Tuesday, April 29, 2014

A New Desktop Computer?

Thinking about upgrading my desktop computer these days. The computer I am using now has been working pretty well for the last 6 years. I wonder what are the new product choices I have for a replacement desktop? When I built my current computer in 2008, I wanted a small form factor PC that's quiet and powerful enough for playing computer games. I did not succeed completely. The Raptor X hard drive was loud and it had died after 5 years. The two 60mm back exhaust fans became clunky and one had died after 6 years. The graphics card has a fan that sings in sync with web page scrolling and graphic intensive games. The good part is that CPU cooling is fanless and the computer still works. Although sometimes the computer would reboot itself suddenly in the middle of a task, usually because I am processing video files from the camcorder. Maybe the power supply is getting old or the motherboard components have aged and voltage supply is not quite stable.

computer technologies have advanced since 2008; components are smaller, data storage is cheaper, memory chips have higher capacity, CPUs can do more with lower power dissipation, and operating systems went from 32-bit to 64-bit, so system memory ceiling is raised from 4GB to anywhere between 8GB to 4TB, depending on the operating system version.

What I am looking for with the next build is continue to strive for low noise, small foot-print, and good performance for everyday computing (web browsing and authoring), light office work (word processing, spreadsheets), graphics editing, video editing, and computer games. And strike a good balance in performance per cost (value). With new products out there, it seems like these goals are more achievable than ever before.

When deciding what components to pick for building a personal computer, I start with the CPU, because the CPU is the main computing device and it dictates what motherboard you can choose. Each CPU manufacturer has its own package and corresponding socket on the motherboard to fit the CPU. Next I look at the motherboard, because usually the motherboard determines how many memory module slots are available to insert system memory. The speed of the memory is determined by the CPU because modern CPUs have the memory controller built-in. Once the CPU and motherboard are picked, then I pick the memory modules. Most CPUs require some kind of thermal management, usually in the form of a heat sink and a fan for active convection cooling. The CPU cooling solution affects the computer case, motherboard, and memory selection. Some CPU coolers are large and requires a bigger case. Some coolers take up a large area and limits the height of the memory modules. The motherboard component layout may limit the CPU cooling choices or even get in the way of the air flow. Next is the selection of a computer case and power supply. Usually larger power supplies have higher power ratings, and most power supplies have cooling fans built-in. The power supply need to be able to provide enough power for the whole system including peripheral devices. Some computer cases come with power supply built-in, which can be good or bad; it's convenient and it's one fewer thing to buy, but if it has a noisy fan or does not have enough power, then a separate replacement has to be selected.


The CPU I am using now is the AMD Athlon 64 X2 "Brisbane" 5000+ BE. This was the first dual core AMD CPU, built on 65nm SOI technology, has 512KB L2 cache per core, uses AM2 socket, and consumes a rated power of 65W. This CPU uses the K8 generation microarchitecture. Since then, AMD released K10 microarchitecture, which was an improved version of K8. K10 devices have up to 2, 3, 4, or 6 processor cores, some with bigger L2 cache, and higher clock rates. Some were fabricated using 45nm SOI technology.

Then AMD designed the Bulldozer microarchitecture from scratch. Piledriver and Steamroller cores followed as incremental improvements on the same microarchitecture. These newer products include the CPU, GPU, memory controller, and the functions of the northbridge that was left as a separate chip previously. For the desktop segment, Vishera, Trinity, Richland are recent products based on the Piledriver core. These are fabricated with 32nm SOI technology. Kaveri is the latest 2014 released product line using the Streamroller core, fabricated with 28nm bulk Si technology.

For an upgrade, I am looking for a dual or quad core processor with at least 512KB L2 cache and a rated power of 65W or less. Here is a quick listing of products available to buy on Newegg:


A10-7850K quad core 3.7GHz, 4MB L2 cache with R7 GPU (512:32:8@720MHz), dual channel DDR3-2133, 95W
A8-7700K  quad core 3.4GHz, 4MB L2 cache with R7 GPU (384:24:6@720MHz), dual channel DDR3-2133, 95W


A10-6800K quad core 4.1GHz, , 4MB L2 cache with 8670D GPU (384:24:8@844MHz), dual channel DDR3-2133, 100W
A10-6790K quad core 4.1GHz, , 4MB L2 cache with 8670D GPU (384:24:8@844MHz), dual channel DDR3-1866, 100W
A10-6700 quad core 3.7GHz, , 4MB L2 cache with 8670D GPU (384:24:8@844MHz), dual channel DDR3-1866, 65W
A8-6600K quad core 3.9GHz, , 4MB L2 cache with 8570D GPU (256:16:8@844MHz), dual channel DDR3-1866, 100W
A8-6500 quad core 3.5GHz, , 4MB L2 cache with 8570D GPU (256:16:8@800MHz), dual channel DDR3-1866, 65W


Athlon X4 740  quad core 3.2GHz, , 4MB L2 cache with no GPU, dual channel DDR3-1866, 65W
A10-5800K quad core 3.8GHz, , 4MB L2 cache with 7660D GPU (384:24:8@800MHz), dual channel DDR3-1866, 100W
A10-5700 quad core 3.4GHz, , 4MB L2 cache with 7660D GPU (384:24:8@760MHz), dual channel DDR3-1866, 65W
A8-5600K quad core 3.6GHz, , 4MB L2 cache with 7560D GPU (256:16:8@760MHz), dual channel DDR3-1866, 65W
A8-5500 quad core 3.2GHz, , 4MB L2 cache with 7560D GPU (256:16:8@760MHz), dual channel DDR3-1866, 65W

the numbers in parentheses for the GPU is the number of Unified Shader Processors : Texture Mapping Units (TMUs) : Render Output Unit (ROPs)

I included the unlocked APUs (denoted with K at the end of model number) because they could be run at a lower clock frequency to lower the power dissipation. The K parts are probably just the slightly higher performing parts from the production lot that allows them to run at the maximum clock frequencies possible. In many cases the K parts are the same price or only 1 or 5 dollars more than the slightly slower parts with otherwise the same specs.

The A10 parts are consistently $20 more than the A8 parts, so after eliminating the non K and A8 parts, the short list is:

$175 A10-7850K 3.7GHz, R7 GPU (512:32:8@720MHz), DDR3-2133, 95W
$130 A10-6800K 4.1GHz, 8670D GPU (384:24:8@844MHz), DDR3-2133, 100W
$120 A10-5800K 3.8GHz, 7660D GPU (384:24:8@800MHz), DDR3-1866, 100W

There's only $10 different between the A10 Richland and A10 Trinity, so I will eliminate the A10 Trinity in favor of the updated Richland core. Now the question is, is it worth it to pay $45 more for the latest Kaveri core?

After reading Tom's Hardware's review on the Kaveri A10-7850K and A8-7600, it becomes more clear to me that the Kaveri APUs performs better than Richland in the graphics and gaming department. The Intel Corei3-4330 is a strong contender for the AMD parts in the same price point, with Intel clearly winning in the raw CPU workloads. The A8-7600 is quite interesting in that it can be configured to have a 65W or a 45W thermal ceiling, and its performance is significantly improved from the Richland 45W APU.

Moving to 28nm bulk for the Kaveri allows for more transistors in a similar die area, but the clock frequencies are lower. Overall the CPU performance was tweaked so it makes up for the lower frequency, but the graphics performance is higher due to more graphics processing units.

$175 A10-7850K 3.7GHz, R7 GPU (512:32:8@720MHz), DDR3-2133, 95W
$129 A8-7600      3.3GHz, R7 GPU (384:24:8@720MHz), DDR3-2133, 65W
$130 A10-6800K 4.1GHz, 8670D GPU (384:24:8@844MHz), DDR3-2133, 100W

The A8-7600 is not yet available but should be coming soon in Q2 or Q3 of 2014.

At this moment the A10-7850K looks like the best choice.


To use the Kaveri APU, a motherboard with the FM2+ socket is needed. I searched on NewEgg for a micro-ATX board with 4 memory slots that supports DDR2133 speed, and only a handful of results came up. Looks like the GIGABYTE GA-F2A88XM-D3H is a good choice, using the AMD A88X chip, with PCIe 3.0 slot, maximum memory of 64GB, 8 SATA 6Gb/s connections, HDMI output, optical S/PDIF surround sound 7.1 audio out, gigabit Ethernet, 4 USB 3.0 and 8 USB 2.0 connections. $80

If I keep using my current LANBOX Lite case, a micro-ATX motherboard is fine, but if I want to get a smaller case, then I will need to go to a mini-ITX motherboard. Choices are Gigabyte GA-F2A88XN-WIFI or ASRock FM2A88X-ITX+. Both have built-in WiFi and blue-tooth module, but I like the Gigabyte's antenna slightly better. The ASRock has an eSATA port and the Gigabyte does not. The ASRock uses a newer audio CODEC chip Realtec ALC1150 vs. the Gigabyte ALC892. Not sure if there is a lot of difference, but if I want really good audio, I can get a PCI-e sound card such as the ASUS Xonar DX7.1 which will probably be significantly better audio. The board layout in terms of CPU and memory slot orientation is different between the ASRock and Gigabyte. I like the Gigabyte one for a slim computer case that will be used vertically, because the memory slots in the ASRock board will be above the CPU heatsink, which will impede air flow and the heated air from the CPU will go towards the memory modules. If I need a firewire port, I probably need to get a PCI-e card with that interface, because firewire ports are obsolete from newer motherboards. I still have an old Mini-DV camcorder that I may use to capture videos.


The graphics processor on the APU uses the system memory for processing the graphics, so having a fast communication channel to the memory is helpful for overall graphics performance. looks like the latest mainstream motherboard and chip set supports DDR3-2133, so a module that supports 2133 or higher is sufficient.

When going with a mini-ITX motherboard, the heatsink is likely going to be over the memory module. I found this page which has nice pictures of the AXP-100 heatsink over different height memory modules:

Looks like it's fine with low profile and standard modules without heat spreader. But with heat spreader, the CPU heatsink will be touching the heat spreader. the AXP-100 has about 27mm below the fin area. listing the ones with low profile heat spreader:

Patriot Viper 3 Low Profile Blue PVL316G213C1KB DDR3-2133 1.5V 11-11-11-30 $179.99

G.SKILL Ares Series F3-2133C10D-16GAB DDR3-2133 1.6V 10-12-12-31 $154.99
Team Vulcan TLAD316G2400HC11CDC01 DDR3-2400 1.65V 11-13-13-35 $154.99

AMD Radeon Gamer Series DDR3-2133 1.65V 10-11-11-30 $219.99

this one with very tall heat spreader is popular on Newegg:
G.SKILL Trident X Series 16GB (2 x 8GB) F3-2400C10D-16GTX DDR3-2400 1.65V 10-12-12-31 ~$150 with promotion

looks like I should get either the Patriot Viper 3 Low Profile or the G.SKILL Ares Series having low voltage and low latency.

With 16GB of memory, I would need to get Windows 7 Home Premium (16GB max) or Professional (192GB max) or Windows 8 (128GB max) to support the amount of memory I have.

Hard Drive

A solid state hard drive (SSD) is silent; no moving parts. A SSD is probably going to make the overall computing experience faster, and nowadays 128GB or 256GB capacity is affordable and more than enough for the Windows operating system and typical suite of desktop software. Other things like multimedia can be stored on external hard drives which we still have 1 TB of space.

After reading reviews and learning a bit more about recent solid state drives, I got the feeling that Samsung has good brand name recognition and performance, and OCZ (which was acquired by Toshiba) is also popular but with slightly less name recognition, but seems to chime well with enthusiasts.

OCZ Vector 150 Series 240GB SATA III 2.5-Inch 7mm Height Solid State Drive (SSD) VTR150-25SAT3-240G $179 on Amazon.com is a high performance drive with good reviews, high capacity for the money, and up to date interface and drivers.

CPU Heatsink

In my last computer build, I used the Thermalright passive heatsink SI-128 and I really like the idea of not having to install a fan on the CPU heat sink. This time I looked up Thermalright's latest offerings and found the AXP-100 to be attractive because it is only 44mm high, offset to one side so it can clear the RAM slots easier. It can be paired with a low profile 100mm fan or 140mm fan which is 14mm high. regular 140mm fan can be used but are 26mm high. This heatsink would be more than enough to cool a 65W or a 95W CPU with a slim profile, allowing the computer case to be small form factor and still use a powerful processor.

Another thing I like about the Thermalright product is that they show detailed specs of the products including all dimensions, so I can design and make sure things will fit together before getting the components. Their build quality from my last purchase was also excellent. I will have to experiment to see if cooling can be adequate without a fan, or if the fan can be kept at a low RPM to be very quiet.

Thermalright AXP-100 $50 from Amazon.com

Computer Case

Finding a computer case involves many compromises and many considerations that have to work together. I found a neat website that makes the search and selection process a lot easier:

It lists compatible cases by the CPU, motherboard, and CPU cooler.  It happens to have the Thermalright AXP-100, so I started from there. It then allows you to filter the list by motherboard form factor, user ratings, etc. then you can sort by dimension of the case or even the volume in cubic feet. This is like a computer builder's dream come true.

Here is a short list of cases that I down-selected:

No optical drive bay
Antec ISK110-VESA Mini-ITX 90W PSU 0.13cu.ft. $77.02

1 optical drive bay
HEC ITX200B Mini-ITX HTPC 200W PSU 0.21cu.ft. $49.99
HEC ITX200A Mini-ITX HTPC 200W PSU 0.21cu.ft. $59.99

Antec ISK 300-150 Mini-ITX Desktop 150W PSU 0.24cu.ft. $79.99
Antec ISK 310-150 Mini-ITX Desktop 150W PSU 0.24cu.ft. $82.92

In-Win H-Frame Mini Mini-ITX 180W PSU 0.29cu.ft. $175
In-Win BP655.200BL Mini-ITX 200W PSU 0.29cu.ft. $63.99
In-Win BP671 Mini-ITX HTPC 200W PSU 0.29cu.ft. $69.99

LIAN LI PC-Q03A Mini-ITX Tower Case no PSU 0.36cu.ft. $89.99

For comparison, my last computer case was the Thermaltake LANBOX Lite which is a microATX case that occupies 1.05cu.ft. Half the size would be 0.5cu.ft., which is a Mini-ITX cube such as the Lian Li Mini-Q (PC-Q03) with 1 full height expansion slot, 1 external drive bay for optical drive, and can accommodate a full size ATX power supply. Half again would be 0.25cu.ft which is a slim Mini-ITX like the Antec ISK300-150 having 1 external drive bay for optical drive and 1 half height expansion slot in the back. Half again would be 0.13cu.ft. which is like the Antec ISK110 which has the power supply externally, no external drive bays, and no expansion slots. These are small enough to mount behind a monitor or hang on a wall.

The Antec ISK110 is a minimalist case, about 3 inches (76mm) thick. There is no provision for cooling fan, but there is lots of mesh area for natural convection air flow, which is good. There is indication by one Amazon.com review that the Thermalright AXP-100 heatsink can fit if the mesh is removed, but it is not clear to me whether the AXP-100 can be used with a low profile fan or not. With a fan the height of the AXP-100 is 58mm, which leaves 18mm for the case, motherboard, CPU socket, and motherboard bottom clearance. In any case this seems quite tight. Power supply is another potential issue because the stock one is 90W and some of the AMD APUs have a thermal design power of 95 or 100W. Even if I use the 65W APU, the motherboard, memory, hard drive, and USB devices may draw more than 25W. There is the possibility of replacing the stock power supply with a higher power one, such as the pico-PSU by mini-box (http://www.mini-box.com/picoPSU-150-XT) for $45.

The HEC ITX200A and ITX200B are slim cases about 2.76 inches (70mm) thick. There is a built-in 60mm case fan on the side and a small fan in the stock power supply which provides 200W of power.
The fact it has these 2 fans is not as attractive for me, and the CPU heatsink may be too tall for this case.

The Antec ISK 300-150 and ISK 310-150 are thicker at 3.8 inches (96mm). There is a built-in 80mm case fan, and the power supply is built-in with AC power cord directly to the case. The wiring for peripherals seem to have large connectors and take up space.  There is room to fit the low profile CPU heatsink, and the exhaust fan is on top when the case is oriented vertically, which should help pass air through the CPU heatsink. The power supply could be replaced by the pico-PSU and the internal wiring can be changed or customized by some engineering.

In-Win H-Frame Mini is the most expensive case in the short list, and it is also very different from the other cases in that it is quite open to air with several parallel aluminum plates forming the case. It comes with a piece of tempered glass for replacing the opaque side panel so you can see what's inside. The case is fanless, and the power supply is built-in and has a fan. the cable management is already done on the underside of the case. overall thickness is 4.3 inches (109mm).

In-Win BP655.200BL and In-Win BP671 are similar with different external looks. There is built-in power supply with a fan on the inside of the case. There is a 80mm fan on top near the front of the case, so there are two fans pulling air out near the top of the case. the overall thickness is 3.9 inches (99mm).

LIAN LI PC-Q03A is a bit larger because it can accommodate a full length full height graphics card. It is all aluminum and does not include a power supply, but it can accommodate an ATX or a micro ATX power supply.

The Antec ISK110, Antec ISK 300/310-150, and the In-Win H-Frame Mini are my top choices based on how well I think they will work with the Thermalright CPU heatsink and minimizing the number of fans. I may want to get a pico-PSU if the built-in PSU is too noisy.

Overall Proposed Build
Option A: highest performance and expensive case
CPU: AMD A10-7850K 3.7GHz, R7 GPU (512:32:8@720MHz), DDR3-2133, 95W $175
CPU cooler: Thermalright AXP-100 $50
RAM: Patriot Viper 3 Low Profile Blue PVL316G213C1KB DDR3-2133 1.5V 11-11-11-30 $179.99
MB: Gigabyte GA-F2A88XN-WIFI $106.69
SSD: OCZ VTR150-25SAT3-240G $179
Case: In-Win H-Frame Mini $175
Total: $865.68

Option B: good performance and modest case
CPU: AMD A8-7600 3.3GHz, R7 GPU (384:24:8@720MHz), DDR3-2133, 65W $129
CPU cooler: Thermalright AXP-100 $50
RAM: Patriot Viper 3 Low Profile Blue PVL316G213C1KB DDR3-2133 1.5V 11-11-11-30 $179.99
MB: Gigabyte GA-F2A88XN-WIFI $106.69
SSD: OCZ VTR150-25SAT3-240G $179
Case: Antec ISK 300-150 $79.99
Total: $724.67 ($141.01)

Option C: use current case (LANBOX Lite)
CPU: AMD A8-7600 3.3GHz, R7 GPU (384:24:8@720MHz), DDR3-2133, 65W $129
CPU cooler: Thermalright SI-128 (from existing computer)
RAM: Patriot Viper 3 Low Profile Blue PVL316G213C1KB DDR3-2133 1.5V 11-11-11-30 $179.99
MB: Gigabyte GA-F2A88XM-D3H $80 (no wi-fi)
SSD: OCZ VTR150-25SAT3-240G $179
Total: $567.99 ($297.69)

someone has shown a build very similar to Option A:

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Time Warner Internet Speed Test April 2014

I noticed that Time Warner Internet monthly bill went up again from $34.99 to $37.99 in April 2014. This is the Lite service with 1Mbps for upload and download.  I am signing up for the Standard service with 15Mbps download and 1Mbps upload for $34.99 for first 12 months. Then after that price will go up to retail price, which is not specified.

This is the screenshot of the speed test with the Lite service:

The next day, 4/12/2014, I ran the tests again and the highest I got was with the CT server:

Most other servers give 2 to 6Mbps for download and 1Mbps for upload.  Going farther to west coast servers, Hawaii server, and Taiwan server, the download speeds are all between 0.5Mbps and 2Mbps with upload still at 1Mbps. So it seems like the benefit of having the Standard service with up to 15Mbps download speed is limited and highly depends on the origin of the data we are trying to download.