Archive for 2012

How tech bloggers got it wrong about Tegra 4


It is an unfortunate truth that many people writing on consumer technology do not really know jack-shit about the hardware that powers them. Most of the time it doesn’t matter. But when it comes to the core hardware like graphics chip or processors or RAM etc, these folks find themselves in uncharted territory.

Result: They tend to just repeat what technical marketing guys at various companies tell them.

The classic case of this PR-speak-finding-its-way-to-news is Tegra processor, a chip made by Nvidia.

There is a perception (wrong) that bigger is better as far as specifications are concerned. And people particularly love more cores in their chips. So when Nvidia launched Tegra 3, it announced that the chip has 12 cores. It was wrong because Nvidia was terming ALUs as cores. The company has not done that in the computer space where it sells graphics cards with more than 1500 ALUs. But it knows that because mainstream tech journos are mostly ignorant about core technologies, it can get away with it.

The company is again at it with Tegra 4. There is a leaked powerpoint slide doing rounds on the web in which Nvidia says the new chip has 72 cores. And most tech bloggers are again treating it as a gospel of truth. It sounds good in the headline too. New Nvidia chip has 72 cores! Yes, that’s a good headline. No wonder sites, including Engadget and The Verge, like it, even if it is not entirely correct.

Tegra 4 probably has just 72 ALUs. This is also the reason why Nvidia is claiming up to six times better theoretical performance with Tegra 4 compared to Tegra 3. Simple math. 12 X 6 = 72

ALUs (arithmetic logic unit) are one of the basic components in a logic chip like microprocessor. Several ALUs and few other elements make up a unit inside a graphics card that can be considered a sort of engine for the chip. In a chip, there can be several of these engines. Traditionally, on the GPU side there has never been a focus on cores. That is a CPU-related area where the whole of the logic chip (but without uncore area like L3 cache) is considered as one core.

But in the mobile industry things are different. There is no standardization, neither in how the things are represented and communicated nor in the way they function. So, everybody is playing fast and loose with definitions.

For end users it is very confusing and ideally tech journos and bloggers should ask the questions that can help mitigate the issue. But for different reasons, including the fact that few people writing about personal technology understand it, talk about it.

The best way to look at the issue is this: Imagination’s PowerVR 543MP3 chip has 3 cores. Yet, it trounces Tegra 3, which has 12 cores. It is pretty obvious to ask why. But no one does that.

Image credit: Junesy

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I reviewed Sony SmartWatch


Well, it's sort of nice. But doesn't have much in terms of usability. I tried it to review it for Times Of India and you can read the complete review at the TOI or at this epaper page. But if you are feeling lazy, here is a how I summarize Sony SmartWatch --
On the whole, SmartWatch looks like a solution in search of a problem. Swishing out the large screen phone to read message or listen to songs is much easier. Sony deserves praise for marrying, at least some, smartphone functionality with a watch. This alone makes it a nice toy for technology enthusiasts and geeks who love to flaunt their gadgets. But for all practical purposes, for mainstream users it is not the smartwatch they are looking for.

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How I set up the new computer


This is the final post as part of BuildLog2012. That is unless something unexpected happens and I need to revisit the build process. This piece is simple. It’s just about what I did or am doing with all the hardware I have purchased.

Assembling the parts was pretty easy. This is how I went about it:

-- Removed side panel and front panel from the chassis. Took out all the case fans Corsair had supplied and replaced them with the fans I had bought.

-- Installed CPU in the motherboard and then installed the CPU cooler on it. Installing the cooler – after applying thermal paste -- was the trickiest and difficult part. It took nearly half an hour.

-- Installed the motherboard in chassis. Corsair 550D had pre-installed stand-offs so that was one (tiny) step less.

-- Installed RAM

-- Installed hard disks

-- Installed power supply unit

-- (Graphics card was bought after a few weeks so that was put in the box later)

-- Connected all cables and tightened them up. Most of the cable mess was tucked behind the motherboard tray. Loose cables affect airflow in a computer and it is advisable that you take out time to tidy them up if you are assembling a system.

-- With everything in place, powered the system on. It booted fine! Nothing created any issue.

After the boot

-- I went into BIOS and checked various settings. All was well and RAM, as expected, was running at 1333Mhz instead of its specified of 1866Mhz. This is normal with most motherboards. I left it at the default for the time being.

-- I had converted an ISO of Win 7 Professional downloaded from Digital River into a bootable pen drive. I used it to install the OS.

-- With SSD as primary disk, it took me less than 15 minutes to install the OS and connect to the web. After that, I downloaded various motherboard and chipset drivers from Asus website and installed them. If I can get to the web, I always download fresh drivers instead of using the ones that come in CDs.

Checking the system

After you assemble or buy a new computer, it is crucial for you to check it thoroughly. This you can do in two ways. By seeing hardware and software info and by stress testing the machine. Here is how I went about it.

-- I used CPU-Z to check for hardware info about the system. When you get a new PC you should do this. It tells you exactly what you have bought.

-- (I used GPU-Z when I got the graphics card to check the info)

-- I went to BIOS again and set the motherboard to take RAM settings from XMP profile embedded in the RAM. That corrected the RAM speed to 1866Mhz. This can also be done manually.

-- Through Asus Fan Xpert 2 I configured the speed of cooling fans in the system.

-- To test CPU and whether I have seated the cooler properly or not, I ran Intel Burn Test (IBT). This program puts lost of stress on CPU using Intel Linpack binaries. With IBT it is common to see temperature that are over 15 degree Celsius more than what the CPU will get under common load. But if your CPU can survive IBT run than your cooling is sound and the chip is good. In my case IBT increased the CPU temperature to around 76 degree Celsius, which is around 30 degrees less than the maximum limit. 76 is all good for Ivy Bridge in a room that had nearly 40 degrees Celsius ambient temperature! In fact, after I overclocked the CPU to 4.2Ghz, IBT pushed the temperature to 89 degrees Celsius, which is fine too because in real use the CPU is not likely to go further than 75 degrees.

Warning: If you choose to run IBT on your machine, be careful. I am not responsible if you fry your chip.

-- While I prefer to use IBT and find it pretty good, if you want, you can also use LinX (similar to IBT) or Prime to check your CPU and RAM for defect.

-- To check RAM, Memtest is also an option

-- I ran a few hard disk tests with Crystal Disk Mark to see that all was well with hard disks. (Unfortunately now one of my older drives, which was bought a few years ago, has died)

-- When I got the GPU, I ran 3D Mark 11 and Unigine Heaven to check graphics performance. Both these benchmarks are also kind of real-life use scenario so a successful run of these two is a good indication of overall stability of the system.

Once the stress testing was done, the PC was read. So far, everything has been good except one dead hard disk. And I hope it continues to be same for another three or four years. 

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Big question: From where I bought all these parts


The hardware bit is done. But finalizing various parts is not enough. In India, sourcing these parts – especially if you have selected high-end stuff -- is equally troublesome. The reason for this is that in India, the PC parts business is not very organized. There is no Newegg here. There is no Amazon, There is no Fry’s. No Scan. You will especially have trouble if you have selected high-end parts.

So, how do I get the parts that I want? Let’s put it like this: Over the years I have learned who are the right people or right stores that can get a component for me, even if it is not available in India. Of course, this doesn’t mean that I always get what I want at the price that is just, but mostly I manage.

I will talk about these people and stores in a while. Before that, let me tell you from where I got the part for my computer.

-- CPU, monitor, CPU cooler, SMPS (power supply unit), hard disk and UPS were bought from SMC International in Nehru Place. Mouse and keyboard, which are old, had also come from SMC.

-- I had real trouble finding the good chassis in India. Fortunately, I traveled to Taiwan in June and picked up the Corsair 550D from there. I also bought RAM, Gentle Typhoons, which are not available in India, Thermalright TY-140 and Chill factor from Taipei.

-- Graphics card (Zotac GTX 670) was bought from Aditya Infotech Ltd in Nehru Place.

-- Motherboard was bought from Flipkart

-- With kind help from my colleagues in Mumbai, SSD was bought from PrimeABGB in Lamington Road.

Here are all the components


Now, about people. In India, there are a lot of people who deal in computer parts. But what I have realized is that most of them keep generic stuff. Dealers, even in places like Nehru Place, also tend to overcharge once they realize that the buyer is a little weak on tech knowledge.

I have learned to avoid these people.

When it comes to buying a computer part here are the folks I trust and buzz, in case the part is not available in India.

SMC International: This shop in Nehru Place is my primary source for computer parts. There are several reasons for that.

-- One, you won’t find sub-standard stuff or (mostly) sub-standard advice in this place.

-- Two, they will charge you little extra when you are a new shopper (all Nehru Place dealers do that if you are not careful) but if you are a regular, they will give you best possible rates. And they can give amazing rates.

-- Third, SMC knows what enthusiasts want and sell the parts you won’t find in most places.

-- Fourth, I have seen that SMC takes care of its customers and even help them in RMA (warranty process) if something goes wrong. Very few dealers do that.

-- Fifth, I find Mr Saini, who kind of oversees the business, an amazing person to deal with. He is soft spoken, will listen to you patiently and give you reasonable solutions. Once you know him and he trusts you, he will even go out of his way to procure parts that are not available in India.

-- Seven, SMC is a distributor of AMD products, MSI products, Cooler Master products and Gigabyte graphics card. There are some more companies in their fold but these are what I recall. When it comes to part from these companies SMC has you covered. 

-- ProTip: SMC has a dealer in forums like www.erodov.com and www.techenclave.com. If you are not in Delhi, you can get stuff through him.

-- Important: While SMC folks are good, they are also computer dealers. Don’t forget to bargain with them. Also, go there when you have time. These Nehru Place people are always on the phone and you may have to spend up to half an hour just to get details of some products.

More stores in Nehru Place

If for some reason, SMC doesn’t work out for you, check out Computer Empire. They give some amazing rates even without bargaining. In fact, they don’t entertain bargaining.

Aditya Infotech, from where I bought the graphics card, is a distributor for many important brands like Zotac and, I think, Intel. Though I don’t know these folks too well. I bought the graphics card after someone directed me to them. But they seem genuine and eager to help.

Pro Tip: Cost-To-Cost, publishes a weekly price list. It is available in PDF format here. Check these prices before you head-out for shopping. The rates are pretty accurate. But I don’t like shopping from Cost-To-Cost. Once they were selling fake 9600 GT graphics cards.

In Mumbai

PrimeABGB is kind of SMC of Mumbai. It has a website that isregularly updated. You can get an idea of prices and availability from there. These guys also sell stuff on the web.

TheITWares run by Rahul is another good shop in Lamington Road. This guy too has a website. I think Rahul also lists product on eBay upon request if you have a coupon that you want to use.

Chennai folks can check out www.deltapage.com. I have found DeltaPage prices to be very good. You should definitely check out this website before beginning your shopping.

Some other sources
  
Phoenix is a guy based in Mumbai. He is a national distributor of hardware of several not-so-mainstream companies like Lian Li or BitFenix. He has a website called www.xtremegx.com where you can see the brands he handles. But the best way to reach him is through www.erodov.com until you get his phone number.

On www.erodov.com, there is a guy called KillTheDop who can get you stuff from Newegg or Amazon etc. Of course, it costs extra.

For audio related stuff, I have found that a guy called PristineNote on www.techencalve.com has some amazing stuff. He also runs an eBay store as well as sells some stuff through www.proaudiohome.com.

Flipkart is a very reliable and decent place to shop for computer parts. Prices, in most cases, are around 10% higher compared to those in Nehru Place but the convenience is unmatched. You can order and get parts at your home even if you live in a smaller city. Also you get 30-days replacement guarantee, something that even SMC or PrimeABGB won’t offer. Though the availability is somewhat limited.

-- I have found that eBay India is a good option if you don’t find an item anywhere else. With the GlobalDeals, even Newegg sells parts on eBay India. Prices are mostly reasonable… around 10% to 20% higher compared to local prices. But there is no local warranty.

-- If you don’t get something anywhere, ring up the marketing office of the company whose product you want to buy. You may get lucky!

That’s all… if you think I have missed some, feel free to use comments option.

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The right case & cooling


Caught up with work – I have a regular job that takes my whole day and then some more – I almost forgot that I am yet to close this blog. It's bad and I feel sorry for it. I should have finished this stuff months ago.

But I feel I will be able to take out some time this week. The hardware part is already covered. Only the cooling and case is remaining on this front. So, there will be a post on it. Apart from that, I will do two more posts: ‘From where I got all these parts’ and ‘Things to do once you start using your new computer for the first time’.

Ok, let’s go. Cooling and the case first.

It is nice to spend some time picking right parts for cooling and a decent case. The cooling part is particularly important if you are picking high-performance components like gaming-grade graphics cards or are going to overclock CPU.

Primarily there are two ways in which you can cool down your computer parts. One way is to use Air + Water cooling set-up. This gives best results but is expensive. Another is all air cooling. This is cheaper and pretty good, if you get the right parts. I don’t want to go into too many details here as they are not terribly important for average computer users. But it is good to spell out some broad points, which I am going to do while I discuss why I bought the following parts.

The right case for me

After spending countless of hours reading about cases online and making tens of calls across to hardware dealers in India, I decided to buy Corsair 550D. It was not a perfect choice but there was no other option. Essentially, I wanted the following things in my computer case:

-- It should not be a dirt magnet. I live in Delhi and in summer it can get pretty dusty here. My last cabinet – Cooler Master 690 – had a meshed design. This means it was good at cooling components but also attracted dust. This time I wanted a chassis that has as few vents as possible and even if there are vents, they should have dust filter on them.

 -- I wanted the case to have a clean design. Some people like bling but I don’t.

 -- I wanted the case to have solid build quality with impeccable finish.

 -- I wanted the case to have slots for cable management so that I can maximize airflow inside it. Though all contemporary cases come with lots of cable management options.

 -- I wanted the case to have at least two front fan slots and one back fan slot. This creates the classic front-to-back airflow in a case, which helps in cooling parts.

Barring one criteria (build quality) Corsair 550D has everything. This case has been designed for silent computing and hence features minimum vents. At the same time, it has slots for 8 fans. Four of these slots – two on left side and two on top – are covered by a removable lid, making them optional. This is something that I like because it gives me additional flexibility in how I configure the cooling in this system.

550D is also a great case for cable management and it looks great with its extremely simple and clean design. The only problem with the case is that the lids that cover four fan slots are made of plastic. Then, the side panels are too thin. But I had to make a compromise. There was simply no better option. 

But what about other cooling components? 

Yes, I am coming to it. Case is just one aspect. To make sure that all parts are cooled as best as possible, I also bought:

Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO:
This is a CPU cooler. If you have read my other posts here, you will see that I bought an unlocked CPU and a motherboard that allows for full overclocking. Needless to say, when overclocking was my aim, I could not have relied on the puny cooler that Intel bundles with its CPUs. So, to cool the modestly overclocked CPU, I got EVO. It costs half of entry-level water coolers but matches them in cooling the chips. It is also light and compact given its performance (some air coolers are massive).

Gentle Typhoons:
These are cooling fans. While 550D comes with its own set of fans, they are not really good. One, they are tuned for silence at the cost of their cooling performance. Two, they don’t really pull in or push out much air. Gentle Typhoon is considered one of the finest 120mm fans ever made and is now pretty difficult to find. The fan moves a lot air, even if the vents are filtered, has a long life and doesn’t make much noise. I got two for the front slots.

Thermaltake TY140: This one is also a very nice case fan. Moves decent amount of air, doesn’t make much noise. This I bought for the rear slot.

Thermalright Chill Factor III: This is a thermal paste. While Intel CPU or any air cooler you are likely to buy comes with a thermal paste, it is good idea to spend a few hundred bucks and get something better. The good thermal paste, which basically squeezes out any air trapped between the cooler and chip you are trying to cool, can make a difference of up to 5-10 degree Celsius when the chip is at full load.

How did I set up the cooling?

This is the optional part. Though I believe it is important to talk about it. To get the best possible cooling, as far as I know, I set-up the computer in following manner.

-- Tight cable management. I tried to make sure that all cables are neatly tucked in places where they are supposed to be. The fact that I selected a modular power supply unit helped me here. In this way I tried to make sure that airflow inside the cabinet is not hampered by loose cables.

-- I removed the front fans that came with 550D. Put Gentle Typhoons there.

-- I put one of the default fans in the slot near power supply unit on the bottom of case.

-- Both Gentle Typhoons and the bottom fan were positioned to pull air from outside.

-- TY140 went into the rear fan slot. It was positioned to exhaust hot air.

-- I remove one of the hard drive cages (I didn’t need it) so that one of the Gentle Typhoon can push air directly to CPU cooler.

-- By putting two high performance + one low performance fans to pull in air and only one fan to push air out, I created a positive-pressure air cooling.

This means, I am pulling more air inside the case than what the exhaust fan is capable of pushing out. This is good to keep dust away from the case as the positive pressure inside the case means air is pushed out of any vent or opening it can find in the case. If air is getting pushed out, dust can't enter.

If dust is not issue, you can also set negative-pressure cooling in the computer chassis. That has its own set of benefits.

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DO NOT Cheap Out On Power Supply Unit


Several years ago I used to frequent a lot of computer hardware forums. In these forums people discussed everything related to computers. But the highest number of threads, especially from new members, used to be about malfunctioning computers. The complaints ranged from frequent blue screen of death (BSOD) to random shutdowns.

Strangely, these are the type of complains that I also hear from people who want to buy “only branded computers because assembled ones have issues”.

Yes, these problems are real. In majority of cases they affect assembled computers.

But it has nothing to do with the fact that a machine has been assembled. Instead, in most cases, these problems can be attributed to poor quality of power supply unit (PSU) aka SMPS in a computer. This is one part with which 90% buyers go wrong and computer sellers happily oblige because they have fat margins on poor quality PSUs.

A PSU is one of the least understood computer part. It is not as sexy as a CPU or graphics card. So, most users don’t pay any heed to it. Even geeks, who know a thing or two about computer parts, don’t bother with it. Result: An extremely unstable machine and a huge risk to the whole computer.

At the same time, there is also other side to the story. This is about people who know somewhat about PSU and understand that it is important. Many computer hardware enthusiasts are part of this tribe. The people select a super powerful PSU that can deliver a truckload of current. This, though better than picking a cheap PSU, is a waste of money.

Before I talk which PSU I selected for my new computer, here are some basics on PSUs.

-- A PSU is one of the most important components in a computer. It powers every other component and a faulty PSU is a risk to the whole computer.

-- PSU is one component where the more you spend, the better quality you will get. Up to a reasonable extent.

-- You should not power your computer, however basic, with the no-name PSU that comes bundled with a chassis. Just stay away if these chassis happen to be from VIP, Mercury, Zebronics and Intex etc.

-- It may sound strange but weighing a PSU can tell you how good it is. Heavier = Better. In most cases.

-- Cooler Master, Corsair, Seasonic, Antec are four brands I suggest as far as India is concerned. Abroad, you also have access to excellent BeQuiet, Enermax and PC Power and Cooling. However, stay away from XtremePower series of Cooler Master.

Now let me move to a little technical stuff. It’s very important.

-- Wattage doesn’t mean a zilch. Let me repeat, buying a PSU on the basis of its wattage is the most foolish thing you can do.

-- If wattage is not important, than how do you judge a PSU? In a PSU, the most important factor is quality of its component. The ideal way to see that is to open the PSU and look at what has been used and how it has been assembled. But that is not an option. So, apart from reading a review or two, you can take a look at the effective wattage and efficiency.

-- Effective wattage is determined by temperature. Did I tell you that you should stay away from no-name PSUs? The reason: Their wattage is often the one that they can deliver at a temperature of 25 degrees Celsius, which is never going to be the temperature inside a computer. Ideally a PSU should be able to deliver the rated wattage at 40 degree Celsius or more.

-- Never buy any PSU that is not rated to provide stated power at at least 40 degree Celsius. Check manufacturer’s website for this info. If it is not available, don’t buy the PSU. If you are building a high performance computer, select a PSU that can deliver rated power at 50 degree Celsius. 

-- Nowadays it is stupid to buy a PSU that cannot provide at least 80% efficiency at any level of load. Bonus: Let me explain efficiency to you. It is the power a PSU can convert from given amount of AC to DC. Computer parts cannot run on AC. They require DC. That’s why laptops come with power bricks. So, if a PSU has 80% efficiency rating, it will require 100W AC power (from the plug) to supply 80W to the computer. Better efficiency means lower power bill. Many no-name PSUs don’t even have 50% efficiency.

-- Forget the total wattage. But understand how much current is available on +12V rail(s), which serves CPU and graphics cards, the most power hungry components in a computer. A reasonable decent manufacturer provides this information about a PSU. But even if only the amount of power amps is available, you can calculate it. For example, if a PSU can supply 30A on 12V rails, it means the total wattage available to a computer on this rail is going to be 30 x 12 = 360W under ideal conditions.

-- In a PSU, look for overvoltage protection and short circuit protection etc. In future, this can save your computer.

-- Let me repeat again. Wattage is not important. But it is crucial that computer parts get clean power. This means the power should not have ripples or noise. The quality of power depends on quality of components in a PSU.

-- Optional: Get a PSU with modular cables, if you want to minimize cable mess in your computer. But it is a purely aesthetic feature. Modular cables have no affect to power supply. 

Calculating how much power your computer needs

While wattage don’t really matter, you should still make sure that you have a power supply that can feed your computer. You remember I talked about the instable systems in the beginning of this piece. Most of the problems occur because PSU can’t keep up with the power requirement. Dirty power kills systems over a period of time but lack of power leads to immediate crash or shutdown.

There are several ways to calculate how much power your computer needs, but I am going with the easiest route. A graphics card is the most power hungry component in a PC. I am assuming that a high-end card will be paired with high-end components and low-end with mainstream parts. We can use this to roughly determine how much power your computer is going to require. 

-- Computer with no Graphics card: At full load this computer will require around 120W power. For this computer you are fine with a good PSU of around 300W.

-- Computer with a low-end graphics card: I am terming all the graphics cards that don’t require separate power low end. This computer will use a maximum of around 160W. A good PSU of 350W will handle it fine.

-- Computer with mid-range graphics card: These are the cards that require one six-pin connector for extra power. This computer will use a maximum of around 230W. A good 400W PSU is enough.

-- Computer with a high-end graphics card: The card here requires two six-pin connector or 8-pin connectors. This computer will use a maximum of around 350W. A good 550W PSU is enough.

-- Computer with multi-graphics card: Well, this depends on the type of cards. But assuming they are the top of the line, high-end graphics cards, the computer will require around 600W at its full load. A good 750W PSU is enough to deal with it. 

The PSU I bought: Seasonic X-560W

For PSUs, I value quality over quantity. Especially because when push comes to shove — feeding the system when I am gaming for hours at end — quality matters. Reviews of Seasonic X-560W tell that it is rock solid in terms of ripple and noise. It delivers clean power, has a hybrid mode where its fan starts spinning only if the load is above 20%, has superb efficiency of over 85% and comes with all the features like overvoltage protection, surge protection, short-circuit protection etc. It also has a fully modular cable system and five years warranty.

Given that I am using just one graphics card, 560W is enough for me. In fact, such is the quality of this PSU that if required, it delivered up to 730W despite a rating of 560W! The only problem with this PSU: It costs a hell lot of money. For example, a 600W Cooler Master PSU (low end series) is available for around Rs 4,000. This Seasonic costs around Rs 7,000. But of all components, this was the one on which I did not want to make any compromise.

Some links:

System Wattage Calculator: It errs on the side of caution and give you around 50W more than you require but is decent tool to use before you buy a new PSU 


Review of no-name PSU: Read it to know what can happen if you run your computer with no-name PSUs. Skip to conclusion if you want to avoid the technical details. 


Review of Seasonic X-560W: If you are interested


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Storage: Small SSD And Big Hard Disk


Getting the storage right is a pretty simple affair if you are building a PC. It’s all about your budget and how much disk space you want. But the arrival of SSDs has changed the situation a bit.

There are a few storage technologies like RAID about which I can talk but they are not exactly relevant for most consumers. So, I will keep it simple and just tell you why I picked Samsung 830 and Western Digital 1TB Green. 

Why Samsung 830 (128GB) 

My last PC, which was assembled in late 2008, had two mechanical (the normal HDs) drives. Four years later, SSDs are not only (relatively) more affordable but have also become more durable and faster. If you are building a relatively high-end system, buying an SSD is an obvious decision. The reasons for getting an SSD are clear. These are…

a)         An SSD has very fast read and write speeds. This makes the computer faster. As a user you will feel it when you are loading a game or program like Adobe Photoshop or booting up the machine. When buying a SSD, try to get the one that has decent read and write speeds. Some cheap SSDs have good read speed but poor write speeds. If possible, stay away from them.

b)         An SSD has a very low seek time because the information is stored in NAND unlike on a harddisk where it is stored on a magnetic platter. This means an overall more responsive computer because when the OS requests information it can be found very quickly.

The more important question for a computer buyer is about the size and brand of the SSD. Let me deal with this in two parts. 

Size 

It depends on your budget. Even though SSDs have become more affordable, compared to harddisk they are still very expensive. The good thing is that there is lot of choice in SSD market. This means, you can go for…

--         20GB SSD. Intel’s 7 series motherboard chipsets come with a feature called Smart Response Technology (SRT). This is also called SSD caching. With this technology, computer users can pair a low-capacity SSD with a harddisk for almost an SSD-like performance. Ultrabooks like Acer S3 use the similar technology.

--         40GB to 64GB: This is cutting it too fine, but if you don’t play 3D games, you can manage with a 40GB SSD as OS drive. Windows 7 takes around 15GB and the rest can be used to install programs. To store pictures, movies and other files, you can use a hard disk.

--         128GB: This I believe is the sweet spot at the moment. 128GB is big enough to act as a proper OS drive in a powerful system.

--         256GB: Better than 128GB as an OS drive but expensive.

--         512GB: If you are not a gamer and doesn’t store lots of multimedia files on your computer, you can manage with a 512GB SSD without adding another drive. Of course, it is an expensive preposition.

Brand 

--         There are two aspects to it. Brand and controller.

--         When it comes to the brand, Intel, Samsung, OCZ, Corsair and Crucial are what I will suggest at the moment

--         For controllers, there are several companies. Intel, Sandforce, Samsung, Indilinx and Marvell are what I can think of. Sandforce is the most popular. Sandforce controllers are very fast and use a unique technology that compresses data and gives SSDs powered by them a huge advantage over the competitors. Unfortunately, Sandforce controllers had some stability issues in the past. Then, there performance suffers if you throw data that can't be compressed, like multimedia files. If you are buying a Sandforce-based disk, I suggest you get the one from Intel because of all SSD companies, Intel is believed to have the most rigorous quality control. The SSD controller market is still in very early stages. All companies have very good controllers but all of them also have an issue or two. So, read some reviews once you haves shortlisted an SSD.

--         Apart from Intel, another firm known for stable and fast SSDs is Samsung. The company uses its own controller, which at the moment is among best in the business. I suspect it is due to the fact that Samsung has worked with Apple a lot on SSDs and most of the current MacBook Pros and Airs come with the OEM version of Samsung 830 SSD. Apple is obviously a company that doesn’t take lightly to buggy or unstable firmware and believes a lot in thorough testing of products.

--         Given the fact that I wanted to stay away from Sandforce controller, I did not have any other option but to go for Samsung SSD 830. Crucial M4 was on the shortlist but couldn’t find it in India. I selected 128GB disk because 256GB drive was too expensive. 

Why WD 1TB Green 

While Samsung 830 takes care of my OS drive, I still needed storage disks. My old computer had two internal disks — 250GB and 500GB. I decided to put the 500GB into the new computer. But that was not enough. I needed more storage space. I would have gone for a new 2TB disk but harddisks are expensive nowadays. So I decided to buy 1TB disk. Here is the reason why I selected Western Digital 1TB Green

--         Western Digital has better aftersales in India compared to Seagate.

--         The company sells three types of drives. Black (performance), Blue (mainstream) and Green (low power). Because I am using the drive to just store stuff, I don’t mind the green’s low speed of 5400RPM. Most mainstream drives run at 7200RPM. If you are going to install the OS on the drive, you should get a harddisk that has a speed of 7200RPM.

--         In fact, Green drives are cheaper by nearly Rs 500, consume less power and run cooler. In sum, everything I wanted. It was an easy choice. 

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Right graphics card for me: Zotac GTX 670 AMP!




I love talking about graphics cards. Reason: For a computer enthusiast, they are sexy! They are objects of desire. They have an appeal that no other computer component has. A graphics card, just like a CPU, is a product of some amazing engineering. But compared to a CPU, it is tens of times more powerful. For years, this horsepower has been used to render amazing looking 3D games. But recently, graphics cards have found favour with one more group of users – scientists, who use them for high performance computing. Also, with the arrival of GPU computing, graphics cards can nowadays crack passwords in seconds, mint Bitcoins, carry out complex protein simulations and encode videos.

Before I talk about Zotac GTX 670 AMP! I want to take a brief look at the current graphics card market and bust a myth that is used by computer dealers to fool people.

Only two makers 

Factually, it is wrong to say that there are only two companies that make graphics cards for a computer. Apart from Nvidia and AMD, Intel too makes graphics chips. But there is a difference. There are two types of graphics cards – discrete and integrated.

Integrated graphics chips: This is what Intel sells you when it says that your computer is powered by HD 4000 graphics or HD 3000 graphics. The same is true for chips that AMD puts in its computers. Earlier, integrated graphics chips were used to be a part the motherboard. But for the last few years both AMD and Intel have moved them inside the CPU chip. At the same time, these integrated solutions have also become quite fast. While earlier they had trouble playing even 1080P videos, now they can handle modern 3D games at a relatively decent resolution of 1280x768.

The difference between integrated and discrete chips is that the discrete one has its own resources (RAM, power supply and similar other stuff) while the integrated chip shares system resources.

Discrete graphics chips: These are the graphics cards that you see in a shop. They have to be plugged into the motherboard, come with their own RAM, may require extra power (all high to middle end cards do) and are overall vastly superior to integrated chips.

Coming back to the question of manufactures, there are only two companies that make discrete graphics cards – Nvidia and AMD. But then what about Asus, Zotac, Gigabyte, XFX and Palit etc?

These are OEMs – or in other words the hardware partners of Nvidia and AMD. The actual chips are made by AMD and Nvidia but they are packaged into a graphics card by their partners, who then brand the card with their name and sell it in the market. In many cases, there is no difference between a particular card sold be various partners – GTX 690 is an example – because it is made by Nvidia or AMD with the help of one of their partners and then given to all others who go to the market and sell them.

Now, let’s bust the myth 

Myth: More (video) RAM makes a graphics card faster. It is always better to buy a graphics card with more VRAM.

Truth: This RAM claim is a blatant lie. It is like saying that bigger wheels on Maruti 800 will make it go faster than Ferrari. Just the way the performance of a car depends largely on the engine inside its hood, the performance of a graphics card depends on the graphics chip (the processing engine) under its heatsink. Anyone saying otherwise is trying to fool you. There is no reason why you should buy a low or midrange graphics card with ridiculous amount of RAM. Yes, RAM does play a role but it is not terribly important in the grand scheme of things. To simplify the primary role of VRAM is to store the frames that graphics card has prepared and load textures etc for quick access. Unless you are playing at a high resolution on a 24-inch or bigger monitor, more than 1GB RAM is rarely required. And for high resolution, a budget card is a bad choice to start with. 

One more thing… 

… Before I talk about how and why I selected the Zotac card. As it happens in the graphics card market, AMD and Nvidia come out with new chip architecture almost every year. Then they make graphics cards based on this architecture. While buying a graphics card, make sure that you get the chip based on latest architecture. Usually, the model number is pretty good explanation of a graphics card’s standing in the market. While it’s not definitive, the information below will help you demystify the model number: 

For AMD 

a) A typical graphics card is named as HD XXXX where X represents a number telling a buyer about the card. For example, currently the company sells HD 7970. Here first 7 denotes that the card belongs to the 7 series, which is based on latest architecture. The number 9 shows that the card belongs to the top of the line group within the 7 series. Next 7 indicates the potency of the card. And 0 is incidental.

b) Following this formula we can say that HD 7970 > HD 7950 > HD 7870 > HD 7850 > HD 7770 > HD 7750. Irrespective of the amount of VRAM this is the relative position of AMD graphics cards at the moment. This means putting 4GB RAM on HD 7850 won't make it faster than HD 7870 that has 2GB RAM.

c) If you are buying an older series card, be careful about the model number because the higher number is better only if the first number is same.

d) To explain it, let me line up a few older cards. These are HD 6970 > HD 6950 > HD 6870 > HD 6850 > HD 6770.

e) If we mix six and seven series cards, the standing is like this: 7970 > HD 7950 > HD 6970 = HD 7870 > 7850 = HD 6950 > HD 6870 > HD 6850 HD > 7770 > HD 7750 = HD 6770 

For Nvidia cards 

What is true for AMD is true for Nvidia cards. This means pay close attention to the numbers in a model’s name and be careful of the first number. But Nvidia also uses some prefixes. These are:
 
GS – Entry level
GTS – Mainstream
GTX – Performance/enthusiast 

Why Zotac GTX 670 AMP! 

a) I wanted a card that could help me play games at the native resolution of my monitor (1920 X 1200) for at least three years with ease. This means at least 40FPS on average in any game that I want to play.

b) A quick glance at various reviews showed me that I had to select a card from GTX 680, GTX 670, HD 7970, HD 7950 and HD 7870.

c) Of these, the fastest are HD 7970 and GTX 680. But both cost around Rs 35,000.

d) I wanted an Nvidia card because in general Nvidia has better driver support for new games. (My previous card HD 4850 was from AMD)

e) This means either GTX 680 or GTX 670. (I would have considered GTX 660 Ti but it doesn’t exist for now). GTX 670 is around 5% slower than GTX 680 when overclocked. Yet, the price difference is around 20%. This makes GTX 670  an easy pick.

f) I wanted a card with third-party cooler because Delhi gets quite hot. In general I like components that run cool.

g) This led me to shortlist Gigabyte GTX 670 Windforce, Asus GTX 670 TOP and Zotac GTX 670 AMP.

h) Of the three, my original choice was Gigabyte GTX 670 Windforce. But I couldn’t find it in the market.

i) I found only Zotac one.

j) Also I realized that Zotac GTX 670 AMP! comes with five years warranty and  RAM that is clocked ridiculously high. This made the decision easy.

To sum it up 

a) The amount of RAM in a graphics card doesn’t matter unless you are going to play games on a 30-inch monitor.

b) Pay attention to the graphics chip in the card you are buying. To understand its performance, decode its model number

c) Buy a graphics card that you need. And that depends on the resolution of your monitor

d) 17-inches or smaller monitor: GTS X50 or HD X770 will do fine

e) 17 inches to 22 inches monitor: GTX X60 or HD X850 will do fine. Step up by one model if you want to be a bit more future-proof.

f) 24-inch (16:10 aspect ratio): Go for at least GTX X60 Ti or HD X870.

g) 30-inch monitor or multi-monitor gaming: GTX X80 or HD X9X0

h) Not a hardcore gamer: Get a mainstream card like HD X750 or GTS X40

i) Make sure that you have a power supply unit that can feed the card you are buying. A graphics card is the most power-hungry component in a computer. I will talk more about it when I write about power supply units. 

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The Right RAM For Me: Corsair Vengeance 1866 Mhz



Or maybe not.

Before I talk about RAM sticks, let me confess. I made a mistake with Vengeance 1866 Mhz. It’s not a costly mistake and it is not likely to affect my computing experience much. But I did not get what I wanted.

About RAM. It is pretty easy to pick right RAM for a new computer. You just need to answer a few basic questions.

a) How much?

There used to be saying that you can never have enough RAM. It is no longer true. In the last few years RAM has become so cheap that nowadays you can easily have enough RAM for your needs.

For your (geek) greed, there is no solution.

If you are not a video gamer, a geek or a developer who runs virtual machines, or someone who works with media encoding etc, you can easily live with 2GB RAM. But this is also cutting it a little fine, especially because of programs like Firefox and Chrome that love to gobble up RAM. To be on safe side, 4GB is more appropriate.

Pro tip: Ok, it is not so pro. Everyone knows it. But it is a tip. If you are opting for 4GB or more RAM, get 64-bit Windows because users on 32-bit can’t access more than 3GB RAM.

If you are a power user or a gamer, 8GB might be the sweet spot. The extra RAM is definitively going to make the machine a bit more future proof, especially seeing how the web is becoming more dynamic and how browsers hog memory nowadays.

But if you are someone who runs virtual machines or will be compiling programs, go for 16GB. Did I tell you that RAM is cheap nowadays?

b) DDR2 or DDR3? What speed?

The answer to these questions is far more simple than you think. Just read the manuals that come with your motherboard and CPU. Nowadays, memory controllers are built inside CPUs. If you are not the type who loves tinkering with system, just get the RAM that your CPU and motherboard officially support. Apart from the speed, also look for the supported voltages.

c) Brand etc

Get the cheapest RAM from any decent RAM maker if you are following the RAM guidelines provided by Intel/AMD and motherboard makers. By decent I mean the likes of Kingston, Transcend, Corsair, Gskill etc. If you want something fancy or will be overclocking, get the RAM that promises you overclocking headroom.

Why I selected Vengeance 1866 Mhz

a) I bought Core i5 3570K as my CPU and a Z77 motherboard. This means I had to buy DDR3 RAM

b) According to Intel, the CPU supports 1600Mhz RAM officially but the memory controller in Ivy Bridge (Core i5 3570K) is very robust. So, most motherboard makers have enabled official support for up to DDR3 2600Mhz.

c) But the problem with high speed memory paired with Ivy Bridge is that even though it helps in benchmarks, the real life advantage is very little. That’s why the optimum RAM for Ivy Bridge is 1600Mhz with tight timings of 9-9-9-24 or lower. We will talk about timings some other day. For now, let me just say that these are not as important as they sound.

d) I decided to go for 8GB (4x2) Vengeance 1866Mhz kit because I wanted a little bit extra (just for the show) and price was right. I got a kit of two sticks. If you can help it, always get a kit of two sticks (or four in the case of X79 because it has a quad-channel memory controller).

e) Vengeance 1866 also looks good with a heat-spreader and fins. This again is more for show. At this speed, there is not much heat and even naked sticks do fine.

Now, the part where I talk about why I am not happy with Vengeance 1866. Corsair claims it is a memory for overclockers. I am not much of a memory overclocker. Reason: it is the trickiest component to overclock and the gain is not much unless you are aiming to set the world record in SuperPi. But I had hoped that instead of running Vengeance at 9-10-9-27 (default speed) I would be able to tighten it to 9-9-9-24/25. Sadly, this kit is bit of a donkey. It doesn’t budge. Changing anything from the default leads to either system instability or it simply refuses to boot.

Not done, Corsair. Not done. If I knew, I would have bought your Value Select RAM and not Vengeance. What’s the difference, eh?

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Dell U2412M -- The Right Monitor For Me



Around five years ago I got a tip from a stranger. One of my friends was looking for a new computer with a budget of around Rs 25,000 and I had prepared a configuration for him. But I wanted others to see this configuration. So, I made a thread at a web forum where geeks gathered and showed them the configuration.

“It is all fine,” one of the guys commented. “But don’t pair the computer with a 17-inch monitor. Pair it with a 19-inch monitor. If money is a problem, get a slower processor, less RAM or cut something else. But get a bigger monitor. Your friend doesn’t care about what is inside his computer. He doesn’t know about parts. But give him a bigger monitor and he will thank you every time he uses it.”  

It made sense. When my friend, who was used to working on 15-inch monitors, saw the new computer, his first reaction was “wow!”

Moral of the story: A monitor is probably the most important component in a computer because you are going to stare and work on it all the time. A poor monitor and your user experience is going to suffer.  

So, how do you choose the right monitor? There are several variables. I will talk about how I selected mine and I hope that will explain the basics. I am sad to say this but monitor and display market is characterized by companies trying to sell lot of fluff with the help of obnoxious marketing. But that’s for later. For now, about the monitor…

Step 1

I decided the screen size. Yes, bigger is better. But bigger is also more expensive. For example, decent 27-inch or 30-inch monitors cost above Rs 50,000. I couldn’t spend that much, so I settled on 23/24 inches.

Step 2

This one is very important. Here I decided the resolution I wanted. In the category of monitors with a 22-inch or bigger screen, the most common resolution is 1920 x 1080 pixels. It is also called Full HD or1080P resolution.

I DON’T like this resolution on a computer monitor.

But panel manufacturers love it because it has an aspect ratio of 16:9 and allows them to make more monitors from a single sheet of panel. This is the reason why a 19-inch monitor is actually 18.5-inch and a 22” monitor is actually 21.5-inch.

Manufacturers push 1920 x 1080 a lot. They tell consumer that it is better for watching videos. Theoretically they are right but in real life it doesn’t work like this. I will explain when I talk about panel type.

What I wanted in my monitor was 16:10 aspect ratio. Ideally, 4:3 aspect ratio is best for work. And 16:9 is best for watching videos (theoretically). 16:10 is the best compromise. My choice of aspect ratio meant that I had to get a monitor with a resolution of 1920 x 1200 pixels and not 1920 x 1080. The difference is just 120 pixels on paper but in reality, it is more. The key here is the display area in physical terms. It is important and most manufacturers try to hide it. See the illustration for example.
Here are the screens (scaled to proportion) of three monitors. The red is U2412M (24-inch screen with 16:10 aspect ratio). The green is P2412H (24-inch screen with 16:9 aspect ratio). The yellow is U2312HM (23-inch screen with 16:9 aspect ratio). The extra height of U2412M makes a real difference in use. At least to me it does. 

Step 3

Again a very important point. Panel type. Almost 90% monitors in the market have TN panel. And almost 99% laptops have TN panel on their screens. This is a shame! Yes, TN panels are cheap to produce and manufactures love it. While it is perfectly alright for people to buy cheap monitors if that is what they want, I don’t like the way monitor makers have stopped creating good and affordable monitors that use anything other than a TN panel.

The problem with TN panel is that it has horrible viewing angles and it can't show good colour. Here is an example: Do you have a laptop? Yes, you say. Stare at the screen and then tilt your head and move it to right or left. Depending on how good or bad is the TN panel on your laptop, the colours will start to vanish. If it is a very bad panel, they may even disappear entirely, turning into grey smudges or white patches. This is the reason why I said it is unethical to tell people that 1080P is the best resolution for watching videos. Yes, it is. But when paired with something other than a TN panel. But manufactures won’t talk about that. Irrespective of the resolution, the picture quality on most TN monitors is generally so bad that they are not at all suitable for watching videos or pictures.

If I don’t want a TN panel in my monitor what are my options? Sadly, in India not many. I looked for monitors with IPS panel, which is suitable for general purpose computing.

Step 4

What else I wanted in my monitor? I wanted a stand that could allow me to tilt and swivel monitor as well as adjust its height. I wanted a Display Port because graphics cards already use it and it might become as popular as DVI in the next few years. And I wanted a matte screen because I couldn’t stand a glossy screen.
Apart from this, let me tell you what I did not care about. In other words, this is a note on the kind of nonsense monitor manufacturers sprout about their products and why it shouldn’t matter to you.

a)      I didn’t care about dynamic contrast. One monitor I saw claimed it had a dynamic contrast of 50,000,000:1. Are these people crazy? Dynamic contrast is bullshit. It doesn’t reflect the actual contrast you will get on the monitor. Static contrast ratio is a better parameter but even that is the best-case scenario. In fact, dynamic contrast is actually a problem during the use because screen keeps changing its contrast depending on the content it is displaying. If I get a monitor that has dynamic contrast, I turn it off.

b)      I didn’t care about input lag. TN monitors have better input lag (2ms/5ms) while IPS monitors have an input lag of 8ms/5ms. This number too is the best-case scenario. In real life, whether you are watching a fast-paced film or playing a video game, there is going to be no difference between 8ms or 2ms. Of course, monitor makers tell you otherwise but it is rubbish for 99% consumers.

c)      I didn’t care about colour gamut, brightness and viewing angles etc. The important thing to note here is that TN panels suck at these parameters. So stay clear of TN panels and specs won’t matter anyways.

d)      I didn’t care about energy efficiency much. During use, all of them suck more or less same amount of juice.

e)      I didn’t care about the design. As I said earlier I was looking for functionality in the stand. And not how sleek it looked.

So why Dell U2412M

If you have read what I have written so far, you know why. It ticks all the right boxes for me. It has everything I want. This means:

a)     A 24-inch screen

b)     eIPS, which is a wallet-friendly version of IPS, panel

c)     1920 x 1200 pixels resolution

d)     A fully adjustable stand

e)      Display Port

Plus a few extras

f)      LED display (somewhat better energy efficiency. Thinner screen compared to CCFL-based IPS display)

g)     USB ports

As I said, in India there is not much choice when it comes to quality monitors. Everybody is pushing TN panels here. The only companies selling IPS/eIPS monitors are, as far as I know, Dell, HP, LG and Asus. The 24-inch IPS monitor from Asus I couldn’t find in the market. HP would not sell its IPS monitors to me. It doesn’t believe in dealing with mere mortals in India. It only deals with corporates even though abroad it is happy to sell monitors to every Tom, Dick and Harry.

I kind of short-listed three monitors: Dell U2412M, Dell U2312HM and LG IPS225V. Only one of them had 16:10 aspect ratio.

I am using Dell U2412M for the last one month and I couldn’t be happier. Out of the box, its colours were too cool for my taste but once I finished with basic calibration (contrast and brightness stuff) it was all good. Truly a fantastic monitor for its price of around Rs 20,000.

A quick summary

1-     Decide the budget

2-     Go for a monitor that doesn’t have a TN panel. U2412M sells for around Rs 20,000. This is pretty affordable. If you want something cheaper Dell U2312HM sells for around Rs 14K and LG IPS225V for less than Rs 10K. There is simply no excuse for getting a TN monitor now unless you are buying it for a cheap cyber cafĂ©. UPDATE: BenQ also sells several affordable monitors with non-TN panel. For example EW2430V, which uses VA panel, is for around Rs 17K. VA panel is far superior to TN panel when it comes to picture quality. Asus, meanwhile, has PA238Q, which uses an IPS panel, around same price point. Viewsonic has VP2365 LED with IPS panel that should have a price of less than Rs 20,000. So, some more choices. Unfortunately most of this information is from the web. The actual availability could be an issue. For example, I couldn't find the Asus monitors when I was looking for them.

3-    Use 16:9 and 16:10 monitors with similar screen size. Then decide what you want.

4-     Look for ports. HDMI is essential if you want to hook up your gaming console to the monitor.

5-     Don’t bother about specifications shown on the manufacturer’s website. The key things are your budget, panel type (the info that manufacturers try to hide), stand, resolution and screen size (actual).

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