Will my new desktop be an HTPC?

It’s been several years since microATX motherboards became commonplace, kicking the Home Theater PC movement into high gear. While researching hardware to build a new desktop computer, I ran into an interesting question: Can it be an HTPC? The “HT” part of the quotient would require it to be able to connect to my television, which is currently in a different room than my desktop, and I want to be able to still sit down at the computer. I don’t want heavy VGA running from the machine down the hallway. So it seems like I’ve only got a couple of options:

  1. Run cables down the hallway, and hope M doesn't notice. (Good luck).
  2. Wireless video. Half junk, half expensive vapor.
  3. A thin client like a Sun Ray on my desktop.
  4. Give up and pick either a new desktop, or an HTPC.

Right now, option 3 sounds the most promising. There are a handful of people who have talked about hooking high-end thin clients up to their TV to act as a home theater interface, but I’ve found no discussion of doing it the other way, as far as I can tell. I’ll be investigating this deeper over the next few weeks. But experimentation might be too expensive; I might just end up going for option 4.

USB cable nastiness

I am in need of a product that I am virtually sure exists.  I can’t, for the life of me, seem to find a place that sells this product — although I suspect that’s just a difficulty with putting my thoughts into search terms.  I also am even having a difficulty envisioning what it might look like.  So I ask for your help.  I need some way to easily keep all of my different USB cables (iPod, Palm, phone, camera, video camera, et al) as easily accessible and not-ugly as possible.  Requirements:

  • A hub, or at least some way to not have to reach around my tower to get the right cable plugged in.  I only have six USB ports, and including my keyboard, mouse, and printer, I have far more devices, so there currently ends up being a lot of juggling.
  • Some sort of cable hiding solution.  Cable ugliness is the number one cause of premature death, followed closely by the goddamn Nihilanth.
  • The cables should be easy to remove, so that I don't have to spend fifteen minutes pulling one out just to bring it to a friend's house.
Just a simple USB hub that I can plug things into solves the biggest part of the problem: the pain of juggling.  But I still have to keep the cables neatly tucked away in a little bin next to the desk.  Is there a better solution that I'm missing?  I can't be the only person with this problem.

WWDC 2006

Is anyone else unimpressed with Apple’s WWDC announcements today? They’re cool, I guess, but there was no real bang. Certainly no surprise. I suppose if I had a Mac, I might be excited about some of the Leopard details, but none of them seem especially groundbreaking to me. The Mac Pro was not only rumored for weeks, but doesn’t seem especially spectacular or surprising. (Let’s see, Macbook, Macbook Pro, iMac, Mac Mini.. Hmm.. What else could they transition to Intel?)

Okay, 16GB of RAM and 2TB of disk in a desktop is pretty impressive. But.. I dunno. What am I missing?

Recent Desktop Woes

The biggest disadvantage to building your own desktop is that when things go wrong, you actually have to figure out what it is. A couple weeks ago, in the middle of a game, my desktop shut itself off. It would no longer get so far as POSTing, and sometimes the power supply wouldn’t do anything when I hit the power button. After some fiddling, I determined that it was most likely the motherboard, and since I had a three-year warranty, I sent it back to MSI for repairs.

When a different motherboard (of the same model) came back, it still wasn’t working. This narrowed it down to the (cheap) power supply or the (less cheap) processor. I randomly came across a great rebate deal on a 350W power supply at CompUSA, so I ran there and purchased it. I was lucky, and that did it. It only cost me ten dollars in the end, and my computer now seems quieter, too.

I only wish it hadn’t taken a month.

Tungsten X

I’m starting to really like the looks (not to mention the rumored specs) of the upcoming PalmOne Tungsten X (a.k.a. LifeDrive). Since my current PDA is a six-year-old Handspring Visor, this would be a tempting upgrade.

Unfortunately, it’ll probably end up costing nearly as much as the LCD screen I’m fantasizing about considering.

3par service

Our new 3par storage mega-arrays at work are something else. They have some amazing hands-off features, and are extremely fast, but they also call home. They send the manufacturers statistics and apparently also our configuration information. It's a little disconcerting, but it does have one interesting advantage. Occasionally, they notice something is wrong before our NOC does:

From: Ken Hardin
Sent: Saturday, April 09, 2005 10:01 PM
To: Unix System Administrators
Subject: Transfer overdue for 3PAR InServ

We received an alert from our monitoring system indicating it has not received a heartbeat file for over 4 hours from one of your 3PAR InServ storage servers (serial number [XXX], called nw-3par-02, in CT). The last time we heard from it was around 15:30 EDT (today, 4/9/05), and at about the same time there were network errors reported by the other InServ (S/N [XXX]). This probably indicates some type of network problem.

Sun Rays

My boss at work just told me we’re going to be getting ten old Sun Rays that he found on eBay for something like $20 apiece. We’re going to put a Sunfire v20z behind them, probably running Xen. That’s a dual-Opteron beasty with 8GB of RAM. They’re fast, and they’ll be about a kajillion times better than my current 500MHz desktop. I’m really super excited about this.

Update 6 Apr: We got the Sunrays in today. They're exactly as awesome as I expected.

Dissecting the iPod shuffle

Dissecting the iPod shuffle

Macworld Expo rumors

Macworld Expo starts tomorrow, and here’s a good rundown of all the rumors. It’s been difficult to see the wisdom of some of Apple’s decisions lately (although, like Jack Bauer, they were eventually shown to be right). But just about everyone sees immediately that both the flash iPod and the headless iMac are ridiculously good ideas.

Update: iPod shuffle, Mac mini (no i?)

Why Blu-Ray has already won

Blu-Ray? HD DVD? Confused by the tech? Unsure why you should even care yet? Gizmodo presents a good overview called Blu-Ray Has Already Won.


In the same vein as the PSone, here comes Sony’s PStwo. (Okay, that’s not the real name, but it should be). That thing is ridiculously tiny. Barely more than an inch thick and one-quarter of the volume of the original. Yikes.

New machine benchmarks

Just some quick comparisons of benchmarks of my old machine (Athlon 800) and my new one:

Benchmark Increase
CPU int (dhrystone) 2.83x
CPU float (whetstone) 3.38x
CPU 3DNow! 2.49x
RAM int bandwidth 3.95x
RAM float bandwidth 4.05x
Cache and RAM "combined index" 3.77x
3DMark 2001 ~4.75x

I certainly don't think I have the most beastly machine in the world (Nomad has more memory and a pair of RAIDed SATA drives, for instance, and at least one person I know at work has a Radeon X800), but I'm amazed with how much faster this machine is than my old one. I guess that's what happens when you wait 5 years between upgrades.

Update 08-28: 3DMark 2003 benchmark for the new machine: 3811 3DMarks.
Update 08-30: Doom3 High Quality timedemo: 30.4 fps (I couldn't run Ultra Quality because I only have a half-gig of memory)

VPU Recover errors

For those of you having problems with VPU Recover errors with a brand new Radeon 9600XT (and the future me, the next time I reinstall), this page has the solution to all your problems. Turning off AGP Fast Writes and flashing my BIOS worked for me.

Update 20 Feb 2006: After getting a new motherboard and updating all of my firmware and drivers, I started having problems again. I found this page and tried some of the things on it. Setting AGP to 4x, in particular, seemed to help a lot.

Hard Drive Scam

I was doing research into hard drives for my new computer, since I’ve determined that my ancient Deathstar is really holding back everything. I saw good reviews about the new Hitachi Deskstar, and I happened upon this great deal. Check out the option dropdowns at the bottom though. Since “No” or “None” is the bottom choice on all of them, they’re all set to a non-free option by default. Click “order” without changing them all, and you end up with $346.90 on your bill, not $63!

Adventures in Power Supplies

Building a new computer can sometimes be a challenge. Not only do you need to know a lot of terminology and understand how everything goes together, but you also should do a good amount of research ([1], [2], [3]) into what’s most reliable and has the most nifty features. That’ll get you 90% of the way to a nice new machine on which you can play Doom 3.

The other 10% is luck. When you get your new Mobo, CPU, and RAM, and go to put it into the computer, and you discover that your 5-year-old ATX power supply is not the same thing as what your motherboard manufacturer means when they say “ATX power supply”, that’s not a good thing. Just to increase everyone else’s luck factor: newer motherboards (those for Athlon 64s and some XPs, and Pentium 4s) require a 4-pin “+12V connector” in addition to the standard 20-pin ATX connector. Here is the best information I’ve found on the matter (including how to decide how big of a PS to get!).

Update: Got a cheap POS from CompUSA. They have a lot of power supplies there.

New computer configuration

I think I've settled on the hardware for my new computer. I need to sleep on it though.

I'll probably ask for a 74G Western Digital Raptor (10k SATA) hard drive for my birthday. The video card decision was extremely difficult, but it came down to the fact that the Radeon 9700s were $50 more expensive from any vendor with more than a 70% rating on Pricewatch. This way, maybe I won't feel so bad about upgrading to an X800 or something in a couple years.

Update, 08-13: Slept on it, ordered mobo, CPU, and better memory than I had originally considered (with free FarCry, and a $30 rebate) from ZipZoomFly. Update 2: Ordered video card and keyboard from Newegg.

Sun and Quantum Tunneling

My mom does reliability testing of computer chips for IBM. Once in a while I see a story that reminds me of her. For example, Sun Microsystems is trying to make a wireless chip. Although they’re using proximity communication instead of the far faster (and completely uncontrollable) quantum tunneling, it does sound neat. The computers of the future could just look like a bag of dice.

Fast Opteron servers

At work, we got new dual-Opteron SunFire v20z’s for the newly-acquired TravelWeb. I got to test one. First thing I decided to do was a distributed.net client benchmark.

  Desktop: Intel Pentium 4 2.4GHz, 512K L2 cache, 512M RAM.   Opteron server: Dual AMD Opteron 248 2.2GHz, 1M L2 cache, 2G RAM.

Dnetc benchmarking only runs on a single processor, but I ended up with the Opteron running twice as fast as my desktop. I’m in love.