Andre's Blog

Personal blog of Andre Perusse

Don't have an SSD drive yet? You're crippling your computer!

Congratulations! You've just bought yourself a shiny new computer! It has more CPU cores than you have fingers, several gigabytes of RAM, a Blu-ray drive, high-end graphics card, and ....... a spinning magnetic hard drive. You have the world's fastest computer but you've left it crippled, limping along with a dead-slow mass storage device. In fact, I'm constantly surprised by the new Dell and HP machines that come out with each new processor family from Intel, and there is no SSD option. This is almost criminal!

Unless you've experienced the speed of a solid-state disk (SSD), you'd be surprised to see how much drag a conventional hard disk places on your system. Last year, I wrote about the new Core i7 machine I had just built, and how I was initially disappointed that it didn't seem much faster than the Q6600 machine it replaced. Then I installed an SSD as the system drive, which changed EVERYTHING. A year later, this machine still screams with the extreme low-latency provided by my 120GB OCZ Vertex (which is old tech by today's SSD standards).

Check out this recent article by Windows guru Ed Bott which has some metrics on SSD drives versus regular hard drives. And check out this Tom's Hardware head-to-head comparison of today's SSD drives. I also love this quote from a Gustavo Duarte article that compares the latency of various computer memory and storage systems:

"To put this into perspective, reading from L1 cache is like grabbing a piece of paper from your desk (3 seconds), L2 cache is picking up a book from a nearby shelf (14 seconds), and main system memory is taking a 4-minute walk down the hall to buy a Twix bar... and ... waiting for a hard drive seek is like leaving the building to roam the earth for one year and three months."

For most people, SSD drives won't replace your regular hard drive. SSD drives are still relatively low in capacity so you'll still need a big hard drive for your data. But even a 120GB SSD (around $200 these days) is plenty for your system drive, and I guarantee that it will be the best thing you can do for your personal productivity. Seriously, unleash the full potential of all those cores and gigabytes of RAM and get yourself an SSD - you won't believe the speed bump it will give your machine.

Core i7-860 PC Build 2009

After using my Intel Core 2 Quad Q6600 machine for just over two years, I decided it was time for an upgrade. So, a few weeks ago I ordered my new Core i7-860 PC (some assembly required, of course). I was able to keep my four-year-old Antec P180 case (I love this case) and two-year-old Corsair 620 watt modular power supply, but everything else got replaced (oh, except for my trusty LG DVD writer - that stayed too).

I had been thinking about getting a Core i7-920, but the newer P55-based Core i7-860 seemed to be a slightly better value, especially considering that I have no plans to install mountains of RAM or run dual graphics cards, to which the i7-9xx line and associated X58 chipset is better suited. Since I always overclock my systems anyway, the 860 was a better choice than the 870, and hundreds of dollars cheaper, too.

So, I ended up with the following build:

Motherboard: ASUS Maximus III Formula
CPU: Core i7-860
CPU Cooler: Noctua NH-U12P
RAM: 8GB OCZ DDR-3 1600MHz CL-8
System Drive: OCZ Vertex 120 SSD
Data Drive: Seagate 7200.12 1TB HD, er, Seagate 7200.11 1.5TB HD
Graphics Card: Sapphire Radeon 5870
OS: Windows 7 Ultimate

The Core i7 is a no-brainer: it's a thoroughly modern CPU and Windows 7 is designed to take full advantage of it. It has great power-management, and the ability to throttle or burst individual cores based on system load. And it's wicked fast!

The motherboard took a lot more research before I made a decision. I'm not a PC gamer, so it probably looks a little odd that I would choose a high-end gaming board. While gaming doesn't interest me much, I do like quality and the Maximus board just oozes it. I hate owning boards that have peculiar quirks, and while it's almost unavoidable than any board is going to have the odd issue or two, I figure it's worth the extra bucks to buy something that's over-engineered. And certainly, the Maximus is not trouble-free, but it's the most reliable board I've ever owned.

As for the CPU cooler, I had wanted a Thermalright Ultra-120 Extreme (TRUE) but there were none in stock when I placed my order. So I got the Noctua cooler instead. It's very well built and includes two 120-mm fans with optional cables to regulate the fan speeds to trade off cooling performance (RPMs) vs noise. Having nothing else to compare the cooling performance with, I can't really evaluate the Noctua's performance properly. But, I was hoping for a bit better cooling - my CPU is overclocked to 3.8GHz and idles around 38 - 40 degrees Celsius. I haven't played with any other settings than BCLK, so maybe I can get the CPU voltage down, but I have seen idle temps in the high 20s on other coolers, so I am a bit disappointed here. On the other hand, I had no problem with this cooler blocking the RAM slots - the OCZ RAM doesn't have any fancy heatspreaders so they are not especially tall anyway.

I'll skip the SSD drive for a moment since it was the last component in my build. While I was waiting for it to arrive, however, I installed Windows 7 on the Seagate 1TB drive I had originally bought to use as my data drive. The Windows install went fine, but about 3 hours later the drive started ticking. And while it ticked, all hard drive operations were either suspended or terribly slow. The drive ticked for about 20 minutes and then stopped, at which time hard drive performance returned to normal. However, I no longer trusted the drive. It did this ticking thing a couple more times so it went back to the store. Seagate has had some serious problems with its 1TB drives lately, so instead of getting a straight replacement I opted instead for a Seagate 1.5TB drive. I've now been using it for about a month without any hiccups whatsoever.

The Sapphire Radeon 5870 works very well, as you might expect. Again, I'm not a gamer but I like having capable gear for the two times a year I haul out Flight Simulator X. I especially like the 5870 because of its terrific power management which means it doesn't consume gobs of juice while its just sitting there idle displaying the Windows desktop. I also like the fact that the stock fan is nearly silent at idle - I don't like my rig to make a lot of noise. Though sometimes (rarely) when the machine wakes from sleep the Radeon fan powers up to full speed and it is VERY loud. Once I log back into Windows, however, the fan returns to normal.

Up to this point, I hadn't installed my OCZ Vertex SSD drive yet (thanks OnHop). And while the rig was plenty fast, it wasn't a significant improvement over my Q6600 that it replaced. But after I put in the Vertex, it was a whole new ball game. Putting an SSD drive in your computer as the boot and system drive is like supercharging your entire machine. This thing is blazingly fast now! Windows 7 boots in just over 10 seconds. Shutting down takes around 4 seconds. Waking from sleep is nearly instantaneous. And most day-to-day operations performed on the computer desktop experience little to no lag at all. It's like removing a clog from a drain - everything just flows much more smoothly. The Vertex was an expensive component, but it is the best upgrade you can give your computer and worth every penny.

This rig is hands-down the fastest, most stable, and most trouble-free PC I have ever built. It takes less power than my Q6600/Radeon 2900XT machine and runs cooler, too. I am extremely impressed and pleased with the results of this build and I look forward to approximately 24 months of "surfing the web at 50,000 frames per second" when it'll likely be due for another replacement.