IntroductionThis month’s TPU Interview is with Alex, who goes by the alias ‘Unwinder’ on the TPU forums. Alex is the main software developer behind RivaTuner and was one of the first to work on softmods for graphics processing units. He currently lives and works in Russia and was kind enough to answer a slew of questions I asked him via private message.
First Computer ExperienceAlex was born in 1977 and grew up during a time when there weren’t many computers available in his country, which was formally known as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R). He says that there was a lack of technology in his country during those years, but he did manage to acquire a hand-built Z80 machine in the early 1990’s. Computer Science classes were not offered yet, so he had to learn how the system worked on his own. He began to reverse engineer the games and write demos for the Z80. It became such an infatuation that he decided to study software development in the university.
How RivaTuner came to beAfter graduating in 1999, Alex was already hard at work with a software development company in Russia creating software for medical hardware. Alex says that for him, “Human body tuning and diagnostics is as interesting as GPU tuning and diagnostics.” So it comes as no surprise that when he wasn’t satisfied with the driver control panel for his new NVIDIA Riva 128 graphics card, he decided to develop his own tool for it. “I am a software developer, not a modder,” Alex explains. “Exploring undocumented areas of graphics hardware and software is the main area of my interests. Modding drivers is just one of the consequences of it.” Thus, RivaTuner was born.
SoftmoddingThe hobby of soft-modding GPUs turned into an obsession. Alex and his friends had tackled several softmod projects over the years, and in January of 2003 he would make an unlikely friend because of it. At the time, ATI had been working on the 9500-9700 Radeon series and one of their product producing partners, afraid to sell the new 9500 Non-Pro model because it could be unlocked to the 9700 series, contacted Alex about the issue. “I immediately started investigating 9500 modding. So I guess it was a planned leak for them, aimed to boost sales of the 9500 Non-Pro.” Alex and his team announced that they were working on a closed beta for the modded 9500 drives, but it turns out that somebody beat them to it. “I was really mad, thinking that some of my testers ignored the NDA and leaked the script. So I contacted the author of the modded driver and as you can guess, W1z was that man.” W1zzard, who was living in Germany, had completed the mod all by himself, starting a strong professional relationship between the two software developers.
While the modding community has grown, according to Alex it peaked in 2004 with the release of GeForce 6800 series. Then, it was easy to unlock pixel and vertex pipelines with the NVStrap driver, but now ATI and NVIDIA are using advanced locking technologies making soft-mods nearly impossible in modern display adapters. Alex says, “Soft-mods mean lost money for both ATI and NVIDIA, and they are definitely not stupid and never make the same mistake twice.” This could lead to the eventual death of the soft-mod community but there is a bright side. “GPUs have a lot of undocumented areas, which vendors are trying to hide from end users. So we will always have something new to explore.” In the end however, Alex believes that soft-modding benefits both ATI and NVIDIA. “People like a free performance boost and whether ATI and NVIDIA like it or not, the mods help them to promote their products.”
Relations with hardware companiesDespite modifying ATI and NVIDIA software and making their job more difficult, Alex says he has a good relationship with both vendors and their product partners. He has even received job offers from both sides but chooses to remain independent and live with his family in Russia. And while he hasn’t planned any new projects, he says he will continue to develop software for RivaTuner. When asked if he has any advice for someone beginning to tackle soft-modding he remembers back to his days working with SoftQuadro. “Patience, patience and patience again. Once you have a goal in front of you and enough patience, you can always reach it.”
- Interview conducted and written by Easy Rhino