Thursday, May 15, 2014

An ode to my 4-cylinder Iron Duke Pontiac Firebird


It's a little known fact that just after Pontiac retired the screaming chicken in 1982, they replaced it with the only upgrade they could: a 4 cylinder engine ripped straight out of the Chevrolet Citation. Yep, for the introduction to the third-gen F-body, Pontiac's base model "muscle car" now came with an engine designed for maximum fuel economy rather than power. I owned one of these. I loved it. It was my first car.

The motor was an "Iron Duke", a 2.5 liter lawnmower engine that was really a 301 V-8 chopped in half. It developed 90 horsepower.

But I'm here to tell you that that thing was fun. Don't let anyone tell you different. Mine was a 5 speed stick (it was actually a late-year '84, so after they'd added the extra gear), and I am being completely serious when I say that in the first two gears, that thing would press you back in your seat. It had a beast of a clutch - I remember stalling out 12 times in a row the first time I tried to get over the 2 degree hill out of the parking lot at my job at K-Mart. But once I got used to it, I was able to throw that car around like it was the business end of a whip. It was a very different experience than a V8 Trans Am, but just as much fun.

It felt light and sporty - think more Mini Cooper than modern-day Camaro (its closest current brethren). One of my most vivid memories with it is going airborne (by mistake) somewhere on I-80 between Chicago and New York at about 3AM one night. I nearly bought it that night, as just beyond my landing point was a sharp turn to the right. I barely made it, fishtailing a bit just inches away from the median as I let the car coast to a safer speed, but the lightness of the car let the handling kick in when I needed it.

The car fit me perfectly. To this day - nearly 30 years later - I still measure every car I test against the comfort and ergonomics of my '84 Firebird. The seating, pedal, and shifter positions were all just right for my 6'4" frame, and I can't say that about many other cars I've ever tried, of any size or type. My hand naturally rested on the stick; my feet naturally rested on the pedals. Visibility was great. It was the least tiring, most relaxing, most comfortable car I've ever driven. And I'm not just saying that through rose colored glasses - I thought so at the time too. Why do you think I bought it??

This shot brings back some interior memories.

I did have one pretty major mishap, rear-ending a poor elderly fellow in his (wait for it!) Chevrolet Citation while attempting to race one of my friends in his 4 cylinder Mustang. Kind of a hilarious thing all around when you think about it. I hit the guy from behind going about 30mph but surprisingly, he had no damage at all. The Firebird's front bumper was long and soft, though my car did end up with a spiderweb of paint cracks, as well as pop-up headlights that would no longer pop up because the bumper had been pushed back into them. I ended up shaving the plastic down so the lights would clear it again.

Sadly, my car had one of those problems no mechanic can figure out until you've sunk all your money into it. It made a ringing sound going over bumps - after $500 spent on new suspension to cure its "bottoming out" problem, the noise was finally identified as metal shavings in the differentials. (Remember when hatchbacks had differentials??) With no more money to fix anything else, I had no choice but to sell the car. I don't even remember what I got for it. I was too broken up about it to care. There was nothing else I could do.

Sometime next month, my new Mini Cooper should arrive. It probably would surprise most people if I told them I expect it to be the most like my Firebird of any car I've owned since. That'd be one of the highest compliments I could pay it. (Update: nope!)

Friday, May 09, 2014

LCD monitors still suck - I returned my ASUS PB238Q

I wrote earlier about how happy I was with my new (to me) ASUS PB238Q monitor. Welp, I've returned it. Two of them, in fact. Here's why:


Ignore the vertical lines - that's a camera artifact. You may not see the real problem initially - some people don't. Stare at it for a minute. It might help to tilt your own monitor upward.

The right side's brighter than the left. I mentioned this in my earlier report on buying this display, but I didn't think it'd bother me so much. But past experience tells me that I'm extremely sensitive to uniformity issues, and over a few weeks of use, I found myself constantly fiddling around trying to find a viewing angle, brightness or color setting where this was not so noticeable. Like a moth drawn to a porch light, I couldn't stop looking at the brighter right side of the screen.

Monitor issues have a way of driving you insane over time. If you notice something soon after buying one, you may as well return it while you can. You will drive yourself to drink eventually otherwise. You have to stare at these things for hours on end, sometimes every day - if you're bothered by something you find early on, you're never going to feel any better about it. For me, uniformity is the big bugaboo.

All LCD's have uniformity issues to one degree or another - it's the nature of the beast. Here's a useful graphic that shows the problem:


An LCD screen is made up of many layers, and they're never perfectly even. The biggest problem is usually the diffusion layer, which is all the way on the bottom and is supposed to evenly spread the backlighting generated by CFL's or LED's. These backlights are most often along only two edges of the screen - either left and right or top and bottom. First of all that diffusion layer itself is never 100% flat, and then the light it spreads out has to pass through all these other layers that aren't 100% flat either. The lights themselves may be too close to the diffuser, or not evenly close on both (or all) sides.

We all just have to live with this to some extent, until some new technology supersedes LCD. (Come on, OLED!) It gets worse as screens get bigger. This is a big reason why I have a plasma TV in my living room.

In the PB238Q's case, both monitors I got had the exact same non-uniformity pattern - brighter on the right side, with a dark patch near the bottom just in front of the power supply. It seems the diffuser is probably being pressed inward at that location. I'm not sure why the right side's brighter, though, but it seems it's just how this model is.

Anyway I realize I'm never going to get perfect uniformity and many monitors are technically worse than this, but I found the pattern of non-uniformity on the PB238Q too distracting to ever ignore. So on its way to me now is a Dell UltraSharp U2412M, which Amazon has at a little more than $250 right now - a great deal on a 16:10 e-IPS screen (that's what I really wanted to begin with). We'll see if it's any better, but there are more professional reviews out there for it and they're all positive - and more importantly, they at least show that it's brighter in the center, rather than on one side. I should be able to live with that.

I still think the PB238Q is a really good monitor for the price - it just wasn't for me. Most people probably wouldn't notice the uniformity issues at all, or if they did, they wouldn't care. (I asked my wife if I was crazy and she said no, she saw it too, but it didn't bother her.) Other than the uniformity, I loved my PB238Q with its old-school industrial look and build quality, its awesome stand, and its IPS panel for cheap - that's a rare combo right there. But I just couldn't help but be distracted and annoyed by the light side.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have some batteries to change...


Thursday, May 08, 2014

My upcoming F56 Mini Cooper HT


The wife and I went ahead and did it - finally ordered a Mini Cooper only 7 years after first saying we would. Hey, we were just waiting for the new model year! (For an entire generation.)

The pic above is (hopefully) literally it. It's a JustaCooper in British Racing Green, white bonnet stripes, those same 16" wheels, sunroof. On the inside we've got the upgraded bluetooth, Harman Kardon stereo, and visual connected + or whatever it's called. Manual transmission, woohoo! First stick since my Nissan Sentra in college. We tried to order our PT with a stick in 2005 and they gave us an auto by mistake.

A little worried about the fog lights - which we forgot to order - but this is how the Mini web site shows the car without them. I'm hoping they just stick a reflector in there or something so it doesn't look stupid. Some cars just have a black hole where the lights would go.

I test drove the only F56 they had on the lot and loved it. The new base Cooper engine is unbelievable. I had no idea it was even a 3 cylinder until I got home and read it. It smokes our PT, of course, which is my basis for comparison. Ridiculously comfortable car too, and felt really well built. I even fit in the back seat!

I can't wait to get it. Apparently BMW's been having some production problems with these (hopefully resolved now) so there's a big backlog of cars and ours is delayed along with everyone else's. I'll be lucky to get it by July. Hope our other cars don't blow up before then.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Taming the Gigabyte GA-990FXA-UD3 voltage regulator module (VRM)

This is kind of an oddly specific problem and solution, but this is a popular motherboard and I couldn't find anything truly definitive on how to fix this when I searched. Maybe this will help some of you. If you already know the problem and want the tl;dr solution: just run push-pull on your CPU cooler. Attach another fan on the back. That's it. If you want to know why, read on.

The Gigabyte GA-990FXA-UD3 has been through four iterations now. One of the things they seem to keep changing is the design of the voltage regulator module heatsink - and apparently they never get it quite right. At least not for this board's intended purpose; it's supposed to be an enthusiast/overclocker board, but the high VRM temps mean you can't really overclock very far before throttling or other problems kick in. This is the area in question:


The revision 4 board actually has a pretty beefy heatpipe heatsink that's a clear improvement over the revision 3 board, and for many people (especially if you're running stock speeds) it should be good enough.

THE PROBLEM

It's actually twofold:
  • This part of the motherboard is often a "dead spot" in terms of airflow, as it sits between (but slightly below) the CPU cooler and the case exhaust fan. Overclocking usually means a hefiter CPU cooler too, which further isolates this dead zone - all that heat just sits there on the heatsink.
  • This sink is still barely enough to keep the VRM at reasonable temps even at stock speeds. I was getting 91C at full load (running Prime95 torture tests). Overclocking even a little bit - without changing the voltage - bumped that to 94C. And that's in a case with six 120mm case fans, and lots of little holes all over the case for passive airflow. There's just no flow right in this spot.
Temps like that won't fry your system or even lead to throttling (I don't think), but they're not particularly healthy over the long term. VRM chips do have more thermal headroom than, say, a CPU, but I don't like any chip in my system to be running at close to 100C - and if you have a worse case setup than I do, you could even be exceeding that.

THE CRAP SOLUTION

You could do something inelegant like attaching a fan or two directly to the heatsink, or using something like the Antec SpotCool to direct air onto it. I tried just hanging a spare 80mm fan off my CPU cooler to see if directed airflow would really help, and it lowered my full load temp down to 74C at stock speed. That's a 17C improvement - hey, it works! But it's also ugly and sounds yucky, and there's no easy way to permanently attach an 80mm fan in this area.

THE REAL SOLUTION

Go push-pull on your CPU cooler.

I took my bottom 120mm case fan and clipped it to the other side of my CPU cooler as a test. Luckily my Enermax ETS-T40-VD came with extra clips, but a lot of other coolers make it just as easy to attach an extra fan. Doing this, my VRM temps topped out at 81C at stock speeds, and 85C overclocked. That's a decent enough compromise, I think, and should be a pretty comfortable max operating temp for a VRM (remember, these are worst case scenario temps). I'm pretty confident these chips won't die before my next motherboard upgrade, and my CPU won't be throttled.

WHY DOES THIS WORK?

ATX motherboards are pretty much all designed for downflow CPU coolers, because that's what AMD and Intel have used since Intel helped draw up the standard. With the stock cooler, the air expended by the CPU fan ends up being directed through the heatsink fins towards the RAM and VRM before being pulled out of the case:


But with most push-only tower CPU coolers, the airflow is directed too far above the VRM to do much good beyond cooling the CPU - it just goes in a straight line through the cooler and out the case. The extra "pull" fan just helps draw the VRM heat into that flow - it's not so much that it's pushing it directly out, instead it's pulling the hot air in behind it before expelling it out along with the CPU heat. It's obviously not as good as having air directly on the heatsink, but it's good enough. And it has the side effect of helping your CPU temps a tiny bit too, without adding any noise or ugliness to your case. I would bet a fan that "leaks" airflow a bit to the sides would actually be slightly better for this purpose. I'll eventually move one of my TB-Silence fans to be the pull fan on my CPU cooler - these have "ENERMAX" punchouts on the sides that should allow some air through the housing.

(BTW, yes I fixed my RAM slot usage up there - the board's manual confused me. And I've got all four slots filled now anyway.)

About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.

About Me

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I'm married. I like to travel. I have no kids. I have a house... that I'm bad at maintaining. I used to collect classic video games. I own a lot of musical equipment that far outstrips my ability to use it. When I was younger, I was in a band. I like gadgets, and I'm an Android guy. Someday, I would like to live on a different planet.

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