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March 03, 2008

Display Upgrade

For the past couple of years, I've been using a ViewSonic VX2025wm 20" display. It has served me well, overall, but the DVI port has been causing problems for me over the past few months (a known issue with a remedy that sometimes works). Because of that, I decided to retire the ViewSonic for a new display. Since buying another 20" display wouldn't seem like much of an upgrade, I set my sights on the 24" display category. I pondered over several choices, including models from Samsung, LG, BenQ and NEC. Image quality was the most important requirement in the decision, with gaming performance a close second. Unfortunately, those two factors are often diametrically opposed when considering an LCD display. That is, the best displays for gaming usually have sub-par color accuracy and vice versa (more information about panel technologies here). The reality is that there is no perfect LCD display on the market. All of them have compromises, and you have to determine which compromise is the least bothersome when considering a purchase.

Ultimately I decided on the NEC LCD2470WNX. This display uses a S-PVA panel, which offers a good balance between performance and color accuracy. Reports from users over at AnandTech and HardOCP stated that the 2470 had some input lag, but that it was better than other 24" panels. Taking that into consideration, I pulled the trigger on it. The first unit I received had two stuck pixels, so I sent it back for an exchange (thanks goes to Buy.com for the great return policy). The replacement unit was flawless - no stuck or dead pixels, and no backlight bleeding. It has standard VESA mounting holes, so mounting it on my Innovative 7500 arm was easy. Now that I've had a chance to use it for a couple of weeks, below are my observations:

Overall build quality is top notch. The on-screen display is easy to navigate, and has enough options for most users. The bezel is small and unobtrusive, and lends a minimalist look to the display. As it is positioned as a business-class display, there are limited connectivity options -- VGA and DVI only. A two-port USB hub rounds out the external connections. There are no built-in speakers (which is a plus in my book).

Image quality is absolutely gorgeous. Colors are vibrant, whites are bright and blacks are very dark. There are five display modes (Standard, Text, Movie, Gaming & Photo) that offer various gamma settings according to how you are using the display. You can also choose from 5 different temperature settings, including a standard sRGB setting (my setting of choice). Out of the box, the brightness was too much for me. I knocked it down to 55%, and it is much more usable. I also noticed some pretty nasty ghosting, especially on white objects, with the default settings. Turning the contrast down to 35% rectified that problem. I don't have calibration equipment, so I can't comment on how accurate the display is out of the box. It's definitely pleasing to the eye, though.

The much maligned image lag may or may not be noticeable to the user. I noticed some lowered sensitivity with my mouse cursor in general computing tasks. I've adapted to that over the past couple of weeks and don't notice it unless I focus on it. It's less apparent in games, in my opinion. Hardcore or professional gamers will probably want to steer clear, but most users won't notice the difference. Game performance overall was quite good. Because the resolution is high (1920x1200), users may want to adjust their settings to compensate for potentially lower game performance (depending on the game and graphics hardware, of course). I played a few rounds of Unreal Tournament 3, Crysis, Bioshock and Company of Heroes without incident, so the display should satisfy most casual and mainstream gamers. More sensitive gamers will want to stick with the higher-performing TN panels.

All in all, I'm very pleased with the display. It's not the fastest display out there, but I feel it offers the best compromise in terms of price, color accuracy and performance. I would definitely recommend this display to anyone looking for a quality display for most computing activities.

Pros:
Excellent image quality
Build quality
No backlight bleed
Easy to use menus

Cons
Only VGA and DVI input
Some input lag - not for hardcore gamers
Some ghosting apparent with default settings

October 28, 2007

New, quiet 12cm fan option

I was reading the latest CPU Magazine over the weekend (great mag, by the way). In one of the DIY sections, there was an article about a new 12cm, high CFM case fan from Aerocool. Supposedly, they are using a new fan blade configuration that allows the fan to move high volumes of air without the noise typically associated with such fans. At $18 a pop, they're pretty pricey. But, if they work as advertised, they may be well worth the extra coin.

October 16, 2007

PC Speaker

Hooking up a PC speaker in a case can be a pain. Some manufactures (like Antec, for example) no longer include a speaker as standard equipment for their cases. Others place the speaker in odd places, making it difficult to cable up. I came across this clever speaker component while perusing the forums over at AnandTech. It's a simple speaker attached to a short lead that connects directly to the speaker input on the motherboard. The leads are rigid, so it stays in place just above the input. I ordered several of them for the various PCs in my house. Good stuff.

October 15, 2007

Up and Running

I received my replacement motherboard on Friday and installed it over the weekend. The replacement came with the latest BIOS, so I don't have to worry about updating it. So far, everything is running quite nicely. I have EIST enabled in the BIOS, so the system and CPU fans can spin down even more. This makes for a much quieter system. The board comes with a ~2% overclock out of the box, but I knocked it back down to stock speeds, as I don't care about overclocking.

Everything seems to be working well. Hopefully, the curse has now been broken. *knock on wood*

October 01, 2007

Yep...it's cursed

My new motherboard (abit IP35 Pro) arrived Friday, and I swapped it out last night. Everything went perfectly, especially given that I followed this excellent guide for swapping out a motherboard without reinstalling the operating system. The new board is really nice, with lots of options to tweak and optimize. In fact, the system seems to run more quietly now. All was going well until this morning. And what harm befell my newly rebuilt system?

I updated (or attempted to update) the BIOS.

Now, let me just state that I have updated the BIOS on many, many computers before. I have updated via both Windows utilities and command line without incident. I have never had a single BIOS flash fail. I don't know if it's the law of averages, fate, or sheer bad luck, but today marked my first bad BIOS flash. With this board, there are two methods by which to update the BIOS: via a Windows Flash Utility or via bootable floppy. Since I haven't used a floppy in more than 5 years, the Windows utility was my only option (I've since discovered there's a way to boot to a USB key). I downloaded the latest BIOS file from abit's website and proceeded to flash the BIOS via their Windows utility. All went well until the verification phase, where the utility locked up at 90% complete. In fact, the whole PC locked up, forcing me to do a hard reboot. Not good.

To my surprise, the system went through POST upon reboot. Unfortunately, the settings were all screwed up. The processor and memory speed were being significantly mis-reported, and I was completely unable to save any settings to the CMOS. I tried clearing the CMOS and re-flashing the BIOS (with a floppy this time), but nothing would fix the problem. Attempts to save settings to the CMOS resulted in the system not POSTing at all, requiring a CMOS erase. After spending several hours trying to fix the problem, I gave up, and reinstalled my previous mainboard. So, now I'll have to send back the IP35 Pro for a replacement. I could try ordering a new BIOS chip, but it's just easier to get the whole board replaced. God knows I won't be using the Windows with the replacement board.

How frustrating. It's times like these that makes me want to buy a pre-built machine from one of the major PC manufacturers. There, I said it.

September 29, 2007

TiVo HD

I admit it...I'm a sucker for good marketing, especially when it comes to electronics. TiVo has been advertising their new TiVo HD heavily during college football games,which piqued my interest. The TiVo HD is essentially a scaled-down version of the $799 TiVo Series 3. The only differences are a smaller hard drive (160GB v. 250GB), a non-lighted remote, and a boring front panel display (the Series 3 has an OLED display). The latter two items are completely inconsequential to me, and the difference in storage space wasn't a big deal, especially since the storage capacity eventually will be expandable via the eSATA ports on the back. Like its more-expensive sibling, the TiVo HD uses CableCARDs to decode digital cable transmissions. This was somewhat of a concern, as CableCARDs are reportedly difficult to set up. However, a close friend of mine got his up and running, and he raved about how much he enjoyed his TiVo.

So, I took the plunge. Amazon had a good price on the unit at just over $250. Once I had it ordered, I called Time Warner (Austin) to set up an installation appointment. The CSR went through his little spiel about how the CableCARDs don't provide the same level of functionality as their digital set-top boxes, but I told him I was aware of the shortcomings. A couple days later, two techs showed up to install the cards. Upon arrival, they readily admitted that they hadn't done many TiVo installs, which probably was a harbinger of things to come. After about 30 minutes, they got the CableCARDs up and running (seemingly). I wasn't receiving all of the channels, however. They explained that it sometimes took a couple hours for all of the channels to "download," which didn't really make sense. But, I didn't really have much to go on, so I took them at their word. Fool me once.

After a couple hours, I still wasn't receiving a large percentage of my channels. In fact, none of my HD channels (outside of the local QAM channels) were being received. After a couple of calls to TW tech support (the first guy hung up on me after failing to get the cards working), I made a second appointment for a tech to come out to troubleshoot the install. I also posted my installation experience over at the TiVo Community forum. There I received a message from a TW tech who offered to get me up and running if the on-site tech wasn't able to.

On the day of the install, I got another message from the TW tech from the TiVo Community stating that their billing system had been down, and that it was unlikely the tech would even make it out to my house that day. By 4pm, I decided to take him up on his offer, as it didn't look like the on-site tech would show (he did finally call 30 minutes after he was supposed to show, asking if we still needed him). The inside tech got me up and running in about 10 minutes. Now I have all of my channels, and the TiVo is busily recording shows according to my preferences.

I haven't had a lot of time to really dig into all the features of the TiVo HD, but I really like the fact that it can download video podcasts like DL.TV and Cranky Geeks. Hopefully more will be added as time goes on. The recording quality is quite good, especially for HD broadcasts. The only downsides for me right now are the lack of placeshifting options (i.e. being able to view on computers around the house), and the lack of hard disk expansion (the eSATA ports are supposed to be activated later this year). But, outside of those minor issues, I really enjoy it. Even though we don't watch large volumes of television, we are now free to watch what we want, when we want. Good stuff.

September 19, 2007

SXRD Reborn

Today, the optical block on my Sony KDSR-50XBR1 was replaced. Over the past 6 months or so, the picture quality had slowly degraded, with the appearance of a yellow "stain" appearing over much of the display. This is a known problem with first-generation SXRD displays, and there is quite a lengthy thread discussing it on the AVS Forum. Earlier this year, Sony responded to the high volume of complaints by extending the warranty on all XBR1 displays until October, 2008. I finally decided to take them up on the offer this week.

Sony eSupport directed me to the local support dealer, Georgetown TV and Video, which is a few miles from my house. Surprisingly, they were able to get the part in under two days and schedule an appointment. They were originally scheduled to perform the service on Thursday, but were able to come out a day earlier.

The support call took about 45 minutes to perform. The result is absolutely stunning. Picture quality has improved tremendously, with bright clear whites being displayed once again. The display looks like it did when it was brand new. The tech who performed the swap stated that the new optical block had been completely redesigned by Sony. The previous optical blocks had problems with UV radiation from the bulb affecting the blue SXRD panel (hence, the yellowing effect). The new OBs have additional filters installed (supposedly), so the yellow stain should no longer show up after extended use. While this remains to be seen, I still have another year on Sony's warranty extension, and another two years beyond that on the extended warranty I purchased with the display.

The tech also mentioned that he could clean and align the guns on my 65" Toshiba RPTV, so I'm probably going to schedule an appointment in the near future. It's good to have my TV back!

September 11, 2007

New Processor Arrived

Just like last time, Intel turned around my warranty replacement in short order. I received the new processor today. Now, I just need to pick up the new motherboard. I've decided to go with abit's IP35 Pro, as it seems to be the P35 mainboard to beat these days. It has more features than I really need, but it's the only abit board that has at least 4 system fan headers on the board (which is a requirement for me). Unfortunately, no one appears to have it in stock at the moment. So, it looks like I'll have to wait a bit longer to install the new proc.

September 04, 2007

My System is Cursed

OK, this is ridiculous. After nearly two months of stability, my system decided to throw me for a loop the other day. I was enjoying a session of Bioshock Sunday morning, when my system hard-locked in the middle of the game. Thinking it was just a random lockup, I used the trusty three-finger salute (i.e. CTRL-ALT-DEL) to get out of the game and back into the operating system. When that didn't work, I hit the reset button.

Unfortunately, nothing happened after that.

The system wouldn't POST. The power LED was lit, and the fans, video card and drives appeared to be spinning up, but there was no response otherwise. As a similar situation had happened before, I had a sinking feeling that my processor had died. Sure enough, when I popped in a different processor (a Core 2 Duo E4500), my system fired right up. Fortunately, the processor is still well within its warranty period, so Intel will replace it (I've already set up an RMA with them).

For the life of me, I can't figure out why the processor would have failed. I don't overclock, and none of the components in my system are particularly exotic. The Intel tech with whom I spoke couldn't offer any good explanations either, especially since the processor seemingly had been running well for 5 months. He said it could be a faulty power supply, or an electrical surge from the main. I'm definitely going to test out the power supply to make sure it's not the problem. I'm also going to replace my aging APC SmartUPS 750, as it could be preventing surges from coming through to the PSU. It's possible that my PSU could be pulling too much load for it to handle.

I've also decided to use this as an excuse to upgrade my motherboard, since it too could be the problem. Intel released its new P35 chipset a couple months ago, so it's a good time to upgrade. I'm going to try an abit board this time, as Asus' quality seems to be taking a turn for the worse these days. I'll then use my old motherboard in either the family PC or the HTPC in the den.

July 12, 2007

Video Card Woes

There is something seriously wrong with my system. Since it was built a few months ago, I've been plagued with BSODs and serious errors under Windows. At first, I thought my memory was the culprit; it was displaying multiple errors under Memtest86+. However, that turned out to be a configuration error. Apparently the "auto" settings on my motherboard did not set the timings or voltage correctly according to the SPD. I was able to remedy this by manually setting the timings (4-4-4-12 @ 2T) and voltage (2.2V). This did not alleviate the BSODs and crashes in games. My second guess was that my video card was going bad, so I exchanged it about a month ago. I'm still getting the same problems.

I'm now beginning to suspect that there's an incompatibility with my motherboard and my video card. Asus just released a new BIOS for it today, so I'm hopeful this will solve the problems. The only other possible explanation is the PSU going bad, but I am very skeptical of that being the problem. I'll just have to wait and see how things progress (or regress).

March 31, 2007

New System Build

I usually build a new PC every three years. My previous system, which was built in 2005, is still chugging along quite well. However, I decided to move in my system refresh by a year. This was precipitated by several factors. First, Intel's new Core 2 Duo processors completely blow away AMD's offerings. Second, games based on DirectX 10 are going to be available later this year (starting with the anticipated title Crysis). Third, Windows Vista is now available. I normally don't care about OS releases, but I've been running Vista on my notebook and have been quite pleased with it. Although it certainly has a few shortcomings, I really like the new UI, and especially the Aero Glass theme.

My goal with building this case was twofold: silence and performance. The latter was easy to do, as I picked components with very high performance. The former was a bit more challenging. Since the PC chassis sets in a small enclosure in my armoire, I had to make sure to keep vibration and fan noise to a minimum. The enclosure can act as an echo chamber for noise, and the wood in the armoire tends to resonate any vibrations. After careful thought and study, I decided on the Antec P180B. The P180B is designed for silence, with reinforced side panels, rubber hard drive gaskets and quiet fans. The case is also very good for airflow; the PSU sets at the bottom of the case in its own chamber, allowing for a separate cooling pathway. The upper chamber has one intake and two exhaust fans, allowing for excellent heat dissipation. I found that the included Antec Tri-Cool fans were not quite silent enough for me (they produced a low hum that was amplified by the armoire), so I replaced them with Papst silent 12cm fans. All of the fans were then undervolted via the system BIOS to rotate at ~900RPM. I also use a quite CPU cooler (Zalman CNPS9500AT), which does an excellent job of keeping the CPU cool without producing a lot of noise. The resulting configuration is not noiseless, but is very quiet. From where I sit (about 1m away), there is a slight "white noise" sound coming from the PC. As one steps away, the PC become inaudible.

Continue reading "New System Build" »

December 29, 2006

PS3!

I picked up a PS3 today. I didn't think I'd be able to get my hands on one until the spring. I was reading Digg today, and someone posted a link to an online tracking tool called iTrackr. The unique thing about this tracking tool is that it tracks local inventories instead of online ones. I've been using PS3Finder for the past month or so, but it only tracks online stores. Because most of the online stores are only selling PS3s in those insidious bundles, PS3Finder isn't too useful to me.

iTrackr is much more useful. Not only does it track local inventories, but also it will notify you of updated inventories by email or text messages to your mobile phone. After hearing about it, I created an account on iTrackr just to see if there were any PS3s in nearby shops. To my surprise, both the GameStop and EBGames nearby were showing the 60GB PS3 in stock. Now, according to iTrackr, neither GameStop's nor EBGames' inventories are 100% reliable, so they recommend calling to confirm supply. Heeding that advice, I called the EBGames store near my house. Sure enough, they confirmed that "a couple" 60GB models were in stock. They wouldn't hold one for me, so I hurried over to the store to purchase it. I also picked up a copy of Marvel: Ultimate Alliance with the unit. The shop was out of Sixaxis controllers, and their HDMI cables were overpriced. So, I picked up an HDMI cable at and a Sixaxis at the local Target store.

I have to say that despite the paucity of software, the PS3 is an impressive machine. Not only does it look nice in my entertainment console, but it's also very quiet. I particularly like the black chassis, as it blends in with my equipment nicely (contrasted to the gloss-white Wii, which stands out). I won't drone on about the features or GUI, as those have been detailed in other reviews ad nauseum. I will say that I don't mind the GUI, which is based on the XMB found on the PSP. While I'm sure it could be better, it's one I'm familiar with. As noted earlier, I hooked up the PS3 to my SXRD via HDMI (@1080i). Because my receiver does not have HDMI inputs, I had to hook up the audio via Toslink. I opted to network it via wired Ethernet instead of wireless. I recently added four Ethernet ports behind the entertainment console, so it was easy to connect. Also, we already have 3-4 wireless devices connected into the access point at any given time, so there wasn't any need to clog it up even more.

I've played around with Marvel Ultimate Alliance for a bit and it looks nice at 1080. The Sixaxis controller is very similar to the older Dual Shock 2 controller, although it is much lighter due to the lack of force feedback. The online features are rudimentary at best, but hopefully Sony will add more features in the near future. It would be nice to have the same level of functionality as Xbox Live.

Bottom line is, I'm happy with my purchase despite the lack of software at the moment. Once again, I was able to get my hands on a new console without standing in line and without having to buy a ridiculous bundle. More importantly, I now have a Blu-ray player in addition to a game console. Once the selection of games improves, the PS3 will really come into its own.

December 20, 2006

Replacement LCD, Part Trois

After sending back the incompatible WXGA+ panel, I did another search on eBay for a compatible panel. Within a matter of minutes, I came across another WXGA+ panel that was guaranteed to work with the Inspiron 9300. The seller confirmed the Dell part number for the panel, as well as confirming that the inverter was included (the previous panel did not come with an inverter). Better yet, the seller was located here in Austin. So, yesterday I headed over to the seller's store to pick it up locally and avoid shipping charges.

The seller turned out to be Discount Electronics, a local reseller whose ads I had seen in the local paper. It's a cool little shop that sells used and refurbished computer components. They also buy used equipment, so I made a mental note to call them for quotes on some old equipment I have setting around unused. Anyway, after picking up the panel I finished up my Christmas shopping and headed home to install it. Fortunately, installation was trouble-free, and the panel worked perfectly!

This new panel isn't quite as bright as the previous one, as it has an anti-glare coating instead of the glossy anti-reflective coating. However, I've discovered that I prefer the anti-glare coating to the glossy, as it doesn't pick up reflections from light sources at all. Best of all, the WXGA+ resolution is much more usable than the ultra-high WUXGA resolution. So, my notebook is back to normal now, and I'm enjoying it even more with the new panel!

December 15, 2006

Replacement LCD, Part Deux

I received the WXGA+ panel two days ago. It took longer than I expected due to a delay with Paypal. For some reason, my backup credit card wasn't linked to my account anymore, so I had to wait until an eCheck cleared. Anyway, the good news is that it arrived intact, and doesn't have any defects or dead pixels. It's a beautiful panel, with a bright display. The WXGA+ resolution, as I suspected, works much better on a 17" screen. The display is much easier on the eyes.

The bad news is that the panel isn't 100% compatible with my Inspiron 9300. It won't display an image upon bootup at all. In fact, I thought the panel was defective, until I hooked up an external monitor. With the external monitor attached, I was able to view the bootup and BIOS screens. The BIOS showed that the panel was indeed attached. Unfortunately, it also showed the native resolution as "0 by 0 pixels." Obviously, this wasn't right. I was able to get the panel working in Windows (using the CRT/LCD toggle on my notebook), but it's a kludge at best.

I did some searching on the Notebook Forums (fantastic site, by the way), and discovered that Dell hard-codes the model numbers of supported panels in the BIOS. If the panel isn't one of those listed, it won't work properly. So, in order for the panel to work, I need to find one with a Dell part number.

Looks like I'm going to have to send this panel back and eat the restocking fee. I just can't live with it. Hopefully I'll be able to find a panel with a Dell part number on it. Shouldn't be too hard...I hope.

December 02, 2006

Replacement LCD

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the LCD panel on my Inspiron 9300 has begun to show several defects. It has gotten to the point where I've decided to replace the panel, as it's pretty much unusable in its current state.

My current panel is a 17" WUXGA panel with an anti-reflective coating. It looks really nice, but the resolution really is too high for a 17" panel. So, I've decided to replace it with a WXGA+ panel instead. As the Inspiron 9300 supports both panel sizes, I should be able to swap them out without incident.

I've found a WXGA+ panel, via eBay, through a reseller in New Hampshire. They claim the panel will work with an Inspiron 9300. I've confirmed that it is a Samsung display that Dell uses, so it should work. If it doesn't, I can return the panel, but only after paying a restocking fee. So, hopefully the replacement will go without a hitch. I've also purchased an extended (3 years) warranty for the panel, in case it develops the same problems down the road.

September 25, 2006

New Toy

I've decided to pick up the guitar again. I've owned a classical guitar for about 10 years, and took lessons for a while. I didn't stick with it because my teacher wasn't very good, and the classical guitar is more difficult to learn than the electric (in my opinion).

So, I decided to purchase an electric guitar and amplifier. I decided on a Fender Stratocaster HH and a Vox AD30VT amplifier. The Stratocaster HH uses dual humbucker pickups instead of the standard three singles. This supposedly results in a "fatter" or warmer sound. My reason for choosing this configuration was purely aesthetic, however. The HH models use a black pick guard instead of the standard white, and I liked the way the black looked against the Electron Blue finish I chose. I chose the Vox AD30VT not only because Vox has a good reputation, but also because it uses both analog amplificaton and digital effects. The AD30VT is a "modeling" amplifier, as it can model different types of amps, depending on the sound you want. It also has a suite of standard effects (chorus, flanger, phaser etc.), so you don't have to go out and buy a slew of effects pedals.

My interest in the guitar piqued again for a couple of reasons. First, I bought a digital piano for my wife earlier this year. She has picked up her piano skills (she played as a child) and has really been enjoying the piano. I have a strong music background as well, having played both the piano, French horn and mellophone in my youth. Getting the piano re-awakened my interest in music again. Second, both of my brothers play guitar. So, I have a ready resource for questions and tips.

I've really enjoyed playing around with the guitar and the effects on the amp. My next challenge is to find a guitar teacher worth his salt. Hopefully I can find someone who will challenge me and teach me the instrument properly.

September 08, 2006

Bah - LCD Woes

How frustrating. My Inspiron 9300 notebook, which has been rock-solid for 18 months, exhibited its first problem today. I installed the first EQ2 expansion pack on my notebook today. Everything proceeded normally, as one would expect with a standard software installation. However, once the installer had finished, I noticed a red vertical line extending from top to bottom of the notebook screen roughly 6 cm from the right edge. Thinking it was just an artifact of the installer (the installer uses a red background throughout), I rebooted. To my dismay, the red line was still there. I tried several utilities for stuck pixels, and the line remained.

So, it looks like I'm stuck with a flaky LCD. The warranty for the notebook expired in March of this year (I didn't purchase the extended warranty, regrettably), so I can't get it replaced without shelling out $500. It looks like I can pick up a new WUXGA display for around $300, so that may be an option at some point.

The good news is that the red line is off to the right side of the panel. And, it doesn't appear on white backgrounds. So, most of the time I don't even notice it. I can live with it, provided it doesn't get worse. We'll see.

Update -10.03.2006:

The problem just got worse. In addition to the vertical red line on the right side, there is now a band of semi-dead pixels about 5cm wide on the left side of the panel. The band has an interlaced look to it, as if half of the pixels aren't working properly. Looks like I may have to replace the panel after all.

Update - 12.09.2006:

Looks like I'm not alone in my panel troubles. A number of Inspiron 9300 users are experiencing vertical bands of dead or stuck pixels like I have. One user has set up a web site to document all of the problems. I'm investigating the possibility of replacing the panel with a lower-resolution (WXGA+) model.

April 24, 2006

Au revoir CRT

For quite some time now, I've been looking for a display to replace my 22" CRT. Because one of the primary uses for my PC is gaming, I've been dissatisfied with LCDs due to their slow pixel response. I recently purchased the ViewSonic VX2025wm due to its purported fast (8ms) response time and large display size. I was a bit put off by the widescreen (16:10) aspect, at first. But, given the fact that there are few standard (4:3) aspect 20" LCDs with response times as low as 8ms, I decided to take the plunge. I'm happy to say that I am very satisfied with the VX2025wm.

Features: The display offers a bright screen with crisp text display. The widescreen aspect takes some getting used to, but I acclimated after about 30 minutes of use. If you've used ViewSonic monitors before, you'll feel right at home with the simple 4-button control schema. Press (1) to activate the menu, the up or down arrows to select an option, and (2) to confirm. The display options are fairly standard: image adjustment, color temperature, brightness/contrast and display setup. Both DVI and VGA inputs are available. ViewSonic also included a nice cable-management feature at the rear of the monitor which essentially keeps your cables out of sight.

Performance: The display is connected to my primary PC. I subjectively tested the performance of the display with a number of first-person shooters like Battlefield 2, Quake 4, Half-Life 2 and Unreal Tournament 2004. None of these exhibited any ghosting or smearing. Tearing was minimal to non-existent. Less-fast paced games like Battle for Middle Earth II and World of Warcraft performed admirably as well. DVDs also displayed well, with no tearing or ghosting apparent in my test material (Revenge of the Sith and Return of the King). As noted above, text is very crisp for productivity or Internet applications. Some may find that the text is too small at the default font size - this can be adjusted within Windows to accomodate for the higher-resolution display (it didn't bother me, however).

The display does have a few shortcomings, most of which aren't a big deal to me, personally. First, the monitor does not support HDCP. While this isn't a big deal now, it's something to keep in mind if you will be migrating to Windows Vista next year. Windows Vista will require video cards and monitors to pass an HDCP token when viewing protected content (e.g. HD video). If you don't care about watching movies on your PC, then this won't be a big deal. The second shortcoming is the lack of height adjustment on the stand. The display height is just about perfect for me. And, I plan to purchase an adjustable arm for the display. But, some users like more flexibility in the display height, so it's something to keep in mind. Finally, the monitor does include integrated speakers hidden under the display. I didn't bother hooking them up, as my Klipsch Promedia 2.1 external speakers are more than capable of producing quality sound. Personally, I would have preferred that ViewSonic omit the speakers and offer the monitor at an even lower price.

Minor quibbles aside, this is an excellent display for both gaming and general use. And, it's nice to free up some valuable desk space. Highly recommended.

Pros:

  • Bright, crisp text
  • Fast pixel response
  • No dead or stuck pixels
  • Simple, intuitive controls
  • Clean design, built-in cable management
  • Excellent price and value

Cons:
  • No HDCP support (not an issue until Windows Vista hits the market)
  • No height adjustment in stand
  • Speakers are an afterthought

March 16, 2006

Building a Quiet PC

ExtremeTech contributor Loyd Case has just published an article detailing how to build a quiet gaming PC.  Having built a quiet gaming rig relatively recently, I must say that this article is fantastic.  They used an Antec Sonata II, which I can personally attest to being an extremely quiet case out of the box (I rebuilt my wife's system using one).  They used acoustic foam to further dampen the noise, and the results are very impressive.  This is a great primer if you're looking to built a fast gaming system that doesn't pump out the sound pressure of your average datacenter.

Read more.

February 05, 2006

SED Displays Coming Soon

There's a new display technology on the horizon that's sure to sound the death knell for CRT displays: SED (Surface-conduction Electron-emitter Display).  Essentially, this technology marries the thin physical size of LCDs/PDPs with CRT-like technology and image quality (IQ).  I have been holding on to my CRT Monitor (an NEC MultiSync FE1250+ 22" display) because I love the fast response time and color reproduction.  I've purchased flat-panel displays for both my wife's and son's PCs.  Since I use my PC as a gaming platform, I haven't migrated yet.  However, I would love to have a monitor that takes up less desk space without the limitations of LCDs (ghosting, slow pixel response).  If SED technology is as good as the article implies, I may finally give up my big bulky CRT.

Read about SED from Canon's site.

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

Typical...

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!

January 28, 2005

Best. Remote. Ever

I've been looking for a universal remote for the family room, as I've grown tired of using three remotes to control the devices in that room. I had read good things about the Logitech Harmony remotes, so I took a chance and ordered a Harmony 659. It arrived this week. It is hands-down the best universal remote I've ever used. All of the programming is done via a web-based wizard on Logitech's site. All you do is specify which devices you wish to control, and the wizard asks you a series of questions to customize the controls to the way you want to use the remote. It took me about 20 minutes to program it, and it works like a charm. All the buttons are laid out intuitively, and it's idiot-proof. Anyone can pick it up and start watching TV, watch a DVD or play a game with the touch of a button. Compared to the 20+ hours I spent programming my Marantz RC5000i, this remote is a godsend.

Highly recommended.

August 24, 2004

Processor Update

I just received an email today stating that my replacement processor has been shipped to me. Intel had just received the defective processor this morning, so that's great turn-around! Looks like I'll be back to normal by the end of the week. Kudos goes to Intel for great warranty service!

August 19, 2004

Bah

The unexpected happened last night. I was playing a game of Tiger Woods 2004 when the game locked up in the middle of a shot. Thinking it was just a program crash, I gave my PC the three-fingered salute (CTRL-ALT-DEL). When the system didn't respond, I tried hitting the power button, expecting the machine to go through its shutdown procedure. When this didn't work, I reluctantly hit the reset button. The system reset, but just sat there without going through its POST.

Continue reading "Bah" »

August 10, 2004

NBC in HD - Finally!

As of today, the local NBC affiliate (KXAN) is now being carried in HD on my local cable (Time-Warner Austin). Thankfully, it was added before the start of the Olympics this coming Friday. I watch very little TV, especially the major networks. However, when I do watch network TV, I usually watch NBC. All of the major networks are now being carried in HD on Time-Warner Austin!

Now if they'd start transmitting the History Channel and G4/TechTV in HD, I'd be a happy camper. :)

June 17, 2004

Denon AVR-3805 Review

Audioholics have reviewed the receiver I purchased earlier this year. Not surprisingly, they were impressed with the unit. While I didn't need a review to tell me what a wonderful piece of equipment the AVR-3805 is, it makes me feel even better about the purchase! Sound & Vision also review the AVR-3805 in the July/August issue, giving it equally high marks. The S&V review is not available online yet, but you should be able to find a copy of the magazine at your local news stand.

June 07, 2004

MAME Cabinet

Although I'm probably getting in way over my head, I've decided to build custom arcade cabinet running MAME. I've been playing around with MAME since 1997 or so. Just about every classic arcade game is available for it, provided you can find the ROMs. I've always wanted my own arcade cabinet, and building my own cabinet will allow me to customize it for the games I want to play.

I've created a separate weblog to chronicle the construction here. All updates for this specific project will be made on that site.

April 20, 2004

Universal Remote and More

I've owned a Marantz RC5000i universal remote for about four years now. I originally purchased it to control my PHAST distributed audio system. However, I rarely used the remote in this way, since we have PHAST control panels in most of the rooms in the house. I've been meaning to use the remote in a different capacity, but never really found the time to reprogram it. I'm happy to say that I've successfully reprogrammed it to control some of the components I repurposed from my home theater upgrades.

Continue reading "Universal Remote and More" »

April 19, 2004

HDTV - finally!

With my new receiver's flexible video switching capabilities, I finally have an easy way to implement HDTV in my media room. My TV only has two HD inputs, so it was previously cumbersome to hook up more than two component video inputs to the TV. My DVD player uses component video, and I like to have the flexibility to hook up my GameCube and Playstation2 to the big screen for those games that implement progressive-scan output. I felt like I really wasn't using my TV to the fullest without an HD receiver.

Continue reading "HDTV - finally!" »

New Toys

For the past few months I have been considering upgrading some of my home theater components to stay current with technology. Specifically, I wanted to upgrade my receiver and DVD player. My current receiver (Sony STR-DA333ES) and DVD player (Toshiba SD-9100) were decent, but they lacked some of the features and technologies found in more recent products. I really wanted a DVD player that could handle more disc formats, especially DVD-A and Super Audio CD. From the receiver standpoint, I wanted more control over my video sources, since my Sony receiver was fairly limited from that standpoint.

Continue reading "New Toys" »

February 26, 2004

Video Card Arrives

I received my eVGA Geforce FX 5900 video card yesterday afternoon, proving once again what a great online retailer NewEgg.com is. Every time I have ordered from them, my order arrives quickly. When one considers their large selection and excellent prices, they are unbeatable in my book. I hope they'll be around a long time. This is my first experience with eVGA, the card's manufacturer. They seem to offer nice after-the-sale support as well as a well-designed website. The card included a nice software bundle including the full version of Ghost Recon, some video editing software and NVIDIA's DVD software. While I probably won't use the bundled software myself, it's still a good offering.

I installed the card without a hitch. Since NVIDIA uses a unified driver set, I already had the latest revision (53.03) downloaded. Game performance is markedly improved with the new card, especially in games that utilize DX9 Pixel Shader 2.0 technology like the new Far Cry demo. Far Cry had my previous card screaming for mercy. Now, it's nice and smooth. Also, I was able to run the benchmarks in 3DMark03 without them looking like a slideshow. I nearly tripled my previous 3DMark with a nice score of 4993. It's not as high as it could be, since my two-year old processor (2.2GHz Pentium 4) hampers the score somewhat. But, I'm very happy with the performance of the card. It will definitely keep me happy until I do my full system upgrade later this year.

Also, it turns out that NVIDIA has announced support for PCI Express. They released an announcement early last week that can be found here. It doesn't say anything about future offerings, but it does solidify their support for the new interface. One can deduce from this release that future product offerings will support PCIe as well.

February 22, 2004

PC Upgrade Choices

I'm starting to get the PC upgrade itch again. I built my current rig in March, 2002 and added a few upgrades to it over the past two years (including a slick Matrix Orbital LCD display). Since I typically upgrade my PC every two years, it looks like 2004 will bring some new hardware to my desk.

I had originally planned to upgrade my motherboard, processor, hard disk and video card in the May/June timeframe. This timeframe was based on rumors that Intel's new Alderwood (925X) chipset would be available near mid-year. This new chipset will support DDR2 memory and PCI Express — two technologies that will bring improved performance to the desktop. I had also hoped to take advantage of new graphics chip introductions by NVIDIA in this timeframe, as my Geforce 4 Ti4600 is getting rather long in the tooth. However, things have changed on the technology front that are causing me to re-evaluate my upgrade timeframe.

Continue reading "PC Upgrade Choices" »

October 18, 2003

Sony PSX

In case you haven't heard about this, Sony are releasing a new convergence product called the PSX. No, it's not a reissue of the venerable Playstation (often called the PSX, erroneously). The PSX combines video gaming, DVD and PVR into one unit. It can write to recordable DVD (DVD-R, DVD-RW & DVD+RW) in addition to its internal hard disk. U.S. pricing has not been set yet, but in Japan it starts at around $700.

The set is very intriguing. Hopefully, Sony will make a wireless controller for it. Corded controllers are less desireable, especially given that the PSX is supposed to function as a set-top box and not just a video game console. Personally, I don't like corded controllers any longer, having used the excellent Nintendo Wavebird for many months now.

Gamespy have a short blurb on the unit here including a picture.

June 04, 2003

Camera Arrives

I picked up a voice mail at work today from Precision Camera stating that my EOS-10D had arrived (see this entry). Although I was pressed for time, I was able to swing by the shop to pick it up over lunch. I also picked up a Canon EF 28-90mm f/4-5.6 II USM zoom lens, as I didn't want to cannibalize the wife's camera for her 35-80mm lens.

The camera is slightly larger than a standard EOS body. The controls are very similar to that of an EOS, so if you've used one before (as I have), you can pick up the camera and start shooting right away. One thing I noticed right off the bat was the fast response. Most digital cameras have a fairly slow response when taking a shot. The 10D is very quick; I'm not sure how quickly it takes a shot, but it's certainly faster than my G1 and seems to be faster than our Rebel G.

Since it is an SLR, you don't use the LCD to frame your shots. Instead, you use the viewfinder since it allows you to view your subject directly through the lens. I prefer an SLR specifically for this reason. It gives you better control over the shot.

I still have to read up on all of the features (yes, I actually RTFM believe it or not) so I can pretend that I know what I'm doing. But, so far I am very impressed with the out-of-the-box experience and look forward to using the camera more.

May 12, 2003

Current Config

I've added a link to my system config listing over on AnandTech.com. I always keep it current, so it reflects the system I am using today. If you're not familiar with AnandTech.com, it's one of the best technology review sites on the Internet. The site specializes in PC hardware, particularly video cards. Currently, there's a great write-up of the new NVIDIA Geforce FX 5900 Ultra on the site. Check it out if you get a chance.

New Toy

Canon have released a new "prosumer" digital camera, the EOS-10D. It uses a custom CMOS sensor in lieu of the traditional CCD found in most digital cameras. More importantly, the sensor is housed in an EOS SLR camera body, allowing the use of Canon's EF line of interchangeable lenses.

Continue reading "New Toy" »