Marketing Hardware

By Shamus
on Jul 17, 2006
Filed under:
Video Games

Q: How many programmers does it take to change a lightbulb?

A: It can’t be done, it’s a hardware problem.

Up front I need to admit that I’m an idiot. Having said that, I will now attempt to shift blame for my problem to someone else. Let’s get started!

Some products make the mistake of letting the guys in marketing design it, and so the end product is a mishmash of features that make no sense and don’t really work right. Other products – such as graphics cards – have the opposite problem, where the thing is more or less marketed by engineering. Consider:

eVGA e-GeForce 6800 XT 256MB PCI-e 256-P2-N381-TX

If you can believe it, this is the name of the product. Like iPod or Diet Pepsi. Into this “name” they have packed the name of the manufacterer, the name of the product, some of its features, the hardware requirements, and some other stuff that is still a mystery to me. What is all of this supposed to mean to Joe Consumer? There is some really critical information buried in all of that mumbo-jumbo.

What happened is this: In the past year a new type of expansion slot was rolled out on new computers, the PCIe. I had no idea. For the past several years I’ve been just buying things based on performance and price. I forgot about the old days when you had to make sure your computer had the right slot. So I bought a PCIe card, and found I didn’t have the right slot.

PCI slots have been around for ages. I see the letters PCI and I think, “Yeah, I’ve got that.” Another kind of slot is AGP. Then they came out with AGPx2, AGPx4, AGPx8. It’s all the same slot, just faster. Take your AGP-shaped card and stick it in the slot and it’ll work. This is not the case with PCIe. In fact, PCIe isn’t just a new slot shape, it is four new slots.

The point here is that I think the makers of these things should let the marketing guys do their job. No marketer in their right mind would put something on the shelf with a name like:

Xfx Geforce 6800XTREME 256MB Dual Dvi Agp DDR3 350MHZ 256 Bit

When shopping the user wants to know:

1) Does it do what I want?
2) Can I use it?
3) How much does it cost?

Carmakers don’t include the Drag Coefficient, steering configuration, and fuel economy in the name of the car. Nobody buys a RENESIS 13b 0.31dc / R&P pwr assist / 18/24MPG / 3029lb. No, they buy a Mazda RX-8. Foremost in the buyer’s mind will be basic facts about seating and type of fuel used, not esoteric facts about engine output and Weight Distribution. That information is there, for sure. But when you go to the lot the dealer is going to want to know what sort of car you want before he asks about any of the other stuff.

The fact that I went through the entire process of buying the card and was never aware that slot type was something I needed to worry about shows that while I’m an idiot, the sellers don’t have any way of coping with idiots. A simple picture of the required slot would have been all I needed. I would have looked at it and thought, “I don’t have one of those in my system.”

Ideally, they should come up with a more user-friendly way of referring to or depicting these slots. Coming up with an alternative naming system for them would be a good start. I’m sure there are all sorts of technical reasons for calling the new slots PCIe. I’m sure on the implementation level there are all sorts of similarities. For the clueless user they only have one feature: The shape. If you can’t plug a PCIe into a PCI slot, then as far as the user is concerned it’s a whole different thing. They are not going to care about how the two schemes use similar methods of packet adressing for crying out loud. They would do better to name one slot type “PCI” and then name the new one “Larry”. At least the user would know that PCI slots and Larry slots were not the same thing.

I was able to pack up and return the card no problem, but now I’m sour on the whole process and I don’t want to think about it any more. I think I’m going to live with my stone-age video card for now. Oblivion looks like rubbish, but I don’t think it’s worth $150 plus the time and energy required figure out what card I’m supposed to get, order it, and then wait for it.

In summary: I’m an idiot. Although, I’m an idiot who had money to spend if someone had the sense to sell me what I wanted.

UPDATE: Upon further reflection, perhaps I needed the history of Poland after all.

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1515 comments. (Fifteen is the smallest natural number with seven letters in its name.)

From the Archives:

  1. Pete Zaitcev says:

    Your rant misses the obvious point: the people who buy those cards are not Joe Consumers. Joe Consumers buy Dell Dimension (see the nice name)? If they are Albert Prosumers, they buy Dell XPS.

    Converseley, the car equivalent of someone buying a 6800 XT would be a ricer. I know one of those. He keeps talking how he’s going to replace the engine in his 91 Tercel with a “5efe”. Do you know what 5EFE is and how it is different from 3EE? No? So you won’t buy a 5EFE engine in a store? Why did you buy a 6800 XT PCIe then?

  2. Shamus says:

    I didn’t want anything fancy. I just want to run Oblivion, which needs 2.0 pixel shaders. This was the cheapest card I could find that had the functionality that I needed. Seriously, I’m not trying to build the ultimate gaming rig here. I just want something that works. If it hadn’t been for Oblivion, I wouldn’t have even been thinking about it.

    I suppose you can make the argument that replacing your video card is now a “hardcore” thing to do. I guess it is at this point.

  3. Dan says:

    Your not an idiot for not knowing that you needed a different slot for the card. Your a dunce for not staying properly updated on the tech news.

  4. Dan says:

    My Vo-tech teacher preached to us about that kinda shtuff. He would say it’s important for your career. Then pretend to be some dumb ass (as he put it) who didn’t know what a blahDy blah blah
    thing was. He was a cool teacher though, and he loved to say ass.

  5. Ubu Roi says:

    Pete, you’re missing the point, and the rest of you are just being elitest snobs. Watch [i]Clerks[/i] much? There’s a helluva lot more Joe Consumers than there are Joe Techies. The o/s equivlent of what you’re suggesting is “If you can’t handle DOS 6.1, why did you buy a computer?” How many homes would have computers if we were still doing everything from console commands and primitive DOS shells?

    Likewise, if video card companies want to sell more cards, they need to market less to uber-geeks, and more to uber-normals. People don’t have the time to get A+ certified every time they pop a new card in.

  6. …or “If you don’t understand the Bourne shell, then you’re just not good enough for Linux!”

  7. I know it seems insane Shamus. well, it IS insane. But the problem is that this IS marketing. The simple fact is that casual (in the “non-hyperkinetic pc nutball” sense, not the “plays sometimes” sense) gamer doesn’t drop anywhere near the money in a year that the hardcore geeks do on their rigs. You might buy a new card every few years, and only then to keep up with the latest game. These guys recycle their hardware and overclock every six months.

    I built my own PC a few years ago and have remained plugged into the sites like sharkyextreme and hexus – but my computing needs have evolved beyond “fast rig” (and i never was a gamer, really). Im just lost with respect to teh proliferation of technologies, but those arcane product name strings really do sing a sweet song of enticement indeed to the people with the money to burn.

  8. Pete Zaitcev says:

    I have to admit, the thought of adding a completely superfluous comment about nepotism in racing crossed my mind, but only momentarily.

    The car analogy is not perfect and it is bound to break if stretched too far. However, we can take it a little further. Historically, car owners performed component replacements. I can remember my father replacing a gearbox. An good analogy of a graphics card replacement would be throwing out the old differential in my 1G Neon and replacing it with a Torsen kit. It’s cheaper than replacing the whole car and adds performance. It’s not all that hard, although you have to take the tranny off on an FWD car. The limits of the analogy are clearly seen as well. Our computers are designed with user-replaceable parts still. So, in a way, they are cars from 1940s.

    I have no idea if this capability is going to continue to be available. Clearly, the mass market of PC moved on to preassembled systems. On the other hand, there are genuine advantages to flexibility. Computers are not cars, the basic technology is different. So, we have laptops with Mini-PCI slots now. It’s possible that you may be able to buy a graphics adapters for decades (as long as you can read and understand the model name).

  9. Wonderduck says:

    “A simple picture of the required slot would have been all I needed.”

    Like the picture of the product on the box, with the bifurcated PCIe connector at the bottom? I have an eVGA box in front of me right now, and it’s clearly not a PCI legacy card.

    It’s an easy mistake to make, sure. Whatever idiot decided to call it a “PCIe” slot made the biggest one by naming it something easily mistaken for an older technology.

    (extended snark removed by author)

    For what it’s worth, PCIe has been around for more than a year; when I worked at CowPuters before they shut their retail click-n-mortar stores, we were just starting to carry computers with them (they used be called PCI-X). That was 2+ years ago.

    Pete, I’m going to disagree with you on the “being able to by a graphics adapter” for decades thing. Companies do still make AGP cards because the ‘low-end’ systems don’t come with PCIe slots; probably in a year or so that will have changed. Add on maybe another year, just to give late adopters to catch up, and then I predict every card will be PCIe.

    Unless something replaces THAT.

  10. Shamus says:

    Like the picture of the product on the box, with the bifurcated PCIe connector at the bottom?

    I ordered online from Amazon, which only had the most basic picture of the card and box side-by-side, with little detail. Certainly not enough to tell PCI from PCIe.

    But anyway, I already admitted to being an idiot…

  11. Pete Zaitcev says:

    PCI-X and PCIe (nee PCI Express) are fundamentally different.

    PCI-X is an older design, which attempted to extend the life of the old PCI beyond the 3.3V/66MHz/64bit. At that time, most PCI cards on the consumer market were 5V/33/32 designs still. The difficulty was that pushing the 133MHz through the old PCI connector was impossible (I actually saw the spice models). So, PCI-X changes the connector somewhat, making it two-layer exactly like EISA did years ago. This way all signals interleaved with ground planes.

    PCI Express is nothing like PCI electrically. It is a serial protocol, which appeared when the collapse of Infiniband under the pressure of clustering folks became apparent. Intel took the physical layer of Infiniband (or NGIO actually), routed it through a PCI-styled connector, and applied PCI-compatible configuration on top. This is why 1-lane PCIe connector is smaller than the old PCI connector, despite the bus being faster.

    Mr. Duck misses my point about being able to buy graphics adapters (regardless of the bus interface). I was considering an alternative future where such adapters were altogether impossible to buy unless in very special cases, just like Nemo turbochargers for old Neons. Sure you can get those, if you know where. But they aren’t sold in Dodge dealerships, and Mr. Consumer is perfectly happy with his integrated product (car or computer), in the configuration originally purchased.

  12. Ubu Roi says:

    We’ve had integrated video cards on the motherboard for years now. The only way they will become the rule instead of the rare exception in gaming rigs is if/when top-of-the-line videocards have reached the point in size and cost that they can be integrated in the same manner as the network card or high-quality sound from the MB. You can still buy a sound card these days, or a seperate network card for that matter. But for video, we are only now beginning to reach the point of diminishing returns in upgrades; I now go two+ years between vid card upgrades when it was once hard to go one without replacing the entire system.

  13. Wonderduck says:

    Pete, yep, I did miss your point. Didn’t see it at all, as a matter of fact. I think your ACTUAL point is still wrong, but I didn’t see it to begin with. It’s getting MORE, not less, likely that specialty cards are required for computer things (not just graphics). Sure, if there’s a fundamental change in computing down the way, sure it’s possible.

    Ubu said “There‚Äôs a helluva lot more Joe Consumers than there are Joe Techies.” Yes, that’s true. And for those people, there is BestBuy, or CompUSA, or Dell, or Gateway (please note I purchased a Gateway in June). To use the car analogy, for those people, you have Toyota, or Chrsyler, or Ford. For the Joe Techies, who build their own computers, there is Ferrari or McLaren.

    And for people who want simplicity and warranties, but want to tinker, there’s the store-purchased computers with expansion slots (this is me). And graphics cards. And audio cards. And PhysX cards. So forth and so on…

    I sit corrected on the PCI-X/PCIe thing; I really didn’t know they were different. Sorry.

  14. KelThuzad says:

    Guess i’m a Joe-Consumer that wants to play games that look nice. I just buy pre-built, as I am horrible with computers.

  15. Blastinburn says:

    I know this is a REALLY old post, but I just came across this in my computer architecture textbook. PCI and PCIe are radically different, with PCI being a bus and PCIe being more along the lines of a network switch (but between computer circuits). Literally the only reason that it is called PCIe is that marketing didn’t want to lose the name recognition of PCI.

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