Should we get PocketPC/Windows Mobile OS upgrades (for free)?

In the times when HTC rules the Windows Mobile market with an absurd amount of different models nobody is questioning their (and perhaps MS’) tactics of pure greed and “buy new device each couple of months” logic just to get a bunch of issues fixed (and introduce new ones) and of course, to get a new OS version. True, along you’ll get newer hardware as well, but do you really need it?

The logic is simple: HTC shovels tons of good (or bad) hardware into the device, installs whatever Windows Mobile version is actual, includes drivers or not, checks the functionality by doing few tests in a day time span and releases the model. At least this is my impression. If something doesn’t work as expected you are free to purchase an improved version in a month or so. OS upgrades are very very rare and more of an exception than the rule. Missing drivers? No way they will provide any driver that is missing from the beginning even if it is a core driver, such as graphics accelerator.

In other words, upgrades are something they are really reluctant to offer. Why? Simple, more we sell more we profit. Am I spoiled by desktop computers where at least I can buy an upgrade? I don’t think so. And nor does Apple. They are giving iPhone upgrades for free. OK, iPhone isn’t perfect nor is Apple selling policy etc. but, they are providing upgrades for free. Something unthinkable in Windows Mobile world. Somebody might say that newer Windows Mobile requires better hardware and won’t run on existing devices and thus buying a new model is a necessity. Wrong. Take for example my TyTN II. It has almost the same graphics horsepower and a bit slower CPU as iPhone. Should it run WM 6.5? I think so and probably it will through self-cooked ROMs. Will it run an official version of WM 6.5? I very much doubt it.

And then there is Google Android:

Android is the first free, open source, and fully customizable mobile platform.

This approach is unthinkable again, this time for both HTC/MS and Apple. It is too soon to judge it but the idea is great. Is it possible that some day we’ll see new devices come with drivers only and we’ll be able to install whatever OS we’ll want? Just like our desktop machines? It doesn’t looks like a near future but Android is certainly a step in that direction.

Anyway, the most important difference between Apple and HTC/MS (hard to say who is responsible for what) is how they treat their devices. Apple treats them with love and care and they put a lot of effort to make them customer friendly. On the other side, HTC just puts hardware together, installs OS, throws them to customers and forgets about them. I wonder which is the policy you prefer. HTC/MS should learn something from both Apple and Google not just copy Apple’s marketplace thing (forthcoming WM feature) to make more money. It is the attitude! Even the super hyped honeycomb UI won’t make a significant difference (why the heck are people even speaking about it?).

Last but not least, mass producing instead of software upgrading unnecessarily burdens mother earth with enormous amounts of (HTC) waste.

I am currently stuck with HTC TyTN II/WM6.1 and I am waiting for a new gadget to appear. It just might be an Android one, but certainly not powered by HTC. My confidence in Windows Mobile is slowly vaporizing and I’ll most probably jump the wagon. Heck, even ease of development won’t convince me anymore (being a .net developer programming WM is somewhat familiar). It is just not quite the time for me to switch, yet.It is comming though.

Perhaps my impression is wrong, feel free to correct me. Note also that this article is more or less about the OS upgrades, not other problems.

Building an Intel Core i7 based computer – Chassis

The last ingredient is the chassis. Likewise PSU it looks like you don’t need to be careful when picking one. Wrong. Chassis are very different and details are important. Let’s go by features in no significant order.

Weight

Cheaper chassis are mostly build from steel (at best the front cover is made by aluminum but they are mostly from steel) while the more expensive are built from aluminum. Which means lower price and more weight. I am not sure how much the material affects cooling – aluminum chassis should perform better. Since my chassis will sit under my desk and I will (hopefully) rarely move it I am not concerned with weight. The cooling difference should be minimal. Thus steel for me, aluminum is an option.

Classic or tool-less

Tool-less design means that you won’t have to toy with screws to mount drives and add-in cards. Instead you’ll easily use custom made plastic gizmos to fix them. Otherwise you’ll have to use a screwdriver (not that fixing a motherboard is still a screwing experience nevertheless). Not a big deal but this is a good feature. I’ll go for this, not at all costs though (I’ll install hardware only once).

Drives mounting direction

Some chassis support drive mounting from side. This makes mounting and even more important, changing, drives much easier. In classic way you have to push the drive towards wire-filled motherboard to get it in or out. But if you have a side mounting option the drive replacement and mounting is much easier. A must.

Size

Mid-tower for me. No need for big tower.

Front side connectors and their placement

I like to have them on the top of the chassis and I am looking for: 2 (at least) x USB and Firewire. e-Sata is a welcome option.

Front side buttons placement

Having power on and reset buttons located at front side is not a very good idea. They are easily involuntarily kicked when the chassis is positioned under the desk (on the floor) and when the access to them is too easy. Which is something you want try to avoid, otherwise you (or your kids) might reset your computer in middle of the work and data will be lost. Pay attention to buttons accessibility to avoid such unpleasant surprises.

Internal ventilation

Once more the keywords here are 12cm fan and a slow rotation to avoid making too much noise. I like to have two of them, one on the front side and the other on the back side. Front side fan should be an intake while the back side one should be an outtake. So the air moves through and cools entire chassis content. Furthermore the front side one should be placed right in the front of hard driver to provide an adequate air flow. If the chassis doesn’t come with built-in fans it should have at least adequate holes.

Design

I don’t care. It will sit under my desk and I won’t look at it often.

PSU location

PSU is usually located at the top of the back side of the chassis. However the recent trend seems to favor putting it on the bottom to improve the temperature reduction inside the PSU itself. I thought this is a nice idea and why not – cooler PSU means lower noise. But later, when I was building the computer I’ve found that it isn’t such a good idea after all for various reasons (details in next post).

That’s it more or less. There are plenty of different chassis out there from many different manufacturers and picking a good one might take quite some time. Usually I buy chassis made by Cooler Master and this time is no different. At my price range they are good enough.

I’ve bought a Cooler Master RC-690-KKN1-GP from AGT.si for 83 Euros. Note: this chassis has PSU located on the bottom of the chassis. The delivery process from AGT took more than a month because the chassis wasn’t in stock and distributer took quite a long time to deliver.

See other relevant posts:

Introduction
CPU cooler
The goal
Power Supply Unit
Memory
Storage
CPU
Graphics card
Motherboard

Building an Intel Core i7 based computer – Motherboard

First step in picking a proper motherboard is a chipset choice. But not with the Intel Core i7 as the only available chipset is Intel X58, like it or not.

My next step is to pick a manufacturer I like. As for graphics card my choice goes to Gigabyte. Never had issues with their motherboards and they are well built with quality components.

Next, I define what I expect from my motherboard. Here is the list:

  • passive cooling (heat pipes rules)
  • it should have a built-in Intel Matrix RAID controller (it goes by name ICH10R)
  • it should support at least 4 SATA2 drives (have at least 4 adequate ports)
  • it should have two PCI-E 2.0 16x ports (one goes to graphic card, the other might go to an additional graphic card (perhaps for running CUDA or for running more than two screens at once) or some other card requiring high bandwidth). Note, I don’t care about nVidia SLI or ATI Crossfire.
  • it should support three memory channels (the number of memory slots should be 3 or 6  - 6 is preferred) as Core i7 works with three channels natively (read my CPU article)
  • it should support QPI up to 6.4 GT/s (bus speed)
  • it should support at least 6GB DDR3 1600GHz (or faster) RAM
  • it should have as many USB 2 ports as possible (they are never enough, trust me)
  • it should have at least one Gb LAN adapter (two is better but not obligatory)
  • it should have dual BIOS (this feature is useful if something goes wrong when BIOS is flashed to a newer version. If the motherboard doesn’t have dual BIOS or some similar solution then the only solution is to send it in for a repair)
  • it should support 5.1 sound output
  • it should have at least one PCI slot
  • it should support IEEE 1394 aka Firewire (useful for transferring videos from video camera)
  • it should have PS/2 ports for both keyboard and mouse (more USB ports are left for other devices)
  • built with quality components is a bonus
  • eSata support is a bonus
  • misc features that I take for granted

I don’t care about motherboard performance since it doesn’t vary a lot between similar motherboards. After looking Gigabyte’s line of X58 motherboards I’ve finally picked a Gigabyte EX58-UD4 model. It has more or less everything I listed except for eSata connector (which is really useful only for connecting external hard disks). It also features a single LAN adapter but I don’t care since I have a spare PCI network card hanging around.

The most interesting aspect of this motherboard is perhaps Intel Matrix ICH10R built-in RAID controller. It is some sort of a hybrid because it doesn’t have a dedicated CPU – instead it steals a bunch of CPU cycles from the main CPU. As long as one uses RAID 0, 1 or 0+1 it doesn’t matter much because the utilization is really marginal. RAID 5 is a different story – don’t use RAID 5, specially with built-in controllers if you care about performance – I won’t use it on this workstation thus I don’t care. The controller doesn’t have its own cache as well. Again, this isn’t much of an issue unless you are in the RAID 5 or higher. The backup electricity is provided by an UPS for me (there is no option for a backup battery).
On the positive side Intel Matrix is fast enough (again, for RAID 0, 1 and 0+1) and has a clear advantage on compatibility field. Imagine the situation your non-Intel RAID controller card fails. You have to buy a new one. Here is a big problem: you have to buy the same model unless you are searching for troubles. The thing is that RAID controllers, even from the same company aren’t very much compatible as they write data to disk a bit differently – IOW you might loose all the data if you don’t find an adequate one because it won’t be able to read the data. Ouch. If the original controller is an old one then double ouch. Here Intel Matrix shines, at least judging from tests performed by online web sites (can’t remember where I’ve read them) – most chances are that if you change your motherboard for another one that has an ICH10R RAID controller it will just work. Furthermore it is probably compatible with older RAID controller models as well (ICH9R, ICH8R, etc.) – on the negative side you have to change your motherboard if built-in controller fails which might be even cheaper than changing a separate controller.

I’ve bought a Gigabyte EX58-UD4 motherboard from mimovrste.com for 215 Euros.

See other relevant posts:

Introduction
CPU cooler
The goal
Power Supply Unit
Memory
Storage
CPU
Graphics card

 

Building an Intel Core i7 based computer – Graphics card

This one is a relatively easy choice.

The main criteria for me is the silence. Fortunately there are passively cooled mid-range graphics cards out there based on the GPUs from both nVidia and ATI. They are not amazingly fast, but hey, one needs amazing speed only when playing games or for some really specialized tasks. There is really no need for top performances for me.

The other important feature I am looking for is a double DVI output because I am currently using two LCD screens.

Next, I’ll have to choose between nVidia and ATI. This is a difficult choice because the two companies are more or less equally good. The deciding factor for me is CUDA (which is only supported by nVidia and I might play with it) and the fact that nVidia passively cooled cards are more powerful than ATI ones.

The last criteria is performance. I’ve picked the fastest passively cooled graphics card from nVidia on the market: card based on a 9600GT GPU. The bus supported is PCI-E 2.0 which is a mainstream bus (AGP and PCI are legacy buses and should be avoided). The card is manufactured by Gigabyte, a company I consider a good one and I never had problems with.

That’s it. I’m not interested in other features. Perhaps having a HDMI converter (which my card has) might be important in future if/when I decide to buy a new LCD screen. I don’t think that it will happen anytime soon though.

Note: The graphics card I’ve bought occupies two slots (see the pictures below) on the chassis due to the massive heat-pipe cooler.

I’ve bought a GIGABYTE GV-NX96T512HP 9600GT 512MB PCIe (rev 3.0) from Mlacom for 111 Euros.

See other relevant posts:

Introduction
CPU cooler
The goal
Power Supply Unit
Memory
Storage
CPU

Building an Intel Core i7 based computer - CPU

What to look for in a CPU? For me, I look for a good performance before anything else, yet it shouldn’t be too expensive. You have always watch for a performance bottleneck in a computer – it doesn’t help to have a fastest CPU on the world if other components are slower. In other words, I am looking for a sweet spot. I look for a technology that will last for few years.  I’d like to see a solution with a passive heat sink but those don’t exist anymore even for a relatively slow CPUs.

First step is to pick a manufacturer. It is either Intel or AMD. I’ve been a fan of AMD (before Intel come out with Core 2 line of processors) as AMD Athlons at the time were more advanced, faster and they run much cooler (passive heat sinks were an option then) than Intel’s Pentiums. Unfortunately for AMD, due to problem in their manufacturing of newer CPUs,  this is no more true. Intel wiped out the competition first with Core 2 and now with Core i7. So, Intel is my choice.

I will chose between two Intel’s models: Core 2 and Core i7.

Core 2

  • is cheaper
  • uses cheaper DDR2 or more expensive DDR3 RAM
  • motherboards are cheaper
  • plenty of different motherboard chipsets
  • 2 or 4 cores
  • might consume less power (TDP), depends on a model (ranges from 65W to 150W)
  • 65nm (older) to 45nm (newer)

Core i7

  • more expensive
  • it uses more expensive DDR3 RAM only
  • motherboards are more expensive
  • there is only one chipset – X58
  • 4 cores only
  • consumes more power than slower Core 2  but less than the top Core 2 (130W)
  • faster than Core 2
  • 45nm technology

If I want a system that will last for some time then I should stick with a faster and newer Core i7 platform and DDR3 memory. Furthermore the slowest Core i7 920 is more or less faster than the fastest Core 2 model even though it runs on a slower frequency (at least judging from the online reviews) and it comes at lower price. There are various technology improvements for Core i7 line as well.

One can’t pick between 2 or 4 cores when it comes to Core i7. It might surprise you but having less cores at same performance rating is better. The reason: multi core CPUs exist only because manufacturers can’t raise the CPU frequency easily and it is more convenient (cheaper) for them to stuff more cores at lower frequencies into the CPU. IOW a single core CPU operating at 3GHz is a better choice than a dual core operating at 1.5GHz performance wise. The multi core technology has other side effects such as forcing developers to program for multi core CPUs which means somewhat more demanding development. Due to manufactures and physics laws the CPUs are heading into more and more cores stuffed on the same chip instead of the higher frequencies (as before, at the time of single cores) and we have to adapt to the situation.

The power consumption for Core i7 920 is rated at 130W max but I think it should consume less power because all three Core i7 models (920, 940 and the faster 965) have the same max. rating. So, the slower model should consume less. I am not happy with such high power consumption but this isn’t a decisive factor for me at this time, because I don’t have choice once I’ve decided for Core i7 (or better, at this performance one don’t have a choice anyway). Note, that more power consumption means more heat and more heat means more cooling which means more noise. I hope that my Sycthe Mugen 2will still run quiet nevertheless (that’s why I’ve chosen a good CPU cooler). The best way to keep down power consumption at same performance is to enhance the building process to use “smaller” technology which is 45nm for Core i7 but that’s something I can’t change.

Upgrades, such as adding more memory or changing the CPU, will be easier in the future because the Core i7 line will be mainstream (and faster) while Core 2 line will be slowly abandoned. The same goes for DDR3 vs DDR2 RAM. Just look at your DDR memory (I won’t even mention SDRAM) if you still have it – it is pretty useless except if you have very old computers.

I’ll pick the slowest of the Core i7 line: 920. The faster 940 is almost twice as expensive yet it won’t give me significant increase of speed (nor any other advantage – but it will me higher power consumption) for my daily work.

There are two SKUs on the market: a boxed version and a non-boxed version. The first comes with bundled stock CPU cooler while the other is a bit cheaper and it comes without the cooler. I’d buy the non-boxed because I don’t need the stock CPU cooler but it is almost impossible to find it (and the price difference is really a minimal one).

Here is couple of photos of the 920 and its stock CPU cooler compared to Sycthe Mugen 2(CD case is there for size comparison):

I bought an Intel Core i7 920 (boxed) at mimovrste.com for 280 Euros .

See other relevant posts:

Introduction
CPU cooler
The goal
Power Supply Unit
Memory
Storage