Hardware for the hardcore

Lately my life has been pretty frenetic. I’m working on a Wii game contract during the day – most days I am on-site with the studio, where I am working to help them optimize their CPU and graphics performance. At night I’ve been working on finishing up some installation routines for some really large PC titles. During the week I have been trucking my one fast Windows XP machine back and forth to the studio, so that I can work on the install routines at night. At home I currently have two beefy Vista machines, this one beefy XP machine, a mediocre XP Shuttle box, and an XP laptop that is really just good for email, internet, and word processing.
When I started the Wii contract I tried using the Shuttle box for my compiling/linking, but 1GB of memory and an Athlon XP 2500+ just did not cut it. So one late-night trip to Fry’s Electronics later, and four hours on the weekend, and I had put together a nice new XP-based mini-tower. It has an Intel Core2 Duo E6600, 2GB of memory, Sony CD/DVD burner, an ATI Radeon X1900XT, and a 120GB SATA drive. I had some of those parts already, so all told it only cost about $700 for a brand new machine. Wow! That’s pretty great. It was such an improvement over the Shuttle box.
Going to Fry’s is always such a frustration though. I quit going to the Palo Alto store because it seems like 90% of their products always have a “I have been returned” sticker on them. So I went to the Fremont store and, hey, it’s the same thing there. Sheesh! They also didn’t have any of the newish motherboards I was looking for. But do they ever? Sigh. This is why I usually use Newegg when I need to purchase new hardware. But I was in a hurry. So, I ended up buying an MSI P965 Neo-F motherboard as the base of the new system. It’s a lower-end board, and only cost about $100. When I got home I realized it too had been previously returned. Ugh!
But, the motherboard ended up working out GREAT. It’s the first time I have put together a new computer and had it work flawlessly from the first boot. No problems at all. That’s unheard of – like writing code and not having any bugs. I was shocked. 🙂

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The best part of the hardware I picked up though, was this fantastic new case. It’s an Antec Sonata II. It includes a 450W power supply, and a honkin’ big air duct inside which directs cooling air directly to the CPU. The hard drives screw onto removable rails which have rubber cushions to decrease the vibrations from the hard drives resonating with the case. The dynamic 120mm fan on the back of the case is also nice and quiet. All in all, it’s a case I bought on a whim, and it’s the best case I’ve ever had. It’s quiet, it was easy to work inside of, and I didn’t donate any blood to it as I installed the motherboard (that was the first time THAT happened!)
As I began working on this installer project though, I realized that standard SATA drive speeds were just not cutting the mustard. I’m creating files that are nearly 3GB in size, and that takes a LONG time to write to the drive. Plus I was compiling that file by reading other files from the same drive. So it was just not good from a bandwidth perspective. I realized it would really help if I set up a RAID0 by ganging a couple hard drives together (something I’ve been doing on one of the Vista machines). That improves drive performance quite a bit.
A quick trip to CompUSA netted me two Maxtor 300GB SATA drives. $100 each, how could I NOT buy them? They easily plugged into my new case and motherboard but then I discovered – hey, the RAID on this motherboard doesn’t work! Combing through the hardware forums, yup, everyone is having problems with RAID between multiple SATA drives on this motherboard. Even with the latest drivers. Apparently it just doesn’t work. Well, great.
After lots of Internet combing I discovered that Windows XP Pro actually supports a software RAID. Eep! I didn’t like this idea much, but I decided to set it up anyway just to see if it helped. And you know what, it actually works pretty well! I’m getting 60MB/s bechmarked performance and 14ms random access, versus 41MB/s and 19ms random access on the single drive. It’s also an improvement from the single drive’s 8MB cache to two drives each with 16MB cache. So my drive performance is so much better now. It’s surprising how much quicker it is. Definitely $200 well spent.
My latest hardware adventure came this past week. As a result of pulling lots of hours and not getting much sleep, I forgot to bring my Logitech keyboard/mouse wireless receiver with me to the studio. So on the way there I decided I’d upgrade the keyboard and mouse. It’s been awhile, and the old ones were chewing through AA batteries.
I’m very sensitive to the keyboard and mouse that I use. I went through about seven years of really hard times with my forearms, due to chronic tenosynovitis (tendon inflammation). There were times that I couldn’t even hold up a book to read, it was just too painful. I wore these big plastic “robot arms” whenever I typed for about a year and a half. But now for the most part my arms are okay, as long as I strengthen and stretch them regularly, sit properly while typing, and use good equipment.
For the past ten years probably, I’ve exclusively used Logitech keyboards, the “natural” ergonomic style, and their mice or trackballs. I’m not sure why, but Microsoft mice have always made my hand hurt. Are they not as wide as Logitech mice? Are they harder to push around? I’m not sure. But it’s Logitech or nothing for me. It is the same way with the keyboard, I really like the soft touch of the keys on the Logitech boards. But on this trip I discovered… there are NO Logitech “natural”-style keyboards for sale. WHAT THE HELL? If you look at Logitech’s website you’ll see that the only non-flat keyboard they sell now is the “Wave”, which has a pretty minor bend and dip on an otherwise flat board. Sheesh! That stinks, for me.
So I was forced to look for another option. But it made me wonder – why the hell doesn’t someone come out with an “Elite” line of ergo keyboards and mice for programmers (or anyone who sits at the keyboard all day)?? I would love a highly customizable keyboard that was very ergonomically styled, with macro keys, perhaps a touchpad, and a few scrollwheels as well. Put everything I need within easy reach of my fingers. And why do I need a number pad? It should be an optional extension, so that if I don’t need it (I never need it) I can put my mouse closer to the keyboard and not have to reach over past the arrow keys and past the number pad to get to it. The mouse should have two or three major finger buttons, with scroll wheels and a healthy tilt, and also be very customizable. When the hand is completely flat, it puts tension on the nerves in the wrist, so having devices with a tilt is really important.
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Digging around in that CompUSA, I found one Microsoft keyboard that I was pretty happy with. It’s the “Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000” (one of FIVE Microsoft “natural” keyboards). It has tilted separated keyboard halves, adjustable legs in the back and a removable riser in the front, an array of multimedia buttons (which I never use), and a zoom slider in the middle (which I haven’t used yet either). It’s USB and gets its power from the computer, which is great since I don’t move the keyboard around much. Unfortunately the key touch is a little harder than it needs to be; it feels like I’m really slamming down on the keys, which makes my forearms tired more quickly than they used to with the Logitech board.
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Keeping in mind that I’ve never had any luck with Microsoft mice, I scoured the aisles for something else. There was one mouse which really stuck out: the Logitech MX Revolution Cordless Laser Mouse. It looks like the Mercedes Benz of mice. And when you’re using a mouse all day, why wouldn’t you want it to be the Mercedes Benz? Two primary buttons, three auxiliary buttons, and two scroll wheels (with nice metal trim). It has a great shape, a battery level readout, and a recharging dock. What more could I ask for? When I got it home I discovered that the scroll wheel doesn’t feel quite as solid as I’d hoped it would but it still has a nice heavy feel. It also has two modes: one clicky mode for slow scrolling, and one not-clicky mode for very fast scrolling. You can switch between modes with a quick press, or a very fast spin will put it into non-clicky mode automatically. This is one great mouse. If only the driver was as good – although the Logitech mouse software is very customizable, every once in awhile the mouse seems to lose its mind, and misses a movement or click. It doesn’t happen too often, but often enough to make me pause and wonder what is going on. It’s definitely the Logitech software, perhaps interacting negatively with something else in my system. Overall though, this is the best mouse I’ve ever owned.
All this hardware hacking lately has made me seriously consider starting up a computer hardware review site for people who need maximum performance. I know there are a zillion sites like that out there but they never really seem to have what I’m looking for. Like, when I needed faster drive performance – it would have been great to know what I could expect from a RAID0 SATA versus RAID5, or even RAID0 ATA. Would it help to read from one SATA drive and write to another, or is the cause of my bottleneck the data traveling to the drives over the bus? How do I tell? Hm. Perhaps I just don’t know where to find that info. It seems like someone like MaximumPC or Tom’s Hardware SHOULD have it. SiSoftware Sandra Lite helped somewhat.
So I suppose that’s why I decided to write about it. Why not post up here when I find something that works particularly well, or particularly poorly? Maybe it’ll get indexed by Google and someone will find it and read it, and it will help them out. Or maybe you’re on the market for a new case or mouse yourself. 🙂