Archive for the 'Hardware' Category

My once-tiny GNU/Linux desktop morphs beyond all recognition

Tuesday, April 14th, 2009

Enermax Chakra
Almost a year ago, I bought a cute little desktop from Dell with the intent of using it as a GNU/Linux desktop alongside my existing Windows desktop. Its name is Vertumnus. But things don’t always turn out as planned. I quickly started using Vertumnus as my exclusive desktop PC, booting the Windows machine only to play games. Eventually I reformatted the Windows computer and the only applications I’ve reinstalled have been games, so it’s pretty much reduced to a gaming appliance at this point, like an XBOX360 but better.

The only problem is that when I originally bought Vertumnus, I didn’t have all of this in mind, and so I bought it rather under spec. I would’ve been better off just buying a better computer from the get-go. As a result, I’ve had to do quite a few upgrades over the past year to get it to meet my needs. From the very beginning I added more RAM and another hard drive. Then it joined a Stand Alone Complex. Then I added another hard drive. From the outside it still looked the same, but a lot of the interior was upgraded. Now even that is no longer true.

Yesterday, I spent two hours (and another $160) redoing the computer even further. The case was too cramped and was preventing further upgrades. So I moved the computer into a new case, the Enermax Chakra. It’s appreciably bigger than the previous Dell case. It’s also a lot more flexible on the inside in terms of which parts will fit into it. Why the Chakra? I only had two criteria, but the Chakra was pretty much the only case that met both of them: 1) It had to have a 250mm fan, but 2) No LEDs. Both criteria come from my computer living in my bedroom: it has to be silent (hence a big, slow-spinning fan) and it has to be dark, so that I can sleep!

Since the case didn’t come with any fans besides the huge 250mm one, I purchased two of the quietest 120mm fans in existence, the Scythe Gentle Typhoon. Again, my criteria were the same: Quiet and no LEDs. The Gentle Typhoons best met those. I also had to get a new power supply, because the 250 Watt one from Dell isn’t able to accommodate the video card I was about to put in. So I went with the Corsair 550W PSU. It was the power supply that best met my criteria: High efficiency (85%!), quiet (a big 120mm fan), and no LEDs. And it’s more than enough to power the video card that I put in, a hand-me-down GeForce 8800 GTS. Yes, that’s right, I finally got tired of the inferior performance of the Intel integrated graphics card. Now I can actually play modern 3D games in GNU/Linux.

And as if all that wasn’t enough, while transitioning all of the parts from one case to another, the CPU fan developed a faulty bearing which makes it obnoxiously loud. So the first thing I hear upon starting up my supposed-to-be-silent computer is a loud whirring fan noise. Rather than giving up my dreams of a silent computer, I ordered a replacement CPU fan/heatsink, the Arctic Cooling Freezer 7 Pro. Why that one? I already have one in my Windows computer and it cools really well. Plus it’s quiet. It hasn’t arrived yet, but it’s going into Vertumnus as soon as it does.

The new GeForce 8800 GTS is so large that it covers up one of the SATA ports on the Dell motherboard (and another one is rendered inaccessible to all but right-angle SATA connectors). Since I have three SATA hard drives and one SATA DVD-R drive, that’s a problem. The DVD drive is currently unplugged, but I’ll swap it out for an IDE DVD-R drive from my Windows desktop soon — thankfully, the video card doesn’t block the IDE port.

Once all of this is done, the only original parts that will remain in Vertumnus from the original purchase will be the Intel Core 2 Duo E7200 processor, 2 1 GB sticks of DDR2 RAM, the motherboard, and one 500 GB hard drive. And that’s after less than one year. Clearly, I tried saving too much money by buying a system far below my ultimate desired specifications, then wasted a bit more than those savings on upgrades. And I can’t even say the upgrades are done. At some point I’m going to need another hard drive, but since I’m all out of SATA ports, I’ll either have to get an add-in card or replace the motherboard. The original RAM that Dell shipped was pretty slow, and can easily (and cheaply) be replaced with something better. And the processor is looking slightly anemic. A nice quad-core processor would be fun to play around with …

Long story short, in another year, it’s quite possible that the only component remaining from my original purchase will be the 500 GB hard drive and a SATA cable or two. I guess I learned my lesson. Don’t try to save too much money on a computer if, at heart, you’re really just a techie who demands performance.

Review of Antec skeleton case neglects to mention RFI issues

Sunday, October 19th, 2008

I will admit to being fascinated by Antec’s latest case. It’s more of a skeleton than an enclosure, providing mounting points for all of a computer’s components to screw into, fans, and nothing else. I especially like how up to four additional hard drives (in addition to the two it fits “internally”) can be clipped onto the outside. Despite the case’s goofy novelty, this really is something I could get into. I tinker with my computers a lot, often running them with the sides off in between swapping out hardware, so this wouldn’t be that much of a stretch. Heck, I’ve run computers with IDE ribbon cables connected to “external” hard drives sitting on top of the case; the skeleton case’s mounting option would’ve been really nice. And above all, I just like the idea of being able to see the components in my computer (which I paid quite a bit of money for) at all times.

But I’m also a bit of a realist. There is a good reason that all other consumer-level computer cases are, well, cases: it makes sense to put your computer’s delicate vitals inside of an enclosure. The case helps keep dust out. It also keeps objects from falling onto the computer’s components. Drop a sizable object onto a normal computer case and the worse that will likely happen is a large dent in the case. But even dropping a coin into the internals of an exposed skeleton case could short out some contact points on the motherboard, or get caught in a fast-spinning fan and turn it into slying shrapnel. Dropping anything larger could easily cause substantial damage to delicate internal components that a 1mm thick steel case wouldn’t blink at. And let’s not forget the problem of spilling food or drink. Spill something on top of a normal case and odds are good you can quickly wipe it up before it seeps in (and the case itself will deflect most of it). Spill something into a skeleton case, and you’re almost guaranteed some kind of catastrophic failure.

But even if you’re never clumsy, and you set up your skeleton case in such a way that there is zero probability of anything ever falling on/into it, there is another less obvious problem lurking: radio frequency interference (RFI). One of the reasons computers and most other electronics are sold enclosed in metal cages is to prevent RFI (even when the exterior is plastic, there will be an internal metallic Farraday cage enclosing the electronic components). Electronics are sold this way because of a sensible regulatory requirement by the FCC to prohibit your household electronic devices from interfering with other devices. Since the skeleton case doesn’t ship with any electronics in it, it can get past the FCC, but no computer retailer would be able to sell a pre-built computer inside a skeleton case. Computers, having all sorts of components in them running at various clock speeds, produce quite a number of radio waves of various frequencies.

The RFI produced by a computer can potentially interfere with nearby electronic devices. It might cause a hum on a speaker system, for instance, or produce static on a radio (ham radio operators on HF frequencies especially should stay far clear of skeleton cases). Depending on how severe the RFI produced by the computer is, and on which wavelengths, it could interfere with wireless mouses and keyboards, or even a monitor. There’s no way to be sure, really — the specifics of RFI are really finicky, and depend as much on the characteristics of the receiving device as of the computer in the skeleton case. The interference also works both ways, so your computer could suffer some rather catastrophic crashes if parts of its circuitry happen to be resonant with a nearby source of radio waves. Considering that I pick up low power AM radio through my bass guitar’s unshielded instrument cable when I turn the gain all the way up, it’s not far-fetched to imagine interference affecting an unshielded computer as well.

But I’m just making educated guesses. What we really need is cold hard data on how much RFI an unshielded computer puts out, and what sources of radio waves one might expect to interfere with the computer. Unfortunately, ExtremeTech didn’t examine this angle at all in their review, and my lack of a test bed (let alone the willingness to pony up $190 for the case) precludes me from finding out myself. So I really wish someone would do the requisite experimentation, because the skeleton case concept could be completely DOA for reasons less obvious than “you might drop stuff into it”.

Nvidia’s chip fabrication problem

Friday, September 5th, 2008

The Inquirer recently published an excellent article about Nvidia’s chip fabrication problem that I highly recommend reading. It doesn’t spare any of the technical details in explaining why Nivida’s recent graphics chips are approaching a failure rate of 40% on some lines. The short summary of the problem is that Nvidia put off some complex but necessary re-engineering on their new chip lines until it was too late to do it properly, so to meet engineering tolerances they switched out one type of component with another, thus causing a whole set of problems including fast failure rates. Ouch.

What with ATI’s new line of 4850 and 4870 graphics chips that are surprisingly good, their new and improved GNU/Linux support, and a lack of high failure rates, I’m thinking my next graphics card purchase will be an ATI. This latest round of news is really bad for Nvidia, but definitely good for ATI. I wouldn’t even consider buying another Nvidia card until I hear that the problems are worked out.

Wherein my computer joins a Stand Alone Complex

Sunday, June 29th, 2008

A year ago, Drinian was in Akihabara, Japan and he happened to pick up some Laughing Man stickers. He didn’t end up using most of them though, and he figured I would get more enjoyment of them than he would, so he gave them to me. I highly suspect that he was correct, because I’m having a blast with them. Unfortunately I only have three left, so I have to start rationing them carefully, but here’s what I did with one of them.

I bought a new computer recently that has been serving as my primary GNU/Linux desktop for the past few weeks. I initially wanted to build a computer from parts, because there’s a huge hackerish appeal to it (and because it’s usually cheaper), but then I came upon a fantastic deal on a Dell small business computer that I couldn’t turn down. But it just left the hardware nerd in me a little bit unsatisfied. It’s just another Dell box; it’s totally blah. Hell, it even came with Windows Vista stickers on it (which I have since removed); yecch! Laughing Man sticker to the rescue!

Luckily, the Laughing Man sticker was just the perfect size to fit directly on top of the Dell logo. My computer has gone from corporate to geeky. It’s gone from slaving away on mundane tasks to joining a Stand Alone Complex and fighting in the guerrilla Free Software movement against Big Proprietary Software. Err, something like that. So thank you Drinian for the stickers!

Now if only I could replenish my supply of Laughing Man stickers without having to cross over eleven time zones.

Minor hardware upgrade news

Saturday, June 21st, 2008

Having just gotten a new computer a scant two weeks ago, I’ve already failed at resisting the urge to start pimping it out. I should point out the whole point of this endeavor was to make a cheap computer. Well, today I added another 2 GB of RAM (at a cost of $25) and a 400 GB hard drive (transferred from another computer). I’m lucky I already had that hard drive laying around; otherwise, I’d be out another, what, $80?

So the total price of my “cheap” system, if you don’t have any components laying around and have to buy everything from scratch, has ballooned to over $500. And that’s not even the end of it. I thought I could get away without a discrete graphics card; well, now I’m finding out that maybe I can’t. I’ve been playing around with Compiz, the 3D desktop manager, and also gotten interested in running some 3D Windows games in Wine. So it looks like I will need better than Intel Integrated graphics after all. And with the recent news that ATI is beefing up their Linux support, it’s proving hard to resist.

I still contend it’s possible to build a decent GNU/Linux desktop computer for $300. It’s just not something I seem capable of. I have the upgrade bug. The first time I happen to examine top and notice that I’m using swap space (gah!), I’m off buying 2 GB more RAM. A similar thing happens when I fill up all my hard drives (the whole reason I added this 400 GB hard drive is because the 500 GB one the system came with is already full).

Meet Vertumnus, my new GNU/Linux desktop (running on a Dell Inspiron 530)

Wednesday, June 11th, 2008

If this post seems a little glowing, don’t be alarmed; it’s because I’m still basking in the brilliant sheen of my new GNU/Linux desktop (which I am composing this blog post on as I type these very words — and these words, too). That’s right, I went through with my plans for setting up a GNU/Linux desktop, though I didn’t actually use the parts list I threw together two weeks ago. I ran across an amazing deal through Dell’s small business site (instant savings of nearly half off!) on an Inspiron 530 and I jumped on it. For $360 ($407 after shipping and state taxes), I got a nice little Dell mini-tower with an Intel Core 2 Duo E8200 processor, 2 GB of DDR2 PC2 6400 RAM, 500GB SATA hard drive with 16 MB cache, SATA DVD burner, keyboard, and optical scroll mouse. It ended up being about the same price as the parts list I put together, but the performance is marginally better, with the added possibility of upgrading to 4 GB of RAM. It also came with Windows Vista Home Premium, which I suppose would be a value add-in for some, but which just made me wince at how much cheaper I could have gotten this system without paying the Microsoft tax. Anyway, Vista’s in the trash now, where it belongs, and the price was good enough that I’m not worrying about it.

Installing the OS

I was going to install Kubuntu on my new system, but I opted for Ubuntu instead on a recommendation from Drinian, who says that Kubuntu isn’t quite as well put-together. The only reason I wanted Kubuntu was because I wanted to run KDE instead of Gnome, but it turns out that’s incredibly easy to accomplish in Ubuntu (just install the kubuntu-desktop meta-package in aptitude, then set your login session to KDE). So choosing Ubuntu over Kubuntu hasn’t left me disappointed in any way.

Unfortunately, installing Ubuntu GNU/Linux still wasn’t as easy as it should have been. I blame the problem on hardware incompatibilities, most likely with the SATA controller on the motherboard. The installation CD wouldn’t boot without passing the kernel parameter “all_generic_ide”, which is something I can handle but the average computer user is likely to be turned off by. Then, after the installation completed, my system wouldn’t boot from the hard drive for the same reason, so I had to boot back into the LiveCD environment, mount my boot partition, and then edit grub’s (a bootloader) menu.lst to pass that same kernel parameter. So, yeah, GNU/Linux isn’t exactly friendly for the masses, at least not on this hardware. Curiously enough, I had this exact same problem when dual-booting Fedora Core (another distribution of GNU/Linux) on my previous desktop. There’s definitely some room for improvement in this area by either the Linux kernel developers or the Ubuntu packagers. There’s no real reason this can’t be one of those things that “Just Works”.

Naming the system

But after the minor hitch with “all_generic_ide” , everything else worked just fine. It was the smoothest GNU/Linux installation I believe I’ve ever done. The GNU/Linux graphical installers have become quite advanced, completely putting anything Microsoft offers up to shame. Actually, the part of the installation process that took the longest time was picking a name for my new computer. I have a long history of naming computers after various mythologies, deities, or nerdy things (Ixion, Dark Anima, Fyre, Quezacoatl, Geminoid, Phoenix, etc.), so I wanted to continue the theme. I figured since this is the first time I’ve ever used a dedicated GNU/Linux system as my primary desktop (as opposed to Microsoft Windows), I wanted to emphasize the change this brings to my computing life. So I got into a lively discussion on IRC with someone who apparently knows a good deal about ancient Greek/Roman mythology, and his best suggestion was the Roman god Vertumnus, who is “the god of seasons, change and plant growth, as well as gardens and fruit trees”. I liked both the change aspect and the environmental aspect, so Vertumnus it was.

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The impending death of optical media

Monday, June 2nd, 2008


I find it rather quirky that downloaded videos continue to clock in at convenient CD-sized chunks: 175 MB for a half-hour show, 350 MB for a full-hour show, and 700 MB for a two-hour movie. Nowadays these sizes are mostly just a relic, but there used to be an actual reason for these specific file sizes: people were burning the files to CDs, and they had to fit. I know that was a big concern for me. Each CD could thus fit one movie (or half of one, depending on length and/or quality), two full-hour shows, or four half-hour shows. Back when hard drive space was a lot more expensive than it is now, it was actually cheaper to use a bunch of CDs. It was even worth the inconvenience of putting up with all of the messiness that using CDs entailed. I remember having a constantly maxed-out 768 Kbps ADSL broadband connection and a 40 GB hard drive; you can calculate out how much CD burning I was doing. I still have many hundreds of burned CDs up in my old bedroom, untouched after so many years.

Nowadays, a good do-everything DVD burner is under $30, and blank DVD media is way cheaper than CD media on a per-megabyte basis, yet still those silly file sizes persist. I can’t see any reasoning to it besides inertia. Yet by the time DVDs became commonplace for storing data I had already stopped using optical media for those purposes and no longer cared about discretized file sizes; I was using hard drives for bulk storage. Sure, hard drives were still a bit more expensive on a per megabyte basis, but not having to put up with all of the inconvenience of burning data to DVDs, storing them, and then rooting through them later on to find something made it worth it. But now there’s no excuse for optical media. A 500 GB hard drive is under $100, so you spend less than $1 perDVD’s worth of storage. And the hard drive space can be used over effectively an infinite number of times, while the DVD is limited to one usage. Optical media just doesn’t make sense anymore.

I realized this a week ago when I put together a parts list for a new computer and plum forgot the DVD drive. I remembered all of the essential components, but the DVD drive didn’t even cross my mind. And it’s no wonder. Thinking back in the past several months, I can only think of one instance in which I used my DVD drive. That was to install the drivers for a USB data cable I bought for my Yaesu FT-7800R amateur radio transceiver. A week later, things went wrong, and I had to reinstall the driver, only I had already lost the driver CD. No biggie; I located the drivers online in less than a minute. So the one use of my optical drive in recent memory wasn’t even necessary.

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Specs for a high power, cheap ($380) GNU/Linux desktop

Wednesday, May 28th, 2008

The other day, I was realizing that I don’t use GNU/Linux as often as I should. Sure, I run it exclusively on my servers, but I still use Windows on the desktop for the most part. That’s more out of habit than out of any need. Everything I currently do in Windows I can do in GNU/Linux, except for the games, which I’m playing more and more occasionally these days. I was dual-booting my current desktop with Windows XP and GNU/Linux for awhile, but it proved to be inconvenient. My computers’ uptimes, both servers and desktops, are typically measured in months (only going down for crashes and power losses). It takes awhile to reboot and restart all of the applications I typically have running, so I don’t do it by choice. Thus you can see the problem with dual-booting: it entails constant rebooting, which I had to do as often as I felt like playing a Windows game. And then once I was in Windows I wouldn’t want to go through the hassle of booting into GNU/Linux only to boot back into Windows the next time I wanted to play a game. It simply wasn’t working.

So I now see the problem with my initial attempts at using GNU/Linux on the desktop. I simply don’t have the patience to put up with all of those constant reboots and interruptions in my computing environment. I’m too lazy. I’m simply going to get another desktop to use exclusively for GNU/Linux, while making every effort to only use my current Windows desktop for playing games. And luckily, making a desktop computer is cheaper than it’s ever been. Here is a current parts list I put together just yesterday for a killer GNU/Linux desktop.

The specs

This complete GNU/Linux system costs only $355. Throw in shipping and we’ll call it $380. That’s a really cheap price considering how powerful this system is. Avoiding the Microsoft tax by choosing a Free operating system pays huge dividends when the overall system is cheap. Allow me to explain the choices I made in putting this system together with individual analyses of each other components:

The barebone system

First of all, I save a lot of money with this computer by building it into a barebone system. A price of $90 for a case, power supply, and motherboard is really hard to beat. You can easily spend over $90 for each of those individual components (and in fact, when I built my current desktop, I did). Getting a good barebone system is an excellent way to save a lot of money on a low-end desktop. If you’re not building a low-end desktop, I wouldn’t bother. The limitations can be significant. For instance, the motherboard that ships in the barebone I picked out supports a maximum of 2 GB of RAM; fine for a low-end system, but you really want 4 GB of RAM on a medium or high end system. And the power supply is only 250W; again, fine for a low end system, but don’t expect it to be able to power, say, a high-end discrete video card. And naturally the motherboard doesn’t support dual video cards, which would be an upgrade path you might want to keep open on a system you’re outlaying more money on. It also doesn’t support quad-core processors. So there are limitations, but for a low-level system, you won’t run into them.

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How to run a power cable through a 1996 Ford Taurus firewall

Monday, March 31st, 2008

I bought a fused power cable at the hamfest in Maryland this weekend so I could install my mobile ham radio in my 1996 Ford Taurus. There was just one problem: getting the cable from the battery in the engine compartment to the passenger compartment. In between these two sections is the firewall, and the firewall on the Ford Taurus is notoriously hard to get through. Many other vehicles have unused or underused grommets that a cable can be passed through, but preliminary investigations on the web revealed only one unused grommet in the Ford Taurus, but I couldn’t even locate it. I’m writing this blog post so that anyone else who finds themselves in a similar situation will know what to do, whether they’re powering a ham radio, subwoofer, amp, whatever.

Since I couldn’t find a grommet to pass the cable through, I ended up drilling a hole through the firewall near where the gas pedal wire goes through the firewall. I chose this location to drill because it was one of the few spots that was relatively unobstructed on both sides of the firewall. I was worried about the wires potentially interfering with the movement of the gas pedal in the passenger compartment, but I came up with a solution (more on that later).

The place you want to drill through is directly to the left of the circular metal pad surrounding where the throttle wire passes through the firewall. Drill from the inside of the vehicle; the engine compartment is way too cramped. The foot well is cramped too, but doable. You’ll have to lie with your back on the lip of the doorway and your feet on the ground. I recommend using a power drill plugged into 120VAC from an extension cord. Battery-powered drills are more bulky and might not fit in the cramped space inside the foot well, and you’re going to need a lot of power to get through that firewall (you are drilling through fireproof metal, after all).

Power cable going through hole in firewall
Fig. 1: The hole in the firewall where the cable passes through. The two black cylinders contain the fuses. The hole in the insulation is a bit bigger than the hole in the metal firewall underneath, which is just big enough to fit the cable.

My power cable consisted of a red and a black wire joined together, so it was significantly larger in one dimension. Thus, I had to cut out a tall hole that would allow the wire to pass through. A neat trick is to drill two separate close-by holes with a smaller drill bit, then keep drilling with larger drill bits until the two holes merge. Then you’ll be able to fit your non-circular wire through. Also, I definitely recommend wearing a heavy duty leather glove on the hand that’s holding the drill. I wasn’t, and I left a good bit of skin on the sharp steel vent when I scraped my finger against it after the drill abruptly pierced through to the other side of the firewall.

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Human think, computer do?

Tuesday, March 4th, 2008

According to OCZ’s enthusiastic press releases, the future of human-computer interfaces is right around the corner. They’re releasing the Neural Impulse Actuator, a device that you wear on your forehead and use to control a computer with your thoughts. Yes, really. No, it’s not fake (that’s the first thing I thought too). It’s very real, and there are other reports on it from people who saw it at CES.

So, given that it’s real, my next question was “How well does it work?” The likely answer is, not very well. It won’t be able to handle complex, nuanced thoughts. But it can tell the difference between, say, concentrating really hard or relaxing. I imagine there’d be a bit of a learning curve as well; the more you use it, the better you become at generating the exact neural impulses that it’s looking for (which may or may not be the same as “thoughts” as we currently think of them). It’s hard to know what those might feel like (perhaps imagining raising one eyebrow), but when you have the device plugged into a computer giving you constant feedback, you should be able to figure out what it’s looking for.

I am concerned about the resolution that this device will offer. Let’s say you’re trying to move a cursor around in two dimensions, a very common task. How accurate is it? Is the only way to get good accuracy to reduce the speed of the cursor, so that it might take a full minute to move the cursor all the way across the screen? It doesn’t seem appropriate as a mouse replacement, though it could do well as a sort of hotkey-based interface. Say each command consists of a sequence of three neural impulses — with just five different thoughts, you have a possibility of 125 different combinations, and thus, 125 commands. Not too shabby.

I could continue speculating about this device, but that seems kind of fruitless. We simply don’t know nearly enough about its capabilities and how it actually works yet. For now, it’s all just marketing hype. I’m going to wait until the first shipment of these goes out and the first in-depth reviews are published. If they sound promising, I’ll buy one. Here’s why.

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