Tuesday, April 20, 2010

How Benchmarks Don't Stack Up

An interesting coincidence occurred today. AMD posted an article about how synthetic benchmarks don't represent the real world. This is yet another example, one a little more scientific than my previous posts on rethinking your choice for computer hardware (Intro, CPU, Motherboard).

In my prior posts I never came out and stated it so clearly, but the message was implied that simple metrics like CPU speed, FSB speed, or in this case benchmark results, don't necessarily paint an accurate picture on the overall system level performance of your new computer rig. What is most important is that, when selecting a new computer or computer components for do-it-yourselfers, you research each component and how well they communicate with each other.

Just like there are bottlenecks within networks, there are bottlenecks within computers. Loosing 2% performance on a single component may make zero difference to the system of a bottleneck exists elsewhere. Save the cost of the component and spend that money on improving the performance of the bottleneck. How do you find your bottleneck? That's a catch-22, because you need to run benchmarks in order to find it.

Here is a list of common benchmarks, care of Wikipedia.
There are plenty of others. It doesn't take an internet genius to do a Google search to find them.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Mother of All Boards

Continuing my quest for a new desktop PC / workstation, I find myself searching for the perfect place to mount all the components. Since I decided to go with what I know, including anecdotal proof of why AMD is the right processor for me, I now have to find a compatible motherboard to mount it to.

This is one of those areas that I have to again decide to "go with what you know." The dizzying array of vendors, makes, and models of motherboards would confuse even the most technocratic junkie among us. The spectrum has to be narrowed and the easiest way to do that is to go with a recommended brand name. I have built two PCs in my days, both lasting over 5 years before becoming obsolete (with component upgrades along the way), and each time I chose an MSI motherboard. I have had no complaints to speak of, but there have been a couple sporadic issues that I haven't been quite able to pin down. One recent issue, though, is that a memory slot got lose, making it unusable. Since this motherboard requires matched pairs of memory, I'm short two slots and therefore only have half the memory capacity I want. (Of course, my computer is over 5 years old and I've been making period memory upgrades. The lose slot could have been self induced.)

This time around, based on recommendations from friends who also build PCs, I'm going to try a Gigabyte motherboard. Hopping over to Newegg, I start searching for Gigabyte motherboards that are compatible with AM3 chips (the Phenom II that I selected earlier). This narrows my choice down to 12 motherboards.

Narrowing the choices from this point are pretty easy. For example, USB 3.0 is the latest standard. I expect my computer to last a while, so I want it. I use an ATX form factor for my mid-size tower. Those two options narrow my selection down to 3 choices, which I can easily compare.

There are many specifications to motherboards. In all honesty, most of them won't make much difference to the average user. A few key features:
  • Front Side Bus (FSB) Speed - this is a bit of a misnomer, but still is somewhat representative of how quickly the components mounted to the motherboard communicate with each other. Because of changing chip technology and processes performed on-chip, comparing FSB between vendors or Intel vs. AMD can not always be done 1 for 1.
  • North Bridge - This will take research because unless you follow the PC industry closely, the code names on North Bridge (and South Bridge) will mean just as little to you as the code names for the CPUs.
  • South Bridge - see North Bridge.
  • Memory Standard - Shows how fast your memory is. Faster usually equate to better performance and you have to make sure you buy memory sticks that match.
Even if you have an AMD CPU, you can still get a motherboard with an nVidia (North Bridge) chipset. When I started looking at the technology behind the bridges, mainly by researching Gigabyte's, Intel's, and AMD's website, I noticed something new.

In the past, since I was more comfortable with nVidia graphics cards, I chose a motherboard with nVidia chipsets. They should "communicate" better with each other. What I've noticed, though, is that there is still a bit of lag, or incompatibility, or other sporadic issue with my setups that wouldn't allow me to squeeze out all the possible performance I should be getting. That's why this time around I spent more time and looked into using an AMD chipset with an ATI graphics card (and the fact that ATI has greatly improved since being purchased by AMD). My thoughts, keep it all in the family and everything should run smoother.

The latest chipset on the market for AMD is the 890GX. The price difference in motherboards between the earlier 790-series and the 890 is not too bad, so it is worth buying the latest tech if I want this computer to last. I tried comparing the options to an nVidia North Bridge motherboard and there really was no comparison. This was the final straw that put me over the edge to buy a complete AMD/ATI system instead of an AMD/nVidia hybrid. Using an AMD CPU, and AMD chipset, and an nVidia graphics card is really not a wise decision for high performance, stable computers, capable of being overclocked. It was time for me to really take a close look into ATI graphics cards. Not only was I surprised at how well the tech level of ATI compared to nVidia (not something you hear very often in the market), but I was also able to find a contact at AMD that answered my technogeek questions comparing nVidia technologies to ATI technologies and open standards.

If I haven't said it enough already, AMD and ATI has really surprised me. My default line of thinking has been shifted and I am switching sides for a while - assuming my wife lets me buy a new computer. Here's to competition and seeing the best of technologies coming from both sides of the field.

(I would like to continue this to expand on what I learned from my contact at AMD, but I will deviate as I cover some interesting highlights from COFES 2010. Stay tuned.)

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Selecting the CPU

The first thing I do when building a new computer is start with the CPU. As mentioned in my previous post, I prefer AMD chips. It’s a personal preference and if I were to follow my own advice from that last post, I really should research and not just buy the comfort brand. Despite my contradiction, sometimes you just have to go with what you know. After all, we’re not all industry analysts and we all can’t keep up to date with every bit of changing technology.

To start the CPU search, head to the home page of the CPU of your choice and research what the latest in chips are. I can never remember the chipset names. For AMD, I can only remember the Athlon, Sempron, Phenom, and Opteron names and the general classification they are used in. In my opinion, Athlon is a chip near the end of its life cycle, being replaced in desktop PCs and workstations by the Phenom II. Opteron is still the server class. And Sempron is something that readers of this blog should not even consider unless buying a PC for your child… that doesn’t game.

During the days of single core CPUs, the best chip to buy was the highest clock speed at the price break. In other words, I could spend an extra $10 or $50 to get the next increment in clock speed. Once I got to the $200 increment, I didn’t bother going any faster. I still keep the pricing website bookmarked. With today’s multi-core chips, changing cache sizes, and different Front Side Bus (FSB) speeds (or equivalent technologies), clock speed is no longer the only criteria for value. As a matter of fact, many applications are still single threaded so you should just buy the fastest clock speed you can afford therefore making the decision easy. (SWGeek is starting a good series on PC building on his new blog and you can learn more about CPUs by linking here.)

I’m selecting the AMD Phenom II X2. None of the applications I typically run can utilize 4 cores. No reason to spend the extra money. I really like the idea of the energy efficient models, even if they are 4 core, and would consider the cost difference if the clock speeds were higher. That narrows me down to model numbers 545, 550, 550 “Black Edition,” and 555 “Black Edition.” There is very little price difference, so my choice will be dependent upon what available on Newegg at the time I make my purchase.

It just so happens to turn out that my preferred chip (AMD) happens to be on the upper curve from the last post so I do get to stick with what I know AND follow my advice as posted. (You can get more information on Which is better NOW by PCStats.com even though they don't agree with me.) There certainly is some great technology in Intel’s core i5 and i7 chips, but not enough to push me into buying an Intel chip when I combine the whole system performance. In my next session, I talk about selecting the right motherboard. It’s doesn’t matter how fast your CPU is if the motherboard can’t move the information around quick enough. Motherboard technology is where, in my opinion, AMD inches ahead of Intel in terms of overall system performance. Following that will be why I think ATI graphics are currently a “step” ahead of nVidia.

Also see AMD CPU Roadmap from pcgameshardware. I may just hold off on buying a new PC to get the 32nm chips.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Rethink Your Default Graphics Card - Watching Industry Trends

I am not an industry analyst, by as an engineer I do have an ability to track trends. As I try to convince my wife that the tax refund we will be getting is best spent on a new computer for me, I have been researching components for my next big gaming CAD rig. (Not to mention the need for it to handle CADVille.) During my research, I found a repeating trend.

I should start by stating I've always been a fan of AMD CPUs. In my personal experience, they handle heavy math processes (like CAD, FEA, matrix and mathematical computations) better than Intel. No proof, just experience. I've also been more inclined to use nVidia based graphics cards. nVidia is the marketing name everyone recognizes and they appear in all the ads for best performance for specific applications, like the app was designed specifically for nVidia. I've also heard bad stories about ATI drivers and complex steps to update ATI video drivers. But as I was researching components for my potential new computer, I found something interesting which reminded me of the trend I have seen in the past.

Here's the trend I've noticed.
This is a simplified depiction of the trend. In it, you see both Intel and nVidia having technological leaps over time. (I depict a square saw-tooth pattern, but I do not mean to imply that the technology from these companies flat line. That is hardly the case; this is just a simplified illustration.) These are the big PR and marketing announcements that ring through the industry. On the other hand, AMD and ATI continually make steady improvements to their product lines over time. No big break throughs, no giant marketing campaigns, just steady growth. If you were to change the axes to Performance vs. Cost, you can see a steady increase in value from AMD/ATI and a step increase from Intel/nVidia. This trend matters because it clearly shows that there are times when nVidia is a better buy than ATI and when ATI is a better buy than nVidia. The same goes for AMD or Intel. If I were to put my finger on a point in the curve where we are now, I would place it somewhere at a point where AMD/ATI are slightly above the curve for Intel/nVidia in terms of value.

Not being very familiar with the ATI product line, I opted to probe AMD for some information on their cards, both the Radeon and the FireGL and try to figure out where the future of ATI graphics cards are going in terms of Win 7, DirectX 11, OpenGL, and some other technologies unique to ATI and how they compare to nVidia technologies. I managed to find someone willing to entertain my conversation and I was even showed a preview of the new FireGL V8800 model, not even released to the market yet. Let me tell you.... AWESOME!

Over the course of the next few blog posts, I will highlight what I'm learning about the latest in computer graphics. The thought I want to leave you with is this, don't just buy based on brand name and comfort. We're on a different point of the curve now, and your best value may just be with the brand you don't hear much about.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

CADVille FAQ

There has been a lot of questions about CADVille today. To make it more convenient on everyone, I have reproduced the original FAQ here.
FAQ:
  1. Will my friends be able to track my progress? Yes, we plan for CADVille to have a Facebook, Linkedin and twitter interface so as you build, trade, get or receive a gift, or unlock new tools, everyone on your network will know (look for the #CADVille Tag in Twitter).
  2. Does CAD Ville work with my Design system? We are providing an API called CADVilleOpen. If your cad system does not yet support CADVille, please call them right now and tell them “I want CADVille Support!”
  3. I do FEA. What about me? We are currently expanding the CADVille API to support the creation and trading of elements, nodes, and Solver tokens (good for 1 minute of solve time). Each “FEA analyst” starts with over a dozen nodes and elements!
  4. My company does not allow me to participate in social media or gaming while at work. Will I be able to use CADVille? Yes. When we charge your credit card, it will be listed under “Collaboration Tool”.
  5. My design tool only does 2D. Can I play too? Really? 2D? I guess we will let you play too but good luck selling your lines and circles and title blocks.
  6. This is really cool! Do you have any other product planned? Yes, we have several products under development. Watch for CADSquare, CADLife, CAD Wars, and World of CADCraft.
  7. This is a joke right? Yes. Many people are unaware of the April Fools tradition and we felt it necessary to include this in the FAQ and all product documentation.
Well, apparently it wasn't a joke to everybody.