Saturday, April 28, 2007

New PC for Daughter

Well, I was planning to upgrade the internals of my Daughter's 5-year old Dell 500SC (with 1.2GHz Celeron) ... but she beat me to the punch and literally let the "magic smoke" out. The room smelled for a bit and the system was completely dead - the power supply died. So desiring a solution to last the family for another 4 to 5 years, and given the cost of buying Windows Vista as an "upgrade" I decided to just find a good, low-cost stock system which came prelicensed. Plus my wife likes to touch-n-feel things before buying.

Acer Aspire E380
We found a nice "open-box" Acer Aspire E380 for $590 plus we received a free $50 free gift card. It has a nice "stainless-steel" looking case with black trim - very sharp & wife-approved. Although just manufactured in Jan 2007, I guess this particular model is being axed so BestBuy was selling off the floor model. I've had several Acer notebooks in the past and consider Acer quality acceptable - but their web site and documentation has gone very badly downhill. Off the shelf, the E380's specs were:
  • AMD Athlon 64 X2 Dual Core 4200+ (2.20GHz)
  • Acer EM61SM/EM61PM Motherboard, based on NVidia 6100V chipset
  • Hitachi 320GB SATA 7400RPM Hard Drive
  • 2x512KB DDR2 PC2-4300 (533) RAM
  • Windows Home Premium (Experience Rating 2.9 limited by graphics)
Home Tweaks:
My first step was to add a PCI-Express-based NVidia 7600GT graphics card with 12 hardware pixel shaders and 256MB DDR3 RAM (worth about $99 online). This boosted the Windows rating from 2.9 up to 4.5, with the rating now being limited by the rather pathetic system RAM. The 7600 is rated at 5.9; the X2 processor is rated 4.9 and even the stock SATA hard drive is rated a 5.6. Not bad for a computer costing less than $600.

But NVidia suggests a minimum 350-watt power supply with 18A of 12vdc power for the 7600GT, while the E380 came with only a 300-watt supply split between 10Amp and 13Amp 12vdc rails. Given the old PC died from power supply failure and the E380's stock power supply was blowing some pretty hot air out the back as-is, I upgraded to an EnerMax 400-watt ELT400AWT ($75 online). This is the 5th system I've used this supply in and I have been pleased with the results. The ELT400AWT has modular cables for the drive power, a large 120mm fan, and after installation is blowing nice, cool air out of the Acer E380. It is rated for a total 12vdc of 30A being split with up to 20A on either of two 12vdc rails. That should satisfy both the NVidia 7600 and the DVR card I may add later. Since my daughter doesn't play PC games I don't foresee ever needing to add higher graphics power to this PC. Actually, I was a bit surprised at the temperature difference between the stock and EnerMax supply - since both were running the same load I can only assume the stock supply had a super low efficiency.

I added a quiet 120mm door fan with external filter. I like the Antec Tri-Cool fans, as they include a small switch to select 1 of 3 speeds (and therefore 1 of 3 sound levels). As much as I hate the fan cable linking the door to the case, blowing air directly onto the top of the PCI cards and the various chip sets has such a noticeable impact on lowering temperatures that I feel obligated to do this. Luckily the Acer has a perforated door grill which allowed the fan to be attached via 1.25-inch machine screws without cutting a 120mm hole in the metal door.

The only tweak remaining is the slow RAM. While the Acer EM61SM Mother board has no real manual (even online), from everything I can find it should support DDR2-800. But I'm in no hurry ... as soon as I find a use for the old DDR2-533 RAM I'll buy 1 or 2GB of DDR2-800 to swap into this system. Until then it runs pretty well.

Issues to watch for in buying "off-the-shelf" systems
With margins being squeezed, builders like Dell, HP or Acer tend to skimp on the specs that normal people don't look at. The difference between a $600 and $1200 system is rarely enough to justify spending the extra $600. In my case, I prefer to buy the $600 system and spend another $200-300 to make a system better than the $1200 one would have been.

Things I have found "lacking" in stock systems:
  1. Slow hard drives - I've had a few stock systems come with 5400RPM instead of 7400RPM. When was the last time you saw a Dell or HP add mention the RPM of the drive? They don't - just the drive size. Even launching the "Device Manager" won't show you the drive speed; you need to find the model number and search the web (I did this for the E380 and was happy to see the drive was SATA and 7400RPM.) Would swapping drives void your stock warranty? I'm not sure, but I would guess not.
  2. Slow system RAM - to be honest, this Acer E380 is the first system I seen that came with such under-powered RAM. But again I guess it is to be expected since all the big-box shops just list the RAM size and maybe the DIMM's used. Launching the "Device Manager" also won't show you the drive speed; I guess the only thing you could do in the store is reboot to the system BIOS and see what it says - but I wager it just says "auto" for speed. Would swapping memory sticks void your stock warranty? I'm not sure, but I would guess not.
  3. On-Board graphics - of course this is a rather common and easily detectable issue. These days one should assume the built-in graphics are useful only for normal office applications and watching videos. In truth, this is best since the extra graphics power needed for gaming literally puts a "power tax" on all usage - adding to people's electric bills whether they need that GPU power or not. Would adding a plug-in graphics card void your stock warranty? No - I assume ... unless it overloads the stock power supply.
  4. Power supplies - while I always assumed the "stock" supplies would be less-than ideal, until I discovered the extreme "hot-exhaust-air" difference between the Acer E380's stock power supply and the rather modest-cost ($75) after-market power supply I did not think the gap was so great. But clearly the stock supply was creating a good deal more heat, which ultimately means it is running at LESS efficiency. To bad my AV power meter is back in Minnesota so I couldn't compare the actual watts-consumption difference. Would swapping in a good power supply void your stock warranty? I'm sure it WILL, which creates a sad irony ... if your good graphic card fries the stock power supply (and you remove the card BEFORE getting the system serviced) then the maker would need to fix the "bad" power supply. Yet if you put in a good supply which won't burn or cause such warranty repairs, you void the warranty.
  5. Microsoft License - a little known issue is that buying a "stock PC" purchased with an OEM Windows license does NOT give you the right to change motherboards or "upgrade" the computer. This is something I learned the hard way - with calls to Microsoft to overcome authentication issues with Windows XP on another old OEM system. In effect, the low-cost "royalty license" included with your stock system is tied to that motherboard - a new motherboard requires a new license ... although with my phone call and excuse that the old motherboard had burned out, the fine folks in the South Asian call center gave me codes to reauthenticate the old XP license on the new motherboard, but I should not assume that will happen a second time!
End Result: so by spending $540 (PC minus gift card value) + 75 (power supply) + 100 (NVidia 7600GT) + 15 (door fan) for a total of $730 I obtained a working family computer with Microsoft Vista Home Premium and an experience rating of 4.5. If and when I update to DDR2-800 RAM the experience rating will be 5+. Given the license limitations of the OEM Vista license I was careful to buy a motherboard which should still be effective 4 years from now. With 2 PCI-express slots, 2 PCI slots, 4 DDR2 slots, 8 onboard USB ports and an AMD AM2 socket, the E380's motherboard will surely be obsolete even 2 years from now, but it should still be serviceable and effective for many years.

I doubt even spending $1100 for a "fancier" stock system from Acer or HP or Dell would have given a better result. I can still put together faster Ubuntu Linux systems from scratch for $350-450, but they don't require Windows license fees nor fancy GPU power.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Linksys Switch Quality Lately

Hmm, I've just had 2 of the small LinkSys 5-port 10/100MHz hub go bad within a month of purchase. Guess their quality is going downhill lately - time to stop buying LinkSys. To bad as they look pretty sweet and I like the look and feel.

One unit - right in front on me is EZXS55W "EtherFast 10/100 5-port Workgroup Switch". It worked a few weeks, then just stopped working Sunday. All the lights blink when my machines talk (when there is network traffic), but none of my computers can see each other. Tried many different Ethernet cables & moving cables around - no good. Temporarily swapped in an old Netgear hub and all can talk fine.

The other unit is at work - just bought it a few weeks ago and port 3 just didn't work straight out of the box. Putting only 3 devices plus uplink on it is workable, but sad to pay for 5 ports and only get 4!

I am sure there is some way to contact LinkSys and get them replaced under warranty ... but it will cost me too much (considering the original purchase price) to send this bricks back ... not including my time to do it. No, I just won't be buying anymore LinkSys products for a year or two. I figure by 2008 they'll have gotten their act back together. Such quality problems have a way of forcing big companies to reform. Maybe Cisco has just started milking LinkSys as a cash cow - cutting costs to increase profits - who knows.


Saturday, April 7, 2007

Ubuntu Disti is Amazing

Summary; a lot of water (or bits) have flowed under the bridge since my last post. Since I've started to find my blog in Ubuntu searches on Google, I guess I better keep it up; eh? I now have 10 "working girls" churning billions of floating points ops per seconds and teaching me VPN things.

It is actually ironic - my "fun game computer" is now one of my weakest systems. I now have 3 'servers' for my fun and self-learning which are 2 or 3 time more powerful. Since one can make a nice dual-core Linux system for just $400, why not? I save my money and every few months add a new system. But that will change - my "fun game" system is just waiting for summer 2007 ... I want to see what AMD releases to counter the Intel Core 2 Duo advantage, plus the whole NVidia 8xxx + DirectX10 graphics market should reach a more realistic price point.

So far I have to say the Ubuntu Disti is pretty amazing just because I have YET to find a system I could not boot the Live-CD or install the desktop on. I did find 2 old 1997-circa APGx1 cards it didn't like, but we have a pile of old APG cards at work to chose from. There have been some problems when I change plug-n-play displays with X11 defaulting to ridiculously low-resolutions; I had to learn to go edit /etc/X11 files under recovery mode. Plus I should say I still use Windows XP for my games and media systems so I am not bothering to try & squeeze 3D graphics or even audio out of the Linux boxes. However, the Ubuntu just seems to install and boot ... no hacking required.

Ubuntu Nodes under my command:

Ubuntu Feisty Fawn (7.04) Beta:
  • "Tara" is AMD A64 X2 3600+ (~1.9Ghz), 2GB DDR2-800, SATA 150GB drive on a ECS RS485M-M Socket AM2 ATI Radeon Xpress 1100 Micro ATX AMD Motherboard. Only problem so far is the K8 power/freq control doesn't work under Linux kernel 2.6.19 but since she runs at 100% CPU load on both cores all the time ... I don't really care.
  • "Bela" is a sweet AMD A64 3000+ (~2.oGHz) with 1GB DDR400 on an unusual JetWay 754 NVidia Motherboard. Bela's just a temp Ubuntu worker since soon I'll take her out to California to swap out my daughter's old 1.2GHz Celeron DELL. She has an NVidia 7600 card and Windows Vista upgrade waiting for her in the role of family PC.
  • "Yuna" is an old PIII Coopermine 1Ghz with 512MB PC133
  • "Zefa" is an old PIII Coopermine 650Mhz with 384MB PC100
  • "Saly" is an old PIII Katmai 450Mhz with 512MB PC100
Ubuntu Edgy Eft (6.10):
  • "Nana" is AMD A64 X2 3600+ (~1.9Ghz - twin of Tara), 1GB DDR2-667, SATA 150GB drive on a ECS RS485M-M Socket AM2 ATI Radeon Xpress 1100 Micro ATX AMD Motherboard
  • "Amie" is AMD XP 2400+ (~2.0GHz) with 1GB PC3200 RAM on an ABit KW7 Motherboard
  • "Xena" is a Dell 8200 with a P4-M 1.6Ghz and 512MB
  • "Cali" is an old yet feisty (hot-running) Celeron 2.5Ghz with 512MB PC3200.
  • I should mention I loaded 6.10 or 6.04 on several other old PIII and dual-KII systems just to see, but I didn't keep them running. In fact, I'll retire Saly as soon as I get my daughter's old 1.2GHz Celeron since Saly's PIII probably doesn't justify the power she consumes every day.
Ubuntu Hoary Hedgehog (5.04):
  • "Dora" is HP nc6120 nootebook. She's a bit of an orphan because I use her for GNU cross-compiling for embedded processors at work, so there is strong incentive for me to NOT break what ain't broke and NOT to try to upgrade her - especially since some of our tools like OLD versions of Python and every new upgrade involves pain-to-port. But one of these days soon (once Ubuntu 7.x is fully released) I'll swap in an old spare notebook drive and see if 7.10 installs and how much of the old development system she runs.
To Be Complete: pure WinXP-Pro SP2:
  • "Luci" is AMD A64 3000+ (twin of Bela), 1GB DDR-400, 150GB Raptor, ATI X1600 graphics - handle Oblivion pretty well. Luci can dual-boot to Ubuntu (now 7.04 beta), but she rarely does.
  • "Joey" is Intel Core 2 Duo E6300 (~1.9GHz) with 1GB DDR2-800 on a GigaByte 945P-S3 Motherboard with NVidia 7100GS and Hauppauge PVR-350 video/TV card. I have to say she seems to leave the A64 X2's a bit behind ... but she cost more ...
  • "Feba" is an old broken WinBook C200 notebook which shares a KVM with 3 Linux systems in a DMZ lab and runs some commercial Windows software when required.
  • "????" is HP nc6120 notebook (Twin of Dora) and basically my work computer for MS Office and Outlook, etc. She's the only unnamed computer I have and I fell a bit guilty about that :-). But our IT department gave her a wonderful fixed name - something like mkt-cms1-3029 or so ... I forget. I haven't had the heart to confuse "her" with a 2nd name.
Why do I have so many computers? I guess I'm a quantity not quality folk - haha.

No, really. I work with industrial networking and so have (as an excuse) the need to study and experiment with VPN, complex routing, firewalls and network latency in distributed networks. So much for my pretext ... I also enjoy seeing the little ladies sweat it out running BOINCs jobs in their spare time. Even poor little Saly with less than 10% the horse-power of Nana, Tara or Joey does a surprising amount of work.

Nana, Tara, Amie and Yuna form a 4-node distributed OpenVPN system based on PKI security certificates - pretty amazing and presenting lots of routing and firewall challenges since each node ends up with multiple IP addresses based on interface used. I'm constantly learning and refining how they work.

Joey, Luci, Tara and Xena are my home systems; although I only pay to run 3 of them 24/7 ... Luci normally gets to "sleep" when idle since she lights up like a Christmas tree and the Raptor drive makes a distinct "ping" whenever it seeks. Tara used to be my router/gateway at home until I started playing with XEN virtualization and that pretty much hosed up my firewall until I can better understand how IPTABLES works, so Xena has taken over the gateway role.

The other "working girls" are all at work and doing various other industrial-protocol simulation roles used for testing. In their spare time they churn BOINC projects (Rosetta, Malariacontrol, & Boincsimap) and all told, BOINC claims I have 12 billion floating point ops per second and 25 billion integer ops per second at my command. I probably won't add any more computers to my harem, but by end of the summer I'll probably upgrade at least 3 or 4 of them to dual-cores and retire the 3-4 slowest workers. Specifically, Saly, Yuna, Zefa and perhaps Cali could be replaced.

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