market however as of right now Nvidia and AMD are to be compared.

You have three main configurations for video cards:
SLI
Crossfire(CF)
Single Slot
SLI and CF are Nvidia and AMD's respective implementations of using multiple GPUs to render graphics. There are complex ways of rendering the on screen graphics but to put it simply, imagine that the processing load is split in 1/2 so that both GPUs receive an equal amount of work. A single slot configuration is a single video card however there are also single slot multi-GPU solutions.

Wait so SLI and CF can be on one card?
Yes. SLI and CF are implemented on single slot multi-GPU cards. The main cards on the market right now are the 9800GX2 from Nvidia and the 4870x2 from AMD. While it is an odd choice to not differentiate these configurations from the others, for the sake of marketing the naming scheme remains.

Is there a difference between two cards and a single card with two GPUs?
Yes but it is usually slight. The 9800GX2 from Nvidia is essentially two 9800GTX GPUs on one video card. Each GPU has its own die and a bridge is used to connect them. It is similar to how Intel uses the MCM to bridge between its processor dies. With the 9800GX2 the performance is on par with two 9800GTXs because there is next to no difference in implementation. While they look vastly different they are both labeled as SLI 9800GTX multi-GPU solutions.

The 4870x2 from AMD has changed the multi-GPU single slot game a bit. It has designed a card with a bridge chip that is different from previous incarnations as well as a special sideport which can be used for more GPU to GPU communication. However performance numbers show only a slight increase in performance from AMD's new implementation. It is still after all essentially two 4870 cards in Crossfire.

I don't get it. Why don't two cards double the numbers and make the performance doubled when they are on one card?
The reason is the bridging. In similarity to the MCM from Intel the PLX bridge chip used on multi-GPU single slot cards creates communication between the dies. However each die is still in its own separate environment. The memory size is doubled but it is also split. The bandwidth that could be doubled is instead split.

So the labeled 2GB on the 4870x2 doesn't mean it is going to get twice the performance/bandwidth as one 4870?
Yes. Since communication is still over the bridge you essentially still have to think of the GPUs having their own environment. Bandwidth is measured with the units of bits to measure its bus width. A single 4870 has a 256bit bandwidth. However a 4870x2 does not have a 512bit bandwidth, it has a 256x2bit bandwidth. Again the environment is split.

OK even with the splits on the multi-GPU single slot cards and the obvious splits on CF and SLI solution, what is the performance increase?
Since the communication between the GPUs is never native, which would be the case with say a native quad core processor, you will almost never see a perfect 2x increase in performance. The 4870x2's new implementation has shown some increases that almost reach the optimal 2x multiplier, however across the board on all engines, this will not be the case.

Some people estimate the overall effect of SLI and CF. Some also compare the two implementations. I do not do either. SLI and CF should be looked at based on the engine in mind. This means it comes down to driver coding.

Wait driver coding? I thought you covered the entire flow of software above?
Driver coding is very important regarding multi-GPU solutions and single-GPU solutions. However it is not part of the 3D design world. The driver level is the translation of data between the game engine and the hardware. It is not on a layer of processing therefore I separate its analysis.

Drivers are written in order for video cards to communicate with the software.

Wait isn't that what APIs do?
No. Drivers are created to translate data to "particular" architecture. APIs are designed for translation to platforms. While the architectures need to support the APIs in question the specific hardware still needs additional translation to say "this is my company's design, let's run this code."

It gets even more complex when you factor in the data flow from the engine level to the hardware level. However this is beyond the scope needed to learn about video cards in general.

The important thing to remember about drivers is that they are updatable and are created by the manufacturers, whom are Nvidia and AMD in this case. Regarding the comparison of the quality of driver coding I also do not compare the two companies. They both have great driver code teams and it is more up to preference then quality.

APIs, Drivers, GPUs, I think I get it. So what do I think of when I look at the video cards?

Let's move on to choosing your card and what all the information covered means in retrospect.

Video Card Choice Factors

Choosing a video card is a complicated process. Thank God it isn't as difficult as learning how graphics are created.
Main factors:
Resolution
AA(anti-aliasing) performance
MB Compatibility

Motherboard compatibility?
Video cards of course have their compatible motherboard slots. PCI-E(PCI Express) is the common slot usage for video cards. However almost all modern boards support PCI-E so there isn't much to analyze.

However SLI and CF are motherboard dependent. Without going into much detail the x48 chipset from Intel is the board to get to support crossfire, and you need Nvidia's chipsets with the 750i or 790i to run SLI. The only other important factor is to make sure that any of the boards have two x16 PCI-E slots.

OK so what about choosing the actual card?
Resolution covers how much pixel information is displayed on screen. With LCD screens we are now defining native resolutions for monitors. Therefore by finding the native resolution of your LCD, you use those numbers to find the card for you.

Antistrophic filtering used to be a performance factor in video card performance. However at this point the performance hit from AF is much lower from years past. So we can bypass defining its effect as well as its performance hit.

Anti-aliasing is however very important it is an extremely strong performance factor. Without going into a definition AA removes "jaggies" from graphic edges. A main example is the "smoothing" of a diagonal line. Without AA it is rendered as solid colored pixels causing a "staircase" look to the graphic construct. With AA the pixel information is manipulated to give the illusion that the graphic edge is now smooth.

So AA is important. How much does it affect performance?
AA has a large impact on performance. It is an extremely demanding algorithmic construct. There are also ranges of AA that each manufacturer uses. Putting aside their naming schemes, the higher the better. However there is a point at which the "illusion" does not need any more assistance with calculations.

So what is a good level of AA?
4xAA has become the current standard for image quality differences in current engines.

Consult the following thread for detailed comparisons:
http://forums.extremeoverclocking.co...d.php?t=301267

You will find that 4xAA makes a large difference in graphics. However the image quality increase above 4xAA becomes less and less impactful.

OK so I want 4xAA and I know my resolution. My motherboard supports my video card choice/choices. Is it time to choose?
No. And the reason encompasses all the information I have written thus far. In order to choose the best graphics card you have to understand graphics. Now that you know enough it is time to factor in the other x-factors.

Additional factors per engine:
AA implementation
CF/SLI scaling
Architectural performance

Please note that these are per engine factors. You need to analyze video cards with the engines of the games you intend to play in mind.

AA implementation varies from engine to engine. Since the Unreal 3.0 engine was designed with the Xbox360 in mind, which is not a great system for pushing AA, the engine looks quite good with no AA. This simply has to do with the type of rendering that the developers used. So you have to realize that looking at 16xAA benchmarks for games using the U3 engine is not imperative.

On the flipside CryEngine2 which powers Crysis stands out with 4xAA implemented. You lose massive image quality with 0xAA as an example. When looking at the benchmarks for this game you have to know that any measurement before 4xAA is not optimal for image quality.

CF/SLI scaling are based on driver coding and how certain engines perform with Nvidia/AMD's hardware. There is no way to compare the scaling except with benchmarks. Driver coding is solid for both companies however you need to see the results because it varies on a wide scale in terms of multi-GPU performance.

Architectural performance is also another factor that is decided by benchmarks. The only way to guess if a title is going to be a better performer on certain hardware is to look to see if one of the manufacturer's is sponsoring the title. However this is not always a solid factor to look to for a performance analysis.

So I have to look at benchmarks right? With that in mind what resolution and AA goes with the current cards?
It is time to move onto the actual "this card is for this" part of this guide.

Video Cards Charted
9800GTX
Resolution level -
1680x1050, 1600x1200, 1920x1080, 1920x1200
AA Performance - 4xAA is manageable at resolutions below
1920x1080. At 1920x1080 and 1920x1200 some engines have more difficulty maintain a smooth frame rate with 4xAA implemented.

9800GX2
Resolution level - 1680x1050, 1600x1200, 1920x1080, 1920x1200, 2560x1600
AA Performance - 4xAA is
manageable at all resolutions except 2560x1600 which is not optimal on certain engines.

GTX260
Resolution level - 1680x1050, 1600x1200, 1920x1080, 1920x1200, 2560x1600
AA Performance -
4xAA is
manageable at all resolutions except 2560x1600. 8xAA performance is workable on most engines except at the high resolutions, 1920x1080 or higher.

GTX280
Resolution level - 1920x1080, 1920x1200, 2560x1600
AA Performance -
4xAA is
manageable at all resolutions. 8xAA or higher is possible with this powerful architecture except at 2560x1600, which depends on the engine.

4850
Resolution level - 1680x1050, 1600x1200, 1920x1080, 1920x1200
AA Performance -
4xAA is
manageable at the lower resolutions below 1920x1080. 4xAA is still possible on most engines at the higher resolutions however it is more difficult to maintain a smooth framerate.

4870
Resolution level - 1680x1050, 1600x1200, 1920x1080, 1920x1200, 2560x1600
AA Performance - The 4800 architecture is efficient at handling AA algorithms. Almost all resolutions can handle 4xAA or even 8xAA.

4870x2

Resolution level - 1920x1080, 1920x1200, 2560x1600
AA Performance -
4xAA is manigible at all resolutions. Due to the massive processing power of the 4870x2 it can handle 8xAA or higher even at the highest resolution. 16xAA is workable on most engines making the 4870x2 currently the most powerful video card on the market.

Crysis the current X-Factor
Crysis, using CryEngine2, is the current staple of graphic performance. It is an x-factor because almost always when I have mentioned "on most engines" Crysis is not one of them.

What is the big deal?
The CryEngine2 is a highly advanced engine designed to be effective for years to come. The level of GPU processing demand is well above other engines on the market. Crysis may be a sign of things to come or an uncommon engine in a primarily moderate environment of computer graphics.

What card is good for Crysis then?
All of the listed cards can play Crysis. However as I've stated without 4xAA or higher Crysis loses major image quality. Cards that are good for Crysis are the best of the best. Expect to pay at least $400 for a card that is "good" for Crysis.

Is it worth it to spend so much money on one game?
Not really. Some people, me included, hate to have engines that my video card can't handle. However to choose a card that costs $200 more for one game doesn't make much sense.

But if Crysis is a telling to the future of computer graphics, wouldn't a top card be a future-proof solution?
No. We have no idea if Crysis is truly a sign of the future. The engine is not being adopted on even a moderate scale so a high end card is not a future-proof solution.

OK so aside from Crysis I should go by what you charted above and what I want?
Pretty much. Looking at the chart if you want 1920x1200 with 4xAA you would do well with a card such as the GTX260 or the 4870. For 1920x1200 with 8xAA above you should choose a GTX280, 4870, or 4870x2. 2560x1600 is reserved for the GTX280 and the 4870x2 if you want AA resolved. There are many options but you may notice that most of these cards are very powerful.

So I know how 3D graphics work and how to choose my card based on engine performance and hardware compatibility. Time to buy?
You should have all the information you need to now purchase a video card for your system. The only factor that is left is your budget. If you want 1920x1200 with 4xAA and the cards listed are outside your budget you need to up your budget or lower your specifications.

Benchmarks
The final factor and possibly the best factor is using benchmarks to compare video cards. There is way too much data and options to summarize so the end-user has to research the engines and their associated performance.

Layout your options and start searching. However here is probably my best advice of all; never trust one site for benchmarks. Benchmarks have way to many variables so you have to collectively group your information. Use at least 4 review sites and analyze the numbers. This way you will be able to average out some of the loose variables that may cause misinformation. .

Guide to the Future of Processing
http://forums.extremeoverclocking.co...55#post3217955

Last edited by gunbo13; 10-17-2008 at 12:45 PM.
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Old 09-15-2008, 06:08 PM   #2
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Very nice work. Tankies for all the great info
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Old 09-15-2008, 06:09 PM   #3
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Wow, sir. You have out done yourself. Very good read. How long did it take you to come up with this humongous thing?

Learned a bunch, thanks.
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Old 09-15-2008, 06:23 PM   #4
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Great post and great work Gunbo! This helps clear up a few things I did not know

Also, STICKY PLEASE

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Old 09-15-2008, 06:50 PM   #5
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Good writeup. Very good for a beginner to read and learn from.
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Old 09-15-2008, 07:14 PM   #6
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I left a few options off that can still be added. I didn't address more then 2 GPU solutions however all I would note it that the more GPUs, the worse the scaling. I hardly think that is worth its own section.

I left out going into the actual architectural analysis on the hardware level as well. I think if I started talking about looms, ROPs, SPs, and the rest nobody would care. That is just geekdom.

I also didn't dig too deep into API coding and graphical constructs. Nobody needs to know about calling specific API classes to generate particle effects vs. classes in another API, etc... So I left that out.

Also I left out Larabee and the future of graphics.

In my Intel guide I put information about Nehalem but didn't talk about the real future of processing. I left out the same here.

If people want it, I will create a "future of processing" thread. However it is very cryptic and hard to follow, which is why I'm not jumping at the chance.

EDIT:
I also skipped GPGPU processing, another "future of processing" topic.

EDIT2:
One thing I think I might add is GDDR implementations. Just to clear up the different in bus width. I'm not in a rush though .

Last edited by gunbo13; 09-15-2008 at 07:24 PM.
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Old 09-15-2008, 07:39 PM   #7
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I'm voting Sticky!
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Old 09-15-2008, 08:21 PM   #8
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Quote:
Originally Posted by gunbo13 View Post
I left a few options off that can still be added. I didn't address more then 2 GPU solutions however all I would note it that the more GPUs, the worse the scaling. I hardly think that is worth its own section.
If its hardly worth the section why is it that you address 4870X2 and 980GX2? Are those multi gpu's? You should put a disclaimer in your performance lists.
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Old 09-15-2008, 08:37 PM   #9
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Johnny9ball View Post
If its hardly worth the section why is it that you address 4870X2 and 980GX2? Are those multi gpu's? You should put a disclaimer in your performance lists.
I believe he was speaking of Tri-SLI not being worth its own section.

Also, while the 4870x2 and such have two GPU's on one board, they are still to be considered a Single-Card Solution.
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Old 09-15-2008, 08:44 PM   #10
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thread stickied
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Old 09-15-2008, 08:59 PM   #11
gunbo13
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Johnny9ball View Post
If its hardly worth the section why is it that you address 4870X2 and 980GX2? Are those multi gpu's? You should put a disclaimer in your performance lists.
I only didn't address 3 or more cards. I can put a quick sentence in there in the future. 3 or more cards is for benchers and the scaling is quite poor. That's about it.
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Old 09-15-2008, 10:04 PM   #12
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Good work gunbo!!!
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Old 09-16-2008, 06:13 AM   #13
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Excellent work. A very good writeup!
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Old 09-16-2008, 11:21 AM   #14
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Originally Posted by ether.real View Post
Good work gunbo!!!
It's all for our quest for world domination!


It begins now. Everyone quake in fear.

Last edited by gunbo13; 09-16-2008 at 11:27 AM.
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Old 09-16-2008, 11:22 AM   #15
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Bwahahahahaha!!!!
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Old 09-16-2008, 05:24 PM   #16
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Ya Tri is currently worthless till the drivers mature. Love the writeup and awesome its Sticky now.
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Old 09-24-2008, 01:08 PM   #17
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Excellent write up!!! Another sticky that nobody will see!
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Old 09-24-2008, 02:20 PM   #18
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Another sticky that others will fail to view, not our fault.
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Old 09-24-2008, 09:48 PM   #19
gunbo13
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Originally Posted by VeoDigital View Post
Another sticky that others will fail to view, not our fault.
I wrote these guides to be helpful to our current main memberbase as well as new members. I believe the writeups contain a lot of information that will benefits novices and even advanced users.

The only problem is that everyone now knows a good amount about things that I usually was one of the few . I'm useless, oh noes!
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Old 10-03-2008, 05:04 PM   #20
~Dad
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Most excellent, Sir! Thank you. I read all the stickies when I first started in this about a year ago. I've been reading them again, as I find they mean a lot more to me now. This is strong work. Thank you again for your time and effort! ~Dad
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