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Computer upgrade 2006: the Coles Notes

I built my “new” computer over the weekend.  This is sort of a tradition- every two years or so, I feel the need to refresh my technology from the ground up.  Every other year I perform an “intermediate” upgrade- RAM, video, disk.  The distinction between these two types of upgrade is somewhat vague, but I pretend they are different.

The last “full system” upgrade was back in 2004.  I moved from Intel to AMD, NVidia to ATI, IDE to SATA, and life was good.  This time around the changes are a bit more subtle…basically, sticking with AMD, ATI, and SATA, but bigger, faster, and better.  Since I like living on the bleeding edge, I also decided to try Vista RC2…that turned out to be unworkable, but then it *is* a beta release. 

 

Computer parts

 

Click below to read more

 

I’ll be cutting a few corners in terms of details here since I’m running on only a few hours of sleep at the moment.  Some bullet points should do the trick…

The parts

  • Antec P180 chassis
  • OCZ GameXStream 600W power supply
  • Asus M2R32-MVP AM2 Motherboard
  • AMD Athlon 64 X2 (dual core) 4600+
  • 4 GB of Corsair XMS2 DDR2-667 RAM
  • ATI X1950 XTX video card
  • Creative SoundBlaster X-Fi Xtream Music
  • Samsung DVD+RW DVD Writer
  • Mitsumi 7 in 1 floppy/Flash card reader
  • 2 x Western Digital Raptor 150GB 10,000 RPM SATA 3 hard drives in a RAID 0 array

 

  • Defective RAM can cause intriguing problems
  • My first physical assembly of the system ended with me plugging it in to a monitor, turning it on, and getting…nothing.  This was perplexing
  • Interesting factoid: the Antec P180 chassis has no chassis speaker.  I can understand this- who ever uses the internal speaker?  Unfortunately, there is one time when its really, really helpful- when the Power On Self Test sequence fails.  POST in most BIOS configurations generates beeps through the chassis speaker depending on what causes it to fail.  No speaker = no beeps
  • After ripping a crappy piezo speaker out of one of my old discard chassis I was able to begin debugging.  Initial result: no beeps (!!).  So I started removing components until I got a beep code, then started putting pieces back in until I found where the system was failing.  It turned out that 2 of my sticks of Corsair RAM were DOA.  This is not cheapo RAM, so this was disappointing, but now I was able to boot…albeit with 2 GB instead of 4 GB of RAM 
  • Vista Release Candidate 2 is pretty, but…
    • My first couple of install attempts were a failure (see Creative X-Fi bullet below); once I finally got Vista working, I was impressed.  I really like the new Aero Glass user interface- I’m sure some people will hate it, but it feels…deluxe
    • Unfortunately, the current state of the art in terms of drivers for RC2 leaves a lot to be desired.  Both ATI and NVidia have beta drivers to go with the Release Candidate OS.  Apparently there are a ton of problems with what both vendors currently have to offer.  ATI’s drivers, of course, are the ones I care about.  And at the moment they have a huge gaping hole:
    • The current “best” drivers, the September 9 release of the Catalyst drivers for Vista RC1, have no OpenGL support.  This means that many games, including Second Life and Doom 3, don’t work.   I also was unable to get EverQuest 2 to install…Lord knows why
    • with no support for EQ2 or Second Life, the beauty of Vista suddenly became empty to me…so I move on to Windows XP X64
  • Creative X-Fi is a pain…
    • During my Vista experience, I encountered some odd behavior.  Example…the first couple of install stages had lengthy pauses, so long in fact that I suspected the system had crashed.  During the “Vista is now testing the performance of your system” activity the install paused for well over an hour…crazy!
    • As I noted above, I did eventually get Vista to install…but the behavior was still odd.  Every thing would be blindingly fast navigating through the UI, then for no apparent reason there would be a 10 or 15 minute pause when I clicked on a particular icon.  If I was extremely patient, my request would eventually complete.  If I booted Vista in “safe” mode, everything worked perfectly- I suspected that the problem related to the advanced video features activated in standard mode, and this led me to think my video card might be borked
    • I took my beautiful ATI X1950XT along with me to the computer shop when I took my RAM in to be replaced.  The friendly technician there at NCIX tested the video card for me, and told me it was fine- and showed me it working in one of their systems.  So what could the problem be?
    • a bit of Googling turned up a number of problems relating to Creative X-Fi sound cards with NVidia high performance video cards…apprently bus sharing and interrupt conflict problems.  Since I had experienced odd problems with Creative audio cards a few times in the past, I decided to try the Vista install with the card removed
    • This time, the install and subsequent use of Vista RC2 went perfectly.  I plugged the X-Fi card back in, but in a different PCI slot…and no new problems showed up.  However, as noted above, the lack of OpenGL support with current Vista-compatible ATI video drivers made me give up my plan to use Vista
    • as a minor side issue, games under Vista are likely going to be 10% or so slower than under Windows XP on the same hardware.  Maybe even slower, unless the driver manufacturers and/or Microsoft really tune things up before release.  The performance advantages for Vista won’t really become visible until games are written for DirectX10…if then
  • ATI X1950XT downloadable 64 bit drivers (Catalyst V6.9) don’t work…
    • I’ve been using Windows X64 on my old AMD/ATI X800 system for months now, and had pretty much dealt with all the problems.  I thought getting it to work with my new system would be easy…not so!
    • I wasted another half day, with several OS re-installs and a great deal of headscratching, trying to get the ATI Windows XP X64 drivers to work. 
    • Of course, like a good little geek, I downloaded the latest and greatest Catalyst drivers from the ATI website.  During installation of the Catalyst drivers themselves, a failure dialog box popped up: Thunk.exe- INF file missing
    • I dug around with Google and read everything I could find.  Finally, out of desperation more than anything else, I decided to try installing the drivers on the CD that came with the X1950XT.  I was surprised when the CD-based install correctly started to install 64 bit drivers…and even more surprised when the install worked…and flabbergasted when the drivers themselves worked
    • The X1950XT is a new card, so I guess it shouldn’t surprise me that the enclosed CD included X64 drivers.  But now I’m scared…are the newer (more recent date) 64 bit drivers on the ATI Website defective?  Or do they require an initial install from the CD?  How likely is it that, if I try to upgrade with the downloaded drivers, I’ll end up destroying my now-working system?
    • UPDATE: the 6.9 drivers weren’t “defective”- ATI just neglected to include the hardware signature for the X1950 cards in the driver .INF file.  There were some ways to add appropriate .INF entries to make the 6.9 drivers work, but forget that stuff: the 6.10 drivers are out now, and they *do* recognize the X1950 series cards

     

    This upgrade included my usual comical problems.  I learned some things: for example, I really want Vista when the drivers come available- the UI really appeals to me.  And I’m willing to give up 10% of my game performance to get the extra bells and whistles…other folks may not feel the same way. 

    I also learned never to doubt the ability of hardware and software to simply *not* work together as expected…

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