Modern Software Experience

2009-02-28

computer

trusty desktop

I bought a new computer a few months ago to replace my trusty desktop. It had served as my main PC for more than five years already, and that is a personal record. I bought it mid 2003. Back then, the Intel motherboard with built-in 100 Mbps EtherNet adapter, its 2,7 GHz Intel Pentium, the 512 MB of RAM, 200 MB hard disk, and ATI Radeon 9600 Pro graphics card made a pretty powerful system. Five years of upgrades and replacements later, the system is running with 2 GB of RAM and two hard disks, and still doing fine, but also showing its age.

showing its age

Current motherboards do not have a 100 Mbps EtherNet adapter, but a Gigabit EtherNet adapter. The DDR400 type of RAM used with the Intel D865Perl Rock Lake ATX motherboard is becoming more expensive, not because it is particularly good, but because supplies for this older type of RAM are hard to come by.

Further upgrading does not make much sense anymore. If I were to buy another upgrade, the next thing to upgrade would be the graphics card, but to do so would be a bit senseless. First of all, if I got a really good one, I’d have to upgrade the power supply just to support it, but there is a more fundamental issue. Modern graphics cards use a PCI Express slot, and the aging Rock Lake motherboard does not have that. That ATI Radeon 9600 is an AGP card, and to upgrade it, I’d have to sink money into one of the few AGP replacements on the market, knowing that I could never move it into a newer system.

system death

I was considering a replacement system, and looking at options already when my decision to go out buy was hurried by the death of the current system. The EtherNet card status light was burning green, but otherwise, the entire system was dead. I suspected the power supply, and waited an somewhat anxious weekend for the verdict of the hardware guys at the local computer store.

Over that weekend, I spent some time running Windows XP on a ten year old computer with just 192 MB of RAM. It actually works, and Opera runs pretty well under those poor conditions, but that is the last time I’ve used that old system. I am going to give it away.

backup

I had to use that ten year old system, because the more recent backup system was already otherwise occupied. I have backups, but these did not include the very latest changes I had made just before the system died. To get a fully up-to-date backup, I had removed the data drive from the dead system and attached it to the older one to make a fresh copy. It was busy copying data and I just did not want to meddle with that system until that was done.

On Monday afternoon, the hardware guys confirmed that the system was operational again after replacing its power supply, the hard disks were put back in, and soon I was typing away again as if nothing ever happened to anything but my bank account.

replacement

After mulling over what I wanted, what I needed, my budget, and how soon I might replace it again, I decided to go for a system between 400 and 500 Euros. There are plenty of reasonable desktop systems available in that range.
On the surface, the main specifications of those systems sound just marginally better, perhaps even worse than the system I am replacing, but that is not really case. The clock speed of all the system in that price range were less than the 2,7 GHz of my old system, typically 2,1 GHz, but they are all dual-core CPUs instead of single-core ones, they have more cache and a faster bus. In plain English: these systems are faster anyway.

options

AMD

I was obviously going to buy a multi-core CPU. I’ve always used Intel motherboards with Intel CPUs, but AMD seems to be in a solid lead with the design of their multi-core CPUs. So it seemed I was going to buy my first AMD CPU.

monitor

Some systems come with a monitor, some don’t. Although a new monitor might be nice, I was only looking for a new computer. The screens you get with a system in this price range are relatively cheap ones, typically less expensive than an graphics card. Most of the systems I looked at rely on the motherboard’s on-board video, but a few included an actual graphics card for better performance.

Getting a monitor included in the price may be tempting, but a system with some mid-range graphics card is a better deal than a system with a cheapest monitor the vendor could bundle. Just try buying a decent graphics card or monitor.

specs

For more than two decades, I’ve specced every new PC I bought to get just the system with just components I want. The fastest service I could get from any store on that was a week. As my old system was still down, I did not want to wait that long, so I had to look at ready-made systems instead.

None of the ready-made systems has a diskette drive anymore, but all have memory card readers on the front instead. I would still prefer both, and if you spec a PC the additional cost is negligible, but I have to admit that I hardly ever use diskettes any more.

Compaq Presario SR5215

After looking at several systems and considering how satisfied I would be with these, I came across the Compaq Presario SRSR5215, that had been priced down from 600 to 500 Euri. That brought it just within the budget I had set myself, and I was pleased with what I saw. The most important thing was not it included an add-on graphics card, but that this was a quad-core CPU instead of a dual-core one. Within the budget I had set, this model was the only one to feature a quad-core. Although the built-to-spec that could be ready in a week was a bit cheaper, even that offer seemed unattractive in comparison.

I was allowed a peek inside before buying it, and saw that the 2 GB of RAM did not consists of four 512 MB modules in four slots, or two 1 GB modules in 2 slots, but of two 1 GB modules occupying two of four slot, thus leaving two of the four memory slots open for an upgrade to 4 GB without having to pull out and replace the RAM you already have - and that is exactly what I did within days of buying it.

Compaq Presario SR5215

This PC seems fairly good value for money, but it the Compaq Presario SR5215 is neither perfect nor very impressive. It just seemed the best ready-made computer buy for the budget I had set. As I had already expected, I then still exceeded that budget a bit by upgrading the amount of RAM and buying a few cables.

case

I do consider it a nice bonus that, of the systems I looked at, this is the only system that has a truly black case, and not some awful shiny silver plastic rim or anything like that as some others had. it has a silver grey front cover, but it is a fairly dark and dull one.

The metal side panel is held in place by a single screw, and it is a ridiculous large one that is easily turned manually if you don’t screw it on too tight. I intend to do it as little as possible, but easy opening sure is a plus.

motherboard

The Compaq Presario SR5215 contains an ASUS IPIBL-LA Berkeley motherboard. Hewlett-Packard / Compaq calls it the Berkeley-GL8E, but if you open the case you will see IPIBL-LA etched onto it. It is an micro-ATX size ASUS motherboard for Intel processors sporting an Intel G33 chip set.

One limiting factor of boards like this is it that is has only one full-length PCI expansion slot. Then again, I don’t expect to use even that one slot. Everything I really need is on the motherboard already. This simply isn’t a machine to invest many upgrades in, but a machine to replace with a better one.

CPU

The CPU is an Intel Core 2 Quad Q6600. It runs at 2,40 GHz. The motherboard can be used with several processors. It has has front-side bus that can run at 800 MHz, 1066 MHz or 1333 MHz. The speed used is processor dependent. With the Intel Core 2 Quad Q6600, it runs at 1066 MHz.

cache

The L2 cache is 8 MB. The dual-core systems I considered all had 1 MB of L2 cache, and cache size makes a considerable performance difference. That bigger cache makes this quad-core a much better buy than any of the dual-core systems I looked at.

performance

I googled some performance tests. These generally peg the Intel Core 2 Quad Q6600 below most other quad core processors, although slightly above the AMD Athlon 64 FX-70 Quad FX and sometimes above the AMD Athlon 64 FX-72 Quad FX, but above all dual-core processors. If you can buy a quad-core instead of a dual-core, you should get the quad-core.

RAM

As already mentioned, the system has four memory slots, two of which are occupied by a module with 1 GB of DDR2 RAM each. The motherboard supports both DDR2-667 and DDR2-800. HP/Compaq included the slower 667 MHz RAM. That’s a pity, but for overall system performance, the amount of RAM is more important than its speed.
I did perform an upgrade to 4MB, but did not replace the already installed RAM with the faster RAM. I am saving that money towards the next PC.

power supply

The system draws power from a 300 W power supply. That is sufficient for the current configuration and a few add-ons. It is not sufficient for the most powerful graphics cards, but that does not matter to me, as this isn’t a gaming system.

graphics

connector

The motherboard schematic shows that it has a VGA connector for the integrated Intel GMA 3100 video. On the Presario 5215, that connector has been covered with a black cap with the words do not remove on them. The reason for that is that the system is already equipped with an add-on graphics card in the PCI Express slot, and that you may not use both.

specs

The graphics card is an ATI Radeon HD 2350. The HD 2350 has 512 MB of DDR2 RAM. It supports DirectX 10 and OpenGL 2.0. It’s certainly good enough for a desktop workhorse, but any real gamer will snicker at it. It is completely silly that this card supports CrossFire at all - this is an entry-level card, that cannot possibly be mistaken for serious gaming hardware. This isn’t a card to play many games with, it is merely a card to support Vista’s Aero interface.

games

I did try a few games. This card is certainly good enough for a casual round of Half-Life 2, but even at fairly forgiving graphic settings, the BioShock demo was barely playable. The Spore Creature Creator did not seem to challenge the card at all, but it does not seem representative for the full product.

OEM only

There is no abundance of information on the HD 2350 as it is an OEM-only card. It really is the ATI Radeon HD 2400 Pro, but with the Unified Video Decoder (UVD) disabled because it was defective in some batches. There are several such non-UVD model in the ATI range. The lacks of UVD means that the card lacks hardware decoding for H.264 and VC-1 video. A small performance pity, but no big loss. DVDs do play just fine.

Performance-wise the HD 2350 is a low-end DirectX 10 card. The upside of that is that is power consumption is pretty low, perhaps 25 W.

connectors

The graphics card sports just one external connector, and that is a DVI connector, so I needed to get a DVI-to-VGA adapter (about 25 Euri) to make it work with with an LG StudioWorks 995E 19" monitor, generally running at a very usable 1280 x 1024.

mouse and keyboard

The system comes with an optical mouse and a simple keyboard with a few multimedia buttons. Both have PS/2 style connectors. That seems a bit dated, but the motherboard has PS/2 style connectors too, so these PS/2-style devices do not take up any USB slot. That is good, as I never seem to have enough of these.

Both the mouse and the keyboard are corded, not cordless, but I don’t care much either way. I like the freedom of cordless mice, but batteries do not last half as long as vendors claim they do. Having to replace them while you’re working breaks your concentration. I still wonder how long the letters on the keys will remain readable.

hard disk

The hard disk is an Hitachi. That’s certainly not the first brand you think of when buying hard disks, but the Hitachi Deskstar T7K500 is a pretty fast and quiet 500 GB drive. It is a serial ATA drive that runs at 7200 rpm, has 16 MB of cache and a max transfer speed of 3 Gbps. That maximum speed makes it a SATA2 drive.

That maximum speed is only attained if both the drive and the motherboard support it, and that is the case. The motherboard does support SATA 2.0 specs. The motherboard also supports RAID 0 and RAID 1, and the case has room for a second hard disk. I don’t think I’ll use it. Not only did I buy this PC as a system to be replaced in a few years, it would also be rather crowded. Having some open space is good for air flow and heat dissipation.

DVD-writer

The system features a DVD-RW drive, the HP GSA-H60L, which includes support for LightScribe and dual layers DVDs.

You have to use it as soon as you turn the computer on. The system comes with Vista preinstalled, but without recovery DVDs. You need to burn these yourself while the system still works. You have a choice between 12 CD, 2 DVDs or 1 dual layer DVD. I opted for two DVDs.

audio

The motherboard supports high-definition 7.1 channel audio. That’s more than enough for enough, as I use a simple stereo setup.

Connections for a microphone and headphones are on the front and the backside has digital audio connections, one coaxial S/PDIF input, and one coaxial S/PDIF output.

LAN

The motherboard includes a Gigabit EtherNet card.

connections

PS/2

The system has plenty of USB 2 ports, on the back on the front, yet the keyboard and mouse still use PS/2 style connectors. The system still has PS/2 style connectors, but it does not have a parallel or serial port.

parallel

My aging Hewlett-Packard laser printer has a parallel port, an Enhanced Parallel Port, AppleTalk and an IrDA infrared port, but no USB. There are several possible solutions to this mismatch. I printed using another computer as a print server for a brief while, but soon moved the printer closer to the computer to connect it with a special USB-to-parallel cable (about 30 Euri).

USB

According to the motherboard specs there are twelve USB connectors. The system offers four USB connectors on the back panel and two on the front. As the motherboard supports more, you could add more, but I am hoping.

FireWire

There are two FireWire connectors, one the back and one on the front. The front side additionally offers a multi-card reader.

energy

This system has an energy-efficient CPU and the low-end graphics card has relatively modest power requirements. The low energy usage means less impact on the environment and my bank account.
All that would be wonderful, were it not for the Presario’s most glaring design blunder; it contains these energy-efficient components, but the power supply doesn’t have an off button. This is one of those appliance that are never really turned off. When you shut it down, a green LED on the back of the power supply keeps burning bright.
I do not like that.

performance index

The system properties show that Microsoft’s performance index of this system is 3,4. The Windows Experience Index is a rough indication how well the system will run Vista. Microsoft indicates that you need a score of 3,0 to run the Aero interface and most of its new features, but may need 4.0 to run more advanced features, such as multiplayer 3D gaming or HD video recording.
With its passable score of 3,4 this system suffices as a Vista work computer.

operating system

The Compaq Presario SR5215 comes with Windows Vista Home Premium. I seriously considered installing Windows XP, but decided to get used to Vista, to easier make the switch to Windows 7 (I am still hoping Microsoft comes to its senses and calls it Windows 2010).
The biggest problem so far has been that is not a pure Microsoft Vista, but Hewlett-Packard’s OEM edition, which means they added all kind of stuff that I could do without.

specs

propertyvalue
brandCompaq
modelPresario SR5215
  
motherboardASUS IPIBL-LA "Berkeley" (Berkeley-GL8E)
form factormicro-ATX
chip setIntel G33 chip set with ICH9R Southbridge
CPU socket775
RAM slots4 x 240-pin DDR2 DIMM (non-ECC)
RAM2 GB DDR2-667 (upgraded to 4 GB)
hard disk connectors6 x SATA
  
power supply300 W
audio7.1-channel Realtek ALC888S audio onboard
graphicsIntel GMA 3100 video integrated NOT USED
LANGigabit EtherNet on-board
graphics slotPCI Express x16
expansion slot1 x PCI, 2 x PCI Express x1
  
CPUIntel Core 2 Quad Q6600
clock speed2,4 GHz
FSB speed 1066 MHz
L2 cache8 MB
  
graphics cardATI HD 2350 (OEM HD 2400 without UVD)
video RAM512 MB DDR2
video connectorsDVI only
  
hard diskHitachi Deskstar T7K500, 500 GB
typeserial ATA
rotation speed7200 rpm
cache16 MB
max transfer rate3 Gbps "SATA2"
  
Vista performance index3,4
  
DVD-RW driveHP GSA-H60L
diskette driveno
ZIP driveno
  
mousePS/2 style connector
keyboardPS/2 style connector
parallel portno
serial portno
USB 22 front, 4 back (motherboard supports 12)
FireWire1 front, 1 back
card-readermulti-card reader on front
 
  
audio outsix connectors for 7.1 audio on back
digital audio outcoaxial S/PDIF on back
digital audio incoaxial S/PDIF on back
microphone jackon front
headphone jackon front