Tuesday Oct 05, 2004

Ahoy AMD64

Despite the issues newegg.com has with their website (I still can't access it with Firefox, but it works just fine with IE6 :(((( ), they do work hard to deliver. I ordered my hardware late Friday morning, and the hardware was delivered to my door at 11:30AM on Monday. Excellent. Now the fun work begins, as I figure out how to shuffle data from 3 IDE HDDs onto two, back up all of my critical data from Windows, and then reinstall the whole system once the new hardware is installed. Should be interesting.

Thursday Sep 30, 2004

Upgrade Update

I spent some time last night second-guessing my decision to go with a Socket 939 solution instead of a Socket 754. The AMD64 processor line has an on-die memory controller, like the UltraSPARC-III and later processors. Socket 754 was the first to be introduced, with a single channel DDR controller, while earlier this year saw the first 939 processors and boards with dual-channel DDRCs. According to most reviews, the difference is not that large - a best case 3-5% performance improvement. However, there is a third AMD64 socket type - 940, which is used today by the Athlon FX series of processors and the server based Opteron chips. The plan is to migrate the FX series from 940 to 939, leaving the Opteron in the server space. The Athlon 64/64FX processors will all unified in the Socket 939 spec, targeted at workstations and enthusiasts. Socket 754 won't go away, as AMD will target this at the main-stream desktop market. The Sempron and Socket A will continue to serve the budget desktop market.

As Socket 939 is a relatively new introduction, processors and motherboards are still expensive. Most of the forum posts I've read on the topic suggest that the price/performance for Socket 939 just isn't there. Of course, most of these posts were from the start of this summer, and since then the price of an AMD64 3500+ has fallen from ~US$500 to ~US$330. The nearest Socket 754 chip comparable to a 3500+ is a 3400+, which comes in at ~US$290. The price difference of ~US$40 seems like a small amount to spend to get a better upgrade path, once AMD starts introducing dual-core processors (assuming that won't be another DDRC change requiring yet another socket change). I finally convinced myself that 939 was the way to go. Case 50% closed.

The other side of the equation is the motherboard. Socket 939 motherboards are also relatively inexpensive, compared to what I have spent in the past to upgrade my system. The MSI board listed in my last AMD Upgrade post is ~US$140, while some of the Socket 754 boards with similar functionality come in ~US$120. The difficult choice here was between the NVidia nForce3 250Gb chipset and the VIA K8T800. Every non-forum review of these two chipsets I have read concludes that both are equal. Anecdotal evidence from forums seems to suggest that nForce is more stable than VIA, but I've been using ABit boards based on VIA chipsets for years without stability issues. One of my chief concerns is support for the chipset in non-Windows environments like Linux and Solaris x86_64. VIA has generic drivers in the Linux kernel, so basic functionality can be had without having to resort to separate drivers. Functionality of nF3 based boards in Windows surpasses that of VIA, but it requires NVidia's proprietary drivers to operate in Linux. At this point, I'm not sure if either chipset is supported in Solaris.

My decision is now down to the final sticking point. Should I go with the VIA, and spare some of the performance and stability for driverless support under Linux? Or should I go with the nForce3 board, get superior Windows performance for games, and live with the fact that I will, yet again, be out on the cold, harsh, bleeding edge of technology.

If it were'nt for the fact that Newegg.com has been down for the last 12-14 hours, I probably would have already made the decision. The extra time I have to mull over the issue is certainly causing me to overthink. I can hardly believe that a site like Newegg.com, which is absolutely critical to their business (it is their business), is down for this length of time. Even a planned outage for the revenue producing face of this company should not even be noticed by the users, much less interrupt purchases and prevent new ones from accessing the store.

Maybe it would be a good idea for the Sun sales force to descend on Newegg and show them how e-business is really supposed to work.

Monday Sep 27, 2004

x86 Shuffle

I don't work from home that often, so I don't require a SPARC based workstation like I enjoy in my office, but I do enjoy a good game of Doom 3 now and then. To support this habit, I've decided to upgrade my current home system. I built my current system in early 2000, and it has remained future proof up until very recently. Specifically, releases of games such as Doom 3 and Halflife 2 have required more GL power than my old GeForce 2 32MB card could provide. My current rig:

  • ABit VP6 Dual PIII mainboard
  • 2 x PIII 1GHz Coppermine (C0 stepping)
  • 512MB Corsair CAS3 SDRAM
  • SB Audigy Platinum
  • Netgear MA311 802.11b
  • ATI Radeon 9800PRO 128MB
  • 2 x IBM Deskstar 60GXP 60GB/ATA100/7200RPM/2MB Cache
  • IBM Deskstar 60GXP 40GB/ATA100/7200RPM/2MB Cache
  • Pioneer DVD-106S (Slot Load)
  • LITE-ON LTR-48125W 48x12x48 CD/RW
  • Antec Sonata Case w/380W PS
  • NEC MultiSync FE1250+ 22"
  • Cambridge Soundworks 5.1 Audio
  • Dual boot Windows XP and Fedora Core 2

Bold items are the lucky components to be included in my new system. You might be thinking -- this seems like enough, why upgrade? Well, it all began when I upgraded my video card to the Radeon. The board layout for the VP6 puts CPU1 directly above the AGP slot, which I didn't believe to be that big an issue when I bought the board. When I bought the Radeon, I knew that it would produce a lot more heat, so I bought some nice new Thermaltake copper heatsinks for the P3s. Really, the point was to reduce the overall noise level of the system, which I've since learned is next to impossible with a dual CPU VP6 (larger heat sinks from Zalman were recommended here, but don't fit).

After I moved all of my hardware into the Antec case, added in the Radeon card, and strapped on my shiny new copper heatsink, almost everything came up, which is obviously not acceptable. Now, the VP6 board comes with a RAID controller on board, which allows me to run RAID 0, 1 or 0+1 with up to four drives. Alternatly, I can turn off the RAID function, and have two more IDE controllers to use, which allows for up to a total of 8 IDE devices. I had configured my system to run each drive as a channel master, with only the 40GB storage drive and DVD sharing a bus. Normally, when I start the system, it displays the normal hardware probe screen, and then switches to a drive detection screen for the RAID controller (Highpoint HPT370).

So, when I started up the system in a new case with the fantastic Radeon card inside, I was puzzled when the RAID detection screen didn't come up. Switching the card for my old GeForce caused the detection screen to reappear, but I wasn't about to take the Radeon back to the store. I posted a few times on ArsTechnica Forums, probing my initial suspicion that there was some sort of IRQ sharing problem between Mr. RAID controller and Mr. Radeon. Someone on the Ars forums postulated that the Radeon might not be properly releasing resources after initialization, leaving insufficient space in BIOS mapped RAM to allow the RAID controller to initialize. Of course, I am explaining this phonetically, as I really don't fully understand how ACPI initializes PCI cards.

I still haven't figured out how to fully resolve the issue, but I figured that it was partly due to the age difference between the Radeon and my mainboard. Without the HPT370 drivers in Windows XP, the devices attached to the RAID controller do not show up. Installing the drivers makes the devices appear -- Linux gets it right the first time with no extra drivers or configuration. So, dispite the fact that I have to do a bit of a jig after a fresh Windows XP install to see my drives, at least I now can access them. Problem solved enough.

Now that the all singing, all dancing Radeon is working under Linux, I made a special effort to find the highest performance, higest resolution, most fantastic and earth shattering screen saver. This came in the form of a translucent dancing torus (4D Hypertorus, for you KDE users). After staring at it for several minutes, I locked the screen and allowed the torus to dance into the night. An hour later, I came back to the system --- locked solid. I thought that it might be an issue with Linux, which has really never worked 100% with my dual cpu VP6 anyway (issues mostly with ACPI), so I rebooted, and no lockups while I worked for the rest of the evening. The next time I left the system on the screensaver, it locked up again. Hmmm. I switched screensavers, and now I haven't had a lockup for over a month.

The issue turned out to be heat. As I mentioned before, the VP6 puts CPU1 directly above the AGP slot. With a Radeon installed, this is similar to putting CPU1 in a toaster oven. Checking temps on the CPUs after running some 3D demos, I found that CPU0 was hovering around 35-40C, and CPU1 was up around 55C. Heat was rising off the Radeon, and warming the CPU heatsink. There's no opportunity for a larger heatsink, and I really don't want to mess around with liquid cooling for this old system. This was really the last straw for the dual CPU setup.

The new rig will use the bold items in the listing above, with the addition of the following:

  • MSI Neo2 Platinum nForce3 Ultra mainboard
  • AMD Athlon 64 3500+ (Socket 939, Newcastle core, 2.2GHz)
  • 1GB(512x2) OCZ DDR PC3200 (2-3-2-6 1T)

From what I gathered from a whole Sunday afternoon of research and pricing comparisons, the Socket 939 platform seems to be the most future proof for AMD64 desktop systems. Socket 939 is similar to the original AMD64 Socket 745, but provides a dual-channel memory controller on board instead of a single channel controller. It seems that the number of socket types is blooming at the moment in the AMD space. This is due to the on-board memory controller -- every time a new type of RAM appears, silicon must be changed in the CPU. As a result, AMD needs to make sure that the CPU cannot be installed in the wrong system, and their solution is to change the socket interface. From my observation, Sun has sidestepped this by using proprietary RAM, so nearly everything can be held constant to allow multiple models of CPUs to use the same RAM and mainboards.

Anyway, we will see once the new system comes together whether I will finally be free of the upgrade struggle for another four years. I like to upgrade my system, but don't like doing it more than once every couple of years or so, or less for major brain transplants like the above.

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