The Inkwell

Epilogue on three 75GXP failures
— 8:54 PM on April 18, 2008

Years ago I sought advice from a trusted and knowledgeable friend about what components to use in my first home-built PC. Everything worked great at first. In fact, that system still runs and gets used every so often (in spite of a few bulging and leaking capacitors). The only major issue I ever had was with... the IBM Deskstar 75GXP. Need I say more?

I believe the first instance of the tell-tale repetitive clicking followed by an error notice happened at seven months. I don't remember exactly, but Scott probably helped me retrieve some of my data before I RMA'd it for a replacement. At that time I didn't have any vital data on there, maybe my resume and some personal correspondence.

Although I wanted to go with a different brand after all the hassle, IBM wouldn't refund my money; they insisted that my only option was to swap for a replacement drive.

The second one lasted five or six months, tops. This time I had been wiser and backed up my data on a regular basis. And we still have that stack of floppies somewhere, just in case I ever need to access my application to the Federal Reserve Bank or the family Christmas newsletter of 2000 (doubtful, as not much happened that year).

This time I tried to insist on a refund, not a replacement. I still wasn't aware, however, that there was a swell of failures occurring among what would come to be known as the Deathstars of hard drives. And surely such a popular model from a respected company like IBM, highly recommended by my geekiest of friends, couldn't fail me three times. So when the customer service rep insisted that a replacement was the best she could do, I relented.

When drive #3 arrived I saw that it had scratches around the screws, was covered with fingerprints, had been re-labeled, and wore a telling little sticker that said "SERVICEABLE USED PART". This was good! No, I'm serious, because "serviceable" was a step up from what I'd received in the past, right? Surely this (refurbished?) drive had been thoroughly checked out, and whatever problem the others had was resolved. Besides, if I could find an accomplished hacker, I might be able to retrieve some other young family's Christmas 2000 newsletter from the wiped platters.

Having learned my lesson, I bought a new drive to use as my primary and set this one up as a slave drive. This way I could, um... well... back up my data to it in case the primary drive failed - right. Ok, sure, that sounds so obviously absurd now - after the fact. Relying on a known failure of a hard drive as a back up for my vital data? The good news is: I have not yet needed to use the backed up files on that drive!! Good thing, too, because the "serviceable used" drive failed after about a year. This in spite of the fact that it was used only once a week, at most, to back up files from the other drive.

I had a long argument with several company reps, but failed to persuade any of them that they should send me a check. I reached that point where every minute of time and any energy spent on this cause seemed like a waste. IBM must've felt the same way because they were negotiating the sale of their hard drive business to Hitachi. I had errant thoughts of hurling the drive through the window of an IBM office somewhere... anywhere. But I decided to just make it a paperweight. It still sits next to my keyboard, along with a carved stone tool allegedly from the Mayan civilization in Central America. Both remind me that things change, technology fails, and whoever's in the lead eventually stumbles.

But sometime back in 2005 I received an email from a law firm asking if I wanted to be included in a class-action lawsuit against IBM over the 75GXP. After researching the options I honestly don't think that I signed up... but maybe I had to opt out. Anyway, last Monday I got this check in the mail for $100, which made me smile.

53 comments — Last by Palek at 1:08 AM on 05/07/08

Kitchen PC hushed
— 6:27 PM on February 20, 2008

When I set out to build a new family PC, it needed to be small, attractive and quiet.  No need for anything crazy like Mini-ITX, but I did want a nice appearance and very low noise at idle so as to be acceptable in our kitchen/dining area.  Limited by about a $350 budget for new components, I was largely at the mercy of what I had lying around or could bum off of Scott or Geoff.

The Shuttle SN25P met my aesthetic requirements with flying colors.  Slightly smaller would've been preferable, but the gorgeous exterior of that enclosure earned it a spot on our kitchen desk, and the Shuttle's stock cooling system for the SN25P should have kept the three separate zones cool at barely a whisper, especially with Cool'n'Quiet enabled.  

Radeon X800 with stock cooler in the confines of the SN25P

Unfortunately, I never personally experienced that low purr recorded by Geoff in his testing.  The problem was the Radeon X800 I swiped from the Damage Labs.  That freaky little cooler started out well enough, but just couldn't keep its opinions to itself.  In a previous blog post I described how the only fly in the ointment for this system was connectivity with my wireless network.  Although that was true at the time, the ever-growing buzz of the dinky fan on the X800 quickly flew straight into the ointment as soon as I'd disposed with the connectivity bug.  I guess it was never really quiet, but it didn't bother me a lot when I was more annoyed by the flaky wireless adapter.  Regardless, it became increasingly clear that if the "Breadbox" was to remain within about an arms length of where I sat to eat, it would need to be learn to be seen and not heard.

Gigabyte Cyclops cooler After chatting with one of the marketing reps from Gigabyte*, I decided to get one of their GPU cooling solutions and try my hand at my first real modification of a piece of hardware.  The largest concern — other than whether the cooler would be better than stock — was whether it would actually fit in the SN25P without hitting the drive cage, the PSU, or all the cables that emerge from the PSU in that space.

The Cyclops, with dimensions of 160x91x34 mm, seemed like it might fit, depending on precisely how much and where the thickness of 34mm tapers off toward the end of the fins.  I estimated that the corner of the drive cage might contact the fins, and that the PSU cables could require some creative tethering to stay out the spinning fan blades.

The removal of the stock cooler and installation of the Cyclops on the X800 was straightforward and simple.  The only thing that gave me pause was how the bracket used to attach the cooler to the card came into contact with the metal trim surrounding the GPU when the screws were tightened, leading me to stop tightening them before I was fully convinced that the copper base of the heatsink was sufficiently in contact with the GPU. To be safe, I removed it to see if the thermal paste would indicate whether the two surfaces had fully contacted each other.  I observed that the paste had an extremely thin, uniform appearance across the GPU and the copper heatsink base, and an equal amount had oozed over all four sides of the GPU.  So I wiped it all off and repeated steps 3 through 8 in my Cyclops installation guide, confident that the GPU heat would make its way through the copper base to the aluminum fins.

I even applied all those little porcupine-looking aluminum heatsinks to what seemed to be the memory chips on the board, despite my lack of confidence that the peel-n-stick self-adhesive bases would hold them tight enough to be effective.  But they did make the card look kinda prickly and mean.

After tucking and tying the cables safely out of the way, I installed the X800 on the motherboard.  Like an idiot, I secured and screwed everything in place as I went along before confirming that the major components would fit.  I was pleased to find that the time I spent on the PSU cables succeeded in routing them well out of the way of the fan and that nothing on the motherboard came near the new cooler.  The PCI Express x1 slot is rendered virtually inaccessible, but that's of little concern to me for at least the foreseeable future.

All was going quite splendidly until the tool-free drive cage was replaced.  The 34 mm thickness of the Cyclops doesn't taper down quickly enough, so the metal corner of the drive cage solidly hits the plastic cover over the fins, which prevents the cage from dropping that last quarter inch and sliding fully into place.  I pondered if I would have sufficient clearance for the drives with that plastic cover removed, and whether it served any functional purpose.  Several measurements indicated that the removal of the cover should provide enough room, just barely, for all the components to be re-assembled.  But what if the lack of that flimsy piece of plastic shrouding the aluminum fins would prevent the airflow from reaching the tips and decrease performance?  Some research on Gigabyte's website and Newegg's customer (ah-hem) "reviews" didn't yield any useful data.


 X800 with Cyclops cooler obstructs drive cage at top of photo

I decided to risk it and removed the Gigabyte-stickered cover.  The naked Cyclops allowed the drive cage to slip in right next to it without a scrape.  Although there is no contact, I don't think I could fit two sheets of cardstock between them.  Thankfully, everything in this little box is rigid and stable — no concern that the bare Cyclops might eventually touch and vibrate against the, um, caged hard drive.


Bare Cyclops barely makes room for drive cage

Fully re-assembled, I powered it up, and XP Pro booted just fine.  Then I heard something odd that I'd never heard from this little system... the Barracuda 7200.10 spinning and seeking out its stored data.  It was honestly a refreshing sound.  The $25 Cyclops doesn't allow the 80 mm fan speed to be monitored or adjusted, but its 2300 RPMs are truly indistinguishable from the faint hum of the other fans.  ATITool indicates that my GPU temperature is 60 degrees C at idle and around 74 under load (unfortunately I did not check the temps with the stock cooler).  That seems a bit warm, but I guess it’s acceptable.  

So this kitchen computer is now practically inaudible unless you're sitting directly next to it — one more bug plucked out of the ointment.  But I suspect my expectations are already rising, and I'll eventually find something else to improve.  For now, though, I'm savoring the peace and quiet.

*Full disclosure:  This is a blog post recounting a personal experience; it is not a product review.  I have never helped test or write for product reviews for The Tech Report.  Gigabyte and Shuttle are sponsors of The Tech Report.

10 comments — Last by eitje at 10:21 PM on 02/23/08

Introducing 'Voice in the Mountains'
— 4:00 PM on November 16, 2007

A VoIP communication system via a mesh network of wireless routers... that are solar powered... in remote mountain villages.... home-built. Sounds interesting, doesn't it? That's what I thought anyway, so when a very good friend of mine told me he'd be researching, designing and building such a thing over the next couple years, I insisted that he share his experience with me via email as it progresses. Thankfully, he agreed.

"Even better," I said, "blog about it on The Tech Report." The non-profit NGO with which he's working is very cautious about sharing details like names and locations of their aid projects, so he was reluctant to publish it in such a public forum. As we discussed the benefits that could come from opening this project up to comment and assistance from a broad community of techies, he decided it was worth it. Additionally, he's excited to be able to give something back to the Internet community from which he has gained so much.

So over the next few months (or maybe years), he'll be blogging about his research, tests, and (hopefully) a successful deployment of this "village wireless VoIP" project. Right now he's in the US gathering data and trying to build a small-scale working prototype. He has already jotted down several notes, which we'll be posting in the next few days. Soon he'll be moving back to the location where the full-scale system is to be built. Although the people of the villages in which he'll be working feel a real need for communications, there are elements in the broader region and culture that are suspicious of and sometimes opposed to technology and foreign assistance, so we have agreed to let him publish under the nickname "wirelesh."

I don't want to tell any more of his story, since his account should be far more interesting, so head over to "Voice in the Mountains" for a brief overview of the project. Then check back regularly, because he has been working on this for a few months already and we'll be publishing his notes with frequent updates here at the beginning. We invite anyone with experience or knowledge of any aspect of the project to offer their ideas and expertise. Once he completes his research in the U.S., the posts may become sporadic, since his communication options are severely limited in the area... thus the need for a project like this.

7 comments — Last by atravnic at 7:41 PM on 05/14/08

Kitchen computer gets a new internet stick
— 1:17 AM on November 1, 2007

Back in March I built a system intended to be the new family PC. The goal was to make it small, quiet and attractive enough that my wife would be okay with it living someplace other than the my office. About half the components I bought specifically for this system; the rest were "borrowed" from the Damage Labs. I decided on a Shuttle box, the SN25P. It ended up with an Athlon 64 4000+ processor, 1 GB of Crucial Ballistix RAM, a Sapphire Radeon X800 256MB, Seagate's Barracuda 7200.10 320GB, a LITE-ON DVD R/W, Logitech's EX110 cordless keyboard & mouse and an AOC 17" LCD monitor. Before drawing conclusions about the hardware, keep in mind that I was on a strict budget and that the main tasks of this PC would be general office apps, web surfing, limited media downloading/storage/playback and lengthy sessions of Lego Star Wars for my wife and daughter.

After enabling Cool'n'Quiet on the 4000+, I had a small and fairly quiet system purring on our kitchen counter - goal achieved. My wife even thinks it's kinda cute; she named it "the breadbox." It's not exactly silent, and the vent holes on the side of the case exhaust warmer air than I'd prefer; but it's living up to it's duties quite admirably. The Logitech Z-540 speakers sound surprisingly good playing Pandora, Lego Star Wars or whatever media occasionally gets watched there.

The only fly in the ointment was internet connectivity. I'd initially decided to make do with a SiS USB wireless adapter that came from who-knows-where. It was entirely contained in a package the size of a thumb drive - "the internet stick," my wife called it (she gets along with technology better when she can establish her own lingo to address it; sort of like Adam naming the animals in Eden). I initially thought the occasionally weak and dropped signal wouldn't matter because it always reconnected within seconds; man was I ever wrong. It was just annoying enough that I rarely used the system to surf since my own rock-solid umbilical-ethernet-connected PC was right upstairs.

Keep in mind that I'm the business and sales guy for The Tech Report, not a hardware reviewer. My PC techie endeavors have been limited to speccing and assembling the hardware, installing and upgrading operating systems (always Windows), and a bit of troubleshooting and swapping hardware when I've encountered problems. The only overclocking of a PC that has ever been accomplished in my home was done by Scott on an AMD Duron 750 several years ago.

So when my 8-year-old daughter couldn't stay connected to research Thomas Edison's inventions for a report she'd been assigned (yes, that was a homework assignment from her 2nd-grade teacher) and my wife was checking her email on my PC instead of the breadbox, I hopped on Newegg to find a new wireless adapter. My naive techie instincts told me to avoid compatibility problems by matching the brand of either my Linksys WRT 54G router or the Shuttle. So I went with the Shuttle PN18G wireless kit, primarily because it was cheaper than the Linksys options.

The breadbox, fully connected via the new internet stick poking out the back of the case.

Although the adapter's bundled software wasn't exactly straightforward and initially seemed to do battle with Windows' wireless networking client, I managed to get them to play nice, quite by accident, after fiddling with the settings for a while. And then... it just worked. Man was that sweet. It was like having a whole new toy there in the kitchen. Now I regularly remote desktop to my PC upstairs because those 15 steps up to my office seem like such a long climb. And I guess that's the sign that the Shuttle... er, breadbox... is a success. It does what I wanted, and then some.

18 comments — Last by Inkling at 5:24 PM on 11/20/07

Have fun, win prizes
— 3:28 PM on October 19, 2007

While at Newegg's LANFest 2K7 a couple weeks ago, I took note of several contests and promotions targeting gamers and PC geeks.  I don't want to turn every blog entry into a press release, but a couple of them are worth mentioning.  Shuttle, Diamond and OCZ, all sponsors of The Tech Report, have promotions that will yield prizes for simply doing what many of us want to do anyway.

First off, Shuttle has a case design contest with over $6000 in goodies, including a Shuttle XPC G5 3300 PC with a XP17 portable LCD... not a bad setup there.  Unlike their last giveaway, which was exclusive to The Tech Report's readers, this one's open to anyone and is garnering quite a few entries.  But I'm sure you guys have a better-than-average chance of taking home some of the loot, so don't delay because the deadline for entering (pdf) is October 30th.  After Shuttle narrows the entries down to a handful, they'll be inviting us to vote on the winners, so stay tuned for more news on that.

UPDATE: Submission deadline for Shuttle's case design contest has been extended to November 18th.

Next, Diamond and OCZ, in cooperation with AMD and several other sponsors, are promoting the Total Gaming League "Roughneck Challenge."  It's a single elimination tournament using the retail version of Team Fortress 2.  Don't drag your feet here either because it's set to begin on Sunday, November 4th.  Based on chatter in our forums, I'd guess we have several players who are already on or could put together a competitive team for this free-registration tourney.

That's it for the public service announcements today.  Now get registered for your contest of choice and get back to what you were doing.

1 comment — First by krazyredboy at 10:22 PM on 10/24/07

Newegg's got game
— 7:22 PM on October 5, 2007

Neither a gamer nor an editor, but walking the show floor of Newegg's LANFest 2K7 wearing a TR shirt, I feel like I'm getting about as much attention as Fatal1ty... orrrr not. Although several guys have stopped me to say how much they read and depend on The Tech Report's reviews, I suppose Wendel's probably getting slightly more attention as he hangs out around XFX's and Abit's booths.

So if any of you Friday evening/Saturday morning readers are indeed here at LANFest, post here and let me know where you are. I may have a little something for a few of you if you want to meet up somewhere.

And if you're in the Ontario, California area and don't have a date or other worthy plans for the weekend, come on down to the convention center. Admission for spectators is only $5. Newegg and several sponsors (including OCZ, XFX, Shuttle and Crucial) have stepped up to make this a fairly impressive show.

The convention center.

Tony Crisp of Crisp Brand Agency and Brandi Pierce of XFX in front of the XFX Challenge bus

15 comments — Last by Fastfreak39 at 9:59 PM on 10/17/07

Let's hear it for...
— 1:46 AM on June 30, 2007

Mitsubishi Microsoft Logitech Linksys WesternDigital AMD Asus Antec Nvidia Epson Sony Samsung Mitsumi KDS Canon Abit Toshiba Via APC Mushkin CoolerMaster Compaq Rival

In my immediate workspace those terms represent companies whose products I use to help me do my job. I thought about writing a haiku or rhyming poem with the names. My daughter memorizes her phonograms and other vital first-grade data using rhythmic phrases set to catchy melodies. It works quite well.

But I don't really need to memorize that list of brands. Many of these products were purchased or given to me many years ago and are still in use only because I haven't the money or time to upgrade. They're not all brands I'd even recommend. But without the items wearing each of those names, I'd have trouble accomplishing my day-to-day duties behind the scenes at The Tech Report. They don't get a second thought, unless they fail me.

There is, however, a different list of brands that are worthy of that second thought, or even a first thought. Thankfully, there are a handful of companies who've decided (with a little persuasion) that they will help make it possible for us to provide this venue and publish these reviews.

PC enthusiasts are a niche community. Our interests don't have the kind of broad public appeal that, say, Paris Hilton, American Idol or Big Brother inexplicably garner. So when companies step up to sponsor The Tech Report and give us the ability to keep reviewing the hardware and sharing what we learn with this community, we periodically should stop and say "thanks." There are many ways they could get their marketing message out, so we are highly appreciative that they've chosen to support us.

I'll start with four supporters who've been with us so long that we've lost track: Abit, OCZ, Newegg and PriceGrabber. We really appreciate their long-term commitment.

Corsair, XFX, Crucial and NCIX are also regulars whose support we've come to rely upon.

And one of our newest sponsors, Shuttle, has made a commitment to this community that should be taken seriously.

A couple others who've been there for us are Enermax and Verizon, albeit for short campaigns or through vendor relationships.

For all that they've done to make this site and this community possible, I thank them and ask our readers to keep them in mind if you're in the market for the sort of products or services they offer.

And, if that's not enough, there's always poetry...

Newegg sells Corsair
Shuttle, OCZ, Crucial
Abit, XFX

through NCIXUS
sells them all the same


17 comments — Last by Sargent Duck at 2:07 AM on 07/14/07