This midweek post is to update a previous post.
In the past we have talked about free AV software and I mentioned that Microsoft was working on it’s own free package. Well Microsoft Security Essentials is now live and available for free download. This free usage is limited to home users and home based business users. This is actually normal as the other free AV packages also limit free usage for to private use only.
I have been running this program since it’s early beat and even then suggested that home users look at switching to it. There is no reason for ANY home user to pay for AV software when there are so many free alternatives.
What I like about Security Essentials is that it has a small resource foot print, it does not slow down your machine. Testing using my HD from Hades, an uber-infected HD I keep for testing, shows that this package does it’s job very well with no infections getting past it.
If you have just bought a new computer or want to stop paying for AV protection then this is one to look at.
It is not too often you will hear me ditzing on a budget build, however you need to understand that the word cheap is just politically correct for junk in many cases. With this being the case I have seen a few budget builds of late that fall into this category. In some bizarre effort to drop the price of a computer build a few dollars the person doing the build has allowed components that are not really of great quality into the build for the sake of price. Sacrificing quality for price is not frugal it is stupid.
I have seen builds of late, so called budget gamer builds that from the use of a decent video card for one a few steps lower. Specifically in one case they used a 4650 and called the system a budget gaming build. Now while they did save money they also left the system limited to 1024×768 for quality gaming and future games will be hard pressed to play at any decent detail level. This is even odder of a choice when you realize just a $10 bump to a 4670 gives a pretty nice performance boost.
The build went further limiting the system to an old Athlon X2 processor and 2 gigs of DDR2 ram. A simple bump of about $30 in the budget could have moved the system to an Athlon II x2 which is quicker and has more upgrade potential and also moved the system into 4 gigs of RAM. When you realize we are talking about a build of around $500 this means that for a 10% price bump we could have gotten a much nicer than 10% quality bump.
It is not even just in whole builds, many times it is hardware companies with specific parts. Antec produces an amazing value gaming case, the Three Hundred. The case has great potential cooling, a dust filter and has a good ability to hide cabling. For the price there is no case to touch it, you can usually find this case for around $60. Now enter round two, the Antec Two Hundred. The idea was to take the Three Hundred design and make it even less expensive…
The Antec Two Hundred from the outside looks a bit like the Three Hundred that had cosmetic surgery. While the basic lines are the same the face has been made up. The plain, simple lines of the three Hundred are replaced with some angular elements. Two different people I know said it comes off with a Star Wars type feel. The finish is still the same as is the open HD bay area where two 120mm fans can be placed for air intake.
When you open the case you see the similarity to the Antec Three Hundred is much more than skin deep. The basic layout is identical to the Three Hundred case until you notice the big hole in the motherboard tray. That hole is in place to allow for easy swapping of high end heatsinks.
This is not the only concession to higher end features, the 3 1/2” bay on the front of the case actually conceals a 3 1/2” SATA removable drive bay. This makes it simple to add another HD for backup or read from old drives. Even use this as a multimedia drive add-on.
However all is not perfect with this new case. Like the Three Hundred this case comes with a removable front bevel to allow for easy installation of two 120mm fans for cooling. Also like the Three Hundred the front bevel houses a filter to keep dust intake done. THIS is where the first failing of this case is. Instead of an easy to remove and clean filtering system like the Three Hundred has, Antec chose this as a place to reduce cost and used a foam filter held in place by metal tabs and two screws. (I tried to get a good picture of this but was not able to get a clear close-up)
The metal tabs will break under repeated bending to remove the filter and the while you can remove the filter without the tabs being bent it will tear easily. The result is a filter system that you might get one or two uses out of and then it will begin to have issues.
Another issue I found with this case was in it’s stand-off layout. The case is targeting at budget builders and yet only has standoff ability for full ATX motherboards. In the picture to the right you will notice the two rows of standoffs in place for a full ATX motherboard. The two black dots are where a micro–ATX board has standoffs on it’s bottom edge.
This picture was sent to Antec along with an explanation to find out why this was done. The reply was as follows:
Veronica Feldmeier (Senior Media Coordinator): “We want to thank you for pointing the mounting points issue out to us. This was an oversight due to the accelerated pace of development for this product. It was the first time that we went from conception to production in a very short time (about four months) and somehow we missed that in the final QC check. Future production will have this corrected.”
When I reviewed this case I started with the mindset that this case was meant for pure budget builders. I mean dropping $10 below the price of the Three Hundred, an excellent case, must have been to get to people that care only about the bottom line right? However as I reviewed this case and found it’s features I realized this is case without it’s own identity. It tries to do all that made the Three Hundred a great budget case but then it sticks in higher end features.
The typical uber budget builder is not going to be swapping out heat sinks often enough to need a tray cutout. Nor are they likely to need the ability to use swappable HD bay. Especially when you consider most budget builders do not touch the BIOS and you need to set the HD controller to AHCI to allow for this to be used to hot swap correctly.
Plus features that the budget builder would make use of are poorly implemented. The dust filter will not stand up to any kind of regular use and the missing standoffs for micro-ATX boards, the boards of choice for budget building, is a huge oversight.
Now this is not to say the case is totally bad. I did a quick dirty build as you can see when I was doing my initial testing of the Intel i5. The case did provide some solid cooling even without the front fans. Adding two 120mm fans in the front however gave the case a nice boost.
Even with the front fans, Antec Tri-Speed 120mm, the case was very quiet with all fans on low.
The case is currently the home, permanently that is, of an Athlon II X4 gaming system with a 4850 for video. The system runs very cool under heavy gaming load and is next to silent. I know how loud it is BTW because it sits on the floor right behind me, if it was noisy I would be so aware.
Despite the good I can find in the case I feel the bad out weighs it when being looked at for a first time or purely budget build. For $10 more the Antec Three Hundred might miss a few features but is a much better built case for budget building. The air filter alone for me makes it worth the extra money but my concern is first time builders dealing with a motherboard that has missing stand off support. While not a big deal to an experienced builder, a new builder, one of the targets of this case, could easily find themselves damaging a motherboard trying to put in an expansion card or connecting cables due to the lack of support under the motherboard.
With that being said once Antec addresses this and gets out a new run with the standoff holes the only draw back would be the filter and that is one that would be up to the individual to deal with.
Overall I feel that for the target audience Antec missed the mark. The Two Hundred has a few nice features for experienced hobbyists and a few flaws that will make it a potential mess for their target demographic. The Three Hundred remains in my eyes the better choice still.
Sometimes saving a few dollars is just not worth it.
While last week Intel rocked the $200 CPU price point with the i5 this week we see AMD offering a counter punch. The Athlon II X4 is a $100 processor that has quad cores. Will a $100 processor be able to deliver, lets find out..
The Athlon II X4 is essentially a Phenom II minus the L3 cache. This is a true quad core processor that is fully AM3 ready. This means you have the options of a less expensive AM2+ with DDR2 solution or the AM3 with DDR 3 option. The particular model I was given access to by AMD was the Phenom II X4 620, this chip runs at 2.6 GHz and is in a 95 watt TDP package.
The move by AMD to bring this chip to market at the $100 price point is bold. Especially when you realize that at this price point you can find quite a few processors with faster clock speeds. While the other processors at this price point are only duals and a triple or two the faster clock speeds means that in most programs today they will be faster than the quad. However I believe AMD is looking to tomorrow when more multi-threaded applications will make this chip a real beast.
The most direct competition fro this processor comes not from Intel but rather AMD itself. At the $70 price point we see the Athlon II X2, at the $100 price point the Phenom II X2 and just a little more money, the $120 price point the Phenom II X3. This makes a convoluted mess of the processor selection at this price point.
For testing purposes I teamed up with the folks over at Hitechlegion. They tested the Athlon II X4 620 vs it’s most serious contender at price point, the Phenom II X3. I took a different approach and thought we should look at this chip against it’s big brother, the $150 Phenom II 910.
Now if you would like the full results from the 720 comparison jump over to Hitechlegion and check them out. However to summarize they found the chips where a toss up. The quad core stood strong with multi-threaded applications but the triple core strutted it’s stuff where pure clock speed was more important.
For my testing I had a dilemma, I did not have a 910 on hand but I did have a 905e. The 905 clocks at 2.5 GHz so with a very light bit of overclocking I was able to take it to a 2.6 GHz speed, making it match the 620. Now in all fairness this is not an accurate test of the 910 vs the 620 since a 905e overclocked even a little might have a small edge on the 910. However for our testing the results should be close enough.
First a comparison of the price point is not really worth the trouble, $100 vs $150 is a no brainer. Bother chips where put in a 785G motherboard with 4 gigs of Corsair memory and a HD 4850 for video. I threw a lot of programs at each, forced a lot of multitasking and gamed on it hard, running Supreme Commander, The Witcher, EVE and Batman to gain subject comparisons to the computing experience.
The results where a dead heat, no one using both systems could tell any difference in the experience of using the computer. Programs all ran smooth and game play was excellent. In fact so excellent that the experience was close to the i5 sitting on the desk next to me. Notice I said close, the i5 was still noticeably quicker but with all the machines running on a 22” monitor at the same resolution the Athlon II was really giving a great experience.
So dead heat for the two AMD x4 chips in computing experience and the Athlon II wins on price. Normally I would stop there since enough has been said but I was curious. The only difference between the 620 and the 910 was the presence of L3 cache. With this in mind I grabbed a few benchmarks and did some number crunching. On the average the the 910 comes out about 8% faster across the board. Now to quantify that number, if you have a job that takes 10 minutes on the 620 on the 910 it would take 9:12 seconds. That is a very overly simplistic example without specifics and the differenced would vary on a number of variables but that is the difference of 8%.
With the Athlon II X4 coming up as a dead heat against the X3 720 and being right on the heals of the Phenom II X4 910 you find that for $100 this is an amazing chip. It easily has the muscle to provide a great family based PC that will do well in any task at a reasonable price. In fact I would expect in the next year to see a slew of $500 machines from the various cookie cutter companies all based on this chip.
Now as I said we did this testing on a 785 based motherboard and that is the platform AMD is shooting for with this chip. The 785G has solid integrated video and combined with this chip you can deliver a motherboard and processor for less than $200 for the DIYer on a budget.
The motherboard I was able to play with for this testing was made by MSI, the 785GM-E65. I have had the opportunity over the last few weeks to play with 785G based boards from Asus and Gigabyte. I can tell you that the MIS board is in my opinion the BEST of the lot. The board has the integrated video provided by the 785G complete with sideport memory of 128meg. This helps increase the performance of the onboard graphics. These still use shared system memory as well.
The board is a micro-ATX design with surround sound capability built in; VGA, HDMI, and DVI for video output; 6 USB ports and an E-SATA port on the rear connections.
It used to be that to find a quality build of a motherboard you had to look at around the $120 price range and up. However this board uses a solid capacitor design and has been approved by AMD for support of 140 watt TDP processors. Add to this a cooling system for the power circuits around the CPU and you have a quality build at a budget price.
This is the type of board AMD is targeting for use with the Phenom II line up. The reasoning is simple. The integrated graphics provide an excellent solution at a good price for people that need a good everyday computer. However it can go farther with full support for HDMI output, even Blue Ray playback using the graphics built into the board.
While the onboard graphics are rated for use in DX 10 that does not mean it is capable of all levels of gaming. My testing shows that while it can handle casual gaming with ease you will be limited on more demanding gaming to lower resolutions. WoW was able to run pretty well at 1024×768 however the detail level had to be kept pretty light. Moving up to 1280×1024 the game became noticeably slower and the experience dropped off.
With the prevalence of 22” monitors now in the market place these resolutions are not what I consider a viable option any longer. Wide screen is now a true standard and that means 1440×900 or 1680×1050 are the resolutions a gamer will be typically shooting for. With this in mind the onboard graphics for this board work great of daily use but if you intend to game at all look into an inexpensive discrete video card. For only $100 you can get a 4850 or GTS 250 both of which can deliver outstanding gaming performance even at the 1680×1050 level.
I have to admit that when I heard about the Althon II lineup I was not impressed. I figured we would just see a convolution of chips in a small price range and nothing really added to the options of value. Well the convolution I figured would exist does but the Athlon II X4 is a definite value added chip to the line up. This chip brings quad core power to the truly budget minded, and more of us are of that mindset ever day.
The choice of this chip however becomes even stronger as Windows 7 and DX 11 comes over the horizon. One of the features in DX11 is the inclusion of good multi-threading support. Some developers are already reporting a boost of 20% when using this. What that means is that a quad core will see a nice performance boost in gaming as new titles make use of DX11. This makes the 620 a much better buy when compared to the X2 processors that populate this price point.
In the end of all this talk the truth comes down to how does the computer do when using in real life. I have three machines sitting in my work area; an i5, the 905e and the 620. I can tell you that there is no problem with me or anyone else using any of these three computers to enjoy the latest video game or do work. All three are on 22” monitors and all three deliver an outstanding experience for use.
If you are looking for the ultimate budget build, the Phenom II X4 will not steer you wrong.
(Thank you to AMD for the processor and motherboard used in this review)
I have talked here often about the ability of new computer builders and especially gamers to know enjoy a nirvana of sorts when it comes to low cost gaming rigs. AMD truly began this push back in the original Phenom days but with the Phenom II and the 4000 series video cards they have really allowed the tree they planted to bare fruit. If you doubt that there is fruit there then you have to look no farther than the latest Intel release, the i5 to see others care seeing the fruit as well.
The Intel i5 hit my door almost 2 weeks ago and i have had the opportunity to play with it quite a bit. Now as listeners of my show, followers of my blog or people the read my forum posts know, I am a proponent of the budget to computing experience philosophy. What I mean is I do not compare benchmarks, I comparing computing experience to price. This has left Intel out of many of my build suggestions of late due to the higher cost of the using the i7. However the i5 has changed the playing field.
Coming in at a svelte $200 price point the i5 is in direct competition with the AMD Phenom II 955 and 965. To make this competition even stronger Intel released a new chipset that brought the price point in line as well. The new Intel boards based on the P55 are priced right with the 790 series boards. So from a pure price point perspective we have a tie with Intel and AMD.
Moving into the computing experience we find that all three processors deliver an identical computing experience. Programs load and run just as smooth on all three, game play for all three was perfect. You would not be able to tell which processor was in a system based on just sitting at them the experience is truly identical.
With my two major test points showing a dead heat I was left to fall back to the third I previously mentioned I do not use, benchmarks. Now I wanted to measure not just the processor like so many “pundits” do. I want to show how the overall computing experience is effected so for my personal testing I build an Phenom II 965 with an Asus 790FX board and the i5 with a Gigabyte P55-UD3R. I used a EVGA GTX 275 for each and put in 4 gig DDR3 memory set at 1333 for speed. I did no tweaking on either system except to set the RAM speed. Worthy of note the Gigabyte board found the RAM speed and hit it perfect at default, including timings. Both systems have a clean Windows 7 Professional install, the latest drivers and then we fired up PC Mark.
I chose PC Mark because it does not just measure one aspect of the system, it tests the WHOLE system. I wanted to see how an AMD based system compared to the Intel platform.
The results showed the Intel processor having about a 12% advantage in the overall PC Mark score. The various categories traded blows but the i5 stayed on top with ranges from 3% to as much as 18%. The general consensus from this testing is clear the i5 is a faster processor. With all other aspects being equal there is no doubt the i5 is currently the king of the $200 price point.
What does this mean to you as a beginning system builder or gamer. It means that if you are building a new system today and are budgeting around $200 for the CPU the i5 is the clear choice.
This is a serious hit for AMD as this moves back their mark. Up until the i5, AMD was ruling the lower price points. In fact up to the $200 price point before this I felt AMD was the clear choice. However now while I feel AMD is the clear choice up to the $150 price point, I now feel Intel has the $200 price point firmly in hand.
While most see this as a slap in AMDs face I see this as a pat on AMD’s back. Their budget computing, mainstream approach is working and Intel has responded to it. To Intel I say welcome to our world. You have raised the bar and in doing so have just given us more choices and the potential for a more exciting future.
Now this is not the end of this post however, you see in getting the i5 for testing I got other toys. I will be talking about these on the air as well but felt they deserved a little text time as well.
Gigabyte was kind enough to send me their P55-UD3R motherboard. This is their mainstream entry into the i5 side of the market and the board is set to impress. A 3 year warrenty with all solid capacitors means this board is durable. The board has 4 memory slots with dual channel support as well as a mess load of ports on the back.
There are 8 USB ports and 2 eSATA meaning this board can connect just about anything you would like to it. While it lacks a Firewire port this is NOT a big deal as that port type is dying a steady death. Speaking of dying would someone please tell these companies to kill the PS2 port. The dual port offered here if for an older keyboard or mouse but the odds are the person buying this is building new and will have USB.
The actual board layout is pretty standard fare but I do like the cooling solution offered around the CPU.
This board is very well constructed and reasonably priced at around $130. This board, as with all boards of course comes with the load of extra software designed to help you tweak the board. Personally I never install this stuff as if I need to tweak I will go into the BIOS and do it myself.
I was very happy with the fact however that I did not need to tweak this board. Unlike so many boards that default to lowest settings this boards base settings where nicely middle of the road. It delivered my RAM at default to 1333 speeds and even set the latencies to the proper 7 settings. This is the first board at this level of build that I did not have to tweak to get running where I wanted it.
Now all this gushing does not mean this board is perfect. The board is rated for crossfire but if you want to run dual video cards I would look at other boards. The second PCIe slot is only rated to 4x, this works good for using a second nVidia card for a dedicated PhysX card but not for Crossfire. Also for some reason Giabyte chose to put in 4 PCI slots but only 1 PCIe X1 slot. I really think they got this backwards personally as I have not seen a PCI slot used on a new build in a long time, especially at this level.
Overall I felt this was a solid board and an excellent compliment for the i5 chip. The PCIe limitations for video cards to me is a minor issue since again at this level Crossfire is not a normal options. It is much more common to see a user buy a single video card with enough power instead of two to equal the power he needs.
Now to tie this whole post together. We now see Intel taking the beginning DIYer and Budget gamer market a bit more seriously. When AMD moved to this marketing strategy a lot of people laughed at them. However time has shown this was a brilliant move and it has work well for them to gain some ground. However Intel has finally seen this and has stepped hard and fast into these waters.
This however is nothing but good for the consumer. This means AMD will have to innovate faster to keep pace and this means we as consumers will see better processors and better prices begin to flow from both companies.
Thank you to Intel for the i5 processor and Gigabyte for the P55-UD3R motherboard used in testing.
Now do not get me wrong, I know that some people want to do this and in some cases the overclock is a big boon. I remember back in the day I would take a Celeron 300 to 450Mhz and marvel at the fact I could run games and software at speeds not possible with the chip at default settings, but that was then.
The truth is today there is little need to ever overclock except in the case of making sure yours is bigger than your neighbors. (I think you all know what I mean)
I mean seriously how much overclock does a computer need when the lower end $60 dual core chips can deliver solid computing experiences. Oh I know the argument that the “benchmarks” show an improvement. I agree they do but benchmarks are a clinical study of performance. They offer sterile numbers that to most people have little to no meaning in real life. In terms of computing experience overclocking seldom shows a real benefit. At least when you consider the gains.. I mean lets take a minute and really look at this..
You but your computer and decide from the start you are going to overclock. So you pay extra for a 3rd party heat sink and extra for a motherboard that cools better, don’t forget a PSU with more juice and a case with better cooling. Now I know none of this is needed to do lesser overclocks but if you do not intend to do it right why do it I always say. So we start the process spending about $100 (conservatively) than we would have normally. Here is an odd thought, why not use the $100 we just spent to step up to a faster processor? Okay anyway lets move one.
So we have all our parts and the computer is put together, now comes the overclock. We want to do this right and for max effect so we begin the process of playing with voltages, multiplier, clock speeds, RAM settings and such looking for the fastest we can set and still boot. After about 2 hours of tweaking, and yes some people spend that long and LONGER, you have found the spot you like. You now fire up software to test the stability of the system. Your will drop most of the rest of the day finding the sweet spot on your computer. However at the end of the day you have a stable overclock that has only cost you about 10 hours work and $100 extra.
Now get down to using your PC. You will notice that in the real world that overclock has not done much. You still play the same games and likely on the same settings. Even nVidia has some out and shown that a faster video card has more impact on game play than a faster processor. But you did get a 3% to 5% frame rate boost, so now instead of 100 FPS you get 105 FPS. When put that way it is not nearly as impressive is it?
But wait, people do more than play games they also play and rip music. Very true and for music the overclock is even less useful than for gaming. In fact the measurable gains in music ripping and playing is so minor as to be none existent. Want a better music experience, go buy better speakers, they will have more impact and take less effort.
Well DUH we all knew it would not effect music but what about making DVDs, the conversion time is cut down thanks to the overclock. This is actually very true, you can see some pretty measurable improvements in this area. However are they worth it, lets find out. Lets take a Phenom II X4 955 and overclock it to 3.8 GHz. Now then this will actually cut the time for converting home movies over to DVD by about 4.5 minutes per full DVD. I can see the extremists already cheering, 4.5 minutes, see it does have an impact.
Consider this for a moment however, you spent about 10 hours total of your life getting your computer to the max speed and stable. So you need to burn 134 DVDs or 268 hours of video to break EVEN with he time you have invested. Now in fairness to all the numbers I am offering are to the extremes a bit but I think my point is clear. The return from investment for overclocking is just not there for most people.
Now to make things even worse we now have hardware companies hyping overclocking as some kind of holy grail. They offer utilities to make it easier, and special parts designed to help overclocking. The funny part though is they are not offering these things with the lower end products in mind but rather their top end. What is the message they are sending, our top end is good but not great you need to use these ultilities and special features to realize the full potential. What!? Why not just buy a faster chip? I mean are they seriously telling us their top end product sucks unless we overclock it? That’s the message the hype the industry pushes seems to be.
In fairness it is not entirely their fault, we have web sites that push the same crap. One major website actually published an article that concluded by saying the Phenom II X3 720 had to be overclocked to be a viable choice. Now of course they where pushing it against much more expensive and powerful processors and are resolutions that someone looking to keep cost down, those likely to buy the X3, would not be playing at. However the fact that it even came out of their site was amazing to me. The sad part is they are not alone. For many of these sites it is not enough to buy the best processor, now you must push it to extremes.
With a serious shortage of sites to get the word out with the real world users in mind the industry has no choice but to cater to the enthusiast, or better extremist sites.
Overclock however has downsides to it’s up they people do not spend time talking about. How about the fact that it turns off the energy management features of the processor to attain the best overclock. This means increased costs of operation. How about the fact it voids the warranty, even on so called overclocking friendly chips? Lets not forget it produces more heat, and increases the odds of system failure or instability.
In the end overclocking in my opinion is just not worth the effort. Now there is a time when it is however. When you have an older system that has drug down and you want to get a few more months out of the old girl before you get a new PC. Overclocking can give that extension of life. However for a new build it makes no sense.
When you buy or better yet build a PC, get to the power level you want it to be at. Buy a chip that at stock speeds you are 100% happy with. If you are really determined to overclock do so as a desire not a need. Do not count on the overclock to achieve the performance you need, use it as a bonus.
Also if you intend to overclock do it right. Buy a good heatsink, make sure you get lots of cooling. Do not do it part way, do it all the way.
To overclock or not to overclock it purely a personal choice. There is no right or wrong, it is about how you want to spend your time and money. However to try and make someone believe that overclocking is needed and something everyone must consider is pure hype.