Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Operating Systems

A few months ago, an acquaintance brought an essay to my attention. It is titled, "In the Beginning was the Command Line," by Neal Stephenson, and it is available on his website. It is a long but informative and entertaining piece about operating systems and their history. I recommend it to anyone interested in the subject. Here is a famous excerpt:


Around the time that Jobs, Wozniak, Gates, and Allen were dreaming up these unlikely schemes, I was a teenager living in Ames, Iowa. One of my friends' dads had an old MGB sports car rusting away in his garage. Sometimes he would actually manage to get it running and then he would take us for a spin around the block, with a memorable look of wild youthful exhiliration on his face; to his worried passengers, he was a madman, stalling and backfiring around Ames, Iowa and eating the dust of rusty Gremlins and Pintos, but in his own mind he was Dustin Hoffman tooling across the Bay Bridge with the wind in his hair.

In retrospect, this was telling me two things about people's relationship to technology. One was that romance and image go a long way towards shaping their opinions. If you doubt it (and if you have a lot of spare time on your hands) just ask anyone who owns a Macintosh and who, on those grounds, imagines him- or herself to be a member of an oppressed minority group.

The other, somewhat subtler point, was that interface is very important. Sure, the MGB was a lousy car in almost every way that counted: balky, unreliable, underpowered. But it was fun to drive. It was responsive. Every pebble on the road was felt in the bones, every nuance in the pavement transmitted instantly to the driver's hands. He could listen to the engine and tell what was wrong with it. The steering responded immediately to commands from his hands. To us passengers it was a pointless exercise in going nowhere--about as interesting as peering over someone's shoulder while he punches numbers into a spreadsheet. But to the driver it was an experience. For a short time he was extending his body and his senses into a larger realm, and doing things that he couldn't do unassisted.

The analogy between cars and operating systems is not half bad, and so let me run with it for a moment, as a way of giving an executive summary of our situation today.

Imagine a crossroads where four competing auto dealerships are situated. One of them (Microsoft) is much, much bigger than the others. It started out years ago selling three-speed bicycles (MS-DOS); these were not perfect, but they worked, and when they broke you could easily fix them.

There was a competing bicycle dealership next door (Apple) that one day began selling motorized vehicles--expensive but attractively styled cars with their innards hermetically sealed, so that how they worked was something of a mystery.

The big dealership responded by rushing a moped upgrade kit (the original Windows) onto the market. This was a Rube Goldberg contraption that, when bolted onto a three-speed bicycle, enabled it to keep up, just barely, with Apple-cars. The users had to wear goggles and were always picking bugs out of their teeth while Apple owners sped along in hermetically sealed comfort, sneering out the windows. But the Micro-mopeds were cheap, and easy to fix compared with the Apple-cars, and their market share waxed.

Eventually the big dealership came out with a full-fledged car: a colossal station wagon (Windows 95). It had all the aesthetic appeal of a Soviet worker housing block, it leaked oil and blew gaskets, and it was an enormous success. A little later, they also came out with a hulking off-road vehicle intended for industrial users (Windows NT) which was no more beautiful than the station wagon, and only a little more reliable.

Since then there has been a lot of noise and shouting, but little has changed. The smaller dealership continues to sell sleek Euro-styled sedans and to spend a lot of money on advertising campaigns. They have had GOING OUT OF BUSINESS! signs taped up in their windows for so long that they have gotten all yellow and curly. The big one keeps making bigger and bigger station wagons and ORVs.

On the other side of the road are two competitors that have come along more recently.

One of them (Be, Inc.) is selling fully operational Batmobiles (the BeOS). They are more beautiful and stylish even than the Euro-sedans, better designed, more technologically advanced, and at least as reliable as anything else on the market--and yet cheaper than the others.

With one exception, that is: Linux, which is right next door, and which is not a business at all. It's a bunch of RVs, yurts, tepees, and geodesic domes set up in a field and organized by consensus. The people who live there are making tanks. These are not old-fashioned, cast-iron Soviet tanks; these are more like the M1 tanks of the U.S. Army, made of space-age materials and jammed with sophisticated technology from one end to the other. But they are better than Army tanks. They've been modified in such a way that they never, ever break down, are light and maneuverable enough to use on ordinary streets, and use no more fuel than a subcompact car. These tanks are being cranked out, on the spot, at a terrific pace, and a vast number of them are lined up along the edge of the road with keys in the ignition. Anyone who wants can simply climb into one and drive it away for free.

Customers come to this crossroads in throngs, day and night. Ninety percent of them go straight to the biggest dealership and buy station wagons or off-road vehicles. They do not even look at the other dealerships.

Of the remaining ten percent, most go and buy a sleek Euro-sedan, pausing only to turn up their noses at the philistines going to buy the station wagons and ORVs. If they even notice the people on the opposite side of the road, selling the cheaper, technically superior vehicles, these customers deride them cranks and half-wits.

The Batmobile outlet sells a few vehicles to the occasional car nut who wants a second vehicle to go with his station wagon, but seems to accept, at least for now, that it's a fringe player.

The group giving away the free tanks only stays alive because it is staffed by volunteers, who are lined up at the edge of the street with bullhorns, trying to draw customers' attention to this incredible situation. A typical conversation goes something like this:

Hacker with bullhorn: "Save your money! Accept one of our free tanks! It is invulnerable, and can drive across rocks and swamps at ninety miles an hour while getting a hundred miles to the gallon!"

Prospective station wagon buyer: "I know what you say is true...but...er...I don't know how to maintain a tank!"

Bullhorn: "You don't know how to maintain a station wagon either!"

Buyer: "But this dealership has mechanics on staff. If something goes wrong with my station wagon, I can take a day off work, bring it here, and pay them to work on it while I sit in the waiting room for hours, listening to elevator music."

Bullhorn: "But if you accept one of our free tanks we will send volunteers to your house to fix it for free while you sleep!"

Buyer: "Stay away from my house, you freak!"

Bullhorn: "But..."

Buyer: "Can't you see that everyone is buying station wagons?"

My favorite line from this snippet is, "You don't know how to maintain a station wagon either!" Seriously, if familiarity is the only thing stopping you from trying something new, you are cheating yourself out of many greater advantages. Suck it up. You may even find that a tank is easier to drive and repair despite your limited experience. I did.

Friday, September 26, 2008

FairTax Calculator

I occasionally find myself discussing the possibilities of the FairTax with others. Whenever I tell people that they would easily be saving money under the FairTax, I am met with consistent disbelief. Well, I just discovered this fun little tool:

FairTax Calculator

If you think the FairTax sounds expensive, give the calculator a shot and see if you still think I'm crazy. Then, consider what this revenue neutral plan would do to boost the economy. The current situation in our country demands that we take a serious look at such things. You can read more at FairTax.org.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Free ISP Upgrade!

I remembered to retest my internet connection today. You see, there is this neat website with some network tools, and they basically allow you to figure out if you need to tweak your network settings in order to get the most out of your internet connection. Here is the link:


I ran the Tweak Test, and it told me that 10% of the packets I was downloading were being resent. Yikes! They suggested I download a small utility and use it to change one of my network settings so this problem gets fixed. I did, rebooted, re-ran the test, and I now have 0 packets being resent. Very nice.

I also ran the Speed Test and found that my internet connection was faster that I thought. For some reason, I assumed we had 768/128 because we basically just got the cheapest we could find. However, I got these results instead:

Monday, September 8, 2008

Overclocking Obstacles

Well, I was able to overclock my CPU to 4.05 GHz with everything running fine, but I had one small issue. Whenever I would shut down the machine, the computer wouldn't actually turn off. The rest of the shut down process completed, the screen turned black, but the fans and lights in the case were still on.

I tried playing with the voltage a bit, but decided not to experiment too thoroughly because I really don't need to be clocked so high. I figure it might have been a RAM issue, because I have the RAM frequency set to automatically match the FSB. The CPU multiplier is locked at 9x, so that puts a 4 GHz overclock at 1778 MHz FSB. The RAM frequency was overclocked by 11%, and considering the small issue I had with it to begin with, I suppose I shouldn't expect it to play nice with such a drastic change. I could try keeping the RAM frequency from automatically matching the FSB and see how it works, but like I said, I'm perfectly happy with my 20% CPU overclock at 3.6 GHz. Besides, I'm sure that the CPU won't be my gaming bottleneck for a long while yet.

Speaking of gaming bottlenecks, I pointed out earlier that I got the GPU to overclock well in Windows. It also overclocks in Ubuntu, but there's one annoying issue with the Nvidia Linux driver: it doesn't reapply your overclock when you restart. Yuck. Well, this isn't such a big deal right now because my most demanding games only run in Windows. Perhaps the drivers will have this feature by the time I really want it in Ubuntu.

That being said, I'd also like to point out that I only seem to be having problems with proprietary software on Ubuntu. All the non-proprietary stuff is running great! The Nvidia drivers are, of course, proprietary. So is Savage Full Enhancement, which seems to insist on running in windowed mode and doesn't want to connect to the servers. (It worked fine on my last computer.) I'll be investigating Savage next. Basically, I haven't had to use the command line for anything but proprietary software. Congrats, Ubuntu 8.04!

One final tangent on this tangled web of rambling: I should admit that Compiz Fusion does give me a few problems with things like Flash (Gnash) and full-screen games like Wesnoth. I've decided to disable it for now. It is in beta, however, so I can't really complain. It already puts Aeroglass to shame even with the few bugs that linger.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

My New Gaming Rig

I posted this back in June at this location:


I'm reposting it here because I think it's a good way to start off this blog.

Warning: I'm long-winded (long-fingered?) so if you're only interested in the components and prices, skip to the bottom. The reason I'm writing so much is because I want to refer a few people here that have asked about building budget gaming machines.

Well, my computer crashed the day before the party. My power supply and two hard drives all got killed dead, probably due to lightning. (Yes, I was on a UPS.) While I had a backup PSU, I couldn't do anything about the hard drives, so no party for me. However, something good did come of this. I now had a very good reason to upgrade my 4 1/2 year old machine.

I've been keeping up with the tech news, but not really paying attention to prices because I didn't think I'd be building a computer so soon. So I spent much of my now free Saturday doing some shopping online. I was absolutely amazed to discover that I could have many of those cool late technologies I've been reading about for around $750! If you are interested in building a great gaming machine (or possibly having one built for you...), read on.

Every good desktop computer has four main components: CPU (processor), motherboard, RAM (memory), and GPU (video card). The hardest part of building a computer is figuring out what motherboard you want to go with your desired CPU, RAM, and GPU. You can upgrade all three of the latter components, but if you ever need to upgrade your motherboard it's usually best to just build a new computer. Of the three other components, the one that probably gets upgraded the least is the CPU, so it's usually best to start by asking yourself what kind of processor you want and progress from there.


Processors are an interesting subject, because they now come with different numbers of cores on the same die. This means that the processor you buy may actually be several processors basically lumped into one. The most common options are dual and quad-core CPUs. Many people seem to think that the more cores you have, the faster your games will run; many people are wrong. For some quick benchmarks, take a look at the interactive CPU charts on Tom's Hardware:


Here is a good selection of processors that are more relevant to this topic:


Even better, the processors in this filter all have the same clock speeds, so you can see how having multiple cores truly affects performance. The top two processors are from the same generation, and so are the bottom two processors:


You'll notice that only Supreme Commander and Warhammer Mark of Chaos actually have performance improvements with four cores, and even those performance gains are minimal. The fact of the matter is that most games only have one critical thread, so they don't take advantage of more than one or two cores.

If you go to Newegg.com and look at the prices, you'll realize that this minimal performance gain isn't worth the >5x price. Say what? The dual cores are less than $200 while the quads are greater than $1000? It's not even close! I think that the prices are so different not only because the quad-core processors cost more to make, but also because of increased demand due to the common misconception that they are much better. Whenever I have conversations with people about getting new computers, they always say that they want a quad for their next computer. However, they can never really explain why. Call it stupid tax.

Anyway, after doing a price/performance comparison, I decided to go with the Intel Core 2 Duo E8400. This is one of the new, famous Wolfdale processors that I read about:


They use the new "high-k" metal gate manufacturing process, so they suck up less power and run extremely cool even when overclocked:


For $190 on Newegg, this is the most expensive component in my system, but it's also one of the best pieces of technology around:


I might end up having to get a CPU fan, but we'll see how quiet the stock cooler is first.


We basically have two choices for the type of RAM to use. There's DDR2 and DDR3. DDR2 is WAY less expensive than DDR3. Also, the type of RAM you use generally has little impact on the performance of your games, so DDR3 really can't be justified right now. DDR2 it is.

Now we need to choose the RAM speed. Typically, it is ideal to match your RAM frequency to your CPU FSB frequency. If you use dual-channel, this effectively doubles the RAM frequency. My processor has a FSB of 1333, but I plan to overclock it to 1600. I also plan to use dual channel RAM, so I will be getting DDR2-800.

Now I need to determine if I want to get 2GB for $24:


or 4GB for $61:


Well, gaming doesn't yet require any more than 2GB, especially if you use XP instead of Vista, like me. Also, you can't utilize the full 4GB unless you use a 64-bit operating system. If you know anything about RAM timings, you'll also notice that the 2GB sticks are a little better. This makes only the slightest difference in performance, so don't worry about it unless it's a close call. 2GB for $24 is too good to pass up, so that's what I got. Actually, it was $23 when I got it. :o


Choosing a motherboard is hard. Motherboards have many features to consider, and they're the backbones of our computers, so they need a lot of careful consideration. I like Newegg's filtration system. It allows me to narrow things down a bit. First of all, I need something that supports my processor. For that, I need the LGA 775 socket. Next, I need something that supports DDR2 RAM at 800 MHz. I'll get to the video card later, but we should all know that we need a PCI-Express x16 slot. I don't plan to get into Crossfire or SLI because the costs and bugs outweigh the benefits, so just one slot is fine. We won't rule out more if the price is right. I also want SATA 3Gb/s support.

We also need to consider future upgrades here. Will I want to use DDR3 RAM in the future? Possibly. How about PCI-Express 2.0 video cards? As with the RAM, there's no benefit now, but there could be in the future. Let's look for a motherboard that supports these things and see what comes up.

You'll get a long, confusing list of boards if you filter on these things. The filters also don't quite work the way I want either, so there was a lot of page refreshing. Basically, the things to look for are lower prices and good reviews. This was my pick:


$175 is a great price for a X38, and there are a significant number of reviews that average 4/5. Skimming through the bad reviews, I don't notice anything that makes me want to avoid this piece. (You should do this for all your parts, by the way.) It supports everything I need, as well as PCI-E 2.0 and 4GB of DDR3. It also has 8-channel on-board sound. This board will last me a nice long time.

Video Card

This item is going to make the biggest difference in your gaming performance, but it's also the part that you have to worry about the least. If your motherboard supports PCI-Express, you'll be just fine for a good time to come. Even longer if it supports PCI-E 2.0. Video cards are also much easier and cost-effective to upgrade than processors. Check out Tom's interactive VGA charts for performance comparisons:


For the latest cards, go here:


Here is my pick:


The price/performance ratio is great on this one. Only $130 for an 8800 GT? Maybe I should give SLI a second thought...

Hard Drive

I didn't think too hard about this one. Good reviews, good stats, and good price:


Some people like to get those crazy Raptors with faster spin speeds. Sure, they're nice, but the only way they improve your gaming experience is by reducing loading times. They are also louder, hotter, more expensive, and have less capacity. No thanks.

Power Supply

You need to make sure it supports your motherboard connector and PCI-E card, but other than that it's pretty much a matter of wattage, price, and reviews. Don't ignore the efficiency factor either. Basically, I don't care much about having lots of power because I don't plan on having a lot of junk in my system. I chose mine because it seems reliable in the reviews, and they also said that it's quiet:



Last of all, I needed a case. It's a good thing that Tom's did a recent review on some of the nicer cases out right now:


Yes, we're not limited to these choices, but I decided to go with the NZXT Tempest for $100 anyway:


I might have been able to find something cheaper, but I chose this for a few reasons. First of all, a bigger size is important to me because I do a lot of tinkering. Second, Tom's and the Newegg reviewers commented on how quiet it is even though there is a lot of airflow. You'll notice that the reviewers of many of the products I chose commented on how quiet the devices are. This is important to me. Third, it has lots of good reviews, so I know I won't be disappointed with it. Finally, it looks cool.


So there you have it. Here's the product summary with prices:

Intel Core 2 Duo E8400 - $190
Foxconn X38A - $175
OCZ DDR2-800 2x1GB - $23
ASUS 8800 GT 512MB - $130
Seagate Barracuda 250/16GB - $60
Kingwin ABT-450MM - $35
NZXT Tempest - $100

Total before rebates after shipping: $843.29
After rebates (and postage): $754.93

Of course, you'll need a keyboard, mouse, monitor, and DVD drive, but I have those already and that's the easy stuff.

The following is taken from later posts by myself in the same thread. It contains some good, supplementary information.

My UPS might be covered by a lifetime warranty (I hear they usually are) so I might get something for the lightning damage. I need to look that up. That reminds me that I wanted to say why I got all my parts from Newegg:

1) First of all, I use their reviews to determine if I really want the product or not. This helps me avoid things like cheap power supplies that burn out all the time.

2) Their prices are simply the best. I did research on every component that I purchased, and I couldn't find a better price anywhere. Sometimes you might get lucky, but Newegg is still a good starting point at the very least.

3) They have excellent customer service. Was something damaged during shipping? DOA? You don't have to worry if you got it from Newegg. When I built my old computer over four years ago, the front panel of my case was broken. They sent me a new one immediately.

4) They also ship really fast, though I'm not the impatient type. I ordered on Sunday evening, and everything shipped on Monday. I'll bet the parts will be here tomorrow. Edit: They were. I got everything on Thursday, even though the case shipped from a separate location.

It really is true: "Once you know, you Newegg."

And this:


Overall, I'm really happy with this rig. Everything is running great. The machine is super quiet compared to my last one, yet you can definitely feel the airflow. I can't hear the hard drive at all. The case also looks pretty slick.

After I put everything together, it worked on the first try. I guess Murphy was on vacation. I installed XP Pro, and applied all the essentials which I had downloaded beforehand, including XP SP3, DirectX, Nvidia drivers, and a few other things. I also downloaded and installed some other random drivers and tools after the fact.

The RAM was advertized as using the timings of 4-4-4-15. However, the bios automatically set it to 5-5-5-15. I tried setting them to 4-4-4-12, but that made the system very unstable. I noticed that many people seemed to have this issue, but that it was also easily fixed. The default voltage for the RAM was 1.8 volts. In order to use the advertized RAM timings, the voltage had to be increased to around 2.1 volts. I did that and everything is fine again.

The processor's default was 3.0 GHz at 1333 FSB. Realizing that this processor is one of the best overclockers ever, and also wanting to match the FSB with my 800 MHz RAM (dual channel), I clocked it to 3.6 GHz at 1600 FSB. I also upped the voltage very slightly by 0.0125 volts, even though it seemed to be stable at the default. I also told the bios to match the CPU clock with the RAM clock by a 1:2 ratio. This makes the effective frequency of the dual channel RAM match the system FSB.

For the GPU, I noticed that it was clocked at 600 MHz, though many 8800 GTs are clocked higher. This card has good cooling, so I decided I would clock it up a bit. I used RivaTuner to set the core to 680 MHz, and I also upped the memory from 900 MHz to 1020 MHz. Everything runs just fine.

The tempuratures are:
CPU Idle: 44 C
CPU Load: 58 C
GPU Idle: 42 C
GPU Load: 65 C

I'm using the stock cooler for the CPU. I think that 58 is acceptable and the fan is quiet, so I don't think I'll bother getting a different cooler even though I'm sure it would lower the temperature. 65 for a GPU is pretty good.

Now I just have to wait until SC2 is out.

And this:

The room temperature is about 25 C. As far as the case temp, it doesn't look like RivaTuner has a way to pick that up. Maybe there's a plugin. The only other temperature I saw in the BIOS was for the motherboard chipset, which was somewhere in the 30s.

Yeah, I figure that a 20% overclock isn't bad at all, especially when I don't even need to buy another cooler. Of course, this is about what I expected from a Wolfdale. It lives up to its reputation.

And finally this:

I have a small update on the machine. I decided to grab a different heatsink and fan. Tom's Hardware had a review on CPU air coolers, and this one totally crushed the competition. It's very efficient, and it only costs $27 after a $10 rebate. Free shipping too! For that price, I figured it was worth keeping my CPU a little healthier and hopefully prolonging its life. Here it is:


And here's Tom's article:


And here are the results:

Room Temperature: 22 C (72 F)
Stock fan Idle: 45 C (80% fan speed)
Stock fan Load: 61 C (100% fan speed)
Xigmatek Idle: 37 C (20% fan speed)
Xigmatek Load: 48 C (60% fan speed)

I used a small utility called Max CPU this time, instead of a CPU-intensive game, in order to put my CPU under load. It allows you to set all of your cores (two in my case) to 100%, so you know that your CPU is being maxed out. I'll probably never hit that point in real life, but tests like this should include the worst case scenario. Of course, I let it run for several minutes until the temperatures were stable. Needless to say, I am very happy with the results. The results are so good, in fact, that I may decide to bump my overclock from 3.6 GHz to 4.0 GHz. That would be 33% above stock, and very sweet indeed.

I also didn't notice any difference in noise, which probably means that both fans were quieter than other fans in my machine. (Even though the entire computer is much quieter than any other in the house.) You'll notice I didn't have the fan running at full capacity, which makes the temperatures even more impressive.

Note: This heatsink is BIG. It fits in my case just fine, but I didn't get a cheapo tiny case either.
Other note: Installation wasn't easy. One of the push-pins was hard to get at. Some people added the fan after attaching the heatsink to the motherboard. Others even removed the motherboard. I didn't have to resort to any of these measures, but I did have to struggle with one of the pins under the fan for a while. The pins that I could reach snapped into place easily.