Overheating Video Cards

Posted on May 31st, 2006 in Hardware & Software by andrija

About two weeks ago I came home from work only to find my screen blank.  No amount of coaxing would let picture be shown on any of my two monitors, and only upon reboot I’d get to see the picture again.  But the picture was not right – as if the video card (an EVGA 7600GT CO) got sick; white letters of the boot menu were marred with random pink stripes all over.  This is usually a sign of damaged video memory.  I took a look inside my case and found that the cable feeding the video card’s fan was disconnected.  So it was likely the card died due to overheating.

But wait a second there.  This was no ordinary heatsink/fan combo – it was top of the line Zalman VF Cu-900 (or something like that) pure copper beast, which I got for the purpose of having as quiet of a video card as possible.  While the heatsink it comes with seemed appropriate – it was made from copper too and was reasonably large considering this is only 7600GT – the fan it’s equiped with is loud.  Very loud.  This Zalman was much quieter, though not as quiet as you’d expect.  But at the lowest setting it was acceptable.

As I keep fiddling with my machine constantly, I must’ve somehow pulled the cable without noticing.  In addition to this, this was on the hottest day this year so far.

But it’s not that simple.  You see, the card was doing nothing when it died.  Display was in shutdown mode and did not have to produce any picture.  Combine that with a very large copper fan (for a video card) and the fact that when I touched it I found it too hot to keep my finger on, but not as hot as to get instantly burned.  From my experience this means that the temperature was about 60C.  Now, my previous card which was passive out of the factory (no fan, just huge heatsink) – Gigabyte 6600GT – was running 70 to 75C in idle.  And about 110C while running at full load!  While 7600 is die-shrinked compared to 6600 (90nm compared to 150nm if I remember correctly), it should still be easily able to handle this kind of temperature.

I took the card out and sent it off for RMA – incidentally, its replacement has arrived but I still have to go to the post office to pick it up.  But I was thinking about what had actually happened.  I figured that it was really unlikely that the graphics chip itself died.  It didn’t run any hotter in idle without fan than it would be with fan and under load, so I couldn’t see a problem there.  I figured out that perhaps some other component died, most likely memory – especially since the picture pattern I saw indicated memory problems – because no other component has a heatsink.  So basically, the graphics chip can handle a lot but the fan is on it not just to keep it cooler but to keep the heat off the card as a whole.  That made sense.  But I still did not expect it to die – what if I was playing a game?  The graphics chip would get just as hot and while there’d be some airflow, it shouldn’t make such a difference to kill other components.

Quite some time later while reading anandtech forums I ran into a post claiming widespread problems with latest generation of Nvidia video cards.  It seemed like people were having their cards die on them after only a short while (I had it only for a month myself) and the frequency of incidents was far above the expected.  It looked like failures were of the same type that I experienced.  The thread went on and on, with lots of flaming in every direction – as threads such as this usually do – but at the end someone posted a link to an article on hardocp, which seemed to shut up the naysayers.  This article exposed this problem and tried to get to the bottom of matter.  And what they discovered is that some manufacturers were having problems because they released video cards overclocked from the factory, without paying attention to what the parts they overclocked are actually capable of.  Specifically, they overclocked memory beyond what it was supposed to be capable of.  Surprise, surprise!

Now my problem made perfect sense.  First, it is sometimes hard to buy a non-overclocked card because the market is so competitive that manufacturers keep releasing more-and-more overclocked cards in order to get “ahead”.  Although what they suceeded was getting ahead in the “I have more RMAs than you” game.  The card I got definitely has overclocked memory as well as core.  There are no heatsinks on memory, however.  I don’t think it’s a good idea to overclock memory when it’s right next to a really hot graphics chip  – especially if you’re not equipping it with heatsinks of its own.

So now I felt much better.  It wasn’t really my fault that the card died.  It was running at the very edge of its specs (actually, beyond) so the smallest thing could get it to die.  When the replacement card comes back, I’ll stick some heatsinks on the memory.  Or perhaps I’ll lover the clock of the memory so it’s actually within the specs.

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Once Upon a Time There was this Thing Called Quality

Posted on May 17th, 2006 in Hardware & Software by andrija

More hardware problems for me! Are you surprised? You shouldn’t be. If you were changing hardware and software in your machine(s) as often as I do, you would run into problems too! But I seem to be running into them far too often, and they are far too obscure – so isn’t that getting a bit too much?

Let’s see… A few weeks ago my Plextor PX-716A CD/DVD burner died (or did it? – play along with me for a while). Upon inserting a blank or recorded disc of any type, except a commercial pressed DVD, the drive would spin up and down trying to read and would invariably fail, freezing my machine in the process (if I waited 5 minutes, it would give up and release lock, maybe). After many reboots and a few firware upgrades and downgrades, I decided to pronounce it officially dead. Oh well, I thought, it’s a Plextor, those have long warranties, two or three years. Right? Wrong!! One year! Only! And mine was – naturally – 2 or 3 months over the limit. Figures.

And with that I have my first issue: a self-proclaimed “King of Quality” offers the same warranty as other manufacturers? I know it used to be longer than that. Do they not have confidence in their drives any longer? Have manufacturers in their ongoing anti-consumer crusade managed to push laws so far that they can now claim such titles without any
justification? Oh, never mind. No amount of whining would help me back up my data so I had no choice but to buy another drive.

But what drive? I realized that I really did get a good value for my money
when I bought Plextor. The drive cost a fair bit of money, somewhere around $160 (plus 15% taxes of course) which was more than double the price of quite literally any other drive on market that is not Plextor. The drive had total of 9 firmware upgrades in less than a year and they not only improved media compatibility but have also added features (-DL burning) and increased supported speeds! This is pretty uncommon to receive so I was quite impressed. As far as support for existing customers, Plextor easily ranks the best of all companies in this
business, at least if I’m to judge by firmware updates. It’s sad that what they’re doing is not considered the norm, but that’s how it is.

Fast forward to May 2006 – PX-716A still costs $160! But the competition has steadily fallen in price and can be now had for as little as $40 dollars, with majority of drives between $40 and $50. We are talking more than 3 times the difference in price!! So now I had to think hard – and fast – about whether I would get another Plextor. On one hand the ability to scan burned discs to ascertain their quality turned out to be very important to me, as did Plextor’s ability to burn on just about anything. On the other hand, cheap burners produce just as good burns – if not better – than any Plextor, according to authorative reviews. At 3 times less the price! And given that my last Plextor died in only 14 months, I figured I couldn’t trust its reliability any more than I could trust any other manufacturer. After all, it’s made in China, just like anything else, and it carries the same warranty as anything else – there was not a single indication (price does not count!) that the drive would outlast its cheaper competitors.

After reading many reviews I decided to buy BENQ 1655, which was also on sale at the time for $59. It’s a bit more expensive because it features Lightscribe but since it was on sale its price was within striking range of other competitors so I got it anyway. Later I found out that 1650 is identical except lack of Lightscribe, but it wasn’t on sale then; today, it is, for $40, and I might’ve gotten that one instead, but then was then and now is now (what a difference one week makes, eh?). Anyhow this drive is also supposed to be capable of running quality scans.

Once I got it however, I found out the quality scan (QScan) utility isn’t all that fancy, and its tests are fairly simplistic. However they are fast and they do give you a rough guess at whether you can burn a disc at a certain speed or not, so I suppose they’d be good enough for most users. But then a week later I found out about the existence of Nero CDSpeed utility which allows for detailed measurements a la PlexTools, meaning PIE, PIO etc. and that my new BENQ drive is one of (the few) supported ones. After seeing what the utility looked and performed like, I concluded that had I known this I wouldn’t have even considered another Plextor.

In the last few weeks I only burned a few discs. I should mention that I sometimes burn temporary discs – to be used in a DVD player once and then typically discarded – which makes sense for time shifting. One could say that it’d be better to use rewritables for such tasks but they are only 4X and that takes forever (15+ minutes) to burn, and time is something I
hate to waste if I don’t have to. There exists 8X RW media but it is very difficult to find, impossible unless you go to a highly specialized online blank media store; and even then it’s hard to find. Anyway, I use Memorex 16X -R discs for that; they suck but I got them
cheap, or rather, I got them in exchange for another batch of discs (actually, Memorex 16X +R, or perhaps 8X +R, but Memorex +R at any rate) which worked much better in my friend’s burner. I mean, I did some friends a favour by exchanging blank media, because I got Plextor which burns even those Memorex (which are CMC 3 media type) decently. Not great,
maybe not even good, but still pretty decent, at 8X anyhow. Well, BENQ utility also said that it can be used only at 8X but at 16X it showed it getting out of specs only at the
very end of the disc. So I figured, as long as it’s not a full disc, it should be fine. Right?

Wrong!! But of course! When does anything ever go right when I’m involved? So these crappy Memorex 16X -R’s, which are made by CMC magnetics, well known for crappy media (people dispute that of course, it’d be more correct to say very inconsistent instead of crappy), didn’t work well at 16X even when not full. I’m not sure why, perhaps because they
were at the bottom of the stack, but they failed during the burn. Two of them in sequence. Not before I burned a bunch of them without any apparent errors, however. After scanning previously burned ones, I found out they were no good, even though they did not fail during the burn itself.

But how did I test in the first place? By googling and finding out about Nero CD/DVD speed – already on my system, unknowingly. But while I was testing these discs, I decided to scan some older previously burned discs, in order to do a comparison to what I remember my old Plextor used to produce. And then I discovered something really shocking and disturbing.

Now now, calm down, we are talking about DVDs, so shocking and disturbing must be taken in that context. Which is: the highest rated (without doubt) media on market, Taiyo Yuden, and the highest rated burner on the market (disputable but not controversial), Plextor 716A, produced some really bad results, so bad that the disc was unreadable in BENQ 1655!

Whoa, now wait a minute. Since I recall doing scans way back then, I know these worked very well together. I immediately suspected my BENQ or Nero CD DVD speed rather than the disc itself. I put it in my other machine with LG 63B, and while that one does not support
the full gamut of tests, I was at least able to run a transfer rate test as well as surface scan test and they came out ok. Another reason not to suspect media and Plextor, right? So I started poking around on specialized forums such as cdfreaks.com to see if I can
get any leads on my problem.

Now, I haven’t yet discarded my “bad” Plextor; it was sitting above my kitchen sink, ready to be thrown to trash for two weeks, but somehow never made it to the garbage bag. As I was reading through posts, I encountered some where people had similar problems with their Plextors, and managed to “fix” them by cleaning the drive’s insides.

Nothing to lose, right? I opened my Plextor – trivially easy to do – fired up the vacum cleaner and let it loose, only making sure to be gentle on the lens. There wasn’t really much dust and lint inside, but there was some. Perhaps it was in the way of the rail mechanism? Who knows. I put the drive together and inserted it into the machine. Or rather, I let it lean to the (out)side of the machine, only connecting it to the ATAPI cable and the power cable. Poor thing looked gutted, as I removed its bezel in order to have it cleaned and I didn’t want to put it back just yet. It was leaning at an angle, barely touching the floor and being held up by the cables.

This time when I inserted a blank disc, it did not freeze. I didn’t quite know what to do so I started up the Nero CD/DVD speed and let it burn a test disc. I was expecting it to freeze immediately.

But… it didn’t. It seemed to burn a disc just fine. I took it out, scanned it in BENQ, it looked fine as well! Now wait a minute, what the hell just happened? This drive was supposed to be dead, no?

Usually only bad things happen to me. Plextor ressurection didn’t look so bad to me! I nstalled Plextools, rebooted, and rescanned the disc I just burned. It looked nice and clean, just like when Plextor was working fine. So the drive was not broken. But why did it fail in the first place? Did cleaning really help?

I inserted the TY02 (Taiyo Yuden) disc I had problems with into Plextor and scanned it. The scan wasn’t very good. It was in fact awful. While it didn’t produce any fatal errors, unlike on BENQ, the amount of errors and the general trends aligned pretty well with what BENQ scan reported. So while one could argue that BENQ should have better error correction and not fail to read this disc, it was also clear that the disc was in bad shape.

At this point I decided to put Plextor back in my system, but leave BENQ in as well. I put a new faceplate on Plextor – a black one, perhaps to mark its rebirth from death – and installed it into a new drive bay.

This time however the machine would hang at boot! If I disconnect Plextor, it’d work, but otherwise, it behaved just like when it originally “died”. At this point I immediately suspected the ATAPI cable. While I was fairly sure I fiddled with the cable when it first “died” without any success – if I threw Plextor out without at least trying that, I would deserve to get all those problems… wait a minute, no, I would not. But I couldn’t consider myself an expert in computer hardware if I threw out something that still works perfectly well. Anyhow, this time I decided to replace the cable rather than just unplug-replug. I did so, and the machine booted right up, and the drive was now working fine again. So, my original problem was with the ATAPI cable, not the drive! This wasn’t too weird because the cable wasn’t your normal cable, but a rounded one, with plenty of exposed tiny wires around the connectors due to the way it was constructed. It’d be pretty easy to have them damaged, and even if not, it’d be easy for
interference and crosstalk to seep in. I threw it away (straight to garbage this time) and I’ll have to get another round cable – of better quality, like the one in my other machine – because flat ones block the airflow too much for my taste, especially in a badly routed machine like mines usually end up.

So now that Plextor has been exonorated, I was left with ascertaining what happened to Taiyo Yuden media. I tested a few more discs with varying results, eventually finding total of 8 discs burned around the same time (3 week time span in August 2005) that were bad, while the rest were good. Scans of all bad discs were similar, which couldn’t have happened if their “badness” was due to dust or scratches or fingerprints. No, either media was bad or something happened to the burner during that time. Interestingly, these bad discs could still be read in either Plextor or LG 4163B, but BENQ refused to read them.

First I suspected it was due to firmware change. But I found out that by the time of the first bad burn, I already had 1.08 firmware for 2 months, during which time I burned a few discs of which none have exhibited this problem. And next firnmware did not come till October.

So it couldn’t be firmware. My conclusion was that simply media was bad. But it wasn’t the whole batch of 50 – only 8 of them (that I could find) were bad. Either that, or they deteriorated during last 10 months to the point of being unreadable on some drives. Either conclusion was really bad for viability of Taiyo Yuden media.

I do recall having problems with the stability of my machine at that time. In fact I changed my processor to an X2 model and eventually had to change the motherboard to an entirely different chipset due to instability problems. However, I believe my first bad burn was 3 days before I bought a new processor. Nevertheless, there remains the possibility of motherboard issues causing this.

However, right now I cannot trust TY media any more than I can trust any other media. It has either questionable long-term reliability or questionable consistency (or both) and it even fails to burn at rated speed with “acclaimed” burner like BENQ 1655 (which can be chalked up to the burner as well, it might not be media’s fault). Plextor’s reputation as far as I’m concerned is safe for now. In fact, seeing how it can burn both TY03 and MCC03 (Verbatim) as well as Memorex +DL at higher speeds than BENQ – usually at or above the recommended speeds for that media – and the quality it can achieve, I cannot see what the fuss about BENQ is
all about. Or TY for that matter.

All in all, even when you’re gathering all the right information and even when you spend the money on very best, you can still get very serious quality control issues. This look like a general trend and it’s been going on for decades now. It seems us consumers care about price much more than we care about quality. Therefore, we’re willing to pay extra for quality only if the price delta is very small. And unfortunately, this leads to “extra quality” mostly coming in the form of a more famous brand name stamped on the product, rather than extra money invested in better quality parts. With some things it’s gotten so bad already that you simply can’t buy better quality no matter how much you’re willing to spend (within reason of course). Or to put it another way, if you’re filthy rich you can get stuff custom, hand-made for you, at a ludicrous price premium as you’re not benefitting from high volume production. But you know what, that’s what we deserve.

Deus Ex 2 – A Monumental Dissapointment

Posted on May 13th, 2006 in Video Games by andrija

I finally finished Deus Ex: The Invisible War a few days ago, after starting it at least 3 times since it came out. Only now I could get the performance to be acceptable enough for the game to be playable. That alone – needing a machine 4 years from the future – should be a telltale sign that this game is bad. Which it very much is.

You might wonder why’d I be trying to to play this game so desperately. Well, because it’s the sequel to one of the best games of all time – Deus Ex. That game has such an incredibly well crafted story – the ultimate conspiracy theorist’s dream – and such a flexible gameplay that I could not ignore anything related to it. I replayed the original 3 or 4 times and I still have very fond feelings of it. And its content is becoming more relevant as time goes by, not less.

But the reviews of this sequel, that were in 7 to 8 out of 10 range when the game came out, were way too lenient. Everything in this game sucks, starting from the packaging – a lame picture of a guy with a sideways facing gun, and ultra-lame “the future war on terror” label. I have never seen a worse fitting slogan – ever! The original game was exactly the opposite of this, and in fact even in this sequel 3 out of 4 game endings would make you a “terrorist” according the the world police (including the “main” ending). Not to mention playing off the 9/11 events which occured a year earlier. Deus Ex was a game anyone who hates this new world order would enjoy immensely, and when I hear “war on terror” I immediately get images of American foreign policy, George Bush, “if you’re not with us you’re against us” and the campaign against civil freedoms that started after 9/11. While the game offers you choices to fight against organizations that promote things such as “war on terror”! It’s like advertising books and video tutorials on how to open locks during the commercial break on “Cops”! Just appaling.

But I shouldn’t waste much of my time reviewing this. Sufficient to say is that the game will disappoint anyone who played the original game, as well as anyone who hasn’t. Horrible performance that stopped me an hour or two into the gameplay three times in last 4 years – and wasn’t decent even now on vastly superior hardware! – fairly crappy storyline that only in the end starts to look like Deus Ex but never actually comes close, obvious lack of transition between cities (meaning, no cutscenes whatsoever except opening and ending, both of which are fairly short and not really all that impressive), many illogical and/or absurd situations, very few characters populating the world (other than the generic cannon fodder enemies), incredibly long load times between areas – which are triggered very often – and the list goes on and on. And when it’s all said and done, Deus Ex had
a definitive ending (whcih you could choose!) and didn’t really need a sequel. In fact the sequel was destined to fail, unless it was to use the original game’s world only as a backdrop for a completely separate story – which this one didn’t as it is a straight sequel. This is the problem with a vast majority of sequels to good games, or movies or anything nowdays – the good ones typically don’t need a sequel becuase if they were left unfinished, they wouldn’t be good in the first place! This isn’t always true, of course, but if something was originally designed to be standalone, and it is made well, it is unlikely that a true sequel could reach the quality of the original. It’s best to design something from the ground up to be “extensible” but then it’s even more difficult to make it good, incomplete as it is.

People say the game suffered because it was also released on Xbox – which I also tried to play but had to give up due to, again, bad performance. Perhaps, but there are console games that sport depth of story as well as great gameplay; though PC games at their best surpass consoles, games of that class are few and far between nowdays, as PC gaming is deep in a recession from which it may never come out (not that it is necessarily a bad thing). It is however quite possible that the game did suffer from being published on a console – the influence of whoever the publisher was might have been fatal, meaning they forced the developer to shape the game in the way they believed a console game should be, and then they marketed it as such (“future war on terror”). If that’s true, than indeed they destroyed a game; it’s like it was written by marketing and financial analyst types rather than artists.
It should’ve never been allowed to exist. Shame on Ion Storm – which incidentally doesn’t exist any more, which is hardly a suprise given this disastrous example.

Cut through the flimsy lies, Gundam!! (or something like that)

Posted on May 7th, 2006 in Anime & Manga by andrija

Freedom Gundam
Since I got into Gundam Seed (Destiny) I decided to take advantage of my friend’s frequent visits to Richmond toy stores to tag along and get me a model of Gudam. Freedom Gundam that is piloted by Kira Yamato, of course – what else? I finished it in less than 3 hours, and while it looks good it’s not perfect by any means. I can easily see one spending days in using files and probably touch-up paint to hide places where plastic was cut to separate parts from the frame they’re shipped on. And then a fair bit of time painting everything that needs painting (of which there’s lots), down to meticulous detail. If you get one of the bigger $100+ models, that’s certainly what you should be doing, but this small model comes with most critical parts already in desired colours. For a few other parts, where a monolythic part with a weird shape (such as shield or antennas) needs to be painted with several different colors, they provided decals – and that’s the part I did worst. If you’re building a big gundam (master or perfect edition?), I’d imagine there would be no decals but it’d be all left to you to paint. In my model guns and sabers are not painted and there are no decals for them either – though actually you could set up the model so that all those parts missing paint are either not there or are not visible. At any rate, $50 special wire cutters I am normally using for removing excess wires after soldering components to my PCBs while building electronics devices sure came in handy to snap parts from frames! I can only imagine how uncomfortable would that task be without a good – and small! – pair of cutters…

The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya Ep. 5

Posted on May 2nd, 2006 in Anime & Manga by andrija

Ah, this is more like it! This episode was way better than the last one, and I actually laughed a few times. I don’t know the reason for shuffling the episodes around – I really can’t see a good one – except that perhaps they are trying to mix bad episodes (like last) with good ones (like this one) in order to keep the ratings consistently up. No clue.

But the story actually makes sense. You can think of many possible explanations for Kyon / Haruhi situation, and it’s not all that novel, though it is uncommon. One thing that strikes me as common in all scenarios I can think of is that the only person she doesn’t have a power over and cannot control is Kyon – and therefore she’s falling for him. As to why is he in her “alternate universe” or dream or whatever it is, it could be a simple thing such as that she might have fallen for Kyon 3 years ago which was, say, unrequitted and caused her power to manifest itself through creation of an alternate universe, or a dream, where everything is her imagination except Kyon who she pulled in. Of course, this created a big disturbance in the original universe, yada yada. And of course unless there’s a “happy resolution”, it’s going to crash and burn. In this scenario even the show’s title “Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya” fits, because the whole dream world is exactly that.

Kyon is really funny though, not a boilerplate character at all. Really boring people have no funny lines, but his reaction to stuff happening to him is golden.

I am *so* enjoying Gundam Seed Destiny…

Posted on May 2nd, 2006 in Anime & Manga by andrija

Indeed, I am. Call it a guilty pleasure. Well, it’s not actually bad or anything. At least not yet – I’ve seen 25 episodes so far, which is exactly half of it. It doesn’t have the emotional power of the original but it does have the !excitement! of Gundam battles… And the plot, while appearing to be forced at quite a few junctions, isn’t really contrived – more like it’s badly told. Not really bad, but unpolished. But it’s exciting and I can’t say what is going to happen. So I like it! Mhm, perhaps I am turning into a Gundam fan? Though honestly, what guy wouldn’t be a Gundam fan, at least on some level?

What a waste of a day off

Posted on May 1st, 2006 in Hardware & Software by andrija

Well, installing a new hard drive in the system is always lots of “fun”.
Expect major hair loss every time you need to do that. Especially if
you’re going to install a new operating system on it!

Let’s see, where should I start? I have an AsRock Dual-Sata2 motherboard,
which uses ULI’s newest chipset. I already have two SATA drives on it,
two 200G Maxtors DiamondMax 10’s, which I got last year as they are
fast and pretty quiet. My machine is on 24/7 and during summer the
temperature in my den is in mid 30’s – so I suppose they can be called
reliable. My motherboard is capable of driving total of 3 SATA drives,
two of which are on the chipset’s own controller which is “only” SATA-1.
They also have an extra SATA-2 port which is driven by a JMicron chip, and
it is the reason they can give the “Sata-2” name to the motherboard.
In addition to supporting 3Gb/s transfer rate – which is of no real value
right now – it also supports NCQ (Native Command Queueuing), which the
two standard ports do not.

While Maxtor drives were quiet, having two of them was causing annoying
beating vibration (which frequency equals the difference of two
frequencies of each of the hard drives, which are very close)
due to two of them interacting. Or so I thought.