Archive for May 2012

Selecting the right motherboard

The Socket 1155 is on the left. The Z77 chipset is under the blue heatsink on the right

Once you have selected the processor, choosing a motherboard is quite easy. Whether it’s an Intel CPU or one made by AMD, it can be used only with a particular socket. So, when you are looking for a motherboard for your new computer, first find out which socket your CPU supports. Unlike CPUs, there is not much to explain about motherboards. I will keep it simple and just explain how and why I selected Asus P8Z77-V as the motherboard for my computer. But before that two basic points:

1-    There are many companies in the world that make motherboards but the top three — Asus, Gigabyte and MSI — have the lion’s share in the market. Recently, Asrock has created lots of buzz. Intel too makes motherboards but, and this will surprise many, they are not too popular with knowledgeable system builders because they tend to be too basic.

2-    All motherboards have virtually same performance because they use same processors and same chipsets, which are made either by Intel or AMD.

How did I find Asus P8Z77-V?

1-    Core i5 3570K, the CPU I am putting in my new computer, supports LGA 1155 socket. This means it has 1155 copper points that needs to be connected to 1155 copper pins on the motherboard.

2-    Motherboards made using Intel’s X6X series and X7X series chipsets support Socket 1155.

3-    Of these, only the motherboards made using Z68, P67, H61, B75, Q75, Q77, H77, Z75 and Z77 chipsets support Ivy Bridge processor.

4-    Chipsets with Q and B in their names are meant for business users and are mostly used by OEMs (other equipment manufacturers) like Dell and HP

5-    This means the motherboards suitable for my use are: Z68, P67, H61, H77, Z75 and Z77

6-    The six series chipsets require a user to flash a new BIOS on the motherboard to get support for Ivy Bridge. Even then features like PCIe 3.0 are not available. So these are out.

7-    H77, Z75 and Z77 remain

8-    3570K belongs to K series. This means it has an unlocked multiplier and can be overclocked. Z75 and Z77 offer full overclocking support. H77 allows CPU overclocking but not the RAM overclocking. Did I tell you I don’t like anything locked? So H77 is out. Though H77 is perfect for almost all mainstream users.

9-    Z77 is the flagship chipset meant for enthusiasts. While there is nothing wrong with Z75 for my use, manufacturers are just focusing on Z77 and there are no high-end Z75 motherboards available. So Z75 is out.

Ok, why Asus P8Z77-V out of all Z77 motherboards? Several reasons

1-    I am going to keep my system for at least three years and I am looking to build something that is stable. This means I need a solid mainboard that is compatible with wide variety of hardware and is built to last. So, I want to go with an established brand that has decent service in India. This means Gigabyte, Asus or MSI. I also looked at Intel as it has started building decent motherboards for enthusiasts. I found their DZ77GA-70K pretty solid but too expensive for what it does.

2-    Now it’s all about requirements. When you are looking to get a motherboard there are several things to keep in mind. They are –

a-    This is the most important point. What are the components you are going to connect to it? How many harddisks you will connect to it? More harddisks, look for a motherboard with more SATA ports. Similarly, how many USB ports? How many PCI/PCIe expansion slot for cards like TV tuner, sound card and graphics card. How many system fans? Do you need HDMI or display port? Are you going to build a small PC? Select mATX. Do you want a mobo which is easier to work with? Go for ATX size.

b-    If you have selected a high-end CPU and high-end RAM, try to get a motherboard that has better cooling in the form of heatsink on mosfets etc and better power delivery for components. It is especially important if you are going to overclock. Try to get a motherboard that has all solid capacitors. Nowadays, even budget motherboards have solid capacitors. 

c-    Read the motherboard description on the manufacturer’s website. Usually, it has lots of marketing bullshit. But if it sounds right to you, go for it. It won’t make much difference anyway. Just don’t pay too much for the ‘unique’ features.

3-    My requirements from motherboard was, apart from support for 3570K, that it should have at least one PCI slot because I would be reusing the sound card from my old computer.

4-    This means MSI was out of the race as none of its enthusiast-grade motherboards (I am going to overclock) had PCI slot.

5-    Finally, I shortlisted Asus P8Z77-V and Gigabyte GA-Z77X-UD3H. The motherboard in my current computer is from Gigabyte and it is rock solid. But on GA-Z77X-UD3H I found the company has used Via chips for additional USB ports. On P8Z77-V Asus has used ASMedia chip which is better. Also, Asus has Gigabit LAN from Intel while Gigabyte uses Atheros chip for LAN. Again Asus solution is considered better.

6-    Asus one is expensive by a few thousands rupees and despite whatever perceived flaws, I gave Gigabyte serious thought. But finally went with Asus because:

a-    It has fantastic support for controlling chassis fans. I love control over my machines. It may not matter to most people but is a big deal for me. Though I must add that even among Asus motherboards only P8Z77-V or better models have this feature.

b-    It supports Wi-Fi out of the box with help of an add-on card which is bundled. It supports hotspot functionality.

c-    Better choice of IO chips – Intel gigabit LAN,  Asmedia etc

d-    Fast and responsive bios

e-    Features like Turbo Boost for USB transfer work which seem more than just marketing talk

f-    There is a Thunderbolt header built on the motherboard and the talk is that Asus will soon offer an add-on panel that will connect to it. May help in future.

That’s all about the motherboard. Sounds little complicated but in reality isn’t so. When you start looking for boards in your budget, there aren’t many choices out there. I have also skipped a lot of details in a bid to keep it simple. But if there are questions, please go ahead... 

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The right processor

First a rare 10-minute video from AMD

 Amazing that we can buy such technology for less than Rs 5000. No?

Processor — or CPU — is the heart of a computer. Ideally, it ought to be the first component you finalize if you are building a new computer. The reason, apart from the fact that CPU is very important, is that the choice here decides what other components will go in the computer. Deciding the CPU is akin to laying the foundation on which rest of the system can be build

Before I talk about the CPU I have selected for my build, here are a few points that I am sure will help anyone understand CPUs better. This will help you when you are buying a new computer 

1-    Only two companies make CPUs for personal computers for mass market. These are AMD and Intel.

2-    Currently, Intel distinguishes its CPUs in the following manner:

a)    Xtreme processor:  This is the top of the line processor and the model number has X in it. It’s very expensive and suitable only if you are a video editor or animator in world-class movie studio. Nowadays, Xtreme processors have 6 cores with hyper threading (HT), giving them ability to process 12 threads at the same time.

b)    Core i7: High-end processors supposed to go into gaming and high-performance machines. Every Core i7 processor has at least 4 cores with HT.

c)    Core i5: Has 4 cores but no HT (not applicable to mobile processor). Have somewhat less cache compared to Core i7.

d)    Core i3: Has 2 cores but with HT. So they can process four threads at the same time. Less cache compared to Core i5.

e)    Pentium: Yes, the name still survives. Though Pentiums nowadays are budget CPUs. They have 2 cores and no HT.

f)    At the same time, there are a few suffixes. X is for Xtreme. K is for processor that are unlocked and can be overclocked (will talk about it later), T is for power efficient processor, processor with S have smaller footprint, those with M in the name are mobile versions for laptops, and CPUs with U go into ultrabooks.

g)    Since 2006, Intel follows Tick Tock model. This means it brings out a new family of processors every year. Tick, like Sandy Bridge, is a new architecture. Tock, like Ivy Bridge, is moving old architecture to a new manufacturing process. Core i remains the same but model numbers change. So, be careful while getting one. You should always buy the latest CPUs. For example currently, you will find both Core i5 2500 and Core i5 3550. The difference is more than just the number. The former belongs to Sandy range and is no longer a recommended buy.  

3-    As far as AMD is concerned, here is how it handles naming of its CPUs

a)    FX series is the top-end. Processors have 4 to 8 cores.

b)    Phenom II sit below FX series. There are different categories in Phenom II family. In fact, there are too many models to talk about but generally in the market (Flipkart is an example) you are likely to find Thuban (X6 with six cores), Deneb (X4 with four cores) and Callisto (X2 with 2 cores).

c)    Currently A Series chips are the most exciting CPUs from AMD. The company calls them Fusion processors because they have a graphics chip inside CPU. Intel’s CPUs too have the same feature but graphics chip in AMD CPU is slightly better than the one in Intel CPUs. If you don’t plan to do 3D gaming, the 4-core A series CPUs are good option for a desktop.

d)    AMD sells Black Edition processor for overclockers.

Just a few more points 

1-    Cache is important but not much. Clock speed is more important.

2-     Model number is good way to indicate the relative standing of a CPU in the line-up

3-    Both AMD and Intel offer something like burst mode where, depending on the work load, CPU ramps up the speed. The lighter the work load, higher the CPU will go. Higher is better.

Edit: On Twitter Vikas Kumar Das said that the line "the lighter the work load..." should read as "the higher the work load...". 

Well, in a way he is right. When the CPU is not doing anything it idles at very low speed to save power. For example the lowest c-state for Intel CPUs is 1.6Ghz. So when the load on the CPU goes up, its speed ramps up. 

But that is not really how the Turbo feature works. The amount of turbo doesn't depend on the work load. It depends on the state of TDP. Take the example of Core i5 2500 that runs at 3.3Ghz. It has a TDP of 95W. Even when it is under load, the TDP in reality might be just 75W. This means it has 20W headroom. CPU uses this headroom to apply turbo and increases the speed of the CPU beyond its specified limit. But why the line "the lighter the work load..."? It works like this: when the load is lighter, means only one core is engaged, the speed will ramp up to 3.7Ghz. If two cores are involved (heavier work load) it may ramp up to just 3.6Ghz. When three cores are involved (even heavier workload), the turbo is likely to reach only 3.5Ghz. When all cores are engaged (heaviest work load) the turbo won't scale higher than 3.4Ghz.      

4-    For most people, getting a CPU with more than four cores is unnecessary at the moment. In fact, for mainstream use, 2 Intel cores with HT or AMD’s 4 cores are more than enough. But there are special cases where more cores are better. For example, if you are a multimedia pro or a developer, go for more cores. But if you are a pro, you already know that. Right?

5-    AMD’s cores ≠ Intel’s cores. Intel has a better performance per instruction (or clock). At the same time, Intel processors are also more expensive.

6-    TDP means the amount of heat a CPU is going to produce. This is closely tied to power use. It’s basic physics. More TDP also means higher power use. If you want to assemble a power-efficient PC, go with a CPU that has lower TDP.

7-    Easy solution: Select an Intel Core i3 or AMD A series processor for general purpose computer (web browsing, watching films, office work etc). Get a Core i5 if you are going to play heavy 3D games on the computer or will be keeping the same computer for at least 4 years. Get Core i7 if you are a power user doing lots of multimedia work or plan to keep computer for over 5 years. Get K version of Intel CPUs (there are generally two — one each for i5 and i7 series) if you plan to overclock.

The CPU that I have selected

My choice is Core i5 3570K. And if you have read 700 odd words that I have written so far, I am sure you know why.

But to wrap it up…

1-    Core i5 3570K is an Ivy Bridge CPU and is currently among fastest computer processors a consumer can buy. This fits well in my plan to build a fast general-purpose computer. On the average, the fastest is Core i7 3960X which costs above Rs 60,000. But it is based on an older architecture (Sandy Bridge). For all practical purposes, Core i7 3770K (Ivy Bridge) ties up with the Xtreme processor despite having a price of around Rs 20,000. For my workload, Core i5 3570K is going to be less than 10% slower than Core i7 3770 (20 seconds vs 22 seconds) as HT doesn’t make much difference for mainstream users once they have already have 4 threads/cores because most of the programs and games have poor scaling with the number of cores. But in terms of price, there is a difference of nearly Rs 6000. This makes Core i5 3570K better value for money for me.

A note about AMD. While A series CPUs are nice, for enthusiasts they are just not enough. The problem is that performance gap between AMD’s top CPUs and Intel’s top CPUs is huge. For example, the average difference between Core i5 3570K and FX-8170 is likely to be over 30 to 40%. And the Intel CPU also uses less power! 

2-    I can save around Rs 1500 by going with a non-K version. But I don’t like anything locked, whether it’s a smartphone or a processor. K version means I will be able to run it faster than what Intel officially mandates. For example 4.2 GHz vs the default speed of 3.5Ghz.

3-    Ivy Bridge supports PCIe 3. This is not relevant at the moment because no graphics card requires this much bandwidth but may help in future.

4-    Ivy Bridge also supports some crazy RAM speeds compared to Sandy Bridge. 2600Mhz seems easy. This should be fun.

This concludes the processor part. Did I miss anything relevant? I have overly simplified a lots of stuff. So if you have any question, please go ahead…

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Requirements etc

Can It Play Crysis? Yes has to be the answer
If you are buying a new computer or assembling one, it is good idea to clearly identify what you want from the new machine. This helps avoid scenarios like when you buy a Rs 70,000 computer only to find that it is utterly unsuitable for gaming. Or you may end up spending Rs 50,000 when all you are going to do is watch YouTube on it.

Computers are general-purpose machines. This means all of them can handle, up to a degree, all kind of tasks. Yet, if you know your requirements you can customize and optimize the machine. For example if you want to do lots of gaming, you should focus on gaming-specific hardware, if required, even at the cost of general-purpose hardware. If you are video editor, you should focus on hardware that is suitable for video editing and encoding etc. If you want a silent and compact computer, you should look to build a HTPC (home theatre personal computer) or, as SlackerNinja puts it, a SFF (small form factor) PC. Want the PC to double up as a NAS, look for a machine with lots of storage etc.

Ok, about my next computer.

I usually upgrade to a new computer every three years. That’s how it has been for the last 10 years. If Mayan gods permit, this time too it is going to be same. It's a general-purpose machine but it should:

1- Be fast. Should play Crysis at maximum settings :-)

2- Give a solid computing experience for 3 years. That means up-to-date features. Even in 2015 or 2016 it should be able to handle demanding 3D video games with ease

3- Not crash, throttle, shutdown irrespective of workload. Whether I am listening to a song or running Folding@Home, it should just work. 24x7. Even if I don’t shut it down or put it to sleep for months. And it should work well despite Delhi’s extreme heat — 40 degree Celsius is quite common in summer — even if there is no air conditioner

I have often heard people saying that assembled computers are rarely stable. I have also seen many assembled computers that start giving trouble after six months or so. Stability part is very important for me

4- Have clean looks. Classy and understated. It shouldn’t be like the monstrosities sold by Alienware

5- Be a Value For Money. Yes, enthusiasts spend a lot of money on hardware. But they are also sucker for value for money

With this, the boring stuff is out of the way. Up next are components!

PS: After my last post, 2Shar told me on Twitter
I somewhat agree that I could have mentioned Alienware. But there is a reason why I said Mac Pro. Macs are known for, one, their stability, and two, elegant looks. I want my new computer to have both. Though matching Mac Pro’s looks may prove difficult. Good computer cases are just not available in India. All you get is iBall and Zebronics, most of which is junk. Or the cases from Cooler Master that are in all probability designed by a teen living in his mom's basement

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Starting the build log

So it begins!

Nearly three years after I assembled my last computer, it's time to put together a new machine. Not much is wrong with the old one. Most of the time its Intel Core 2 processor and AMD HD 4850 graphics card handle everything with ease. But there are games that don't run at decent quality. At the same time, with websites like The Verge coming into existence, it has started to feel a little slow while I juggle between 50 tabs on Firefox, a few word files, and a some other open programs.

A new machine is needed.

Over the next few weeks, I will jot down my thoughts here as I look for the right parts, which are often difficult to find in India, assemble it all together and test it for stability. 

But why the blog?

Three reasons

1- I have heard great things about the wisdom of crowd. May be, I will learn a thing or two from you folks.

2- If I can assemble a PC, I am sure anybody can. May be some of you will get inspired. You know it's super fun, super easy and saves money if you pick the right parts. And it makes you feel really good about it!

3- Too many people make wrong choices while assembling their computers. May be posts here will help anyone who wants to pick the right parts for their next build.

Next I am going to talk about identifying the requirements and setting a budget limit. This is crucial, you know. I have an idea of what I want. But if you have anything to say about the ideal mid-range gaming computer assembled in 2012, like features or performance it should have, please go ahead. 

Though here is the summary of the next post:  I expect my next build to be better than the entry level next-gen Mac Pro, if at all Apple launches something like this. At around half of its price! 

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