The Sledgehammer – Version 2.0

February 27, 2013

Back on the Cutting Edge… Sort of.

Filed under: Technology — Tags: , — Brian Lutz @ 11:50 pm

I apologize for the lack of a post last week.  This was because the vast majority of the time I had for writing was taken up by preparing a talk for Sacrament meeting at church on Sunday (I am planning to post that a bit later on, if for no other reason than to have it in my archives; I have a tendency to lose these type of things quickly after I’m done with them, and there are some older ones, as well as some of my older writing, that I wish I still had copies of.)   A few posts ago, I talked about some upgrades I was doing to my computer.  It was actually while I was in the process of writing that particular post that I discovered through my Blog archives that my then-current desktop PC had gone over four years without a major upgrade.  This was a year longer than I thought it was, and even though the upgrades I made a few weeks ago did provide a decent speed boost to my system, it did make me start to reconsider my plans to wait another 6-12 months to upgrade the rest of my system.  When I originally made those plans, I had figured that I was going to get a new case, video card and replace the main hard drive in the system with an SSD.  On doing a bit of further research, I came to the realization that the SSD, while it would have been a pretty decent speed boost, would have been badly bottlenecked by the slower serial ATA controller on my old motherboard, so I wouldn’t have been using it to its full ability.

Naturally, I probably could have found a cheaper solution to the problem than going out and replacing the whole system, but that was before I figured out how old my current system had become, apparently without me noticing.  And by the time I got to that point, it was pretty much all downhill from there.  Besides, given the age of my old system, there was a good chance that any upgrades like that would end up being a sunk cost when I did replace the system later on anyway.  Given the fact that I got over four years out of my old computer and over five years out of the one before that, I do have a tendency not to keep up with the latest trends in PC hardware quite as well as I used to back when I would either build or do a major upgrade on my PC roughly every eighteen months or so..  This means that the process of putting together a new computer generally starts out with several weeks of mostly figuring out what the heck you’re actually supposed to use.  And unless you’ve been keeping up with trends in the PC hardware market (which I haven’t) there’s a good chance that for at least the first week or so of the process, it’s mostly going to be a matter of figuring out which model numbers are supposed to be the good ones.  Fortunately, the info isn’t too hard to find if you know where to look (and don’t mind reading a whole lot of reviews).

Eventually I figured out that I should probably go with the 3570k (as opposed to the 3770k, which would have TOTALLY been overkill and would have cost too much,) the Z77, the GTX 660 Ti, the 840 and either the X-750 or the HX750 (either one, but the 700 I already have is apparently a ticking time bomb and really shouldn’t be reused.)  And yes, even after reading all the reviews and the benchmarks that still looks like a bunch of random numbers, but eventually I was able to turn it into something vaguely resembling a system formula.  Then I posted it to a web forum for some advice… At which point I had to basically redo half of it.  Finally, after a fair bit of going back and forth on things and waiting around for sales, here’s what I ended up with:

  • Case: CoolerMaster HAF X (this is the one I bought a few weeks ago)
  • CPU: Intel Core i5 3570k
  • Motherboard: Asus P8Z77-V
  • CPU cooler: Corsair H100i closed-loop watercooler
  • Power Supply: Seasonic X-Series 850W
  • Video card EVGA GeForce GTX 660 Ti (I also bought this a few weeks ago)
  • SSD: Samsung 840 Pro 256GB
  • Storage drive: Seagate Barracuda 3TB
  • Other stuff: Some random DVD-R drive, the Ceton InfiniTV card I bought back when I was having various cable problems, got working on my old system for about three days then messed something up to the point of never being able to get it back

When all was said and done and once mail-in rebates on a few parts are figured in, the whole build came in somewhere a little bit under $1,600 total.  That does seem like a lot to be spending on a computer these days,  and indeed I could have easily gotten something fairly respectable for half that amount, but it’s interesting to note just how far things have come over the years.  If I recall correctly, when my parents bought our family’s first 386SX based PC sometime in 1991 or 1992 (I’m a little vague on that) it sold for $1,499.  Even though that price did include a monitor, keyboard and mouse, DOS 5 and Windows 3.0  (which I didn’t need for this one since I already had all the peripherals and a transferrable copy of Windows 7) at the time that was considered to be a reasonably priced entry-level PC.  20+ years later, we’ve come to the point where an entry-level PC is a lot closer to the $300 range (plus $100 or so if you need a monitor to go with that or want to go with one of the all-in-one models,) and $1,500 will get you an out-and-out firebreather of a system.  The resulting system isn’t anywhere near the insane-level top-of-the-line stuff you see in the really crazy rigs (If you were really motivated you could manage to easily spend $3,000 on video cards alone these days) but I aimed to make a system that would cover my computing needs for a while and allow for some upgrading if the need arises later on.  Not that I should need to do so for a while, since what I’ve got is already pretty dang fast.

Thanks to the SSD (a Samsung 840 Pro, which is right near the top of the list of the fastest consumer-level SSDs you can get right now) this new system can go from pressing the power button to showing the Windows login prompt in ten seconds.  It’s particularly amusing to see the Windows startup animation not even have time to finish before it’s ready to go.  For quite a while it’s been shown that SSDs can be a huge performance boost, but for all the speed they bring they also come with the price of frequently dubious reliability.  This blog post over at Coding Horror has a rather interesting way of putting this (based on Barney Stimson’s Crazy/Hot scale from the sitcom How I Met Your Mother,) but still concludes that the drives are hot enough to put up with the crazy that comes with them.  Then again, that post was made nearly two years ago, and the SSD I ended up putting in this system does come with a 5-year warranty on it, so what’s the worst that can happen?  (No wait, don’t answer that.)   Currently, the conventional wisdom seems to suggest that the SSD is best used for putting system files and applications on, while a conventional hard drive covers the heavy lifting of data storage duty, which is what I’m doing for the time being.  As for the performance boost from an SSD:

This disk benchmark should give you some idea of just how much difference the SSD makes compared to a hard drive.  The red one is the 3TB Seagate I’ve got as my storage drive in my new system, which is considered reasonably fast for a hard drive these days, but falls behind some of the higher-end drives on the market.  And yet, when put next to the SSD, it’s no contest.  The IOPS on the hard drive don’t even register on the chart compared to the SSD.

And then just to make this a really unfair comparison, here’s the SSD next to the 500GB storage drive I had in my old system, which has to be at least 5 or 6 years old by now.  Perhaps the more interesting result to look at here would be a comparison with the WD Raptor 150 that served as the system drive in my old system and which was considered to be one of the fastest SATA hard drives on the market back when it came out (I think consumer-level SSDs were just barely starting to appear by then, but they were still firmly in the “rare and hideously expensive” category), but I don’t have that one hooked up right now.

Either way, even with Moore’s law starting to slip lately as the pace of improvements in processor technology slows down, you can still see that four years can make quite a bit of difference.  To be honest, my old system was still in pretty decent shape as far as being able to handle the stuff I was using it for, but it was getting to be time to upgrade.  I suspect I’ll be having this conversation again here in four years or so…

February 13, 2013

Valentine’s Day Kitsch Roundup 2013: Love Conquers All (Except for Bad Taste)

Filed under: Holidays, shopping — Tags: , — Brian Lutz @ 11:30 pm

Between all that stuff, you ought to be able to find something to regret the next morning.

Once again, Valentine’s Day is fast approaching, and with it comes the usual shelves full of random merchandise to help you to celebrate the season in what the world’s various marketing departments and greeting card manufacturers have deemed to be an acceptable manner.  Whether you’re wading through the obligatory pile of Vaguely Valentine themed cards that get passed out to everyone in your kid’s third grade class, trying to navigate an awkward teenage crush, looking to win the heart of the one you’re convinced you’ll be spending the rest of your life with, or just trying to keep them around, there’s no shortage of ways to express whatever sentiment happens to be appropriate for the situation at hand.  Naturally, some ways are better than others.  And naturally, some ways are not particularly advisable for anyone really.  It’s the stuff in the latter category that holds the most interest to me, mostly because with some of these items the whole “Who in their right mind thought THIS was a good idea?” factor of some of this stuff is off the chart.

This marks the sixth year that I have done the Valentine’s Day Kitsch Roundup on this Blog, and it remains one of my favorite posts to write each year.  Shockingly, there seems to be a lot less of the truly egregious examples of bad taste that have characterized the Kitsch Roundup than there have been in previous years (looking back at the earlier posts, I think the 2011 post is going to be pretty tough to top) but that doesn’t necessarily mean that marketers of Valentine’s Day-themed merchandise have had a sudden bout of sanity, just that not quite as many of the usual bad ideas seem to have made it out onto the shelves this year.  There also seems to be a number of the more “popular” items from previous Kitsch Roundups that continue to show up on the shelves for some odd reason.  As usual, this is not intended to be a gift guide of any sort; quite the opposite in fact.  I make the assumption that most people reading this Blog will have enough common sense to realize this, but these days you never know.  Either way, you’ve been properly warned.

Anyway, without further ado, it’s time for another excursion into the dark corners of the seasonal shelves for another look at ill-advised Valentine’s Day merchandise.

Previous  Valentine’s Day Kitsch Roundups:


February 10, 2013

It’s a Slippery Slope

Filed under: Wanderings — Tags: , — Brian Lutz @ 12:16 am

As anyone who has lived in the Seattle area for long enough knows, Winter around here is one of those things that tends to just happen every so often, usually on a “whenever it feels like it” basis.  Aside from some scattered snow here and there that has almost entirely missed Bellevue and Seattle, there hasn’t been much actual Winter weather to speak of around here.  It’s reached the point where the various weather people are starting to discuss the potential for a snowless Winter in Seattle.  Given the fact that any snow we do get around here usually tends to be limited to a handful of scattered winter storms that rarely leave more than a few inches at a time, this wouldn’t be particularly unusual, but at the same time it doesn’t quite feel like a proper Winter around here if we don’t get at least some snow every now and then.  This isn’t to say that Winter is done for (I’ve seen snow happen around here as late as mid-April) but the window of opportunity seems to be shrinking rapidly by now.

Nonetheless, even if the Winter weather in the immediate vicinity isn’t quite to your liking, you usually don’t have to go far to find snow around here.  Even though most of the Winter precipitation around here ends up as rain, when you go a couple thousand feet up in vertical elevation you get most of that in snow.  From here, it’s a relatively short drive up I-90 to get to Snoqualmie Pass, where you can typically find all the snow you can possibly handle.  This weekend, me and my friends took a trip up here to do a bit of sledding.  There are a number of places in the area where one could presumably sled from (as long as you don’t mind plunging off a cliff to an untimely demise every once in a while) but the most popular spot seems to be the Sno-Park  area located next to the Iron Horse Trail at Hyak, where a well-maintained sledding hill attracts a pretty good crowd of people on the weekends.

Owing to the mild winters we have around here and a general disinclination on my part to actually seek out snow, I think this is actually the first time that I’ve actually been sledding since my family moved up here from our former home of Los Alamos New Mexico.  Unlike where we live now, Los Alamos is high up enough in the mountains that it actually gets real Winter weather most of the time, to the point that it would take a pretty serious snowstorm (as in somewhere around 12-18 inches or more) before school would even get delayed.  In fact, the winters in Los Alamos are cold enough that the city operates the only NHL-regulation sized outdoor hockey rink in the State of New Mexico (although to be fair, when it comes to professional sports New Mexico has only one triple-A minor league baseball team to its name, so there probably isn’t much competition on that one.)  Los Alamos happens to be built on a bunch of different mesas, which means that there are all sorts of canyons of various sizes in between.  The house we lived in for a number of years before moving here had one of these little canyons behind it (really more of a gulch than an actual canyon if you want to be technical about it, but we called it a canyon anyway) that our backyard kind of merged into, and we would often go exploring in it.  One particularly odd feature of this canyon was that it had a large concrete structure resembling a dam which presumably served as a structural support of some sort for the road above.  You can see it here:

When the weather got cold enough, this structure (which inevitably got called “The Dam”)  would accumulate snow and eventually ice over.  When it did, it made for what was in retrospect probably a fairly dangerous sled run, but one on which me and my siblings spent quite a bit of time during the Winter when conditions permitted.  Eventually ramps started getting formed at the bottom, and a number of the other neighborhood kids started joining in to see who could get the most air off of this.  Based on the picture here it might not actually have been quite as steep as I remember it being (I seem to recall it was somewhere around 25-30 feet tall, but my recollections of that time are pretty vague)  but it was certainly steep enough that a lot of sane people would probably think twice before sledding down something like that.  On the other side of the canyon across from the dam, there was also a more conventional sled hill that saw a fair bit of use, but was a bit of a pain to climb up and generally a lot more uneven, so the dam was generally the preferred route for most of us.

This, on the other hand, was probably a little bit safer (relatively speaking) than the last time I went sledding, but comes with its own special breed of chaos.  After paying a slightly exorbitant parking fee to get into the place, we come to this uniform, well-groomed sled hill, where some guy at the top of the hill controls the traffic.  Basically, a bunch of people line up at the top, then wait for everyone from the previous sled run to move to the sides to climb back up the hill.  Once the run is cleared, the traffic controller calls for everyone to go…  Which they do.  All at once.  Given the fact that the vast majority of sleds have no steering mechanism and a general inclination not to argue with gravity when it decides where it wants you to go at any given moment, this approach tends to make for a lot of near-misses and a decent amount of chaos along the way down and at the bottom.  A berm at the end of the hill slows you down and stops you, and a catch fence keeps you from flying into oncoming traffic on the road below (although given the results of the day’s sledding, I doubt you’d be able to get particularly close anyway.)

For this particular trip, we opted for the standard disc-style sleds.  I can recall using these back when I was a kid, but I don’t seem to recall them having quite this many safety warnings the last time I used one.  I wonder if it would be more or less dangerous if I used the thing in French?  I’m also pretty sure these things were meant more for kids to be using than adults, which means that there’s kind of no good position to go down the hill in on one of these without looking really awkward.  Oh well, it’s not like I’m ever going to see most of these people ever again…

From the top of the hill it actually doesn’t look too bad (or even all that steep, for that matter,) but it’s still plenty of space to get a pretty decent amount of speed going.   There’s also plenty of space to end up doing a decent amount of involuntary spinning on the way down.  In order to demonstrate some of the chaos inherent in the sled run, I decided to try recording a run down the hill on my cell phone.  This probably wasn’t the best idea I’ve had today, but I figure if anything bad happens at least I’ve got the equipment protection plan on my phone, right?

In the course of roughly 20 seconds of sledding down the hill there was one near-miss and a collision with a couple of random strangers at the bottom of the hill.  Of course, even if you’re on the sled you’re probably not going to see most of this, since you pretty much have zero control over which direction you’re facing in.  If you’re lucky you’ll manage to get through the run without crashing into anything or anyone, at which point you’re rewarded with a nice little walk back up the hill to do the whole thing all over again.  All in all it’s probably not the safest way to spend a Saturday no matter where you’re doing it, but if it was safe, it wouldn’t be fun, would it?

February 2, 2013

It’s Getting Just a Little Crowded in Here

Filed under: Technology — Brian Lutz @ 11:52 pm

One of the nice things about having kept this Blog for as long as I have (over 5 1/2 years now) is that it’s easy for me to figure out what I was doing at some particular point in time by going back to look at my Blog posts.  For example, while in the process of writing this post, I went back and referred to the post I wrote the last time I built a new computer.  Perhaps the most interesting thing I learned by rereading my old post is the fact that my current PC is (mostly) actually a year older than I thought it was,. which would make it just about as old as the PC that preceded it was when I replaced that with the incumbent system I’m writing this on now.  The funny thing about this is that it really doesn’t feel nearly that old.  Even with most of the major components just left alone, this PC has held up quite well, and I have yet to find a game that it can’t handle.  Four years after I built the previous system it had become rather slow, and although it was quite stable for most of the time I used it (about the only problem I really had with it was one failed hard drive) it was pretty much inadequate to handle any game that had come out in the previous two years.  I don’t know if this is more a matter of things just plain not advancing as fast (it’s been widely noted that Moore’s Law seems to be slowing down significantly as of late) or a matter of me doing more futureproofing on this system when I built it, but I have yet to find anything that this system can’t handle.

Even so, there have been a few nagging issues with this system that I’ve been wanting to deal with for a while now.  Perhaps the most notable of these is that it hasn’t been quite as stable as I’d like it to be, especially when running GPU-intensive tasks (read: games.)  The GeForce GTX 260 I’ve been running on certainly has enough horsepower to handle the task of running most modern games, but it makes a lot of fan noise while doing so, and tends to crash out if it gets too hot, which happens a lot.  Oh, and the company that built it went out of business about a year after I built the machine, so the lifetime warranty on the video card turned out to be not-so-lifetime after all.  In order to keep the system from melting into a pile of unrecognizable goo (which would probably mess up the carpets and lose my deposit on the apartment) I’ve had to run it with the side off the case for quite a while now.  This is, of course, ugly, and tends to create dust-covered nightmares inside the system, like you can see above.  Naturally, this is something that I’ve been wanting to fix for a while, and as of late, I’ve started the process of doing some PC upgrades.

The first order of business:  Moving into a bigger case.  I’ve been using an Antec Sonata for quite a while now, which is a pretty decent case if you’re looking for something quiet, but as you can see, my system was kind of crammed in there, without much room to spare, cable clutter all over the place, and generally not exactly the kind of thing you’d want a respectable PC to be running in.  With that in mind, a couple of weekends ago I moved my system into a CoolerMaster HAF X case, which provides a lot more space to work with, as well as a lot more cooling.

This is the result of that.  Still not exactly perfect, but definitely a lot cleaner than it was before.  And so far, the video card is a lot less temperamental  with improved airflow in the case (blowing out the half ton of dust probably had something to do with that too, but that’s beside the point.

Oh, and the new case has a couple of other cool new features as well. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.  I spent way too much time back in tech support back in the day, still trying to sort out a few of the emotional scars that resulted from it.)

Speaking of the video card, it’s next on the list.  An EVGA GeForce GTX 660Ti has replaced the old GTX 260 card that was purchased along with the rest of the system.  It definitely runs faster and at higher resolutions than the old card (which means I can actually run stuff at the resolution of my two monitors now, instead of having to scale things down to keep from blowing things up) but now it’s getting bottlenecked by things.  And even if I did get the SSD I’ve been looking at (probably a Samsung 840 Pro) it looks like that would end up getting bottlenecked too.  Naturally when you work with this type of stuff one thing inevitably leads to another, and before you know it you’re looking at just replacing everything and calling it good.  Then again, it’s been four years since I’ve really done anything with this system at all (aside from messing around with peripherals) so I’d say it’s probably a good time to just go ahead and build a new one.  Naturally all the cool new stuff that changes everything will probably get announced a week after I finish building it (as was the case with both of my last two systems) but as I’ve noted here on a number of other occasions, sometimes you just have to decide on something or you’re going to end up waiting forever for the next new thing, then end up waiting for the next new thing after that when that one comes because the next new thing wasn’t quite as cool as you wanted it to be when it finally showed up.  Then again, it’s not like I have to be in any particular hurry anyway, since what I have is still running perfectly well in the meantime.

Oh well, I suppose I’ll sort all this stuff out eventually.  Sometimes getting distracted by bright shiny objects can turn out to be a lot more work than it seems.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go try to figure out what the differences between the half zillion different variations on the P8Z77-V motherboard are.  This might take a while…

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