Archive for the 'Computers' Category

Brain transplant for my flagship computer.

January 4, 2009

I’ve been agonizing over what to do about my dying computer.  Normally, I would put it out to pasture as a backup and build a new machine from scratch.  I did some Core i7 pricing tonight.  While the processors themselves are quite comparable to the Penryn chips, the motherboard and memory prices are out of sight.

So I got to thinking.  Is this the right time to go crazy on hardware?  I decided that it’s not. So I just bought a new motherboard, chip and RAM with a Zalman cooler.  I’m going to replace these parts only in my main machine and keep the video card and raptor hard drives and everything else.

I did splurge on the Q9550.  I think with the Zalman, I should at least get 3.6 GHz.  It will easily be the fastest computer I’ve ever worked with.  It will be faster than my kids’ computers and the upgrade cost me less than $600.  It would have been over $2000 building a new Core i7 system.  I think, for now, this was the smart way to go.

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Computer Trouble.

January 3, 2009

Last night I tried to boot my flagship computer and had some weird trouble.  First, I got an overclock fail and then it just wouldn’t go completely into XP.  It also seemed very, very slow.  I tried resetting the factory defaults in CMOS, but that had the very undesirable result of knocking out the RAID zero boot disk.

So even though it’s back to factory defaults, I had to convince it to pick the RAID back up without trashing the windows partition.  This thing is old enough where you have to make a floppy to put the drivers on the system.  Around midnight, I remembered that there was a setting in the BIOS necessary for the RAID.  I flipped that back on and got it to boot (but very, very slowly).  Because the slowness starts with the post screen, I do not think this is a software problem.  I might try to flash the bios.  I also see that Norton has a program called Ghost.  I’ve never messed with imaging programs because I’ve always kept my data on a separate disk.  I’ve always felt that since I had program disks, I didn’t need to worry about programs.  Of course, now I’ve accumulated so much crap, I don’t even know what I have.  Plus, I’ve got a lot of codecs on this machine.  So, I want to try to do an image.

Something similar happened to two AMD boards that I had years ago before they died.  I fear this computer’s time grows short.  I detailed its creation on this blog.  You can see that it’s lasted a scant 2 1/2 years.  This is not typical for a computer that I build.  I usually get 3 to 5 years without any problems.  I think most would agree that it’s probably the overclocking.

Of course now, I know a lot more about overclocking and I know how far you can push components.  The price of my knowledge has been this computer’s potentially premature death.  I’ve been joking that this is just an excuse for me to build the I7 rig that I’ve been thinking about (and maybe I will in the next few weeks) but for now, I’m mourning the decline of something I created.

Becoming an Adobe fanboy.

December 27, 2008

On of my goals over my holiday vacation was to learn Dreamweaver, Photoshop and Flash.  Later I might learn more about Premiere but I’m told that Vegas Pro might be the way to go.  I’ve been sick, so I haven’t made the progress that I’ve sought, but I have made inroads on the Dreamweaver book.

I want to take the blog that I do for work out of free WordPress hosting and put it into an environment where I pay to host it but where I also have more control.  I probably don’t need to learn Dreamweaver to do this, but I think it may be a good start.

Also, learning new software causes me to make mental connections that help in ways that I have never considered.  I think that this whole software learning project is going to take several months now.  If I decide to buy the software after playing with it for a while, it’s going to be expensive.  I want to be absolutely sure that I’m going to use these tools.

You might ask why I don’t stick to open source.  Certainly, there are some alternatives.  Everyone knows about Gimp, for example, instead of Photoshop.  I’ve been using Gimp for a while for quick photo editing.  I want to get past superficial editing, though and really learn about the layering aspects that Photoshop offers.  I think that’s going to be the most fun part of the project (along with video editing).

Doing this for fun is also a real motivator.  Just starting the Dreamweaver book has made me think of some unrelated server projects that might be interesting.  So there’s real value in this and it could be engrossing too.

Computer Vagaries.

December 24, 2008

I was reading this article on Slashdot the other day and I couldn’t help but think about how many times I’ve seen this before.  I had actually started writing a post on this back in July, but I didn’t have enough ammunition to make my point.  This article provides ample evidence of how a user’s experience with PCs is not uniform between individual boxes.  This is not just dependent on operating systems.  Time and time again, I have experienced this.  For example, I could not get iTunes to install on one of my Vista boxes.  On an XP machine, Twitter doesn’t work.  On my iMac, I can’t get Firefox 3 to install. My experience as a hardware fanatic is one thing.  But what I wonder at is the experience of the average user.  A non-geek could buy a computer with Vista on it and try to install iTunes and fail.  Another user might be banned from ever experiencing Twitter and never be the wiser that the problem comes from the vagaries of one machine.

The latest example concerns my daughters’ computers.  I bought identical parts for them to make my life easier.  The free Nero program that came with the DVD drives works on one of the computers but not the other.  I have reinstalled windows twice in trying to resolve this.  It simply won’t run.  Yet, it runs fine on the other one.  I have a workaround.  Sonic works fine on the machine that hates Nero.  So I use Sonic.  It’s no big deal, but it bugs me.  Again it is supposedly identical computers behaving differently.

Digital isn’t supposed to be like this.  This is analog behavior.  The OP from Slashdot was about how computers and cores really aren’t the same from machine to machine. Each box develops its own idiosyncrasies.  I’m frankly amazed that computers work at all given this divergence.

But from an AI perspective and from the genetic algorithm perspective, this is crazy.  You’d have to develop using several different boxes simultaneously to allow for the divergence.

I was talking about this with Jason, AI researcher and the creator of Underworld Hockey Club (and also a Friday Night Party Line panelist) and I thought his comments were insightful:

“[O]ne interesting thing with genetic algorithms is that they learn with the computer.  If I train a checkers player on the cluster in the lab, that player will not be as good when I run it on my own computer.  It’s not stupid, but it’s not as good.  It’s because it’s tuned to the specific compiler & floating point operations of the cluster.  This is why we need online learning.  Genetic algorithms simulate evolution, but there aren’t any mature methods to simulate learning during the life of an individual.  A common belief that I share is that evolution contains 99% of the knowledge we need to survive, but without the 1% from learning, it is completely useless.  Look at deer, for example.  Baby deer (and other quadrupeds) are able to walk within minutes of being born.  Clearly, the basic constructs of coordination are tied to DNA (baby deer don’t flail stupidly until they figure it out), but the deer need learning to make sure that their programming works with their specific bodies.  One student in the lab is looking at neuroplasticity, which is the study of neural networks that can adapt to their environment in realtime.  It’s really interesting stuff.”

Building computers for my kids.

December 7, 2008

This weekend I spent every waking hour building computers.  For me, this is as close as heaven on earth as it gets.  The time passed so quickly, that I am astonished that it is Sunday night already.  My hands are sore and cut up from the cases, but the computers are finished.  I wish I could do that every weekend.  Here’s a picture of the parts at the beginning of the build:

I used Asus P5Q motherboards because 1) I love Asus and 2) they were on sale.  I chose the ATI 1 GB Sapphire cards because they were also on sale and more importantly without rebates.  I hate rebates.  I’d rather not buy something with a rebate if I can help it.  I’ve never used G-skill memory before but it worked fine.  Both builds got 4 GB.  I saved money by using old hard drives I had lying around as well as reusing the XP licenses from the girls’ old machines.  I had one extra case and so I only had to buy one new one (and my daughter wanted pink anyway).

I had a little trouble with the first build.  It posted but then I had a grounding error on the USB ports.  I fixed that and it worked fine.  I bought Zalman fans because I wanted to overclock a little.  It turns out that the e8400 (which was also on sale) is an overclocking dream.  Here’s the 5 year old’s screen:

As you can see, her computer can do 4.05 GHz on air easily.  Crazy.  I remember the trouble I had 2 ½ years ago on my build and I used water.  It’s funny.  I’m still using that machine as my main rig, but my daughters’ new computers crush it.  I might spend some more money on a build for myself at year end.  We’ll see.

Another fun thing we did was to shoot a lot of video while the girls and I worked on the computers.  I’m sure I’ll put it up on YouTube after I get a chance to edit it.

Laptop Convertible.

November 30, 2008

As with a lot of ideas I have with video, this one sat in my brain for a few months.  Additionally, I had a few surprises.  Sometimes when I plan a project, what happens in reality is exactly what happened in my head.  In this project, that could not be further from the case.  I think that adds drama to the video.  It certainly created some consternation for me!  But I also got to learn an entirely new skill set in the process, so it was all good.

For your entertainment, I present Laptop Convertible:

Why aren’t I producing more?!

November 8, 2008

This blog means a lot to me, believe it or not.  I can express my thoughts here and actually find an audience.  In real life, my audience pays me to talk about stuff that isn’t really that fun, but that is important to those who employ me.  I’m not complaining about it, it’s part of my living.  However, my job is all consuming and it takes me away from creative fun stuff.  So my videos suffer and Friday Night Party Line goes on hiatus.

The end is in sight, however, for this year at least.  By the end of next week, my travels will be over for this year.  This means I can spend more time doing fun internet stuff.  I have an idea for a video involving moding a broken laptop using power tools!  I also have 3 computers I want to build  And of course FNPL will be back.

So it’s just a matter of time really and then I’ll be having fun again.

New KVM Goodness.

September 30, 2008

I ditched my old KVM and looked around for a 4 computer model that would work with my 30″ monitor.  I’m trying maximize the surface area on my desk.  Happily, I found one:

Here it is in action:

Right now, I only have one computer plugged into it.  The plan is to slowly build 2 more and perhaps buy a Mac Pro for the 4th.

I’ll do a follow up review on this in the future.
IOGEAR GCS1204 4PORT DVI KVMP SWITCH W/ 2.1 AUDIO DUAL LINK
(Oooh, cheaper here)
IOGear GCS1204 4-Port Dual Link DVI KVMP with 2.1 Audio

Building a PC: Tall or Wide?

September 6, 2008

As I see it, anyone who wants to build a computer today needs to make a choice:  should it be built to be as fast as possible without regard to the number of cores or should it have as many cores as possible without clockspeed being a priority?  In other words, should it be tall or wide?

If you want to go tall, it seems to me that you should buy the most expensive dual core chip you can find and then overclock it as far as it will go.  If you could get a dual core up to 4.6 GHz you would have a fast machine indeed.  Couple this with fast memory and a Raptor RAID 0 set up or even a flash drive and you have raw speed.  Of course with only 2 cores, it’s not wide.  But do you need it to be wide?

On the other hand, if you buy a Skulltrail motherboard and put 2 quadcore chips on it, then you’ve got something that’s wide.  You have 8 cores!  Even with overclocking, you probably won’t be able to get to the same speed as the overclocked dual cores.  However, if the software you’re using can handle multicore processing, this computer with smoke the dual core system using that application.

But there aren’t that many programs that can use quadcore chips effectively.  Today, it would seem that you’re better off with a fast dual core than spending crazy money on a quad or dual quad system.  This won’t always be the case, but for probably the next 6 months.  It’s true.

Expensive PC chrome.

September 1, 2008

I like reading both CPU and Maximum PC because I’m very much into computer hardware.  Some people like messing with cars; I like messing with computers.  Some people will pay more for chrome, I’ll pay more for GHz!

In its September 2008 issue, CPU featured some tricked out computers that sell for around $15,000.  That’s the price of a car.  If I were rich, would I buy such a thing?  Because I like building PCs, I probably would never buy a PC like this because I’d rather have the fun putting it together.

Let’s look at one of these.  The Biohazard Rapture impresses me because it uses “multiple evaporator phase-change cooling systems.”  This system allows Biohazard to overclock two QX9775 systems to 4.6GHz on a Skulltrail motherboard.  Whoa.  I mean, daaaaaaamn.  The cooling system brings the processors down to – 20 degrees F.  It’s very difficult for a hobbyist to do something like that.  So here, you’re getting something for your $15k that you can’t really do yourself.

Of course by studying these supercomputers, a hobbyist can see how the big boys do their tricks.  I picked up how to set up Raptor drives in RAID zero from reading about these machines.  I  also got into water cooling this way.  If I bought a Skulltrail mobo and some high end cooling equipment, I could probably create something faster than anything a person could buy at Microcenter.  But there’s no question I could not equal what Biohazard has done.

Could it be done more cheaply?  Relatively speaking, yes.  In this neighborhood of performance the mobo and the chips alone come close to $4,000.  Thus, even if you do it yourself, you’re talking about spending 5 grand.  Now that’s a third of the price of a Rapture, but the performance would be closer than that.  I’m confident that I could get it up to 4 GHz.  I’ve done that with lesser chips.  So while I’ll stipulate that I can’t match the Rapture for $5,000, I can get to 87% for 1/3rd the price.  Moreover, considering the level of diminishing returns right now on using an 8 core box, what difference would it really make day to day?

Sadly, that cuts both ways to me as a computer enthusiast.  You could say to me, “but Thaed, I can buy a Dell for $1000.00 that gives me comparable performance for 1/5 of your $5000.00 price that will be great for Office, Firefox and maybe a little Photoshop.”  And what do I have to say to that?  Well, yeah, but look at the chrome!