Saturday, July 31, 2010

CPU heat sink woes

Okay so here's the story of what happened to my CPU after I installed the new motherboard.

When you install a new motherboard you need to take the CPU off the old motherboard and put the CPU onto the new motherboard. This is a bit involved but not as difficult as dealing with the heatsink. The standard heatsink for the socket 775 series CPU is absolutely silly. Essentially, it's held on with some pushpins. It's a bit difficult to describe exactly how this works but basically you have two plastic flaps being held open with a sort of wedge. The wedge is on the head of this pin. The wedge is flattened so that as you twist the pin can wedge open the two plastic flaps or not as you wish.

I didn't know any of this when I started and the manual wasn't exactly helpful. After a while I managed to get the heatsink off but I would definitely suggest reading a handful of tutorials on the Internet on how to do it before you start. The way I did it was wrong. I actually twisted some of the pins in the wrong direction. They eventually turned but they weren't too happy about it. If you do it the right way it's much easier.

So anyway, I successfully got the heatsink off and transfered the CPU over to the new motherboard. There were no bent pins on the motherboard when I bought it. The guy at the computer shop was really eager to show me this. "You see" he said. "No bent pins". Mmm kay. I'm guessing that some motherboards have bent pins or some people bring motherboards back in with bent pins because they put too much pressure on the CPU when they installed it or something. I can definitely see how that could happen but if you're carefully following the instructions (which is actually well explained in the motherboard user manual at least in my case) you shouldn't screw anything up.

Once the CPU was on the new motherboard all that remained was to replace the heatsink. At this point I felt like a bit of a fool as I had completely forgotten about the thermal paste. You see, when you move a CPU like this you typically have to reapply the thermal paste (sometimes called thermal grease). In my case I didn't have any thermal paste. Nor did I have the isoproterenol you need in order to clean off the old thermal paste. Cunningly, I took advantage of both these situations and simply reused the existing paste. This was okay because it would still work, just not very well. Even if it didn't work Intel CPUs have little thermometers in them which stop you from damaging the CPU if they get too hot. It also stops them from bursting into flames if the heat sink falls off which is handy.

Intel CPUs (and modern AMD CPUs) do this by under clocking themselves until they cool down. So a 3Ghz chip might run at 1 Ghz or even lower if it gets too hot. The general rule is the higher the Mhz/Ghz the more heat is produced so lower Ghz means less heat. When this feature was introduced people accused Intel of crippling their CPUs because they would under clocked themselves when after you've installed them.. umm... wrongly... I still don't fully understand that attitude. I am quite thankful for this feature because I much prefer a slow CPU to a burning CPU.

When I got my system running I checked to see what the temperature on the CPU was. The temperature was about 75°C which is not that hot. Under load it went up to 80°C. These numbers didn't seem that high to me but I knew that different CPUs have different operating temperatures. Some Pentium 4 chips used to get very hot indeed. This being a Core 2 Duo (E6400) and not a Pentium 4 it might have a lower operating temperature. After some research it turned out that it was only supposed to run at 61°C maximum. Dang.

So I went down to the computer store and picked up some thermal grease and went to the drugstore and picked up some extremely pure isopropanol. I then took off my heat sink (with minimal swearing this time), used some cotton swabs and isopropanol to take off the old thermal paste and replaced it with the new thermal grease in the usual way. I then booted up my machine to check the temperature.

At idle the temperature was 65°C and under full load the temperature was 80°C. This annoyed me. I hadn't even finished overclocking the CPU. It was a 2.1 GHz CPU that I wanted to run at 3.2 GHz. I already knew that the chip could run at that speed just fine. My guess was that the thermal grease I installed was crap. The other possibility was that I had installed the heat sink slightly wrong... I made the decision that I wasn't going to reinstall the heat sink again as I was no longer on speaking terms with it. I wanted to run my system overclocked so I figured that I should get something better then the stock cooler anyway. With any luck it would be quieter and come with its own (better) thermal paste too.

I went down to the local computer shop and got an Arctic Freezer 7 ver 2. I did this because it had some good reviews on the web. It was also in stock at the local computer store. At only 35$ dollars it was a good deal too. Yeah, it included the thermal paste.

Installation was shockingly easy although I must confess that I had to read the instructions (Well, look at the instruction pictures really. There were no words.). I was also worried about over tightening the screws that held the heat sink onto the black, plastic mounting bracket. The 775 socket is made to take a lot of pressure but I didn't want to overdo it. I had visions of going back to the computer store. I'd have to get another replacement motherboard because I'd bent the pins! I couldn't even claim they were bent to begin with. :-)

In the end I installed the cooler, booted up and checked the temperature. Idle temperature was now 40°C. Temperature under full load was 60°C. Woohoo! What made it even nicer was that the fan wasn't even going at full speed like the old heat sink fan was. This meant I had some headroom to work with. It also meant I wasn't going to go deaf from the fan noise. Going deaf sucks. Especially if you don't want to.

I was very happy with all this and so tried overclocking it to the full 3.2 GHz. Idle temperature was still 40°C temperature and under full load it was still 60°C. I was very, very happy. I did notice something weird though. The the CPU seemed to be operating only at 2.4 GHz when the CPU was idle but when the CPU is under full load it was operating at 3.2 GHz. I'm guessing this has something to do with saving energy. If the CPU is not doing anything then there's no point in running it at the full 3.2 GHz. It just wastes energy. I'm still investigating exactly which feature that I inadvertently installed that is causing this to happen. When I find out I'll be sure to tell mention it.

Now all I had to do was get my second hard drive (with Windows XP) booting again.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Why the U2211-H panel?

Why did I get this relatively small 21.5 inch panel (note that I paid 219$ CAD not the 319 it is normally) instead of, say this much larger, comparably priced panel.

Doesn't go into portrait mode.. Doesn't have a display port.. is too big 4 me (24 inches yipes! 3 of those won't fit on my desk) and it's a TN panel..


"TN (Twisted Nematic) panels are the most widely used panel type in the manufacture of LCD monitors. TN panels are cheap and offer excellent response times, making them perfect for fast paced gaming. The response times of current TN panels range from 2ms to 5ms. However, color reproduction, viewing angles and contrast ratios of TN panels are the worst of any current LCD panel technology. Unlike most 8-bit IPS/VA based panels, TN is only 6-bit and unable to display the full 16.7 million colors available in 24-bit true color. They can mimick the 16.7 million colors of 8-bit panels using a technique called dithering, but the results are unimpressive. TN panels have become popular with the average computer user because they are very inexpensive and currently dominate the LCD display market in availability."

The "ultra" panels from Dell are the latest generation of ISP panels:

"S-IPS/H-IPS (In Plane Switching) panels are generally considered the best overall LCD technology for image quality, color accuracy and viewing angles, but this comes at a price. They are well suited for graphics design and other applications which require accurate and consistent color reproduction. S-IPS panels offer the best viewing angles of any current LCD technology, with wide viewing angles up to 178 degress. The response time of S-IPS is adequate, ranging from 6ms to 16ms with current panels. This is only slightly slower than TN panels. However, gamers should take this into consideration. Fast paced games may suffer from motion blur or ghosting with S-IPS panels that have a response time higher than 8ms."

Wikipedia also has a good article on the topic of panel types:

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Dell monitor for cheap U2211H - 100$ off

Well, in the end I couldn't find a good 4:3 aspect ratio monitor at a price that made sense. Instead I got 3 U2211H monitors. Dell is selling them at a 100$ CAD discount each so that's not bad. They are full 1920x1080 monitors with tilt and swivel bases so you can use them in portrait mode. I'm not sure how long the 100$ deal lasts. Check it out:


Price with discount is
$219.00 CAD

Friday, July 23, 2010

My broken motherboard

I hate bad capacitors.

I got back from vacation, sat down at my computer, hit the "on" switch, all the fans would spin up but then nothing. The screens wouldn't turn on and I couldn't even get access to the BIOS. It was dead!

Don't you hate it when that happens? It could be almost anything. Before leaving on vacation I had added brand-new RAM. I figured it was worth tinkering with RAM to see if that was the problem. No, removing new RAM didn't help.

The next suspect was my power supply. I had already had a computer die in a similar fashion due to a funky power supply. What can happen is the power supply still provides power but doesn't provide it at the right voltage or at a steady voltage. If you stick a voltage meter onto the power supply you may get the right voltage displayed but as soon as you start to draw any amps you can get sudden voltage drops which cause the computer to crash. So I went out to my friendly, neighborhood computer store and got a new power supply. When I got home I hooked everything up turn it on and it still didn't work.

If it wasn't the power supply, the next logical thing would be the motherboard. This filled me with dread. While I often brag to my friends and colleagues that I had built my computers from scratch, in truth the man from the computer store had built it. All I had done was chosen the components. Changing the motherboard wasn't something I looked forward to. If I was going to do this, I might as well make damn sure that it was the motherboard that had died and not something else.

If you take a modern computer and remove everything from the motherboard you should still get a beep when you turn on. Well, you should still get a beep if you hadn't been stupid enough to remove the PC speaker when you'd removed everything else. I had arranged things so that this was impossible as I had never bought a PC speaker for the new PC in the first place. I had an old computer, however, which had a PC speaker. This was convenient. I plugged in the PC speaker (which is quite an adventure in old-school, giant pin array connectors) and turned on the computer to see if I could get it to beep. The PC didn't beep. This made me very unhappy and I decided to go onto the Internet to see if anyone had similar symptoms.

I found a note in one of the forums that someone had a similar issue with their machine and had left it off overnight and turned it on in the morning and it booted up. I also remembered that I had a similar issue with my Macintosh G4 computer and the problem had turned out to be a flat battery. I tried removing and re-setting the battery but that didn't help. So I left it for a few hours while I went out to collect some lunch and go talk to the man at the computer store about motherboard warranty replacements.

After lunch I was quite surprised when I turned on the machine and it beeped at me. After connecting a few more components and restarting the machine it beeped at me again although it sounded distinctly sick. Instead of a short, sharp beep it was just a long, droning tone. This isn't how a computer is supposed to sound when you start it up. I decided to leave it until the morning.

The next day I suspected that I would probably only get one good boot out of the machine, assuming I would do anything at all, so I decided to hook up as many components as I needed to use it and then try to boot. To my shock it actually worked and I managed to get into the BIOS and browser around BIOS menus. It then promptly crashed and all subsequent attempts to reboot it failed with the symptoms I had originally. I couldn't even get it to beep anymore with nothing connected. This was definitely a motherboard issue. A working motherboard should beep when you turn it on!

My old motherboard was a P5B Deluxe. It is super awesome when it's not broken and I wasn't looking forward to trying to find a replacement. Luckily, Asus was making a motherboard that is practically a drop-in replacement except that instead of using three and a half year old technology (older actually) it used state-of-the-art two year old technology. Well actually, this isn't fair. The motherboard uses components that are brand-new and the board was only released last fall. It just uses a design that's based on a chipset that's about two years old. It also works with just about every type of 775 socket CPU and DDR two RAM which is good because that's what I have.

The motherboard has the rather ridiculous name of P5Q Turbo Pro. There's something very interesting in the motherboard's description on the Asus website that might not jump out at you. Here's the list of features for motherboard:

  • ASUS 8-Phase Power Design
  • TurboV / Turbo Key
  • ASUS Drive Xpert
  • 100% All High-quality Conductive Polymer Capacitors! (VRM 5000hrs lifespan @105°C, 500,000hrs @65°C)

The important line there is the last one. "100% all high-quality conductive polymer capacitors!". Now, if you want to sell a motherboard to somebody you need to know what the important selling points are. Given that people's attention span is limited you can really only give the top five features of the motherboard before people lose interest. It's very telling that Asus has, as one of its five most important features, that it has "high-quality conductive polymer capacitors". The reason it's very important that this board has high-quality capacitors is because the board I have doesn't. That's the reason it broke. Probably....

It's been called the capacitor plague. Essentially, some Chinese company stole a secret formula for making capacitors from IBM. Unfortunately the formula wasn't finished. If you actually built a capacitor using this formula they would tend to fall apart after about three years. Since computer manufacturers generally don't care where they get capacitors from, or perhaps I should say they *didn't* use the care where they get capacitors from, just about every manufacturer had at least one batch of these bad capacitors in their products. This means that their products died after about three years. Add to this the fact that the standard industry warranty is three years and you have a big mess. Ask Dell.

Did I mention I hate bad capacitors that? Yeah, I'm pretty sure I have.

So anyway, my three and a half year old motherboard (out of warranty) was dead and I needed to get a new one. In the end I bought the Asus P5Q PRO Turbo. It works! My computer is back. I'm quite happy with it. It's essentially my old motherboard but better in lots of little ways. For example, it's more power efficient and faster. It's also not as expensive as the original motherboard. It turned out to be about 50% more expensive than the power supply. I didn't even need to reinstall Windows. How cool is that?

So that's the story of my motherboard. Maybe later I'll tell you the story of what happened to my CPU later that week.