Faster PC with “multi-disking”

External disk and a 13-port USB 3.0 hub

You can definitely do this without a 13-port USB hub, but they are cool to look at (but hot to the touch). Two USB 3.0 thumb drives should do for most people. Even one will help.

I have not seen this anywhere else, but I am sure I am not the first or only human to think of this. Well, probably not. I’ll tell why I did it and how it helped me, then you can see if it is useful to you or someone you know.

What is multi-disking? I actually came up with that word just today, nobody has told me about it. It means I distribute the applications with the most disk access on different drives (either hard drives, SSDs or Flash drives). In my case, I have games on an external hard disk, My Documents on a smallish external SSD, and my browser on a thumb drive. Because the computer can read/write to different disks/drives simultaneously, it does not get clogged up in queues and the speed improves. If this is enough for the revelation to reach you, off you go! Otherwise, it is a long story as usual.

***

I bought my ASUS N56V back in May 2012, so it is not super old (look, Sims 3 was already around!) but it is well past its warranty. All the more reason for me to not take it apart if I can avoid it. (That, and the computers I have taken apart tended to end in a loud crack or a rain of sparks followed by acrid smoke. Not a soldering iron man, me.) What then could I do when it started slowing down? For the last months, I had had more and more episodes where it simply stopped responding for several seconds, and then responded sluggishly for a while longer.

Using the Resource Monitor that comes with Windows 7, I quickly suspected the disk activity. I found that if I had several things going on simultaneously, and/or the computer had been running for a while without logging off or restarting, it would have used almost all the physical memory. (6 GB in my case – if you actually can add memory to your PC, this is probably the most dramatic speed increase you can get, but this can be impossible on a laptop.) When I opened a web page, for instance, it would start writing content from memory to “pagefile”. You can read about virtual memory elsewhere if you wonder what a page file is, but basically when the memory is full, it uses the hard disk instead. The hard disk of a laptop is easily a thousand times slower than the memory, so no surprise things ground to a halt.

Again, if you are a screwdriver person, you will probably have heard that you can replace your hard disk with a SSD (Solid State Drive) which is slower than memory but many times faster than a hard disk. But again, this is for the screwdriver folks, and can cost a pretty penny. Also, Windows may wake up after the surgery and decide that it is on a new computer, and require you to register again. Windows is not free, contrary to common belief, and if you don’t have the documentation for your personal installation, Microsoft could think you have stolen their Windows and shut it down in whole or in part. Of course after 7 years, my documentation was well and truly lost.

I did however have some peripherals lying around, including a handful of 32 GB USB 3.0 memory sticks that I bought when they were on sale. They did not cost many breads each, so I had a bunch, and an external USB 3.0  hub to connect them all to the PC. Now, the 3.0 is fairly important here as it is 10 times faster than 2.0. If your computer only supports 2.0, you may see less or no improvement here, I am not sure. But you also have an amazing computer to have survived that long. In 2012, my computer already had 2 separate built-in USB 3.0 controllers with separate ports. Most computers still running should have at least one.

First I tried to move the page file to the external disk. Windows cheerfully confirmed that this was done, but it did not work. This is because when you start Windows, it starts the page file before it starts the USB (unless you boot from an USB – this is an alternative that you can find elsewhere by searching from “boot windows from USB” or words to that effect.)

So I settled for less. Why settle for less? Because I am cheap and lazy. I had already put my games on an external hard disk, because games are big and the hard disk is not. Plus it fills up with Windows updates, temporary files and other gruff that you have to clear out from time to time, and some of it will crash the machine if you clear it out. (Use a certified disk cleaner, like the one that comes with Windows and is called “disk cleanup”.) But even with that, small disk is small.

Next thing I outsourced to a USB device was My Documents. This folder and its many subfolders, are used by Windows and many programs (including many games) so it sees a fair bit of use. You can find detailed tutorials on how to move it to another disk (search “how to move documents folder to another drive”), others have illustrations and even videos about this. It can be pretty big so check in advance that you have a big enough device. Some of the content may be ready for archive anyway, but luckily I had room on my biggest device.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I installed my favorite browser on a thumb drive. I was lucky that my favorite browser is Vivaldi (made in Norway, by the way). It has a choice for “standalone” in advanced setup. It actually transferred my saved passwords from the hard disk after installation, but you can choose this. With other browsers (and most people have another browser) you will probably want to go to PortableApps or search for “install browser on usb windows” for tutorials for your particular browser. The nice thing about PortableApps is that you may browse it for other FREE software that you can install to other USB drives to take even more load off your main disk. But My Documents and your browser are typically used a lot, so these two should make a difference. They sure did for me!

***

Why did this break through the wall of pauses, stuttering and crawl? Because multitasking. The USB has its own controller (in my case two, so I put one drive on each of them, but even one should help). Before yesterday, when I clicked on a link, Windows checked to see if I had spare RAM memory. If there was too little, it would start writing the memory to disk. The same disk that it was trying to read the browser code from. (The browser has a lot of code for displaying all kinds of things like different fonts, different sizes, pictures, formatting etc etc, so it reads all of this from the same disk that is busy writing.) A hard drive has a physical read/write head (kind of like an old gramophone) that races furiously from place to place on the hard disk when trying to do two things at once. Back and forth, back and forth. When it only needs to do ONE thing, it can stop scurrying, and the speed increases dramatically.

If you have a computer with two physical disks, you could simply move the pagefile or the browser to a different disk, but in my case (and almost all laptops with “two” disks) they are actually different partitions on the same physical disk, and moving things between them will just slow it down even more. Thus my decision to “outsource” to flash drives.

So now I can have Sims 4 running in the background, installed on disk G:, with its save files and other data in My Documents on drive M:, while I use my browser on drive I: running under Windows on disk C:. In addition I have Windows ReadyBoost on drives H: and N:. Yes, I have a lot of drives, most of them cheap 32 GB but some larger or smaller. Two 16 GB are actually better than one 32 GB for ReadyBoost, which I and many others have written about already. I just assumed you already had that. But moving your browser is probably more important than ReadyBoost if you use the Web a lot.

My computer is running smoothly again, thanks to the wonders of multi-disking. And it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg.

Sims 4 Practical Magic is practical

Screenshot Sims 4 Realm of Magic

You shall not pass! No, actually the guy with the sigil over his head is one of the three Sages, and he is trying to teach her better spellcasting. Training with the Sages is the safest way to level up and builds friendship with them, so they will teach you a new spell and a new potion each, once a day. Do this early in your career, because one day they will have nothing more to teach you, and you will be the one mentoring other sims.

Despite the streaks of Harry Potter flavor here and there in the new Sims 4 expansion Realm of Magic, there is no overarching plot of good versus evil. The plot, such as it is, tells us that the Magical Realm is threatened by a metaphysical vortex and can only be defended by the cooperation of the three “Schools” of magic, represented by three Sages, who teach either Mischief Magic, Untamed Magic, or Practical Magic.

Given my previous entry about the excessive time spent on basic needs in Sims 4, it should surprise no one that I made a beeline for Practical Magic. Indeed, as I write this, I just had an elderly Simeon Silversweater, Sage of Practical Magic, teach me his ultimate spell, which allows me to bestow the power of magic upon a normal human. The disciple has not become quite like his master yet, though: He still has many alchemy recipes to teach me. But I know the most important one: Potion of Plentiful Needs.

***

Before we get too far ahead, let me explain the basics of sim magic, although it is fairly well explained in the game.

Spellcaster is the new life state in this expansion. As such, you can not access this magic if you are already an Alien, a Vampire or a Mermaid. You can either create your sim as Spellcaster, or find one of the three Sages in the Magic Realm and ask them to turn you into one. They will cast a temporary spell on you that lets you see “motes” (glowing orbs of magical energy) and collect a bunch of them. After having shown your magical aptitude, you get to join their ranks. As a Spellcaster, you have access to all three Schools of magic, and can mix and match them as you want, along with Alchemy.

A feature not well explained in the game (as far as I can see) is that magic accumulates over generations. A child of a Spellcaster will have more aptitude for magic than either of its parents.You go from Weak Bloodline to Strong Bloodline to Ancient Bloodline. The third generation of genetic Spellcaster will accumulate magical experience 30% faster and suffer less danger from overload.

In contrast to most role-playing magic, you don’t start your day with a supply of mana that is spent with each spell. On the contrary, each spell leaves a residue in your aura, called Charge. As you build Charge, your spells become more powerful, but the risk of backfire increases. If a spell backfires because you cast too many in too short a time, you will suffer an uncontrolled discharge of magic that burns you to death. To avoid this, you need to cast fewer spells, or have perks that let you discharge the residue or keep it from building up too fast in the first place.

Perks are bought with talent points, which you get when leveling up. You can eventually get them all if you keep at it long enough, but it may be smart to first pick those that let you gain more experience, and then those that let you control the aforementioned Charge. Hereditary Spellcasters also get more talent points, and having a familiar active supposedly gives more too. I have not tested this, as I try to always have a familiar around when casting spells.

Familiars have two functions: They give you bonuses to your advancement, and they protect you from death. If you accidentally set off a deadly discharge, the familiar will absorb part of the blast and you will both survive, although the familiar will not be able to do so again in a while (I am told a week). Luckily you can have more than one familiar, although only one can be active at any one time. But definitely prudent to have a backup familiar in case of accident. You may want to get one for each of your children too, as familiars protect from all causes of death, not just from magic.

Familiars can be bought, found, received as a gift, or won through duels. Magical duels are a big part of the game. You can challenge other sims or they can challenge you. Most duels are friendly and may even improve your relationship, in addition to giving magical experience and building Charge (don’t accept one when you are supercharged please). But you can also have more competitive duels for knowledge, ingredients and artifacts. Familiars are artifacts. Ingredients are needed for potions, but you can buy those in a shop or find at least many of them in the wild. Knowledge gives you a new spell or recipe, but there are other ways to get those.

The easiest way is to befriend a Sage. The Practical Sage is probably the easiest to befriend. The Mischief Sage (at least the one the game starts with) is on the evil side so can be harder to befriend. The Untamed Sage is also fairly personable. Once you’re a bit more than strangers, you can start asking them for training. This is a way to gain experience fairly quickly without building Charge, so don’t be shy to use it early on when you don’t have Charge-reducing perks. While improving your skills, you also improve your relationship with your teacher. Once you are friends, you can stop by and ask them for a new spell each day until you know them all. You can also ask them for potion recipes, but only one of the recipes is really worth knowing early on: Potion of Plentiful Needs.

***

Practical magic is useful from the start. Your first spell should be one that lets you repair broken things. Home reparations are time-consuming and sometimes dangerous, but on the flip side non-magical repairs builds mechanical skill and gives you spare parts you can use to upgrade your household items. Mechanical skill may also be required in some jobs. So there is a downside to using this spell, but it saves a lot of time when you need it.

The next spell cleans things, including sims, including you. No more scrubbing toilets, no more showers unless you need a specific type of shower to put you in the right mood.

The third spell creates a random item of food, either a single portion or a family-sized quantity depending on your choice. This saves time and there is no risk of burning down the house (only the Spellcaster – save early, save often, keep your familiar out).

The fourth spell weeds, waters and removes pests on a garden plant. Another time-consuming but skill-building activity avoided.

The fifth spell lets you teleport to any point of your choosing in the neighborhood. Faster than using your broomstick, let alone anything else. Broomsticks don’t make you explode, though, and they also build wizard experience, like the spell.

The sixth spell is kind of game-breaking: It lets you make an instant copy of small objects. This happens to include the rare and expensive ingredients that limited alchemy. Now you only need to buy one of each, and you can multiply them beyond necessity. This is a good time to take up alchemy. Before that, it is kind of expensive.

Next comes another gardening spell, which lets you grow a plant to full size instantly.

The penultimate spell is rather trivial: It lets you teleport to the Magic Realm from anywhere without going through the portal at the top of the waterfall in Glimmerbrook. But there is also a crystal (Glimmerstone) that does the same thing, although it has a cooldown.

The ultimate spell, as mentioned, lets you convert a normie to a Spellcaster. It is not really something you need since the Sages have it already and besides, your kids will inherit your magic and surpass it.

***

I’ve mentioned potions. Some of them are for very specific situations and require rare ingredients. One of them (Potion of the Nimble Mind) is quite useful but not game-breaking, letting you learn skill faster but not instantly. And one is probably the main reason why professional reviewers recoil in horror. The “Potion of Plentiful Needs” resets all the need bars to full, as if you had just fulfilled all your physical and mental needs at once. If you have a stack of these, you could basically stop eating, sleeping, going to the bathroom, playing or socializing. I agree that this would destroy the tenuous link between the game an real life. And that is not how I use them. I have a stack of them around for emergencies.

Say you’re about to go to bed and a friend you like invites you to an impromptu party. In real life you would probably be able to stay up a few hours even though you would regret it, but in the game you quickly grind to a halt and fall asleep on a bench. This is where I whip out my extra strong energy drink, Potion of Plentiful Needs, and dance the night away before going to work.

Or you’re coming home from work, hungry and dirty, and you get a message that the spirit of an old friend is about to pass from this realm. You don’t spend an hour making an egg on toast, another hour eating it, and an hour and a half in the shower before you go see them. In the Sims 4, there was no way to not do things slooowly, that I am aware of at least, until now. So that’s how I use the potion: To do the things I should do or would do rather than the things I must do.

There is also a Potion of Rejuvenation, but you can get that from fulfilling whims and living up to your aspirations as well. I believe it still only resets you to the beginning of your current life phase (so you can’t go from old to young, for instance). The new part is that you can mass produce it, not that this should be needed. The Potion of Immortality, harking back to an old fable, does not make you eternally young. It just keeps you from dying from old age. You are still old. Or that’s how the text presents it, I have not tried it yet. There is also a Potion of Prompt Resurrection. If you die while this is active, you return to life soon after. Probably nice to have if you are planning to do something remarkably risky, but as a Spellcaster you can get a familiar and skip the whole dying part. Maybe you can use it on other sims or something?

***

The Untamed Magic has a spell to let you summon a ghost and another that lets you restore a ghost to life, which of course is not realistic. (Nor are ghosts realistic in the first place.) I have not used it yet, but I can see it being valuable for those cases where things went more wrong than expected. The drawback with this is that another sim must cast the spell, so it is mostly useful in a family situation, I guess, or a friend that passes away unexpectedly. You could also use an ice spell to put out a fire instead of a fire extinguisher. Finally there is a spell to remove curses (or you could use the corresponding potion.) The rest of the spells, and the whole School of Mischief, seem useless to me. Which is good, because this is already too long.

Magic comes to Sims 4 (finally)

Screenshot Sims 4 Realm of Magic - floating glowing book

One of the first magic perks I took was of course “Knowledge is magic”, which speeds up reading and research as well as gaining a small amount of wizardry experience points from these activities. (The magical anti-gravity boobies were none of my doing though – she was like this when I found her.)

This is not so much a traditional review as a reaction. I’ve only had the Sims 4 expansion Realm of Magic for a couple days. I accidentally learned of it the day it came out, and the two first reviews I saw agreed that magic made the game too easy. And I was like “YES PLEASE! Let it be so!”

***

I wanted to like Sims 4. After all, I loved the three previous games in the series, each more than the last. Sims 3 remained my go-to game during my limited play time up until City of Heroes: Homecoming happened this April. And Sims 4 was technologically superior to them all. I don’t think this was obvious to people who haven’t made software (or at least been educated to do so) but it did not take me long to be impressed by the design of this game. The game still runs smoothly on my 7 year old laptop, where it is installed on an external hard disk. Now if only it was fun! But unfortunately it is not. Or wasn’t until three days ago.

A big part of why I quickly went back to Sims 3 was that the newer game went back to the roots of the series with excessive focus on basic needs. Those were always present, but somehow it feels like they make up more of the game now than in Sims 3 and even Sims 2. I know this is a bit exaggerated, but this is how I remember my sims’ day:

Wake up. Pee. Eat. Briefly do something that puts you in the right mood before going to work. (This depends on the work, but could be playing chess, playing an instrument, or taking a shower.) Work. Eat. Pee. Shower (if you didn’t in the morning.) Scramble to fill fun and social needs before going to bed. Sleep.

What really adds insult to injury, is that jobs now require you to do very specific things to advance. Typically your work-related skills must reach a certain value, but also you are expected to do certain time-consuming work things on your spare time. If you are a programmer, for instance, you need high logic skills, but you also need to do X hours of coding on your spare time. If you are a writer, you have to write X number of books of a certain quality on your free time; but you still have to go to work, and whatever you do there, it neither produces books nor increases your skills. (Meetings, perhaps?)

Compare this to Sims 3, where the relevant skills decided your speed of advancement. If they were high, you added work experience faster. If they were horrifyingly low, you actually got negative work experience. In between was this large area where you might get a raise faster if you improved your skills, but it was a matter of degree. And many jobs had an option to spend part of your work hours improving the leading skill for your work (cooking for the culinary career, a musical instrument for the music career etc). It is hard to see Sims 4 as anything but a big leap backward both in realism and fun.

***

So when I learned that the new expansion had a potion that would reset all the needs to max, I whipped out my credit card right quick. It is not like there aren’t many fun things to do in Sims 4, especially if you have a couple expansions already. The problem is finding time to do any of them when your sim takes 40 minutes to drink a glass of water. (I timed it. In all fairness, a sim hour is more like 1 minute real time, but then again they only live like 80 sim days or something. So no more water unless your life depends on it.)

Even with Realm of Magic installed, it is not like you can just fire up the game and cast spells and drink potions. There is an uphill road to power, glory, and death by fiery explosion. Still, if you take the right path from the start, you should see useful results pretty quickly. I can tell you a couple helpful things about that! But we should probably come back to that in another entry. This was more of an opinion piece. Let me just say that in my opinion after two days of play, this expansion goes a long way toward redeeming the game. I won’t say it is better than Sims 3 yet, but it’s starting to become a serious contender.

Unless you like spending your weekends working, sleeping and peeing, and hate all things magical as well as goth clothes and stained-glass windows. In that case, stay away.