Dr. Jerry Pournelle

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Computing At Chaos Manor: July 3, 2006

The User's Column, July, 2006
Column 312, part 1
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2006 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.

I am concentrating on fiction nowadays, so these columns will be shorter. Most of the time they will be done weekly, so there may be movie and book reviews included at any time, not just at the end of the month. I'll continue the tradition of Book of the Month and Movie of the Month but in some cases they may be selections of items already reviewed.

This will be the first column published in Chaos Manor Reviews (www.ChaosManorReviews.com). This is a new web site where I'll be posting these columns, as well as reviews of what I'm using and why. There may also be wish list items. There will certainly be comparisons, and we'll bring in associates and guests to tell what they're using, and why. This is all very much under construction, and I'll listen to advice on what ought to be in here, and how it will be organized.

The columns will be pretty much what you're used to. For the moment they're in the open areas, but I do reserve the right to close off part of Chaos Manor Reviews for subscribers. We'll see how that works. The other web site, http://www.jerrypournelle.com, has The View from Chaos Manor and Chaos Manor Mail, both of which are more general than ChaosManorReviews. That site has been supported by the "Public Radio" model: that is, it's all available, free, but if I don't get enough subscribers it will all go away. At present I am operating this place on the same principle, but I'll have to get more subscribers to keep it open. One possibility is to sequester the columns in a place for subscribers only for a couple of months before bringing them out into the open area. I'd prefer not to do that. We'll see.


Diana is the fastest machine in the house. When I said that to Roberta, she noted that just at the moment Diana is probably just about the fastest machine in anyone's house, and of course she's right. Diana uses AMD's newest and fastest "Windsor" chip, the dual-core Athlon 64 FX-64 with HyperTransport support, dual 128KB L1 caches, and dual 1MB L2 caches. This chip uses AMD's new AM2 socket and supports DDR2 memory. In raw performance she's faster than any desktop CPU Intel is now shipping. There are faster systems, but not many in private homes.

If what you're building is the hottest games machine in town, then AMD is still the way to go, at least until we see what the Intel Core 2 will do. Diana is built on the ASUS AI Lifestyle M2N32-SLI Deluxe motherboard that uses the nVIDIA nForce 590 SLI chip set. She's got two Seagate Barracuda 7200 RPM 160 GB drives, and 4 GB of Kingston KHX8000D2K2 DDR2 memory.

Having said all that, Diana is not the hottest games machine in town, because she has "only" a single PNY nVIDIA 7600 GT PCI Express graphics card. Of course she deserves the latest and greatest, but the review cards hadn't arrived when it was time to build the system; I was going to have to buy something.

As I've often said, there are times when it makes sense to pay the premium price and get the latest and greatest. When you're building a system that you'll be using for several years, and you can amortize the extra cost over time, you may want to invest in the latest as a way to keep the system going longer.

Usually, though, your best bet for systems components is to look for the sweet spot. That's particularly true in video boards, where the difference between the all-out extreme best and something a bit older and a lot cheaper is often observable only in bench marks and specially constructed programs. Most of the programs you'll run and games you'll actually play will look quite good enough with something less than the latest video board. Clearly this isn't true for everyone. Some really need the latest and fastest; but for many the sweet spot board is good enough, and the best buy.

Bob Thompson points out that you can use a general sweet spot strategy. For example, if one board is $200 and the next one up is $600, one strategy is to buy the $200 board this year; next year buy the $600 board which by then will be $200; and the third year buy whatever is available for $200 (possibly something not even offered now, but perhaps today's $1100 board). This way you have spent the same money for more performance.

Most of the parts that built Diana
All the parts except the case: ASUS Motherboard, two Seagate Barracuda 7200 drives, 4 GB of Kingston DDR2 memory, and a temperature probe for when the system is built.

When you look at video boards on sale from major companies such as PNY, it's often obvious where the sweet spot is. The top of the PNY line goes for $1100 and change, and the next down is over a thousand. Then the price falls fast. After that there's the GeForce 7900 for $500, the GeForce 7800 for $425; and then come the GeForce 7600 boards, all of them under $200, and some quite a lot under that. It wasn't long ago at all that the 256 MB video memory GEForce 7600 SLI boards were $250 and more, and some of them at Fry's still have a $242 price sticker.

Clearly my choice was between the 7600 and the 7800. Fry's had the GeForce 7600 on sale with a rebate, so that the total price was under $140. I bought one, and that's what's in Diana. I also have the option of getting another PNY GeForce 7600 and connecting them together in the SLI board, and unless I get a better alternative in the next couple of weeks, that's what I'll do; report next month.

Eventually someone will send a latest and greatest, and I'll install it and run it. It's no less than Diana deserves. For now, though, PNY makes solidly professional products and I expect to be satisfied with the nVIDIA GeForce 7600 GT with 256 MB of memory. After all, I've been running World of Warcraft on Satine with a GeForce 6600 and I don't notice any lag or distortion.

The Antec P150 Super Quiet Mini Tower Case

The P150 is one of Antec's newer cases. It features the NEOHE430 power supply, and a raft of features for making this the quietest case I have yet encountered. Like many modern power supplies, the NEOHE430 accepts all AC voltages from 100 to 240 Volts. As it happens I ran across a big 110-to-220 transformer as I was putting Diana together, and for a lark I plugged the power supply into the transformer. It didn't smoke, and my voltmeter showed no change in power supply output voltage, none of which is very surprising.

The NEOHE430 uses a modular plug system for power output. The main power lines to the motherboard are built in, but everything else, like power for disk drives, plugs into the power supply. This means goodbye and good riddance to the huge tangle of wires coming out of the power supply: now there are only those needed.

Seagate suspended in the Antec P150
Two trays have been removed and one Seagate Barracuda 7200 RPM drive mounted using the P150's unique suspension system. The bay holds five drive in trays, or four in the full isolation suspension.

The P150 has a number of changes from earlier mid-tower cases. For one thing, it's the best looking case yet, rivaling Apple's soft white. The front bezel detaches easily once you know how, and the instructions on how to do that are clear, but you will need to read them; it's not obvious. Behind the front bezel you find a fan filter, which also swings out and then detaches; and behind that are the drive bays. These are very different from past drive bays.

There are two possible drive suspension systems. One is the traditional trays. In that mounting scheme, drives mount on silicone standoff shock absorbers, which help isolate the drives from the case, but of course don't stop all the drive noise from being transmitted to the case and thus out to you.

The other system uses what look like huge rubber bands, which suspend the drive in midair with no direct drive to case contact at all. To use those, you remove the trays entirely and hang the drives in the rubber bands. It sounds goofy, but it works quite well.

Antec warns you not to try transporting the system with the drives held in suspension mounting. Since I sometimes transport my main machines, either to the beach house or out to Larry Niven's place for a weekend of work, I considered using the traditional trays rather than the isolation suspension system, but the suspension system intrigued me.

By coincidence, Elizabeth Bryson of Golden Bow had sent me a new supply of "cupid mugs" (which are sort of a trademark of Golden Bow; Golden Bow [www.goldenbow.com] publishes VOPT, still the best disk defragmenter I know). They were packed in bubble foam, and I saved enough bubble wrap that I can stuff it in between the drives when it's time to transport this system. Of course, it will be important to remove it before starting up, so as to avoid overheating the drives.

Diana assembled, but for the video card
A forest of wires, but it's actually a pretty clean installation without the usual tangle from the power supply. That's 4 GB of Kingston memory to the left of the CPU. The video card hasn't been installed yet.

The floppy disk mount appears to be standard, but if you're accustomed to attaching your floppy drive with screws through the sides, you can waste a lot of time trying to do that: you must attach through the bottom of the drive, and you'll only be able to attach it with two screws, not four.

Bringing Up Diana

The lesson appointed for Sunday, July 2, 2006 is from the Gospel of St. Mark and is the story of the woman whose faith had made her whole. As the lawyers say in trials on TV, I'll connect that up later.

Assembling Diana was fairly easy. There were a few little tricks - for example, the floppy drive mounts I mentioned earlier; and lining up both the floppy and the DVD (CDROM) drive so that they will be flush with the front panel took a couple of trial and error assemblies; but for the most part everything went quite simply. The AMD-supplied fan and heat sink attached with as little trouble as any machine has ever given me. Everything else went that way.

Then it was time to bring up the machine and the weirdness began.

I plugged Diana in and turned on the power supply switch on the back of the case. The green light on the mother board came on. I pushed the "On" button. The system started up. The big blue light on the front panel blazed, fans whirred - but there was no video output and in about five seconds the system shut down. I fiddled with the video board seating, because I have found that getting a PCI-Express card seated properly can be tricky. I checked cables. Then I tried again, with the same result. No video output and after about five seconds the system shut down.

For no reason I can think of, I pushed the On button again, and while the machine was running I pushed the Reset button two or three times. That did it. The "no signal" light on the monitor changed to green. The ASUS splash screen came up. There was a message: The CPU has changed, adjust this in the BIOS.

I hit the DEL key to enter the BIOS, and went to the CPU menu item. It adjusted itself to reflect the CPU. I set the date and time: the system had the minutes right, but it was set for Far East date and time. Everything else in the BIOS seemed correct. Save and Exit, and the system went through its other messages and informed me there was no operating system, insert a boot disk.

I put in a Windows XP SP-2 system disk, hit the reset button, and everything came up properly. Windows XP installed.

The first step in installing Windows requires you to format the disk. You have two choices: quick, or normal. Quick takes a couple of minutes. Normal takes more than an hour for a 140 GB disk. Normal not only formats, but tests each sector as it formats; if it finds bad sectors it takes them out of the allocation table. I always do that, and I have never had anyone convince me it is a waste of time. Once the disk is formatted, Windows installation proceeds.

Tip: when you install Windows XP in a new system, don't let it try to install a network. That won't work, because until you run the motherboard chip driver installation disk Windows won't be able to find any network, but it will try for an awfully long time before it gives up. Leave the network installation for after you do the motherboard installation disk.

Windows XP had a few glitches but none worth logging. Then, after XP was running, the motherboard installation disk didn't want to install. It would install part of itself, then hang with nothing happening for a long time. By long time I mean more than five minutes. The remedy was to shut down the machine, turn it on (hitting the RESET button just after punching the ON button), let Windows come up, and try the motherboard installation again. Each time it would get further through the installation.

Then there was the blue screen. It wasn't a full blue screen of death. This one informed me that a SYSTEM32 file - I should have written down which one, but I didn't - was corrupt or was the wrong version, and I could fix it by booting with the Windows XP installation disk. I got out the installation disk and inserted it, but the system booted just fine from the hard drive (I hadn't changed the boot order: floppy, hard drive, CDROM) and the blue screen message never appeared. Apparently the act of opening and closing the CDROM drive door cured the problem.

This happened at least twice during the long evening of bringing up Diana.


Eventually the motherboard drivers including the network drivers were installed, and Diana was able to connect to the Internet through my D-Link Gaming Router. The ASUS M2N32-SLI DELUXE motherboard has two LAN net connectors. Both were active, but of course one wasn't connected, and Windows wanted to be sure I knew that.

Now it was time to install the sound drivers (the ASUS motherboard has very good on-board sound.) That took two tries with a reboot in between. Meanwhile, various silly Windows messages began to pop up. One was unused icons on my desk top. Of course, unless you count the open program windows there weren't any icons at all except the recycle bin, but Windows wanted to remove unused icons. There was an invitation to take a tour of windows. Probably the most annoying, though, was a warning that my computer could be at risk since I didn't have any anti-virus protection. All these would get in the way of messages about driver problems and installation progress.

The remedy in every case was to have faith and patience: close the annoying Windows messages so that you can see the real problem messages, then deal with the driver problem messages, and get on with the job. Onward and upward. Excelsior!

Finally we had really good sound. The network worked. I was able to get Diana on both the Internet and my LAN, and transfer files to and from her. Since a major purpose of this machine is to do games, I brought over the World of Warcraft folder and started that up. It got to the loader and login screens, brought up an image of my character, and blew up, resetting itself.

By this time it was 2 AM. I thought about the latest mishap and realized I hadn't installed the nVIDIA drivers, so the failure was no big surprise. The best nVIDIA drivers will always be at the nVIDIA site, so I went there. It didn't take long to download the drivers and install them, so it was time to try World of Warcraft again.

This time it worked. I didn't play for long because it was late, but Diana seemed to be in good shape. I Activated Windows XP and left Diana on all night with the automatic upgrade option turned on. Next day there were a lot of updates to install. Each time I put in one, it wanted to reset, and as soon as the system came up there would be another. Eventually those were done.

Memory Problems?

Time to test World of Warcraft again. I started up the program. It ran for a couple of minutes, then crashed, with a full system restart. When Windows XP came up there was a Microsoft crash report box. I let the system send in the crash report, and up popped a window informing me that there had been a memory error


It was recommended that I go to http://oca.microsoft.com/en/windiag.asp and download a Microsoft memory test, mtinst.exe, and run that. To run that test you have to make a floppy boot disk. I did and booted up with it. The memory test started automatically. It seems to be quite a thorough memory test, and looks at each of the four memory sticks in turn.

I would have been astonished if there had been any kind of memory error. Diana uses Kingston premium memory, and while I suppose it's not impossible that a bad chip got through Kingston's quality control, it's not very likely. In any event, I let the memory test run for an hour. It found no problems at all. Then I restarted the system. It turned itself off after five seconds, so I started it again, this time pushing the reset button just after I pushed the Start button. As usual that worked.

I brought up World of Warcraft, and took my character into the big city, where there are zillions of characters, everyone talks at once, and both the CPU and video processor are working as hard as they can.

Everything worked. I left my Paladin in the public square for an hour while I did some other work, then took him out to bash some bad guys. Everything worked just fine, then and ever since.

Beats Me

I have no idea what's going on. I certainly have no explanation of why the system turns itself off five seconds after I turn it on unless I push the reset button. I can't even imagine what kind of hardware failure could produce that result, and I suspect that the motherboard BIOS has some timing problems that will be taken care of Real Soon Now when ASUS gets out a new BIOS.

I have no explanation for the "memory error" that caused World of Warcraft to reset itself, then went away after an hour's strenuous memory testing. I do note that in between these incidents there was yet another Microsoft system update. I suppose it's possible that reporting the memory error caused Microsoft to send out a fix for a known bug, but I don't really believe that. It may be that clearing and resetting the BIOS will fix that, too.

Bottom Line

The bottom line is that Diana is now the fastest system in the house, and she plays World of Warcraft something wonderful. I had not really noticed any deficiency in the WOW experience with Satine with her single core AMD chip and nVIDIA GeForce 6600 video card; but the game plays noticeably better on Diana. There's more scenery. I can see farther. Satine doesn't do a bad job, but Diana does much better. The sound is better, too, but that will change when I get new sound drivers for Satine's ASUS motherboard.

Diana runs cool. The exhaust temperature is about six degrees above ambient when the system is at idle. Running World of Warcraft with a lot of action and many objects on screen will bring that from about 86F to 92F. I'm taking the exhaust temperature in the outflow from the main case fan. The exhaust temperature from the power supply fan has been a steady 86F no matter what's going on on screen.

The Antec P150 Superquiet case makes for the quietest system I can recall having. There's no sound from the disk drives. I have seen a review that the PNY GeForce 7600 board can get noisy when working very hard, but that hasn't been my experience. Diana is quiet as well as lovely.

The moral of this story is simple. If you want a really high powered system, you have two choices. The simple but expensive one is to buy an integrated system from one of the high end game system vendors. The other is to get first class components, build it yourself, and prepare to spend some time getting it running properly. If you choose to go that route, it's important that you have faith. Patience and faith. It will work, eventually, and it's worth it.

You will be hearing a good deal more about Diana. Satine, a single-core AMD system built on an ASUS board in the Antec LAN Boy case, continues to be my main writing and gaming machine, but that may change now. I continue to recommend the Antec LAN Boy cases; now I can add the P150 Superquiet. The ASUS M2N32 SLI Deluxe series remain the motherboards of choice for AMD Athlon systems.

On Building Your Own

The advantage of building your own system is that you get precisely the equipment you want. You can build to the sweet spot or to the highest performance as you choose, and mix and match as I did with Diana.

If you are going to build your own systems, I strongly recommend you get the O'Reilly book Building the Perfect PC, by Robert Bruce Thompson and Barbara Fritchman Thompson. The book is profusely illustrated, and has good general advice. They show how to build a variety of systems and recommend components for each. For the latest on component advice there's a web site. Even if you have a lot of experience building systems you'll learn something from this book, and it's worth keeping around as a handbook. On that score, Repairing and Upgrading your PC, also by the Thompsons and published by O'Reilly, is well worth keeping around for reference. I wouldn't be without either. Recommended.

Microsoft Wireless Comfort Keyboard 1.0A

If you like wireless keyboards and mice, this is a good one. The keyboard itself is in the Microsoft "Comfort" layout, which is flat, not humpbacked, but the lines of keys are curved, not straight. It takes an hour or so to get used to that layout, but once you do it's remarkably comfortable. There's a padded palm rest that actually works. Key sizes have been well thought out. The backspace key is still in the wrong place - it's up on the line with the numbers, rather than at the far end of the QWERTYUIOP row where it was on the IBM Selectric - but almost no keyboards put the backspace where it belongs. I have a couple of ancient keyboards that do have it there, and I can't use them any longer, although if I had a ready supply of keyboards with the key up there I'd buy them and use them. I prefer the backspace key where I can reach it with my right pinkie from the home keys, but I can get used to having to lift my hand from the home keys in order to backspace. Changing from one to the other gives me fits. The IBM Selectric key layout was the best ever invented for touch typists, and I do not understand why no one has copied it for PC keyboards.

But that's needless complaining; the fact is that the Microsoft Comfort Keyboard layout is very good, and it doesn't take long to adapt to it. There are also a number of special keys. There's a "Zoom" slider. There are mute and volume control keys, as well as Play/Stop/Rewind keys. It's very easy for a touch typist to get used to this keyboard, and it doesn't take long to like it.

The mouse is not shaped like your ordinary Microsoft Redeye mouse. It's very comfortable to hold. Mouse shape is a matter of taste: you'll either like it or hate it, but it's likely that given some time using it, you'll like it.

The transmitter unit has both a PS/2 Keyboard connector and a USB connector. You have to plug in both. The transmitter gets its power from the USB connection. Both Mouse and Keyboard use two AA batteries. I haven't any figures on battery life, but I put two Rayovac 15-minute rechargeable batteries in each unit a month or so ago, and they show no sign of needing a recharge.

MS Wireless comfort: Keyboard, mouse, and transmitter
The Microsoft Wireless Comfort Keyboard, Mouse, and Transmitter.

There is one peculiarity: if you connect the Microsoft Wireless Keyboard and Mouse in addition to a standard USB keyboard and mouse, both mice and keyboards will work - but the scroll wheel of your USB wired mouse will no longer scroll properly. The Wireless Mouse scroll wheel works as you expect it to, but the wired mouse scroll wheel won't, even if the Wireless Mouse is not powered and thus not operating. In other words, if you want the Wireless Keyboard, and you want the scroll key to work properly, you'll have to use the Wireless Mouse as well. Since few people run their systems with both wired and wireless mice this isn't likely to be a problem.

There is no conflict with two keyboards. I have used the Wireless Mouse and Keyboard in connection with the USB connected Z-BOARD gaming keyboard for playing World of Warcraft. Both keyboards work just fine. The Z-BOARD is great for games, but it's not the keyboard of choice for production writing, even with the "standard" key set. It's easy to move the Wireless keyboard out of the way so there's a place for the Z-BOARD when I'm using that for games. Of course I found out that the scroll on my USB Mouse didn't work when I tried having both the Wireless Keyboard and the Z-BOARD running at the same time. Z-BOARD plugged directly into the USB port, and Wireless Mouse, work together just fine.

If you want a wireless keyboard and mouse, the Microsoft Wireless Comfort Keyboard is a good choice. Recommended.

To be continued...