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June 22, 2005

LCD Monitors...Meh.

Last week there was a really good deal on Dell 2001FP monitors. With stackable coupons, I was able to grab one for slightly more than $500US. Given the fact that the monitor retails for $749, the savings were very good. I've been hesitant to purchase an LCD monitor because they haven't been suitable for gaming due to slow response times (i.e. how quickly the pixels can shift color). However, newer generations of LCDs have brought the response times down to 16ms or less. In theory, that response time is fast enough for FPS games like CounterStrike or Battlefield 2 (my new favorite).

The operable words here are: in theory.

The reality (for me, at least) is that LCDs have a way to go before they begin to match the responsiveness of a CRT. Despite a single dead pixel in the upper right quadrant of the screen, I really liked the way the 2001FP looked when browsing the web, reading email and other similar activities. However, it just didn't cut it for games. I noticed screen lag when playing a fast-moving game like Battlefield 2, and it made the game harder on my eyes. Also, the fixed resolution was annoying for me. Because the panel has a fixed resolution of 1600x1200, I had to play at that resolution or deal with a blurry display at lower resolutions. While I didn't have major problems playing at 1600x1200, I actually prefer playing at 1280x960 for most games, since it allows very high texture settings while still providing excellent performance.

So, I'm going to go back to my trusty NEC MultiSync FE1250+ CRT. Using the LCD for a few days made me realize how much I really enjoyed my CRT. Fortunately, Dell offers a 21-day return guarantee on monitors. So, I'll be sending back the 2001FP for a refund.

Now back to Battlefield 2...

June 15, 2005

Zalman Northbridge Heatsink

My Zalman NB47J heatsink arrived today. This evening, I spent an hour or so removing the old fan and replacing it with the new heatsink. It was fairly easy to do, but I did have to completely remove my motherboard from the case to install it. The chipset fan is held in place by two spring-loaded pins that clip down into holes in the motherboard. I tried to push the pins back through the motherboard, but it was too difficult, and I didn't want to risk damaging the PCB. So, I snipped them with a pair of wire snippers. I then applied some new thermal grease (supplied) and attached the Zalman heatsink, using the same holes in the motherboard to attach it. It's a tight fit next to my graphics card, but there are a couple millimeters of clearance.

The best news is that the chipset actually runs cooler with the passive heatsink than it did with the active cooling fan. So, that's good news all around. I get a quieter case as well as a slightly cooler chipset.

June 11, 2005


Now that I've built my new machine, the motherboard that I originally intended to buy (Asus A8N-SLI Premium) is now available at a number of online merchants, including ZipZoomFly. Even more irksome is the fact that Asus has rectified the dodgey chipset fan issue by replacing it with a fanless heatpipe. I can't get a refund for my current motherboard, of course. So, I'll just have to be happy with what I have (which I am, truly).

I've also decided to replace the chipset fan with a Zalman NB47J passive heatsink, though. From what I've read, cooling shouldn't be a problem, especially with the volume of air moving through my case.

Life goes on...

June 05, 2005

New System

As is typical for the Memorial Day holiday, I took a week off to relax and get a few things done around the house. I've been wanting to build a new PC for well over a year now. Up until now, the technology curve wasn't set just right to take the plunge.

I've been an Intel user ever since I've been using PCs. Part of this stems from my place of employment, but Intel has been the performance king up until the last year or so. However, ever since AMD released the Athlon 64 processors, Intel has taken a second seat in terms of gaming performance. So, it was a no-brainer to go with AMD. One of the technologies that I've been waiting for was PCI Express (PCIe). PCIe offers much better bandwidth and overall potentially better video performance over the old AGP bus. Current cards don't really take advantage of PCIe, but I have a hedge against obsolecence since the technology is new. Future video card iterations will take advantage of the bus and offer excelling gaming performance. In addition, Nvidia offers a new Northbridge chipset that not only offers PCIe, but also the ability to use two video cards in tandem to improve gaming performance. This technology is called SLI, similar to a technology introduced by 3dfx back in the mid-90s (the technologies are electrically different, but the result is the same - improved gaming performance).

PCI Express and SLI have been available for AMD Socket 939 boards since the end of last year. In fact, I had planned to build my machine back in March, but decided to wait on a new motherboard from Asus, the A8N-SLI Premium. This board was very similar to their existing "Deluxe" model, but it offers software-controlled SLI (vs. a physical selector card) and a x4 PCIe slot in lieu of one of the x1 slots. I decided to wait until that board was released to build my machine. Unfortunately, it was impossible to get an ETA on the Premium board. So, I didn't know how much longer I would have to put off building my machine. I decided that the extra features of the Premium board really weren't that big of a deal, so I went ahead with the Deluxe model.

One positive result of my putting off the build - Cooler Master released a new case (Centurion 530) in late May that has excellent thermals with whisper-quiet cooling. It has nice aesthetics, with concealed optical drive doors that flip down when you open the trays. It also has top-mounted USB, FireWire and audio jacks, which are convenient if you set the case on the floor (I plan to get a new computer hutch which will house the PC on a lower shelf).

Here's the final config:
Case: Cooler Master Centurion 530
Motherboard: Asus A8N-SLI Deluxe
Power Supply: SeaSonic S12 600W
Processor: AMD Athlon 64 4000+ (San Diego 90nm core)
Memory: Corsair TwinX2048-3200C2 (2x1GB) PC3200 DDR SDRAM
Video Card: eVGA Geforce 6800GT 256MB PCIe
HDD #1 (OS drive): Western Digital Raptor 74GB 10K SATA (WD740GD)
HDD #2 (Apps drive): Western Digital 320GB 7.2K SATA (WD3200JD)
Audio Card: Creative Labs Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS
Optical Drive #1: Plextor PX-716A Dual-Layer DVDRW
Optical Drive #2: Plextor PX-504A DVD+RW
Card Reader: Atech Flash 9-in-1
Keyboard: Microsoft Multimedia Keyboard
Mouse: Logitech MX518 Gaming Mouse
Tablet: Wacom Graphire3 6x8 USB

I also moved my Matrix Orbital MX212 LCD display from my old machine to the new one. I use the display to monitor temperature and fan speeds in the system. It's a great little gadget that can be fully customized to display whatever you want. I decided to start with one graphics card, despite having the option of deploying two cards in SLI configuration. I want to wait for SLI driver support to improve a bit before I take the plunge. Also, Nvidia is rumored to be releasing a new card series later this summer. So, it might behoove me to wait until those cards are available to implement SLI.

Putting the components together was easy. Having built several PCs before, I knew where everything went. AMD boards layouts are a little bit different than Intel boards, but not so much to cause confusion. I spent most of the time organzing and routing the internal cables to insure good airflow. I still need to go back in to put sleeving on the cables to further improve airflow and organization, but I'll do that the next time I need to get into my case. The only hitch I had was when I put my PX-716A optical drive as the master on the primary IDE channel. I don't know if this is a chipset or driver bug (or both), but the system would bluescreen whenever I put a disc in the drive. I was able to correct this by putting both drives on the secondary IDE channel. Hopefully, future chipset drivers or BIOS updates will remedy the problem. I've also noticed that the chipset fan is really noisy. I hooked up a Zalman FanMate2 to the fan and ramped down the RPMs on the fan. It's noticeably quieter, but it still makes some unsettling noises periodically. I've read on AnandTech's forums that Asus will RMA the fan and send out a new one if you call them. I'll either do that or put a Zalman NB47J passive heatsink on it.

The system is very fast. EQ2 is fluid now, and I can bump up the detail settings much higher than I could on my previous system. I still experience the graphics stutter that is endemic to all 6800-series cards, but hopefully this will be addressed in Nvidia's next driver release. I got around 4800 3DMarks with 3DMark05, which jumped to 5500 when I overclocked the GPU to 400MHz (I decided to keep it at stock speeds, however). What's really impressive is how snappy all of my apps are now, especially when task-switching. I can even alt-tab between EQ2 and my browser with no delay, since there is plenty of memory to spare without having to hit the pagefile.

All-in-all, this was a successful, fun system build. I'm extremely happy with the components I chose, and I'm getting incredible performance without a single incompatibility. I'm also set for future expansion, as I can add a dual-core AMD processor once the prices come down and availability improves. I'll probably do that toward the end of the year.

Until then, I'll enjoy my new system!