Computer upgrade 2005…

Well, its that time of year again…time for me to break my computer in the name of geekdom…

For 2005, my objective was a bit different- stick mostly to upgrades that can be transferred to the next “version” of my computer- things that I don’t need to throw away in a year. Because the next upgrade will be large- in 2006, I expect to move to a new motherboard supporting PCI Express slots, which means a new video card, and while I’m at it, an new processor…ouch.

So, for this year I’m replacing my monitor, my memory, and my hard drive subsystem. In some respects, I wish I’d stuck to just those things but, since I had to reformat the hard drive as part of the upgrade (see later in this posting), it seemed like a good time to upgrade the OS…

The big news in the past few days was that the 64 bit version of Windows XP was released to manufacturing. What this means is that the code is basically “finished”. Since I’m an MSDN subscriber, I was able to get the RTM (release to manufacturing) version and install it as part of my 2005 computer upgrade. Yes, don’t worry: I’ll buy a full “normal” license later.

As an aside, I understand Microsoft will be offering free upgrades to Windows XP Professional 64 for people who bought Windows XP Professional: I’m not sure about that, though.

 Why care about 64 bit Windows?

The immediate benefits from 64 bit Windows versus 32 bit Windows boils down to memory addressing, both real and virtual. Big applications, and games are a prime example here, have been butting up against all sorts of memory space limits. This isn’t just the 4 GB RAM limit: there are much smaller limits for certain types of paging objects that, with XP 64, are blown wide open. What this means is that applications that use lots of memory should be faster and more capable.

Other benefits start to accrue once more and more applications are written natively as 64 bit apps. 64 bit processing, done right, should be faster: on the order of 10-15% faster. However…initially, when running 32 bit applications under a 64 bit OS, there will be some potential performance degredation…from what’s been tested thus far, from 0 to 5%.

Both AMD (Athlon) and Intel (the new Pentium 4s and the rather unpopular server processor, the Itanium) now have 64 bit processors. Its probably inevitable that most users will be using one sometime in the next 3 to 5 years. But if you don’t upgrade your computer often or at all, don’t play large/complex games or run memory-hog applications like image or video editing…really, you won’t see much need for a 64 bit OS. Oh, and by the way: a 64 bit OS only works on a 64 bit processor- I’m probably stating the obvious, but…

My upgrade this year…
Note I make several references here to “EQ2” (EverQuest 2) performance. Thats a game I play a lot and, thus far, is the only game I’ve installed. I’ll add some other performance comments later once I’ve had time to install several more games…yes, I play a lot of computer games 🙂

  • part #1: a 20″ LCD 1600×1200 flat panel monitor (ViewSonic VP201s). I got this a month or so ago. Its working out great: no visible “trailing” and fast refresh, very sharp and bright with “rich” colours, viewable from wide angles
  • part #2: memory upgrade from 1 GB to 2 GB (Corsair Platinum series paired high speed 1 GB DDR); installed without a hitch Thursday night and made a noticable but small difference in EQ2 performance
  • part #3: a RAID 0 array using 2 x Western Digital “Raptor” 10,000 RPM SATA drives; a little challenging to install because you have to use supplemental drivers during the XP install; the performance increase was immediately noticable. Zoning in EQ2 still takes time, but its probably half as long (guessing) and just seems smoother. Exiting the game no longer results in a minute or so of disk thrashing…
  • part #4: re-install OS…this is where I decided at the last moment to go with Windows XP 64. If I made a “mistake” in this upgrade, this was it

I knew going in that this upgrade was going to be challenging. RAID is not as easy to set up as a normal drive configuration for a starter. And I also didn’t expect any “leaps and bounds” improvements in performance. Really, this was a chance for me to try out a couple of technologies I hadn’t tried on my home PC before, and knowingly submit myself to some “bleeding edge” challenges. Just a quick note- yes, I’ve used RAID before: my first RAID subsystem install was back in about 1989 or thereabouts. I’ve just never installed it on a “Home” PC before…not that my gaming rig is a typical home PC 😉

 The Joys of Beta…

Windows XP 64, however, is not the simple upgrade that some folks likely expect. Microsoft, probably wisely, altered the driver configuration standard with this release. Basically, driver INI files have to specify now what OS they are for: that is, if a driver doesn’t have the right compatibility “tags” (also known as “INF Decorations”) in its config, XP 64 will refuse to load it. And this was made an “enforced” requirement pretty late in the beta testing of Windows XP 64- some of the beta-test drivers for 64 bit windows don’t yet have the correct tags. Again, I think enforcing a “compatibility” tag was a good choice: for a driver to be really stable under Windows XP 64, it needs to be designed for the OS.

What did this mean? Well, if you install Windows XP 64 today, a month before it hits the store shelves, you are going to find a bunch of hardware manufacturers like ATI, VIA, and NVidia have beta drivers the either don’t install properly or don’t work at all. In some cases (E.G.: the VIA RAID drivers), fixing this is a simple matter of changing a couple of text tags in the INI file. But how to do this, or even that it was necessary, wasn’t immediately obvious to me. Yes, I figured it out, but only with lots of digging on various boards. The best one that I found was PlanetAMD: they seemed to have a good community with a good attitude, and lots of “patched” drivers.

The symptom of *not* doing it, in the case of the Via RAID drivers: you could install XP (using the “Supplemental drivers” option of the install process and having the drivers on a floppy), but when the OS booted the first time it would “crash”. No explanation, just the “Windows failed to load, please choose an option…” screen. In this particular case, with hard drive controller drivers, I think this “surprise” behavior is the result of Microsoft’s last minute change to enforce driver tagging. That is…the installer doesn’t require the tags, the OS boot does, and they never put in a more “graceful” error message to clarify what was going wrong.

Every driver I have installed to make my machine work is semi-functional. The ATI 64 bit drivers don’t seem to have a working control panel. The Creative Soundblaster drivers only work if run the install program from c:Creative…but they pretend to install correctly just the same. The Promise RAID drivers (I have both controllers) work with RAID, but don’t support their normal SATA IDE features. My ZBoard (gaming keyboard) drivers won’t install at all. Getting to this “functional but semi-broken” state took me a good 16 hours: a big chunk of that was spent scouring the web for working versions of various beta drivers.

 The Bottom Line…

But what about the applications? EQ2 worked without a hitch once I had my video and sound card drivers going, and EQ2 has played smoothly so far. Norton AntiVirus…sort of installs, but the real time virus checking crashes. Norton AntiSpam fails on install. Diskeeper (disk defrag utility) won’t install. A couple of other anti-spam/anti-virus programs (notably Cloudmark Safetybar and F-Prot) either don’t work or have features like autoprotect that don’t work.

It *seems* like programs that have low-level hooks into the OS are most likely to have problems with Windows XP 64. Most of my utility applications, all of which do things like interface to the hard disk, “wedge” themselves in the network stack, or the like, either don’t work at all or are partially broken. That is fairly logical, I guess: the most sensitive part of the 64 bit upgrade would be below the GUI APIs. It also seems like recent games work, but I haven’t done enough testing personally (beyond EQ2) to confirm this: I’ll be installing a few more over the next several days to see how this holds out.

I’d be rather surprised if most of the worst technical problems aren’t dealt with by or shortly after release date. However, I’d also caution anyone who thinks the upgrade will be completely transparent to think again. Don’t expect your favorite utility programs to work properly, and be prepared that the vendors might ding you for a “new, improved” 64 bit version once they get it working.

Boiling it down- if you don’t *need* Windows XP 64, and aren’t ready to deal with potentially complex or frustring driver issues as if they were a game you can win (which is sort of what I do), then sit tight. Public release will likely come about May 1, 2005. I’d guess that it will be comparatively easy to upgrade within three months of that date. And I’d imagine that programs (E.G.: games) that really take advantage of 64 bit processing will become available late this year and early next.

 Some performance measures

I am not really serious about benchmarking this year, but one thing I was curious about was drive performance. I have gone from a single drive to a pair of RAID 0 configured drives…subjectively, the performance increase when loading applications seems a ton better.

Objectively (measures taken with SiSoft’s Sandra 2005.2.10.50 x64 version with OS caching disabled)..

  • Before: Maxtor 7,200 RPM SATA drive (single drive): Drive index of 40 mbps
  • After: Western Digital 10,000 RPM SATA drives in RAID 0 pair: Drive index of 105 mbps

So, basically, I’ve doubled my disk performance

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