on Jan 30, 2013
As I said yesterday: I have a new computer. The death of the old computer was a hilarious disaster. I had a hard drive die, which caused me to switch to Linux for a while. Then once I got Linux and Windows working side-by-side, set up just the way I wanted them, the machine died again. This time it was either the motherboard or the CPU.
Because people have been good to me, I have a replacement machine. Some of you have expressed an interest in knowing what’s under the hood. So let’s talk about that.
I didn’t get a new case, and it isn’t until I have united the new motherboard and CPU in holy matrimony that I began thinking about where the two of them will live. I haven’t built a PC since the 90’s, and it’s amazing the INCREDIBLY IMPORTANT DETAILS that can slip your mind in situations like these. For example: Do I have a case that can hold this heap of parts?
My old case is a mini-tower. The new motherboard is… not. It’s a couple of inches too big.
There’s another wrecked machine here in the corner, the dead husk of the accursed HP Pavilion, but that is also a mini tower.
Oh! Another dead machine in the closet. Actually, I guess it’s just an empty case. It doesn’t matter. It’s also a mini. When was the last time I owned a mid-size machine? I think… 2002? Somewhere in that ballpark. What ever happened to that machine?
That machine I still think of as “Roland’s Machine”. Years ago my supervisor left the company (to go work for Maxis, I think) and I inherited his old machine. It was mailed from southern California to Pittsburgh. I used it for a few years until the HP took its place, and I eventually passed it along to my sister who was moving to Philadelphia. After a couple of years she moved back, bought a new computer, and returned the now fabulously antiquated machine back to me. My son is now using it like a nightstand. It’s basically a toy shelf, and the internal parts are all worthless. I rip them out and reclaim the case.
It’s kind of impressive that this new motherboard in 2013 will fit in this late 90’s case, which is little more than a plastic box with sheets of finger-slicing metal inside. So much has changed since those days, but the posts and screw holes all line up the way they should. It fits. The case doesn’t have any extra front-panel USB ports, or memory card readers, or any of those fancy knickknacks from the last decade. The thing is so old that I’d need to use carbon dating if I wanted to know when it was built, and the warranty is written in Mayan, but it’s capable of performing the all-important job of holding all the computer guts together.
We’re going to replace the case here in the next week or so and get something modern. Nothing fancy. I’m not one to get those neon-trimmed liquid-cooled things with a lift kit and a spoiler on the back. At my age, people will see a machine like that and assume I’m entering my midlife crisis. We’re just going to get something functional. Well, it might have some fancy lights on it. I do like those. More importantly, a more modern case will have some extra USB ports and modern ventilation setup. It’s chilly in my office now so I’m not worried about heat, but I wouldn’t want all these processors to bake in this stifling box when summer rolls around.
Also note that my old DVD drive was IDE, and the new motherboard only has SATA hookups. So the DVD drive is plugged into this adapter which exits the back of the case and plugs into a USB port. I’ll get a proper DVD drive so I don’t have THAT contraption making a mess of things.
The new machine has a Intel Core i5 @ 3.4 Ghz. In the words of Captain James T. Kirk, “Is that a lot?”
The fun thing here is the memory, which is 16GB. Yesterday I was watching a movie on Netflix, while at the same time I had about a dozen tabs open in Chrome. I also had Minecraft running in the background, along with Paint Shop Pro 8. Then I realized that I had Dishonored still running in the background. I’d alt-tabbed away that morning and forgot about it. I switched back to Dishonored and the game popped right up, ready to go. It’s like the thing runs on magic.
This is my first time using a solid state drive. It’s amazing. The only problem with using a solid state drive is that Windows is stupid and dumb and annoying and makes it difficult to use it properly.
Solid state drives are basically memory being used as storage media. This makes it incredibly fast – orders of magnitude faster than the fastest hard drives. For this to work, the memory has to be non-volatile. Unlike the memory in your computer, this memory needs to remember its state when the power is off, or else turning off your computer would wipe your hard drive. A downside of this non-volatile memory is that it… wears out? Somehow? Once you flip the bits too many times, they can’t be flipped anymore and that spot of the drive goes dark. This means the drive should be used for your operating system, drivers, and applications, which are usually installed once and rarely changed. It should not be used for data that changes often.
The point is that you should keep large, slow-loading, rarely changed stuff on the SSD, but small, fast-loading, often-changed things should be placed on a regular hard drive. In Linux this is as simple as mounting your /home directory on another drive. On Windows…
You’ll want to move /Documents and Settings/ or /users/, or whatever Microsoft is calling the user’s data ghetto this time around. I found a guide that will show you how to boot into DOS (using the installation DVD) and move the /users/ directory to another drive. The problem is that if you do anything that causes Windows to re-letter your drives, then you run the risk of killing your entire Windows install. For example, if you add a partition, remove an unrelated drive, or (this applies to me) have a USB drive that happened to be unplugged at boot time, then all the drive letters might get bumped around and suddenly Windows can’t find /users/ so it won’t boot. It’s not even smart enough to drop you into DOS where you can fix the problem yourself. No, you have to go get the installation disk again and repeat the whole process. And I hope you remember all the steps without needing to Google it because you computer won’t boot and if you goof it up you might kill the directory forever. Oops!
Sure, it’s dangerous, inconvenient, and unstable, but Microsoft was nice enough to leave it undocumented so you wouldn’t trouble yourself with it.
I tried this system of keeping the /users/ directory on another drive and simply linking it in the file structure. It worked fine until, working in Linux, I changed around a few of my Linux partitions. I didn’t touch any drives that Windows could use or even see, but apparently even this slight change to the partition table was enough to entice Windows to play another round of drive-letter bingo, which caused it to kill itself.
After re-installing, I decided I didn’t want a time-bomb like this lurking under the hood. I’ve left /users/ on the SSD and I’m mitigating the damage by worrying about it occasionally. I did find a simple trick to force Minecraft to use a custom directory. That’s a critical one, since Minecraft generates HUGE files that are changed very often, perhaps every time you break or build a block. That’s exactly the sort of thing you want to keep away from your SSD.
Even if you do manage to move /users/ without ruining things, you’re still stuck with the thrice-cursed Windows Registry on the SSD. The registry is probably the most-altered blob of data on the entire machine. You know how programs remember little details like windows position, size, and maximized state? Little tidbits like that are stuffed into the registry, alongside crucial driver data, serial numbers, personal information, saved passwords, recently used files, and all those other little details that software remembers without being asked. Every time you save, load, click, drag, move, or copy, you’re probably generating many tiny little write operations to the registry.
I’ve looked around for how you could move the registry, and most sites advise you “DON’T TOUCH IT! DON’T LOOK AT IT. RUN AWAY!” So that’s nice. I’m just going to assume that if this was a serious danger to the lifespan of the device, someone would have invented a workaround by now.
The last detail to be managed is moving the Windows swap file. This isn’t hard, although the controls to do so are buried very, very deep. Once this is done I’m reasonably sure I’m not just burning away my SSD for no reason.
Like I said: In Linux, this is a one-step operation, and if something goes wrong it won’t kill the OS. Because that would be stupid.
NVIDIA GeForce GTX 650. I’m a little worried because this card is green, and everyone knows that red ones are faster.
You know the insane thing? I don’t think this is a high-end card, but it can handle anything I throw at it. I’ve tried a few games at max settings, and the framerate won’t go below 30. How are they selling the better cards? Who is buying them? And why?
I’m sure there are still enthusiasts who enjoy maxing out performance just for the sake of it, but from a practical consumer standpoint I don’t see a huge need for the improvements we’ve seen in the last couple of years. Maybe projects like Oculus Rift will step in and renew the need for more power.
While I’m never a fan of having to upgrade my machine to play games, I am giddy for the chance to mess with good VR glasses. I’ve been waiting 20 years for this.
So that’s the machine. If anything goes wrong I’l be sure and complain about it for a long time and in excruciating detail. For now, everything is happy in Shamusville.
And now, I go play videogames.
Shamus Young is an old-school OpenGL programmer, author, and composer. He runs this site and if anything is broken you should probably blame him.