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Testing Prescott

By Jerry Pournelle

February 16, 2004
Column 283

This month we mostly look at hardware. The software of the month is Microsoft OneNote, which I have recommended before for Windows users. This is Tornado Notes, sticky notes, and all those other free form data bases combined with a word processor. Save pictures, doodles (if you have a Tablet or Wacom drawing pad), voice recordings, and anything else into a single document that you can search and edit. It will make your life simpler; at least it has for me.

The Virus Scene

As I write this, my mailbox is flooded with "returned" mail carrying one or another version of the Mydoom virus. Of course I didn't send any such mail: Someone who had my address in his mailbox got infected, and the virus appropriated me as the fake sender.
I also have frantic mail from readers: Someone's computer was infected by a virus carrying the reader's return address. In one case the reader is a Mac user. Macs can't be infected by any variant of Mydoom I know of, but his military unit was infected by the virus and the infecting agent bore his return address: Was his computer now a "Typhoid Mary" spreading this horror? Of course not: Once again, his return address was faked. And someone in his unit opened a mail attachment: That's how the infection spreads.

Mydoom doesn't execute itself. You must open an e-mail attachment to be infected. The attachment may appear to be a document, but it isn't one. Note that the "from" address is faked, so this can look as if it came from anyone (including yourself). As usual there are two protections: Keep your anti-virus software up to date, and do not open unexpected e-mail attachments. Verify that something that looks like an e-mail attachment came from the person it is supposed to have come from. Even when you know the source, look at the file extension: A file that is named myfile.doc.exe or myfile.doc.pdf is not a document, even if it has a document icon!

Don't open unexpected e-mail attachments. What I tell you three times is true.

Prescott

The newest machine at Chaos Manor is a 3.2 GHz Intel "Prescott." The official description of this chip is Intel Pentium 4 Processor 3.20 supporting HT (Hyper-Threading) Technology. It features 1 MB on-die L2 cache, and is built on the 90 nanometer process technology. There is a new SSE3 instruction set, and a larger 16KB L1 data cache. At present the 1 MB L2 cache is a bit slower than the 512KB L2 on the "Northwood" chip, but that cache memory speed is tied to the chip speed: As Prescott ramps up to 4 and then 5 GHz this will be fast cache indeed. Prescott has improved "speculative branch prediction" to help minimize the performance hit of the longer pipeline.

There had been speculation that Intel would call the Prescott a Pentium 5, but they have stuck with the Pentium 4 designation despite the new features. There was also speculation that at any given clock speed the Prescott would be slower than the previous "Northwood" Pentium 4 because of the longer "pipeline." That turns out to be sort of true, depending on benchmarks, but it's close enough to be a tie even with the present edition; and of course Prescott speeds will go up and up.

For a good discussion of this see Bob Thompson's analysis. The important point is that clock cycle for clock cycle the Prescott is already nearly as fast as the Northwood on most software, and this doesn't take account of software written to take advantage of the Prescott's new features. Thompson's advice, and I agree, is that you don't need to "upgrade" your existing systems to Prescott, but if you're building something new, Prescott is the way to go, if you're sticking with Intel.

The disadvantages of Prescott are: It isn't the fastest thing Intel makes, it draws more power and produces more heat compared to Northwood at the same speed, and nothing Intel makes is as fast overall as the AMD Athlon 64 3400+ or Athlon 64 FX-51. Again this depends on benchmarks, according to Peter Glaskowsky, editor in chief of Microprocessor Report. Note that the P4 Extreme Edition, which competes with the Athlon 64FX, costs about $900 compared to the Athlon at about $400.

For most of us, pure speed isn't the decision factor to begin with; and it remains true that the ultimate in Intel compatibility is Intel. On the other hand, AMD has overcome many of its problems, while Prescott hasn't much advantage in heat management over the best AMD chips. It's still a horse race.

Hi Yo Silver!

The new system is called "Silver" and is built on an Intel D875PBZ motherboard. This board comes with onboard Ethernet, but no onboard sound or video. For general office use I find the onboard Intel Extreme 2 Graphics pretty good, but I usually end up installing an ATI graphics card instead because of ATI's really elegant text displays. However, I find the SoundMAX onboard sound that you find on many Intel Boards quite good enough. Indeed, "Lassie," a 3 GHz Northwood Pentium 4 built on an Intel D865GBF motherboard was the best all-around system in the house until Silver: Lassie has an ATI 9700 graphics card (in addition to the onboard Intel Extreme 2 Graphics which we ignored), and Intel's onboard SoundMAX sound with the "smart jack" output that allows full 5.1 audio.

Since there's nothing onboard but Ethernet on the D875PBZ, and the new Prescott is the fastest chip I have, Silver got pretty well top of the line everything: 1 gigabyte each of Kingston and Crucial DDR PC3200 memory divided into 4 512 MB DDR memory modules. Dual Channel memory requires chips in each channel be paired. The two DIMMs in channel 1 slots must be identical as must those in channel 2 slots, but channel 1 memory need not be identical to channel 2 memory. In our case all 4 DIMMs have identical specifications and as a test I swapped so that channel 1 held a Crucial and a Kingston (as did channel 2). Everything worked all right, which was mildly surprising: As we get to higher and higher speeds in these machines timing gets critical, and the wonder is that it works at all. Once I saw that the mismatched pairs did work together I swapped back so each channel now has one and only one make of memory. And once again I repeat my advice: Buy premium memory for hot new systems. Don't even think of compromising. El cheapo memory might work but as soon as you have any problems at all you will have these nagging doubts about the cause. With Kingston and Crucial memory I can be sure that whatever my problems, they aren't caused by memory errors.

Silver's video card is the Crucial Technology Radeon 9800 Pro. Crucial makes this from the ATI video chipset. It has 256 MB of video memory, and the card is sturdy and well made with a powerful but quiet fan. With boards this fast cooling is critical. You don't really want to see your game dissolve into a mass of little squares and blobs, which happens fairly often if your video board is overheating.

The disk drive is a Maxtor 250 GB Serial ATA drive, and we'll get back to that in a bit. There's a Sony floppy drive (sometimes needed for BIOS upgrades as well as for installing some older programs like Windows Commander that I can't live without), a Zip 100 to make it easy to save off copies of works in progress, and a generic DVD-ROM drive.

Silver's sound card is Creative's Audigy 2 Platinum, which is supposed to be the top of their line. A good bit more on that later.

The case is Antec's fancy new P160, a shiny brushed aluminum case that made the name Silver the obvious one for the machine. The power supply is Antec's TruePower-380 Watt with Antec Lo-Noise Technology.

The operating system is Windows XP professional.

I'll go over each of these components in detail below. The bottom line is that this combination works, but it runs at the edge of overheating, and it took considerable fussing about to get it up and running and stable. If you're planning on building a new system, be sure to read the rest of this column before you do.

Antec 380 TruePower

The first problem was that the Antec P160 case comes without a power supply. That's not Antec's fault, since it's clearly stated on the outside of the box, but it did teach me not to start a new system on a Sunday night unless I have checked to be sure I have all the parts I need.

As it happens, I had an Antec 380 TruePower in the supply cabinet. I also had a no-name 500 Watt power supply.
I intend to load up this system with several hard drives, a DVD-ROM drive and DVD burner, a Zip-100 drive, an ATI 9800 video card, a sound card, and 2 gigabytes of memory. All that will take power, and the Prescott chip itself wants better than 100 Watts all by itself. I wondered if the 380 Watt supply would be good enough. After stewing over it a bit, I called Bob Thompson and described what I had.

"Who makes the other power supply?"

"I can't tell. There doesn't seem to be a name. It's a heavy sucker, heavier than the Antec power supply."

"Heavy is good," he replied in a plonking tone.

"All right. You think the 380 has enough power?"

Once I got that settled I put the no-name 500 back in the cabinet. One of these days I'll try to trade it in on a PC Power and Cooling or Antec power supply. The moral of this story is obvious: You don't compromise on power supply quality when building a new system. It's a lesson I learned a long time ago, back in 80386 days, when power supplies failed fairly often, and some failed catastrophically taking out everything else in the box. Good power supplies fail gracefully: They just die, and when you replace them, everything else still works.

Antec P160 Case

The Antec P160 Case is slicker than a weasel. It's gorgeous, and it has three big blue lights on the front, and it looks like it would be comfortable at Mach 3.5. There are two slick looking catches holding the side access panel on. The front bezel pries off neatly to give access to the external drive bays.

Almost everything in the case including the AGP and PCI cards is held in place by knurled screws. The entire motherboard mounting plate comes out if you remove one knurled knob, but it's held very securely without wiggles. Despite being made of aluminum, the motherboard mounting plate is stiff enough, and there's a solid feel to it all.

Mounting internal and external drives is pretty simple. Like the Antec Sonata case I am fond of, with the P160 you will need a special length data cable if you want to attach both an internal and an external drive on a single ATA controller string: Standard cables are a frustrating inch or so too short, so I can't put the Zip drive on the same cable with an ATA hard drive. For the moment that's no problem, since the main hard drive is Serial ATA.

There are cables for connecting front panel USB 2.0, Firewire, and sound output. There are also two thermocouples, with a digital readout (Fahrenheit or Celsius as you choose) on the front panel. I have put one of the thermocouples into the heat sink mechanism for the CPU chip, and the other on the hard drive.

Everything is pretty and bright and for some reason I had more trouble assembling this machine than I did the last one built in the Antec Sonata case. Both the Sonata and the P160 are handsome cases, both are practical, and while I mildly prefer the Sonata to work with, I have to say I admire the looks of the P160—and it has been good enough.

One caution: The P160 comes with the case fan attached by twist ties. You have to install it yourself, using supplied rubber mounts. Be sure to install the motherboard before you install the fan! If you don't, you will never get the motherboard in until you remove the fan. When you remove that fan, you will ruin the rubber mounts. I was fortunate enough to have an extra half dozen of those long skinny rubber mounting things. You won't have any extra. You can buy them at three bucks a set, which is too much but you won't have much choice.

A tip: Antec has changed the heads on the screws they supply, and it is no longer easy to determine which screws fit the little brass hex standoffs. Make sure you try one not screwed down to the mounting plate, and do that with your fingers. If it doesn't go in easily, it's probably not the correct thread. Keep trying until you find which screws actually fit, remembering that the screws are steel and the hex standoffs are brass, so when you use a screwdriver you can easily force wrong-threaded screws in, but not far enough to hold the motherboard down. If you do that, you'll have to disassemble the whole thing and start over. Better to be sure you're using the right threaded screws in the first place.

And my standard tip: get a 5 mm socket driver. That fits those little brass hex standoff things that hold the mother board up off the mounting plate. It makes the assembly a lot easier. No more tightening the brass things with pliers.

Bringing Up Silver

You must boot (into DRDOS, as it happens) with the Maxtor utility disk if you expect your system to see the full 250 Gigabytes. When you do that you will find that the disk is pre-formatted in NTFS, so when you boot up with the Windows XP CD and install on the existing partition, formatting takes about 20 seconds rather than the hour I had expected with that large a disk.

Note that the Maxtor 250 GB Serial ATA is a bridged Serial ATA implementation: That is, a standard parallel ATA drive with S-ATA conversion circuitry. Converting protocols adds overhead, so a bridged S-ATA will likely be slower than a native Serial-ATA drive. At the moment, only Seagate makes native Serial ATA drives that I would recommend. I don't have numbers for the differences in speed between the Maxtor bridged Serial ATA and the Seagate native Serial ATA, but the Seagates are faster. The Seagate second generation 7200.7 Barracuda Serial ATA drives have a 3-year warranty and are very fast, as well as very quiet. If you're trying for a really extreme system with the fastest possible disk operations, you'll probably want the Seagate serial drives. On the gripping hand, you'll be hard put to find practical applications where you'd notice the difference.

It is also important that you bring up the system and install software in the correct order:

Install the Maxtor drive software from the Maxtor boot disk. Install Windows XP. Install Windows XP SP-1a from a CD. Install Intel Chipset information from the D875GBZ disk Install Intel Ethernet from that disk. Install a firewall or hide behind a router. Install Norton Anti Virus from the Intel startup disk. Install Intel Active Monitor from Intel startup disk. Install other stuff from Intel startup disk.

Go to http://developer.intel.com/design/motherbd/bz/bz_bios.htm and download the latest BIOS for your D875PBZ motherboard. Install that, being sure that your system is on an UPS since a power failure during BIOS update will make your system unusable. (Actually, Intel motherboards have a "BIOS Recovery" that will restore defaults, but you're better off not having to do that.)
Go to http://www.intel.com/design/motherbd/software/dcc/IDCC_Download.htm and download the control panel software that lets you have more control over fan speeds.

Go back to Windows Update and finish all the updates required and/or recommended for Windows XP

Plug a USB 2.0 device into a USB port. If you get the message that your device is connected but only at a lower speed, go to Device Manager, find the USB drivers, and uninstall each and every one of them until there are no more to uninstall. Now reset the system, and lo! it will find the proper USB 2.0 drivers and install them and Bob's your uncle. And no, I don't know why you have to do that: I only know that I had to, twice, because the first time it happened I scrubbed the system to bare metal and reinstalled everything and I still had to do that. And I do these silly things so you don't have to, only this time you may have to do it also. It's not difficult. It's not even tedious. It is baffling.

Depend upon it, this system is going to run hot, so when you build it pay a lot of attention to air flow. Use cable ties to be sure cables don't block air flow. You want all the cooling you can get.

Jerry Pournelle, Ph.D., is a science-fiction writer and BYTE.com's senior contributing editor. Contact him at jerryp@jerrypournelle.com. Visit Jerry's Chaos Manor at www.jerrypournelle.com. Reader letters can be found at Jerry's letters page.
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Last Modified: March 9, 2008