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Inside track on VIA vs. Intel

Many probably read today that Intel sued VIA for patent infringement, then VIA turned around and sued Intel for essentially the same thing, stating that Intel needs a license from VIA in order to make the P4 and i845. This unexpected drama in VIA vs. Intel probably has left a lot of people scratching their heads.

Read More »Inside track on VIA vs. Intel

Two chipsets from the AMD front

Yesterday AMD formally unveiled and shipped the AMD-760MP chipset. Right now there is one and only one motherboard using it, the ritzy Tyan Thunder K7, which runs about $550 minimum. (Wholesale cost on it is rumored to be $500.) Considering its 64-bit PCI slots, two built-in 3Com NICs, onboard ATI video, onboard Adaptec SCSI, and four available DIMMs, that’s not a half-bad price. It’s obviously not a hobbyist board. This dude’s intended to go in servers.
At any rate, reviews are all over the place and the quality varies. Far and away the best I found was at Ace’s Hardware, where he tested the things people actually likely to buy this board would do with it: workstation-type stuff.

Anand does his usual 10 pages’ worth of butt-kissing and he’s living under the delusion that people will buy this board to play Quake. However, he does test the board with plain old Thunderbird and Duron CPUs (they work, but AMD won’t support that configuration). Skip ahead to page 11 after reading the story at Ace’s. His tests suggest that for some purposes, a dual Duron-850 can be competitive with a dual P3-933. That information is more interesting than it is useful at this point in time, but we’ve all been curious about dual Duron performance, so if and when an inexpensive AMD SMP board becomes available, we have some idea what we’ll be able to do with it.

All the usual hardware sites put in their two cents’ worth; by the time I read Ace’s and Anand’s and Tom’s reviews I stopped learning anything new.

Some of it bordered on ridiculous. One site (I forget which) observed that the AMD 766 northbridge looks just like a K6-2 and said they must have made it look that way just to remind us where the Athlon came from. Whatever. The AMD 766 northbridge and the K6-2 use the same heat spreader. The intention is to keep the chip cool. It’s not there just for looks–the chip runs hot. But that’s the kind of quality information we get from most hardware sites these days, sadly.

More immediately useful and interesting, but not yet available, is the nVidia nForce chipset. You can read about it at Tom’s and elsewhere. This is technically nVidia’s second chipset, their first being the chipset in Microsoft’s X-Box. This chipset is a traditional two-chip solution, linked by AMD’s high-speed HyperTransport. It includes integrated sound better than anything Creative Labs or Cirrus Logic currently offer (now we know what nVidia was doing with those engineers they were hiring from Aureal) and integrated GeForce 2MX video connected via a high-speed port that would be equivalent to AGP 6X, if such a thing existed. And nVidia pairs up DDR controllers to give dual-channel, 128-bit memory with a bandwidth of 4.256 GB/sec. Suddenly DDR provides greater bandwidth than Rambus in addition to lower latency.

Just for good measure, the chipset includes Ethernet too.

What’s all this mean? High-speed motherboards with everything integrated (and with integrated peripherals definitely worth using) for around 200 bucks. By the end of the summer, last summer’s monster PC will be integrated onto two chips and priced for building PCs at the $600-$800 price point.

This summer’s computer revolution won’t be Windows XP.

And, in something not really related, here’s something you probably missed, unfortunately. Start rubbing your hands together if you enjoy the Mac-PC or Intel-AMD wars. This is a hard benchmark comparing AMD Athlon, Intel P3, and Motorola PowerPC architectures and their relative speed. The methodology: under Linux, cross-compile a Linux kernel for the SPARC architecture (compiling native isn’t a fair comparison; this way they’re all creating identical code and therefore doing the same work, or as close to it as you’re gonna get). You know those claims that a Mac is twice as fast as an equivalent-speed Pentium III running Photoshop? I always countered that with Microsoft Office benchmarks, where a Mac is about 1/4 the speed of a PC, at best, when doing a mail merge. Neither is a fair test. This benchmark resembles one.

Anyway… Yes, a G4 is faster than the equivalently clocked Pentium III. How much faster? Roughly 10 percent. And an Athlon turns out to be about 20 percent slower than the equivalent P3. Of course, the Athlon reaches clock speeds the P3 never will, and the Athlon is also much more than 20 percent cheaper than the equivalently-clocked P3, so who really cares?

This still isn’t a totally fair comparison of CPU architecture, since chipsets vary (and it’s entirely possible that the difference between the P3 and the Athlon in speed is due to chipset quality), but if indeed the G4 was twice as fast as the P3, it would surely outperform it by better than 10 percent in this test. But it’s a decent comparison of real-world performance, because it doesn’t matter how much better your CPU is if it’s burdened by a chipset that doesn’t show up to play on game day.

Most telling is the end, where he gives the cost per speed unit. AMD wins that chart handily.

Enough of my babble. Read all about it here.

More Like This: AMD Hardware



My docs; Apple; Lost cd rom drive

It’s that time of year again. MacWorld time. I work with Macs way too much, so of course I have opinions. If you expect me to withhold them, you don’t know me very well.

Let’s face it: Apple’s in serious trouble. Serious trouble. They can’t move inventory. The Cube is a bust–unexpandable, defect-ridden, and overpriced. The low-end G4 tower costs less than the Cube but offers better expandability.  Buying a Cube is like marrying a gorgeous airhead. After the looks fade in a few years, you’re permanently attached to an airhead. So people buy a G4 tower, which has better expandability, or they get an iMac, which costs less.

Unfortunately, that gorgeous airhead metaphor goes a long way with Apple. The Mac’s current product line is more about aesthetics than anything else. So they’ve got glitzy, glamorous cases (not everyone’s cup of tea, but hey, I hear some people lust after Britney Spears too), but they’re saddled with underpowered processors dragged down by an operating system less sophisticated under the hood than the OS Commodore shipped with the first Amiga in 1985. I don’t care if your PowerPC is more efficient than an equivalently-clocked Pentium IV (so’s a VIA Cyrix III but no one’s talking about it), because if your OS can’t keep that CPU fed with a steady stream of tasks, it just lost its real-world advantage.

But let’s set technical merit aside. Let’s just look at pure practicalities. You can buy an iMac for $799. Or, if you’re content with a low-end computer, for the same amount of money you can buy a low-end eMachine and pair it up with a 19-inch NEC monitor and still have a hundred bucks left over to put towards your printer. Yeah, so the eMachine doesn’t have the iMac’s glitzy looks. I’ll trade glitz for a 19-inch monitor. Try working with a 19-inch and then switch to a 15-inch like the iMac has. You’ll notice a difference.

So the eMachine will be obsolete in a year? So will the iMac. You can spend $399 for an accelerator board for your iMac. Or you can spend $399 for a replacement eMachine (the 19-inch monitor will still be nice for several years) and get a hard drive and memory upgrade while you’re at it.

On the high end, you’ve got the PowerMac G4 tower. For $3499, you get a 733 MHz CPU, 256 MB RAM, 60 GB HD, a DVD-R/CD-R combo drive, internal 56K modem, gigabit Ethernet you won’t use, and an nVidia GeForce 2 MX card. And no monitor. Software? Just the OS and iMovie, which is a fun toy. You can order one of these glitzy new Macs today, but Apple won’t ship it for a couple of months.

Still, nice specs. For thirty-five hundred bucks they’d better be nice! Gimme thirty-five hundred smackers and I can build you something fantabulous.

But I’m not in the PC biz, so let’s see what Micron might give me for $3500. For $3514, I configured a Micron ClientPro DX5000. It has dual 800 MHz Pentium III CPUs (and an operating system that actually uses both CPUs!), 256 MB of RDRAM, a 7200 RPM 60 GB hard drive, a DVD-ROM and CD-RW (Micron doesn’t offer DVD-R, but you can get it third-party if you must have one), a fabulous Sound Blaster Live! card, a 64 MB nVidia GeForce 2 MX, and in keeping with Apple tradition, no monitor. I skipped the modem because Micron lets me do that. If you must have a modem and stay under budget, you can throttle back to dual 766 MHz CPUs and add a 56K modem for $79. The computer also includes Intel 10/100 Ethernet, Windows 2000, and Office 2000.

And you can have it next week, if not sooner.

I went back to try to configure a 1.2 GHz AMD Athlon-based system, and I couldn’t get it over $2500. So just figure you can get a machine with about the same specs, plus a 19-inch monitor and a bunch more memory.

Cut-throat competition in PC land means you get a whole lot more bang for your buck with a PC. And PC upgrades are cheap. A Mac upgrade typically costs $400. With PCs you can often just replace a CPU for one or two hundred bucks down the road. And switching out a motherboard is no ordeal–they’re pretty much standardized at this point, and PC motherboards are cheap. No matter what you want, you’re looking at $100-$150. Apple makes it really hard to get motherboard upgrades before the machines are obsolete.

It’s no surprise at all to me that the Mac OS is now the third most-common OS on the desktop (fourth if you count Windows 9x and Windows NT/2000 as separate platforms), behind Microsoft’s offerings and Linux. The hardware is more powerful (don’t talk to me about the Pentium 4–we all know it’s a dog, that’s why only one percent of us are buying it), if only by brute force, and it’s cheaper to buy and far cheaper to maintain.

Apple’s just gonna have to abandon the glitz and get their prices down. Or go back to multiple product lines–one glitzy line for people who like that kind of thing, and one back-to-basics line that uses standard ATX cases and costs $100 less off the top just because of it. Apple will never get its motherboard price down to Intel’s range, unless they can get Motorola to license the Alpha processor bus so they can use the same chipsets AMD uses. I seriously doubt they’ll do any of those things.

OS X will finally start to address the technical deficiencies, but an awful lot of Mac veterans aren’t happy with X.

Frankly, it’s going to take a lot to turn Apple around and make it the force it once was. I don’t think Steve Jobs has it in him, and I’m not sure the rest of the company does either, even if they were to get new leadership overnight. (There’s pressure to bring back the legendary Steve Wozniak, the mastermind behind the Apple II who made Apple great in the 1970s and 1980s.)

I don’t think they’ll turn around because I don’t think they care. They’ll probably always exist as a niche player, selling high-priced overdesigned machines to people who like that sort of thing, just as Jaguar exists as a niche player, selling high-priced swanky cars to people who like that sort of thing. And I think the company as a whole realizes that and is content with it. But Jaguar’s not an independent company anymore, nor is it a dominant force in the auto industry. I think the same fate is waiting for Apple.


My docs; Apple; Lost cd rom drive

Apple. you call this tech support?

This is why I don’t like Apple. Yesterday I worked on a new dual-processor G4. It was intermittent. Didn’t want to drive the monitor half the time. After re-seating the video card and monitor cable a number of times and installing the hardware the computer needed, it started giving an error message at boot:

The built-in memory test has detected a problem with cache memory. Please contact a service technician for assistance.

So I called Apple. You get 90 days’ free support, period. (You also only get a one-year warranty unless you buy the AppleCare extended warranty, which I’m loathe to do. But I we’d probably better do it for this machine since it all but screams “lemon” every time we boot it.) So, hey, we can’t get anywhere with this, so let’s start burning up the support period.

The hold time was about 15 seconds. I mention this because that’s the only part of the call that impressed me and my mother taught me to say whatever nice things I could. I read the message to the tech, who then put me on hold, then came back in about a minute.

“That message is caused by a defective memory module. Replace the third-party memory module to solve the problem,” she said.

“But the computer is saying the problem is with cache, not with the memory,” I told her. (The cache for the G4 resides on a small board along with the CPU core, sort of like the first Pentium IIs, only it plugs into a socket.) She repeated the message to me. I was very impressed that she didn’t ask whether we’d added any memory to the system (of course we had–Apple factory memory would never go bad, I’m sure).

I seem to remember at least one of my English teachers telling me to write exactly what I mean. Obviously the Mac OS 9 programmers didn’t have any of my English teachers.

I took the memory out and cleaned it with a dollar bill, then put it back in. The system was fine for the rest of the afternoon after this, but I have my doubts about this system. If the problem returns, I’ll replace the memory. When that turns out not to be the problem, I don’t know what I’ll do.

We’ve been having some problems lately with Micron tech support as well, but there’s a big difference there. With Apple, if you don’t prove they caused the problem, well, it’s your problem, and they won’t lift a finger to help you resolve it. Compare this to Micron. My boss complained to Micron about the length of time it was taking to resolve a problem with one particular system. You know what the Micron tech said? “If this replacement CPU doesn’t work, I’ll replace the system.” We’re talking a two-year-old system here.

Now I know why Micron has more business customers than Apple does. When you pay a higher price for a computer (whether that’s buying a Micron Client Pro instead of a less-expensive, consumer-oriented Micron Millenia, or an Apple G4 instead of virtually any PC), you expect quick resolution to your computer problems because, well, your business doesn’t slow down just because your computer doesn’t work right. Micron seems to get this. Apple doesn’t.

And that probably has something to do with why our business now has 25 Micron PCs for every Mac. There was a time when that situation was reversed.

The joke was obvious, but… I still laughed really hard when I read today’s User Friendly. I guess I’m showing my age here by virtue of getting this.

Then again, three or four years back, a friend walked up to me on campus. “Hey, I finally got a 64!” I gave him a funny look. “Commodore 64s aren’t hard to find,” I told him. Then he laughed. “No, a Nintendo 64.”

It’s funny how nicknames recycle themselves.

For old times’ sake. I see that Amiga, Inc. must be trying to blow out the remaining inventory of Amiga 1200s, because they’re selling this machine at unprecedented low prices. I checked out just out of curiosity, and I can get a bare A1200 for $170. A model with a 260MB hard drive is $200.  On an Amiga, a drive of that size is cavernous, though I’d probably eventually rip out the 260-megger and put in a more modern drive.

The A1200 was seriously underpowered when it came out, but at that price it’s awfully tempting. It’s less than used A1200s typically fetch on eBay, when they show up. I can add an accelerator card later after the PowerPC migration plan firms up a bit more. And Amigas tend to hold their value really well. And I always wanted one.

I’m so out of the loop on the Amiga it’s not even funny, but I found it funny that as I started reading so much started coming back. The main commands are stored in a directory called c, and it gets referred to as c: (many crucial Amiga directories are referenced this way, e.g. prefs: and devs: ). Hard drives used to be DH0:, DF1:, etc., though I understand they changed that later to HD0:, HD1:, etc.

So what was the Amiga like? I get that question a lot. Commodore released one model that did run System V Unix (the Amiga 3000UX), but for the most part it ran its own OS, known originally as AmigaDOS and later shortened to AmigaOS. Since the OS being developed internally at Amiga, Inc., and later at Commodore after they bought Amiga, wasn’t going to be ready on time for a late 1984/early 1985 release, Commodore contracted with British software developer Metacomco to develop an operating system. Metacomco delivered a Tripos-derived OS, written in MC68000 assembly language and BCPL, that offered fully pre-emptive multitasking, multithreading, and dynamic memory allocation (two things even Mac OS 9 doesn’t do yet–OS 9 does have multithreading but its multitasking is cooperative and its memory allocation static).

Commodore spent the better part of the next decade refining and improving the OS, gradually replacing most of the old BCPL code with C code, stomping bugs, adding features and improving its looks. The GUI never quite reached the level of sophistication that Mac OS had, though it certainly was usable and had a much lower memory footprint. The command line resembled Unix in some ways (using the / for subdirectories rather than ) and DOS in others (you used devicename:filename to address files). Some command names resembled DOS, others resembled Unix, and others neither (presumably they were Tripos-inspired, but I know next to nothing about Tripos).

Two modern features that AmigaOS never got were virtual memory and a disk cache. As rare as hard drives were for much of the Amiga’s existance this wasn’t missed too terribly, though Commodore announced in 1989 that AmigaDOS 1.4 (never released) would contain these features. AmigaDOS 1.4 gained improved looks, became AmigaOS 2.0, and was released without the cache or virtual memory (though both were available as third-party add-ons).

As for the hardware, the Amiga used the same MC68000 series of CPUs that the pre-PowerPC Macintoshes used. The Amiga also had a custom chipset that provided graphics and sound coprocessing, years before this became a standard feature on PCs. This was an advantage for years, but became a liability in the early 1990s. While Apple and the cloners were buying off-the-shelf chipsets, Commodore continued having to develop their own for the sake of backward compatibility. They revved the chipset once in 1991, but it was too little, too late. While the first iteration stayed state of the art for about five years, it only took a year or two for the second iteration to fall behind the times, and Motorola was having trouble keeping up with Intel in the MHz wars (funny how history repeats itself), so the Amigas of 1992 and 1993 looked underpowered. Bled to death by clueless marketing and clueless management (it’s arguable who was worse), Commodore bled engineers for years and fell further and further behind before finally running out of cash in 1993.

Though the Amiga is a noncontender today, its influence remains. It was the first commercially successful personal computer to feature color displays of more than 16 colors (it could display up to 4,096 at a time), stereo sound, and pre-emptive multitasking–all features most of us take for granted today. And even though it was widely dismissed as a gaming machine in its heyday, the best-selling titles for the computer that ultimately won the battle are, you guessed it, games.