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”.

Taking amateur radio to the next level

Monday, June 30th, 2008

This weekend was pretty awesome. Saturday was jam-packed with ham radio activities, from morning until midnight (and beyond). That’s right, an entire day of ham radio! I started off by installing the 17-foot antenna I bought awhile back on top of our house. That took a good four to five hours, many of them spent on top of a burning-hot roof forty feet in the air. But it was worth it! Here’s a close-up look at the antenna.

Don’t be fooled by the upwards-looking perspective; this antenna is a full 17′ tall. The mount also adds about two feet to the overall height. Altogether, the antenna is about 30′ in the air. That’s not bad considering we didn’t have to put up a tower or anything. The three spokes sticking out of the bottom of the antenna are the radials, which create the ground plane for the radio signals. And I should point out that this antenna is a marked improvement over my previous antenna, which was a 44-incher at ground level.

The two flanges of the mount are located off-center on the pressure-treated wood blocks. This was not intentional, but rather, a consequence of bad measurement and trying to get the darn thing straight up in the air. But don’t let its looks fool you: the mount itself is rock-solid. You could throw a grappling hook through the mount and ascend to the roof from the ground. Each wooden block is secured with four 4.5″ bolts to blocks of wood on the interior of the house that are screwed directly into the house’s frame.

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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.

What, a techie worry about inflation? Never!

Friday, June 27th, 2008

I’ve been thinking about my expenses over time, and not only am I now spending less in real terms (adjusted for inflation), I am now spending less in absolute terms (raw dollar amounts at the time of purchase). Here are some examples. I bought a 20″ flat-screen display for my computer three and a half years ago for $700. I could get the same thing nowadays for $200. I spent around ~$1400 total on a new computer back in January 2007
, versus the ~$500 total I spent on a new computer this month that is better than the previous one in almost every way. And I haven’t bought a flat-panel television, a digital camera, or a mobile phone recently, but I may soon, each of which is now cheaper than ever before. Technology expenditures make up a substantial portion of my budget, so when the price of technology continues dropping year over year, I notice a big difference in how much money I’m saving up.

In the developing world, or amongst those living below the poverty line in developed nations, inflation has not been kind. Cost of living increases have been especially vicious, doubling the price of many basic food staples in the past year alone. Gasoline price increases have also dealt a cruel blow. Yet few increases have hit me very hard: my food expenditures are still a comparatively tiny part of my income, health care increases don’t affect me much because I’m young and I get free insurance through my employer, etc. The one increase that hasn’t been kind to me has been the price of gasoline, as I do commute to work regularly. But the price in gasoline has still been offset by all of the money I’m saving on gadgets.

Take an average 5% cost of living increase year-over-year (if ones income is also increasing at 5% a year, then ones real wage remains constant). Then look at Moore’s Law, which specifically addresses the increase of transistor density on microprocessors over time, but which can also be applied to the cost of technology of equivalent performance over time. Moore’s Law gives us a doubling in performance every two years, or equivalently, a halving in price for the same performance every two years. That’s a 30% annual cost of technology decrease for equivalent performance.

If you’re trying to stay on top of the latest and greatest in computer technology, then yes, costs haven’t decreased over time; a top of the line graphics card or processor will always be expensive. This is because the performance of computer components is increasing with Moore’s Law (thus canceling out the exponential price decreases), so the tiers remain roughly equivalently priced over time. But what was the high-end tier two years ago is now the low-end tier today. Most consumers’ technology needs do not grow exponentially like the technology itself does.

If all you’re doing is word processing, web browsing, and email, you don’t need to keep up with the latest and greatest hardware like gamers do, so a computer with basic functionality is much cheaper now than it was before. Many other consumer electronics items follow this basic curve as well: quality digital cameras are far cheaper than they’ve ever been; the same for big screen flat-panel televisions. You can get a 50″ flat-panel television for $1,500 now; two years ago, it was around $5,000. All hail rapidly decreasing costs of technology!

So if you’re a techie like I am, and you do spend a significant portion of your income on technological gadgets, do not fear the passage of time: relish it! Even though our economy is really tanking at the moment, I can’t be too sad about it. The march of technological progress continues ever onwards, bringing us ever more amazing things at ever-decreasing prices. The effects of time are hitting lots of people really hard as the prices of most basic needs grow much more quickly than real wages, but not everyone is suffering.

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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When the Internet hits 256K default routes, watch out

Thursday, March 6th, 2008

The Internet is nearing the magical number of 256K routes in forwarding tables of routers in the Default Free Zone. If that’s meaningless to you (it was previously to me), allow me to explain.

The Default Free Zone is the top level of Internet routing. There are millions, maybe even billions, of computers attached to the Internet, but the vast majority of them aren’t connected to the top level of the Internet; rather, they are aggregated into subnets by upstream providers. The Default Free Zone is where all of the upstream providers exchange traffic at the highest level. Depending on your perspective of the Internet, the Default Free Zone may have a different number of routes. The most noticeable reason for this is that some networks do not filter routes more specific than /24, but there are other reasons as well. Just note that the majority of top level routers still see fewer than 256K routes.

A fair number of Internet backbone routers (mostly older ones, and especially older ones made by Cisco) only support a forwarding table with a maximum size of 256K entries. Beyond that point, they either cannot add new entries or end up wiping older entries. This poses a huge problem, potentially leading to a cascading catastrophic failure of Internet routing. Even a single additional route above 256K could cause widespread failures if it caused an important route to get overwritten in some forwarding tables. And as the number of routes in the Default Free Zone exceeds 256K by more and more, just forget about it.

Nobody has really undertaken a comprehensive survey of the Internet to figure out how much older routing hardware is out there, but a quick Google search reveals that used 256K routers are still being sold, and presumably put into service. It will be interesting to watch the Internet over the coming months as the average number of routes in the Default Free Zone exceeds 256K. Forwarding tables may start spontaneously failing, and upstream providers that failed to anticipate the 256K crossover will be in a panic to replace all of their suddenly obsoleted hardware.

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Supreme Commander gets a great review (natch)

Thursday, February 22nd, 2007

Supreme Commander got a stellar 9 out of 10 review from Games Radar. The review is really worth a read, even if you’re not too much into gaming. At least you’ll see where the future of gaming is headed before everyone is doing it. Basically the review spends six pages raving about how awesome the game is (it really is) and only one page discussing some downsides.

I’ve already addressed all of the upsides in my previous posts on Supreme Commander, so I’ll just briefly re-consider the downsides that the review mentions. For one, they point out that the game is hardware-intensive. Yes, it certainly is. I hadn’t bought a new computer for three years and only just bought a new one right before Supreme Commander came out (not a coincidence), and even with top-of-the-line hardware, there can be significant chugging at times. What’s really scary is that the chugging seems to be due to processor limitations rather than graphics limitations, even though I’m using a very nice Core 2 Duo processor.

Simply put, the game is very ambitious. Like Total Annihilation, it will take a couple years after release before the hardware finally catches up with the software that Chris Taylor has graced us with. It’s not that that the game is unplayable; it most certainly is playable, and on small maps, it runs beautifully. But the ultimate promise of this game is playing on behemoth battlefields that are 80km on a side. Even the best hardware on the market right now can’t handle that without a degradation in gameplay performance.

The review also finds fault with Supreme Commander’s landscapes. They say they’re too sparse and they don’t really give a sense of scale. I disagree. I don’t know what they expected the landscapes to look like, but Supreme Commander is pretty dead on. I guess they wanted all of the worlds to be crammed full of various things — but that’s not particularly realistic. Having looked at lots of satellite photography, I can say that, although Supreme Commander maybe doesn’t have the most outlandish or interesting scenery, it is accurate, and it is what you’d expect to see when looking at scenery from so high up. Maybe the people at Games Radar were thrown off by the huge scale and didn’t realize that all of the environmental decorations they thought were missing are just so small that they disappear completely at all but the most zoomed-in levels. The Supreme Commander, for instance, which is the first unit you get on every level, is somewhere between 100 and 200 feet tall judging by the opening campaign sequence. So the base unit scale is already quite large, and when you zoom out to tactical and even strategic scales, what exactly are you expecting to see? You’re looking at dozens of square kilometers at once! You’d just expect to see the shape of the land, which is exactly what you do see in Supreme Commander. Individual trees aren’t visible at those levels, although you can see the green of vast forests.

So, the sense of scale really is there, it’s just that the Games Radar people didn’t realize how incredibly large the scale actually is, so they confused it with a lack of a sense of scale (something that can also happen when you’re, say, flying in an airplane).

Anyway, the short summary is that Supreme Commander is awesome. Buy it. You won’t regret it.

Beware of Linux incompatibilities: a tale of hardware woe

Tuesday, February 13th, 2007

I’ve learned an unfortunate lesson: if you’re building a new computer and you intend to put Linux on it, you really ought to make sure that the two are compatible. See, pretty much every new computer component is compatible with Windows by default, but the same is not true for Linux. The Windows drivers are generally written by the hardware company itself. These are essential if they want to sell it at all. But Linux drivers aren’t such a high priority, and frequently they end up being written by Linux developers who have to hack and reverse-engineer them together because the specifications aren’t open.

Thus my problem. The motherboard I bought, the GIGABYTE GA-965P-S3 LGA 775 Intel P965 Express ATX Intel Motherboard, is multiply incompatible with Linux. It uses a Jmicron SATA controller. I was able to find an experimental driver out there that seemed to work, but it’s not yet included in any of mainline Linux distributions or the mainline Linux kernel. I did find a modified Gentoo install CD that included the driver, so I was able to detect the hard drives, but then I ran into another problem: the network interface isn’t supported. D’oh! I still haven’t been able to get Linux working on this machine. I’m thinking I’ll try Ubuntu next; maybe I’ll have more luck.

But anyway, the lesson is this: when buying new hardware, make sure that everything is supported by the Linux distribution of your choice. I could have just as easily gone with a motherboard of similar price and feature set that was freaking currently compatible with Linux.