PC Hardware

Heat sink hot chocolate

It’s pretty incredible how hot my 8800GT gets. This screenshot was taken while I was playing Titan Quest – a 2-year-old game that gives me a solid 60 frames!

This game runs perfectly stable, as do the vast majority of games I play. Very few games will hard lock my machine after red spots appear scattered around – games like Assassin’s Creed and Medal of Honor: Airborne. Oddly, since I bought this new Samsung SyncMaster T220 monitor last week (22″ @ 1680×1050) neither of these games have crashed, even though I’m rendering so many more pixels than I did with my previous monitor (Samsung SyncMaster 915N @ 1280×1024). Doesn’t make much sense to me. Maybe the drivers have been improved since I played these games last.

PC Hardware

Smart but a little slow

I’ve got a pair of Seagate ST3500630AS SATA hard drives – 500GB, 7200 RPM, 16MB cache. They’ve served me perfectly well until recently I noticed some applications loading exceedingly slowly, but not others. After a small file transfer took far longer than acceptable I decided to employ Sisoft Sandra to investigate.

The physical disk test took so long on my first drive that I tried cancelling, assuming it was going to fail, but luckily hitting the cancel button simply greyed it out until the test concluded successfully and reported its findings. Here’s a screenshot of my first disk’s speed analysis:


As is depicted in the graph, my hard drive (the red dot) is right on par with similar drives in terms of access (seek) time, but is extremely slow in sustained file transfers. For comparison, and to eliminate the possibility that the problem existed on my motherboard or elsewhere, I tested my second drive as well:


The red dot is missing from this graph for some reason but the numeric values in the legend show that while the access time on the working drive is similar (slower, actually) than the first drive, the Drive Index indicating the read speed is nearly 12 times faster! That’s a no-no.

While I’m almost positive the problem is with the drive itself, I’ve noticed some strange behaviour from my PC in general. It seems that applications that read from this drive will sometimes cause my computer to freeze up for a fraction of a second and my sound card will make a strange buzz or beep or will elongate whatever sound was coming out of it before the freeze. I also noticed the sound card making a buzzing noise while trying to copy a large file from that drive. Perhaps this is a power attenuation issue?

I’m kind of stumped here and a little concerned. This hard drive is only about 2 months old so it’s falls well within Seagate’s 3-year warranty, but what if the broken hard drive is a symptom and not the sole cause of my troubles? I’m really lucky not to have lost any data yet and I’m backing up my precious music collection this very moment, but there’s no guarantee that I’ll make it all the way through. This is my system disk too so if it goes kaput I’ll have to reinstall Windows. I’m also concerned that I’ll have to run some kind of rigorous diagnostic software that will stress my hard drive and possibly break it entirely.

Ideally I’d like to advance RMA a replacement, copy my old drive to the new one, and then mail back the broken one. I’ll report back on Seagate customer service. PC Village assures me they’re a very professional and especially punctual company. Wish me luck!

PC Hardware

Buttered prune puree

Mashed potatoes with Crème brûlée.

Rice pudding, tapioca, and cake icing.

Split pea soup with table cream and honey.

Wash it down with a glass of peach cocktail mixed with lychee juice.

That’s how smooth my new computer runs.  Here’s the specs:

  • Intel Core Duo 6750 (2.66GHz, 2x2MB L2 cache)
  • ASUS P5KC (Crossfire, supports up to 45nm CPUs and DDR2 or DDR3, fanless, Intel AGTL FSB)
  • XFX GeForce 8800GT Alpha Dog XXX 512MB (factory overclocked, 1 slot width)
  • 2 x 1GB OCZ DDR2 800MHZ (5-5-5-15, sexy heat sinks)
  • 2 x Seagate 500GB HDD (SATA2, 16Mb cache, both running standalone)
  • Antec EarthWatts 500w PSU (120mm fan, silent)
  • Creative Sound Blaster Audigy 2
  • Antec Sonata III 500 Quiet Super Mini Tower (sound dampening case)

Initially I was just in the market for that 8800GT but figured I’d do my wife a favour (that’s my story and I’m sticking to it) by snagging a few more parts so that she could build a new PC with my leftovers. They’re decent leftovers too, as outlined in a previous post.  It’s interesting to look at that post too, since I’ve apparently spent about $400 less on pretty much the same parts about 18 months later.

The 8800GT is pretty scarce these days so I nabbed the CPU, mobo, RAM, and case last week from PC Village. Thanks to my partitioning scheme I only needed to back up a few things, so I copied My Documents to another drive as well as some backups using FEBE and Mozbackup for my browser and Thunderbird email archives respectively. Lickety split. Took me 10 minutes. I later learned that I’d forgotten to back up Miranda IM, which is frustrating because it has a zillion preferences and plugins, but I’d smartly retained an older backup which got me right back on my feet with no configuration or even installation required.

I opened up my old Antec Sonata 1 box and yanked out all the goodies to be transplanted, and laid out my new parts on the floor. I installed the RAM and CPU into the new mobo (that Core Duo comes with a huge, easy to install heat sink) before screwing it into the case. Gotta love Antec – the gold riser screws come preinstalled in the case and ready to go! I connected the various wires from the case to the motherboard, which was easier than ever thanks to the great manual (a big surprise for a motherboard – they’re usually quadrilingual yet indiscernible in any language) and clear markings on the PCB. In went my old 7950GT and I plugged it in, making sure not to replicate a previous mistake of forgetting the GPU and 12v power cables.  My new Sonata III was a similar form factor as the original Sonata so it was a trivial matter of removing my old drives and sliding them right in to the new case without having to adjust the rails I’d screwed on previously.

I closed it up, held my breath, and powered on. Magic. Until now I’d never done a successful build on my first try. Very satisfying.

My very first impression – silence. The CPU fan is very quiet, as are the 120mm case and PSU fans. The GPU fan spins up to full speed at POST but quited down to idle speeds shortly thereafter, leaving little more than an zen garden of breezy silence.

My second impression – AMI BIOS! I hadn’t seen that logo in quite some time. I flipped through all the settings and verified my hardware was installed and detecting. Everything was kosher. Interestingly, the Intel CPU doesn’t seem to run at 100% in the BIOS, as did the AMD Athlon X2, which ran about 12 degrees hotter according to the hardware monitor, and the Core Duo’s quiet fan corroborated this. I liked all the flexibility in the BIOS but stuck with fairly safe settings (I’m not an overclocker) and pressed onward.

Windows installed rather quickly. Surprisingly, fewer onboard devices detected with this mobo than with my previous ASUS M2N-Deluxe so I started up with no network connectivity. Sorry, Windows Genuine Advantage, you’ll have to wait a while. I easily installed all the onboard hardware with the driver CD, all in one go thanks to “ASUS InstAll”. I rebooted a few times and installed the newest drivers from ASUS’ ridiculously slow and problematic website. I also successfully updated the BIOS with ASUSUpdate.

I restored my backups and copied over my documents and it was almost as if I’d never formatted. FEBE FTW, seriously. Most impressively, I downloaded and installed Steam over top of its old directory and it immediately detected all the games I had installed before the format, and they all worked immediately! I didn’t notice much of a performance improvement, though.

In fact, things didn’t seem mega speedy in general. Not much faster than before, except for the pristine Windows install. However, hovering the mouse over the control panel for the first time populated the icons very, very quickly.

My favourite CPU benchmark

I happily puttered along over the weekend. My video card was over a week late. I called to check in a few times and this Monday PC Village said the model I wanted, an EVGA, still hadn’t arrived but they had others in stock including my second choice, XFX. I couldn’t wait. I bought it the next day.

It’s a really attractive video card. Long and heavy with a single slot heat sink. I deleted my old drivers with Driver Cleaner Pro in safe mode, powered down, and opened up my case. It took me a while to unsnag the old one from the PCI-E slot (not sure what it was snagged on) but it finally came out and the new one installed as easily as the old.  I booted up and excitedly selected the 8xxx series drivers from NVidia’s well organized web site. The install went off without a hitch.

The moment of truth.

Holy freaking crap.  I can’t challenge this video card.

I threw everything I had at it. Call of Duty 2 and 4. Guild Wars.  Half Life 2: Episode Two. Team Fortress 2 (with 16x AA and AF!!!). All child’s play. 60 frames throughout. Butter. I couldn’t believe my eyes. These games ran so well, at their highest settings, that it actually detracted from them. This video card is a behemoth. It needed a real workout. Crysis.

I tried the Crysis demo with my last machine and it was depressing. I put all the settings on medium and got about 5 frames per second.  Low settings did little better. Not so anymore. I allowed Crysis to autodetect (which usually produces ridiculous suggested settings) and it suggested running everything at high – the highest you can set the game without “upgrading” to Windows Vista. I was incredulous. Okay, Crysis, if you insist.

I got about 20 frames per second, which, for this game, is bonkers. It’s insanely gorgeous and the vastness of the world, the scope of all the realtime action and physics, ought to be enough to humble any dream machine. There’s no computer in the world today that can run Crysis at full detail, I’ve heard from many sources. I can’t even imagine how this thing must look on the “very high” settings.  I don’t find Crytek’s games very engaging, though, so I may not care to find out.

My computer is damn fast. The graphics blow my mind. I can play games with 30 processes chugging away in the background. All in all I spent less than $900. Why anyone would ever play console games is absolutely beyond me.

In all honesty, when I see such a powerful computer, and I know it’s mine, I feel, in a way, reborn. It’s a religious experience for me. What a sweet hobby.