August 2007 - Posts

Farewell Neon, you were a good little car....

When I first moved to America in 1996 I had no idea what car to buy. I had heard horror stories that the car salesmen over here make the guys in the UK look like vicars and I was in a rush because I was paying through the nose for a rental. One of my friends told me about buying cars from rental places so I headed down to the closest one and found a very nice little 95 Dodge Neon for a little under $10k. The sales process was great - you test drive it then you give them a check. They price their cars just under the blue book value and have a no haggle policy. I love it.

The car has served me well over the years and I added a little over 110k miles to the clock. I've had pretty much everything replaced over the years but its never been major enough that I said 'it would be cheaper to get another car'... until this weekend.

We were heading out on a camping trip to see the meteor shower and at 8:30 on a foggy morning just outside Montesano, WA my 'check engine' light came on. I am unfazed by such warning lights because they report so much bad stuff which generally involves you paying the garage $60 to tell you something you already knew or you don't care about. Plus there was nowhere to stop. I had just finished explaining this to J when the engine spluttered and I decided to pull over to the side where I discovered the engine had actually stopped and wouldn't restart. We spent the next 2 hours waiting for a tow truck.

Now the first tow truck was going to tow us to Aberdeen but the AAA guys couldn't find any garages open on a Saturday - yes a SATURDAY - what is it with this place? They offered to tow us to Les Schwab - great if you want tyres but not so much if your engine is dead. Thankfully this tow truck broke down and they had to send another from Olympia and they offered to tow us all the way back there - it cost more money but the price was reasonable and waived if you let them fix your car.

Turns out the timing belt had broken - well shredded itself actually. Fixing it was around $600 but there was a gamble - on some cars a broken timing belt can damage the engine but it takes $300 of work to see if this is the case. I decided to gamble. So they spent the next few hours stripping down the timing case. They had a LOT of trouble getting one of the parts off so we decided to spend the night down there hoping they would have it fixed on Sunday. On Sunday morning they were very happy to tell me that they had got the part removed, and very sad to tell me that they had found a sheared off bolt that was probably what caused the problem. Unfortunately the bolt was a dealer only part so they couldn't get that until Monday. So we got a ride home.

We never did go camping but it turns out that the event got a lot of rain and nobody managed to see any meteor shower and we were in a nice hotel room drinking wine from the local 7-11

On Monday they got the part and replaced the timing belt.... but when they tested they found the worst.. the cylinders were damaged which requires a lot of repairs, minimum $1500.

And so little Neon I have made the sad decision to leave to down in Olympia where hopefully the mechanics will fix you in their spare time and maybe you will get another lease of life. Well that's what I will tell myself because I don't want to think of you sitting in a rusting pile of cars with no wheels. Please everyone take a minutes silence....

Now blogging 4 times as fast...

Well after this mornings exciting conclusion to the 'How many ways can I screw up building a PC' I have done the essential installs - Visual Studio 2005, C# Express, Visual Studio 2005 SP1, C# Express SP1, Visual Studio Vista patch, C# express Vista patch, Visual Studio 2005 Washington State bug fix, C# Express Thursday afternoon update, etc etc... Though I hate to link to Jeff twice in one week and give him the power of my google juice (yes folks that was sarcasm) I have to agree with him that this is just a big old mess.

So I have a wonderfully clean PC now with just the developer essentials - seems a shame to start installing all the crapware on there. I already had to install foxit reader (though that is preferable to the alternative) and of course google toolbar since Microsoft still don't think I need a spell checker in my browser.

The new PC feels amazingly snappy... there's none of the subtle delays switching tabs in IE (Scott saw this too - you've got to wonder what happens in the IE tab switching code as its easily one of the slowest things on my old PC) and scrolling long and complex web pages is just nice and smooth unpacking and compiling the spacewar project from XNA GSE was also noticeably faster. Sadly the internet hasn't speeded up any while I was under the desk re-cabling and vacuuming up 18 month old hairs and dust.

So now I just have to transfer my years of documents and stuff from the old PC and install Office and I will be almost back to productive.. man maybe it would have been cheaper to pay Jeff to do all of this for me ;-)

I remembered why I hate building PCs....

So while you are all sitting around waiting for the next installment of 'ZMans super computer tales' I have been cursing and kicking stuff.

The new computer was up and working Monday evening, I started to install stuff and copy things over to it when suddenly there was no internet access. Now I know had internet access on Monday because I downloaded 2 gazillabytes of updates from Microsoft. But now nothing. Vista just says I had 'local only' access (which was a lie because it couldn't see any other computer in the house) to a 'public' network. So what had I done? I had added a DVD drive... so I unplugged that and no change. I fiddled with stuff based on apocryphal comments from 12 year old 'experts' in forums I had never heard of. I turned of IPv6 (even though it worked yesterday and it works on my current computer). I reset every router in the house. I powered them off for minutes (and later hours) at a time. I checked the router settings. I reinstalled Vista - TWICE. I reset the BIOS back to defaults. I switched cables between computers and then I ran out of ideas so I went to the pub and got drunk.

That didn't help either so this morning I tried most of the above again (I'm a developer I sometimes think 'try it again' will work). This morning I thought to look at the lights on all the boxes - they all appear to be flashing normally. I was beginning to think that my minor attempts at overclocking (now given up in disgust) had somehow managed to blow up BOTH ethernet ports and nothing else. I think this would be a first in overclocking history.

The ZMan is by now close to tears because I know the next thing is to phone Vista support and I know they will spend 2 days walking me through all the things I've already done and I know I will have to lie to them about my network setup because when they hear about the home network and VPN boxes I have here they will blame those and I will have to shout at some poor guy in India when its not his fault. Even if they didn't I suspect they would come to the same conclusion as me - that the ethernet ports are broken. This means an RMA to the no name people I bought it from to save $3.45 and another lie 'no I didn't try to overclock it honest'. At least when you buy a Dell and it doesn't work you can send the whole thing back. You don't have to argue about which bit might be broken.

But before I did I decided to try the one thing I knew had changed - the DVD drive. I disconnected it again and this time I noticed that there was a blue LED on the motherboard that stayed on... yeah of course even though the computer is 'off' there is still power to the motherboard. What the hell I decide and power down the power supply.....

Turned it all back on and magically I am now on the internet again... I have no stinkin' clue what was up. I guess some electrickery got stuck in one of the thing-a-me-bobs on the doohicky and I needed to totally remove power from the motherboard before it would fix itself.

Which returns me to the meat of the post. When I decided to build the PC I had resigned myself to a day or so of fiddling and installing. I didn't take into account multiple OS installs and almost 2 additional wasted days doing essentially nothing but learning to turn off the power supply. Lets take 3 x 8 hour days at $50 an hour and realise that I have flushed $1200 down the toilet just to get frustrated. The reason I built my own was that the Dells with DX10 cards and quad cores are gamer rigs which cost close to $3000 so suddenly my $1000 savings doesn't seem such a bargain and Iost time I can't afford to lose right now. When will someone build a time machine eh?

So now at 9:30am on Thursday I am right back when I was at midnight on Monday except I have a DVD drive installed....



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Oooops, looks like i managed to disable the comments when I moved servers.... turned it back on now..

So how fast is it...

Out of the box with just the NVidia drivers applied we have a windows rating of 5.0 (CPU 5.9, Memory 5.0, Graphics 5.9, Gaming Graphics 5.9, Hard Drive 5.9) - much the same as what Jeff got.

Must go and stick the other 2Gb of Ram back in. Hard to imagine that the first hard drive I bought for my Atari ST was 120Mb (yes Megabytes) in 1991(?) and I thought I was the coolest guy in the world. But I digress... adding the 2Gb for at total of 4Gb puts the rating up to 5.3 (CPU 5.9, Memory 5.3, Graphics 5.9, Gaming Graphics 5.9, Hard Drive 5.9). Quite interesting - all I did was increase the RAM. I'm glad to say that installing all the critical updates from Microsoft didn't affect this test!

I guess my crappy 3 year old P4 with 2Gb RAM isn't so bad after all - that has a vista rating of 4.2 (CPU 4.2, Memory 4.5, Graphics 5.0, Gaming Graphics 4.2, Hard Drive 4,4). I think 3 years ago when I bought the computer it was a pretty good spec machine. Hard to think that in 3 years though my CPU speed has gone DOWN from 2.8Gz to 2.4Ghz. Sure I now have 4 cores instead of 2 and I know CPU technology has improved, especially over a P4, a lot but it just seems wrong.

Some other things to think about while I am waiting for 3dmark to download and for my 500Gb hard drive to format (man you would think they could find a way to speed this up... I know windows formats in the background but I can't really run any perf tests while its going).

I have to say I am very impressed with the P182 case. The fans are essentially silent unless I turn them all the way up and even then my old computer is completely drowning it out. It will be interesting to see how my office feels once everything is switched out. I am very used to the noisy background noise after 3 years. The way you can thread cables up the back side of the motherboard is also great. There's a lot of cables in the modern PC and hiding most of them out of the airflow must help with the cooling a lot.

So onto some other baseline benchmarks before I leave this thing to burn in for a while.

PCMark 2005: 8003 (Note you have to run PCMark05 as an Admin to get it to work properly)

3dMark 2006: 9818 (though it says non approved drivers!)


Temperatures: (TJunction/Core0/1/2/3). Note CoreTemp need to have windows startup modified to run on Vista x64.

  • 100/54/54/49/47 at windows desktop
  • 100/100/95/89/84 during torture tests. Core 0 fluctuated between 100 and 126(?) with nothing in between. I increased the fan speed on the case and it didn't make much difference

So I'm a little concerned about the Core 0 temperatures but the tests seemed very stable... I'm also concerned because my temps are waaaaaay higher than Jeffs were on the same torture test.

So I did a little reading and found SpeedFan which doesn't have the driver problem and amazingly gives a totally different set of temperatures!!

Temperatures: (System/CPU/AUX/Core0/1/2/3) using SpeedFan

  • 7/47/37/36/37/32/30 at windows desktop
  • 62/93/38/-42/82/70/66 during torture tests. Yes you read that right -42!!! SpeedFan seems to go -ve when the temperature goes over 88(ish)

So now I don't know what to think - SpeedFan and CoreTemp can't agree on anything other than Core 0 is getting the hottest. I don't have a fancy temperature gun like Jeff to check things. Still my temperatures are still higher than what I would expect.

4Gb and Vista installs slower....

I was a little underwhelmed by the installing vista from a USB memory stick. It really doesn't seem that much faster. However while surfing around to various people who commented on Jeff's PC building series I came across someone having problems with 4Gb installed. Thankfully I was not having that problems but I noticed Jeff had replied saying that the vista install went very slowly wiht 4Gb - so I followed his advice and removed 2Gb temporarily. Things seemed to have picked up a bit though the 'copying files' stage still seems to be VERY slow considering I have a fast USB stick and a 10k SATA drive receiving. Oh well I guess it will get there eventually - I've already restarted this too many times.

Vista Installer team I don't like you much at the moment.....

I like Vista. I was running the beta as soon as it would install on my machine and I've suffered through the quirks of missing drivers and defending the OS while being called a Microsoft shill by some. But I'm waisting time now because when the installer has an error its restarting instead of letting me go back and change options.

Since I thought I may do several installs and since I don't have a spare SATA cable I put the Vista files onto a nice fast 4Kb USB key and booted from that - all seems quite straightforward and it is supposed to be much faster.

  1. Let it boot into the installer... wait
  2. Enter the language settings
  3. Click the 'install now' button... wait
  4. Type in the product key... wait
  5. Accept the license agreement
  6. Click 'Custom' since this is a new installation.
  7. The 'drive chooser' window shows up. I have 2 brand new drives and it lets me choose between them. I pick my fast expensive 10k raptor and hit Next and windows says 'Windows could not determine if this computer contains a valid system volume'. Press OK and the installer goes back to step 2... Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarghhhhhh. Whats wrong with just sending me back to step 6 so I can fix the problem with the drive.
  8. After trying a couple of times I assume that the drive need to be partitioned and formatted. There's no way to do that so I press the 'advanced' buttons and get several new buttons but still nothing about partitioning. There is a 'New' button with an icon that looks like a star (yes great icon guys) so I click that and sure enough it makes a new partition...
  9. Select the new partition and Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaargggggggggggggg - I get the same damn error and back to step 2
  10. Do some searches on the web. Hmmm this is old but I seem to remember playing with the boot priority and moving the USB drive to the top of the list.... so restart, fix the bios and go back to #1
  11. Yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaayyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy

So on reflection maybe the real problem here is that the error message just isn't very helpful. The list of drives I'm presented with doesn't include the USB key I booted from so I have no idea that its a problem due to that.

Or maybe the real problem here is that I shouldn't go fiddling with BIOS settings :-)

Jeff Atwood has tiny hands :-)

The last couple of computers I bought have been fairly high spec Dell machines and since its been 3 years since my last desktop purchase I decided it was time to upgrade from the P4 that has served me very well.

I looked at Dell again but this time I just wasn't happy with the specs - it seems that to get a decent dev rig with DX10 cards I had to start stepping up into the crazy gamer alienware type PC and those get crazy pretty quick. I resigned myself to months of research and building my own. But then Jeff over at CodingHorror was 'commissioned' by Scott Hanselman to build him a developer computer. So I saved myself lots of work and just copied him!

The final parts arrived today so I've spent this morning putting it together. Things are a bit more complicated than 8 years ago the last time I did this - CPUs seem smaller but the heat sinks are much bigger. There was no SATA last time I built and this is the 1st time I've put in a power supply with its octopus bunch of mystery cables. The graphics cards are much bigger too and have their own personal fans attached.

Other than going with 1 card (since I only have 2 monitors at the moment and have no need for SLI) I just bought the stuff on Jeff's list however there's been a few teething troubles.

  1. Jeff's list doesn't quite match what he built for Scott - he changed the motherboard to a different make and I didn't notice. Sadly according to the box this board doesn't support quad core over clocking which is a bit sad since I paid for the faster memory chips just to enable that. Hopefully a bios upgrade or something will fix this
  2. The second power connector on the motherboard is in one of the most hard to reach places I have ever seen. It took several long tools to get that in there and the fins on the CPU cooler are sharper than they look
  3. The motherboard only comes with a 'quick install' manual - you have to go online to find the actual manual with the schematic to find what all the bits are
  4. The online schematic nor the manual doesn't tell you where the 1394 header is - thankfully this article on HardOCP does.
  5. The online schematic doesn't tell you where the sound header is for the front panel - thankfully if you actually read the manual it tells you.
  6. The motherboard only comes with 2 SATA cables and 2 SATA power connectors... somehow I managed to get the SATA DVD drive so I need to go and buy a cable even though my house is full of cables I kept 'just in case'
  7. Hmmm do I connect my 2 SATA drives to different SATA controllers?? Is it like IDE in that respect - nope the manual doesn't tell you that. Seems like Jeff put his on #1 and #2 so thats good enugh for me.
  8. When Jeff suggests putting the hard drives in the bottom enclosure DO AS HE SAYS... the middle enclosure is no use at all when you have the big ass graphics card there because you just can't fit a drive in it!
  9. The fan on the CPU cooler doesn't actually fit in the motherboard - the memory gets in the way on the right hand side and the chipset cooler on the bottom. The top and left side already have case fans within an inch and the cooler claims its fine with passive cooling so for now I will just let it go and see what happens as I test it and overclock it. I have to say when I opened the box and looked at this beast of a cooler I just about died. It has to be one of the meanest looking things I ever paid $40 for.
  10. My hands are fricking HUGE. Jeff must have the tiny hands of a 5 year old to be able to reach in and build this thing fast :-)

After about 3-4 hours of reading, surfing and trying to plug in connectors in the dark I have a booting PC... well as far as the BIOS anyway. Then it took me another hour to make the hard drives work (must have had a loose connection on the power - after i unplugged and replugged everything they worked just fine).

So now on with the software build up.... I see Scott has already got his list of things to install though he is shaming me with he 3 monitor setup and his attempt at tidy cabling (maybe next time I will post pictures of my half assed attempt solving at the cabling problem under my desk).




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