Archive for the ‘Hardware’ Category

How to buy a good laptop

I’ve had a number of people ask me recently which laptop they should buy.  While I don’t typically have specific brand and models recommendation – if that’s even possible – there are a few considerations that will make it a lot easier to pick the right laptop from the vast number of options out there.

This article is a follow-up to “How to buy a New PC” which has some basic thoughts about investing in a new computer. 

There are a couple things to think about when buying a new laptop (or PC): what you want to do with it (your intended purpose), how much you want to spend (your budget), and how long you want it to last.  You’d want to get a completely different class of machine for digital video editing than for surfing the internet. 

Most people want a good, general-purpose laptop, and have a budget of $600 to $1,000 (U.S.). If I could sum it up, they generally will say:  

I want a laptop that’s good all-around for my home, surfing the ‘net, watching videos, checking mail, and maybe occasionally working from home; and I would like it to last about five years.

For those with busy days – or who are just plain impatient — here are my general recommendations, with more detail on each in the rest of the article below. 

  • Brand: stick with major manufacturers like Dell, HP, ASUS, Lenovo, Toshiba – or Apple
  • Model: almost never buy the cheapest model; it’ll be limping along in a few years.
  • Operating system: Windows 7 Home 64-bit
  • Processor: dual-core, Intel “2nd Gen” mobile processor: Core i3 is great, e.g. i3-2310M and up.  Core i5 fine, too; but may be overkill.
  • RAM: 4 GB is more than enough for most
  • Hard drive: 250 GB is more than adequate; consider a solid-state drive (SSD)
  • Wireless: get 802.11 “n” not “g”
  • Screen: if you value picture quality and ability to play HD video, consider any options for better screens
  • Battery: get the highest capacity battery (e.g. 9-cell) and consider extended-life battery options if battery life/mobility are important

Brand and operating system

I don’t have a specific brand recommendation, although I have experience mostly with the Dell Latitudes (business) and Studio (home) lines.  Stick with a major manufacturer like Dell, HP, ASUS, Lenovo, Toshiba – and let’s not forget Apple — and you should be fine. 

If you’re going with a Windows PC, then definitely get the 64-bit version of Windows 7 – and not the older 32-bit version.  The 64-bit version makes better use of your memory, and has become the standard offering; 32-bit versions of Windows are being phased out (please correct me if I’m wrong).  I have been running Windows 7 64-bit for about a year and a half with no problems – besides it being its old creaky Windows self, that is.  (It is, however, the best desktop/home version of Windows to-date, by far.)

The major options

Let’s look at the things that dramatically affect the usability, cost, and lifespan of a laptop.

1. Processor (CPU).  The CPU (processor) is the heart of your laptop.  You won’t be able to replace or upgrade this, so your choice is important. I was going to say that the sweet spot in price+performance is a quad-core processor; but the truth is that a dual-core processor is enough horsepower for most tasks.  (Your real bottleneck is that good old spinning hard drive; see below on using solid-state drives if performance matters to you.) 

If you’re looking at laptops with Intel-based CPUs, you should most definitely get an Intel “2nd generation processor.”  These new CPUs, code-named “Sandy Bridge” in development, are significantly more power-efficient than earlier CPUs and will extend your battery life.  2nd gen CPUs are mostly the standard for most laptops these days; but I’ve seen a few models offered with older-generation processors.  So be on the lookout for that…

In this department (Intel mobile processors), I do have a specific recommendation: the Intel Core i3 series is just fine for laptops, e.g. Core i3-2310M or any Core i3-2xxxM model. When I was choosing options for my Dell Studio 15 last year, it was tough for me not to want the Core i5 instead of the Core i3: certainly the “i5” is at least 50% better than the “i3,” right?  Well, when you compare the specs for the two processors on Intel’s site – e.g. a Core i5-2540M — you’ll find that the only difference is “turbo mode,” which can take the machine over 3 GHz when called for. My take: more speed means you’ll eat your battery much faster and throw off more heat.  Again: the performance bottleneck is not typically the processor: it’s the hard drive. 

Try this: when any machine you’re using is being slow, watch the hard drive light.  If it’s flashing quickly – or is pegged “on” – then it’s your hard drive that’s slowing you down.  Consider initiating yourself into the wonderful world of solid-state drives (SSDs). 

2. Screen and graphics card. If one of your primary uses for the laptop is to watch hi-def movies – or if you’re an amateur photographer and you want your pictures to be stunningly clear — then you might want to consider any screen upgrade options, if available.  When I purchased a Dell Studio 15 laptop last year, I opted for the “True HD” screen (+$100).  Like the CPU, you’ll never be able to upgrade your screen, so this choice is important.  And if you’re planning on looking at the screen for five years or so, an extra $100 works out to $20 per year: peanuts.  But you also might be the kind of person who doesn’t care about fancy screens, too. 

Likewise, there may be options to upgrade to a dedicated graphics card (also called a “video card”) such as AGP or Matrox.  If you’re going to just be surfing the web and watching movies, most likely the built-in or base graphics option will be just fine; it certainly is for the built-in Intel Graphics on my Dell.  A graphics card upgrade is most likely advisable for things like video editing or extreme gaming.

3. Battery life. I don’t know about you, but battery life on a laptop is pretty important to me.  It greatly diminishes the spirit of having a laptop to always have to be plugged in.  In addition, laptop batteries lose their punch as they get older, typically after about a year of use.  So I recommend any offered upgrades, for instance from a 6-cell to 9-cell enhanced battery.  Consider any “extended life” batteries, too: even the 9-cell battery on my Dell Studio 15 can now only really get about an hour and a half of light usage.  

Your choice of processor will greatly affect your battery life, since the CPU is the prime consumer of energy onboard a laptop. 

The simple options

With the more difficult choices out of the way, some of the remaining choices can be pretty straightforward. For example:

  • Hard drive. You DON’T typically need a huge hard drive: 500 GB is way more than enough for most people, and 250 GB is more than adequate. If it’s not already, most of your photos/videos/music will be online “in the cloud.” I’m thinking Spotify, Pandora, Dropbox, iCloud, iDrive, and all the other services that will be powered by cloud-storage providers like Amazon S3, Windows Azure, and some company that Dell bought. So you don’t need all those gigabytes; and if you decide that you do, you can always hook up a fast external drive (USB or FireWire). But if you’re performance-minded you may want to make sure you get a 7200 RPM hard drive instead of the slower 5400 RPM drives, or – like many people, like me – opt for an extremely, life-changingly awesome upgrade to solid-state drive (SSD).
  • Memory (RAM). 4 GB of RAM is more than enough for most people, and it’s the current sweet spot pricewise. 2 GB might not be enough, and the nanosecond you run out of RAM, your computer will run slower than maple syrup on a cold Vermont day.
  • Wireless connectivity (wi-fi). Your wireless connection should be “n” and not “g” – as in, you would like it to be compatible with the 802.11n wifi networking standard, not the older 802.11g. With that said, “g” is not bad – it is just a little slower and has less range.

My personal “likes”… 

That’s about it… there may be other things that affect your choice, such as sound system (I think it’s nice to have decent built-in speakers), aesthetics, ruggedness, keyboard layout, and so on.

I chose these options and features for my current laptop, and would choose them again for the next one.

  1. Backlit keyboard. Having a backlit keyboard has been fantastic, and I hope I never have a laptop without one.  Strangely enough, it seems to still be a relatively rare option on laptops. 
  2. Solid-state drive (SSD).  Personally, though it’s an expensive upgrade (~$200-$250), I always use solid-state drives (SSDs) in my machines – it’s a hard drive which uses memory chips instead of a spinning platter – because the machine overal feels soooo much quicker.  (See my article “SSDs: Are You Experienced?”)  In this space, hard drive capacity is expensive – I only use 128GB drives, which is more than enough.  256 GB is overkill and will set you back $400 to $500. My current drive of choice: Kingston SSD V+ Series 128GB (~$225). 

    This will be important for future-proofing: there are all kinds of background processes running on a typical computer, and each of them steals a little bit of processor power from what you’re doing. These include virus checkers, hard drive indexers, application helpers, and so on. (I have 83 processes running on my Windows 7 laptop as I type.)

  3. Full HD screen.  Since I want my laptop to last for five years (another four from the current date), I chose a true high-definition screen. More and more content is in HD, from Blu-Ray to YouTube, and I expect this trend will only continue. Last thing I want to be stuck with is a dull screen that can’t play video content well.

But once you’ve figured out the primary options that we’ve looked at in this article, it should be easier for you to pick the one that’s right for you.

Good luck — share your own experiences in the comments below. 

   — Keith

 

More reading

 

Asus P7P55D motherboard tips

Here are some of my favorite tips after about eight months of owning a system based on an Asus P7P55D-E.   Some of the tips are applicable to all systems, not just Asus-based ones.

Re-program the power button to “sleep.”

Power buttonIf you’re like me, you rarely need to shut your PC down completely.  Instead, it’s quick and efficient to put the computer into sleep mode, enabling you later to almost instantly resume where you left off. 

You can take this really easy to do in everyday life:  use the Windows Control Panel to re-map the power button to "sleep" instead of shut down the computer.  Now, when you’re done using the computer, just hit the power button and walk away.  Sleep is an almost instant low-power standby mode — mine uses only about 7 watts during sleep, which translates to around $7 per year in energy costs.

The main benefit is that you can resume right where you left off.  I typically have a lot of browser windows open, and I like to be able to leave them open and pick up where I left off, instead of closing them all during a shutdown cycle.  (Another benefit is that if you have young kids whose curious fingers might find their way to your computer’s shiny power button, the worst that can happen is that they’ll sleep the machine instead of shutting down in the middle of whatever you were doing.) 

Lastly, it almost never makes sense to hibernate a modern machine.  (Hibernation is like sleep, only the system state is written to disk and then turned  off completely, using no power.)  With today’s RAM sizes, it takes a sizable amount of time to read and write the entire memory state – 2 to 8 GB for instance — to and from disk.   There would appear to be no benefits over sleeping – or just shutting down completely.

For faster boots, disable Asus Express Gate.

Asus Express Gate is a “splashtop” – a BIOS feature that provides quick access to e-mail and the web without needing to boot the main OS (e.g. Windows).  But if you’re like most of us — ahem –  you set your PC to sleep instead of turning it off, so you have pretty much instant access anyway to browsing, email, etc.   And the fact that I have an SSD in a Core i7 box means that booting to the full OS takes only about 20 to 25 seconds, anyway. Turning off Express Gate – it’s on by default — will shave 5-10 seconds off your boot, since the BIOS waits for some seconds to give you a chance to launch it.

Asus Express Gate

Fancy, neat, and… totally unneccessary

Overclock to a reasonable speed.

Use the included software to overclock to something reasonable and safe.  You should know that with properly balanced components (CPU, HD, video), even a stock Core i7 running at just under 3 GHz is pretty awesomely snappy. 

I used the Turbo Evo autoclocker included with the Asus motherboard to tune up to 3.36 GHz;  I also installed a heat sink .  Pushing the auto-tuning envelope, the system can hit speeds of 3.6GHz and higher.  But with more overclocking comes the risk of system instability.  If you can do it, more power to you;  but if not, there are at least two other subsystems that greatly affect overall system performance:  hard drive and video card.  

Really want your system to snap?  Invest $200 in a boot SSD.   Aggressively overclocking a Core i7 (or other modern processor) while it’s still chained to a 7200 RPM hard drive is just plain foolishness. 

TurboV EVO

TurboV EVO running “crazy fast” on my system

What are your favorite motherboard or system tweaks?  Share your insights in the comments.

SSDs: are you experienced?

Kingston SSDNow V-Series 128GB[tweetmeme source=”KeithBluestone” only_single=false]First reaction after installing an Kingston SSDNow V-Series 128GB SSD boot drive in my custom-built Core i7-860 PC running Windows 7:  awesome.

While several times the cost per GB of conventional drives, an entry-level SSD will run many times faster, and I think  it’s the perfect companion for today’s high-end processors.  The days of using conventional boot drives are surely limited.

I noticed that there are a lot of sites pirating this article verbatim.  Here is a link to the original on SoftwareKeith.com… — Keith

Fast. Smooth. Quiet.

The SSD at US$250 (on NewEgg.com) was rather pricey for a single PC component — it cost as much as the Core i7-860 CPU itself.   But I knew almost immediately that it was the right decision: with the SSD installed, everything flies !  The system feels so “smooth,” like the hard drive and the processor are in sync.  Windows 7 Ultimate installed in about 10 minutes flat;  it boots in about 20 seconds.   Apps leap onto the screen again within a second or two.

My favorite readers will remember that after my very fast RAID-10 array died (see my last post), I had to run the Core i7 box off a single 7200 RPM drive for a while, which showed clearly that the hard drive was a performance bottleneck.

Formatted, the SSD has about 120GB of space.  After installing Windows 7 Ultimate and a handful of core applications (FireFox, Picasa, Windows Live Writer, etc.), I still had over 90 GB free.   After some heavier installs – including Office Professional 2010, Microsoft Visual Studio 2010, and Microsoft Visual Studio 2008 – there’s still well over 80 GB free.  That’s more than enough for most people to play with for quite some time.

Why SSD’s smoke conventional drives

imageIn a word (or two): access time.  The access time is how long it takes the storage device to read data.

For conventional drives, this involves waiting until the data on the spinning hard drive platter (right) rotates under the read head, positioning the read head arm to the correct track (radially), and reading the data from the platter.  Conventional desktop hard drives, even the best in the world, have access times of  4 to 8 milliseconds, which turns out to be an eternity for today’s processors.

The following analogy brings home the massive disparity between the speed of a modern processors and hard drives:

The first thing that jumps out is how absurdly fast our processors are…  reading from L1 cache is like grabbing a piece of paper from your desk (3 seconds), L2 cache is picking up a book from a nearby shelf (14 seconds), and main system memory is taking a 4-minute walk down the hall to buy a Twix bar.  Waiting for a hard drive seek is like leaving the building to roam the earth for one year and three months.
— “What Your Computer Does While You Wait,” Gustavo Duarte

As it turns out, most of the work done by an operating system involves reading a ton of little files, more or less “randomly” accessing the hard drive.   Thus, impressively fast sequential read or write speeds are not nearly as important as random access read speed.   Anand Lal Shimpi explains why, even though the cost per GB is so much higher, SSDs are worth it:

Measuring random access is very important because that’s what generally happens when you go to run an application while doing other things on your computer. It’s random access that feels the slowest on your machine.  Most hard drives will take closer to 8 or 9 ms in this test.  The fastest SSDs can find the data you’re looking for in around 0.1 ms. That’s an order of magnitude faster than the fastest hard drive on the market today.  [KB: it’s actually almost two orders of magnitude faster…]
— “The SSD Anthology: Why You Should Want an SSD,” AnandTech, March 2009

This explains my own experience:  even though my formerly alive RAID-10 array benchmarked faster than the Kingston SSD overall, with a PassMark Disk Mark score of 1100 to the SSD’s 950, the system feels so much quicker with the SSD – without the headaches of RAID-10.

This is why I’m now an SSD convert.

See with your own eyes

Watch the actual launch speed of a handful of common applications on my Core i7-860 below.  This screencast was done immediately after reboot, so no applications are pre-loaded or cached in memory.  Most apps load in about a second or so;  Outlook 2010 takes the longest, but since my mail archives are on a network share, the five or so seconds it takes to load includes accessing a remote filesystem.

Windows 7 Ultimate + Core i7-860 @ 3.3 GHz + Kingston V-Series SSD

Conclusion

The lowly old spinning-platter hard drive is the primary bottleneck in the modern computer.   Though pricey, an SSD is a perfect match for a today’s fast processors.

***

For those still reading…

Benchmarks are below – you can skip this section if you’re not interested in my technological prognostications.

I’ll make a bold prediction: as a boot drive, the SSD was so effective at speeding up my computer, I believe that within two years, they will become mainstream as boot drive choices.  With the ever-increasing capabilities of our processors, and the ever-increasing demands we put on our computers, it’s a perfect choice.

The default configuration would be be an SSD- or memory-based boot drive, on which the operating system and applications are installed, supplemented where necessary by a second, higher-capcacity legacy technology drive (you know, the ones that go ‘round and ‘round).

Intelligent OS storage architectures?

If we’re lucky, Microsoft will get inspired and allow seamless stitching of fast SSD and slow legacy storage in their next version of Windows.  This not-yet-invented technology would enable two drives – a fast, smaller SSD and a slower, larger conventional drive –  to be seen as a single logical storage partition. The OS would have the intelligence, for instance, to automatically install applications on the fast part and keep things like large images – when necessary – on the slower drive.  Why not?

imageWhile you’re at it, Microsoft: use that legacy hard drive for a completely automated, idiot-proof backup system. This would have one switch at the highest level: “back up my system” – or not.   Want to improve your “street cred” against upstarts Apple and Google?  Let no Windows user henceforth ever lose their data. It’s the right thing to do.

Let’s face it: the SSD could basically be considered just a fast hard drive cache. Caching technology and cache-hit optimization strategies are fairly well-understood, as are the dynamics of logical block translation in operating systems:  why should it be difficult to have the OS manage and optimize a hybrid storage array?

It turns out there already are “hybrid hard drives” or “HHD’s”.  See the Tech Report’s “Seagate Momentus XT: a hybrid for the masses?” and  Wikipedia’s entry on hybrid drives.  These drives blend flash memory and a conventional hard drive in one package.  Unfortunately, this is not as flexible as an OS-based implementation would be.

Benchmarks

I promised benchmarks…  many of course are out there on the web, but below are some from my computer.

PassMark’s Disk Mark measured the random seek performance of the SSD at 60% higher than the RAID-10 array (in MB/s):

2010.08_PerformanceTest_Disk_Mark_-_i7-860_and_Kingston_SSD

HD Tune clocks its read performance at 250 MB/s, stellar:

2010.08_Kingston_SSD_HD_Tune_Read

HD Tune’s file benchmarks show file reads and writes many times faster than the average drive (in MB/s):

image

Windows Experience Index scores it 6.8 out of…  7.9? Could anything be less clear than Microsoft’s own explanation?

image

More Reading

As it’s mid-2010, I suppose I’m a little late to the party, but…  who’s going to be ahead of Anand?  Regardless, it’s good to be here:

“For the past several months I’ve been calling SSDs the single most noticeable upgrade you can do to your computer. … Whenever anyone mentions a more affordable SSD you always get several detractors saying that you could easily buy 2 VelociRaptors for the same price. Allow me to show you one table that should change your opinion.”
Anand Lal Shimpi, “The SSD Anthology,” March 2009

A few months later, Anand followed up this magnum opus with yet another:

“What have I gotten myself into? The SSD Anthology I wrote back in March was read over 2 million times. Microsoft linked it, Wikipedia linked it, my esteemed colleagues in the press linked it, Linus freakin Torvalds linked it. ”
Anand Lal Shimpi, “The SSD Relapse: Understanding and Choosing the Best SSD,”  August 2009

Other links:

Intel Matrix RAID-10: down for the count

Summary

Intel’s Matrix RAID-10 is cost effective and extremely fast — even with regular old 7200 RPM drives — but it is not a trustworthy solution for a desktop PC. 

Go figure

No sooner did I open my mouth and blog about it, my Intel RAID-10 array died.   In dramatic fashion, two of the four drives suddenly were marked failed, and the lengthy resuscitation attempt ended in death by bluescreen. 

RAID-10 array with two of four drives failing
Not what you want to see from your RAID array

This array, composed of four enterprise-duty Seagate 500GB SATA Barracudas at 7200 RPM, provided almost 1 TB of very fast storage — faster even than a lot of SSDs. 

But it had been quirky from the moment it started life in March 2010, with almost weekly “verification” and “rebuilding” sessions.   Hey, I’m running mirrored RAID for a reason:  I hate losing data.    With the frequent issues it had, I could never completely trust the Intel Matrix RAID array.

I had a sneaking suspicion that sleeping and resuming Windows was a trigger for the Intel RAID issues;  but I can’t prove it. 

Kiddie RAID?

The opinion of “deep IT” on the forums of Tom’s Hardware and AnandTech.com is that the free-on-your-motherboard Intel Matrix RAID (the ICH9R/ICHR10R chipset) was playware.   These guys, some of whom maintain corporate servers for a living, think that folks needing “real” RAID should buy a dedicated card from Adaptec, LSI, 3Ware or Areca, at $300 and up.

For example, see the thread “A RAID that just works – no matter what” on Tom’s Hardware.

Also, having a dedicated chip on the motherboard, Intel Matrix RAID is technically firmware RAID, but actually considered to be a software RAID solution, in essence;  only dedicated controller cards are true hardware RAID. 

The OS RAID built into Windows 7 (Pro, Ultimate) and Windows Server editions runs just about as fast as Intel’s Matrix RAID, but does not support RAID-10 arrays.

RAID FAIL

I had been unwilling to part with $300 to $600 for a dedicated RAID controller – overkill except for application or database servers.

Now, the mortally wounded Intel Matrix/RST RAID-10 array was somehow showing two simultaneous failing drives out of four.   To me, the chances of two hard drives failing at the same time are astronomical, barring a power event.  Because of my poor experience with Intel’s RAID, I’m inclined to put the blame on the Intel implementation.

Intel Matrix RAID-10 array fail

I tried all the tricks in the book:  marking bad drives as “good” and rebuilding; powering down;  checking all connections; resetting the BIOS to stock settings.  I even unplugged the system to let the components “rest”  — basically the equivalent of hardware voodoo.

At the end of the day – literally – the RAID-10 array finally booted, but Windows 7 went all Code Blue on me, booting fine but crashing right after I logged in.   Safe Mode didn’t help, nor did Repairing or Restoring or anything else:

Windows 7 bluescreen

Death by RAID

She’s Dead, Jim

I had had it:  I was done with the Intel RAID array and all the verification and rebuilding… and now, its failure.  I didn’t want to waste any more time fooling with it.

Fortunately, I have put a lot of effort into organizing my documents and data – my “digital IP,” as it were.   Almost all of it resides on my primary fileserver and not on individual computers.  So if there was any bright spot to the RAID array crash, it was that I could decide at any instant to scrap my Windows install.  Which is exactly what I did.

Tip: I always re-map Windows “special folders” to network shares on my fileserver, including My Documents, My Pictures, and My Downloads.  Not only are the network shares multiply backed up and secured, but I see the same My Documents, Pictures, and Downloads on whatever computer I log into.

So I disconnected the four RAID-10 hard drives, fished out a 500 GB spare, and installed a fresh copy of Windows 7 64-bit.  No doubt this was a pain in the rear –  but it’s nothing compared to the good old days, when a hard drive crash for me usually meant losing data.

First, using the single 500 GBdrive, I tried to restore from my Windows 7 backup on the network, which failed – even though the backup had completed successfully AND I had created the recommended recovery boot CD.

Plea to Microsoft:  in 2010, this is unacceptable!  Please make Windows backup and restore completely idiot-proof!

Windows 7 restore from system image: FAIL

My, isn’t the blue background pretty?

Despite these slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, about an hour later, I had a fresh copy of Windows 7 Ultimate installed with my “core” software apps loaded: FireFox and plugins, Picasa, Windows Live Writer, etc.

Out of balance

A balanced system has few bottlenecks due to mismatched components.   Here, with the single 7200 RPM hard drive, I realized exactly how important a fast hard drive is for top-of-the-food-chain processors like the Core i7-860: the system ran noticeably slower

In my last post, “The Experience" of the i7-860, I wrote that apps like FireFox and even Internet Explorer exploded onto the screen.  Now, the experience was more like click… wait… wait…  done.   I could hear the hard drive chattering away.  

Wondering precisely how much performance I had given up, I ran PassMark’s Performance Test on this drive, a Seagate Barracuda SATA 500GB.  What ‘s interesting about these numbers is that the RAID-10 array was composed of the same type of Seagate drive:

  • It scored an overall Disk Mark of about 500, whereas the RAID-10 array scored about 1,110, over twice as fast!  
  • It benchmarked at  76 MB/s sequential read and 55 MB/s sequential write, where the RAID-10 array benchmarked at 154 MB/s read and 144 MB/s write, about twice as fast reading and three times as fast writing! 
  • Its random seek read-write was about 4 MB/s, where the RAID-10 array was 9.5 Mb/s, again over twice as fast.

    RAID-10 Array, 4 x Seagate 7200 RPM: Disk Mark DiskMark: Intel Matrix RAID-10 with 4 x  7200RPM SATA Barracuda 500GB

    Seagate Barracuda 500GB 7200RPM SATA: Disk MarkDiskMark: Seagate 7200RPM SATA Barracuda 500GB

Forging ahead

This wouldn’t do at all:  I loved the responsiveness the fast hard drive array gave Windows.  It just didn’t seem to make sense, pairing one of the fastest desktop CPUs in the world with a single hard drive whose platter-spinning technology – and speed – had remained largely unchanged for at least ten years.  

The only thing that would get me close to those speeds was an SSD.  As a consultant, all that time spent trying to recover the RAID-10 array was costing me real money.

Kingston SSDNow V Series 128 GB SSD So despite the huge premium, I  bought the highly ratedKingston SSDNow V Series 128 GB SSD for use as a boot drive ($250 from NewEgg.com). 

Conclusion

The RAID-10 array was wonderfully fast and far less expensive per GB than an SSD.

But I had so many issues with it, even with “enterprise-duty” drives that are designed for server and RAID use, that I can’t really recommend Intel Matrix RAID (now Intel Rapid Storage) for this kind of array.

I am hoping the SSD will be the best of both worlds – speed and robustness.  With my new SSD on the way,  I’m excited.  Hopefully I will at least be thanking the Intel RAID team for ushering in a new era of performance storage in my life. 

Next Up: Experience and benchmarks running the Core i7-860 off an SSD.

***

More reading

  • Kingston SSDNow V Series SNV425-S2BD/128GB 2.5" Desktop Bundle 128GB SATA II Internal Solid State Drive (SSD)   On Kingston.com – On NewEgg.com 
  • A RAID that just works – no matter what” (Tom’s Hardware forum thread)
    Overwhelming consensus is that hardware RAID is the way to go for serious users.
  • ICH10R – RAID failure” (Tom’s Hardware)
    Another from-the-trenches view of the real world
  • RAID-5 vs. RAID-10 (Art S. Kagel)
    An interesting, well-informed dissection of why RAID-5 should never be trusted with your data.
  • Intel Rapid Storage Technology Wikipedia
    Intel Rapid Storage Technology (early Intel Matrix RAID) is a firmware RAID system, rather than hardware RAID or software RAID.

New Core i7 PC: The Experience

 image82image202image162image282image68image242

First Impressions

Where we last left off, I had tightened the last Phillips-head screw on the last hard drive, double-checked all the power connectors, and sat back for a moment of reflection after five hours of PC assembly. 

The moment of truth had arrived:  I pressed the power button. 

The fans jumped and spun, the motherboard flashed green and amber lights, and the hard drives ticked and began their soft whining climb up to a cruising speed of 7200 RPM.   The whole system settled into a muted whirr — not too loud, I thought, even with the case still open. 

Now – on to the operating system.

Software installation: like butter

Windows 7 Ultimate 64-bittook only about five minutes from beginning to end for a complete install from DVD.  It turns out that on this new PC, everything installs with whiplash.  The entire Microsoft Office 2007 Professional suite took only about five minutes as well.    Kudos to Microsoft for their single-click OS install.  I like it.

If you recall, Windows XP required an inordinate amount of babysitting, popping up every few minutes to ask a silly question.  Yes, why couldn’t they ask *after* the install??

For a while, I ran around, downloading and chucking installations of must-have software into the maw of this beast:  FireFox, Picasa (image management), Avast!(antivirus), 7-Zip, Windows Live Writer (blogging), and so on.   It felt a little like I was tossing branches into a tree shredder.  Everything happened at breakneck speed – and no matter what I was doing, I could run off to do something else in another window, with no slowdown. 

We love multiple independent cores. 

Fast, redundant storage

In addition to the fabulous quad-core i7-860, I set this system up with a fast rear end: a RAID-10 “mirror of stripes” hard drive array.   The P7P55D-E motherboard has onboard Intel Matrix RAID, so I used the BIOS to set up a RAID-10  array of 4 x 500GB enterprise-class Seagate Barracuda SATA drives (“NS” class), for a total of near a terabyte of redundant, striped storage.  

This setup achieved a PassMark Disk Mark score of 1060 with a sequential read of 150 MB/s and sequential write of 133 MB/s.   I was pleasantly surprised it ranked within the Top 20 of “High End Hard Drives” (as of July 2010), besting a passel of SSD offerings from Crucial, Kingston, OCZ, and Intel.  

Fullscreen capture 762010 120658 PM

 

Fullscreen capture 762010 120602 PM

So I ended up with fast, reliable storage that beats almost anything out there in the consumer/desktop space, including a lot of SSD’s – with 7200 RPM SATA drives!  SSD’s are around 3x to 5x the cost for the same storage, anyway.

Editorial opinion: At the time of this writing, SSD’s are still too expensive for general use at around US$2.50/GB, as compared to the cost of conventional spinning hard drives at around $0.75/GB.   That’s a premium of three times the cost.  But there’s no doubt that SSD’s will eventually replace today’s hard drives.  Now, they’re most effective as OS boot drives.   Related:  “Personal computers pre-configured with SSD drives?” on Philip Greenspun’s weblog.

Warning: RAID-10 arrays are not for the faint of technical heart.  They can be temperamental beasts, requiring rebuilding and “revalidation”  much more often than I would like.  The effect of this is more psychological than anything else:  I have never lost data with this array, but I can’t say it’s been completely maintenance-free.   There’s no real reason why they need to be so fidgety – it seems like the issues are mostly software ones:  I’m less than impressed with Intel’s Matrix Storage Manager, now rebranded as Intel’s Rapid Storage Technology (RST).   It’s so hard to see or understand what’s really going on with the array: what behavior the hard drives are exhibiting, or what even things like “verification” and “ media errors” are.  Intel guys, please read Donald Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things!  

Eight cores of goodness

If there was one thing which viscerally brought home the raw power of this new computer at my beck and call, it was this image from the Task Manager showing a full eight cores available to Windows:

Task Manager showing eight cores
Cores, glorious cores!

We really only have four physical cores — hence the “quad-core” processor designation — but eight cores appear to the only through the magic of hyperthreading.  It’s is kind of like cheating — but sometimes it’s not.    

Hyperthreading is a technique whereby the processor design can take advantage of wait states in multithreaded applications to make a single physical core perform almost as well as two cores. 

Let there be light

Beyond the installs, everything opens almost instantly.  Frequently used apps like FireFox 3.6, Outlook 2007, Microsoft Word 2007, and Picasa seem to leap onto the screen when called.  Even Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, which is so painfully slow I switched a few years ago to FireFox (love it), opens its fat self within two seconds.

Ironically, one of the slowest applications to load is the one I’m writing this post in:  Windows Live Writer (Build 14.0.8117.416).   It seems to take forever to load, sometimes up to 20 seconds, even when I haven’t even told it to open a blog post!  I’m convinced that this is a classic data access strategy problem:  it’s hitting the web (my blog) on startup, even though (a) I didn’t ask it to open anything and (b) the designers should have cached all blog info locally, and quietly checked or re-loaded it on a background thread.   Windows Live Writer team: you officially have my permission to use any of the other seven threads that are available on my i7-860.  (Love your software, it’s the best.)  

With 4 GB of RAM, easily expandable to 8 GB, I no longer had to keep mental tabs on how many apps I had open: it didn’t matter.  I could have eight FireFox sessions with thirty tabs open (total); Microsoft Word, Picasa, Outlook, Windows Live Writer, TweetDeck, Windows Media Player; all open at the same time.  It didn’t matter. The box handled it easily.  

Overclocking

One of the reasons I chose a custom build vs. an off-the-shelf buy was to play with overclocking.  And, being a red-blooded American male, I just wanted to see how fast it could run.  Fortunately, Asus includes a handy, idiot-proof overclocking utility made just for folks like me, called Turbo EVO.  

Turbo EVO offers several ways to effortlessly overclock your system: CPU Level Up, which lets you choose from several levels, from “Fast” to “Crazy,” and TurboV AutoTuning, which through a series of reboots will tune your system to the maximum safe speed possible.  

The fastest I got my system to without really trying too hard (I selected the Extreme Tuning mode) was 3.66 GHz.   This put my system in the top ten fastest high-end CPUs in the world, according to the PassMark website.  

Fullscreen capture 772010 41723 PMUnfortunately, I did not install a CPU cooler the first time around (recommended).  When I downloaded and ran the Prime95 CPU torture test, the Asus TProbe utility complained as the CPU temperature rose from around 40 C to 70C, then 75C, then… I stopped it at 80 C.  Surely I should check before I subject the 45nm silicon to temperatures above the boiling point.  (Answer:  keep it at around 70 C or less.)

Tip: choose and install a CPU cooler with your build.  Most coolers require the motherboard to be out of the chassis for installation.

Since the box ran so fast anyways, I had no problem dialing back to stock speeds until I had a heat management solution in place.  After some research, I chose the very popular and effective Cooler Master Hyper212; unfortunately, I had to tear the system down to the motherboard to install it. 

Energy consumption profile

At stock settings of 2.8 GHz (i.e. not overclocked), this Core i7-860 build drew around 110 watts at idle, proving to me that reusing my Antec 430W True Power supply was an appropriate choice.  

Overclocked to 3.36 GHz via CPU Level Up, “Crazy” setting – my current everyday setting — the system draws about 150W during normal operation, and peaks at about 290W during a Prime95 run. 

Considering that’s about the amount of energy used to power a light bulb or two, I thought this was a pretty good use of watts.  In addition, my other two Dell servers draw about 100-110W each, and they run ten times slower.   

Energy efficiency was one of the reasons I decided to invest in the latest chip technology;   see Evaluating PC computing hardware.

Conclusion

Easy build, great system, love it. 

New Core i7 PC: The Build

[tweetmeme source="KeithBluestone"]This article is part of a series in 2010 on custom-building a high-performance computer with the latest Intel Core i7 processors:

  1. Build or buy a new Core i7 supercomputer?
  2. Choosing a New CPU: Intel Core i7-920/930 vs. i7-860/870
  3. New Core i7 PC: Selecting the Components
  4. New Core i7 PC: The Build

Overviewimage82

Hello, folks… here’s a long overdue post on my Core i7 build.   I actually built two quad-core i7-860 computers with the hardware selection detailed in this post: one for me, and one for my father-in-law, who does video editing and production.

In general, both custom builds went without a hitch.  However, there are a few points of advice that might save you a few hours if you’re planning to build your own custom PC.

The builds took, surprisingly, much longer than I thought:  about six hours each.  This includes thoroughly cleaning out each old case, as well as taking pictures of the “build experience.”  It also includes cleanly routing and tying off all the various cables in the case, for a tidy presentation – as well as better airflow. 

I also installed an aftermarket heat sink on my father-in-law’s system, which took about an hour.  I highly recommend a heat sink — more on that below.

After double-checking the all the motherboard connectors a final time — hard drive, video, fans – I sat back and paused for a moment of reflection – then hit the power button.   On each build, the system started right up without any hitches –much to my relief.

Build notes

Note to first-time builders: it is critically important that you take measures to prevent damage to sensitive electronics components from static electricity.  Simply walking across the room can build up thousands of volts of static. 

See “Avoid Static Damage to Your PC” (PC World) for tips.

For both builds, I re-used the existing case, after gutting them of old motherboard and components.  Then I gave them them a thorough cleaning – unable to bear putting the elite processor and beautiful new components in an dusty, dirty case.    

I took it slow and enjoyed the whole process of building the new system.  Everything pretty much only fits in one way, so as long as you don’t force anything, you’re good.    

Bottom of Intel stock CPU coolerThe only real issue I had was some angst over the proper seating of the stock Intel cooling fan (right) on the i7-860 processor:  it wasn’t especially clear when the fan assembly was seated properly and securely on the motherboard.  Since direct contact on the processor is essential for cooling, it seems like this part of the process should be more foolproof.  

Lessons Learned

Get a CPU cooler up front. Through the magic of overclocking, you can leverage your investment in the entire system and make your system run like it had a much more expensive, faster processor in it.  The ASUS P7P55D-E motherboard I selected comes with automatic overclocking software takes me up to 3.6 GHz (from 2.8 GHz on a stock i7-860). That’s about a 30% performance boost. 

But with frequency and voltage comes heat.  You could really make the system smoke…  literally, if you’re not careful.  Why take chances cooking the silicon wafer at the heart of your high-tech monster?  You spent around $1,000 for your new system, all told; but for a mere $35 to $70, an aftermarket cooler will enable you to safely overclock your system to run around 30% faster.  That’s 30% return on 3.5% to 7% investment, as I see it – pretty much a no-brainer.  In addition, to future-proofing and fire-proofing your box, it’s a great value.

The strong consensus on the forums, Cooler Master Hyper 212which matched my own experience, is that the stock Intel cooler is really not up to the task of cooling an overclocked i7.   After some research, I selected the Cooler Master Hyper 212 (right) for a very affordable $35 – highly rated and available on Amazon.

Note: the Cooler Master Hyper 212 is an impressive-looking piece of finned hardware, but has horrible install instructions — NewEggers agree.  Where are the Cooler Master folks??  It’s a perfect opportunity for crowdsourcing.

Configure RAID up front. if you’re planning on using the onboard Intel Matrix raid, set up the RAID array before installing the operating system – even if you only intend to use a simple mirror (RAID-1).  

The Intel Matrix RAID bios is apparently, unbelievably incapable of simply mirroring one existing, data-containing drive onto another identical, blank drive!  (Why, Intel, why?!)   So the mirror setup – at least in the BIOS — requires the destruction of all info on both drives.   Sad smile  

I had to suck it up, create the mirror, and reinstall Windows 7.  Good thing I have a fast machine.  Winking smile

Case design. Consider investing in a good case.  I can now see why good case design is important… I always thought of a case as just a case, but in this case (no pun intended) I see what excellent design features it can add.  My father-in-law’s Antec case has a solid, heavy metal frame, with beautiful lacquered silver paint and a latching ez-swing-out side panel for access to the interior.  It has two convenient pop-out hard drive cages for a total of four 3.5” bays, as well as easy front-slide-out bays for 5.25” equipment like the DVD drives.   This makes it very easy to remove or change components.  It also has wiring for front case USB and firewire connectors.

You can go cheap on cases, for sure;  but consider a cooler, higher-end case if it’s only a few more bucks.   Go ahead, you deserve it.

IMG_2990The front slide-out 5.25 bays on the great Antec case

Build #1

This is my personal system;  I built it first so that I would be able to apply any lessons learned to my father-in-law’s build.    Its highlight is an extremely quick 1TB RAID-10 hard drive array (mirror of stripes) built on of four Seagate Barracudas.  I re-used an existing, older Antec 430W power supply.

Ingredients:

  1. Core i7-860 Processor $250
  2. ASUS P7P55D-E ATX Motherboard $150
  3. 4 x Seagate Barracuda ES.2 ST3500320NS 500GB 7200 RPM SATA New $600, street today ~$350?
  4. XFX Radeon HD 4650 Video Card $65
  5. G.SKILL Ripjaws Series 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3 1600 RAM $115
  6. LITE-ON Black 24X DVD RW Player $25
  7. Antec True Power 430W power supply

Total outlay:  ~$600.   This doesn’t include the cost of the enterprise-class hard drive, power supply, or case.

Build #2

This system is for my father-in-law,who is replacing a 2004-era Pentium 4 box very similar to my Dell PowerEdge 400SC.    Following my own best practices, I built it with two hard drives in a mirror array (RAID-1) so that a single hard drive failure will not be able to take the system down: for the extra $100, well worth it.    Since this system will be used for video editing, it has a much more capable graphics card, the XFX Radeon HD 4850, which is a dual-slot monster.

Blend together and serve over crushed ice the following:

Total cost: ~$1,000, not including case

Installation Checklist

After installing Windows 7 (64-bit), these were the major post-OS software installs that I did to get the systems up to speed:

  • ASUS drivers from mobo DVD:  chipset, lan, Intel Matrix, USB, etc.  link
  • ASUS utilities from mobo DVD: Turbo EVO, etc – CHECK
  • Update Radeon drivers via Device Manager
  • FireFox v3.6 – my preferred browser
  • Internet Explorer 8 – for completeness
  • Run Windows update
  • 7-Zip
  • LastPass
  • Picasa
  • Avast AntiVirus – free

New Core i7 PC: Selecting the Components

[tweetmeme source="KeithBluestone"]This article is part of a series in 2010 on custom-building a high-performance computer with the latest Intel Core i7 processors:

  1. Build or buy a new Core i7 supercomputer?
  2. Choosing a New CPU: Intel Core i7-920/930 vs. i7-860/870
  3. New Core i7 PC: Selecting the Components
  4. New Core i7 PC: The Build

Summary

After deciding to build my new computer instead of buy it (see “Build or buy a new Core i7 supercomputer?”), the next task was to figure out which components to buy.  Armed with a thorough review of the choices and some spare PC parts, I ordered a balanced mix of new components that, for only $600, should make me the owner of one of the faster PCs on the planet.

Before you race off to build your custom PC, peek into the future to see some of the lessons I learned on my build; hopefully it will save you some time.

The Winners

I already had a spare tower case, a lightly used and excellently rated Antec 430W True Power supply, and some enterprise-class SATA hard drives.   That left me in need of a motherboard, a processor, some memory, and a graphics card.

Here were the components I picked (and bought) as a fantastic performer that should last for at least five years (prices include tax and shipping):

  Component Cost
image Core i7-860 Processor
Powerful quad-core CPU
$250
image ASUS P7P55D-E ATX Motherboard
Solid performer future-proofed with USB 3.0 and SATA 6 Gbps
$140
image G.SKILL Ripjaws Series 4GB DDR3 1600 RAM
Fast, reliable memory
$115
image XFX Radeon HD 4650 Video Card
Enough to get the job done well for me
$60
image LITE-ON Black 24X DVD RW Player
With the old one a little finicky – why not?
$30
  Total: $595

Backstory

I’ll admit it: I spent a whole lot more time researching the system components than I ever thought I would.  I read hundreds of peoples’ comments on NewEgg and Amazon;  browsed a score of product reviews;  and sifted through countless conversations on top tech forums.

I included rating, cost, power, noise, reliability, efficiency, and good ol’ ease of use when looking at components.

=> It’s definitely a whole lot easier to go buy a Dell – particularly a top desktop like the XPS, and especially their PowerEdge servers.   You’ll pay for the convenience, naturally; but you’ll get a high-performance system instantly.  For me, taking the time to learn about the latest in computer technologies and hand-select a top-performing system was a lot of fun.

=> As a software architect by profession, it’s important to understand the details of computer architecture: how the components operate, communicate, and coordinate their jobs within the computer.   As a tech guy, I’m frequently asked for advice by friends and family on what systems or components to buy, so it’s nice to be informed and able to share well-reasoned advice.

Needs

If you’re trying to make sense out of this post (and a million other out there), it will surely help you to understand what I am looking for in this system.

  • I don’t need an “extreme” gaming-style rig, which would spike the price, suck more power, and almost certainly make more noise.   No super-overclocking motherboards, gotta-be-faster-than-you RAM, or frag-you-more dual Crossfire video card configurations.
  • I wanted a quiet, powerful, flexible system, just short of extreme: it would do everything well and last for about five years at least.

I wanted to be mindful of a computer’s primary performance bottlenecks, attacking them in a balanced fashion.  I would no more want to pair a world-class processor with slow memory than I would want a fancy graphics card when I really need a faster hard drive.

Without further ado, the components and their runners-up…

imageThe processor: Intel Core i7-860

The Core i7-860 is an all-around top performer that bests its close competitor the i7-920 in most benchmarks and uses less energy.  For a summary of the differences and why I chose the i7-860, read this article.

    Pros Cons
This is the one I chose Core i7-860, $250 Well-loved everywhere, bests i7-920 in most benchmarks, uses less energy Costs a little more initially than i7-920
  Core i7-920, $220
Core i7-930, $250
Excellent processor, almost statistically identical to the i7-860 Uses more energy, fewer & more expensive motherboards, requires RAM in banks of three
  Core i5-750, $180 Very close to i7-920 and i7-860, while less expensive. A great option if you’re cutting costs. No hyperthreading, so appears to OS as four cores instead of eight

image The motherboard: ASUS P7P55D-E

The ASUS P7P55D-E motherboard is a midrange, classic choice from a top manufacturer.  While the “midrange” designation stung for a while – who wants to be midrange? — it’s midrange only in that it lacks extra bells and whistles (dual Crossfire/SLI, dual network cards, 10-channel sound) that most of us don’t need; and it doesn’t cost as much.

This “E” series motherboard from ASUS has everything I need, plus adding a bit of future-proofing by supporting the next round of USB and SATA standards: USB 3.0 and SATA 3.0.

=> I didn’t have any problem paying for features I needed;  but I’d rather buy features that would really contribute to the overall performance of the computer.  Think fast GPU or solid-state drive (SSD).

Selecting the motherboard was the most difficult task after selecting the processor itself.  There are a myriad of options to sort through, including support for RAM, number and type of PCI card slots, max number of hard drives supported, and various permutations of audio, network, and USB/FireWire support.

My primary sources were the reviews on NewEgg.com, supplemented by expert reviews on top technical sites like AnandTech.com , TomsHardware.com , and a few others.   I looked through the NewEgg reviews and discounted boards that had too many DOA comments (board died), compatibility issues, or just too many negative ratings.

=> When it comes to user product reviews, there’s always a sprinkling of haters who are apparently never satisfied with anything.   I keep this in mind when reading product reviews.   Some people are determined not to be happy…

In the LGA 1156 arena (the socket type mandated by my choice of the Core i7-860 processor), there are a lot of choices.   Reviewing the many options, I decided that what I didn’t want was:

  • I won’t need dual GPU’s (graphics cards) running at full speed.  A major feature divide in the motherboard set is whether it supports dual Crossfire or SLI, meaning you can have two GPUs installed and running at full tilt.   Most GPUs today support dual monitors, which is fine for me.
  • I won’t need maximum overclockability.  I do definitely want to be able to play around with overclocking.  It seems like it would be fun to tweak system settings.   Some motherboards (ASUS Maximus III) have featuresets created with the extreme overclocker in mind.  Not me.
  • I won’t need anything too fancy.  Dual network interface cards (NICs), huge number of PCI Express x16 slots (the best & fastest), flashy LED lights on the motherboard, 10-channel sound – all cool, but not required.

What I did want out of the board:

  • I did want to future-proof it with USB 3.0 and SATA 6 Gb/sec interfaces.  USB 3.0 has a massive bandwidth and power increase over USB 2.0.  In three to five years, USB 3.0 devices will be cheap and plentiful.  The same can be said for SATA 6 Gb/sec interfaces.  I could always buy a USB 3.0 card later for probably $30, but why not get it integrated now?
  • I did want RAID support.  RAID makes it easy to defend against a single hard drive failure (RAID-1, “mirroring”) , as well as increase performance (RAID-0, “striping”).  I plan to have four 500 GB drives striped and mirrored in a RAID-10 array, giving me the best of both worlds.  (Note: if you just want basic RAID variants, Windows 7 and WS 2008 have support for RAID-0, 1, 5, etc.  More advanced RAID style  like RAID+10 – mirroring and striping – require motherboard support or 3rd-party RAID adapters.)
  • I did want support for fast memory.  Today’s major computing bottleneck is not in the processor, it’s in the communication between the CPU and the memory.  While giant strides have been made in processor architectures, memory latency has seen far less improvement.  I wanted fast memory and the ability to use it;  this translated to selecting boards that supported at least DDR3 1600.  Most of the boards do support this, btw.

Here are the finalists in the motherboard category, narrowed down from many more.  They’re all top-rated boards:

    Pros Cons
This is the one I chose ASUS P7P55D-E, $140. Highly rated version of the P7P55D standard, but adds support for USB 3.0 and SATA 3.0. None for me!
  Asus P7P55 SuperComputer, $240. Excellently rated;  offers huge extensibility through its five PCIe x16 slots.  Reviewers raving about the excellent build quality. Relatively expensive and generally overkill. I just don’t need that much extensibility.
  Asus Maximus III, $250. Well liked, with tons of overclocking options Aimed at the enthusiast overclocker;  overkill for me.
  GIGABYTE GA-P55A-UD4P, $195. Excellently rated board with USB 3.0, SATA 6 Gb/sec, and supporting high-speed dual GPUs. None;  this was a runner-up, and in the end, I wanted to buy an Asus board because of their reputation.

I also considered other ASUS motherboards in the P7P55-E family. These included the “Pro” and “Premium” designations.   In general, they all were excellently reviewed, but simply had more features than I needed: most of the options were fast dual GPU support (e.g. dual x8 Crossfire: two PCIe x16 slots that degrade gracefully to x8 in dual GPU config); enhanced audio; more PCIe slots (and typically fewer legacy PCI slots).  In my case, I felt the extra money could better be put to use for extra RAM, another hard drive (or a faster one), or a better graphics card.

  • ASUS P7P55D-E Premium, $290.  Dual GPU-capable @ x8, USB 3.0 + SATA 6 Gbps, 4 x PCIe, 2 x PCI, 10-channel audio, dual NICs.
  • ASUS P7P55D-E Pro, $200.  Dual GPU-capable @ x8, USB 3.0 + SATA 6 Gbps,  5 x PCIe, 2 x PCI, 8-channel audio, single NIC.
  • ASUS P7P55D-E, $140.  Dual GPU-capable @ x4, USB 3.0 + SATA 6 Gbps,  5 x PCIe, 2 x PCI, 8-channel audio, single NIC.  (This was the board I chose.)

Lastly, I ruled out all the non-“E” ASUS motherboards (e.g. P7P55D/Pro/Premium) because they did not have USB 3.0 and SATA 6 Gbps.

image Memory (RAM): G.SKILL RipJaws

With the motherboard selection out of the way, the RAM was pretty easy.   With memory, I was looking for:

  • Compatibility.  I wanted to throw the memory in my new motherboard and have no issues or hassles.
  • Speed.  I wanted the fastest possible RAM without being “extreme” and hockey-sticking the price.  DDR3 1600 seemed to be the standard here.
  • Robustness.  While overclocking was not my prime objective, I did want the flexibility to play with it.  So I wanted RAM that would tolerate OC’ing well.

There are a ton of RAM choices out there, so feel free to browse away.  I spent the least amount of time looking at RAM options, since I just wanted it to best fast and stable.  My selection and the runners-up:

    Pros Cons
This is the one I chose G.SKILL RipJaws Series 4GB (2 x 2GB), $115. Excellently reviewed, fast RAM with heat management. Plus, they look cool. None for me!
  G.SKILL 4GB (2 x 2GB), $105. Excellently reviewed, fast RAM. None
  Corsair Dominator 4GB (2 x 2GB), $150. Excellently reviewed, high-end RAM with great heat management for OC’ing. A little expensive

XFX Radeon HD 4650 Graphics card (GPU): XFX RADEON 4650

My goal for the graphics card was to be capable and well matched to the rest of the system.  Since I’m not a gamer or a professional videographer, I wouldn’t need a top-of-the-food-chain GPU.   But with the rise of video and the convergence of TV and the internet, I wanted to be able to at least play full-screen HD content flawlessly.  On my old PC, a Dell PowerEdge 400SC server with an aged ATI Radeon 9600 card, I couldn’t play HD content on YouTube without an occasional stutter.

Desktop GPUs have become big business:  modern GPUs are basically little computers-on-a-card.  They have dedicated processors on them, up to 1 GB RAM, dedicated cooling systems, and in some cases, even require dedicated connections from the power supply.

In fact, there are a ton of cards out there which are power hogs and can significantly increase the energy consumption of the entire PC.  The high-end graphics market seems to be dominated by gamers (more power to you), who are typically playing mano-a-mano first-person combat games with each other over the internet.  They need high frame rates and blazing graphics speed.   But some of these top-end graphics cards explicitly require 500-watt or 600-watt power supplies.

What I personally wanted of out a graphics card:

  • Dual monitor outputs. If you haven’t experienced the joy of a dual-monitor setup, you don’t know what you’re missing.  The good news is that most cards out there today support dual outputs.
  • DVI interface. There are two basic types of connections from a PC’s graphics card: VGA (older; analog) and DVI (newer; digital).  Moving forward, I won’t be needing the older analog VGA connections.  If you have digital displays, e.g. an LCD or other non-tube display, there’s little sense in sending anything but a digital signal to it.  With a VGA signal, the GPU card has to first convert the digital info (from the computer) to an analog signal (the VGA output), then the monitor has to take the analog VGA signal and convert it back into digital form again.
  • Ability to play full-screen HD content. There’s a tsunami of HD content on the way, but even watching YouTube videos at HD is fun now.
  • Reasonable power consumption. No power hogs.
  • Quiet. I didn’t want a GPU with a noisy fan.  Silence is golden.

There are a ton of highly rated choices out there between $100 and $200.  The NewEgg crowd seemed to especially like cards by XFX and EVO.   I chose the XFX because it seemed to have everything I wanted.  At the very worst, I could buy a more capable card if needed, and I’d have a spare graphics card.

My choice, with the runners-up:

    Pros Cons
This is the one I chose XFX Radeon HD 4650, $55. Very capable, very quiet, and very affordable. Reviewers seemed to love it; they confirmed that  it could run full 1080P HD content (1920 x 1280), and many mentioned it did fine with gaming. This is a budget card as GPUs go
  XFX Radeon HD 4850, $140. Highly rated, a ton of memory (1 GB), quiet, reasonably priced, and moderate energy requirements (450W power supply).  Looks beastly cool. More expensive
  EVGA GeForce 9800 GTX, $135. Similar to the XFX HD 4850 (above). Fast and powerful.  NewEggers bought this in droves, judging by the number of reviews (900+). More expensive; half the memory (512 MB) of the XFX HD 4850; more noisy than the XFX card?

Power supply

I had a relatively new Antec True Power 430W lying around; after doing a little research on the web, it turns out the Antec 430W supply is an excellent, high-quality, low noise power supply (if you’re interested, you can see AnandTech’s review from 2003).   It seemed like a waste to just leave it sitting around, so I decided to try it.  If the Antec reviews had been anything but stellar, I would have invested in a new supply.

Getting a good power supply is important for the life of a computer: it has to provide clean, stable power to the sensitive system components.  If you want your home-built system to last, don’t scrimp on the power supply.  Apparently most RAM failures are due to electrical overvoltage issues.  It has a reasonably tough task to do: converting the oscillating 120V signal (in the US) from the wall into varying DC voltages of 3.3V, 5V, and 12V.

=> It’s highly recommended you use some form of UPS, battery backup or power conditioning to protect your system.  For my critical servers, I have an APC Smart-UPS, which provides backup battery and power conditioning;  but at minimum, use something like a APC Back-UPS, which provides outage, surge and spike protection.

A power supply should be rated to support the maximum demands of your system at full load.  If the power supply cannot keep up, it will just shut down the system.  The main power-hungry components by far are the CPU and the graphics card.  Reasonable guidelines today would seem to be 450W (minimum), 500W to 650W (mid-range), and 700W to 1000W for the high end.

=> When in doubt, buy more power supply than less.  A high-rated power supply does not use more energy than a lower-rated supply for the same load, in general.  E.g. a 650W supply doesn’t use more electricity than a 450W supply.

Besides providing adequate power to run the computer, here are some desirable features in power supplies today:

  • Active PFC. I don’t understand all the details of active PFC, but it seems to enable more efficient power supplies. Widely available today.
  • Quiet operation. Achieved mainly through the use of fans designed for silent operation.
  • Modular cables. Prevents case clutter:  unneeded modular cables can be detached and stored, whereas non-modular cables must be tied and otherwise managed within the case.
  • Under/overvoltage protection.  Protects the system against sudden spikes or drops in AC voltage.  Like when you turn the vacuum cleaner on.
  • Energy efficiency. A power supply is converting from AC voltage to DC voltage, and the conversion is not perfect. The higher the efficiency, the less power wasted (and heat generated).  Greener power supplies will have a Bronze, Silver, or Gold energy certification, but will cost more than non-certified PS’s.
  • Connectors.  How many SATA hard drive power plugs are there, or fan plugs, etc. coming off the PS?  Not really a big issue, since the real issue is power, and cheap adapters can easily easily be bought to provide more plugs of any type.  Be aware that some of the mid- to high-end graphics cards require a direct four- or six-pin connection from the power supply.

Antec BP550 is a great value There are a lot of choices out there.  A basic i7-860 system (or other Core i3/i5/i7 system, such as a i7-920 or i5-750) without an over-torqued graphics card will probably never use more than about 200-250W;  but to be safe and to enable extensibility, it seems prudent to pair it with a 450W or so power supply, minimum.

So I began my search for power supplies with active PFC and 500-600 watts of power.  Some of the favorites the NewEggers love include Corsairs (voted “Best Power Supply Manufacturer in 2009” by PC Magazine) and Antecs (“Most Reliable Power Supply Brand,” PC World France), Zalman, and Rosewill, among others.

In the mid-range arena, these were the most highly rated, reliable, and quiet power supplies that I found.

    Pros Cons
  Antec BP550 Plus 550W, $70. Highly rated, modular cables.  Not advertised as having a quiet fan, but reviewers’ consensus was “very quiet.”   (I bought this one for my next build) Not energy certified – but seems close enough.
  Antec earthwatts EA500 500W, $70. Highly rated, 80 PLUS-certified energy efficiency, low noise cooling fan. Non-modular cables.
  Corsair CMPSU-650TX 650W, $100. Very highly rated, thermally controlled fan, 80 PLUS-certified, lots of cables. Slightly more expensive; non-modular cables.

Conclusions

I sifted through hundreds of user feedback comments, scores of products, and a lot of detailed product reviews on the web to build a stable, powerful, quiet, affordable supercomputer based around an Intel Core i7-860 processor.

There are a ton of computer components out there with every conceivable option you could want.   When I chose this system, I wanted to make sure I had the dollars invested in all the right places to end up with a balanced set of matched components without any major bottlenecks.  Since I had some spare parts available, I was able to put together for around only $600.

Hopefully this article will help you save some time!

=> In the next article:  I’ll provide an update on the actual build experience.

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References

Power Supplies

Graphics Cards (GPUs)

Additional Notes

In browsing and selecting from the many components available, I made heavy use of NewEgg’s wish lists.  I created a wishlist for each of the system component types: motherboard, RAM, GPU, and power supplies.  As I searched through products and read reviews, I would add leading contenders to the wish list for later consideration. This way, I could efficiently narrow down my search.

What NewEgg could really use is a product feature comparator to compare similar products side-by-side.  For example, Intel’s CPU comparison wizard is great.  Are you listening, NewEgg?