2009-12-09

Chronos Mk. IV

Chronos Mk. IV is now online.

Is it a secret military program? The codename for SkyNet? No, it's my new PC. It's replacing -- well, in some respects -- my last PC, Chronos Mk. III.

My last box was built four years ago, after I got a new job and saved up enough to build it. It was an Athlon 64 box that was upgraded two years ago with another hard drive, a new graphics card (GeForce 8800GT, replacing whatever was mid-range when I first built the machine), and a dual-core Opteron.

This year my best friend got me a Radeon 5770 as an early Christmas present. It's a good 50%+ performance improvement over the 8800GT. But graphics wasn't the only place where I found lackluster performance on the old machine. It was time for a full upgrade.

So, after some research and prioritizing and budgeting, I put together a machine for $1150 including display, but excluding the graphics card, which was a gift. Taking off the display and adding the graphics card would come out roughly even. It's the low end of midrange, but that doesn't mean I've had to sacrifice performance.

Chronos Mk. IV Specification:
  • Intel Core i5-750 @ 2.6GHz x 4 cores (up from 2.2GHz x 2 cores)
  • ASRock P55 Extreme motherboard
  • 4GB (2 x 2GB) Corsair XMS3 DDR-1600 (up from 2GB DDR-400)
  • 2 x 1TB Samsung SATA-II HD (up from 1 x 120GB PATA & 1 x 240GB SATA)
  • ATI Radeon 5770 (up from nVidia GeForce 8800GT)
  • Plextor DVD-RW with LightScribe (about the same as Chronos III's DVD-RW, with the addition of LightScribe, which is pretty awesome)
  • Sunbeam 680W high-efficiency modular power supply
  • CoolerMaster RC-690-KKN1-GP (last case was a CoolerMaster Centurion 532)
  • Samsung SyncMaster 2343 LCD (only $200 on newegg, and very high contrast and pixel density -- 2048x1152 in 23 inches!)
  • Windows 7 Professional 64-bit (up from Windows XP Home SP3 32-bit)
After four years, it doesn't take much to make a serious upgrade. And a serious upgrade it is. This thing is beyond snappy, at least compared to the old box. Maybe one day I'll get an SSD and really get a feel for fast, but in the meantime, this will do quite nicely. In the next two years or so I expect to upgrade the CPU and/or GPU -- the two-year half-upgrade worked well for me last time around, I don't see any reason to abandon the strategy; if anything, the rate of advancement is slowing down. If, in two years, SSD prices have fallen significantly (and some of the kinks have been worked out), that may be included in the half-stride upgrade.

It works fairly well with the processor technology cycle; a socket usually lasts about 2 - 3 years, which means if I buy when the socket is no longer brand-spankin' new (i.e., not agregiously overpriced), then two years later, I can buy a CPU upgrade on the cheap as they offload old inventory to make room for the next new socket type. GPUs, on the other hand, don't worry about the socket type -- the last non-backward-compatible slot change for graphics cards was several years ago with the change from AGP to PCIe). However, their lifecycle is much shorter; we see a slew of new graphics cards every year. That means a two-year upgrade plan nets you a graphics card two generations newer, so a midrange card at a modest price can bring a significant performance improvement. Very rarely does one need to worry about not being able to play a new game with a two-year-old card; the only concern might be not being able to max out all the graphics settings. But when you get your new card, you can max out all your old games, and play new games with very respectable quality.

Everything else can remain the same, barring any component failures, for four years, until it's time to bite the bullet and move up to the next big thing -- meaning a new socket, which means a new motherboard, which means new memory, and at that point you might as well just build a whole new box.

What am I using all this horsepower for? PC gaming, audio mixing and low-latency recording, image editing, and video editing. I can nearly max out all of my current game library (Neverwinter Nights 2, a relatively old game, still can't be run at maximum quality at full resolution; I either have to turn shadows down to medium, or turn the resolution down), and I have high hopes for the games I'm looking forward to right now (Supreme Commander 2, Starcraft 2).

I can run Reaper at latencies as low as 18ms with DirectSound. Using the DigiTech RP500 ASIO driver with Reaper x64 on Windows 7 x64 causes entire machine to hang, even the task manager is inaccessable, forcing me to force power-off. If anybody else is having has/had this issue, please post in comments -- a Google search didn't turn up much for me.

I'm happy with all of the components, but there's little to say that benchmarks and more-informed reviewers can't cover better than I can. Check out AnandTech if that's what you're looking for.

The case, however... I'm very happy with this case. My previous CoolerMaster tower I love dearly, and I've built several other people computers using the same case. It's roomy but not huge, it has excellent ventilation, and a clean, modern look. The CoolerMaster 690 is similar, but better -- the look is even more sleek, the ventilation even better, and the case is even easier to work with. I've even gotten used to having the power supply on the bottom.

The case offers a full grille front for ventilation, much like the Centurion 532, but they also made the back half of the top of the case a grille with space for two 120mm fans, directly over the CPU and memory. This provides excellent passive ventilation without fans, and a great spot for exhaust fans if you're planning on overclocking. The case comes with a 120mm fan in the front, next to the hard drive bays; one in the back, at the top; and one in the side, over the GPU. There is also a mounting for one more 120mm in the side, over the CPU, and one more in the bottom, between the PSU and drive bays. If you wanted, you could make this thing sound like -- and possibly generate -- a tornado. The motherboard tray is also drilled under the CPU, and the right side panel as well, providing back-side passive ventilation for the CPU and motherboard.

The hard drives mount without tools using plastic caddies. The cables face the left side of the case, meaning you have to remove both side panels to add or remove drives, but it does clean up cable routing inside the case, which could be a nightmare with the PSU next to the drive bays. The 5.25" drives are toolless, using a bracket that snaps into the screw holes on the drive with a sliding lock lever. The PCI backplates are also toolless, though I had to use one screw to mount my graphics card because part of the card wouldn't allow one of the toolless clips to snap into place, but the other did (it is a two-slot card).

The power supply mounting has rubber feet that the power supply sits on, and a foam rubber gasket between the power supply and the back of the case where it screws in, to isolate the vibration of the power supply from the case. So this can be a loud, cool case with many fans, or a cool, quiet case with few fans but plenty of passive ventilation.

The power and reset switches, and the power and HDD lights, are on the front right edge of the case, a little below mid-height. The springs are a little stiff for my tastes, but otherwise, no complaints. The ports are all on top of the case -- 2 USB, 1 FireWire, 1 eSATA, headphone & microphone -- which is convenient for me since I keep the case sitting on the floor. My previous case also had the ports on top, which I liked, but the power and reset buttons on top were a disaster -- I had to unhook the lead for the reset switch because my cats kept restarting my computer at inconvenient times. I hardly ever use the reset switch anyway. The new case is perfect for my needs.

Windows 7 is a solid upgrade as well; I skipped Vista entirely, just like I skipped ME. I've had no problems so far finding drivers, and had no compatibility problems, though apps not designed for Vista/7 seem to cause some aggravating problems with UAC; I've got a couple of apps that prompt me every time I open them if I'm sure I want to open them, which is infuriating. I found a fix that involves using the Application Compatibility Toolkit, which I've yet to try out, but I certainly hope it helps.

So far I've been able to replace Launchy with the new Start menu - same functionality for the most part, all I have to do is hit the Windows key instead of Alt-space. Aero is decent, if not mind-blowing, and it does a much better job of DPI scaling than XP did; my display has a high enough pixel density that turning up the interface DPI was a must, otherwise text and UI features were just too small to work with.

All in all, I'm very happy with the new machine; you can expect to see updates here if any of the components turn out to have serious problems or shortcomings that are not yet apparent.
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