Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Bitcoin's Late 2016 Surge

Bitcoin is a strange beast, fluctuating at times wildly between highs and lows. It's like the stock market, only with fewer regulations. Is that a good thing? I'm not entirely convinced. What I do know is that here at the end of 2016, Bitcoin prices are climbing rapidly yet again.

In the last week, BTC prices have shot up about 15 percent, which is impressive--and a nice end-of-year bonus for anyone holding BTC right now (assuming you sell at a profit, of course). But that's a really narrow view. In the last month, the cryptocurrency is up more than 30 percent, and over the last year it's a 125 percent gain. So everyone should go all-in on BTC yet again, right?

Not so fast. BTC is nothing if not volatile, and while we're now at a 3-year high (the last time BTC was in the $900+ range was in January 2014), the all-time high was in November 2013, of around $1100. If you bought into BTC on that last massive wave (attributed to China hysteria over BTC by many), up until the last month or so you were likely sitting on a loss of 50 percent or more.

What's behind the new interest in BTC? Could it be that it's finally gaining mainstream acceptance? I seriously doubt that -- in fact, I offered a friend a $50 gift of BTC recently, and he turned it down flat. "I don't believe in that stuff and don't want to deal with the hassle" was his reply in a nutshell. Talk about looking a gift horse in the mouth, but that attitude is far more widespread than proponents would like to admit. News of the IRS going after Coinbase records doesn't help, though at least that would offer some clarity on the tax situation. We're all supposed to pay taxes on our BTC gains, right -- but if you're mining, calculating 'gains' is a rather complex proposition.

But there's good news as well, like the India and Venezuela monetary policies potentially pushing people into BTC (and gold and other commodities). And I love the "I told you so" posts by people who predicted BTC hitting $1000 earlier this year -- it's happening, so of course they're pointing at their old posts and tweets and showing us all how prescient they were. Never mind the fact that most of these pundits have predicted BTC surges into the $1000+ range every year going back to 2013.

What's funny about all of this to me is that everywhere people are making the same mistake. Correlation does not equal causation. India and Venezuela make some policy changes and BTC started to go up in price. Did the policy changes cause the BTC price increase, or did they merely happen at the same time? Or maybe Trump winning the US election caused the increase! This is extremely difficult to prove.

The good news is that the lack of regulations on Bitcoin -- and the Internet echo chamber -- means that people can spout hype till they're blue in the face, and if enough people start to believe the hype, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I got into Bitcoin/cryptocurrency back mid-2011, at the first surge to $31. I watched BTC tumble to less than $2, and it took nearly two years (19-20 months) before it surpassed the previous high. But when it did, it shot up to $200+, which seemed incredible at the time, only to be eclipsed by the record-setting explosion six months later. In other words, I've seen this all before ... and I still can't say I have any real knowledge of what will happen next.

2017 could be the year BTC breaks the $2000 mark. Or it could be the year where BTC briefly breaks $1000 again only to fall back to $500. And that's why, rather than trying to guess at the investment game of Bitcoin, I stick with mining when it's profitable. And lately, BTC (cryptocurrency mining) has been doing quite well.

The current king for cryptocurrency mining profitability: GTX 1060.
What's the best bet for a new mining system? You might be surprised to know that it's NOT going to be something built on AMD GPUs -- not even the Radeon RX 470 4GB or Radeon RX 480 4GB. Best case right now, you're looking at breaking even in around 195 days for the RX 480 and 219 days for the RX 470. Which isn't terrible, but you can do better. Enter the GeForce GTX 1060 6GB, which at current rates will hit ROI in about 167 days. If you have an existing system, that works out to around $1.50 per day, give or take.

Here's the thing: if you don't have a system ready for the GPU, the cost of building such a system totally changes the equation. Put three of these into a modest build and you're looking at $1,100 minimum, and possibly $1,350 or more. With three GPUs earning $1.50 each, you're looking at $4.50 per day, which means it's now going to require the better part of a year to break even -- assuming prices stay relatively consistent.

And there's the rub. Prices are never consistent in the cryptocurrency world. New coins launch to much hype, and if you're just mining via Nicehash (which is what I've been doing), you can avoid all the pump and dump nonsense and often make a healthy profit. I've got about eight systems doing mining, and typically they earn a combined $30-$40 on most days. That rate has been pretty steady for at least six months, except for things like early November where it shot up to $100-$200 per day for a week.

My advice is that if you're interested in Bitcoin / mining, take a very long-term approach. Don't hope to pay off a computer mining rig in three months or even nine months, but if you keep it humming along for more than a year, you'll almost certainly hit ROI, and everything after that is profit. It may not be a lot of profit (though sometimes it is), but this is how I've managed to keep at it. Happy New Year, and happy mining!

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Build an Ethereum Miner with Four RX 470

It's been a while since I last talked about cryptocurrency mining. The past two years have seen plenty of changes if you drill down, but pull back and look at the big picture and the cryptocurrency world hasn't radically altered our finances. Scamcoins and hacks have come and gone, Bitcoin continues plugging along, but Litecoin has dropped to under $4, Darkcoin has changed its name to Dash, and the second most popular cryptocurrency is now Ethereum.

I'm not going to get into the discussion of whether or not Ethereum is a better or worse solution than Bitcoin -- or any number of other coins -- but the fact that it's actually supported on Coinbase says a lot about it's potential. It's currently trading at over $13 as well, which is pretty impressive. So let's talk mining potential.

First, if you hopped on the Ethereum boat at launch and saved your coins, congratulations! You've struck it rich and should be quite happy. For us Johnny-come-lately miners, it's going to take a bit of work to break even. I've poked around at looking at Ethereum mining (including dual mining with Ethereum and Library Coin). You've got a few options, and here's what I've found in terms of hashrates, using the Claymore Dual Miner 0.7.1:

RX 470 (stock): ~20MH/s ETH, ~25MH/s LBRY, 150W
RX 470 (OC): ~25MH/s ETH, ~32MH/s LBRY, 180W
RX 480 (stock): ~24MH/s ETH, ~32MH/s LBRY, 150W
RX 480 (OC): ~28MH/s ETH, ~36MH/s LBRY, 180W
R9 390 (stock): ~26MH/s ETH, ~37MH/s LBRY, 275W
R9 390X (stock): ~28MH/s ETH, ~40MH/s LBRY, 275W
R9 Nano (stock): ~26MH/s ETH, ~37MH/s LBRY, 175W
R9 Fury (stock): ~28MH/s ETH, ~40MH/s LBRY, 275W
R9 Fury X (stock): ~30MH/s ETH, ~42MH/s LBRY, 275W

If you look at hash rates, power requirements, and perhaps most importantly, price, it should be pretty obvious why the RX 470 and RX 480 are your best bet. Overclocking will give the RX 470 performance relatively close to the RX 480 (overclocked as well), and power requirements and price are substantially lower. At $200 per card, it's possible to build a complete mining rig with four RX 470 cards for around $1350.

Now, a few notes about the above. First, most of the systems are running AMD's latest Crimson drivers, on Windows 10 -- not the ideal scenario apparently, as Crimson 15.12 is recommended. I don't know how much 15.12 drivers would improve things, though with RX 400 cards you need more recent drivers regardless. Anyway, running Windows 7 appears to improve performance by perhaps 10 percent, so keep that in mind.

Here's the thing you need to ask: How much money can you make per day with such a system? Or in other words, how quickly with the PC pay for itself? The cryptocurrency market is always a bit volatile and difficult to predict, but with services like Nicehash, you can at least eliminate some of the system management time and generally get a decent return. Best guess, you'll make a net income of around $7.50 per day after power costs with the above mining PC.

Bottom line, then: 180 days of mining to break even.

And if you're wondering, Nvidia mining with GTX 1060 cards is also possible, and the time to break even really isn't any worse than the AMD cards. You'll consume less power and likely have to mine different coins (I'd recommend just going with Nicehash and letting it manage switching), so you could drop down to an 850W Platinum power supply and still be safe.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

A Mighty and Magical Humble Bundle

It's Tuesday, which means it's the day that Humble Bundle updates their main offering. For the next two weeks, you can pick up potentially a bunch of games at a great discount, benefiting charity in the process. This time the bundle is one that holds a special place in my heart: you can pick up the majority of the Might and Magic and Heroes of Might and Magic games in one fell swoop.

The games were mostly created by New World Computing in the late 80s and 90s, though some of the more recent releases are after the bankruptcy of NWC and the buyout of the rights by Ubisoft, with development coming from Nival Interactive. I played most of these back when they were new and cost $50, and I even have discs (and in some cases, disks!) floating around somewhere in storage. But to get all of the games again in a digital distribution format is enough to seriously tempt me. Let's talk games, though.

Pay What You Want

Might and Magic I through VI Collection: This is probably the weakest part of the bundle, simply because as I mentioned in the last update to the Humble Origin Bundle #2, old games rarely stand the test of time. User interfaces have improved dramatically, and while great graphics don't inherently make for a great game, poor and low resolution graphics can certainly make for a poor gaming experience.

The first two games in particular are painful in today's market -- 320x200 graphics, 16 colors, and you wander around grid-style maps (90 degree turns and move forward/backward in 10' steps) fighting many battles. The original Secret of the Inner Sanctum game was released in 1986 while the sequel Gates to Another World came out in 1988. I played these on a Commodore 64 way back in the day with "Uncle Dan". Hahaha.... The third installment, Isles of Terra, bumps to VGA quality (256 colors, huzzah!), and it was the game that for me finally made the series "fun". I remember running into a problem on my old 386 where the game crashed if you stepped on a square where you would fight a Minotaur, so I had to skip that battle but I did actually complete the game. Plus, it ditched random encounters and added an automap -- thank goodness!

The next two installments actually served as two parts to a single large game, the World of Xeen. Clouds of Xeen launched in 1992, using essentially the same engine as M&M3, and then Darkside of Xeen cme out the following year. If you had both installed, there were additional quests and such to fill out the story. The final game, Mandate of Heaven, didn't come out until 1998 and was the first "made for Windows" game in the series. It also moved to a real 3D engine, though I recall thinking at the time that in many ways the 3D engine almost made the game worse. Anyway, most of these games are now 20+ years old, so don't let nostalgia get the best of you. YMMV.

Heroes of Might and Magic II: The Succession Wars: The "Heroes of Might and Magic" games were a spinoff first launched in 1995, taking the game world and turning it into a strategy game (and ditching the sci-fi stuff that often crept in at the end of the RPG games). The seeds of the Heroes games actually came from an early game, King's Bounty, released in 1990.

This second installment built on the core engine of the original, came out in 1996, and consisted of two campaigns -- "good" and "evil" (with The Price of Loyalty expansion following in 1997 and adding four more campaigns, which comes in the Gold package of this bundle). You roam the overhead map, fighting for treasure and creature spawn points (who would join your army), conquering the towns of the map. The battles are a different view, featuring a tactical turn-based fight. Great stuff back in the day... but questionable in many ways today.

Heroes of Might and Magic IV Complete: Four years later, New World Computing released their final Heroes game, with upgraded graphics and larger battle maps allowing for more creatures/armies. The battles in particular were quite a change from the previous three installments, and the core game included a lengthy six campaigns. There's at least 60 or more hours of gaming time included just in this single compendium, and the gameplay is still reasonably decent.

The problem is that in becoming "bigger" the game wasn't always "better" -- I remember the later maps in campaigns taking a very long time to complete, and the fun factor often went missing. The maps follow a standard pattern: start with one or two heroes fighting smaller armies, grow them, increase your number of heroes, and eventually build a gigantic army to crush the final enemy positions. Lather, rinse, repeat ad nauseum.

Might & Magic Heroes Online: Angel Starter Pack: The last item in the core bundle isn't really much to speak of, as it's just a free starter pack for an already Free 2 Play game. You play Heroes Online in your web browser, and it looks as though there's only one server still active (which might be overloaded due to interest from the Humble Bundle right now -- all I'm getting is the loading screen at least, after 10 minutes, though after 15-20 minutes it seems to be working now). The game seems a bit slow from what I experienced (when it finally did load up), and it has the usual F2P hooks (get armies now for money, or wait several hours). Pass.

Beat the Average

The above three packages (I'm not counting Heroes Online, thank you very much) already provide plenty of hours of gaming, but I'm not really convinced the gaming is worth having other than perhaps the two Heroes games. Beat the Average (currently sitting at $10.40) and you unlock four more titles -- with more to come next week.

Heroes of Might and Magic V: The first game in the list to come after New World Computing, Heroes V features a fully 3D engine. It's also new enough (2006) that you can find a ranking on Metacritic: a moderately good score of 77%. It's also the last Might and Magic game I ever played -- the series had finally lost its charm I suppose, or I was simply too busy. There are six core campaigns once more, providing for many, many hours of gaming. At present the two expansion packs (Tribes of the East and Hammers of Fate) are not included in the bundle, though that may be a good thing as both received relatively poor reviews.

Heroes of Might and Magic VI: We're not done with Heroes yet, though, as there's still the final installment (at present -- HOMM7 is currently in development). As with the previous installment, this one was developed initially by Limbic Entertainment for Ubisoft, but it was completed by Black Hole Entertainment and then passed back to Limbic when Blackhole filed for bankruptcy. Ouch. The game has five campaigns telling an interlinking story, and there are two expansions. The original game was horribly buggy, but after 20+ patches it seems okay now. Also included are the Danse Macabre and Pirates of the Savage Sea expansions. (Note that the standalone Shades of Darkness expansion is not included in this tier of the bundle.)

Dark Messiah of Might and Magic: The Dark Messiah game was perhaps intended to be another Might and Magic spinoff, only this time as a first person shooter. It didn't do so well, with an average score of only 72%, so a sequel was never made. To tell you just how forgettable the game was, I beat it back in 2006 when it was new, but I couldn't even tell you about it's plot without looking it up. Mediocre FPS games don't usually hold up too well over time, but at least the Source engine should allow this to run well on even low-end current GPUs (e.g. Intel's HD 5500).

Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes: This isn't a game I've tried yet, but it looks pretty ho-hum considering this was originally a Nintendo DS game later ported to iOS/Android and then eventually the PC. It's basically a lite RPG with puzzle elements, with an average rating of 76% (so not that bad). Graphically, it looks a lot like some of the indie RPG games you see, which can be fun for a retro style experience.

Pay Donate $15 or More

This bundle has a high average price probably largely thanks to the $15 tier, which nets you five additional titles -- though a couple are not too exciting. The Heroes VI Shades of Darkness standalone expansion for example is available here, along with a Duel of Champions Starter Pack (another F2P game). Here are the other three more interesting titles (IMO of course).

Heroes of Might and Magic III HD: I would argue strongly that of the Heroes games, the third one was the best overall game. I remember spending countless hours playing the campaigns back in college, and the expansions helped keep me going for much longer (though sadly those aren't included). With updated graphics and gameplay but before the 3D makeover, this was NWC at their best. There's a reason this one got stuck on the $15 tier....

Might and Magic X: Legacy plus The Falcon and the Unicorn DLC: Wrapping things up, the final two games/expansions go back to the RPG roots of the series. Legacy is set in the new Ubisoft world of Might and Magic, carrying on from the story in Heroes VI. It's the most recent game in the bundle, though it didn't receive all that great of reviews (71% average). The big surprise here is that the game is a throwback to the earlier grid-based games in the series, so even though it has a 3D engine all movement is done on a grid similar to the first five games. If you loved the earlier titles and want something of a modern remake, this is as close as you'll get -- and like the final Wizardry title, this may be the end of the series (outside of the Heroes games, that is).

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Humble Origin Bundle 2 - A Nostalgic Update Brings More Games

It's one week since the Humble Origin Bundle 2 first launched, so naturally it's time for the final games to unlock. Those of you (like me) who bought the bundle and beat the average already will find the games automatically unlocked for you. And if you haven't already jumped at the bundle (seriously, what's wrong with you!?), the price is still under $5 for the entire collection ($4.93 at the time of writing). So let me quickly cover the new additions, and then I have some feedback on the already unlocked games.
Colonel Blair, this HD thing didn't do us any favors, did it?

Monday, April 20, 2015

Overview of Laptop Processors, April 2015

Recently I've had a few people come up to me asking for advice on buying a laptop. The problem with asking for advice on a laptop is that many are looking for a good budget laptop, and the term "budget" is rather vague. I've spoken with many people over the years, and for some when they say "budget" it's almost the equivalent of saying "free"; others are a bit more sensible in that they're looking at $400 or less, while at the higher end of the definition a budget laptop could go as high as $750. And of course there are plenty of non-budget processors to consider as well.

Given the range of options at the various price points, I wanted to take some time to dig deeper into the laptop market and talk about what processors are available and what sort of performance you can expect from each. The reality as usual is that there are compromises you'll have to make, either in spending more money or giving up performance or features. But since it's important to lay the groundwork for laptop performance before getting into any specific recommendations, I wanted to post this in a separate article.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Acer V3-572 Review - Budget Laptop with Upgrades

Acer V3-572 Review and SSD Upgrade

If you've ever tried shopping for a new budget laptop, it can be a bit maddening. Nearly every one will come with one or two serious compromises, either to the build quality, battery life, display, keyboard, touchpad, or storage -- or in some cases many of these areas. With new models now coming out, the questions of which budget laptop is best can be a bit difficult to answer. More than anything however, laptops can live or die by their storage subsystem; finding a decent budget laptop that doesn't completely botch the storage system is virtually impossible.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Humble Origin Bundle #2: Just Buy It Already!

I've been a long-time fan of the Humble Bundle, not necessarily because they support charities -- which is always nice -- but simply because they have many excellent offers where you can pick up several quality games at a great price. Not every bundle is worth buying in my book, especially when you already own several of the titles, but some are so good that there's simply no passing them by. The latest Humble Origin Bundle #2 is one such offer that you simply can't afford to miss.

The first Humble Origin Bundle (which I wrote about at AnandTech) included six good/great games with a combined value of over $150. I can't believe it has been a year and a half since that offer, but we're now getting a second bundle from EA Origin. Interestingly, it fills out some of the gaming series that were started in the first bundle, so where the last one give you Dead Space 1 and 3, you get Dead Space 2 this round. Here's the full list, with some additional comments from yours truly.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Repairing and Replacing the Nexus 5 Screen

Anyone who has ever owned a smartphone knows the horror that strikes when you drop your phone. The split second as the phone goes air-born and falls towards the ground elongates, your muscles refuse to respond fast enough, and you watch in despair as your $400 piece of electronics falls towards the hard ground. Sometimes it lands on the back and you breath a sigh of relief; other times it lands on the glass but you get lucky. But unless you buy a good case, you will almost certainly eventually end up with something that looks like this:
My Nexus 5 After a Fall
Depending on your smartphone, the difficulty of fixing the display after such a fall varies. In the case of the Nexus 5, unfortunately, the Gorilla Glass is bonded to the digitizer and LCD beneath, and while it's in theory possible to replace just the glass, in practice that can take hours and result in a less than ideal result. After researching the process of trying to repair just the broken glass, and finding a lengthy video documenting the process (which required more than a few specialized tools), I did the sensible thing and ordered a complete screen and case assembly.