Sunday, January 14, 2007

Impressions and some "benchmarks"

After putting the system together my first impulse was to open task manager and see what was going on behind the scenes, and I was stunned.

I think I've seen my system exceed 50% utilization twice. Not for lack of trying mind you. I loaded up Warcraft III, Flight Sim X, FEAR and found that they were all CPU bound to one CPU, I came to realize that the other cores and chips just don't help at all, at least not right now. I mean, I already knew this, single threaded games won't use more processors - but seeing everything in action really drove the point home.

If you are buying a system for gaming, keep this one point in mind - your games will only run as fast as your fastest core. Half Life is slated to get some multi-threading goodness sometime this year, but coding (i know) multi-threaded applications is difficult and frequently slows the development process. There are a host of issues that need to be dealt with when developing with threads. It also increases bug hunting time. So while it would be "nice", many houses that have single threaded developers probably aren't going to be adding a ton of "risk" to their project plans any time soon just so that we can use all of these crazy cores. The good news is that the PS3 is inherently mutli-threaded and will allow game developers a chance to get their feet wet with threads and concurrent process streams.

The impression here is that 4 cores is too many for 99.99999999999999% of the people out there. The bandwidth available on this system is staggering. I found that when I was installing software I would start two, sometimes three "long running" installs. Or I might run the updater and do an install browse the web etc. etc. There would be basically no slowdown. Nothing seems to take very long, and things like searching my Outlook inbox doesn't put a dent in system performance. All the while I'm free to go from site to site, recompile code, and run queries. If you want a gaming rig I think that two cores might be a better number, it will give the OS and other tasks an area to work while the other core is maxed out. Also, the Intel chips are highly overclockable.

What was a little surprising is that I'm using way more ram, because I can run more programs. In hindsight it makes sense, though when I put this system together I looked at my previous RAM usage and settled on 2 GB, thinking 4 GB might be excessive. I was wrong. Running Visual Studio 2005 really eats a lot of ram, add in SQL Server Management Studio, a few browsers, Outlook, EVE or WCIII and iTunes and you have 1.5 GB easy. I'm also using x64 for my development tools which increases RAM usage as well. The bottom line is that if you have a lot of applications open, go for the 4GB you'll probably need it when Vista is out.

Disk IO is phenomenal. I'm never waiting on the disk. Well I am, but not nearly as much as other machines. This has less to do with the chips and more to do with the drives. If you are building a high end machine like this, get the faster disks. You'll find that they are still fast three years later. It's really the only "investment" that won't get thrown away.

I don't know what's going on in my machine. At the moment, I have no way to monitor temps across the system. I've tried a number of different packages and I've found that they either hang the system or report wierd numbers. This is actively preventing me from tweaking it anymore than I already have. Though at the moment I'm running it in "stock" mode.

From a graphics perspective it eats up the highest settings. In some cases such as EVE, I've found that it actually renders a little better at higher settings. Everything just looks great though. I'm pretty sure that has more to do with the 8800.

Lack of cooling options. Most coolers are not designed to deal with multiple cpus. While I'm sure it would help, I'm going to hold off until a decent 8800 cooler is available. I've also been thinking about desinging a cooling rig for this type of setup that is quiter than a fan based solution.

Installation benchmarks

Windows XP64 - 26 Minutes
Patch to current - 16 Minutes (DSL 6.0 Mb)
Full Office Install (From ISO) - 1 Minute 30 Seconds
Full Visual Studio 2005 Team Architect Install (DVD ISO ~ 3.5GB of data) - 12 Minutes 24 Seconds
SQL Server Tools - 2 Minutes 30 Seconds

Those are the extent of the heafty installs. Those of you who have done the VS.NET install can appreciate how fast that really is.

Drive benchmarks (using h2benchw)

I was interested to see if there was any gain or loss in performance by using the MediaShield controller. I was also interested to see the difference between a single disk and the RAID 0. I found that there was no signficant different between the RAID and non-RAID connected drive. The RAID adds a pretty heafty read boost, though I was expecting a little more.

Write tests were not conducted primarily because it took too much time.

Single Raptor no RAID
Sustained transfer rate (block size: 128 sectors):
Reading: average 71966.5, min 27578.4, max 85309.5 [KByte/s]
Random access read: average 8.13, min 2.52, max 20.64 [ms]
Random access read (<504 index =" 28.9">
Single Raptor RAID connected (also system disk)
Sustained transfer rate (block size: 128 sectors):
Reading: average 71351.8, min 16714.1, max 85308.2 [KByte/s]
Random access read: average 8.10, min 2.24, max 19.86 [ms]
Random access read (<504 index =" 28.8">

RAID 0 Striping (system disk)
Sustained transfer rate (block size: 128 sectors):
Reading: average 99133.7, min 55080.4, max 111992.1 [KByte/s]
Random access read: average 8.14, min 0.05, max 14.84 [ms]
Random access read (<504 index =" 31.7">

I'm going to expand on this a little more but here is some preliminary stuff:

Warcraft III
Highest settings, 1600x1200, don't have a framerate, but it's fast, very fast.
30% CPU Use

EVE Online
Resolution: 1920x1200
100 FPS in station, 27-32 FPS Outside (You've never seen EVE like this)
Antialias: 16xQ
AA Transparency: Supersample
Anisotropic: 16x
Vertical Sync: On
25% CPU

EVE seems like it might use more than one thread. I'll post some new EVE pics soon, they are unbelievable.

Why 4x4?

Expensive, Hot, Loud, Not the winner. Those might be reasons not to build a 4x4 machine. I think though, that there are some solid reasons to build this system, and to start using this platform. So here are a few...

Dual processors.
I think we've all wanted dual processors at some point in our lives and this is it, finally, a dual processor desktop platform that we can all use. Granted, ASUS seems to think that this is a "server" motherboard, but I would tend to disagree. It lacks the Buffered/ECC ram that would make it a stable and reliable addition to a server room. The disk controller is not fit for a server environment either.

Upgrade path.
One thing that I like about AMD is that there is a decent amount of life in their products. Socket 939 is still alive and kicking, AM2 should be around for a while as well. The 4x4 and Socket F is it's own thing as well. If you want to upgrade in 12 months, it will be possible. The same cannot be said of Intel who has an external memory controller that frequently requires a new motherboard with the purchase of a newer processor (though the new 5300's are pin compatible with previous motherboards). More than anything I bought this system for this fall, and the 8 cores that I will be able to plug into my machine. It's going to rock.

AMD has an excellent architecture for I/O. My tasks vary on a day to day basis, but I felt that AMD would provide the necessary bandwidth for all of my tasks and more. So far this is the case. Though the broken ethernet controller is a disappointment.

Despite losing out to the QFX, it didn't lose by that much and in terms of cost, the board and chips for the FX70 are about the same price.

Pick what you want - there is more than enough processing to go around. I like AMD, I think they have been innovating and I want to support their products. This purchase hasn't been by the numbers, but I'm very happy.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

A Partial Guide to 4x4 and Windows XP64

I have tried a number of configurations for the install of Windows and I thought I would share what works and what does not on XP64.

Things to know before starting

*Do not install nTune*
Under windows XP64 nTune does not work with this motherboard and will cause a full system halt (no BSOD, mouse will stop functioning system will go unresponsive).

Format new drives
It takes forever, and seems like a total waste of time - but do it. A WD Raptor 150 will format in 45 minutes. Ideally, format each new drive that you are putting into your computer individually. Simply following this procedure would have saved a solid 6 hours during the install process for me. The default drivers provided by ASUS do not deal well with faulty drives in your RAID array - and the latest nVidia drivers do a much better job at hiding the problem. However there are no SMART utilities installed by default - so you have no insight into drive statuses and problems.

Remove USB card reader devices
So I was on my "last install". I install XP only to find that when I boot into windows that my main drive is labeled "E:" LOL. Turns out the USB card reader that I had connected to the computer was detected as a fixed drive even though there was no card installed during the installation. At the time I also had Plug and Play OS set to "No" in the BIOS which may have caused this issue. Regardless USB devices cause trouble (see my previous post) so remove them before starting your install.

Setup the RAID ahead of time
Using the BIOS options, setup the RAID array. There are some posts kicking around on message boards that suggest that the array should be setup post OS install. I have found that this does not work with this particular piece of hardware. If the OS is installed without the RAID controller enabled, XP will fail to boot when the RAID controller is enabled post install. XP will fail to boot properly *even if the drives are not assigned to the controller*. The relevant settings were: MediaShield Enabled (BIOS, First Screen, IDE Configuration), No drives enabled, Sil BIOS enabled (BIOS, Screen Two, Other Configuration). Also of note is that when no drives are assigned to the RAID F10 is not an option.

Before you begin

If you are using a RAID Array, you will need the RAID drivers to boot and install the OS on the new array. This will require one of two things: A slip stream image created with nLite or a floppy disk, and drive attached to the system that contains the F6 drivers. The ASUS disk has these files under \Drivers\Chipset\64bit\IDE\WinXP\sataraid. Optionally you can download the latest nForce drivers and then extract the EXE file using Winzip and grab the drivers under \IDE\WinXP\sataraid.

If you are not using the RAID, turn off the RAID options in the BIOS and you will be able to install without any problem.

My Process

The drives were plugged into SATA ports 1 and 3. I have enabled RAID for ports 1 - 6. Under the F10 menu the RAID method set is to striping, using the the two drives on ports 1 and 3.

No overclocking was used during install.

Boot Sequence
CD-ROM, Hard Drive, Floppy Disk


The asus provided drivers were not used. The latest nForce drivers for the motherboard were used, Version 9.53 released December 21 06. WHQL Certified.

The ASUS provided drivers were used.

The latest 8800 drivers were used, ForceWare Release 95Version: 97.44 Release Date: December 8, 2006.

My local LAN is domain based. As part of the initial install domain membership was added.

The Install

Time required

The install from F6 to cd-key request will take about 15 minutes. From the cd-key request the login prompt will take roughly an additional 11 minutes. This will total somewhere around 26 minutes for the complete install. Pretty fast!

The sequence

Install Method: The non-slip stream, F6 method was used to install Windows on the machine.

F6 was pressed at the initial load screen and at the the prompt "S" was used to install the two nVidia RAID (Class and nForce) Drivers.

The installer asked which drive to install the OS. Only one, the RAID array, was listed. The drive was selected and "Format partition (Quick)" was used (The drives had been previously formatted to verify their integrity).

After copying and installing the files the system rebooted.

The install prompted for a number of pieces of information the requested information was provided. Upon completion of the forms a few more operations complete and the system rebooted.

System boot after the BIOS finishes takes about 14 seconds at this point.

After the system boots and the main user account is logged on the nVidia nForce drivers were installed. The Ethernet drivers were not installed due to issues with my on board devices. However, I would recommend just installing only the Ethernet package and not the second optional install (I forgot its name).

The system was rebooted.

Hard Drive Benchmarks were run on the RAID array. See my benchmarks post.

The 8800 Drivers were installed.

The system was rebooted.

Windows update was run, 51 updates (174.8 MB) were downloaded and installed in 16 minutes over a 6.0 Mb DSL connection.

The audio drivers were installed.

Normal operation of the computer commenced.


The second hard drive (WD Raptor 150) for the RAID 0 array arrived yesterday!

I am in the process of benchmarking the drives to see what, if any, performance overhead is associated with the NVidia MediaShield RAID Chipset.

Right now I have the system drive connected to the RAID controller and the new drive formatted and empty on the standard Sil controller.

I am going to run the benchmark on both drives, then I'm going to re-install the OS on the two drives raided together and see what performance boost I get.

I will hopefully be able to fully resolve the ethernet issues this time around and fix my nvidia desktop manager that not longer works due to installing nTune!

I have sadly been unable to locate a OC utility that will give me a complete look at system temperatures. I think this might have somethign to do with the fact that there are two 570 MCP chips on the motherboard. So I'm going to have to wait on getting a full look at the versatility of the FX70

Thursday, January 4, 2007


After running th system for a while and checking the BIOS I think I have a pretty good handle on average temperatures for the system.


8800 70C
Proc 1 55C
Proc 2 55C
Motherboard 60C

These go up a few degress while playing games - but for the most part this is sustainable.

Note that while playing single threaded games the system utilization is only about 30%.

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

ASUS Support, Ethernet

ASUS has finally figured out that they are shipping a product and it needs support. My previous attempts last week to contact them about my Ethernet issues did not go well. However I was able to get some "help" yesterday. Note that the L1N64 is a "Server Motherboard" according to ASUS so choose accordingly on the support line voice prompts.

The technician wasn't really that helpful. He suggested that I need to do a full system re-install to get the Ethernet ports working. Something about not installing the drivers, and then installing them one by one. He was also not really able to provide a documented step by step procedure to resolve the issue. A full re-install is not really a solution IMO. What is somewhat irritating is that this is not a new problem with nVidia. There are many forum posts that describe problems similar to my own.

I think I might do a full system re-install on a scratch disk so I can figure out what the procedure is to avoid this issue. Of course I maybe wasting my time and the ports ARE broken... but it really looks like something is interfering.

Tuesday, January 2, 2007


Some people have asked for pics. I've put together a Picasa photo album for you all (opens in new window).

Check them out!

nTune and the 680a

I have been looking for a utility to monitor my system "health" while overclocking. I thought I found it here. I installed it, which seemed to execute without incident. I went to run "nVidia Monitor" and found that my system immediately stopped responding. Great... I tried the "Stability Test" as well and found that my system crashed again. Go nVidia.

Asus ships no tools for determining if you are harming your machine while overclocking. A little more robust set of tools would be nice.

Incidentally, I think that I have isolated the USB reboot hang to having the the external USB drive turned on.

BIOS Bugs, Ethernet Problems

There are two BIOS issues that continue to plague my system.

The first is related to the use of external USB drives. I have an external 200 GB LaCie drive. When it is plugged in and turned on it shows up in the BIOS as a bootable device. By default this drive is booted BEFORE the RAID array. The problem arises from the fact that when the USB drive fails to boot the system it halts the boot process and no other bootable hard drives are checked. You can however, change the boot order in the BIOS so that it prefers your RAID over the USB device. Great, so it would seem there is a way to deal with the problem... And yet, not really. The problem arises when the system does not detect your USB drive - the settings for the USB drive are removed from the BIOS if the system boots and does not detect the drive. When it is connected again you'll find that the system will try to boot from the USB drive (which does not work) and not the RAID array. The only real solution that I have found for this is to leave the USB hard drive off until XP starts to boot.

The second issue is related to USB device initialization. The system seems to hang when initializing the USB bus, usually after a software reboot. A push of the reset button seems to do the trick, however this makes automated or remote reboots difficult.

The Ethernet saga continues. Although, I'm now 90% certain that it is a software issue and not a hardware issue. XP shows that the Ethernet ports fail to get an IP address from the network. However XP also shows that the the interface is receiving multicast packets from the network. So something is working... Windows defender also showed a reference to the ActiveArmor dll - which makes me think that it is the nVidia hardware/software firewall at work. Funny thing is none of the control panels show a way to manage these settings. The only weird thing is that the MAC address for both ports appears in an ASUS product manual (they end in F7:F7:F7). But since I cannot get support for the board at this time I'll have to keep plugging along with my NutGear GbE card. It works - but doesn't have a lot of options (namely frame size adjustment).

Despite these problems, I'm pretty happy.