Use Outlook to block vacation time

In a corporate environment, a lot of people send around e-mails to let folks know they’ll be out of the office.  You know, something like this:

Out of office email

This is very nice, civilized, and proper in all degrees. The problem is that people will forget it.  So you’ll have to remind them again, forwarding the e-mail to the same group of people. 

A better way is to use your Outlook calendar – and, let’s face it, you were going to block your OOO on your calendar anyway, am I right?  In addition to not scrolling down to the dark murky depths of an email inbox, your absence will become more clear as the date approaches.  If it makes sense, as it might for critical personnel, you can even set a reminder for a day or week or whatever you like prior to your absence.

When  you set up your OOO appointment to block your own calendar, first add the folks you want to notify as invitees.  The trick is to mark the calendar time as “free” before you send it to everyone.  After sending, you change the appointment on your own calendar to “out of office.”

In pictures, it looks like this:

1. Create an appointment. When you’ve locked in that warm sunny vacation and are ready to send ‘round that email, create a calendar appointment instead and invite everyone you would have emailed: 

OOO appointment

2. Mark the time as “Free.”  Use the appointment options to mark it as Free time for the recipients; you don’t want to block everyone else’s calendar, do you?  (If you check the “All day event,” this post from Microsoft says that the calendar time is marked free by default, FYI.)

Options|Mark time as: Free

3. Turn off responses and new time proposals.  A person with black-belt Outlook skills would never make each and every recipient have to “accept” their vacation request.  Nor would they trouble them to be able to propose a new time.  Uncheck both response options:

Response Options: uncheck both/all

4. Send the appointment out. Your recipients’ calendars will look something like this, most importantly, showing your vacation time as free:

Recipient's calendar, marked but free

5. Lastly, change the appointment on your own calendar to “Out of Office.” 

Blocked on personal calendar

Now your calendar is blocked, everyone else’s is free, and everyone knows about it. If you’ve set a reminder, then a week before (or whatever you set), folks will get a more active reminder (a popup) from Outlook.

If you later want to notify additional people, just change the appointment on your calendar back to show as “Free,” add new folks to notify — accepting Outlook’s offer to only send to new participants — then change it back  again to “Out of Office.” A little bit of extra work, still better than forwarding emails around.

I hope this is helpful, I’ve been doing it for about ten years now.  Don’t forget to set your out-of-office auto reply before you go!

Other links and references

How to buy a good laptop

I’ve had a number of people ask me recently which laptop they should buy.  While I don’t typically have specific brand and models recommendation – if that’s even possible – there are a few considerations that will make it a lot easier to pick the right laptop from the vast number of options out there.

This article is a follow-up to “How to buy a New PC” which has some basic thoughts about investing in a new computer. 

There are a couple things to think about when buying a new laptop (or PC): what you want to do with it (your intended purpose), how much you want to spend (your budget), and how long you want it to last.  You’d want to get a completely different class of machine for digital video editing than for surfing the internet. 

Most people want a good, general-purpose laptop, and have a budget of $600 to $1,000 (U.S.). If I could sum it up, they generally will say:  

I want a laptop that’s good all-around for my home, surfing the ‘net, watching videos, checking mail, and maybe occasionally working from home; and I would like it to last about five years.

For those with busy days – or who are just plain impatient — here are my general recommendations, with more detail on each in the rest of the article below. 

  • Brand: stick with major manufacturers like Dell, HP, ASUS, Lenovo, Toshiba – or Apple
  • Model: almost never buy the cheapest model; it’ll be limping along in a few years.
  • Operating system: Windows 7 Home 64-bit
  • Processor: dual-core, Intel “2nd Gen” mobile processor: Core i3 is great, e.g. i3-2310M and up.  Core i5 fine, too; but may be overkill.
  • RAM: 4 GB is more than enough for most
  • Hard drive: 250 GB is more than adequate; consider a solid-state drive (SSD)
  • Wireless: get 802.11 “n” not “g”
  • Screen: if you value picture quality and ability to play HD video, consider any options for better screens
  • Battery: get the highest capacity battery (e.g. 9-cell) and consider extended-life battery options if battery life/mobility are important

Brand and operating system

I don’t have a specific brand recommendation, although I have experience mostly with the Dell Latitudes (business) and Studio (home) lines.  Stick with a major manufacturer like Dell, HP, ASUS, Lenovo, Toshiba – and let’s not forget Apple – and you should be fine. 

If you’re going with a Windows PC, then definitely get the 64-bit version of Windows 7 – and not the older 32-bit version.  The 64-bit version makes better use of your memory, and has become the standard offering; 32-bit versions of Windows are being phased out (please correct me if I’m wrong).  I have been running Windows 7 64-bit for about a year and a half with no problems – besides it being its old creaky Windows self, that is.  (It is, however, the best desktop/home version of Windows to-date, by far.)

The major options

Let’s look at the things that dramatically affect the usability, cost, and lifespan of a laptop.

1. Processor (CPU).  The CPU (processor) is the heart of your laptop.  You won’t be able to replace or upgrade this, so your choice is important. I was going to say that the sweet spot in price+performance is a quad-core processor; but the truth is that a dual-core processor is enough horsepower for most tasks.  (Your real bottleneck is that good old spinning hard drive; see below on using solid-state drives if performance matters to you.) 

If you’re looking at laptops with Intel-based CPUs, you should most definitely get an Intel “2nd generation processor.”  These new CPUs, code-named “Sandy Bridge” in development, are significantly more power-efficient than earlier CPUs and will extend your battery life.  2nd gen CPUs are mostly the standard for most laptops these days; but I’ve seen a few models offered with older-generation processors.  So be on the lookout for that…

In this department (Intel mobile processors), I do have a specific recommendation: the Intel Core i3 series is just fine for laptops, e.g. Core i3-2310M or any Core i3-2xxxM model. When I was choosing options for my Dell Studio 15 last year, it was tough for me not to want the Core i5 instead of the Core i3: certainly the “i5” is at least 50% better than the “i3,” right?  Well, when you compare the specs for the two processors on Intel’s site – e.g. a Core i5-2540M — you’ll find that the only difference is “turbo mode,” which can take the machine over 3 GHz when called for. My take: more speed means you’ll eat your battery much faster and throw off more heat.  Again: the performance bottleneck is not typically the processor: it’s the hard drive. 

Try this: when any machine you’re using is being slow, watch the hard drive light.  If it’s flashing quickly – or is pegged “on” – then it’s your hard drive that’s slowing you down.  Consider initiating yourself into the wonderful world of solid-state drives (SSDs). 

2. Screen and graphics card. If one of your primary uses for the laptop is to watch hi-def movies – or if you’re an amateur photographer and you want your pictures to be stunningly clear — then you might want to consider any screen upgrade options, if available.  When I purchased a Dell Studio 15 laptop last year, I opted for the “True HD” screen (+$100).  Like the CPU, you’ll never be able to upgrade your screen, so this choice is important.  And if you’re planning on looking at the screen for five years or so, an extra $100 works out to $20 per year: peanuts.  But you also might be the kind of person who doesn’t care about fancy screens, too. 

Likewise, there may be options to upgrade to a dedicated graphics card (also called a “video card”) such as AGP or Matrox.  If you’re going to just be surfing the web and watching movies, most likely the built-in or base graphics option will be just fine; it certainly is for the built-in Intel Graphics on my Dell.  A graphics card upgrade is most likely advisable for things like video editing or extreme gaming.

3. Battery life. I don’t know about you, but battery life on a laptop is pretty important to me.  It greatly diminishes the spirit of having a laptop to always have to be plugged in.  In addition, laptop batteries lose their punch as they get older, typically after about a year of use.  So I recommend any offered upgrades, for instance from a 6-cell to 9-cell enhanced battery.  Consider any “extended life” batteries, too: even the 9-cell battery on my Dell Studio 15 can now only really get about an hour and a half of light usage.  

Your choice of processor will greatly affect your battery life, since the CPU is the prime consumer of energy onboard a laptop. 

The simple options

With the more difficult choices out of the way, some of the remaining choices can be pretty straightforward. For example:

  • Hard drive. You DON’T typically need a huge hard drive: 500 GB is way more than enough for most people, and 250 GB is more than adequate. If it’s not already, most of your photos/videos/music will be online “in the cloud.” I’m thinking Spotify, Pandora, Dropbox, iCloud, iDrive, and all the other services that will be powered by cloud-storage providers like Amazon S3, Windows Azure, and some company that Dell bought. So you don’t need all those gigabytes; and if you decide that you do, you can always hook up a fast external drive (USB or FireWire). But if you’re performance-minded you may want to make sure you get a 7200 RPM hard drive instead of the slower 5400 RPM drives, or – like many people, like me – opt for an extremely, life-changingly awesome upgrade to solid-state drive (SSD).
  • Memory (RAM). 4 GB of RAM is more than enough for most people, and it’s the current sweet spot pricewise. 2 GB might not be enough, and the nanosecond you run out of RAM, your computer will run slower than maple syrup on a cold Vermont day.
  • Wireless connectivity (wi-fi). Your wireless connection should be “n” and not “g” – as in, you would like it to be compatible with the 802.11n wifi networking standard, not the older 802.11g. With that said, “g” is not bad – it is just a little slower and has less range.

My personal “likes”… 

That’s about it… there may be other things that affect your choice, such as sound system (I think it’s nice to have decent built-in speakers), aesthetics, ruggedness, keyboard layout, and so on.

I chose these options and features for my current laptop, and would choose them again for the next one.

  1. Backlit keyboard. Having a backlit keyboard has been fantastic, and I hope I never have a laptop without one.  Strangely enough, it seems to still be a relatively rare option on laptops. 
  2. Solid-state drive (SSD).  Personally, though it’s an expensive upgrade (~$200-$250), I always use solid-state drives (SSDs) in my machines – it’s a hard drive which uses memory chips instead of a spinning platter – because the machine overal feels soooo much quicker.  (See my article “SSDs: Are You Experienced?”)  In this space, hard drive capacity is expensive – I only use 128GB drives, which is more than enough.  256 GB is overkill and will set you back $400 to $500. My current drive of choice: Kingston SSD V+ Series 128GB (~$225). 

    This will be important for future-proofing: there are all kinds of background processes running on a typical computer, and each of them steals a little bit of processor power from what you’re doing. These include virus checkers, hard drive indexers, application helpers, and so on. (I have 83 processes running on my Windows 7 laptop as I type.)

  3. Full HD screen.  Since I want my laptop to last for five years (another four from the current date), I chose a true high-definition screen. More and more content is in HD, from Blu-Ray to YouTube, and I expect this trend will only continue. Last thing I want to be stuck with is a dull screen that can’t play video content well.

But once you’ve figured out the primary options that we’ve looked at in this article, it should be easier for you to pick the one that’s right for you.

Good luck — share your own experiences in the comments below. 

   — Keith

 

More reading

 

Asus P7P55D motherboard tips

Here are some of my favorite tips after about eight months of owning a system based on an Asus P7P55D-E.   Some of the tips are applicable to all systems, not just Asus-based ones.

Re-program the power button to “sleep.”

Power buttonIf you’re like me, you rarely need to shut your PC down completely.  Instead, it’s quick and efficient to put the computer into sleep mode, enabling you later to almost instantly resume where you left off. 

You can take this really easy to do in everyday life:  use the Windows Control Panel to re-map the power button to "sleep" instead of shut down the computer.  Now, when you’re done using the computer, just hit the power button and walk away.  Sleep is an almost instant low-power standby mode — mine uses only about 7 watts during sleep, which translates to around $7 per year in energy costs.

The main benefit is that you can resume right where you left off.  I typically have a lot of browser windows open, and I like to be able to leave them open and pick up where I left off, instead of closing them all during a shutdown cycle.  (Another benefit is that if you have young kids whose curious fingers might find their way to your computer’s shiny power button, the worst that can happen is that they’ll sleep the machine instead of shutting down in the middle of whatever you were doing.) 

Lastly, it almost never makes sense to hibernate a modern machine.  (Hibernation is like sleep, only the system state is written to disk and then turned  off completely, using no power.)  With today’s RAM sizes, it takes a sizable amount of time to read and write the entire memory state – 2 to 8 GB for instance — to and from disk.   There would appear to be no benefits over sleeping – or just shutting down completely.

For faster boots, disable Asus Express Gate.

Asus Express Gate is a “splashtop” – a BIOS feature that provides quick access to e-mail and the web without needing to boot the main OS (e.g. Windows).  But if you’re like most of us — ahem –  you set your PC to sleep instead of turning it off, so you have pretty much instant access anyway to browsing, email, etc.   And the fact that I have an SSD in a Core i7 box means that booting to the full OS takes only about 20 to 25 seconds, anyway. Turning off Express Gate – it’s on by default — will shave 5-10 seconds off your boot, since the BIOS waits for some seconds to give you a chance to launch it.

Asus Express Gate

Fancy, neat, and… totally unneccessary

Overclock to a reasonable speed.

Use the included software to overclock to something reasonable and safe.  You should know that with properly balanced components (CPU, HD, video), even a stock Core i7 running at just under 3 GHz is pretty awesomely snappy. 

I used the Turbo Evo autoclocker included with the Asus motherboard to tune up to 3.36 GHz;  I also installed a heat sink .  Pushing the auto-tuning envelope, the system can hit speeds of 3.6GHz and higher.  But with more overclocking comes the risk of system instability.  If you can do it, more power to you;  but if not, there are at least two other subsystems that greatly affect overall system performance:  hard drive and video card.  

Really want your system to snap?  Invest $200 in a boot SSD.   Aggressively overclocking a Core i7 (or other modern processor) while it’s still chained to a 7200 RPM hard drive is just plain foolishness. 

TurboV EVO

TurboV EVO running “crazy fast” on my system

What are your favorite motherboard or system tweaks?  Share your insights in the comments.

SSDs: are you experienced?

Kingston SSDNow V-Series 128GB

First reaction after installing an Kingston SSDNow V-Series 128GB SSD boot drive in my custom-built Core i7-860 PC running Windows 7:  awesome.

While several times the cost per GB of conventional drives, an entry-level SSD will run many times faster, and I think  it’s the perfect companion for today’s high-end processors.  The days of using conventional boot drives are surely limited.

I noticed that there are a lot of sites pirating this article verbatim.  Here is a link to the original on SoftwareKeith.com… — Keith

Fast. Smooth. Quiet.

The SSD at US$250 (on NewEgg.com) was rather pricey for a single PC component — it cost as much as the Core i7-860 CPU itself.   But I knew almost immediately that it was the right decision: with the SSD installed, everything flies !  The system feels so “smooth,” like the hard drive and the processor are in sync.  Windows 7 Ultimate installed in about 10 minutes flat;  it boots in about 20 seconds.   Apps leap onto the screen again within a second or two.

My favorite readers will remember that after my very fast RAID-10 array died (see my last post), I had to run the Core i7 box off a single 7200 RPM drive for a while, which showed clearly that the hard drive was a performance bottleneck.

Formatted, the SSD has about 120GB of space.  After installing Windows 7 Ultimate and a handful of core applications (FireFox, Picasa, Windows Live Writer, etc.), I still had over 90 GB free.   After some heavier installs – including Office Professional 2010, Microsoft Visual Studio 2010, and Microsoft Visual Studio 2008 – there’s still well over 80 GB free.  That’s more than enough for most people to play with for quite some time.

Why SSD’s smoke conventional drives

imageIn a word (or two): access time.  The access time is how long it takes the storage device to read data.

For conventional drives, this involves waiting until the data on the spinning hard drive platter (right) rotates under the read head, positioning the read head arm to the correct track (radially), and reading the data from the platter.  Conventional desktop hard drives, even the best in the world, have access times of  4 to 8 milliseconds, which turns out to be an eternity for today’s processors.

The following analogy brings home the massive disparity between the speed of a modern processors and hard drives:

The first thing that jumps out is how absurdly fast our processors are…  reading from L1 cache is like grabbing a piece of paper from your desk (3 seconds), L2 cache is picking up a book from a nearby shelf (14 seconds), and main system memory is taking a 4-minute walk down the hall to buy a Twix bar.  Waiting for a hard drive seek is like leaving the building to roam the earth for one year and three months.
– “What Your Computer Does While You Wait,” Gustavo Duarte

As it turns out, most of the work done by an operating system involves reading a ton of little files, more or less “randomly” accessing the hard drive.   Thus, impressively fast sequential read or write speeds are not nearly as important as random access read speed.   Anand Lal Shimpi explains why, even though the cost per GB is so much higher, SSDs are worth it:

Measuring random access is very important because that’s what generally happens when you go to run an application while doing other things on your computer. It’s random access that feels the slowest on your machine.  Most hard drives will take closer to 8 or 9 ms in this test.  The fastest SSDs can find the data you’re looking for in around 0.1 ms. That’s an order of magnitude faster than the fastest hard drive on the market today.  [KB: it’s actually almost two orders of magnitude faster…]
– “The SSD Anthology: Why You Should Want an SSD,” AnandTech, March 2009

This explains my own experience:  even though my formerly alive RAID-10 array benchmarked faster than the Kingston SSD overall, with a PassMark Disk Mark score of 1100 to the SSD’s 950, the system feels so much quicker with the SSD – without the headaches of RAID-10.

This is why I’m now an SSD convert.

See with your own eyes

Watch the actual launch speed of a handful of common applications on my Core i7-860 below.  This screencast was done immediately after reboot, so no applications are pre-loaded or cached in memory.  Most apps load in about a second or so;  Outlook 2010 takes the longest, but since my mail archives are on a network share, the five or so seconds it takes to load includes accessing a remote filesystem.

Windows 7 Ultimate + Core i7-860 @ 3.3 GHz + Kingston V-Series SSD

Conclusion

The lowly old spinning-platter hard drive is the primary bottleneck in the modern computer.   Though pricey, an SSD is a perfect match for a today’s fast processors.

***

For those still reading…

Benchmarks are below – you can skip this section if you’re not interested in my technological prognostications.

I’ll make a bold prediction: as a boot drive, the SSD was so effective at speeding up my computer, I believe that within two years, they will become mainstream as boot drive choices.  With the ever-increasing capabilities of our processors, and the ever-increasing demands we put on our computers, it’s a perfect choice.

The default configuration would be be an SSD- or memory-based boot drive, on which the operating system and applications are installed, supplemented where necessary by a second, higher-capcacity legacy technology drive (you know, the ones that go ‘round and ‘round).

Intelligent OS storage architectures?

If we’re lucky, Microsoft will get inspired and allow seamless stitching of fast SSD and slow legacy storage in their next version of Windows.  This not-yet-invented technology would enable two drives – a fast, smaller SSD and a slower, larger conventional drive –  to be seen as a single logical storage partition. The OS would have the intelligence, for instance, to automatically install applications on the fast part and keep things like large images – when necessary – on the slower drive.  Why not?

imageWhile you’re at it, Microsoft: use that legacy hard drive for a completely automated, idiot-proof backup system. This would have one switch at the highest level: “back up my system” – or not.   Want to improve your “street cred” against upstarts Apple and Google?  Let no Windows user henceforth ever lose their data. It’s the right thing to do.

Let’s face it: the SSD could basically be considered just a fast hard drive cache. Caching technology and cache-hit optimization strategies are fairly well-understood, as are the dynamics of logical block translation in operating systems:  why should it be difficult to have the OS manage and optimize a hybrid storage array?

It turns out there already are “hybrid hard drives” or “HHD’s”.  See the Tech Report’s “Seagate Momentus XT: a hybrid for the masses?” and  Wikipedia’s entry on hybrid drives.  These drives blend flash memory and a conventional hard drive in one package.  Unfortunately, this is not as flexible as an OS-based implementation would be.

Benchmarks

I promised benchmarks…  many of course are out there on the web, but below are some from my computer.

PassMark’s Disk Mark measured the random seek performance of the SSD at 60% higher than the RAID-10 array (in MB/s):

2010.08_PerformanceTest_Disk_Mark_-_i7-860_and_Kingston_SSD

HD Tune clocks its read performance at 250 MB/s, stellar:

2010.08_Kingston_SSD_HD_Tune_Read

HD Tune’s file benchmarks show file reads and writes many times faster than the average drive (in MB/s):

image

Windows Experience Index scores it 6.8 out of…  7.9? Could anything be less clear than Microsoft’s own explanation?

image

More Reading

As it’s mid-2010, I suppose I’m a little late to the party, but…  who’s going to be ahead of Anand?  Regardless, it’s good to be here:

“For the past several months I’ve been calling SSDs the single most noticeable upgrade you can do to your computer. … Whenever anyone mentions a more affordable SSD you always get several detractors saying that you could easily buy 2 VelociRaptors for the same price. Allow me to show you one table that should change your opinion.”
Anand Lal Shimpi, “The SSD Anthology,” March 2009

A few months later, Anand followed up this magnum opus with yet another:

“What have I gotten myself into? The SSD Anthology I wrote back in March was read over 2 million times. Microsoft linked it, Wikipedia linked it, my esteemed colleagues in the press linked it, Linus freakin Torvalds linked it. ”
Anand Lal Shimpi, “The SSD Relapse: Understanding and Choosing the Best SSD,”  August 2009

Other links:

Intel Matrix RAID-10: down for the count

Summary

Intel’s Matrix RAID-10 is cost effective and extremely fast — even with regular old 7200 RPM drives — but it is not a trustworthy solution for a desktop PC. 

Go figure

No sooner did I open my mouth and blog about it, my Intel RAID-10 array died.   In dramatic fashion, two of the four drives suddenly were marked failed, and the lengthy resuscitation attempt ended in death by bluescreen. 

RAID-10 array with two of four drives failing
Not what you want to see from your RAID array

This array, composed of four enterprise-duty Seagate 500GB SATA Barracudas at 7200 RPM, provided almost 1 TB of very fast storage — faster even than a lot of SSDs. 

But it had been quirky from the moment it started life in March 2010, with almost weekly “verification” and “rebuilding” sessions.   Hey, I’m running mirrored RAID for a reason:  I hate losing data.    With the frequent issues it had, I could never completely trust the Intel Matrix RAID array.

I had a sneaking suspicion that sleeping and resuming Windows was a trigger for the Intel RAID issues;  but I can’t prove it. 

Kiddie RAID?

The opinion of “deep IT” on the forums of Tom’s Hardware and AnandTech.com is that the free-on-your-motherboard Intel Matrix RAID (the ICH9R/ICHR10R chipset) was playware.   These guys, some of whom maintain corporate servers for a living, think that folks needing “real” RAID should buy a dedicated card from Adaptec, LSI, 3Ware or Areca, at $300 and up.

For example, see the thread “A RAID that just works – no matter what” on Tom’s Hardware.

Also, having a dedicated chip on the motherboard, Intel Matrix RAID is technically firmware RAID, but actually considered to be a software RAID solution, in essence;  only dedicated controller cards are true hardware RAID. 

The OS RAID built into Windows 7 (Pro, Ultimate) and Windows Server editions runs just about as fast as Intel’s Matrix RAID, but does not support RAID-10 arrays.

RAID FAIL

I had been unwilling to part with $300 to $600 for a dedicated RAID controller – overkill except for application or database servers.

Now, the mortally wounded Intel Matrix/RST RAID-10 array was somehow showing two simultaneous failing drives out of four.   To me, the chances of two hard drives failing at the same time are astronomical, barring a power event.  Because of my poor experience with Intel’s RAID, I’m inclined to put the blame on the Intel implementation.

Intel Matrix RAID-10 array fail

I tried all the tricks in the book:  marking bad drives as “good” and rebuilding; powering down;  checking all connections; resetting the BIOS to stock settings.  I even unplugged the system to let the components “rest”  — basically the equivalent of hardware voodoo.

At the end of the day – literally – the RAID-10 array finally booted, but Windows 7 went all Code Blue on me, booting fine but crashing right after I logged in.   Safe Mode didn’t help, nor did Repairing or Restoring or anything else:

Windows 7 bluescreen

Death by RAID

She’s Dead, Jim

I had had it:  I was done with the Intel RAID array and all the verification and rebuilding… and now, its failure.  I didn’t want to waste any more time fooling with it.

Fortunately, I have put a lot of effort into organizing my documents and data – my “digital IP,” as it were.   Almost all of it resides on my primary fileserver and not on individual computers.  So if there was any bright spot to the RAID array crash, it was that I could decide at any instant to scrap my Windows install.  Which is exactly what I did.

Tip: I always re-map Windows “special folders” to network shares on my fileserver, including My Documents, My Pictures, and My Downloads.  Not only are the network shares multiply backed up and secured, but I see the same My Documents, Pictures, and Downloads on whatever computer I log into.

So I disconnected the four RAID-10 hard drives, fished out a 500 GB spare, and installed a fresh copy of Windows 7 64-bit.  No doubt this was a pain in the rear –  but it’s nothing compared to the good old days, when a hard drive crash for me usually meant losing data.

First, using the single 500 GBdrive, I tried to restore from my Windows 7 backup on the network, which failed – even though the backup had completed successfully AND I had created the recommended recovery boot CD.

Plea to Microsoft:  in 2010, this is unacceptable!  Please make Windows backup and restore completely idiot-proof!

Windows 7 restore from system image: FAIL

My, isn’t the blue background pretty?

Despite these slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, about an hour later, I had a fresh copy of Windows 7 Ultimate installed with my “core” software apps loaded: FireFox and plugins, Picasa, Windows Live Writer, etc.

Out of balance

A balanced system has few bottlenecks due to mismatched components.   Here, with the single 7200 RPM hard drive, I realized exactly how important a fast hard drive is for top-of-the-food-chain processors like the Core i7-860: the system ran noticeably slower

In my last post, “The Experience" of the i7-860, I wrote that apps like FireFox and even Internet Explorer exploded onto the screen.  Now, the experience was more like click… wait… wait…  done.   I could hear the hard drive chattering away.  

Wondering precisely how much performance I had given up, I ran PassMark’s Performance Test on this drive, a Seagate Barracuda SATA 500GB.  What ‘s interesting about these numbers is that the RAID-10 array was composed of the same type of Seagate drive:

  • It scored an overall Disk Mark of about 500, whereas the RAID-10 array scored about 1,110, over twice as fast!  
  • It benchmarked at  76 MB/s sequential read and 55 MB/s sequential write, where the RAID-10 array benchmarked at 154 MB/s read and 144 MB/s write, about twice as fast reading and three times as fast writing! 
  • Its random seek read-write was about 4 MB/s, where the RAID-10 array was 9.5 Mb/s, again over twice as fast.

    RAID-10 Array, 4 x Seagate 7200 RPM: Disk Mark DiskMark: Intel Matrix RAID-10 with 4 x  7200RPM SATA Barracuda 500GB

    Seagate Barracuda 500GB 7200RPM SATA: Disk MarkDiskMark: Seagate 7200RPM SATA Barracuda 500GB

Forging ahead

This wouldn’t do at all:  I loved the responsiveness the fast hard drive array gave Windows.  It just didn’t seem to make sense, pairing one of the fastest desktop CPUs in the world with a single hard drive whose platter-spinning technology – and speed – had remained largely unchanged for at least ten years.  

The only thing that would get me close to those speeds was an SSD.  As a consultant, all that time spent trying to recover the RAID-10 array was costing me real money.

Kingston SSDNow V Series 128 GB SSD So despite the huge premium, I  bought the highly ratedKingston SSDNow V Series 128 GB SSD for use as a boot drive ($250 from NewEgg.com). 

Conclusion

The RAID-10 array was wonderfully fast and far less expensive per GB than an SSD.

But I had so many issues with it, even with “enterprise-duty” drives that are designed for server and RAID use, that I can’t really recommend Intel Matrix RAID (now Intel Rapid Storage) for this kind of array.

I am hoping the SSD will be the best of both worlds – speed and robustness.  With my new SSD on the way,  I’m excited.  Hopefully I will at least be thanking the Intel RAID team for ushering in a new era of performance storage in my life. 

Next Up: Experience and benchmarks running the Core i7-860 off an SSD.

***

More reading

  • Kingston SSDNow V Series SNV425-S2BD/128GB 2.5" Desktop Bundle 128GB SATA II Internal Solid State Drive (SSD)   On Kingston.com – On NewEgg.com 
  • A RAID that just works – no matter what” (Tom’s Hardware forum thread)
    Overwhelming consensus is that hardware RAID is the way to go for serious users.
  • ICH10R – RAID failure” (Tom’s Hardware)
    Another from-the-trenches view of the real world
  • RAID-5 vs. RAID-10 (Art S. Kagel)
    An interesting, well-informed dissection of why RAID-5 should never be trusted with your data.
  • Intel Rapid Storage Technology Wikipedia
    Intel Rapid Storage Technology (early Intel Matrix RAID) is a firmware RAID system, rather than hardware RAID or software RAID.

New Core i7 PC: The Experience

 image82image202image162image282image68image242

First Impressions

Where we last left off, I had tightened the last Phillips-head screw on the last hard drive, double-checked all the power connectors, and sat back for a moment of reflection after five hours of PC assembly. 

The moment of truth had arrived:  I pressed the power button. 

The fans jumped and spun, the motherboard flashed green and amber lights, and the hard drives ticked and began their soft whining climb up to a cruising speed of 7200 RPM.   The whole system settled into a muted whirr — not too loud, I thought, even with the case still open. 

Now – on to the operating system.

Software installation: like butter

Windows 7 Ultimate 64-bittook only about five minutes from beginning to end for a complete install from DVD.  It turns out that on this new PC, everything installs with whiplash.  The entire Microsoft Office 2007 Professional suite took only about five minutes as well.    Kudos to Microsoft for their single-click OS install.  I like it.

If you recall, Windows XP required an inordinate amount of babysitting, popping up every few minutes to ask a silly question.  Yes, why couldn’t they ask *after* the install??

For a while, I ran around, downloading and chucking installations of must-have software into the maw of this beast:  FireFox, Picasa (image management), Avast!(antivirus), 7-Zip, Windows Live Writer (blogging), and so on.   It felt a little like I was tossing branches into a tree shredder.  Everything happened at breakneck speed – and no matter what I was doing, I could run off to do something else in another window, with no slowdown. 

We love multiple independent cores. 

Fast, redundant storage

In addition to the fabulous quad-core i7-860, I set this system up with a fast rear end: a RAID-10 “mirror of stripes” hard drive array.   The P7P55D-E motherboard has onboard Intel Matrix RAID, so I used the BIOS to set up a RAID-10  array of 4 x 500GB enterprise-class Seagate Barracuda SATA drives (“NS” class), for a total of near a terabyte of redundant, striped storage.  

This setup achieved a PassMark Disk Mark score of 1060 with a sequential read of 150 MB/s and sequential write of 133 MB/s.   I was pleasantly surprised it ranked within the Top 20 of “High End Hard Drives” (as of July 2010), besting a passel of SSD offerings from Crucial, Kingston, OCZ, and Intel.  

Fullscreen capture 762010 120658 PM

 

Fullscreen capture 762010 120602 PM

So I ended up with fast, reliable storage that beats almost anything out there in the consumer/desktop space, including a lot of SSD’s – with 7200 RPM SATA drives!  SSD’s are around 3x to 5x the cost for the same storage, anyway.

Editorial opinion: At the time of this writing, SSD’s are still too expensive for general use at around US$2.50/GB, as compared to the cost of conventional spinning hard drives at around $0.75/GB.   That’s a premium of three times the cost.  But there’s no doubt that SSD’s will eventually replace today’s hard drives.  Now, they’re most effective as OS boot drives.   Related:  “Personal computers pre-configured with SSD drives?” on Philip Greenspun’s weblog.

Warning: RAID-10 arrays are not for the faint of technical heart.  They can be temperamental beasts, requiring rebuilding and “revalidation”  much more often than I would like.  The effect of this is more psychological than anything else:  I have never lost data with this array, but I can’t say it’s been completely maintenance-free.   There’s no real reason why they need to be so fidgety – it seems like the issues are mostly software ones:  I’m less than impressed with Intel’s Matrix Storage Manager, now rebranded as Intel’s Rapid Storage Technology (RST).   It’s so hard to see or understand what’s really going on with the array: what behavior the hard drives are exhibiting, or what even things like “verification” and “ media errors” are.  Intel guys, please read Donald Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things!  

Eight cores of goodness

If there was one thing which viscerally brought home the raw power of this new computer at my beck and call, it was this image from the Task Manager showing a full eight cores available to Windows:

Task Manager showing eight cores
Cores, glorious cores!

We really only have four physical cores — hence the “quad-core” processor designation — but eight cores appear to the only through the magic of hyperthreading.  It’s is kind of like cheating — but sometimes it’s not.    

Hyperthreading is a technique whereby the processor design can take advantage of wait states in multithreaded applications to make a single physical core perform almost as well as two cores. 

Let there be light

Beyond the installs, everything opens almost instantly.  Frequently used apps like FireFox 3.6, Outlook 2007, Microsoft Word 2007, and Picasa seem to leap onto the screen when called.  Even Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, which is so painfully slow I switched a few years ago to FireFox (love it), opens its fat self within two seconds.

Ironically, one of the slowest applications to load is the one I’m writing this post in:  Windows Live Writer (Build 14.0.8117.416).   It seems to take forever to load, sometimes up to 20 seconds, even when I haven’t even told it to open a blog post!  I’m convinced that this is a classic data access strategy problem:  it’s hitting the web (my blog) on startup, even though (a) I didn’t ask it to open anything and (b) the designers should have cached all blog info locally, and quietly checked or re-loaded it on a background thread.   Windows Live Writer team: you officially have my permission to use any of the other seven threads that are available on my i7-860.  (Love your software, it’s the best.)  

With 4 GB of RAM, easily expandable to 8 GB, I no longer had to keep mental tabs on how many apps I had open: it didn’t matter.  I could have eight FireFox sessions with thirty tabs open (total); Microsoft Word, Picasa, Outlook, Windows Live Writer, TweetDeck, Windows Media Player; all open at the same time.  It didn’t matter. The box handled it easily.  

Overclocking

One of the reasons I chose a custom build vs. an off-the-shelf buy was to play with overclocking.  And, being a red-blooded American male, I just wanted to see how fast it could run.  Fortunately, Asus includes a handy, idiot-proof overclocking utility made just for folks like me, called Turbo EVO.  

Turbo EVO offers several ways to effortlessly overclock your system: CPU Level Up, which lets you choose from several levels, from “Fast” to “Crazy,” and TurboV AutoTuning, which through a series of reboots will tune your system to the maximum safe speed possible.  

The fastest I got my system to without really trying too hard (I selected the Extreme Tuning mode) was 3.66 GHz.   This put my system in the top ten fastest high-end CPUs in the world, according to the PassMark website.  

Fullscreen capture 772010 41723 PMUnfortunately, I did not install a CPU cooler the first time around (recommended).  When I downloaded and ran the Prime95 CPU torture test, the Asus TProbe utility complained as the CPU temperature rose from around 40 C to 70C, then 75C, then… I stopped it at 80 C.  Surely I should check before I subject the 45nm silicon to temperatures above the boiling point.  (Answer:  keep it at around 70 C or less.)

Tip: choose and install a CPU cooler with your build.  Most coolers require the motherboard to be out of the chassis for installation.

Since the box ran so fast anyways, I had no problem dialing back to stock speeds until I had a heat management solution in place.  After some research, I chose the very popular and effective Cooler Master Hyper212; unfortunately, I had to tear the system down to the motherboard to install it. 

Energy consumption profile

At stock settings of 2.8 GHz (i.e. not overclocked), this Core i7-860 build drew around 110 watts at idle, proving to me that reusing my Antec 430W True Power supply was an appropriate choice.  

Overclocked to 3.36 GHz via CPU Level Up, “Crazy” setting – my current everyday setting — the system draws about 150W during normal operation, and peaks at about 290W during a Prime95 run. 

Considering that’s about the amount of energy used to power a light bulb or two, I thought this was a pretty good use of watts.  In addition, my other two Dell servers draw about 100-110W each, and they run ten times slower.   

Energy efficiency was one of the reasons I decided to invest in the latest chip technology;   see Evaluating PC computing hardware.

Conclusion

Easy build, great system, love it. 

New Core i7 PC: The Build

This article is part of a series in 2010 on custom-building a high-performance computer with the latest Intel Core i7 processors:

  1. Build or buy a new Core i7 supercomputer?
  2. Choosing a New CPU: Intel Core i7-920/930 vs. i7-860/870
  3. New Core i7 PC: Selecting the Components
  4. New Core i7 PC: The Build

Overviewimage82

Hello, folks… here’s a long overdue post on my Core i7 build.   I actually built two quad-core i7-860 computers with the hardware selection detailed in this post: one for me, and one for my father-in-law, who does video editing and production.

In general, both custom builds went without a hitch.  However, there are a few points of advice that might save you a few hours if you’re planning to build your own custom PC.

The builds took, surprisingly, much longer than I thought:  about six hours each.  This includes thoroughly cleaning out each old case, as well as taking pictures of the “build experience.”  It also includes cleanly routing and tying off all the various cables in the case, for a tidy presentation – as well as better airflow. 

I also installed an aftermarket heat sink on my father-in-law’s system, which took about an hour.  I highly recommend a heat sink — more on that below.

After double-checking the all the motherboard connectors a final time — hard drive, video, fans – I sat back and paused for a moment of reflection – then hit the power button.   On each build, the system started right up without any hitches –much to my relief.

Build notes

Note to first-time builders: it is critically important that you take measures to prevent damage to sensitive electronics components from static electricity.  Simply walking across the room can build up thousands of volts of static. 

See “Avoid Static Damage to Your PC” (PC World) for tips.

For both builds, I re-used the existing case, after gutting them of old motherboard and components.  Then I gave them them a thorough cleaning – unable to bear putting the elite processor and beautiful new components in an dusty, dirty case.    

I took it slow and enjoyed the whole process of building the new system.  Everything pretty much only fits in one way, so as long as you don’t force anything, you’re good.    

Bottom of Intel stock CPU coolerThe only real issue I had was some angst over the proper seating of the stock Intel cooling fan (right) on the i7-860 processor:  it wasn’t especially clear when the fan assembly was seated properly and securely on the motherboard.  Since direct contact on the processor is essential for cooling, it seems like this part of the process should be more foolproof.  

Lessons Learned

Get a CPU cooler up front. Through the magic of overclocking, you can leverage your investment in the entire system and make your system run like it had a much more expensive, faster processor in it.  The ASUS P7P55D-E motherboard I selected comes with automatic overclocking software takes me up to 3.6 GHz (from 2.8 GHz on a stock i7-860). That’s about a 30% performance boost. 

But with frequency and voltage comes heat.  You could really make the system smoke…  literally, if you’re not careful.  Why take chances cooking the silicon wafer at the heart of your high-tech monster?  You spent around $1,000 for your new system, all told; but for a mere $35 to $70, an aftermarket cooler will enable you to safely overclock your system to run around 30% faster.  That’s 30% return on 3.5% to 7% investment, as I see it – pretty much a no-brainer.  In addition, to future-proofing and fire-proofing your box, it’s a great value.

The strong consensus on the forums, Cooler Master Hyper 212which matched my own experience, is that the stock Intel cooler is really not up to the task of cooling an overclocked i7.   After some research, I selected the Cooler Master Hyper 212 (right) for a very affordable $35 – highly rated and available on Amazon.

Note: the Cooler Master Hyper 212 is an impressive-looking piece of finned hardware, but has horrible install instructions — NewEggers agree.  Where are the Cooler Master folks??  It’s a perfect opportunity for crowdsourcing.

Configure RAID up front. if you’re planning on using the onboard Intel Matrix raid, set up the RAID array before installing the operating system – even if you only intend to use a simple mirror (RAID-1).  

The Intel Matrix RAID bios is apparently, unbelievably incapable of simply mirroring one existing, data-containing drive onto another identical, blank drive!  (Why, Intel, why?!)   So the mirror setup – at least in the BIOS — requires the destruction of all info on both drives.   Sad smile  

I had to suck it up, create the mirror, and reinstall Windows 7.  Good thing I have a fast machine.  Winking smile

Case design. Consider investing in a good case.  I can now see why good case design is important… I always thought of a case as just a case, but in this case (no pun intended) I see what excellent design features it can add.  My father-in-law’s Antec case has a solid, heavy metal frame, with beautiful lacquered silver paint and a latching ez-swing-out side panel for access to the interior.  It has two convenient pop-out hard drive cages for a total of four 3.5” bays, as well as easy front-slide-out bays for 5.25” equipment like the DVD drives.   This makes it very easy to remove or change components.  It also has wiring for front case USB and firewire connectors.

You can go cheap on cases, for sure;  but consider a cooler, higher-end case if it’s only a few more bucks.   Go ahead, you deserve it.

IMG_2990The front slide-out 5.25 bays on the great Antec case

Build #1

This is my personal system;  I built it first so that I would be able to apply any lessons learned to my father-in-law’s build.    Its highlight is an extremely quick 1TB RAID-10 hard drive array (mirror of stripes) built on of four Seagate Barracudas.  I re-used an existing, older Antec 430W power supply.

Ingredients:

  1. Core i7-860 Processor $250
  2. ASUS P7P55D-E ATX Motherboard $150
  3. 4 x Seagate Barracuda ES.2 ST3500320NS 500GB 7200 RPM SATA New $600, street today ~$350?
  4. XFX Radeon HD 4650 Video Card $65
  5. G.SKILL Ripjaws Series 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3 1600 RAM $115
  6. LITE-ON Black 24X DVD RW Player $25
  7. Antec True Power 430W power supply

Total outlay:  ~$600.   This doesn’t include the cost of the enterprise-class hard drive, power supply, or case.

Build #2

This system is for my father-in-law,who is replacing a 2004-era Pentium 4 box very similar to my Dell PowerEdge 400SC.    Following my own best practices, I built it with two hard drives in a mirror array (RAID-1) so that a single hard drive failure will not be able to take the system down: for the extra $100, well worth it.    Since this system will be used for video editing, it has a much more capable graphics card, the XFX Radeon HD 4850, which is a dual-slot monster.

Blend together and serve over crushed ice the following:

Total cost: ~$1,000, not including case

Installation Checklist

After installing Windows 7 (64-bit), these were the major post-OS software installs that I did to get the systems up to speed:

  • ASUS drivers from mobo DVD:  chipset, lan, Intel Matrix, USB, etc.  link
  • ASUS utilities from mobo DVD: Turbo EVO, etc – CHECK
  • Update Radeon drivers via Device Manager
  • FireFox v3.6 – my preferred browser
  • Internet Explorer 8 – for completeness
  • Run Windows update
  • 7-Zip
  • LastPass
  • Picasa
  • Avast AntiVirus – free
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