The Deliverator – Wannabee

So open minded, my thoughts fell out…

Archive for the 'General' Category

My take on Light Peak/Thunderbolt

Posted by Deliverator on 25th February 2011

With this week’s refresh of Apple’s Macbook Pro line of computers, consumers are going to get their first sampling of Intel’s Light Peak technology under the moniker “Thunderbolt.” Apple is no stranger to introducing new external interfaces, having premiered and acted as the die-hard champion of Firewire and Displayport. Both of these technologies, though offering technical advantages over other interfaces at their time of introduction, haven’t really become very mainstream and have remained pricier than alternatives. With USB 3.0 having beaten Thunderbolt to market by almost a year, I know a lot of techies have taken a brief look at Thunderbolt and dismissed it as yet another connector to try and fit on a motherboard bezel. I’ve looked at Thunderbolt in some depth and the deeper I’ve dug, the more I am interested. If widely adopted, I think it may widely reshape the collection of peripherals and mess of wires that have come to represent a “Desktop” level computing environment.

The salient points:

-Thunderbolt offers significantly more bandwidth than USB 3.0 with dual fully bi-directional 10 Gbps. That is up to 20 Gbps in both directions. USB 3.0 after overhead offers around 3.2 Gbps This greatly influences the classes of peripherals that could be run over a link. Think externalizing GPU’s vs external hard drives.

-Thunderbolt provides significantly more power to external devices than USB 3.0. USB 3.0 gives you a little under 5 watts to play with, which, while an improvement over USB 2.0’s ~2.5 watt, is less than half of Thunderbolt’s 10 watts. 10 watts is enough to power most full size desktop 3.5″ hard drives in external enclosures. It is enough to drive a monitor reasonably bright 20″ LCD monitor. With a little bit of power conserving design, it may be possible to do away with the need for power adapters for most present, common, PC peripherals except laser printers.

-Thunderbolt lets your daisy chain up to 7 devices. All the devices chained together have to share the Thunderbolt port’s overall bandwidth and power allotments, but both are fairly ample. The daisy chaining ability, combined with more directly powered peripherals, means a lot fewer cable will be needed to connect all your peripherals to your CPU unit and a lot of those cable runs will be shorter. In brief, way less desktop mess / tangle of cables.

-Thunderbolt tunnels the PCI Express protocol as well as Display port. Since tons of interface chips are designed to plug into PCI Express buses already, this will make it relatively trivial for 3rd party device manufacturers to take existing designs for internal peripherals and create “external peripheral” versions of the same. This, combined with much friendly licensing to implement compatible implementations and support of the underlying technology via Intel could make Thunderbolt a rapid starter, whereas some of the “inside baseball” aspects of Firewire lead to its slow adoption and lack of mainstream support compared USB 2.0.

Am I going to jump in headfirst and order a Macbook Pro today? No, but if Apple doesn’t try to play this one too close to its chest (and smother the baby in the process), Thunderbolt has the potential to truly become the “universal” bus that USB has long claimed to be.

 

Posted in General, Mac, Rants and Raves, Tech Stuff | No Comments »

New HTPC, Windows 7 Headaches

Posted by Deliverator on 18th January 2011

My last set of upgrades to my HTPC managed to eek out one more year of life, but it finally succumbed under an avalanche of high bit-rate video, new surround sound encoding schemes and other tasks which proved too much for the aging Shuttle boxes’ older dual core AMD CPU and bandwidth challenged DDR400 memory to handle. I ended up being able to scrounge most of the parts for the new HTPC from my spare parts bins, so the only purchases I needed to make were the CPU and ram. The new system has the following specs:

-Core i7 950 cpu

-4GB of Kinston DDR3 ram

-MSI X58 Platinum motherboard

-750 GB Seagate HDD

-Blu-ray reader / DVD burner

-600 W OCZ power supply with modular cables

-Lian Li desktop style aluminum case

-Nvidia GT 240 graphics card

-Windows 7

Putting together the system was pretty straight-forward. The Lian Li case I had on hand doesn’t have the best cable pathing and won’t accommodate longer video cards, but it had the virtue of being free. Thanks to the modular cable system on the power supply, I was able to keep the internal rats nest down to a bare minimum. The noise level is higher than on my old system due to an increased number of fans and and fairly loud head seeking of the Seagate HDD. I’ve been using SSDs pretty exclusively for my boot drives for the last few years, but needed more storage for this system than is cheaply affordable in an SSD and I was trying to keep the cost of this upgrade to a bare minimum. I might clone the HDD drive to an SSD at some future point if the head seeking becomes too annoying, but for now the projector fan largely drowns it out.

Software setup was a bit more of a challenge, as some of the audio/video software I use still doesn’t play nicely with Windows 7. I was able to get my HDTV DVR software, Beyond TV, working with my tuners, eventually, but it took some doing.

I switched from coaxial digital audio to optical Toslink, due to my newer motherboard not supporting coaxial out. This went fairly smoothly; I was dreading having to deal by touch with the maze of barely accessible wires coming out of the back of my surround receiver.

The biggest sticking point of the whole project was that my Optoma HD20 projector did not want to display anything but gobbledygook when hooked up to the Nvidia GT 240 video card. I had used this same card, cables and everything with the previous system without issue. Updating to the latest beta 126.635 drivers finally got an image up on the screen, but at 1080p60 resolution, the computer would momentarily lose sync with the projector every 5-15 minutes and the projector would seek for 3-4 seconds before relocking. VERY annoying when watching a film. Setting the refresh to 30 hz or a lower resolution gets rid of the problem, making this appear on the surface to be a video bandwidth/cable length issue, but this same video card, projector and cables behaved perfectly well under XP, so I have to conclude that Nvidia’s Windows 7 drivers are pretty much made of fail.

It would really piss me off to have to buy a new video card or a video amplifier/HDMI repeater in order to solve this problem. The HDMI cables aren’t that long (35′ if I remember correctly) and were of the higher quality type designed for full 1080p spec use at longer lengths. They are plastered in the ceiling, so replacing them isn’t really an appealing option!

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Why I may be through with SIFF…

Posted by Deliverator on 27th May 2010

I’ve done SIFF for six years straight, if I am doing my math right. After tonight’s experience, though, this year may be my last. One of the things that has really been bothering me in recent years, particularly after getting my own home theater is how mediocre the presentation of films has become at SIFF. Tonight was a really, really bad experience on all levels.

I still go to a lot of movies in commercial theaters, especially for the opening nights of blockbusters. I love the soundtrack of a audience’s reactions that you don’t get watching a movie at home. I love the big screen and thumping bass that would annoy the neightbors. Theaters offer a whole host of intangibles that a home theater just can’t match. So to, do film festivals. I love sitting in a cafe after a film and discussing it with other festival attendees, picking up trivia and recommendations.

I don’t like running all over town trying to get from theater to theater. I don’t like standing in the rain for an hour before a film just to get a seat. I don’t like having to watch the same pre-film SIFF promotion for 20 straight movies and here the non-sensical, incoherent remarks of the programmers prior to the films. Mostly, I don’t like the disrespect that SIFF gives its audience.

Today, I showed up to watch Henry of Navarre at The Neptune. This is an epic scope and length film with lush presentation, big battle scenes, sweeping vistas, lots of detailed sets and costumes. In short, it is exactly the type of movie that I still like to see in a real theater. After driving into Seattle, paying for parking, buying overpriced hot dogs and drinks and sitting down, the programmer informed us that the distributor sent them a cut that wouldn’t work on the venue’s projection system, and that instead we would be watching a DVD version. They offered to provide a film voucher if in the first 20 minutes of the film you couldn’t stand the quality. What they ended up showing was a poorly cropped DVD screener with huge watermarks in both upper hand corners, muted colors and blocky compression artifacts and poorly translated subtitles. The video looked like something you might stream via Real Player circa 1995. Needless to say, I took the voucher. What pisses me off is they waited till everyone was seated and had already paid for food to even present this option. The offering of a voucher instead of a straight refund also pisses me off. I paid cash for my ticket, to say nothing of being out gas money, parking & concession costs. Offering a voucher doesn’t affect their bottom line at all.

I receive daily marketing emails from SIFF. This is exactly the kind of information that could be provided in advance via email, a twitter feed, etc. They do have the emails of a good percentage of people purchasing tickets and a simple database lookup would give them the emails of a lot of people who had purchased tickets. It would be nice if they had spent one iota of effort to save me some time and money.

For the last couple festivals, I’ve encountered inconsiderately handled issues such as this at two or more screenings. Last year, I was at a screening during which the audio kept breaking up every couple minutes for 10-20 seconds at time, during which you couldn’t hear the dialogue. I fought for and got a refund, as none was pro-actively offered. I later spoke to someone who went to a later screening of the same film and reported the same issue and lack of consideration.

I don’t know where they got the video, but I’ve already found superior copies of it available online. As everyone but those involved in the industry seem to have grasped, the real reason illegal downloads are flourishing isn’t the free vs cost issue, it is that piracy offers a superior experience than what can be had legally. I am earnestly considering just scrapping SIFF next year and spending more quality time with Netflix streaming, Hulu, the several independent film channels I have on my dish, etc. This little infographic from Making Light sums up the issue quite nicely:

Posted in Media, Movies | No Comments »

SIFF Schedule 2010

Posted by Deliverator on 9th May 2010

Here is my schedule for SIFF 2010. If you would like to join me for a movie, let me know. I have spares available for some films.

Posted in Media, Movies | No Comments »

Maybe the MPAA will try harder next time it is going to release a $2 billion film?

Posted by Deliverator on 9th April 2010

Hollywood fails yet again…

The futility of even the most byzantine copy protection schemes has been proven once again. For several days now, copies of the movie Avatar derived from a retail (region 2) DVD source have been circulating online. DVD copy protection has long been broken, but Blueray has been slightly (and only slightly) more resistant. Now, it appears that Slysoft, maker of the AnyDVD software blueray video player have updated their software to decode the latest Blueray encryption scheme, which appears to only be in use on a single title – Avatar. It is likely that the same source that leaked the retail DVD also has copies of the Blueray version of the film and it is likely that Blueray rips of Avatar will start appearing online as soon as this evening.

I’ve seen this pattern time and time again. Retail DVD/Blueray derived copies of movies will start showing up online sometimes as much as 2-4 weeks in advance of official store release dates. This is an aweful failure on the part of the entertainment industry. The copy protection schemes have proven a minimal deterent, so the next best thing they could do IMO is to ensure just-in-time delivery and manufacturing of physical media and to better track physical media through manufacturing and distribution channels. The entertainment industry really needs to take a page from Amazon, Dell, etc. and learn how to do just in time manufacturing and delivery and look to the example set by NGO’s and various relief organizations on end to end tracking systems that help prevent physical theft/graft issues by pinpointing dishonest individuals in the chain of responsibility.

To have a major title like Avatar show up more than two weeks in advance of store release is pure negligence.

Posted in Media, Movies | No Comments »

Belated thoughts on the Nokia N900

Posted by Deliverator on 9th April 2010

I’ve been using a Nokia N900 as my cell for about 4 months now. I usually write about new gadgets in my collection much sooner than this, but with the N900 I wanted to take some more time for emotion to dampen down and to see how the platform matures before giving my take. Here are some thoughts:

Hardware

-The n900 is a big beautiful brick of a device. It feels very solid and well engineered cradled in your hands. I don’t worry much about accidental damage when I purchase a Nokia device, which is a big consideration for me, as I am a bit of a clutz.

-The screen is bright, beautiful, and daylight viewable. The resolution on the Iphone and similar smartphones is a joke compared to the screen on the n900. I wish Nokia had stayed somewhere in the 4.1 inch range or even gone a little larger, rather than shrinking the screen to 3.5″, which is a bit squint inducing to my eyes these days. The screen surface is a bit softer than those of the previous Nokia tablets, enough that I felt the need to purchase a screen protector. The screen also gathers fingerprints to such an extent that I was whipping it off multiple times a day with a microfiber cloth.

-The resistive digitizer is ultra-precise and has never needed any sort of calibrations. I’ve never had a problem with a touchscreen on a Nokia device. I’ve never found multi-touch to be much more than a gimmick in terms of usability and don’t like the other trade-offs from using a capacitive touchscreen. I really prefer using a stylus, or the edge of a fingernail in most situations due to better precision and not adding fingerprints to the screen.

-I don’t like the positioning of the slide-to-unlock switch or stylus silo. The n900 is really designed to be a two handed, horizontal orientation device and the positioning of these two components is less than optimal. Having the stylus in the lower right also forces you to pickup the phone to draw the stylus when you have it propped on its stand on a desk.

-The headphone and charging ports are located on opposite ends of the device, which makes the N900 awkward to use in a lot of circumstances while charging.

-The charging port is a Micro-USB port, rather than the standard round Nokia connector found on pretty much every other Nokia phone and all previous Nokia Internet Tablets. This forces people to buy new accessories, which is a small but non negligible issue. The bigger problem is that Nokia chose to use a surface mount micro-usb connector with no mechanical stabilization other than a few solder pads and wishful thinking, rather than a proper through hole connector. A large number of users have managed to pull this connector right out when detaching the charging cable, or place enough strain on the connector to stress the solder joints, resulting in intermittent or total loss of charging ability. Nokia’s response to user with this issue has been less than forthright or consistent. This is a design and manufacturing error, period, and is not a result of improper treatment by users. Users who experience this issue either in or out of warranty should receive a priority replacement of their device and not be forced to wait 6-8 weeks. I am absolutely dreading that this will happen to my N900 at some point. I am being extremely careful when attaching and detaching my charger and have taken the additional step of filing down two overly large metal nubs on the tip of the Nokia supplied charger, which are designed to prevent the charger from slipping out accidentally, which exacerbates the issue by requiring much greater force to be used to detach the charging cable. Most other Micro-USB cables I have also have these two nubs, but they are much less prominent than on the Nokia official charger. Just to be safe, I filed the nubs on all my cables down to almost nothing.

-The kickstand integrated into the N900’s battery cover plate is a bad joke, especially when compared to the excellent, full device width, adjustable stands built into the N800 and N810. The N900’s stand only has one viewing angle, and it is one which is suboptimal in almost any use case for the device. It is located so far to the extreme left of the device that virtually any pressure on the screen causes he device to wobble or fall over. This is a major step back in design for Nokia. It would have been better to leave it out entirely, rather than leave it there for everyone to comment on in virtually every review I’ve seen. A laser cut stand designed by a member of the Internet Tablet Talk community has proven to be a hot seller.

-The bezel around the otherwise excellent 5mp camera is chrome and allows light to reflect into the camera, especially when using the flash. This causes many pictures to have a nasty haze to them. There is also a piece of blue plastic that is too close causing many pictures to have a bluish tinge. This issue can largely be fixed with a sharpie marker, but I am surprised it slipped through QA. A cell phone accessory manufacturer could make a lot of money selling replacement backs for the N900 which fixes this issue and includes a better stand.

-The battery life is pretty abysmal. I find myself hard pressed to get through a full day without throwing the N900 back on the charger for an hour. For the first time in my life, I’ve purchased a car charger for a phone. I also bought a portable external battery from iGO for those times when I just know I won’t be able to plug in during the day. The included battery should really have been about 50% higher capacity, even at the cost of additional size/thickness to the device. Mugin, a 3rd party battery manufacturer, appears to be making an extended capacity battery along with a replacement backplate, but the backplate appears to be extremely basic and doesn’t appear to have a stand.

-In general, I LOVE the guts of the N900. The processor is an extremely zippy OMAP which provides enough ooomph for substantive applications to actually feel fluid. 256 MB of ram and a large pagefile make for useful multitasking. I often times have 6+ applications running simultaneously on my N900. 32 GB of flash gives plenty of space for my media files, and there is also a Micro-SD card slot for expansion. The n900 has a 3d accelerator powerful enough to play Quake 3. There is both an FM radio receiver and transmitter. The GPS unit is much better than on any previous Nokia device Ive used and gets a lock quickly and maintains a lock in more challenging locations than the one in the N810 or N95. It isn’t as good or as accurate as the MTK chipset Bluetooth GPS I got to use with my N800 and N810, but it is good enough that I haven’t felt compelled to carry the Bluetooth GPS, either. The N900 also has TV-out, Wifi, Bluetooth, etc….

Software

-The N900 UI is quite fluid and easy to navigate. I like the concept of multiple virtual desktops on which you can organize your various widgets, application shortcuts, etc. I generally keep my most often accessed program shortcuts on one screen, keep all my phone and communications related widgets and shortcuts on another and keep a screen-full of iconized website bookmarks on a third.

-I LOVE the multitasking experience on the N900. I often times have a half dozen or more applications running on the N900 simultaneously and rarely experience anything like a slowdown. This undoubtedly is part of the reason for my dreadful battery life, but I ultimately have the choice of how I want to use my device.

-The Nokia Internet Tablets have always offered what I consider the best pocket-able Internet experience out there and the N900 is no exception. The browser is as close to a desktop level browsing experience as I have found in a device this size. Broadly speaking, all those rich Web 2.0 sites just work. The n900 is also one of the few phones with real Adobe Flash support. Go ahead, use Youtube. For all you social networking types, the multitasking abilities of the N900 let you stay constantly connected to Twitter, Facebook, IM, RSS feeds, etc. all the time without needing to manually switch back and forth between apps as with some of the single tasking or pseudo multi-tasking alternatives out there. The N900 is also the first cell phone to receive a officially sanctioned/produced mobile version of the Firefox browser, complete with plugin support (Weave Sync, Adblock Plus, etc.).

-The Maemo 5 OS powering the n900 offers very close to the full Linux desktop stack of libraries and frameworks, making it very easy for Linux developers to write and port existing apps to the platform. Additionally, because ARM is already a target platform for Debian (the flavor of Linux from which Maemo shares its roots), a lot of existing Debian tools and apps work essentially out of the box. There is a project called Easy-Debian to make installing a full Debian environment alongside Maemo even easier.

-I really like the combined approach of having a commercial app store (Ovi Store) alongside the traditional Linux application repository approach. Nokia has also developed a multiple repository approach by which users can choose from application sources based on how much testing they have gone through. There is no need to “jailbreak” an N900. You can install and run anything you like. On the flip side, as a developer, you can write anything you like and not have to worry about having your application being rejected by the boys in Cupertino for some unclear, unstated reason. Maemo is quite simply by FAR the most open phone platform for phones as of this post.

-The commercial application market for the N900 is still quite new, but community developed applications have filled most of my mobile app needs at this point. Here are a list of just a few of the apps I routinely use on my N900:

Firefox – Firefox on the N900 is still a bit slower browsing option than the default Microb browser, but on the other hand it supports tabbed browsing and a decent subset of the full desktop version of Firefox’s plugins. I love using the Weave plugin to sync my bookmarks, passwords, etc between my desktop and N900. I also highly enjoy not having to look at ads on a mobile device thanks to Adblock+…

VNC, SSH & Remote Desktop – I frequently use these to check in on servers I administer while out and about. This can be a real lifesaver when you need to fight a fire at an awkward moment.

Pidgin – I use this for my mobile IM needs, although there are now plugins for the built in conversations application that probably make this unnecessary.

Witter – This is an excellent twitter application that is actually better than most desktop twitter clients I have used.

Gpodder – Nice podcasting client

Xchat – Cause all the people / Turing AI’s worth talking to still hang out on IRC.

FM radio app – Lets you use the built in FM radio tuner.

Canola – This was probably the best overall media player for previous Maemo devices. It works on the N900 as well, but there are some significant bugs/gotchas that the authors have been slow to fix.

Maemo Mapper – This is an excellent mapping/gps application that can use a variety of map sources. Was one of the killer apps on the previous Maemo devices. The n900 version was a bit slow out the door, but seems to be in rapid development now.

FBReader – Excellent ebook reading software which supports a wide variety of file formats and is highly configurable

Wizard Mounter – Lets me mount windows file shares on the N900. I transfer most of my media wirelessly this way.

Battery-eye – Lets you see a detailed view of battery status / discharges rates and helps you figure out if a particular application is draining battery at a abnormal/unacceptable rate perhaps due to a bug.

DialCentral – DialCentral is a client for managing and making phonecalls through Google Voice.

Skype and Sip VOIP support – I can’t think of another phone that gives you as  many options for making low cost VOIP calls out of the box and in such a highly integrated way. Making a VOIP call is just as easy as any other phone call on the N900.

Posted in General, Linux, Operating Systems, Portable Computing/Gadgets, Tech Stuff | No Comments »

A brief rant about ebook readers

Posted by Deliverator on 24th March 2010

I’ve been reading books electronically in one form or another since 1996 (on a USR Pilot 5000). Since then, I’ve owned ~8 devices on which I regularly read ebooks. Several of those devices have been dedicated, purpose built devices, ostensibly for reading ebooks and little else.

I currently do most of my electronic reading on a Sony PRS-505 with a Sony front light wedge/leather case accessory. I’ve been enacting a boycott on purchasing Sony products since the Sony Rootkit Debacle, but received the reader as a gift. Since receiving the Sony reader, Sony has released 3-4 new readers.

This year, it seems like hardly a day has passed when the tech news sites haven’t covered the release of a new reader product from some company or another. In some cases, this latest batch of e-ink readers represent 3rd, 4th or even 5th generation products. One would expect a pretty fine degree of design refinement from a 5th generation product, especially one devoted to such a singular task. Yet, virtually all the readers, announced or on the market today, fail to address 3 fundamental user experience issues. I seldom see these issues brought up to any great degree in product reviews, either. Yet, for me, these issues are key to enjoying an electronic reading experience:

  1. An ebook reader should be comfortable to hold in one’s hand (notice the singular there) for an extended period of time and without risk of slipping or dropping the device due to positional fatigue, accidental jarring, etc. Virtually all the readers on the market are thin, rectangular shaped devices and are often made of slick plastic or metal that provides for an actively slippery surface when combined with sweaty palms. Additionally, the above should apply in both horizontal and vertical orientations for both right and left handed individuals.
  2. Regardless of screen orientation, the next page/previous page buttons should lie under one’s thumbs. Simple turning of the page is by far the most frequently accessed function on any ebook reader. It should just be there without need to reach or place the reader in a stressful/uncomfortable position. The next page button in particular should be over-sized. A D-pad is not an acceptable substitute.
  3. This last is going to be somewhat controversial. The vast majority of day to day recreational reading (novels and the like) is done in the evening and at night, often times in less than ideal lighting conditions, especially for those who share their beds with a partner. Ebook readers need to incorporate some form of front or back lighting into their designs or offer well integrated official lighting accessories. This is a somewhat unpalatable task with the current crop of E-ink displays, where adding front lighting generally consists of placing an edge lit piece of clear plastic in front of the display. Adding another layer in front of the display diminishes the clarity and contrast of the display. And the high contrast, paper-like nature of E-ink displays are a good part of the reason that ebook readers use this sort of display in the first place instead of LCD, OLED and other display technologies.

The only reader I’ve owned which has come close to satisfying these requirement was the Nuvomedia Rocket eBook.

Nuvomedia Rocket eBook

This was one of the first electronic book readers sold and yet in many fundamental ways it was more enjoyable to use than devices made over a decade later in a far more mature & technologically advanced marketplace. It had an ergonomic, curvy wedge shape that was easy to cradle in the palm of one’s hand. Later versions of the device included a rubberized backside to make it even easier to grasp. The page up/down buttons were over-sized and comfortable to actuate without moving one’s hands in the portrait orientation for both right and left handed users and weren’t too bad in the horizontal orientation, either. The screen resolution doesn’t really compare to modern readers, but it was a high contrast B&W LCD and had decent back-lighting for night reading. Astoundingly, 10+ years later, a variant of this original device is still being sold as the eBookwise 1150 for ~$100. My personal experience with the later revisions of the Rocket eBook (post Gemstart acquisition) is that they used much lower quality displays, but I would be interested in opinions from more recent users.

In conclusion, I would really like for Sony/Amazon/B&N or SOMEBODY to make a comfortable to use ebook reader.

Posted in Books, General, Portable Computing/Gadgets, Rants and Raves | No Comments »

HTPC Geriatrics

Posted by Deliverator on 12th January 2010

I’ve been using a Shuttle SN25p as the basis for my Home Theater PC for 2.25 years now. I built this system on the cheap out of hand-me-down components including a low end AMD 3800+ X2 processor and 6800 GT when I upgraded my main system to an Opteron 185 processor and 8800 GTX. I’ve since upgraded my main system yet again to a Core i7, allowing the Opteron to trickle down to the Shuttle and the 3800+ X2 to trickle down to my friend Ryan. This worked out fine, but for one problem…

In upgrading to the Opteron, I inadvertently pushed the power intake a little past what the power supply could handle..but only at boot. Many electrical devices use a lot more power when you attempt to start them up than when they are fully running. This is a phenomena sometimes referred to as inrush current. The kludgey short term (&cheap) fix was to unplug the video card’s auxiliary PCIe power connector when cold booting the system and then plug it back in immediately after POST, but before Windows started booting. This was inconvenient, but I cold boot the system so seldom it hardly mattered. Recently, the system got powered down while I was away and I really needed some files on the system and because of the power-up issue couldn’t simply have a family member hit the power button. I finally decided to fix the issue.

I looked at spreading the power load more evenly across the system’s internal power connectors, but met with no luck. My guess is the power supply is of a single rail type design and so it didn’t matter which combination of power connectors I used, as they were all drawing from the same place. I tried leaving the optical drive and hdd power connectors unplugged, to see if using lower power versions of these might work, but the result was the same. I doubted this would work, but I always try cheap/free solutions before resorting to buying something.

I ended up looking for video card to replace the old and fairly high power using 6800 GT. I ended up deciding on an Nvidia GT 240 card 512 MB of GDDR5 memory made by eVGA. This card is something like 4 major product cycles newer than the 6800 it replaces. Anandtech seems to be fairly underwhelmed by the GT240, as it is an oddball new offering that comes between several other cards in terms of performance, but doesn’t offer much in the way of price savings. However, it happened to be one of the few cards I could source locally which met all of my requirements. Namely:

-The GT240 has one of the lowest power requirements of any reasonably performing cards on the market. It uses less than 10 watts when idle and something like 50 watts measured running full tilt. This was a big consideration given the Shuttle’s slightly too anemic power supply. The GT240 uses such little power that it doesn’t even need a PCIe auxiliary connector, it can get all the power it needs from a standard PCIe x16 motherboard slot.
-The eVGA card uses a single slot cooling solution and is fairly short as non low-profile cards go. A lot of other manufacturer’s cards have a cooling solution which takes up the adjacent slot or have a heat-sink which wraps around the back. I have a card in the adjacent slot and the case sides run very closely to the back of the x16 card slot, so I really needed a single slot solution.
-The eVGA card isn’t fanless, but the fan is extremely quiet, which is an important consideration in a HTPC.
-The GT240 has VGA, DVI and HDMI on one card. The HDMI implementation was particularly intriguing to me as this video card also has onboard sound which outputs over the HDMI. This may help me cut down on the rats nest of cables present in my shelf system and allow for simpler video switching in the future.
-The GT240 also supports some of the newest hardware video acceleration standards, which are of particular use for Blueray playback. The 6800 GT card it was replacing hardly supported any, requiring much more CPU for smooth playback. I’d noticed some minor frame skipping issues when doing some HD playback while running other stuff in the background, so this was a small but not insignificant consideration to me.
-The GT240 performs decently in a lot of games I play at the relatively modest 720p resolution of my projector. The 6800 in my HTPC really couldn’t cope with a lot of the games I play on my primary Core i7 desktop. I figure it might be fun to play L4D at 100+” sometime.
-The eVGA GT240 only cost me $90. I like cheap and $90 to keep this HTPC working for a while longer is a lot cheaper than upgrading to a newer Shuttle box and having to buy a new CPU, memory, etc.

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Marathon x 2

Posted by Deliverator on 5th October 2009

Despite getting rained on last year, leading to general miserableness, my brother Scott decided to run the Portland Marathon again this year. I think he chose to do Portland again, specifically, as it was close to family support and friends Ryan and Theo who also opted into the 26.2 miles of masochism. Both Theo and Ryan managed to push through the blisters, black and blue feet and earn their t-shirt, medal and those other, less tangible kudos.

Scott managed to complete the race in a start time compensated 4h:19m:3s, a slight improvement over last year’s 4h:20m:55s. Given that he is a year creakier, he seems happy with the improvement. And well he should! At this annual rate of improvement, by the time he is 101 years old he will have beaten world record holder Haile Gebrselassie‘s time of 2h:03m:59. And because Scott likes statistics, here is a graph that proves it! I have assumed that Haile doesn’t improve any with age, but other than that my logic is impeccable :)

Marathon Graph (joke)

I look forward to watching my brother compete in future events, especially when he is 101, I just wish he would do something other than check his watch as he crosses the finish line. Other people do fist pumps, raise their arms in celebration, puke or pogo stick on one foot backwards while wearing an afro wig and a tutu…all of which make for more interesting photography :)

Scott Finishing Portland Marathon - 2009

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The Last Hard Drive I Will Ever Buy?

Posted by Deliverator on 23rd September 2009

I needed to free up a fair sized hard drive to donate to Minimus and simultaneously had pretty much filled up my main content storage drive on my main desktop PC, so I went to Frys and picked up a Seagate 2 Terabyte drive and proceeded to spend a few days copying data back and forth between my main desktop’s many hard drives in order to free up a 500 GB drive. This is a process I have done MANY times over the years. I still have some data from the first hard disk my family owned, which held a whopping 80 MB (that’s megabytes folks). While doing all this, I realized I had a pretty good cross section of drives manufactured in the last 5 years in my personal possession and couldn’t resist doing some quick benchmarking. I’ve posted a gallery full of the results here and thought I would make a few quick comments on notable trends.

One of the results which is immediately apparent after viewing the results is that as drive capacities have gone up, sequential read speeds have gone up as well. This makes sense, as greater bit density on the platters means that more data passes under the read/write heads for a given unit of arc.

At the same time, random access times have gotten progressively worse.  Using a lower level drive utility like Spinrite on today’s ultra high capacity drives immediately reveals the reason for this trend – today’s drives are having an ever greater problem with seeking to the correct location over the platter in a reasonable amount of time. Spinrite shows a constant barrage of head seeking errors and reliance on error correcting code even with its extremely sequential access patterns. 12 milliseconds used to be a fairly typical random access time on a 7200 RPM hard drive. This has now gone up to more like 15 milliseconds on high density platter drives. My new 2 TB drive actually spins at a mere 5900 RPM, likely because head seeking errors were too high at 7200 RPM. This has lead to the extremely weird precedent of slowing down a drive to increase real world performance.

Real world performance is heavily dictated by random i/o patterns (particularly on fragmented hard drives).  This has created a niche market for lower capacity drives with high spindle speed and low random seek times, such as the Western Digital Raptor (now Velociraptor) line of drives. An older 74 GB model of which can be seen on the results page. This drive easily bests all the other conventional hard drives I’ve tested in terms of random access times (8 ms)  and I can attest to the fact that it basically never needs to re-seek. So, for years now performance enthusiasts have mixed and matched drives in their systems, using drives like those in the WD Raptor line for their main OS and program storage and using huge , poor performing drives for bulk storage of content such as movies, music and photos.

All this discussion is basically moot, as the one solid state disk I tested easily blows every hard disk I’ve ever used away in terms of performance. The OCZ Agility 64 GB SSD, which isn’t a particularly high end SSD, delivered sequential transfer rates 50-100% better than any conventional hard drive tested and random access times soo low I am not sure the benchmark tool even properly measured them (.1 ms). The effect this low random access time has on real world app performance is huge. We are talking Windows cold boot times measured in seconds here.

The vast majority of PC users I’ve encountered in my consulting tend to have under 30 GB of data. For these users, I see no reason for them to ever use a conventional hard disk ever again. Conventional hard disks, in my mind, should today be relegated to bulk storage and backup purposes only and by the time my giant 2 TB hdd fills up, I expect there to be equivalent size SSD equivalents available. It may very well be the last hard disk I ever buy and all I can say is ABOUT TIME.

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