Category Archives: Motherboards

The Solid State PC

A silent PC is one that makes absolutely no noise, and by necessity has no moving parts (including fans). Such systems usually use very low-end hardware limited to trivial tasks such as running a cash register. The system introduced today, a Solid-State PC (SSPC) is a powerful quad-core i5 PC which runs most software faster than the majority of modern PCs, yet uses less than 25W idle.

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Strange PC flakiness solved

I recently had a strange problem with one of my PCs. It was acting slow and sluggish, then the RAID 1 dropped a drive out saying it was failed (I’ve used RAID 1 on all my PCs for a while now, an dI highly recommend it). I shut down, inspected the failed drive, and turned the PC back up again, and it wouldn’t boot. No matter what I did, it wouldn’t come up. The next morning, it had shut itself off, and when I turned it on, it worked perfectly fine… and then shut itself off again after about 30 minutes. Clearly, I had a heat-related issue. But I wasn’t seeing any of the symptoms of CPU overheating, like random reboots or application errors; the expected shutdown was the only CPU-heat symptom, while the rest of the problems (drive errors, for example) pointed to motherboard issues. I installed the MB tools to monitor it, and it was clear that the CPU was indeed overheating; it hit 97 C within about 10 minutes of booting! Eventually, the PC refused to boot. I ordered a new motherboard, and thanks to Amazon Prime, it would be delivered less than 24 hours later for only $3.99 S/H.

Even though I was certain I knew what the fix was, I did a quick consultation with my friend Chris Ansbach via IM. He really knows his stuff, and he pinpointed the exact cause of the problem, which is going to help me prevent it. If you need to work with someone who knows their stuff, he’s your person and I’d gladly put you in touch with him. Looking at the motherboard layout, the two bridge chips northbridge chip is are located right next to the CPU, and is both are passively cooled. Inspecting the CPU and heatsink showed the cause of the overheating. The heatsink is the stock Intel model, and the plastic clips can eventually lose a little bit of tension. While the heatsink will still be on, and feel firmly attached, it will no longer make good contact with the CPU. Meanwhile, the thermal grease gets dried up (mine flaked off) because of the heat, and its is less effective, compounding the problem. Eventually, the CPU starts to overheat. Because of the location and cooling systems on the bridges, they were it was overheating too, causing that flakiness. After replacing the motherboard, the system is working like a champ; I got very lucky that the CPU was not damaged!

So, what’s the takeaway here? Two things:

1. Motherboard design matters a lot more than I thought. From here on out, I am going to be looking for motherboards where the bridges are actively cooled, and not right up against the CPU.
2. Heatsink design matters, even in a non-gaming, non-overclocked machine. Two big things that I learned to look for: a backplate to secure the heatsink to the CPU that uses screws or some other fastening mechanism that will not loosen with time, and fan that blows up or sideways, not down; this will ensure that if the case air is hot, it isn’t making the CPU any hotter. I knew about some of the other stuff (heat pipes to elevate the heatsink away from the CPU, larger design, etc.) but these were two things that I just was not aware of, particularly the backplate.

Hope this helps someone avoid the same kind of meltdown I had!

J.Ja

Core i3 and H55 graphics motherboard for $110

Well, at least in the San Francisco South Bay at Fry’s though they usually have these deals elsewhere at other times.  There’s also an additional $10 rebate but I don’t have much faith in those.  Newegg sells this 32-nm “Westmere” class CPU alone for $140 so getting the CPU plus motherboard for $110 is an awesome deal.  Westmere is one generation newer than Nehalem and it comes with some new security features and AES acceleration.  The Motherboard includes a G55 graphics chipset built onto the CPU die which is roughly 2-3 times faster than the older G45 Intel Graphics chipset.  This would be perfect for an HTPC setup.

Also, this 11.6″ Core Solo based small notebook with 6-cell battery at $350 is a great Netbook killer.

Intel i3 540 and Gigabyte H55 motherboard deal

Fry’s (San Francisco Bay Area stores only) has a great deal on an Intel i3 540 CPU and Gigabyte H55m-S2H motherboard for just the cost of the CPU.  That basically saves the cost of a $90 motherboard (price at Newegg) and the cost of shipping if you live near a Fry’s.  Here’s a positive review of the Gigabyte H55m-S2H motherboard in case you’re wondering if the motherboard is worthwhile.

This is a low-power Intel “Clarkdale” system with a 32nm dual-core Westmere-class CPU and a 45nm Intel G55-class graphics processor built into the CPU package.  Power consumption is very low for idle and peak and Clarkdales are known for extreme overclocking potential.  The motherboard has DVI and HDMI so it is a great HTPC candidate.

The Clarkdale graphics is has full dual-stream 1080P offload and probably more than double the 3D performance of the older G45 based graphics from Intel.  That’s still not good graphics performance by any stretch of the imagination, but decent for an integrated part for casual gaming like World of Warcraft type games but not too good 3D shooters.

Be careful when adding additional CPUs

At my job, we have a second, hardware-identical chassis backup server sitting in our rack. In case of failure on our main server, we can just move all of the disks from the main server to the backup machine, fire it up, and solve the failure on the main machine at our leisure. A few months ago, we decided to purchase a second CPU for the backup machine. We have enough VMs running at this point to justify it. So, we ordered a secondary CPU with the exact same part number, put it in, and thought nothing of it. When we had the chance to test it, we just could not get it to work. Windows would not come up, it would just reboot halfway through startup. A dummy install of Linux seemed to work. But no matter what we did, Windows just wouldn’t come up.

We spent dozens of hours on this issue. One thing we noticed was that it didn’t matter which CPU was removed, or which socket was populated, the system worked with only one CPU in it. A motherboard swap didn’t do the trick. At one point, we noticed that one of the CPUs did not seem to show up in the BIOS’ temperature readings. Eventually, someone discovered that the CPUs had slightly different revision numbers on them. More research showed that the different revisions to “identical” CPUs might have well have been different chips entirely; there were huge differences in their capabilities and feature sets. No wonder Windows was taking a hike! It was detecting features on one CPU and trying to use them on the other. My suspicion is that Linux wasn’t trying to use those features.

So, if you buy a CPU for a system some time after you bought the others CPU(s), check the revision carefully. There is a special manufacturer’s order number to differentiate them. Check what your original CPUs have, and make sure that the place yo order from has identical parts in stock. It took us many, many tries to find a vendor willing and able to actually verify this information before shipping, but now we have two perfectly identical CPUs in the system, and it works like a charm.

J.Ja

XFX motherboard NVIDIA BIOS and driver update fails to fix sleep mode

As a follow up to the past problems I’ve been having with the XFX nForce 630i model MG-630i-7159, I upgraded the BIOS on the recommendation of Adrian.  It was a good recommendation and I should have remembered to try updating the BIOS to see if these problems went away, but unfortunately I have to report that it didn’t work.  Not only did it not work, I had to jump through a lot of hoops to install the BIOS update which is a procedure I would NEVER expect any normal person to put up with.

First of all, I had to register on XFX’s website to be able to find the update.  Once I got the update, it came as an ISO image which on the face of it is pretty convenient.  All I had to do is get an ISO burning software like Nero or the free ISO Recorder to burn a bootable CD.  Once the disk was burned, the disk can be booted on any computer or at least that was the idea.  But the optical drivers failed to load on my computer which had a Blu-ray ROM drive so I had to replace the optical drive with a regular DVD drive to get the disk to boot properly.  What’s scary about the disk is that it automatically runs the BIOS flash utility with no user interaction so it might be a good idea to toss the disk after you’re done because you don’t want to automatically flash something else.  Maybe there’s a safety mechanism and maybe there isn’t but I wasn’t eager to test it out on another motherboard.  I would have preferred just getting the BIOS update and I would have created my own boot disk without this nonsense.

Once updated, Vista puked big time and every single driver in the computer had to be remounted and reinstalled.  This is something that always drives me nuts about Windows.  I mean you just plug in a webcam to a different USB port and the damn thing makes you reinstall the drivers.  You would think that Microsoft would be able to detect that it’s the same stuff and just seamlessly remount those things without freaking the user out.  Anyhow, this computer had to reinstall every driver in the system and after all that was done, the problem probably got worse.  Before the update, I could at least wake the computer and log in and then it would lock up.  Now it just wakes up but you get no mouse and keyboard and the cursor on the password prompt would just blink.

What’s the problem and do we blame this on the motherboard vendor or NVIDIA?  I don’t know since neither XFX or NVIDIA has an explanation.  I understand that computers are very complex and there are bugs, but I don’t understand how this problem has been permitted to go on so long without a resolution.  I remember talking to Gigabyte about a problem with one of their motherboards failing to post when a Blu-ray ROM was hooked up to the system and Gigabyte responded a few weeks later with a BIOS update that fixed the problem.  That’s a model of how you’re supposed to handle these problems.

More problems with NVIDIA chipset motherboard

The NVIDIA 7150 integrated graphics motherboard and chipset is giving me more problems.  This is the XFX nForce 630i model MG-630i-7159 motherboard I’m testing which has a lot of potential when I overclocked an Intel Allendale to 2.93 GHz effortlessly.

I really want to love this motherboard and chipset for all its potential at an affordable price, but I still can’t get S3 sleep state working and the system locks up after I wake it up and log in.  I still can’t get a good answer from NVIDIA nor have I heard from XFX regarding the problem.  I don’t know if it’s the motherboard implementation or NVIDIA drivers.

Now I’m having problems with the NVIDIA desktop resize utility which is impossible to use on a DLP screen that overscans the edges.  For some reason I can’t see all the controls on the resize screen and the continue button is probably off the edge of the screen.  Even when I manage to change the settings, it snaps back to the default setting as soon as I click apply in the NVIDIA control panel.  I resized the screen to a slightly lower resolution that’s about a little more than 1700×900 pixels and that makes it slightly more usable but it’s less than ideal.

This is also a good reason to really dislike rear projection screens because they chop the edges off.  My particular model is also interlaced even though it claims to be a “1080p” display.

Intel Atom on 945 chipset motherboards have arrived!

The Intel Atom on 945 chipset motherboards have arrived (thanks to my friend Max for the tip) and they’re quite affordable! $77 with shipping in stock here. This should make an awesome embedded device or home server since the power consumption is so incredibly low.

This is a 4W TDP 45nm CPU that averages under a watt idle. The only thing that disappoints me is the big honking heat sink and fan on the GPU/chipset while the CPU takes a tiny bit of space with a tiny heat sink and no fan. The chipset uses an older manufacturing process which is why it’s so relatively big compared to the tiny 45nm CPU.  However, I’m pretty sure that you could remove that fan from the heat sink for the GPU/chipset especially if you don’t plan on using the GPU with 3D gaming.