Meandering Musings

Everything not fit to publish

Tragedy!

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One thing that really stresses me out and annoys me is when I have apparent computer hardware issues. It is difficult for me to diagnose and debug. My kingdom for hardware that has a switch to turn on debugging.

I am pretty sure it was a hardware issue. Of course, the problem first manifested last summer in Windows. It is always Windows. Things were bad in Microsoftland before they fired their entire Windows QA team, and now it is much worse. There is a reason I set the updater to be 9 months behind. There are precious few legitimate reasons for me to even run Windows, but there are a few. To my shame, I don’t even have a dual boot system anymore. I just run OpenSuse in VMWare Player. Nothing I am doing right now requires Linux to run natively, and it is convenient. Sadly, I am getting lazy in my old age.

Anyway, what happened is after Windows updated itself, it would blue screen on reboot. One more rant. Why on earth does Windows insist on rebooting on every update, even non-kernel updates? Those “preparing to update” and “updating” messages on both sides of a reboot are laughable and annoying. With Linux, only kernel and a few other core updates require a reboot, and then it is just a reboot, none of this configuring nonsense. That Windows does it is bad engineering; and why they haven’t fixed that embarrassment is a mystery to me. There is a reason I never applied to Microsoft and didn’t even go to their recruitment meetings. Okay, no more rants about Microsoft.

What happened on reboot was a page fault. That is a program trying to read in an area of memory it isn’t allowed to. More specifically, it was a page fault in a non-paged area and I confess confusion about how that is possible. If it is non-paged why is there a page error and why in the name of Odin is there an area of memory that the OS is not allowed to access? I had assumed it was a normal Microsoft derp and ignored it for a while. I had other problems to deal with. Honestly, I didn’t care much since most Windows 10 updates add software I already deleted and tries to turn Cortana back on, so it always requires more work to shut down all the crapware and spyware.

It kept happening, it even forced updates and reboots even though I have Windows 10 Pro and shut that down. Over and over it happened the past few weeks. The repair tool couldn’t repair it and had to keep reinstalling Windows. Happily, I keep multiple backups of my data so nothing was lost, except time.

Good thing I did not pay for Windows 10. Come to think of it, other than the MS tax on laptops, I don’t think I have ever given Microsoft money. When I was in school, I got XP, Vista, and 7 for free and got 10 using my free 7 key. That makes me happy.

So I did some research on the issue. There were a lot of potential fixes in software, and none of them helped. Uh oh. That narrowed it to a memory or motherboard issue. I thought it was just a memory problem and ran a series of memory tests on each of the 4 RAM sticks, and the tests came back okay. I tested all of them at once and was getting multiple errors.

I am 90% sure it is some hardware failing. Right now, it is a bad time to replace hardware. I build my computers myself, and I initially built this one in 2015, with only video, audio, and hard drive updates since then. Luckily I can keep those. I was just wanting to replace the memory. It is older DDR3 RAM, so prices for DDR3 have skyrocketed. 16 GB of RAM of decent quality was like $400 when I initially paid about $160 for it.

It’s possible that the motherboard is the problem. I really detest hardware problems.

The CPU is an Intel i5-4690 which is a nice CPU, even today. I always buy hardware with a good performance/cost ratio. The motherboard was an EVGA Z97 FTW, which is just okay. Their motherboards are not the greatest, but their support is the best in the industry. If it is a motherboard problem, getting a board that my CPU can fit in for under $500 is difficult. I paid around $150 for it initially.

It seemed risky to buy RAM only to find out the problem is the motherboard. That could be an $800 misadventure. I really didn’t want to buy computer hardware right now. In normal times I would sarcastically say “My motherboard is dying, what a tragedy! Now I will have to upgrade. That is just so sad!!!”.

I am spending a lot on landscaping right now, so it is less fun to say that sarcastically. I have a 0% credit card - that still pays about 3% back - and decided to divide it over 12 months to keep from lowering my bank account balance too much, too fast.

I wasn’t going to overpay for old hardware, so I looked at current systems. It really is a horrible time to buy computer hardware. It seems that the pandemic has hurt production, and hardware prices are mostly inflated when you can actually find them. Last summer had a severe fishing gear shortage, but they fixed that by the end of last year. I guess the computer hardware industry is struggling to catch up.

Since Intel has been messing up a lot the past few years and AMD finally got their act together, I decided to make the switch to AMD. I really wanted a Ryzen 5800x. It was supposed to hit the performance/price sweet spot, but prices are inflated. The cheapest I could find is $430. Worse, it doesn’t come with a heatsink, and I read that it runs hot, so it needs a good quality one. That adds at least $100 more. What I decided on was the Ryzen 3700x. It is a 3.6 GHz 8 core. 16 thread CPU like the 5800x but is an older architecture, so communication between the cores isn’t as good, so it is not as performant. It has more than enough cache on all three levels for my purposes, so it should be more than good enough. It is significantly better than my i5 in every benchmark I found. It is $330 with a good heatsink. That is way more than it should be, but supply is low. The good news is that AMD does not change CPU sockets as often as Intel, and the board I got can run either the 3700x or 5800x. In 2 or 3 years, if I need, I can replace it with the 5800x or possibly a newer CPU without swapping motherboards. That is something I never experienced with Intel. Each upgrade always required a new motherboard and memory.

I have a seething hatred for ASUS and their horrible support, so I went with an MSI board, the B550 Tomahawk. EVGA only makes Intel boards. Motherboards, especially consumer/gaming boards have such goofy names. The feature/price ratio was outstanding and was around $160. Everything has good quality heatsinks, including the two M.2 slots. I have several older spinning hard drives and one SATA SSD. The Z97 had an M.2 slot but not the kind that can accept an SSD drive, which made it pointless. So I decided to get an M.2 drive.

I typically buy Western Digital drives. They have never failed on me. I feel I was a little reckless in what I got. Since the M.2 slot is connected to PCI 4 I wanted to get some storage that could take advantage of it. I found the 1 TB Sabrent SSD that was faster than even the WD black drives. They advertised 5000 MB/s read and 3000 MB/s write speeds, about 10x that of my SATA SSD. I had never even heard of Sabrent, but the reviews all over the internet were great, and at $140 it felt like a good risk.

For RAM, I decided to upgrade from 16 GB to 32. It is a little sad that I felt the need to, an indictment on my field that software is bloating up so much. My last RAM was from Gskill(DDR3 2600 MHz), which does have a good performance/price ratio, but went back to Corsair this time. This company just seems more solid, although the two 16 GB sticks were more than they should have been. Stupid shortages. It was about $20 for Corsair Vengeance RGB 3600 MHz. Annoyingly, the RAM has multicolor LED’s lights on them. Why? The CPU fan also has “cool-looking” lights. My case is solid, and that light would be annoying even if I had a clear case. I like my dungeon dark.

I kept everything else, but I would like to upgrade my Nvidia 1060 video card, but not right now. Even if you could find a video card these days, they are 5-10x the price that they should be. Bitcoin miners were already inflating costs before the shortage happened. I can definitely wait and put about $50 a month away. In a year, supply and prices should be back to normal. Besides, that little factory overclocked 1060 is quiet and runs really well for an entry-level card. It is the little card that could. It was a huge jump in performance over the 960. I am thinking of getting a 3070 when sanity and supply prevail.

I love my EVGA Nu Audio card and will keep it until it dies. The clarity it produces in my Logitech Z623 400 Watt speakers is stunning.

My power supply is great, so there is no reason to swap that out.

$853 + tax for components that should have been closer $600 if not for the hardware shortage.

MSI B550 Tomahawk

This is a solid and well-thought-out board. It is not overcrowded, so putting in cards and plugging in all the wires from the power supply and computer case is easy, even for my low dexterity hands.

It has both a 1G and 2.5G LAN. I am not sure about the onboard sound. It is probably crap like all onboard sound. I shut it off in the BIOS since I have a great card. I do not typically enable sound in games, but I use it extensively for music, TV, and movies.

It has a lot of USB ports in the back, including some USB 3. Other than plugging in the receiver for my cordless keyboard and mouse, I have no use for them, I just use the ones in the front of my case.

It has a button in the back to flash the BIOS without a CPU installed which is a nice touch. A newer BIOS is required if you are installing a 5000x series CPU, so it will not even POST until you install it from a USB drive. The alternative would be to somehow get an older CPU, install that, so it can POST and make it possible to get into the BIOS.

The BIOS is easy to use. It has a simple mode and an advanced mode. The simple mode does enough for most people, I would think. I only needed to go into the advanced mode to turn on CPU virtualization. It has two preset overclock settings, and you can manually overclock in the advanced mode. For my hardware, the two overclock settings seem to be identical.

It’s funny, hardware companies used to do everything they could to thwart overclocking, back when it really added significant performance boosts. Now that it is less of an advantage, most hardware companies go out of their way to make their products as overclocking friendly as they can.

It saw my memory correctly and correctly set the timings.

The board has two M.2 slots. One is PCI 4, and the other PCI 3. I suppose that is to keep the price down. PCI 3 M.2 SSD’s are slower, but those are still very fast compared to SATA drives.

It has two PCI 4 x16 slots and two PCI x1 slots.

Why the SATA ports face to the right instead of up has been an ongoing mystery and source of frustration for me. Every single board that I have seen does it this way, so there must be a reason. I wish I knew why. I use all 6 SATA ports, and it is a struggle to plug all the cables in.

One potential problem is support. I tried to register this in my browser and the sticker had ID numbers that did not work, so I put in a request. It took a week for them to get back to me. I have never had to wait more than 30 minutes with EVGA.

Happily, the control panel that came on the disk that the board ships with managed to get this registered. Hopefully, there will be no problems.

AMD Ryzen 3700x CPU

I don’t typically overclock, but I tried the built-in overclock settings in the BIOS. With the stock cooler, it runs at a constant 4.3 GHz - instead of 3.6 GHz - with no problems. It is not a big deal as it will overclock itself to 4.4 GHz when demand increases. It runs very coolly. There likely a lot of room to overclock beyond 4.4 GHz. I don’t see a reason for that as it performs superbly as it is.

The supplied cooler is a breeze to install. It does have thermal paste applied already, which is nice. It is too easy to put too much or too little when applying it manually. It used to be that installing the heatsink/fan on the CPU was nerve-wracking. It took a lot of pressure to clip it in - I was always nervous about cracking the motherboard. It was very easy to not install it properly, causing overheating.

You would have to put a lot of effort into it to install this incorrectly.

The fan is very quiet most of the time. When the CPU gets hot, the fan can be heard but is not bad at all. Every component in my case runs quietly. The video card fan only runs when needed, and the same for my EVGA 850-watt SuperNova power supply. Yes, I have an excessively large power supply. It was on sale for $75 - cheaper than 550 Watt PSU’s - and I would never have to worry that I lack the power for upgrades and has a 7-year warranty. I am not one to recommend companies, but EVGA is an exception to that rule.

As for performance, benchmarks are 2-10x faster than the Intel i5 depending on what is being measured. It is a nice upgrade, but I am hoping I can get the 5800x or newer in about two years. I don’t obsess with benchmarks, which is why I am not posting any hard numbers. I don’t need an artificial benchmark program to tell me that my CPU isn’t performing well enough for my use-cases. Generic benchmarks are useful when shopping, so you won’t buy too little or too much. People overly concerned about benchmarks and posting their system scores all over the internet is like guys with trucks too large for their needs, or a middle-aged guy buying a Corvette.

I really wanted one of the AMD threadripper’s, but those are very pricey and more or less excessive for my use cases. I could find a use for all of those cores, occasionally.

Sabrent 1TB Rocket NVMe 4.0 Gen4 PCIe M.2

As I mentioned, they advertised 5000 MB/s read and 3000 MB/s write, but I am getting around 5500 MB/s write and 3800 MB/s read speeds with no slow down due to overheating. The M.2 heat sink on the motherboard works well. As long as this lasts a reasonable amount of time, this drive is outstanding.

There is not a lot to say about it. It is screaming fast and doesn’t cost that much more than a 1 TB SATA SSD.

Corsair Vengeance RGB Pro SL DDR4 3600

Other than the superfluous LED lights, these are very nice. This is a well-performing item. My only real gripe is that they are about $60 overpriced right now.

Like most high-performance memory, they do come with a nice heat sink. I am not sure if they could overclock well. Overclocking memory is difficult. One wrong turn will make them go haywire and cause severe stability issues. Adjusting between voltages and figuring out the correct timing can be fun though. If I get bored enough, I might try to overclock everything and do a write-up. I can guarantee the results will not be worth the effort, but hey, I have nothing but time to waste.

I wish I had purchased the 4400 MHz model, for some unknown reason, but prices are crazy. 3600 MHz is more than adequate though.

Results

Overall, it is fantastic, and I am sure the issue was the motherboard. It is like a brand-new computer because it pretty much is.

My audio card had a weird bug where the volume would drop, and the sound would get fuzzy. To fix it, randomly switching bitrate would fix it. That bug seems to be gone. As long as the hardware doesn’t start to die, it will be a very long time before I feel the need to build a new one for me. I was happy with my old system and would have kept it for a few more years if not for the problems. It used to be that building a new system every two years was justified. Now it is 8-10 years which is mostly fantastic. I do enjoy mixing and matching parts and putting computers together. I typically can match or exceed performance for computers from Dell or whatever, for 30%-50% of the retail price. The components I choose are much higher quality than you would typically find in retail computers.

One of my sisters needs some built for her healthcare adjacent business, and it was good to reacquaint myself with AMD before I build them for her. Too bad that so few people have desktop computers anymore, but I should still advertise custom-builds and see if there are any takers. Might be a fun side business. The only thing I hate is turning them on for the first time. I have never had a problem in all of my builds - other than the occasional forgetting to plug in a wire - but it makes me nervous that it will explode.

I burned out a lot of chips in the digital hardware lab at school. I guess retail hardware is idiot-proof enough to not die at my hands.

I bought all of them at Amazon, a first for me. I usually buy all of my hardware at Newegg. The return policy and ease of returns to Amazon made me go with them this time in case something goes wrong. Newegg makes you jump through hoops. I can just say “it doesn’t work” with Amazon and will swap it out without any fuss or extra cost. I guess I am losing my patience with such things.

I wish I had the equipment to test the Z97 to see if it is really failing, but I am not going to waste more money to find out. I will thoroughly test the memory and sell it if it passes muster. It would be great if I could get $200 or more for it. I will use the board to teach my grandson a bit about them. He hasn’t shown a ton of interest in computing. He is a curious and smart lad that is extremely interested in science.

At least my desktop can outperform my laptop now.

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