Posts in category hardware - page 8

Upgrade kafuffles with Special Delivery

Upgrade kafuffle

I recently splashed out on a Dell 24″ 2405FPW wide-screen display. With the 20% discount offer (Small Business site only!?), living in VAT-free Guernsey and shipping being a very reasonable £5 the whole thing came to a sound £588.

As I already own an LCD, the capable Iiyama 20″ E511, and my current Radeon 9800 Pro is equipped with just one DVI connector I was going to need a new AGP graphics card equipped with two or suffer blurry images.

Nvidia have decided, in their infinite wisdom, that their latest 7800 chipset won’t be doing AGP while the clueless at ATI are certain AGP cards should only come with one DVI and one VGA despite the triviality of DVI to VGA conversion and the impossibility of converting it back.

I briefly toyed with replacing my motherboard so I could get my hands on a good graphics card but found that only one manufacturer is producing a PCI Express motherboard that would take my 3.2GHz Pentium 4 because Intel changed the socket. That motherboard would require throwing away half my RAM, any other board would require I throw away my processor. I am quite happy with both…

Left with little choice I went for an older Nvidia 6800GT card, thankfully Overclockers have a good price.

Special Delivery

Ordering something is never as simple as it should be and while OCUK got my graphics card out of the door in record time it wasn’t here the following day despite Royal Mail’s “Guaranteed Delivery”.

I typed in the number to their tracking and receive “Your item is progressing through our network”. I call them and once through the menu system am electronically told the exact same sentence. Only when a human operator comes on the line can I be told immediately “It’s delayed” although they can’t explain why…

I am reminded I am now eligible for a refund on shipping, which of course is the final joke of the process. Royal Mail know full well that Customer B, inconvenience by their failure, is not actually entitled to a refund. That goes to Customer A, the person who paid for shipping who is normally a big company and simply can’t be bothered reclaiming a few quid. It’s one step better than the money-back guarantee gimmick.

I can’t help but feel that having typed in my number to the web site, a message indicating that the item had been picked up at XX:XX and alas, had been delayed because of Y wouldn’t have been as annoying.

Chalk up another case where a company should try using it’s own services to see where it needs fixing…


Hardware upgrades, part 2

Okay, so the memory was sorted which left me with two things I wanted doing. The parts this time were from UK supplier Overclock, not to be confused with Overclockers from the previous posting. Both suppliers delivered very quickly and automatically took off the VAT for me, one of the perks of living in Guernsey but one that is all to often eroded by inflated shipping costs, neither of which these two suppliers can be accused of :)

Front ports & card reader

A quick scan through the few options available led me to the AeroCool CoolPanel. It features an 8-in-1 card reader, two USB 2.0 ports, an IEEE-1394 (FireWire) port, two Serial ATA (SATA) ports, composite video out, audio line in/headphones/mic sockets, two fan speed controllers and a blue LCD display showing two temperatures via it’s thermal diode cables and the fan rotations of the two fans it is controlling.

What arrived was not quite the quality I’d expected. The black plastic that forms the visible portion of the panel feels cheap and brittle. Not dwelling on that I quickly came across the second issue. The unit is dumb, little more than a collection of separate units, highlighted by the USB 2 ports and the media reader each requiring their own USB socket, so there goes 3 of your ports.

Most motherboards have a few “headers” on the board, little plugs to put in additional devices. Mine for example has a header for additional audio, an additional FireWire port and 4 additional USB ports. The cables provided with this unit will not work with these headers, instead need to travel out of the back of your PC (most likely facilitated by the permanent removal of an unused PCI blanking plate) and then plugged into the sockets on the back of your PC.

I’m not entirely sure what they hope to achieve providing such cables. The only two potential markets I see for this unit are small shops building PC’s and the people that build their own. Neither is going to be happy with a load of cables hanging out the back of his PC and then plugging into the sockets there. To make matters slightly worse the color coded audio cables seem to be incorrectly marked and I had to swap green and blue cables to get the headphone socket working. Score another stupidity point for the guys at AeroCool.

The temperature diodes work fine as do the fan controllers, but once again stupidity prevails with my fans hitting a rather high 2,000 RPM on the lowest fan setting. The video output is a bit of strange addition but as it is just a single phono socket with no circuitry you could use this as a coaxial S/PDIF output for digital audio instead.

The media reader was the only thing I was truly happy with. It installed into Windows flawlessly using generic XP drivers which meant no fiddling with out of date CD’s. Putting my 512MB SD card in it instantly opened the folder and I was pleasantly surprised by the transfer speed compared to my digital camera. It was around 4-5 times the speed although I’d obviously need to do proper tests to be sure.

Cool & quiet

The PC itself was getting mighty warm lately, perhaps partly because it lives in a desk cupboard, albeit with the door open when the PC is powered on. It’s also rather noisy despite my previous attempts to shut it up which included a rather smart black Lian Li PC61 aluminum case lined with acoustic dampening Akasa Paxmate. The power supply is a quiet Tagan 480W U01 PSU that although has temperature sensitive fans, it is reluctant to use them, instead preferring to get rather warm. While the power supply may be okay at that temperature the ATX layout means this heat becomes the problem of the nearby CPU which already has it’s own to get rid of. The system is also fitted with those rather smart rounded cables which should also help with airflow.

The CPU is outfitted with the quiet, impressive looking but unimaginatively named Zalman CNPS7000B-AlCu which I was quite happy with, so much so that I decided the loud and poor cooling fan on my Sapphire ATI Radeon 9800 Pro needed replacing with a very similar solution from Zalman, the VF700-AlCu. It fitted quickly and easily however the fan connector was not compatible with the one on the graphics board itself so it was wired up to the PSU by way of the supplied cable instead.

With the chipset already sporting an ASUS heat sink it was time to tackle the Lian Li supplied case fans, three of which were loud, of one which turned out to be dead. In true Murphy’s Law the dead fan had been the one that should have been shifting the hottest air from the CPU and PSU. I opted for the well-recommended if somewhat garish Thermaltake Smart Fan II for it’s low decibel level and built-in temperature sensing modes.

Now came the confusion of how to wire up four case fans, a CPU fan and a GPU fan to my system in as quiet a way as possible. I only had two manual fan controllers so I opted for the top case fan and one of the front two to be manually controlled, with the other front and the back case fans set to automatic temperature sensing mode. The graphics fan was hooked up in low-speed mode to the power supply utilizing it’s own cable and the CPU fan attached to the motherboard. Initially the motherboard fan was too loud but a quick trip into the BIOS enabled the ASUS Q-Fan mode which reduced it to more acceptable levels.

Next steps

In the short term I’ll probably source or butcher replacement cables for the AeroCool and get some resisters to get those fans down to reasonable speed. I may take out the Paxmate (if possible) to let the case conduct some of the heat out itself. I’m also considering whether to cut the metal away from the case where the two out fans are located. It’s easy to imagine the metal is preventing the air getting out efficiently and causing some of the noise from fans as the air pushes past. I’ll most likely cover them up with a small wire fan grill like this one.

Long term I’m already thinking about my next PC, probably some time next year. It will most likely be an Athlon 64 based system with DDR2 memory but I’ll really want to go with a case specially designed for cool and quiet operation, perhaps something similar to the Apple PowerMac G5 enclosure or maybe even see what Thermaltake, Zalman or Shuttle come up with.


Hardware upgrades, part 1

I recently performed a few upgrades to keep my PC up-to-speed and thought I’d share a few tips.

System Information

You really need to know what’s going on inside your PC and Everest is a great package to do just that. It will tell you more information about the components in your PC that you’d care to know about and can also be used to peek in on the temperature of the CPU, hard-disk and graphics chip providing your system supports it. Best of all the Home version is free although there are commercial versions for corporate and “ultimate” usage too if you have a few dollars ($29.95 at the moment) to spend.

Memory upgrade

I brought a 2GB (2x1GB) kit of GeIL memory from Overclockers, who I can highly recommend if you live in the UK or Channel Islands, primarily to reduce the amount of swapping testing Visual Studio 2005 Beta 2. The first thing I noticed on slotting them in alongside my existing 2x512MB modules is that the memory bus had reverted back from 400MHz to 300MHz. This was quite disappointing and no combination of slots or memory settings in the BIOS would resolve this. Forums made reference to some Intel 875P motherboards not supporting 4 modules at 400MHz but I found nothing solid.

A quick trip into the processor BIOS settings gave the option to switch the processor speeds from automatic to manual and there gave the option to lock the memory speed to 400MHz but my interest was now piqued.

Subtleties of RAM

Memory modules are very specific. As well as a physical type e.g., 184-pin DIMM, you have the bus e.g. PC3200 which also means DDR 400MHz, whether they support ECC (error correction), whether they are unbuffered, registered and most subtlety what memory timings they support. Delve into your motherboard manufacturers compatibility database, try Crucial or Kingston on-line memory selectors or pop open Everest to find out what’s already in there.

Get the wrong type and there’s a chance it won’t fit into your board, the wrong bus and it might not even boot, but timings affect the speed in just a subtle way and are easily overlooked. Most modules contain a special chip called an SPD which describes the recommended timings for this memory module to the computer’s BIOS. There are four basic memory timings and they are often advertised along with the module such as 3.0-4-4-8. These numbers represent CAS Latency (CL), RAS to CAS delay (tRCD), RAS Precharge (tRP) and RAS Active Time (tRAS) respectively. The CAS Latency is regarded as the most important and the idea is the lower the numbers the better.

The memory controller inside current PC’s can only deal with one set of memory timings and so the slowest value for each timing is used. What surprised me is that my memory was running at 2.5-4-4-8. I could understand the last three values as they were the slower values from the new 1GB GeIL modules (larger modules are normally a little slower) but the GeIL was rated at 3.0 CAS not 2.5 like my existing 512MB TwinMOS modules. When memory goes wrong you won’t get a helpful error message, the most likely symptoms are a reboot or lock-up and I didn’t want to risk having that happen at the most inopportune moment.

Testing memory

It was time to test my system, and all fingers were pointing to an open-source/free-software memory testing tool called MemTest86 that requires you burn it to a CD and then reboot as it needs to take over the whole of your machine to do it’s job. Twenty minutes later my machine was still testing with no errors yet found although you really should let if have a full run-through with all the different test patterns. One interesting feature of this tool is the ability to further tinker with the memory timings inside the tool to see how aggressive you can set your system while still retaining compatibility. I lowered mine down to 2.5-3-3-6 and left it run for another 45 minutes. There were still no errors and I might have been able to take it further but at this point I just wanted to get back using the machine.

Pushing the limits of 32-bit

A 32-bit processor can only directly address 4GB of RAM and I remembered reading something about a /3GB boot.ini switch to adjust the way Windows maps the memory. An investigation of this quickly revealed that unless my applications were specially compiled for 3GB mode and I wanted individual applications to use more than 2GB of RAM then it wasn’t necessary.

Intel added a facility called PAE which extends the paging system to support 36-bits allowing up to 128GB of RAM on server versions of Windows however each application still has the 4GB address and 3GB RAM limitation unless it is specially written using the Address Windowing Extensions (AWE) API. If you want more than 3GB of RAM you really should be looking at 64-bit processing and if you’re a Windows desktop user Windows XP Professional x64 edition.

While PAE looks like a pretty useless facility to most of us it is however the basis of a hardware mechanism to prevent applications from being exploited by buffer-overflow vulnerabilities by marking pages as either data or code. This facility is called Data Execution Prevention (DEP) or sometimes no-execute (NX). Alas the feature is not enabled on models of chip that use socket 478 :( and implementing this in software is a little slow…

To come…. cooling with Intelligent fans and the AeroCool control panel!