Sunday, May 31, 2009

Small Form Factor (SFF) PC 2 (quad core)





- This is my second SFF PC build I've done. You can read about the first one here.
- This SFF goes in the master bedroom and is mostly used as an HTPC playback only machine (no recording) so it stays in s3 standby most of the time except when we want to watch some pre-recorded content. I got a great deal on a q8200 quad core for only $99 which is what spured me on to build this new machine. This machine will probably double as my LAN party box too. The old SFF struggled with some 1080p and h.264 content like those recorded with the hauppauge hd pvr which was why I was itching to build a replacement machine. It's currently hooked up to my 40" Samsung LCD hdtv through vga at 1360X768. 5.1 Audio is handled via optical to a small 5.1 setup I have in the bedroom. I did test HDMI and hdmi audio briefly with my Westinghouse 24" LCD which has hdmi and built in speakers. HDMI seemed to work fine.

Parts List:
- $99 Intel Boxed Core 2 Quad Processor Q8200
- $27 Samsung DVD Burner
- $130 GIGABYTE GA-E7AUM-DS2H
- $60 Seagate Barracuda 7200.12 500GB
- $93 Thermaltake Lanbox Lite (VF6000BWS)
- $20 CORSAIR 4GB (2 x 2GB) 240-Pin DDR2 SDRAM DDR2 800 (PC2 6400) (after MIR)
- $13 SilenX iXtrema Pro 60mm Case Fan
- $0 Antec Earthwatts 500w (I already had a spare in my closet)
- $0 Vista Ultimate 64bit (technet subscription)

Total: $442

Build Notes:
- One thing to consider with the Q8200 is it doesn't support Intel VT (virtualization technology). So it's not a good choice if you do a lot of vmware, virtual pc, etc. It wasn't an issue for the pc I was building. I stuck with using the included stock cooler since I wasn't planning to do any overclocking either.
- Memory is so dirt cheap so 4GB was a no brainer.
- I flashed the motherboard to the latest bios off of a usb key drive using gigabyte's great built in flash utility. It all went smoothly.
- I always download and use the latest drivers from the motherboard manfucaturer's site. I rarely use the included driver disc since those are usually out of date.
- This is my first time trying a 64bit OS. This was a non critical machine so I thought I would give it a try. It went pretty smooth. Just keep in mind if you want to enable AHCI (which I recommend you do) right from the start make sure you have the AHCI drivers ready and on a usb key drive. You'll need to "F8 driver" it when you do your initial vista install. You'll want AHCI working (vs legacy IDE mode) not just for performance reasons but also to get hot swap capability on that built in esata port.
- Another thing I learned about 64bit OS are how directshow filters work. Once you start rendering down a filter graph process you need to stay in 32bit or 64bit depending if the application that started the decoding was 32bit or 64bit. For example: If you decide to use the 64bit version of medial player classic HC then all your external filters need to be 64bit (or stick to the internal filters) like the 64bit build of ffdshow tryouts. You can't mix and match between 32 and 64bit decoders. They really are completely seperate. Since coreavc is only 32bit then I recommend you stick with 32bit for everything (mpc hc, ffdshow tryouts, ac3filter, etc). Wow (windows on windows) worked better than expected, and all these 32bit players and decoders worked just fine in vista x64.

Case:





- It looks pretty nice but is quite a bit longer than most SFF cases.
- It breaks out into 4 main pieces: motherboard tray + back, Power Supply cage, external drive cage, and internal drive cage.
- I found the internal drive cage quite interesting which lets you install another 2 internal 3.5" hard drives. There's also space for 2 X 5.25" external and 1 X 3.5" external devices.
- This cases uses spring door covers over the 5.25" area so you might want to make sure the button on the case cover lines up with the actual button on your optical drive. The samsung I chose worked just fine.
- The only light source comes from the one 90mm fan up front. 2 x 60mm are also included on the rear with space for one more 60mm which I chose to add. All the fans are pretty low RPM and were much more quiet than I expected especially for 60mm fans. I still prefer 120mm for maximum CFM at minimum db but I can understand that might be a bit hard to fit on a sff case. Still, I was very impressed by the quietness of this case.
- I really like how the 90mm intake is right in front of the internal hard drive cage.
- Overall if felt quite sturdy, was pretty roomy, easy to work with, wasn't entirely tooless but that's fine by me, and looks quite nice. I just wish it had a handle. I guess you could always use something like this.

Motherboard:




- Sure at a $130 it's almost twice as much as a typical budget mATX motherboard but this one is loaded.
- It uses the new nvidia 9400m chipset which gives me pretty good integrated graphics (check out the benchmarks later in this post), hdmi with audio, 1394, optical, built in esata right on the backplane, dvi, and vga (all separate ports, no adapters needed!). Basically, I didn't need to add a single expansion card to this setup. The motherboard pretty much does everything I need, well except for competitive gaming but I'll get to that later.
- Clearance was fine all the way around. One potential issue I see is if you use a long double wide dedicated graphics card it would probably block some of your sata ports.

Hard Drive:


- I didn't need that much space since this machine wasn't going to be doing any recording. I decided to give one of those new seagate .12 drives a try. It's one of those new high density 500gb on a single platter.
- First off I was suprised by how thin it was. I guess it makes sense since it only has one platter in it.
- The higher density seemed to provide a bit of a performance boost:



Benchmarks:



- Increased video memory to use 512mb in the mb bios.
- All benchmarks were taken at stock speeds and at 1360X768 resolution with AA OFF unless otherwise noted. I used the latest version of fraps and the benchmarking function.
- I guessing this 9400m based motherboard should have similar gpu performance to the mobile version used in laptops like the macbook and probably in future ion based netbooks. So these numbers might give you a rough idea how those would perform.

- Vista 64bit experiece index:
win experience index: 4.7
proc 5.9
mem 5.6
graphics desktop aero 4.7
gaming graphics 5.1
primary hdd 5.9

- 3dmark06: 2369
sms2.0: 808
hdr/sm3.0: 876
cpu score: 32633

- 3dmark vantage: e4437, 3764 gpu, 9565 cpu (entry level)
gpu test 1: 10.26 fps
gpu test 2: 11.82 fps
cpu test 1: 1045.48
cpu 2: 19.66

- Counter Strike Source built in performance benchmark:
46fps 1920X1200
64fps 1280X1024
85fps 1280X800

Fraps:
- Guild Wars: vsync on, max settings
Eye of the north town, crowded: Frames: 836 - Time: 24584ms - Avg: 34.005 - Min: 30 - Max: 42
During a fight: Frames: 2322 - Time: 40256ms - Avg: 57.680 - Min: 47 - Max: 62
Running around lions arch: Frames: 3006 - Time: 52566ms - Avg: 57.185 - Min: 30 - Max: 63
Random Arena Lobby: Frames: 1185 - Time: 20912ms - Avg: 56.666 - Min: 47 - Max: 63

- World of Warcraft: Running around blood watch, vsync on
Good: Frames: 3313 - Time: 81982ms - Avg: 40.411 - Min: 25 - Max: 53
Fair: Frames: 4562 - Time: 78585ms - Avg: 58.051 - Min: 49 - Max: 62

- Counter Strike Source: vsync off, 9 bots, de_dust
Frames: 1204 - Time: 28448ms - Avg: 42.322 - Min: 38 - Max: 48

- Left 4 Dead: Lighthouse survivor mode, vsync off
shader low, rest on high: Frames: 4664 - Time: 174683ms - Avg: 26.699 - Min: 13 - Max: 51
Everything on low: Frames: 4423 - Time: 163374ms - Avg: 27.072 - Min: 14 - Max: 52

- Team Fortress 2: Well arena, vsync off
Frames: 1210 - Time: 43620ms - Avg: 27.739 - Min: 20 - Max: 33

- Call of Duty 4 (demo): everything on lowest settings
Outside area: Frames: 1536 - Time: 38835ms - Avg: 39.551 - Min: 19 - Max: 62
Inside area: Frames: 3745 - Time: 74247ms - Avg: 50.439 - Min: 23 - Max: 99

- Bioshock: everything on lowest settings
Plane crash opening: Frames: 3260 - Time: 79870ms - Avg: 40.816 - Min: 22 - Max: 78
First leve: Frames: 3542 - Time: 94103ms - Avg: 37.639 - Min: 28 - Max: 59

- Nothing to write home about when compared to dedicated graphics card (even sub $100 ones). But compared to other integrated solutions it's pretty good. Things are mostly playable on lowest settings. Guild Wars runs great and WOW isn't bad either. I would consider it pretty darn good on a laptop or netbook though.
- I don't go to LAN parties that often (only once every 1-2yrs) but I might have to drop in a dedicated video card when I do go. These numbers aren't quite good enough in a competitive environment.

- Coreavc 1.9.5 with CUDA support: Installed the latest nvidia drivers too. With cuda support enabled on coreavc, h.264 decoding cpu load pretty much drops by half! On a very high bitrate 1080p mkv without cuda cpu could spike as high as around 70% with avg around 35%. With CUDA on it's close to peak 35%, avg around 15%. So yes cuda does make a significant difference in decoding even on the lowly 9400m. GPU temps were around 50c while decoding with coreavc + cuda.

Power:
- Measured using a killawatt
- S3 standby: 3w
- Under load while playing 720p mkv 7% cpu: 60W. That is fantastic and represents a typical usage load. That 9400m just sips power.

Weird S3 Standby Issue:
- This is a very specific issue related to users of vista 64bit + eventghost + usbuirt.
- I had a strange conflict between vista 64bit, usbuirt, and eventghost. If I put the pc to sleep while eventghost is still running, then I can't wake up the pc using usbuirt. I could still wake it up using the keyboard though. If I shut down evenghost first before going to sleep, it wakes up just fine using usbuirt. Now, I don't think this has anything to do with my hardware. My guess this is just one of those weird 64bit issues.
- My work around is kind of rough because I threw it all together rather quickly. I'll post it anyways in case somebody might find it useful.
- I wrote a program called rcPower. Basically it will close eventghost nicely (even when it is minimized to the tray), launches lrnhelper (which seems to help re-init the usbuirt), then puts the machine into s3 standby. When you send the IR signaly previously learned using lrnhelper to wake the machine up, rcPower will close lrnhelper and start eventghost. It's kludgey but it works.
- You can grab rcPower here with source and autoit scripts included. I use autoit to help with closing down tray apps nicely instead of just killing the process. Just unzip into c:\rcPower and look over rcPower.exe.config.
- The basic idea is have eventghost run rcPower instead of putting the machine to sleep and let rcPower shut everything down nicely. Make sure you have eventghost start rcPower in minimized mode otherwise you might run into some focus issues.

Overall I'm pretty happy with this build. For HTPC and media playback it's fantastic: power usage is low, it's quiet, and chews up any media at any resolution or bitrate. For gaming the 9400m is a bit less exciting espeically for a "desktop" machine.

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