Archive for July 2012

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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