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I just built a PC

It’s late, so I’ll save a lot of the gory details for tomorrow, but I built a PC over the course of the last couple of days. I did it a little bit differently than the last couple I’ve built.
All prices quoted are from Newegg.com as of last weekend when I ordered this stuff.

Case

I used a Foxconn PC115. It’s a two-tone case that looks like the cases the big brands use. Since a lot of the big brands buy from Foxconn, it’s probably a derivative of the designs Foxconn sells to them. It’s heavy enough gauge steel that you won’t hurt yourself with it. The mounting points are labeled. It has 11 drive bays. The included 350W power supply is honestly labeled. It’s a lower midrange case. I absolutely wouldn’t buy any less case than this–c’mon, the thing costs 30 bucks–but it’s nice enough that nobody’s going to be embarrassed with it.

Mobo

I used an AOpen AK75. It’s an AMD board, with a SiS 745 chipset. I’ve never had troubles with VIA chipsets, though to hear some people talk they make Yugos look reliable. I maintain that if you know what you’re doing, VIA chipsets are fine. But SiS has a great reputation of late so I thought I’d give a SiS-based board a try. It’s a nice board. It’s fast, and getting Windows to recognize and utilize the chipset is much nicer. Install the AGP driver and you’re in business.

One note about the board: Part of the Windows installation goes so slowly that I thought the board was defective. Right after the system check, it pauses for a long, long time. I’m talking longer than a Pentium 166. It seemed like minutes, though it probably wasn’t much longer than a minute in reality. Once it gets over that hurdle, it’s fast. This was with Win98 and 2000. I didn’t try XP. I had a legal copy of 98 for the system; I started to put 2000 on it in order to see if it ran into the same problems I thought 98 was having.

I only had a few hours’ experience with the board, which is anything but definitive, but it didn’t raise any red flags, and in my experience, most boards don’t wait until the second date to show their bad side. Usually the problems will show up either on the first day or sometime after the 366th.

I looked at an integrated Intel i815 board and very nearly bought it, but the supply dried up before I could pull the trigger. Buying AMD promotes competition, and the AK75 gives a lot more upgrade options in the future, so I’m not terribly sad about it.

Memory

I used a stick of Kingston DDR. It was on sale, I’ve never had a problem with Kingston memory, and back when I was working in an IBM shop, the IBM field techs trusted Kingston memory as much as the stuff IBM used from the factory.

DDR is cheaper than PC133 now, so if you’re building a new system, now’s the time to buy DDR instead. DDR-capable mobos are still more expensive, but they’re faster and you’ll save money in the long run by going with DDR now. DDR is the future. PC133 will stick around a while yet, but it’s headed to the same place EDO memory went.

Video

I used the cheap Radeon flavor of the week. When you don’t do 3D games, video cards don’t matter much anymore. This one was a genuine made-by ATi and I think it cost $29. It’ll stink up the joint if you’re waiting in line to buy Doom 3, but for the rest of us, it’s more video card than we’ll ever need, for a fantastic price.

I don’t have anything against Nvidia, but lately it’s easier to find a full-featured Radeon in the $30-$40 range than an Nvidia offering.

Modem

I used a USR 2977. It’s a real hardware modem and it’s PCI so it’ll fit in modern boards. At $35, it’s not that much more expensive than a Winmodem. And Winmodems steal anywhere from 10-20% of your available CPU power. People go to great lengths–either doing lots of time-consuming and sometimes downright foolish stuff, or spending lots of money–to achieve much smaller performance gains, so it’s stupid not to buy something like the 2977.

Hard drive

I used the flavor-of-the-week 7200-rpm 20-gig Maxtor. It cost $65. At that price I’m not going to be too picky, especially because I was working on a tight budget.

Operating system

Windows 98. Why? It was legal and adequate. Linux would be fine except for a few apps the new owner needs to run. There’s definitely enough hardware here to run XP, and XP might even outperform 98, but when you’re building a $300 system, spending $100 on an operating system when you’ve already got one doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Extras

I stole the CD-ROM, floppy, keyboard, mouse, and monitor from the PC this one was replacing. Along with all the cables.

Transferring VHS movies to VCD or DVD

Mail from Maurie Reed about VHS home movie transfers to digital formats.
MR: Dave, I’ve read all of your threads on video editing with interest. I’m not claiming to have understood everything but I’m less in the dark than I was before ( a 20 watt bulb as compared to a 10?).

DF: Remember, there are people who get 4-year degrees in this stuff. And graduate degrees after that.

MR: My question is: does the Pinnacle DV500 work in conjunction with a regular AGP video card or is it the sole video device in the system?

DF: It works in conjunction with another card. The DV500 does the heavy lifting and then sends its display over to the other card. So if you’ve got a DV500, any video card on the market today will be way more than enough. I used an S3 Savage4 card for a long time, and it was fine.

MR: Maybe better yet, what I’d lke to do is take the VHS tapes that we have made of the family over the years and transfer them to DVD. The first reason is to archive them for safety. After that’s done I’d like to edit them for quality, i.e., clean up, lighten,etc.

DF: PC Magazine’s Lance Ulanoff has done some columns on that. His approach, using Sonic MyDVD 4.0 (though Dazzle DVD Complete gets better reviews), is simpler than mine and eliminates the DV500, though you’ll still need some way to get the analog video into your PC. An ATI All-In-Wonder card would be good for that. I know Newegg has the less-expensive All-in-Wonders sometimes but they tend to sell out quickly so you’ll probably have to use their notify feature. Then you can spend the money you’d spend on a DV500 on a DVD writer instead (I suggest one of the Sony drives that can do DVD+R/+RW and DVD-R/-RW, that way if one format works better in your DVD player, you’re not stuck.

Keep in mind that Ulanoff used Firewire to get his video in, but that’s because he used Hi8 as his source, and those tapes will work in a Digital8 camera. If you’re using VHS, you’re limited to using analog inputs.

What you gain in simplicity you lose in power, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

MR: Toward this end I’ve been slowly building up a new machine: P4-2.4, Asus P4-533E, 512M PC-2700 RAM, 120G WD HD (SCSI’s not quite in the budget right now although I do have some Adaptec 2940 cards). I’m running an old S3 8M video card in it right now to test components (all from newegg…thanks for thesuggestion!) and I have no DVD-ROM drive or DVD burner yet (I do have a LiteOn CDRW). I thought I’d work on the video first. I’m sure at some point down the road we would like to do more video but never anything professional (read – making money at it). It would probably be my wife and daughters working with it anyway as I’m more of an audio person then video.

DF: You’re off to a great start. Add a DVD burner and an All-In-Wonder card (or a similar nVidia card with analog inputs–if your camera or VCR supports S-Video, use that, since its picture quality is noticeably better) and you’re ready to go. You might want to grab a smallish drive to hold your OS and apps so you can dedicate the WD drive just to video. Watch the post-Thanksgiving sales. For VHS-to-DVD transfers, IDE is sufficient.

Since you do have a CD burner, if you want to get started right away, get the All-In-Wonder and the software and start making VCDs, then get the DVD burner later.

As for being an audio person rather than a video person, I come at it from a magazine/newspaper background. I think it’s a shorter step from audio to video than it is from print to video! (And you knowing what it takes to make the video sound good is a very good thing. The audio quality on some of my projects has been positively awful.)

MR: I understand you’re very busy and NOT in the free advice business so I’ll understand if you decline to comment.

Thanks (no matter what the answer) in advance and have a great Thanksgiving!

DF: Thanks for the good questions. You have a great Thanksgiving too.

Red Hat and Debian fans debate desktop Linux

Mail from longtime reader Steve Mahaffey on the state of desktop Linux. My responses interspersed within:
SM: It’s been a while since I’ve emailed you, though I still read your site almost daily and comment from time to time.

DF: I appreciate that.

SM: Other than our common faith the most important subject that I could comment on might be desktop Linux.

DF: And it’s been a while since I’ve written about either of those. Too long.

SM: In the past I’ve used Mandrake and Suse briefly, and Red Hat 7.2/3 more extensively. As a server, Red Hat 7.3, booted to runlevel 3, runs until the power goes off at my West Houston home long enough to outlast my UPS. On the other hand, as a desktop OS, Red Hat 7.3 with KDE or Ximian Gnome would crash 1-3 x per week, and Ximian Gnome would get corrupted, requiring me to delete various ./.gnome* config files or files in /tmp to fix it, which most users would not be able to fathom or guess at.

DF: The more advanced desktop environments seem to be pretty sensitive to something or other. I haven’t figured out what exactly. That’s part of the reason why I run IceWM on Debian on my desktop; it’s stable. Running Gnome apps under IceWM on Debian “Unstable” (the experimental, bleeding-edge Debian distro), I’ve been chasing a slow memory leak that eventually consumes all available physical memory and eventually leads to a crash, but it takes a month or two. More on what I think is going on in a minute.

SM: Red Hat 8.0 on my primary workstation, on the other hand, is currently at 43 days uptime. NO CRASHES, once or twice I have restarted the x-server, and once I had a problem with the gnome conifg files. I know that you use Debian mostly, but Red Hat, Lindows, Mandrake, Lycoris, or the like will be the ones to have a mass impact on the desktop. Seems like Lycoris or Lindows was Debian based, though.

DF: I know Lindows is based on Debian. I don’t know Lycoris’ origin. You are correct that Debian will have minimal impact on the desktop, at least in the home. Debian doesn’t give a rip about commercial success and it shows.

I saw Red Hat 8 and Mandrake 9 recently and I was impressed at how far they’ve come. I haven’t touched Red Hat since 6.2 or Mandrake since, well, 7.2 probably. They looked stable and fast. And I saw a minimal (no options picked) Mandrake 9 install the other night. It was 144 megs. I remember not long ago trying to do minimal Red Hat and Mandrake installs and they were 300 megs, at least. That’s definitely a step in the right direction.

SM: Anyway, besides much greater stability, I have enough functionality for most of my needs in programs like Open Office, gnucash, Mozilla or Galeon, Evolution or KMail, etc. Some may have other needs, only met via Windows only programs, of course. I have noticed that RH 8.0 seems on occasion to be slow, but not most of the time. The menus are a little funny … easy to add to the KDE menus, but they don’t always seem to work. With Gnome, it’s easier to add a custom panel to add a non-default application, but it does work then.

DF: Linux currently meets most of the needs I observe on the typical user’s desktop. Not necessarily power users, but for the basic users who are interested in typing simple documents like letters and memos, simple spreadsheets (and let’s face it, an awful lot of spreadsheets use very basic math, if any at all), e-mail, Web browsing, chat, and listening to music, Linux provides solutions that are as good as, if not superior to, those that run on Windows.

I also observe how many users don’t know how to add an application to Windows’ Start menu, or desktop, or that quick-launch thing on the taskbar. It may be easier on Windows, but it’s still not easy enough for most people.

Of course, this is coming from someone who keeps at least one shell window open at all times in Linux and launches apps from there because it’s faster and easier for me to type the first few letters of an app and hit tab and then enter than it is to navigate a menu. For people like me, Linux is much, much superior to Windows and always will be.

SM: RH 8.0 did recognize my nVidia card, but did NOT enable opengl 3d acceleration. I had to install the nVidia drivers from the nVidia web site to get opengl acceleration…apparently Red Hat has decided to not support that at this time. Another oddity is that I have had to turn on the cd sound to play audio CDs by using the kde mixer…can’t seem to do it with the gnome mixer, and don’t know where to hack a config file or file permissions to do this.

DF: Given Red Hat’s history with KDE, it’s ironic that some things work better in KDE than Gnome on Red Hat. Nvidia’s decision to only provide binary drivers (not source) hasn’t proven popular with a lot of Linux distributors, which probably has a lot to do with the OpenGL issues. Red Hat isn’t going to go out of its way to make nVidia look good, and might actually go out of its way to make nVidia not look as good as ATI or Matrox or other companies who are willing to provide straight source, taking the chance that users will blame nVidia rather than Red Hat or Linux. (That’s not a particularly safe bet, but it’s not out of character, given past history.)

SM: Other things… Evolution crashes a lot. I’ve given up and started using KMail (for IMAP since I use my own mail server with IMAP). Galeon is good, but it seems that I had some printing issues and I’ve been using Mozilla more. I’ll have to see how the Phoenix browser comes along…it might be the best choice. Flash and Java required a manual install.

DF: Evolution is stable for me in Debian (more stable than Outlook 2000 under Windows 2000) but I’ve heard that complaint. I have to wonder if Evolution might be picky about the libraries it’s linked to and what it’s compiled with and how? Debian is really conservative; Red Hat is much more apt to use C compilers that haven’t proven themselves just yet. It’s great that GCC 3.2 is so much faster, but if that speed is still coming at the price of stability, let’s back off, eh?

I like Galeon but I don’t print Web pages much. Phoenix is turning into a very nice browser. Lately I’ve been using Mozilla nightly builds for the spam filtering in the mail client and no other reason.

SM: All in all, maybe Red Hat 8.0 is still more a distro that is more suited for corporate environments that have IT personnel around to hand-hold, and which need only modest desktop application abilities. But, it’s coming quite close to the fabled “Aunt Minnie” friendly OS that will really give Microsoft fits.

DF: It’ll take time to get mainstream appeal but I believe it will. Linux PCs in Wal-Mart are a very good thing, because it gives exposure and feedback. The press hasn’t been too kind to the Linux PCs sold there, but if the criticisms are addressed, things will get better, faster, for all distributions. Windows nothing but a really bad Mac wanna-be for 10 years, but it ripened because it infiltrated mass-market PCs. The press applauded Microsoft as it washed its dirty laundry in public. Linux won’t get that same treatment, but I’ll take a criticizing press over a kiss-butt press any day of the week if the goal is product maturity. Windows has been 20 years in the making, but XP still crashes too much.

And as far as Red Hat vs. Debian goes, I may have to give Red Hat another look as a desktop OS soon.

SM: Most of your comments seem to center around Linux and server applications. This is not trivial or unimportant. However, I think that the time for desktop Linux may be getting quite close, and I’d be interested in your comments if you feel so inclined.

DF: My focus has changed in the past year. Two years ago, I did desktop support, and server work in emergencies. About a year ago, I started moving into server support and only did desktop support in emergencies. It’s been a year since I’ve dealt with end users on a regular basis, so I don’t know as much what’s wanted or needed on the desktop anymore and I definitely don’t think about it nearly as much since I’m almost never confronted with it.

I think my thoughts on it are still worth something, since it’s only been a year, but that kind of experience definitely doesn’t age well.

Getting back to the desktop, the apps we need are in place. What they need most now are must-have features that Microsoft won’t supply, or won’t supply quickly. Bayesian spam filtering in Mozilla is a prime example of Open Source beating MS to the punch. A great idea showed up on Slashdot, some early implementations showed up immediately, and within a month or two, it’s in Mozilla’s alpha builds. The public at large will have a usable implementation within a couple of months. And there will be others. I suspect we’ll see lots of examples of it in digital media. I mean, whose design would you rather use, the design of someone concerned only with corporate interests, or the design of a group of users concerned with their fair-use rights and yours and mine?

SM: Anyway, maybe you’ll find my observations to be of interest.

DF: Always.

The Sapphire Radeon 7000

The last bit of hardware from my recent shopping spree that I’ll look at is the Sapphire Radeon 7000. This card is manufactured by Sapphire using an ATI chip.
Newegg sells several versions of this card and the prices start at $31. The most basic card is just that, basic: 32 megs of SDRAM and plain old VGA out. I stepped up to a higher-end version of the card, which offers 64 megs of DDR and S-video and composite out. I think that’s worth the extra five bucks I paid.

What can I say? It’s a budget card at a budget price. But when I bought my STB Velocity 128 card with the nVidia Riva128 chipset, it was a performance card. The gap in performance between this Radeon and the Riva128 feels as big as the gap between the Riva and the first Trident-based PCI video card I ever bought, back in 1995.

I tried one in a Celeron-366 and in a 1.3 GHz Duron. Its performance in the Duron was higher. Clearly the CPU was the bottleneck in the Celeron system.

The 7000 lacks some features that high-end gaming cards have. It has fewer pipelines than the higher-end Radeons, and half the memory bandwidth. It also lacks some of the hardware texture and lighting features you expect to find in a performance card of today.

But not everybody cares about those things. It plays Civilization 3 and Railroad Tycoon II just fine, thank you very much, and for word processing and e-mail and Web browsing the memory bandwidth isn’t terribly critical and the rendering pipelines and T&L are completely irrelevant. If you’re into productivity software and strategy games, a Radeon 7000 will treat you right and leave money in your pocket for other things.

Radeon support under Linux is good, mostly because a lot of new Macs have been shipping with Radeons for the past couple of years. Support under Windows, of course, is a non-issue.

The TV out support is nice if your system sports a DVD drive; in a pinch your computer can fill in for your DVD player. The card offers MPEG-2 acceleration, which is nice if your system has an aging CPU in it. Armed with a Radeon 7000 and a DVD drive, my Celeron-366 still dropped frames occasionally, but fewer than it did with an older card.

This card is overmatched in a monster gaming rig, but if you’re looking to put a little more punch in a two-year-old PC, this is a cheap way to get it. If you’re building a new PC and don’t care about 3D gaming performance, one of these $36 Radeon 7000s is all the card you need. Probably more. It’ll allow you to sink some money into something that’ll help your overall performance out more, like a faster hard drive or more memory. Or SCSI. 🙂 As far as I’m concerned, this card is a superstar for the price of a wanna-be. Go get it.

Feeling cynical

I went out looking for a fridge and washer/dryer.
I came home with the new Aimee Mann CD and Office Space on DVD.

Yeah, I’m feeling really cynical. Yeah, something happened at work Friday. No, I’m not at liberty to talk about it (but Charlie knows because he was in on the project too).

Aimee Mann’s Lost in Space is a very typical Aimee Mann record. She plays half a dozen different instruments and she’s as cynical as usual, though she’s lost the potty mouth. I went looking for this record’s “I Should Have Known”–the tune that reaches out and grabs your consciousness and won’t let go of it–but didn’t find it. This one will have to grow on me, like most of her records.

And Office Space… Well, I started building up a Windows box with my DVD drive out of some spare parts, and ran into a lot of problems. First, my junk Cirrus Logic-based AGP video card didn’t support DirectX, which my DVD app needed for playback. So I pulled it and replaced it with my old STB Velocity 128, which had nVidia’s first chipset. At the time, it was the fastest video card I’d ever seen. Seems really slow now. Well, that card caused any OS I tried to install to hang. I guess it’s the end of the road for that card. A shame, really.

So I figured I’d install Debian and see if I could figure out how to make it play DVDs. The Velocity 128 worked a lot longer in Linux than it did in Windows, but eventually it kicked into a corrupted text display similar to what I got in Windows. So I couldn’t just blame Windows. Rats. So the Cirrus Logic–definitely the Neifi Perez of video cards–came off the bench.

I couldn’t get any of the rogue DVD software for Debian to work, so I ended up pulling the S3 Savage4 card out of one of my working systems to put in there, since it supports DirectX. I need to order a couple of ATI Radeons from Newegg.com to replace some of these junk cards I’ve got. They’re solid and cheap–$42 delivered.

Windows 2000 ran fine with the S3 in it.

I think this is God’s way of telling me I’m a better journalist than computer tech at this point.

Upgrading an eMachine

One of the most common search engine hits on this site involves the words “emachine” and “upgrade” or “upgrades.”
There are a number of things to keep in mind. Some of this advice also holds for low-end units from Compaq and Gateway and the like as well.

First things first: eMachines don’t have the best reputation. The majority of their problems are due to the power supply though. Aftermarket replacements are readily available, and I recommend them. Don’t buy a factory replacement; it’ll just fail again like the original. A quality replacement from Sparkle or PC Power & Cooling will run you less than $50. I’ve seen 180-watt Sparkles go for $35. The stock 145-watt unit isn’t very adequate and isn’t of the utmost quality. If I bought an eMachine, I’d buy an aftermarket power supply and install it as soon as I could. I wouldn’t wait for the factory unit to fail.

If I had an eMachine I wanted to upgrade, I’d track down a PCI video card. The problem with integrated video on a lot of motherboards is that the CPU and video chip have to share memory bandwidth. What’s that mean? Part of the time, your nice 64-bit memory bus is reduced to 32 bits, that’s what. Steve DeLassus told me a couple of years ago about putting a cheap PCI ATI video card in his wife’s Compaq, which had integrated video, and everything about the system sped up, dramatically. I made fun of him. But it wasn’t his imagination. I was wrong, and the explanation is simple: After he disabled the onboard video, he finally got the computing power they paid for.

Besides that, any add-on card is going to be faster than the integrated video in anything but an nVidia chipset anyway. Last I checked, eMachines weren’t using nVidia nForce chipsets for anything. If you’re into 3D gaming, you shouldn’t have bought an eMachine in the first place, but look for a PCI card with an nVidia chipset. If you’re just into word processing and e-mail, something like an ATI Xpert98 will do nicely. Yeah, it’s an old card, but it’s still more than adequate for 2D applications, and it’s cheap.

If you’re wondering if your system’s integrated video is holding you back, the best tell-tale sign to look for is called “shared memory.” Enter your PC’s setup program and look for an adjustable amount of shared memory. If you find that setting, you’ll almost certainly benefit from disabling it and plugging in a video card.

The next thing I’d look to do is replace the hard drive. Hard drive speed is significant, and sub-$500 PCs don’t come with blazing drives. Pick up a 7200-rpm drive of adequate capacity. They’re not expensive–you can be in business for under a hundred bucks. The performance difference is dramatic. Most retail-boxed drives even come with all the software you need to move all your data to the new drive. CompUSA frequently has something on sale. I prefer Maxtor drives over Western Digital because they’re faster and more reliable; CompUSA’s house-brand drives are just repackaged Maxtors, so those are fine as long as you can find a 7200-rpm model.

The modems that came in eMachines are worthless. If you don’t have broadband yet, replace it with a USRobotics 2977 modem immediately. That factory modem is costing you 35% of your CPU power. The USR will give that back, give you better throughput on top of it, and costs $40 at newegg.com. Good deal. But don’t settle for anything less than that–any modem that costs less than $40 is going to have the same problems as the factory modem.

Most eMachines can take more memory, but a lot of eMachines already shipped with adequate memory. There’s rarely any reason to put more than 256 MB in a PC. If your machine doesn’t have 256 megs, you can pick up a 256-meg stick pretty cheaply.

Most eMachines can take a faster processor, but I rarely bother. Unless you can increase your clock speed by 50%, you’re not likely to really notice the difference. Doubling is better. You’ll get better results from adding a video card and a faster hard drive.

Likewise, a high-end sound card from the likes of Creative or Turtle Beach can reduce the amount of work your CPU has to do and give you much better-sounding audio than what your eMachine has on the motherboard, but is it worth putting a $100 sound card in a computer you paid $399 for?

It’s easy to see you can very quickly spend $300 on upgrades for a computer that originally cost $399. That makes it hard to justify, when you could just get a new $399 computer. So should you do it? It depends. Don’t spend more than half the price of a new computer to upgrade an old one. But also keep in mind that a new computer won’t come with first-rate components, and the aftermarket parts you’re buying are first rate, or very close to it. If that PC you’re looking to upgrade has a 600 MHz processor or faster, it’s likely that when it’s upgraded, it’ll hold its own with a new computer. In that case, you should think about it.

But if you’ve got a four-year-old eMachine with a 300 MHz processor in it, you’re better off buying something new. When you can buy a 900-MHz PC without an operating system from walmart.com for $299, it’s just not worth wasting your time. Load your eMachine’s copy of Windows on the new computer and stick the eMachine in a closet somewhere as a spare. Or pony up a couple hundred bucks more to pick up a brand-name PC with Windows and a monitor, then get a couple of network cards and network your computers together. Your family will appreciate being able to share a printer and an Internet connection. If you pay a little extra to get wireless cards, the computers don’t even have to be close to each other.

One last thing: A lot of people sniff at eMachines. Yes, they are cheaply made. But they’re not all that bad of a machine, aside from the skimpy power supply. Replace it, and you’ve got a lot of computer for the money. Packard Bell did a lot to ruin the reputation of cheap computers in the 1990s, but the problems they had were mostly due to skimpy power supplies that were odd sizes so there weren’t many aftermarket replacements, and due to junky integrated modems and/or combo modem/sound cards that did both jobs poorly, killing system performance and causing software incompatibilities. Today’s highly integrated motherboards have eliminated that combo sound/modem problem. I know I malign the company all the time, but in all honesty, once you put real modems and sound cards into Packard Bells, they did OK as long as the power supply held up. I’ve got an old Packard Bell P120 with Debian Linux loaded on it. I ripped out the sound card/modem combo. I left the power supply alone because it looked decent. The machine’s run several years for me without any problems. Of course I covered up the Packard Bell logos on it.

Today, the same holds true of an eMachine–it’s just the power supply and video card you have to worry about now.

Time to talk about big, manly computers

Enough of this other stuff. I actually felt like messing around with computers yesterday. I read about Eric Raymond’s new PC (IBM was nice enough to finance building an obnoxious Linux box for Mr Raymond and Linus Torvalds), which is, in short, a dual Athlon-1200 setup with two big SCSI drives. Unfortunately, he neglected to mention how much memory he put in it. I’m assuming he splurged and got a gig or two. His comment? “I tried hard to gold-plate as much of the system as possible and load on all the extras and accessories I could, and was nevertheless unable to raise the total parts bill over $7,000.”
When they made the machine more reasonable (pulling the exotic tape backup drive and 21-inch monitor and other niceties), the system still cost $4,200. One participants’ comment? “People pay more than that for crap computers all the time.” Yup. I know one guy at work who had about $10,000 left in his budget at the end of July, so he decided he needed a new Macintosh. He spent every dime of it and didn’t get half the computer Raymond described.

The true test, of course, was compiling the Linux kernel. How long did it take? Two minutes, 21 seconds. I don’t think I have a computer that can compile it in under 10 minutes. Needless to say, I’m extremely jealous.

I had lunch with one of the seminarians assigned to my church (actually, seeing as it was at 3:30, I’m not sure what you would call that meal. Well, since people tend to argue whether the afternoon meal is lunch or dinner, and whether the evening meal is dinner or supper, I guess the 3:30 meal must be dinner). He mentioned that Best Bait-n-Switch had 256-meg Kingston DIMMs on sale for $25 after rebate, so we went. I picked one up.

With that, I had enough stuff to build a PC to replace several of the boxes I have laying around. Compare my setup to Raymond’s new setup:

CPU: AMD K6-2, 350 MHz
Mobo: AOpen AX59Pro
RAM: 256 MB Kingston
NIC: Generic cheapie Macronix (DEC Tulip derivative)
SCSI adapter: Initio 9090U (it came bundled with my CD-R way back when)
Hard drives: 850 MB Seagate IDE, 2 GB Quantum SCSI
CD-ROM: Generic, flaky 24X ATAPI
Video: STB Velocity 128 (nVidia Riva 128)
Case: InWin ATX desktop, no idea the model#, $37 at Directron a few months back

Yep. Pathetic. For whatever reason the machine wouldn’t boot off the Sorcerer CD, so I ended up installing Mandrake 7 on it (I wanted something reasonably modern that didn’t use the infamous GCC 2.96 compiler). It’s going to be an experimental mail server, so it doesn’t have to be fabulous.

Getting Courier-IMAP proved difficult. Someone at Inter7.com decided he didn’t like PacBell, and Southwestern Bell by association, so he blocks access from their networks. How nice of him. I understand not liking the companies (I hate Southwestern Bell as much as anyone), but punishing their customers isn’t going to accomplish anything. I’m stuck with SWBell because I don’t want to pay for basic cable so I can get a cable modem. If I get DSL from anyone else, then I’m using Southwestern Bell plus someone else, so they can blame each other. And who knows? If I connected from someone else who’s also using SWBell’s network, would I be blocked?

He posted his complaints to PacBell, and I have to wonder if part of the reason PacBell ignores him is because of his liberal use of a phrase that contains the word “mother” and implies incest…

At any rate, there’s an easy way to get past rude people who are blocking your ISP. Use someone else’s network. Go to www.anonymizer.com, then punch in the forbidden web page. Now I’m not using Southwestern Bell’s network, but rather, Anonymizer’s network, which is then forwarding the information I requested.

Unfortunately I didn’t get the mailserver built, as Courier-IMAP is even harder to get running than it is to download, but it was kind of fun to mess around with Linux again.

If you’re interested in what I was doing, here’s the article I followed.
Hey, it’s playoffs time. And ESPN is highlighting 1986, which as far as I’m concerned, is the second-best postseason ever (no one can top my Royals’ magical 1985, of course). ESPN’s doing a “voices of 1986,” but I noticed the voice I most want to hear isn’t up there yet. They’d better not forget him. I’ll never forget the photo of young Bosox closer Calvin Schiraldi with his face buried in a towel after Game 6. Hobbling first baseman Bill Buckner was the goat, but Schiraldi took it hard.

I actually met Schiraldi three years later. He was pitching for the Cubs by then, trying to put his career back together in spite of manager Don “Gerbil” Zimmer’s best efforts to prevent it. Nice guy. All people remember now is an unreliable relief pitcher (the specifics: a 13.50 ERA in the World Series, thanks in part to a home run he gave up to Ray Knight and the three consecutive singles he gave up preceding Buckner’s error) and they forget his 1.41 ERA in the regular season, followed by his 1.50 ERA in the playoffs. I remember a tired, overworked pitcher who gave everything he had and in the end just had nothing left. Boston had four pitchers worth having that year: Bruce Hurst, the incomparable Roger Clemens, “Oil Can” Boyd, and Schiraldi. In the postseason, those four men pitched until their arms fell off, and Boyd and Schiraldi were never quite the same after that. Hurst went on to have a respectable career; Clemens of course is still pitching and is now known as one of the biggest jerks in the game. These days, Schiraldi’s a high school teacher and coach in Texas.

I went looking for stuff on Schiraldi and I found this short story: The Girl who Hated Calvin Schiraldi. Obviously I don’t see it her way.

Optimizing Linux. Part 1 of who-knows-what

Optimizing Linux. I found this link yesterday. Its main thrust is troubleshooting nVidia 3D acceleration, but it also provides some generally useful tweakage. For example:
cat /proc/interrupts

Tells you what cards are using what interrupts.

lspci -v

Tells you what PCI cards you have and what latencies they’re using.

setpci -v -s [id from lspci] latency_timer=##

Changes the latency of a card. Higher latency means higher bandwidth, and vice-versa. In this case, latency means the device is a bus hog–once it gets the bus, it’s less likely to let go of it. I issued this command on my Web server to give my network card free reign (this is more important on local fileservers, obviously–my DSL connection is more than slow enough to keep my Ethernet card from being overwhelmed):

setpci -v -s 00:0f.0 latency_timer=ff

Add that command to /etc/rc.d/rc.local if you want it to stick.

Linux will let you tweak the living daylights out of it.

And yes, there’s a ton more. Check out this: Optimizing and Securing Red Hat Linux 6.1 and 6.2. I just turned off last-access attribute updating on my Web server to improve performance with the command chattr -R +A /var/www. That’s a trick I’ve been using on NT boxes for a long time.

Baseball. I’m frustrated. The Royals let the Twins trade promising lefty Mark Redmon to the Tigers for Todd Jones. Why didn’t the Royals dangle Roberto Hernandez in the Twins’ face? Hernandez would have fetched Redmon and a borderline prospect, saved some salary, and, let’s face it, we’re in last place with Hernandez, so what happens if we deal him? It’s not like we can sink any further.

Meanwhile, the hot rumor is that Rey Sanchez will be traded to the Dodgers for Alex Cora, a young, slick-fielding shortstop who can’t hit. Waitaminute. We just traded half the franchise away for Neifi Perez, an enthusiastic, youngish shortstop who can’t hit outside of Coors Field and is overrated defensively and makes 3 and a half mil a year. What’s up with that?

Moral dilemma: Since the Royals don’t seem to care about their present or their future at the moment, is rooting for Oakland (featuring ex-Royals Jermaine Dye and Johnny Damon and Jeremy Giambi) and Boston (featuring ex-Royals Jose Offerman and Chris Stynes and Hippolito Pichardo and the last link to that glorious 1985 season, Bret Saberhagen) to make the playoffs like cheating on your wife?

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

04/06/2001

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Three days down… The server was down while administrators removed dead sites, in hopes of increasing performance. Performance does seem better, but time will tell… Let’s get on to some serious business.

More memory alphabet soup. JHR wrote in with a good question that I realized I haven’t answered: Can you use your existing plain, cheap old SDRAM on a new DDR-capable motherboard?

The answer, unfortunately, is usually no. DDR comes on 184-pin modules. SDRAM usually comes on 168-pin modules. A few companies, like Fujitsu and Apacer, have talked about putting SDRAM on 184-pin modules. It’s been mostly talk. The price difference between DDR and SDRAM isn’t enough to justify it.

There are a few boards, like the Asus A7A266 (reviewed at http://www.dansdata.com/a7a266.htm ), with both types of sockets for both types of memory. But the A7A266 isn’t the best performer out there, so you pay the price of convenience by buying speed instead. It’s a mediocre DDR performer and a terrible SDRAM performer.

It’s a shame to throw away memory, but this isn’t the first time. As recently as 1997, 72-pin EDO memory cost less than SDRAM. The 72-pin SIMM replaced the 30-pin SIMM as the type of memory to have in 1994, though 30-pin-capable boards remained available for upgraders through 1996. Before 30-pin SIMMs, there were all sorts of weird memory technologies, like 30-pin SIPPs, and different types of individual chips, which generally were a huge pain.

Usually when memory was replaced, adapters came out. There were SIMMs with sockets to plug old chips into. There were adapters to plug a SIPP into a SIMM socket. There were riser cards to allow you to plug 30-pin SIMMs into 72-pin slots. The problem was, they tended to hurt speed and stability, and in many cases they were nearly as expensive as new memory.

History’s repeating itself. There are adapters to let you plug DIMMs into RIMM sockets, and 168-to-184 sockets, though they’re expensive and hurt speed and stability, especially in the case of those RIMM adapters. There’s no point in using them.

I really should have been shouting louder that PC133’s time in the sun is over. The problem is, nobody knows for sure what will replace it. There’s DDR and Rambus, both of which perform really well in certain benchmarks, neither of which seem to make much difference in the real world yet. DDR’s pricing is very close to PC133, assuming you’re buying Crucial. Rambus is still priced way too high. I suspect DDR will win, but there’s no way to know.

It’s a shame to throw out memory, but there usually isn’t much we can do about it. If it makes you feel any better, PCs using SDRAM should be useful for a number of years. I’ve still got two systems with 72-pin SIMMs in them doing useful work for me. One’s a Compaq 486 I bought back in 1994 that just finished a tour of duty as a DSL router; its next incarnation will be as a file/print server if I can find an ISA SCSI card to put in it. I’ll probably also have it automate some parts of my network, courtesy of cron. The other one is a Pentium-120, which has done time as a file server and also as a testbed.

Anything new enough to have SDRAM is new enough to make a very useful Linux box, and it can also make a good Windows box, particularly if you scale it back to just do a handful of things very well. If I ever get around to retiring my K6-2/350, my sister would love to have it because it’d make a great word processing/web browsing/e-mail box–better than the Cyrix 233 she’s using right now, though she doesn’t complain much about that computer. That computer was built out of a bunch of stuff Tom Gatermann and I pulled out of our spare parts bins. And if I did make that switch for her, I know who’d get that Cyrix 233, and that person won’t be complaining either.

The key to responsible upgrading, I think, is to buy stuff that you’ll be able to recycle whenever possible. A good SCSI card and hard drive, though expensive, will be good enough to be worth recycling when you make your next motherboard upgrade. The same goes for a good monitor, and unless you’re a 3D gaming freak, the same goes for a good video card as well. My STB Velocity 128 video card, even though it has an ancient nVidia Riva128 chipset in it, is still fast for the games I play and frankly, it’s overkill for business use. I’ve had that card for three and a half years. I expect I’ll still be using it in three years. Heck, my Diamond Stealth 3D card is still useful. It won’t do justice for my 19-inch display, but it’s fast enough for routine work and it’ll drive a 17-inch monitor at 1024×768 at refresh rates and color depths that won’t embarrass you. And that card’s five years old. It cost me $119 at a time when low-end cards cost $59, and it’s still better for most things than the $40 cards of today. The $25 cards of today will give you higher color depth and sometimes better refresh rates, but they’re not as fast. So that card saved me money. My STB Velocity 128 and my Diamond Viper 770 haven’t been recycled yet, but I’ll get at least three more years’ use out of both of those, even if I turn into a flight simulator fiend. The 770 would be decent for flight sims, and both of them are outstanding for what I do now.

Everyone I know recycles good keyboards and mice, when they think to buy them.

You’ll generally replace motherboards and CPUs on every upgrade cycle. Depending on how often you upgrade, you can expect to replace memory every other cycle.

A lot of people are recommending you buy a motherboard capable of either type of memory, then buy cheap PC133 and upgrade later. But the performance difference isn’t great enough to justify that. If you think you’re going to want DDR, I recommend you just bite the bullet and get DDR. Crucial’s now selling 128 MB PC2100 DDR modules for under $65, so 256 MB of PC2100 costs slightly more than a mid-range video card.

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