System Recommendation
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We often get asked for advice on what computers work best for running ShowSim. This article puts together a set of general guidelines on how to evaluate the technical data for a computer you might be considering for purchase, or even better, allow you to put together a custom configuration to get the best possible system.

Why ShowSim Demands Power
While computer speed and memory capacity have made huge gains over the last decade, there are certain programs that will always benefit from more power no matter how much you have. ShowSim is one such program. The faster your computer can crunch numbers and display graphics, the larger and smoother your simulations can be. Getting more complex shows to simulate in real time without pausing or getting out of synch can be a challenge in ShowSim due to the complexity and number of calculations that occur when using a three dimensional particle system. The quality of the graphics animation is directly proportional to how many particles are rendering on the screen at any given time, which is why effects that use tailed streamer type stars can really slow things down when there are many of them on screen at the same time. A single tailed star can have hundreds of particles trailing behind it, whereas a color star just has one particle.

There are two types of problems that can occur when the simulation becomes too complex for the computer to handle: 1) slow or jumpy animations when running the simulations in real time and 2) errors or freeze-ups during a video rendering. The jumpy animation in real-time is caused when the CPU or graphics card can no longer keep up with all the calculations and image manipulations required to render all particles in one frame of animation before time runs out and the next frame of animation must begin. Video renderings do not suffer from this limitation however because it does not occur in real time, thus each frame of animation can take however long is necessary to render it before moving on to the next frame. Thus errors and freeze ups that occur during a video rendering is almost always an issue of the computer running out of memory. Each particle on the screen requires a certain amount of memory to store all the data associated with it’s position, velocity, color and a number of other variables. When you have hundreds of thousands of these particles on the screen, the amount of memory required to store all this data can simply run out.

There are two basic ways of attacking both problems: 1) optimizing the settings in showsim and 2) optimizing your hardware. In this section we are going to focus on just the hardware selection for an optimized computer. The section on Performance Tweaking gives the details for optimizing the settings within ShowSim to minimize problems.

Building A ShowSim Workstation
It is recommended to get the fastest computer you can afford to use with ShowSim. Trying to save money with an oudated laptop purchased used on ebay is only going to create a frustrating working environment. The primary factor that affects performance with ShowSim is the graphics card. As a general rule, desktop computers are superior to laptop computers for running ShowSim. This is because laptops often have scaled down graphics accelerator cards, or no accelerator cards at all in some older models. A high performance graphic card requires cooling fans, a larger volume of air space around the card and will consume more power, which are generally not possible in a laptop due to power and space constraints. High end graphics cards can require power supplies that output 500 to 800 watts, which is just not possible in a laptop. Even many desktops do not have power supplies that large. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t laptops available that can run ShowSim 3D, it’s just that only the most expensive laptops advertised as gaming or multimedia laptops will work well enough, and even those won’t outperform a desktop that has been designed as a gaming computer. Desktop computers also have the advantage of being able to replace the graphics accelerator card if it doesn’t work well with ShowSim, or even if you have a card that works well there are still better and faster cards coming on the market every year. With laptops, you are stuck with whatever card came with the system and you can not upgrade it.

The processor speed of the computer should be at least 2.8 GHz or higher. The graphics card will affect performance more than the CPU speed, since all the 3D calculations are done by the GPU on the graphics card and not the CPU. It still helps to have a fast CPU for playing the wav files and drawing the scrolling timeline during a simulation, which is why at least 2.8 GHz is recommended. I think the clock speed of the processor is more important than the brand or version of the CPU. I have not noticed any difference between AMD vs Intel vs different chip architecture etc. This is probably because most of the number crunching is done on the GPU of the graphics card anyway.

ShowSim also benefits from having more memory available to it, both graphics card memory and the main system memory. At least 4 GB of memory is recommended, which is pretty standard in most systems these days since the newer Windows operating systems also recommend that amount. Since ShowSim is currently a 32-bit app, Windows only allows it to access about 2GB of memory regardless of how much system memory there is. Since nothing is really gained by having more than 4GB of memory currently, this is one area you could save some money on. There will likely be a 64-bit version of ShowSim at some point that will be able to take advantage of more memory however, so choosing a 64 bit operating system for your computer would allow you to take advantage of this in the future when it becomes available.

In the past there has been issues with Intel brand graphics cards, but these seem to be working better now. Even so, the most time tested cards are the ATI and NVIDIA brands, so those are recommended. Make sure the power supply in the computer is compatible with the power requirements of the video card, as some of the high-end video cards can require 800 or even 1000 watt power supplies in the computers that run them, especially if you wanted to try and use more than one card in parallel. Each manufacturer tends to have a top model card that is quite a bit more expensive than the next model down, with a performance increase that is usually not large enough to justify the extra cost. So usually going with the second best card can save a lot of money without sacrificing much in speed. There seems to be a point of diminishing return with trying to speed up the graphics with more expensive cards, as the amount of extra money you have to spend doesn’t correspond to an equal increase in speed. I think the nature of the problem is this: lets say six long-hanging streamer shells causes the real-time simulation to get jumpy on a given computer. If you completely doubled the speed of that computer, which would be a huge increase, then you would only buy the ability to have twelve long hanging streamers shells rendering in real time before things get jumpy. In most cases that might be fine, but of course in the fireworks world more is better and there’s always going to be that finale loaded with lots of streamer shells that just locks up real-time playback.

The last item to look at is the type of hard drive used. Using a solid state hard drive (SSD) can improve the speed of other areas like loading shows, batch scripting operations etc. since the access time is considerably faster than a traditional platter type hard drive. So while an SSD drive won’t do anything to improve the simulation speed, it will help lower data access delays when scripting and thus speed up your scripting operations.

One other important item that is often overlooked is the cooling system used in the computer. High-end graphics cards will add a substantial amount of heat into your system while using ShowSim that isn’t generated while using most other applications (with the exception of games). If the internal temperature of your computer rises much above 100’ F then you can experience the screen blacking out or freezing up when the graphics card overheats, forcing you to reboot your computer. In a computer that is designed for gaming you will already have the required cooling system for running larger graphics cards, but if you are retrofitting an existing PC with a larger graphics card then this is an issue that you will have to look at. A typical system for running fast graphics cards will have at least three 120mm fans installed: one in front, one in back and one in the side or sometimes one on top. An older PC with a single fan in the back just isn’t going to work and you will overheat the card. It is not usually very easy to modify an existing PC case to add additional cooling fans, so it is better to just buy a PC that has already been configured with the proper cooling system to begin with. Some systems also give the option of having a temperature monitoring panel installed on the front, which shows you a graphic display of temperature readings taken at various locations inside the computer. These don’t really cost that much extra and are useful for troubleshooting temperature problems inside your computer. When fans eventually fail, and they all do, you often will not notice that it has stopped spinning. Dust accumulating in the intake vents is another problem that occurs over time, and can reduce the airflow to the point of causing heat problems. Having a temperature readout panel will alert you to these problems so that you can replace the fan or clean out all the dust before your computer starts crashing.

So in summary, here are the recommendations for putting together a ShowSim workstation:

1) Get the most expensive graphics card you can afford, but stop one short of the most expensive model unless money really is no issue.

2) If you need to save money, do it on processor features. You don’t need quad core or anything fancy.

3) A tower or mini-tower style PC is going to save money over a laptop or all-in-one, with the added benefit of allowing you to upgrade to a more powerful graphics card later if needed. Laptops and all-in-ones have less space for bigger power supplies and reduced airflow, which limits the horsepower of the graphics cards and you are stuck with whatever graphics card came with the system. You are also paying more money for miniaturization, more complex manufacturing and batteries with laptops and one piece computers compared with a standard size PC.

4) An SSD hard drive is going to speed up data access time and make scripting go faster, so I would sacrifice hard drive size in order to have one, especially if the computer is mostly just being used for showsim.

5) Processor clock speeds seemed to have topped out in the last few years, ranging between 2-3 GHz. A higher clock is going to improve performance of course so try and get as close to the 3GHz end as you can. If you can find anything higher than 3GHz that doesn’t break your budget, then get it.

6) Avoid integrated graphics cards built into the motherboard. These are usually slower and rob you of the ability to upgrade to a faster one later.

7) Go with ATI or NVIDIA brand video cards, as they have been the leaders in graphics cards for quite a while now. Intel graphics cards have improved to the point where they are usable with ShowSim, but still avoid them if you can.

8) Don’t spend money on more than 4GB of memory unless you need it for some other application, because ShowSim won’t be able to use more than around 2GB.

9) If 64-bit operating system is an option, go ahead and get it even though ShowSim is currently a 32-bit application. A 64-bit version will be coming in the future.

10) Get a 1000 watt power supply if possible, otherwise make sure the power supply is compatible with the power requirement of the video card.

11) Make sure the cooling system is adequate to handle the amount of heat generated by your graphics cards. At least three 120mm fans should be present.

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