The computer is dead, long live the computer


Updated: October 14, 2011

After six years of loyal service, I have retired my oldest desktop. Save for an occasional vacation and an unlucky power outage once a year or so, the machine worked 24/7, without any big problems or hiccups. But six years of age for a computer is like three million for a person, so all good things must end and better things come in their stead.

Replacing the old desktop is a brand new desktop. In this article, I'd like to tell you about what was, what is and what will be, the operational setup, hardware problems, all kinds of installations, configurations, all that comes and goes when you bring in a new child into your flock, and by child I mean the computer, and by flock I mean the computer-dedicated room.

Teaser

The old machine

Bought in 2005, the machine was envisioned as a gaming rig. It had a respectable 64-bit AMD Athlon 3700+ 939-socket single-core processor, four 512MB RAM sticks, two hard disks measuring 200GB and 160GB, respectively, an Nvidia 6600GT card, and a 400W power supply. It was loaded once with Windows XP, plus several generations of Linux distributions, including openSUSE, then various Ubuntu flavors.

It was blazing fast, even to its last day, managing an impressive 15-second boot into Windows. Hardware problems were minimal, including a dead North Bridge fan and a couple of DVD burners. Then, two months ago, the second, backup hard disk died without any prior warning, which was the trigger for the replacement of the entire rig.

The funny thing about SMART statistics is that they are as reliable as prophecies. It was actually the first disk that had the Reallocated Sector Count of one, meaning a dead sector that had to be remapped. This happened back in 2008. According to Google, a disk with reallocated sector counts is 39 more likely to die within 8 months of the failure than disks without. Moreover, all companies and whatnot mark this attribute as critical. However, to its very end, the disk work reliably and did not fail. On the other hand, the second disk with a spotless SMART record just died suddenly while I was checking my mail. Such is the power of random numbers.

SMART data

Recovering from the hard disk disaster was a 10 minute affair for me, which truly proved how robust my backup scheme is. Since I always have spare hard disks waiting, it was the simple matter of unlocking the hard disk cage, removing the bad disk, placing a new one, and then letting the data replication jobs do their magic. All back in order, nothing lost.

But this was the beginning of the end, so I set about purchasing a new machine, with the clear goal of making it ultra-powerful, capable of handling virtualization, games and 3D rendering.

The new machine

What I bought is the following: Intel i5-2500K processor, ASUS P8P67 Deluxe mobo, 16GB Corsair Vengeance 1600MHz DDR3 RAM in a 4 x 4GB configuration, Nvidia 570GTX card with 1.5GB DDR5 VRAM, one Western Digital Caviar Black 500GB disk for operating systems, four Western Digital Caviar Black 2TB disks for data, all SATA III, two DVD burners, 750W Thermaltake Toughpower Gold PSU with a seven-year warranty, all contained inside an Antec Nine Hundred 2 V3 case, replete with fans. Add mouse, keyboard, monitor, and all the usual peripherals. The whole thing weighs some 35 kg - this is almost 80 pounds in American. That's heavy.

Case 1

Case 2

In the background of the three shots above, you can see an abundance of cables. But that's two 650KV UPS powering a total of two monitors, three external disks, two modems, and two routers, one 1000KV UPS dedicated to the new machine, then a printer, three LAN cables stretched, and one set of headphones. We'll talk about UPS shortly.

The power worries

What I also wanted in my setup is a UPS. However, I was unable to find a UPS with a wattage higher than my PSU, so I compromised, so to speak, on a monstrous 1000KV 600W line-interactive thingie, which adds another 17 kg to the setup. Using online calculators to estimate the minimal power usage, I got figures ranging between 600-850W, so the only real way to test the actual consumption and power peaks was to hook the two and test.

Shiver me timbers, the machine is extremely lean on power. When switched on, the UPS usage meter shows three out of five lights, which means 60% load or roughly 350W. On idle, the machine consumes one star, which is just 120W, even less. The UPS power rating at idle varies between 18 and 19 percent. Moderate games toll 250W, super-heavy games with full HD resolution of 1920x1080px and max. graphics settings manage to exact the toll of three lights, or about 350W. To be on the safe side, let's call it 400W.

UPS load

So what's the lesson here? Online power generators are extremely cautious and will provide you with a huge margin of error. While you should choose efficient power supplies and provide yourself with some leeway toward future use and wear, you should not be too concerned about modern computers pimping up your electricity bill. This new machine uses the same amount of power as the old desktop, which is really amazing.

Noise and temperatures

The Antec Nine Hundred 2 case has a lot of fans. It comes with two 14cm fans in the front, each cooling a separate three-bay case, a 20cm top fan, a rear 14cm fan, with LEDs and whatnot, plus the PSU gets its own cooler. All combined, I was expecting a lot of turbo jet whirring in my computer room, but the noise level is minimal. The UPS makes more noise than the computer, to say nothing of the older desktop located there. In fact, the only indication the new computer is working are the blue LED lights.

Temperature wise, the case contains a huge amount of hardware, including a gigantic graphics card that virtually bisects the case vertically, plus it's so long it prevents the installation of hard disks in the two lower bays of the center cage. With my planned array of five disks, I had to go for a somewhat unusual disk spread, three at the bottom, one in the top position of the center cage, plus one disk just below the DVD burners, unfanned so to speak.

My worry was that the top disk would heat too much. However, firing up the machine, things turned out better than my pessimistic expectations. The bottom disks manage a steady 36 degrees Celsius in the middle of a hot day without air conditioning. The 500GB disk, which is the sole occupant of the middle cage, manages approx. 32-33 degrees Celsius. The top, unfanned disk burns about 43-44 degrees Celsius hot, which is very decent by all standards. In my older desktops, the temperatures in the range of 42-48 degrees Celsius were (are) the norm all these years, and they work steadily and without any hiccups. Plus, Google claims that late 30s and mid 40s are the best neighborhood for disks, so I won't argue with that, although disk health predictability is dark magic. The best thing, the front fans are set to low, so if more cooling is needed, there's always that.

The CPU and GPU are also very cool, at approx. 30 degrees Celsius when idle, but no more than 50 degrees when fully loaded. The CPU is twined with a big Scythe Mugen II cooler, which weighs like a small child, but does its work well. In fact, it works so efficiently that it often spins below the mobo-mandated 600RPM, which is not a bad thing at all.

Temperatures

Operating systems

My decision was based on my needs - normal stuff that everyone does, abnormal stuff that only I do, gaming and lots of it, virtualization, 3D rendering, website, and whatnot. The combination of all these factors led me to a dual boot configuration. I chose Windows 7 and Kubuntu 11.04, both 64-bit of course. So here's another revolution. Not 64-bit, but the choice of the Linux distribution. After CentOS, Kubuntu is the new kid on the block. This bold decision is mostly prompted by the unhappy changes in the distro world, mainly because of Unity and Gnome 3.

Both systems were placed on the 500GB disk, which is uniquely dedicated to operating systems. I alloted 100GB to Windows and 59GB to Linux, including a small home partition. Why this limitation, you ask? Why leave almost 350GB of space free? Well, one day, in the future, if I decide on migrating to SSD, I will have a clone-ready setup.

Partition setup

The data is stored on NTFS partitions on the other four disks. It's the law of the weakest link. Linux can read Windows filesystems without any problem, but not the other way around. Therefore, it makes sense to keep data on a filesystem that is accessible to all. Kubuntu does have its own home on the 500GB disk, but it's used for configurations only.

Windows 7 SP1 64-bit

Windows 7 installed well, without any problems. A few issue cropped later on, but that's further below. The system runs lean and mean, without useless security software or similar nonsense, save EMET. The system is imaged using Acronis and CloneZilla, with tested and verified restores. The software arsenal is almost completely free, mostly open-source, except a few dedicated programs and games. But you'll forgive me that.

A few tools did misbehave a little. Google Chrome places its updater both as a scheduled task and into startup, but you can easily disable it. Similarly, ASUS AI Suite has its own set of entries that are supposed to bring it alive no matter what. The latest Foxit Reader still comes bundled with a toolbar, but the yes/no questionnaire has been made more humane. Skype wants to place its own piece of crap into all three major browsers, but you can disable the addon or even complete remove it, we might have our own little article on this.

Back to ASUS, the motherboard maker, most of the stuff is useful, but you also get worthless junk on your CD, including the so-called Browser Configuration Utility, which redirects your searches to Yahoo or something like that, plus Norton Internet blahblah, which is supposed to save you from the Devil. One must always be careful. When installing software, that is.

Windows desktop

Kubuntu 11.04 Natty Narwhal 64-bit

My other choice, and a revolution. After almost five years of running exclusively with Ubuntu and openSUSE, my setup is slowly changing. Ubuntu is slowly being phased out, replaced by Kubuntu and CentOS. openSUSE stays. The only thing missing is Linux Mint, which needs to be added to the arsenal.

Kubuntu desktop

Kubuntu purrs well on the quad-core machine, and it's feeling rather liberal with the memory, consuming as much as 1.1GB on idle, probably because of the monstrous graphic card. But we can forgive it, I think. For those interested, the boot time is about 15 seconds, similar to Windows.

System usage

And the problems start ...

Powerrrr

After using Windows for a day or two, I noticed it would sleep and hibernate without my permission. As it turns out, when connected to a UPS device, Windows thinks it's running on battery, so its power profile is set accordingly. I had to disable all of the unwanted actions, like turning off hard disks, sleep, hibernate action on critical power, and whatnot. Now, some of the features cannot be set using the graphical interface, I actually had to drop into PowerShell and issue command line instructions. That's an abomination right there.

Powercfg

But the problem remained. Every once in a while, I would get to the login screen. Hmm. checking the Event Viewer, I noticed a few strange kernel power failure critical errors listed. This was interesting.

Critical failures

My first assumption was: maybe the UPS is misbehaving? But it seemed unlikely, given the power consumption, plus the testing I've done, all of which showed it was dandy and stable.

So I went online. TL;DR - never go online when you have weird problems, because everyone has weird problems. You'll get so many ideas and suggestions you'll drown in sorrow and self-pity. Moreover, if you think you know what you're doing, which is what I think, then why do you think someone out there in some random forum will know more than you do?

Well, I decided to be thorough and methodical. How do you handle problems that might be related to hardware? Slowly. I ran memtest for a few hours. Nothing, as expected. I even updated the BIOS, which is on the scale of heroic feats equal to amputating your leg with fingernail scissors. The procedure was exceptionally simple and smooth. The new ASUS BIOS is almost an operating system itself, well it is, but I mean in human terms. You even have a mouse enabled in there. That's just crazy. BIOS update worked fine, but it did not solve the problem.

Then, I discovered that if I tried to plug in a device into the front panel, the computer would reboot. The same thing happened with USB 2.0, USB 3.0 and even audio jacks. All right, I disconnected these devices from the motherboard but the problem remained. Then, I learned that even touching the case in the wrong spot would trigger the same failure. Bottom line, faulty front panel on the case - case replaced. Problem solved. Big red font, because it deserves that.

Controller errors, not

Then, I got another issue. Every few hours, Windows 7 would complain about a controller error on one of the disks. Hmm. I changed the SATA cable, same issue. I then swapped the connections between two disks and the error jumped to the new device. So this ruled out the disk itself.

Now, as it happens, this specific connection was plugged into the Marvell RAID ports, without the RAID actually being used, with one of the Windows updates offered recently being a Marvell RAID console driver. Reverting back to the original Marvell 91xx device solved the spurious error, as it turns out to be just that. Well, a lesson to be learnt for sure. Solved.

Linux woes

In Kubuntu, there were three problems. One, the Nvidia driver was installed, but reported not being in use, the same thing that happened in Ubuntu Natty. Yet another bug. But the driver was loaded into memory and worked just fine. Solved. Or rather, never was.

Additional drivers bug

Nvidia settings

Nvidia driver in use

The second problem is the Marble crash, as I've reported for openSUSE, and it still remains unfixed. C'mon. My grandmother could have fixed it faster than that. Get a-going.

The third and the most interesting issue was with the Realtek Ethernet card, which seemed to be dropping packets like mad, causing abysmal network performance locally and on the Internet. Since my box has three network card - one wireless, one Intel 1Gb Ethernet, and one Realtek 1Gb Ethernet, I could test and verify whether the problem occurred globally or just with one specific card. You guessed right, only Realtek had dropped packets.

Dropped packets

Again, Internet searches turned out to be mostly futile random shots in the dark, but I did stumble across one smart guy's post, which mentioned a faulty default Realtek module used in the kernel. Aha. Indeed, downloading the driver source code and compiling manually worked like a charm. Blacklist old, enable new, rebuild initrd, all is well. Since, the network is just purring, but I'm going to give you a full tutorial on this. Solved.

And there the problems endeth. Now, the fun things.

Fun stuff

Let's see what this thing offers.

Storage & peripherals

The computer comes with a massive number of ports. While I disable FireWire and Bluetooth in BIOS, there's a handsome battery of USB ports front and back. Two USB 2.0 and one USB 3.0 port forward, eight USB 2.0 and two USB 3.0 ports at the back, plus two more USB 2.0 ports on the side of my new Dell monitor. Really dandy.

Storage wise, 8TB of usable space not counting the operating system disk, including multiple backups. All combined, with existing stuff currently available, this brings the total home storage space to 14.87TB, which is really nice and not so round a number.

Wireless card

I placed a TP-Link Wireless card into the box. Why, you may ask? It's a desktop, you may argue. Well, I don't replace computers just like that, in and out. Oh no. The new machine was placed in a so-called staging area where it was stress-tested and burned-in for about two weeks, including handling all those weird problems, before being migrated into the production setup.

During that time, it was connected using Wireless to one of the networks I have. Windows did not have the drivers for the card, so I had to install them. Kubuntu didn't have the drivers in live session either, so I couldn't really use it in the Wireless mode. However, after connecting it to a wired network, it pulled all the required drivers and whatnot and configured the system properly. Nvidia, Realtek, which turned out to be a fluke, TP-Link, which really runs the Atheros firmware.

Network cards

Think about it for your next machine. A Wireless card could really be a life-saver in some circumstances, it can help you debug network problems, plus it adds flexibility. Damn, I'm proud of my choice.

Games

Things work nicely. ArmA II on full HD, extreme detail, no problems. So I'm quite pleased with the box and I hope it will serve me faithfully for many years to come. Now I have to get me a few new games and make my life even more difficult.

ArmA

The old computer?

Not yet dead! While rearranging the hardware in the computer room, I was forced to dislodge the second desktop from its place. Turned it off, replaced a faulty DVD burner, tried to power it on, dead. Such a convenient timing. The computer that was supposed to remain died, while the machine that was supposed to be retired works well. But that's the statistical gamble you take when you fiddle with old hardware. So I decided to make some more use of the six-year old box. I swapped the hard disk cages between the two, and we were up and running again. I did have to reinstall some of the drivers and make a few small changes, but overall, it was a painless recovery from another unplanned disaster.

It seems the six-year old desktop is going to outlive its five-year old brother. It's not yet dead. And it works just fine still. My only dilemma is whether to attempt to fix the other box or let it rest forever.

Conclusion

There you go. This is more than just a fanboy showing off his latest gaming rig. There are many useful bits and pieces of information woven in here. The way I see it, redundancy is important. Then, you make slow and careful preparations. I might be exaggerating somewhat, but it took three weeks from purchase to production. Next on the menu, diagnosing weird problems, like the front panel grounding or the network throughput.

Power usage, expected, estimated, overestimated, choosing the right case, temperatures, software updates, backup strategy, recovering from disaster, all of these are super-crucial elements in a geek's life. Happy computing begins with the knowledge that if bad things happen, you will only lose your temper just a little, then fix the problem quickly and efficiently and get back to work.

I'm a little sad to see my old desktop go - although it's still there, running strong, but I'm also happy with this latest purchase, as it's going to offer me yet more fun and maybe even more productivity than before. At the very least, I'll be faster and more leet. Well, there you go, I hope you liked this article. I'm going to follow up with a few tweaking and troubleshooting tutorials that address some of the topics raised here. Stay tuned.

Cheers.

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