PC Hardware

Happy birthday Euclid!


I am very proud to say that I now have the fastest computer I’ve ever seen!! Cheeses n’ rice, it’s blazing fast!

I took out and reinstalled my motherboard with a few extra stand-off screws just to keep it nice and snug in the case, and I plugged in all the leads from the case. I had a little scare with the CPU fan input because the wire had 3 plugs but there were 4 pins on the motherboard, but the white plastic support fit the 3-hole wire just fine. The power coupler fit great and gave just enough extra slack that I could comfortably wrap the main power cable around the others which helped keep them all out of the way of airflow. The cables look really well shielded but I hope this method doesn’t result in noisey attenuation.

I installed the back USB plate and connected the one on the front of my case as well as the firewire port. The box says the motherboard supports 10 USB ports but I don’t know where the last 2 are. There are 4 on the back of the motherboard, 2 on the expansion back plate, and 2 on the front of my case. I used up all the USB plugs as far as I could see. Oh well. I only have 3 USB devices so I wont’ nitpick. Plus I have 2 firewire ports which is 2 more than I’ll ever use.

The video card went in easily enough, though I’m not crazy about the little rubber doodad that replcaces the plastic snap on AGP boards to keep the card in place. I suppose that’s overkill anyway. I plugged *2* molex HDD power leads into the custom condenser cable and slid that into the card. Easy as pie.

I couldn’t find any back plates for the case so I just stuck my 2 spare sound cards in again and later disabled them in the OS. I don’t like using PCI slots for no reason so I’ll yank ’em when I find those back plates.

So before closing ‘er up I put ‘er into position and plugged in the keyboard, mouse, monitor (plus DVI to VGA adaptor), and sound into the onboard sound card and turned it on. The symphony of smooth rolling, quiet spinning raw power filled my ears, followed by a single BEEP that reassured me I’d done the most important stuff right! Huzzah!! All the fans were spinning

I immediately checked out the BIOS to check out the CPU temperature and was relieved to find it manageable – around 45 celcius which is average in the BIOS since the CPU and fan run at 100% there. My CPU detected just fine, RAM timings looked right, all my drives showed up, and I needed very little customization before declaring the job a success!

However, I noticed that the power and HDD lights on the front of my case weren’t coming on. I had installed the backwards… odd since the labels on the plugs were facing the same way as all the others. So I turned it off, made a couple of adjustments, closed it up, and plugged it all in for the real test! The lights worked!

Just for fun I tried booting my old copy of XP. Instant blue screen. Oh well. I’d made ample backups for just such an occasion. I was surprised to find my old installation working fine when I upgraded from Athlon XP to Athlon 64, but I guess 64 to X2 is just too much of a leap.

Windows installed in about 20 minutes despite its overstated estimate. Of course since most of my hardware was onboard it wasn’t able to detect sound, network, USB2.0, and other stuff, so I guess that must have sped things up a tad. I rebooted, made a user account, and was ready to rock!

Oh yeah, and I didn’t need any special driver disks to get Windows setup to find my SATA HDD this time! I needed to burn a custom image with nLite on my socket 754 mobo, but PC Village assured me this was the fault of the mobo, not the OS, and it looks like they were right! One fewer headache is always nice.

I booted into Windows and everything looked fine until I tried my old DVDRW drive. No worky. I’d put in a disk, it would spin up, and the whole machine would freeze. Very odd since the CDRW was working just fine – I’d installed Windows off of it. I tried a few reboots before and after installing the Nforce chipset drivers but no joy. I opened up the machine and unplugged the CDRW from power and IDE and the DVDRW worked fine. Maybe it’s my 380w power supply struggling, or maybe Asus doesn’t really take IDE seriously anymore. Regardless, I can live with one optical drive. That leaves one spare for when I rebuild my 64!

Drivers drivers drivers, reboot reboot reboot. Very boring but I made a resolution long ago to take Windows seriously when it says it needs to reboot, so I do so at my earliest opportunity. All the onboard devices including network worked just fine, and so did my video card. So far everything was going relatively smoothly!

Windows informed me I had 30 days to activate so I clicked the icon, clicked a Next or two, and clicked finished. Phew! I’d expected the worst after my previous ordeal!

Windows Update announced about 50 updates so I downloaded and installed those while putting on Firefox and Gaim. Gaim has a really clunky and annoying interface and it took me a really long time to get it back the way it ought to be.

I had used the Firefox Extension Backup Extension to archive my bookmarks, extensions, history, cookies, and passwords before formatting. FEBE is an extension itself so Firefox must be running in order to use it, but it complained that I couldn’t restore preferences to the current profile so I had to do some research on how to do so. It involved a commandline command which was really annoying. However, I made a profile and logged in, ran FEBE, changed back to the default profile and deleted the spare one, and presto!! Firefox was 99% as I had left it! It even remembered previously clicked links! The only inconsistency is that it forgot which extensions I’d disabled so I just deleted those two.

Windows Update completed and I rebooted. Boot took slightly longer but the updates caused no problems. But then I was presented the message I’d been dreading – “Your hardware has changed significantly since you last installed Windows XP. You have 3 days to activate your software.” Didn’t I just do that?!?!

And of course it didn’t work. And now I only have a cell phone and no land line. Cheapskate that I am, I installed Skype and guessed my password after many, many tries. I plugged in the fancy microphone that came with the motherboard and a message popped up onscreen asking what I’d just plugged into the grey plug (NEAT!!!). I chose “microphone” from the list and it informed me that I’d chosen the wrong plug, then showed an animation smoothly illustrating the relative position of the pink plug I should have used! Super cool! I fixed it up, made some volume adjustments, and Skype worked like a charm! I sat the well designed microphone atop my LCD monitor and called Microsoft.

Thank goodness, dialing numbers on the keypad worked in lieu of slowly dictating the 48-digit installation key. Just like my last ordeal, this key was refused and I was connected to an Indian MS rep (she spoke much better and was more chipper than the last woman I spoke with). She asked for the first 2 groups of numbers, asked if this was my first time installing the software, and asked why I was reinstalling. Highly annoying. She dictated another 48-digit code which worked fine and thanked me for calling. Yeah, I’ll speak with you again next year babe.

And that was about the end of my woes! I ran 3DMark06 and was blown away!!! I could never imagine such graphics as anything other than a slideshow but I was getting between 10 and 24 FPS on this computer humbling app! The detail was so crisp and the effects were very dramatic. My CPU scored 1780 which is about double my previous CPU score, and the GPU scored 1920 which is nearly 10 times my old video score!!

I installed a bunch of games and each one looked more amazing than the last. FEAR is quie detailed and the quick frame rate makes it easy enough to play without relying solely on bullet time. Quake 4 is a brainless and idiotic game but it shore does look purdy. Half Life 2: Episode One with AA and HDR is exceptionally quick and very very sharp. Every game ran at 100% full detail with AT LEAST 4x antialiasting at 1280×1024 and gave me an average of 35 FPS!! It’s absolutely breathtaking

I haven’t done any real desktop computing yet so I’m not convinced of the benefits of dual core yet, but the desktop is certainly very snappy and responsive. Icons and windows draw instantly and dragging windows is very smooth. My SATA drive is already feeling dated as it’s clearly the worst bottleneck so maybe I’ll need to do something about that some time in the future. 2 x 10k RPM Raptor RAID 0? Or, since drives are so damn cheap, maybe I should set up a RAID 5 array! Though if I ever add SLI that’ll need a very beefy power supply.

This is the best extravagance I’ve ever indulged in. I’m so happy with this system! Now I’ll have to struggle to find a game to challenge it!

PC Hardware

A speed bump and a stumbling block

I’ve been neglecting my proud nerdly heritage out of exhaustion and frustration. I tried assembling my new PC on Tuesday after a long day but was stopped cold by a rude awakening – apparently new motherboards require a 24-pin EATX power supply and I only had the old 20-pin ATX type.

I googled EATXPWR (the label on the power plug with too many holes) and quickly read that I was far from the first person to be surprised by this switcheroo at the last second. Yesterday I zipped over to PC Village where the proprietor apologized immediately and told me what I needed before I could even explain why I had returned. He told me that supply is low and demand is high for power supplies right now so he recommended against upgrading to an SLI-certified PSU just now. Luckily, he had a $10 20-pin to 24-pin coupler for me.

If a simple cable that reconfigures the wires to different holes was all I needed, why the fudge did they have to introduce this new plug in the first place?!

So after a late family dinner I was too pooped to build my new baby last night. Hopefully my tentative social plans tonight won’t pan out so that I can set up my new box!

I’m loving the new motherboard just by its looks alone. The copper heatpipe is really snazzy and the heat sink and fins are serious business. The board features 1 IDE plug, 6 SATA plugs plus 1 SATA RAID plug (don”t know what the difference is), 4 onboard and 6 expansion USB plugs, 1 onboard and 1 expansion Firewire plug, dual gigabit ethernet, 8 channel sound with SPDIF, and it’s jet black!

I had a little booboo while installing the CPU heat sink. I HATE installing the damn CPU heat sink and my heart stops pretty much throughout the entire procedure. I fumbled with a little guesswork at first but retreated to the wordless pictograms included in the package. It was a little confusing until I realized the paper illustrated installation instructions for 3 slots, 2 of which were completely irrelevant. I thought I followed the instructions to a tee but I screwed it up some how. I connected the clasp on the side of the plastic actuator arm first, then used a flat screwdriver to slip the other clasp on. The final step is to crank the actuator arm to secure the heat sink in place but the arm wouldn’t turn! It felt like it would snap right off if I applied too much pressure, and the heat sink feels really snug already, so I guess it will have to do. Unfortunately I can’t seem to get the thing off now! I guess I’ll have to destroy the heat sink the next time I upgrade. What a start!

So hopefully tonight’s the night! Benchmarks to beat are 45000 in Aquamark 3, and 220 for the DirectX9 SM3.0 test and 780 for the CPU test in 3DMark 2005. For reference, my old Athlon XP 2200+ scored about 2300 in Aquamark 3. I don’t know if that old benchmark will see any improvement on a dual core CPU but I’m hoping for big things from 3DMark05.

PC Hardware

Godzilla or Mothra?

With mere hours to go until my hardware is delivered I’m basically quivering in my office chair in anticipation. I’ve been scouring CPU reviews left and right and can’t really find a definitive answer to my queries. No one article is putting all the information I need in one place so I’m afraid I’ll have to take a stab in the dark.

There is much speculation that AMD will drop its Athlon 64 X2 prices in a week or two. I’m hoping I can get an extension on buying at least the CPU and mobo until this happens. I’m basing this decision on two reviews I read:

AnandTech’s article is very in-depth and has some valid insights about Intel’s upcoming Conroe line. They put many chips, including lower-calibre value chips, through the paces in many gaming and desktop applications and they almost all turn up in favour of Intel. However, this article is quite skimpy on gaming benchmark staging details and almost all benchmarks are from timedemos and other synthetic tests. Timedemos tend to primarily tax the GPU since the CPU usually takes care of things like AI and physics; neither of which come into play in a prerecorded demo. The huge disparity between Conroe and X2 is a little suspicious, but AnandTech is a reputable site so I’m torn. That’s why I consulted HardOCP.

The HardOCP article on game performance is far more detailed and of interest to gamers. Personally, I don’t care which side I pick if they game the same, even if Intel’s chips can render a video clip 20% faster. I don’t do much of that stuff, and I don’t really mind spending another fraction of a second staring at my always-attractive desktop wallpaper while I wait for Firefox to load. This article shows both side’s chips to perform very similarly, and is pretty much the only article to do so. Plus, they test actual gameplay instead of timedemos, let tests go for 10-20 minutes while capturing benchmarking statistics throughout, and they report the minimum, maximum, and average framerates in various configurations. My biggest problem with HardOCP’s article is that they only test the top-end enthusiast chips which are about $1000 USD each. These benchmarks are all but irrelevant to me since it’s foolish to assume that lower models will scale down predictably.

Benchmarks aside, I would have benefitted from some speculation about the longevity of these platforms.

The Conroe chips plug into Intel’s aging socket 775, while the X2’s take advantage of AMD’s new AM2 socket. It would be nice if I could upgrade a few times in spurts instead of having to do a complete teardown like I’m doing now. I’m fairly confident that AM2 will host at least one more generation of AMD processors (maybe their much anticipated 4×4 quad cores) but I’m not so sure about 775.

Also, AM2 is being released with NVidia’s new NForce chipsets with the 570 on the Asus M2N SLI Deluxe board I have on hold now. That’s a great feature set from a line of stable chipsets, plus my NVidia GPU will undoubtedly run better on a south bridge of the same brand. Also, Intel has no SLI support right now and probably won’t offer dual-GPU mobos for at least a couple of months.

It’s so tough to decide what to do. I’m spending a lot of money here and I don’t want to make a (too-frequent) habit of that. I certainly don’t want to buy a 4200+ chip today only to see the much-improved 4600+ sold for even less 2 weeks from now.

I’ve printed and highlighted some key points from a few benchmarks and I’ll bring them along with me to the store tomorrow. They didn’t have any information on falling AMD prices as of last week, but perhaps they’ll be able to confirm some of the speculated discounts. AnandTech says AMD will drop X2 prices in July, and there ain’t much July left.

Chances are I’ll stick it out for a week or two and nab that 4600+. From what I’ve read, AMD will be the first out of the gate with multicore CPUs and they’ll certainly be limited to the AM2 socket. The current Intel benchmarks are phenominally tantelizing, but in terms of bang per buck I think AMD is the way to go. The money I’ll save by buying another 7900GT for SLI instead of being forced to buy the next generation with a single PCIe slot solution from Intel might alone be enough to tip the value scale back toward every nerd’s favourite underdog.