Friday, February 29, 2008

Building New Computer

Recently I have been looking and finalizing my plan to buy a new computer. Last night I finally pulled the trigger. Here's what I am getting:

Case: Thermaltake Lanbox Lite
Motherboard: Gigabyte GA-MA78GM-S2H uATX motherboard
CPU: AMD Athlon 64 X2 5000+ Black Edition
HDD: Western Digital Raptor X WD1500AHFD 10000RPM 16MB SATA
Power Supply:Enermax EIN720AWT Infiniti 720W
CPU cooler: Thermalright SI-128 SE
DVD Drive: ASUS DVD+-R SATA w/ LightScribe DRW-2014L1T

The computer case is a small form factor case designed for gamers who goes to LAN parties. This case is made of steel so the case itself is already 15 pounds. It's got clear windows on left and right sides to show what's inside and I can put lights inside to decorate it. Its cooling is from a 90mm fan in front and 2 60mm fans in rear. The power supply can be mounted to either draw cool air from the top or exhuast warm air from above the CPU. I think I will go with the second mounting orientation. One of the limitation of this case is that the power supply is above the CPU so the choice for CPU coolers is quite limited. The height of the cooler cannot exceed about 100mm, so those tower passive heatsinks are out of the question. On the other hand, there are some cases where the power supply is place above the expansion slots so you can choose a wide variety of CPU coolers, but for me I wanted to get a graphics card and install a large passive heat sink on it and it wouldn't work if the power supply is above the graphics card. I think the CPU I choose will be low power enough that it won't need the large tower heat sinks to run passively.

Originally I was going to get the Gigabyte GA-MA69GM-S2H, but that board uses 1" tall capacitors near its CPU socket so I cannot fit certain CPU coolers there, namely, the Zalman CNPS8700NT. For that reason I looked into getting the Thermalright SI-128 SE as the CPU heatsink and hope that it can run passively in conjunction with the case fans nearby. The two motherboards are very similar, the MA69GM uses AMD 690G as its northbridge chip while the MA78GM uses 780G. There are many advantages in getting the 780G one. It has better integrated graphics onboard (Radeon HD 3200), supports 6 SATA, 12 USB, can support newer CPUs such as the quad-core Phenoms. It support Hybrid CrossFire, which lets you utilize the onboard graphics processor together with another graphics card for more graphics processing power. It supports PCI-express 2.0 and HyperTransport 3.0. The 780G is manufactured in the 65nm process and consumes 11.4W at full load. Since the price for the two boards were about $80 and $90, I thought that getting the new version for $10 more was a better deal.

If I get the MA78GM then I could use the Zalman CPU cooler, but I think the thermalright one is better looking and maybe I can eliminate the CPU fan for lower noise.

I insisted on getting the AMD Athlon 64 X2 5000+ black edition because I can overclock this from 2.6 GHz to 3 GHz by just raising the multiplyer, since the multiplyer is unlocked in the black edition. This CPU has good performance to price ratio so I think it should be a good choice.

RAM is an upgrade from my current 1GB DDR-400. The DDR2 800 module has an effective data rate of 800 MHz because while the memory chips themselves still run at 200MHz like the old DDR-400, the memory bus speed is doubled to 400MHz. Since the memory chip is still as slow as before but the bus clock is faster, the effective latency in terms of number of clock cycles has gone up from 8 to 15. It's not clear how much the memory system has improved, if at all. But since DDR2 runs on 1.8V instead of 2.5V, maybe there is power reduction.

The harddrive is chosen because it has a clear window to see its operation. It is one of those things where you are not paying for the storage space nor speed. But the Raptor series are fast harddrives suitable for the system drive and installing applications. I plan to install dual boot XP and Vista and also have emergency backup of the disk image in a separate partition. Usually even if your case has a side window, you won't be able to see the window on the harddrive, but the Lanbox can mount the harddrive sideways to show this special drive. I see reviews about this drive saying it is pretty quiet at idle but pretty loud when seeking. I hope the noise will be acceptable.

I was deciding between 3 power supplies from Enermax; Liberty, Infiniti, and Modu82+. These 3 product lines are from 3 different generations and each generation boosts its efficiency a few percentage points. I think the Liberty's efficiency is around 78% - 80%, Infiniti is 80% - 82%, and Modu82+ is 82% - 85%. The Infiniti and Modu82+ also have bigger 13.5cm cooling fans whereas the Liberty has 12cm. Infiniti has status light and warning beeper in case it senses malfunction, and it continues to run the fan and other system fans after computer shut down to cool the case. All of them have modular cables which is pretty important in the Lanbox because the space will be tight. I like Enermax in that it has a fan speed monitor header that I can use to monitor its fan speed. And also I have been using their power supplies for years and never had a problem, so I think their products are very reliable.

This purchase will get the computer up and running, but it lacks a good graphics card and other case mods. In the future I would like to buy 2 Western Digital Caviar GP to make it into a RAID configuration to store movies and other files. Right now I don't need it as much becuase I have a 750 GB external HD. Right now I am looking at getting the Radeon HD 3870 graphics card. Maybe if I wait a while it will drop in price when I finally decide to get it. I also want other things like UV light, UV reactive connectors and wiring sleeves. I may also want to change the stock case fans to better ones for lower noise. I will have to put the initial parts together to get a sense of what if anything I want to improve.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Lunar Eclipse

Last night I saw the lunar eclipse at 9pm. That was the first time I saw this phenomenon and it is kind of interesting. It was a slow process so I didn't keep on watching, and just keep on processing my emails and planning for computer purchase.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Las Vegas

Last week, I went to Las Vegas with Jenn to attend a friend's wedding and also to have fun. It was Valentine's Day weekend + President's Day long weekend + some people have a few days off this week. The air travel capacity was beyond full. What made it worse was the east coast winter storm on the 13th. Many flights got canceled and people were bumped to the flights on the 14th. The result was delays, big time.

We slept 2 hours before getting up at 3am on Thursday and got to the airport. We opted to save a few bucks by going for the economy parking. Waiting for the airport shuttle proved to be unworthy of the few bucks we saved. It was very cold and we made a bad choice of waiting at the booth that gets picked up the last. We got to the check-in counters and was surprised by the crowd, because usually there is few people around no matter what time or day. Something was different that day, as we found out later it was becuase of bad weather in the previous 2 days.

We made it past the security check point in a timely manner and had time to go to the restroom before boarding. There were confusion about what flight it was because the information displayed at the gate showed 2 flights going to 2 destinations from this gate. The boarding announcement was vague, but we managed to walk in at an appropriate time. The flight didn't depart until 30 minutes after its scheduled departure time because they were trying to figure out who is supposed to get on this flight, and then after that they had to de-ice the plane.

Originally, we had 50 minutes of connecting time in Newark, but when we arrived, it was only 5 minutes before the next flight's departure time. We couldn't make it to the connecting flight to Las Vegas, so we went to the customer service center. They told us that the next available flight from Newark to Las Vegas would be 2pm on Saturday! That's pretty crazy alright. If that's the only way then we were screwed. The service representative was able to suggest an alternative route which is to go through Cleveland and that will get us to Las Vegas at 10pm for sure. It is less ideal than our original plan of getting there at noon but it is still ok. We were told that we could also try to do standby for an eariler flight in Cleveland or an eariler flight in Newark, but the chance of flying out from Newark was slim.

We flew to Cleveland and waited for the 2pm flight, watching everyone go through the gate and hoping they will call us to give us seats. Finally they called, and they had 1 opening. We were not going to split up so we decided to forgo the chance. By this time we were frustrated and tired, so Jenn called home and we decided to go to her home. Jenn's home is conveniently located in a suburb near Cleveland, so we had the plasure of taking a nap and eating home made Chinese food for dinner.

Finally, at 9pm we were on our way to Las Vegas. By the time we got to the hotel, it was already 11pm. Once again we had to wait in a long line to check-in to our room. We got a room on the 6th floor, so we navigated through the smoky casino floor to the elevator on the other side of the building, went up the elevator, through the long winding hallway to the door of our room, only to find out that our room keys didn't work! We were able to keep our cool and called the front desk, but they didn't pick up, so we had to go back through the long winding hallway, down 6 floors, through the smoky casino floor, wait in line again and get another set of keys. Then we went back through the smoky casino floor, elevator, long and winding hallway, and the 2 new keys still didn't work. At this point we called the security to let us in, as instructed by the front desk, and they promised us a room change the next day, plus $30 credit for any expense charged to the hotel. We finally got in our room at midnight, more than 12 hours later than we planned for, and that was after more than 24 hours of traveling.

The part that we didn't like the most was that Continental Airlines blamed the weather for their delays and didn't offer any compensation. We had reserved a restaurant for a romantic Valentine's Day dinner and that was gone, along with $25 penalty for canceling within 48 hours. 12 hours of our valuable vacation time was gone, along with many fun things we could have done if we got there at the time was planned for. I think they could have made a speedier departure had they managed the boarding procedure and seat assignment better on that first flight (CO3221). We even paid a couple hundred extra for this early flight!

The rest of the vacation went by pretty good, with shopping and shows and wedding. The only other thing worth complaining about was the alarm clock went off at 6:30am on Saturday in the room next to ours and apparently nobody was there, so we had to call the security again to shut it off. We promptly went back to sleep after it was shut up.

We went to see Le Reve at the Wynn. It was a good show. We got smoothie and foot massage at the Hawaiian market place, which is almost an exact copy of the same place in Waikiki in Hawaii. We saw lions at MGM Grand, but we didn't see the water fountain at Bellagio and the fire thing at Mirage is also not working. We also saw some animals at the Flamingo's natural habitat.

The return trip was amazingly smooth. It seemed like we didn't waste any time at all; we were able to catch the airport shuttle, the flight, and the airport tram, with minimal wait. I slept the whole way on the airplane, and it felt like a short time in the air.

Las Vegas was fun, and it was crowded. I think it's a good destination for a vacation for 4-5 days. It has all the high-end name brands to shop at, casinos to gamble, shows to watch, and nice restaurant to dine in. It's really a place to be if you have the money to have fun.

Finally, just for the record, we spent $10 gambling in the airport while waiting for our returning flight, it lasted for about 10 minutes.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Cool Video Card

I installed the manufacturer's hardware monitor software from Tyan for my video card and it tells me my GPU temperature is 45C. When I run a 3D renderer from ATI Tray Tools it goes up to 66C, but still not bad though.

Computer Cooling

I wanted to find out how cool my computer is, so I looked for some free software to monitor my component temperature and fan speeds. I used SpeedFan 4.33 on Windows Vista. It tells me that my CPU fan runs at 3750 RPM, PSU fan at 1800 RPM. The motherboard temperature is 35C and CPU is 51C. When I run Prime95 the CPU goes to 60C. My room is at 24C. So far I haven't found a program that can tell me the temperature on my old Radeon 9600 Pro.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Personal Computer Advancement

I am thinking about buying a new computer these days. My current computer was assembled around September of 2003, about 4.5 years ago. The major components are:

AMD Athlon XP 2500+

This CPU is based on the Barton core manufactured in bulk 0.13µm process. It has 54.3m transistors with 512KB L2 cache. Its rated clock speed is 1.83 GHz (166MHz front side bus (FSB) speed x11), runs on a supply voltage of 1.65V, and has a thermal rating of 68.3W. According to Wikipedia, this CPU was released on Feb. 10, 2003. It uses Socket A. This CPU's multiplier is unlocked; I overlocked it to equal 2800+ at 2 GHz by raising the multiplier to x12 and upping the voltage to 1.68V

ASUS A7N8X Deluxe

This ATX mother board uses the NVIDIA nForce2 Ultra 400 north bridge and NVIDIA nForce2 MCP-T south bridge. It has 1 AGP slot and 5 PCI slots, it has onboard audio and LAN x 2.

CORSAIR XMS DDR 400 (PC 3200) SDRAM 256MB x 2
CORSAIR XMS DDR 400 (PC 3200) SDRAM 512MB x 1

This memory runs asyncronously at 200 MHz while the FSB runs at 166 MHz. There are 3 slots on the mother board and all 3 are taken. PC 3200 means it is rated at a maximum peak transfer rate of 3200 MB/s. The access timing is 2.5-3-3-8 accroding to CPU-Z. Each number refers to the number of cycles it takes to do certain operations in memory access: CAS latency (tCL), RAS to CAS delay (tRCD), RAS Precharge (tRP), and precharge delay (tRAS). where CAS and RAS means column address strobe (or select) and row address strobe. Given a fixed clock speed, the lower the timing, the better the performance. These XMS memory modules come with heat spreader for better cooling. These run on a voltage of 2.5V.

Seagate Barracuda 7200.7 Plus 160 GB
Western Digital Caviar 120 GB Special Edition

These hard drives run at 7200 RPM, uses parallel IDE in ultra ATA mode 5 for maximum 100MB/s transfer rate. They have 8MB Cache. From the manufacturer's specs the Seagate one has a power consumption of 12.5 W and the Western Digital is 12 W when seeking.

Tyan Radeon 9600 Pro

This video card uses ATI RV350 GPU manufactured in 0.13µm technology. This GPU is basically a cheaper version of the R300 by cutting functionality in half. It has 4 pixel pipelines and 2 vertex shaders. It uses AGP 8X interface, has 128 MB DDR RAM with a 128-bit bus width. The graphics processor core runs at 400 MHz and the memory runs at 300 MHz. It supports DirectX 9.0 and OpenGL 2.0.

ENERMAX Noisetaker 470W

This power supply has a knob that adjusts the exhuast fan speed to trade temperature with noise.

Components not included for this computer are the case, floppy drive, sound card, DVD drive, monitor, and uninterruptible power supply (UPS).

The cost for this system back then was:

AMD Athlon XP 2500+$84.00
CPU heatsink and fan$34.99
ASUS A7N8X Deluxe$124.99
CORSAIR XMS DDR 400 (PC 3200) SDRAM 256MB x 2$138.50
CORSAIR XMS DDR 400 (PC 3200) SDRAM 512MB x 1$66.00
Tyan Radeon 9600 Pro$154.95
Seagate Barracuda 7200.7 Plus 160 GB$109.56
Western Digital Caviar 120 GB Special Edition$110.66
ENERMAX Noisetaker 470W$78.99
NEC DVD Burner$66.00

Now compare to the computer I am thinking about buying:

AMD Athlon 64 X2 5000+ Black Edition

This dual-core CPU is manufactured in a 65nm SOI process. The code-name for the core is Brisbane. Its rated clock speed is 2.6GHz (FSB 200MHz x 13) and each core has 512 KB of L2 cache. The supply voltage is 1.25V and the power consumption is rated at 65W. This one was released on Sept. 25, 2007. The Black Edition is different from the other CPUs in that its multiplier is unlocked and the retail box doesn't come with a heat sink and fan assembly. Online resources indicate this CPU can be easily overclocked to 3GHz.

Gigabyte GA-MA69GM-S2H

This microATX motherboard uses AMD's 690G chipset which has an integrated graphics processor (IGP) with HDMI and dual DVI output. It supports HyperTransport 2.0 at 1GHz. The motherboard is for AM2 socket CPUs and comes with integrated audio and gigabit ethernet. It has a PCI-express x16 slot, a PCI-express x4 slot, and 2 PCI slots. It supports 4 serial ATA devices at 3Gb/s max transfer rate. The actual maximum data rate is 300MB/s because it uses 8b/10b encoding so the actual data rate is 80% of the raw bit rate. SATA has 7 conductors in its cable: 1, 4, 7 are ground lines, 2 & 3 is a differential line for transmitting, and 5 & 6 is a differential line for receiving. No clock is sent on the wire so a clock and data recovery circuit is required on both ends. I am surprised that the bit rate is 3 Gb/s. But then they are using low voltage differential signaling (LVDS) with a differential peak-to-peak voltage of 0.5V.

CORSAIR XMS2 2GB DDR2 800 (PC 6400)

These are DDR2 SDRAM. They work the same way as DDR RAM but they run at a faster clock rate of 400 MHz. Like DDR RAM, the memory pumps out data both on the rising and falling edge of the clock. The latency for this memory is 4-4-4-12. The supply voltage for DDR2 is 1.8V so its power consumption should be about half if they run at the same clock frequency (power scales with Vdd squared). Since this memory runs at twice the frequency, the power consumption should be about the same. Looking at the latency number, this DDR2 RAM should perform faster than the one I currently have (24 cycles at 400 MHz vs. 16.5 cycles at 200 MHz).

Western Digital Second Generation Caviar SE16 750GB

This harddrive supports SATA 3Gb/s interface and has 16MB cache. It runs at 7200 RPM and the power consumption is 9.5 W in read/write mode.

SAPPHIRE Radeon HD 3850

This video card uses ATI's R670 GPU manufactured in 55nm technology. This is a slightly underclocked version of the high end 3870. Because of the smaller feature size technology, this card should be able to run with less cooling and so usually it comes as a single slot card, which is nice for my microATX system.

Enermax Liberty 620W

This power supply is ready to supply power to the newest graphics card with a 6pin and a 8pin PCI-express connectors. It has a 120mm fan exhuasting out and the power cables are modular so I don't need to clutter the inside with unused cables.

Zalman CNPS8700NT CPU Cooler

Given that I want to put the computer into a Thermaltake LANBOX Lite case, space is pretty constrained. The space above the CPU has a clearance height of about 100 mm before hitting the power supply. This CPU cooler has a dimension of 120 x 123 x 67(H) mm so it should work. It has a radial design with a 110mm fan in the middle of an array of heatsink fins. Its 4 wire power connector also allows automatic fan speed control that is available on newer mother boards. As a bonus it has blue LED so it will light up the inside of the case.

Thermaltake LANBOX Lite

This is a small form factor (SFF) case for microATX mother boards. It has clear window for the side panel for seeing what's inside. It has quiet fans in the front and in the base and room for two 5.25" external drives and 2 internal harddrives.

Right now the total cost for the new system would be about $940, which is about the same as when I built my current computer, but it would be way more powerful.

Airport Security

A lot of people seems to have bad experiences going through the security check points at airports around the country. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) manages the policy regarding the procedure of making airports safe for passengers and the airport. Recently they started a blog that let people leave comments and ask questions about their practice and why they do certain things. Apparently very soon afterwards, some users indicate that certain airports require travellers to take out all electronic items like iPods and power cords, which puzzle and frustrate them. The TSA then investigated the issue and was able to correct it. The local TSA offices had set up that practice on its own.

Many comments I read were negative because the commenter had bad experience such as unfriendly security officers or officers who give unreasonable requests and that the commenter felt the TSA was getting in the way of their getting through and onto their travels smoothly. My personal experience with airpot security had been good. I think it is necessary for everyone's safety. Recently, I noticed that the security measures had been getting more lax. They don't have guards holding M16 assult rifles at the check point anymore; they don't test my checked luggage with chemical sensors anymore; they don't check my ID when I board at the gate anymore. Another thing I noticed was that they now have more sophisticated scanners that look like a CT scanner for luggages and what looked like better metal detectors.

There's one more curious change: I saw a booth for a service called CLEAR, that supposedly help you get through the security check point faster. It works by first storing your biometric data such as fingerprint and iris image. When you go to the airport, you would first let them ID you using your finger or eye, then they will let the security people know who you are so you can get through the check point faster. At least that's my understanding of it. It seems to be a new thing only availble at a few major airports and it's still pretty costly; at $150 a year. The price can probably come down once they get the economy of scale. The things I wonder about it though, is how do they tell the security check point who this person is, such that there is no mistakes in the communication? Even if they know who I am, it doesn't mean I am automatically a non-threat, right? The benefit is that fingerprint and iris patterns are much harder to fake than ID cards so they will be pretty certain who I am, and whether or not I bought a ticket to fly on a certain flight.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Love Affair and Differential Equations

In nonlinear dynamics class today, we reviewed linear algebra, differential equations, eigenvalues, and eigenvectors. Professor Strogatz was bored with this stuff, but he managed to keep his cool and proceeded at a fast yet organized speed. He showed the different classes of system dynamics that can arise from a 2-D system, as this will become useful when we start talking about nonlinear systems.

At the end of that review session, he made a comment about how you can model the love affairs between two people in a relationship using such second order differential equations. Just when the class laughed thinking he was kidding, he said that he once wrote a paper with the title, "Love Affairs and Differential Equations". Just as the class burst into more laughter, he claims that it is listed as the 3rd strangest title among mathmatics papers. I searched for it, and indeed that paper was written in 1988 for the Math Magazine, and it has also been cited by other papers discussing love dynamics.

The most hilarious part was when he said he wrote it in Freshman year while having trouble with a girlfriend and he was trying to analyze it with that model, but an older boyfriend makes the system a 3rd order nonlinear system, so it was too complicated for him.

After a little search for that ranking, I found a book called Wonders of Numbers: Adventures in Mathmatics, Mind, and Meaning. On page 102 it lists the top 10 serious mathmatical papers with strange, indecipherable, and/or amusing titles. The first one is "Zaphod Beeblebrox's brain and the fifty-ninth row of Pascal's Triangle", and the second one is "When homogeneous continua are Hausdorff circles (or yes, we Hausdorff bananas)". The fourth one is "Super super large numbers".

I also found a 2005 paper titled "Dynamical Models of Happiness" published in Nonlinear Dynamics, Psychology, and Life Sciences.

Interesting huh?

Microsoft vs. Google

To try to compete with Google in online search and advertisements, Microsoft is offering to buy Yahoo at a 60% markup price of $31 a share on Friday Feb. 1. Yahoo stock went up 40% immediately from $19 to $28. It is still rising slowly as of today. This stirred a lot of discussion, and I see some articles such as "Making sense of Microhoo" and "Why Yahoo should say yes to Microsoft". I find it interesting to follow the commotion, even though I didn't buy those particular stocks. I also don't feel bad that I didn't buy the stocks beforehand, maybe because I don't have cash to begin with. It is something to keep in mind though; maybe in the future I will have a chance to see another such sudden jump in stock value when I happen to hold the stocks. I will see what happens to Microhoo in a few weeks.