Friday, April 25, 2014

New York International Auto Show 2014

Sometimes I'm embarrassed to admit that I'm a car guy. My current circle of technorati friends (being mostly transplanted Manhattanites, though I AM A NATIVE, dammit) frowns upon such traditionally male-dominated and perceived sexist pursuits. But my wife likes cars almost as much as I do, and we go to the NY Auto Show every couple of years. The last time I seem to have written about it was in 2007 - and it's really interesting to re-read that post now! This year, after one of our current cars nearly burned down with me in it last week, we're actually in the market for something new. I was eager to check out all the models I'd been thinking about.

Under serious consideration were the Ford Mustang, Dodge Challenger, Mini Cooper, and Mazda 3. Dark horses included the Chevy Camaro, Hyundai Veloster, Hyundai Genesis Coupe, Subaru WRX, and Honda CRZ,

Yes, I realize that not all of those cars are even in the same class. What I'm looking for is just cheap fun, with maybe a little practicality thrown in. I don't really care how I get it.

The reason that 2007 post is interesting is the parallels to the 2014 show. For example, I wrote in 2007 that I was excited about the then-new Dodge Challenger. Well, here I am 7 years later:

I love the Challenger. Despite the photo at the top, it's my favorite of all the retro muscle cars, and I have always wanted one, since they were introduced. It's just the right size for me, it has just the right mix of new and old, it has good visibility, and it feels like a real car, not like a series of compromises. I mean you can get actual people in the back seat if you want. You can see out the windows. You can fit luggage or big boxes in the trunk.

This is how muscle cars really used to be in the 60's and 70's. They weren't just fast, wildly impractical cars that people used to take down to the track on weekends. I mean people really drove these things - they were actual cars, not just things to argue about 0-60 times over.

The big problem with the Challenger is the price. I can't really afford one with the options I'd want, and the base models look like rental cars. My second choice is the Mustang, which are cheaper to begin with and really not bad looking in their base config, but I'm not sure how I feel about buying a car right before a new model is introduced. Those 2015's do look nice, though...

I did try a 2014 Camaro - I've owned two Camaros in the past, after all - but goddammit it I cannot for the life of me figure out how anyone manages to drive one of these new ones. First of all, they are tremendously uncomfortable. Really small interior. Second, the windows feel like looking through a keyhole. They're tiny. I would actually be scared for my life driving one of these things on a New York highway.

I liked the interior of the Mazda 3, even if it was a little generic, but I've always been bothered by the new exterior and I think I finally figured out why:

(Not my photo.)

From the front, it looks like a big, serious car. But move just a few feet back, and it's a tiny little hatchback. It's like a mullet - all business in front, party in the back. From certain angles it's cute, from other angles it's badass, from still others it's a conservative little econobox. Nothing's consistent about the look. The front end is just cartoonishly oversized, like a caricature - now that I see it, I can't unsee it. I do like the car overall and it'd be in my top two if my wife had signed on. But she's not a fan, and given how I feel about the sheetmetal, she didn't have to try that hard to convince me to move on.

I also wrote in 2007 about how much I loved the 2008 Mini Cooper S. Well, guess what? I love the 2014 too.

The Mini is amazingly comfortable for a big guy like me. I mentioned this in 2007 as well. And its interior is unique - you either love it or hate it, but I love it. I like things that are functional but a little different, and the Mini's dash layout proves that there's plenty of room for personality without sacrificing form. It's not just different for the sake of it; it actually works, and looks neat. And it's aged really well - the all-new 2014 Mini interior doesn't look a whole lot different from what I remember from 2003 or 2007 (the speedo is centered behind the wheel now, obviously).

(Not my photo.)

The Mini's also better suited to my commute to Manhattan than a car like the Challenger or Mustang. Much as I love big American muscle cars, practicality matters too. The Mini would be easier to parallel park and I probably wouldn't feel too bad about leaving it out in the open where it's subject to bird poop. My town is just overrun with bird poop!

My dark horses were all quickly ruled out, mostly because I literally could not fit into any of them. This amazes me - it's 2014, why are mainstream cars that are all much bigger than the Mini too small for a 6'4" guy to fit in? I hit my head on the roof of both Hyundais, for example, and there was no way to lower the seat. I could barely even get into the Camaro. The WRX I didn't really even try once I realized it's a $40,000 car. Who pays that?? I'd much rather have a Challenger SRT/8 if I had that kind of money.

One thing I'll say about auto shows in general is that the older I get, the less I understand all this crowding around expensive cars you will never, ever afford, and that often won't ever even be produced. People go batshit crazy over the latest concept car that they'll never see again, or some Italian sports car that's completely unattainable. Why? There are people that go to auto shows only for this. Then there are people like me, who use the auto show like a big giant car dealer - a shopping tool. You can easily spot us - we're the ones sitting in the Scion XB's and Mazda 3's and Ford Fusions. You know, practical stuff that we might actually buy. We sort of smile and nod as we hold the doors open for each other, knowing we're kind of an odd breed at auto shows like this, where most people automatically make a beeline for the most expensive car at the show, even if it costs more than they'll make in their lifetime.

We're off to the Mini dealer this weekend.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Enermax ETS-T40-VD CPU cooler upgrade

So what's wrong with the stock AMD CPU cooler?

Well, for one thing, just look at it! Despite being made by Cooler Master, this thing uses a tiny fan on a downflow heatsink - proven to be less efficient than tower coolers. And that fan - at full bore, it sounds like am Embraer Brasilia at takeoff power. It technically works well enough at stock speeds, though forget about overclocking, and if you're doing anything heavy, prepare to wear ear plugs most of the time.

Monitoring my temps with AMD's overdrive utility, I was getting thermal margins of about 16C with this cooler - or about 54C absolute temp according to HWINFO64.

(I bent that top left fin back - just hadn't noticed it before taking this photo.)

I specifically sought out the Enermax ETS-T40-VD - a just-discontinued model that's getting harder to find, but one of the few coolers that uses a red LED fan (and blue, and blue + red, in various combinations). And it's reasonably priced (assuming you can still find it), highly effective and reasonably quiet. I got mine from AAAwave. Enermax's current models are pretty similar but use a thermal heatsink coating (not really necessary) and different fans that have either blue or white LED's depending on the model... or none. This one has both blue and red, and 18 of each. Keee-razy!

Isopropyl alcohol and a paper towel is the easiest way I've found to clean thermal grease from both heatsinks and CPU's. I bought this bottle probably 10 years ago, as you can tell from the label.

You can already see one of the problems with the stock heatsink - look at the sides (beyond the thermal grease) - see how dull it looks. Well, that's true of the part under the grease too:

This thing really needed another round of polishing. You can actually feel that texture - it's like brushed aluminum. Hardly the ideal surface to mate to a CPU.

Installation of the ETS-T40-VD was pretty straightforward. Unscrew the old plastic clips, screw in the new included backplate and metal brackets, then screw the pressure plate for the heatsink on top. The hardest part was figuring out how tight to tighten the pressure plate screws that hold on the heatsink itself - I didn't want to crush the CPU, but did want to keep the otherwise free-moving heatsink from slinking around. One thing I do like about stock coolers is that they're pretty much idiot-proof, and they always click in with just the right amount of pressure. Not so with aftermarket coolers that are made to be "universal".

After installation. This thing's a monster. It almost touches my side window - if not for the bulge in the Corsair C70's side panels, I never would have fit the case back together. On the plus side, the height of the cooler means RAM clearance is not an issue at all. The fan sits about a full inch higher than my standard-height RAM. It's also surprisingly light - it supposedly weighs a little more than 1 lb. but it doesn't feel like it. I'm not at all worried about warping or cracking my motherboard.

Here it is running in normal light. I've chosen to run it with the red LED's because that's the theme of my case. Wait for it...

And here's the full case in the dark. Spooky! The power and HDD LED's bother me - I may mod those at some point. The case fans are Enermax TB Silence 120mm fans with red LED's - these are a little different than the TB Vegas Duo fan that the CPU cooler comes with, but they work well (though are not really "silent"). I'm also using the two Corsair plain black fans that came with my case - one on the bottom of the case, one in the back.

With this cooler, my stock temps dropped from 54C at load to 37C.

And I can't even hear it over my case fans, even at full load. It's 120mm and runs at the same speed, so there's no reason I would.

One thing I will caution with this or any other tower heatsink - use fan grills! I don't have any yet, but the one time I stuck my hand in there to try to change the LED color, I ended up with a fan smacking my finger, which led me to instinctively rip my hand out of the case, which then got caught on the top fin of the heatsink, which then bent. And it bent from the middle, so it's basically impossible to bend it back. Oh well. All for the lack of fan grills!

I recommend replacing the stock AMD cooler. And while I'm sure other coolers work just as well, I'm very happy with the results from this Enermax.

Next up: overclocking, and taming the Gigabyte 990FXA-UD3's voltage regulator module!

Motherboard, CPU and RAM upgrade: going (almost) all the way

I mentioned earlier that it had been probably more than a decade since I last upgraded my PC. Sacrilege! When you go that long, things get away from you to the point that you can no longer just upgrade a component here and there - the interfaces don't even match up anymore. So a little while ago I had hit up Ebay for a used but somewhat recent Intel DP35DP and Q6600+ combo - just to get my feet back in the water:

This at least got my desktop up to the speed of my 2 year old laptop... but you know what? It just didn't look right in my Corsair Vengeance C70 case. That case demanded something beefier. I decided I wanted a modern gaming system again.

So when the latest Micro Center circular presented me with a deal I couldn't refuse, I jumped on it:

The components:

  • AMD FX-8320 8 core CPU ($129, on sale from $179.99)
  • Gigabyte 990FXA-UD3 rev. 4 ($94, on sale from $159.99)
  • Not pictured - 8GB Crucial Ballistix Sport RAM ($66, on sale from $99)
I took Micro Center's 2 year replacement "warranty" on the CPU - which even the service guy told me is basically just a 2 year extension on their return policy. Come back in 2 years, get a CPU upgrade for free! (Well, really for the $20 it costs for the warranty. Still a good deal.)

My previous desktop processor was an AMD Athlon XP... 12 years ago. I'd been Intel pretty much ever since. I was kind of disappointed to learn that AMD's still got a lot of the same issues with their CPU's - they run hotter than hell, they require their own electrical substation and their memory controllers were scrounged out of Intel's garbage dump - but their raw performance per dollar still can't be beat, and that's at stock speeds. An Intel CPU that runs this fast would cost twice as much, and have fewer cores. I do a lot of video encoding, so I can never have too many cores. Give me ALL THE CORES.

I also read after installing the 990FXA-UD3 that these boards are known for having heat issues with the voltage regulators - but more on that in another post (there is an easy solution).

It's actually a pretty sweet looking board - I like the black and, uh, black-ish silver look. Stock CPU cooler for now, but I'll be talking about upgrading that in another post. I wanted to see how much of a joke this cooler really was first. (Hint: it is more of a groan-inducing pun.)

Closeup of the RAM and CPU cooler. The RAM isn't the prettiest, but it gets the job done. It's also not the fastest, but it... gets the job done. AMD CPU's can't really stress RAM much anyway, so it's fine.

Installed. Matches the black C70 case perfectly. You will notice that I don't have a decent graphics card yet - that's the final piece of the puzzle, and I should have at least a GeForce GTX 760 by early June. Hopefully the 800 series will be around by then and will knock a few bucks off the cost of the 760's (I doubt I'll be able to afford an 860 regardless).

Installation of this board in this case was like butter - in fact I've never had an easier time building a computer (for all intents and purposes, this was a new build). Everything worked on the first try and even Windows 7 played nice - no reinstallation necessary, just a lot of new automatic driver installs and a call to Microsoft's automated re-activation service line. 

The full C70 case with the new components installed.

Performance-wise I can only give you some anecdotes. Right now I'm mainly using these new components for ripping and encoding Blu-Ray discs for my tablet - actually an extremely CPU-intensive task if you want decent quality and small file sizes. I'm using MakeMKV and Handbrake to do the work, encoding at the full 1080p using the "slower" preset, x.264 and "High" profile, no filters, 2 pass encoding at 2000mbps with turbo first pass. With the old Intel setup, I'd get maybe 9fps if I was lucky. (The Athlon XP gave me more like 1.5fps - intolerable!) The Q6600 was fast enough to do about one BD disc in a 24 hour day.

This new rig is giving me about 50fps on the first pass and 30fps on the second. That's at the stock 3.5ghz. That's fast enough to re-encode a BD disc in an evening. It feels very fast! But still, someday we'll be able to do this kind of thing in 5 minutes - there's still plenty of room for improvement.

Next up: CPU cooler upgrade and overclocking!

Thursday, April 03, 2014

New monitor - ASUS PB238Q

I bought a new monitor, only my third in the last 15 years. This is a big deal - it's the one part of your computer that you're staring at literally the entire time you're in front of it. One big rule I've always had with my computers is don't skimp on the I/O devices. Keyboards, mice, monitors - I try to buy good ones and I buy 'em to last.

That said, I do have a budget. I chose an ASUS PB238Q. This actually isn't a brand new model, but that can be a good thing - it means the manufacturer's had time to work out the bugs. It also means that product's good enough to have been in production for a while.

Same goes for the Model M...

Whenever I shop for anything, I start out mostly "cold" but with a set budget and a set of bare minimum specs and features that I want. Then I filter and scan those products over and over and see if anything starts to jump out at me. Something always does. Then I say "that's the one!" and pull the trigger. I've never been steered wrong that way.

I knew I wanted at least 1080p, 23", a matte screen, an IPS panel, and DVI input. That was the minimum, and I wanted it for $200 or less. The more I looked, the more I knew the PB238Q was "the one". Check this:
  • IPS panel (AH-IPS, from what I've read)
  • 1080p matte screen
  • Did I mention it's matte? Matte matte matte! The whole monitor is matte, including bezels and stand.
  • 6ms response time (not as fast as a "gaming" monitor, but faster than many IPS panels - a good compromise for image quality)
  • Pretty much every port you could ever need - VGA, DVI, HDMI, DisplayPort
  • It comes with all of those cables! Well, except HDMI for some reason.
  • Swiveling, height adjustable, tilting stand that also rotates 90 degrees
  • USB hub if you care
  • Speakers if you must, but they are extremely well hidden if you don't
  • Chunky-ass construction - it looks like a tank, and it is!

I read before buying that some of these monitors have had cross-hatching issues, while others suffer from light bleed. Again, this is why it can sometimes be a good thing to buy an older design that's still in production - my monitor has neither of these issues. Mine was built in December 2013, so it's not an older panel that's been sitting on a shelf - it's a new build, and maybe they've just improved the quality control. The nice thing is that it seems like this thing was way ahead of its time when it was introduced in 2012, so it's still a good monitor today - but I only paid $206 for it (actually $168 after applying some credit card points).

Now, that said, it's not perfect - all LCD panels suffer from screen uniformity issues to one degree or another, and it's just a question of how noticeable it is. I'm particularly sensitive to this (it's a big reason why I have a plasma TV), and I do notice some lighter and darker areas of this screen with an even white or light grey background color, such as on many web sites. It's not visible in photos, videos or games and it's not bad even on white - in fact I couldn't capture it on camera - but I've seen more uniform LCD's than this one. Hey, at $200, there's still going to be a compromise or two - and this monitor seems to excel otherwise.

Not many ~$200 monitors can do this!

ASUS is capable of building solid stuff, and they're also capable of building junk. It depends on the line, and their mood that day. This is part of the "PB" series, which stands for "Professional Business" (the "PA" series is "Professional Artist" and is a notch higher - they take the time to pre-calibrate those displays). I've had the best luck buying "business" hardware even for gaming. "Business" and/or "Professional" is really just code in the computer industry for things that are built a little more rugged than your AOL-using grandma would need and less blingy than your pre-teen daughter would like. This monitor definitely has an old-school feel - and that's fine by me. It's made of very thick plastic, and the bezel has a matte texture - not the thin glossy crap that's trendy right now.

No, you can't see any uniformity problems above - that's just light from my window reflecting more off one side than the other. In fact, the right side is very slightly brighter than the left under even lighting.

You can actually see the better color accuracy of the PB238Q vs. my laptop in that photo, though. White on the PB238Q is white. Most people these days are used to the bluish tint that TN displays put out, but this thing displays white as white.

I will say that it's interesting how 1080p resolution almost looks low-res on a monitor this size these days, and if I replace this in a few years, that'll probably be why. My laptop's 1920x1080 also, and I'm used to the pixel density that res gives you on a 15" screen. I remember my 23" 1920x1200 Apple Cinema Display HD at work seeming unbelievably huge and sharp when I first got it about 8 years ago, but times do change. For desktop usage, you can definitely see the jaggies in text at 1080p on a 23" screen. Soon we'll all be moving to 4K... and then we'll need to be running 4 SLI graphics cards to keep up with that resolution.

The viewing angles and swivel stand in action! Honestly, my plasma TV's kind of spoiled me on viewing angles, but this thing's pretty good. Definitely better than my laptop, which is well-known for having a nice screen. (It's still probably TN, though.)

I'm not going to do a full review because honestly, it's not like I'd be the first and anyway, I don't have the equipment yet. My gaming graphics card is probably going to end up a birthday present, so for now I'll just be doing TV, movies and desktop stuff on this monitor. It's still a huge improvement over the $60 Hanns-G 16" TN monitor I was using before :)

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Breaking up is hard to do

I'll get right to the point - I'm splitting up this blog.

When I started this thing in 2003, there was still such a thing as a "personal blog". People wrote about the trivia and minutiae of their daily life, and other people read these blogs because publishing stuff continuously on the internet (rather than just having a static site) was kind of a novel concept in the late 90's/early 00's, so nobody realized how boring most personal blogs actually were. It was like an ongoing window into some random person's life - this was a new thing!

But now I along with everyone else just uses Facebook and Twitter to post thoughts and links, although I'm convinced nobody actually reads anything anybody writes on either of those sites, no matter how many followers or friends a person might have. Who cares anymore?

Meanwhile, at some point "blogs" became big and professional and topic-driven, and randomized sites like mine became anachronistic. Engadget, Techcrunch, Deadspin and Huffington Post wrote about something and became top sites on the internet doing it, and they redefined what the word "blog" meant.

I'm a stubborn guy and I held on to the old anarchic and personal ideal of a blog for a long time, but even I don't really know the point of what I'm doing here a lot of the time anymore. I used to get a lot more traffic, and more comments, but I don't think anybody's reading any of this except people who stumble in through Google by chance, after searching for some obscure term like "Japanese crepes harajuku takeshita dori".

I actually mostly write about a few distinct subjects these days. I've linked a couple of these on the sidebar, because I've noticed that a lot of people read those posts but nothing else. So, rather than trying to hold on to some bygone era that even I don't really pay heed to anymore, I'm going to split this sucker up.

It's going to take a while to get things set up, but I'm planning about four distinct blogs - and you can probably figure out what they're going to be just by looking at my last 10 posts or so.

I'll keep this blog for stuff either specifically related to New York or to just random things I feel like posting that don't fit elsewhere. But it's probably going to be a lot less frequently updated. (Not that I update it all that frequently as is.)

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.


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