Building Eugene

Eric Pobirs, a Chaos Manor Advisor, details his build of a new computer system for Chaos Manor.

ComputerIt’s been a while since we built a new PC at Chaos Manor. Along with the expected incremental improvements to the platform, two major items have now come to the consumer market. The first is PCIe-connected SSD storage that raises performance to levels that will take years to fully exploit. The second is USB 3.1, which brings double the bandwidth, a new simpler plug type, and a variety of new modes for delivering power.

I’d like to say I carefully selected each component in minute detail to assemble the best possible machine, but I really only had one item in mind when I started. The make and model of that was by default as it is the only one you can reliably buy at the moment. [The component list is at the end of this article – Editor]

The fact is, with a decent knowledge of PC tech trends it doesn’t take much discretion to produce a very nice machine if you don’t have anything terribly specific in mind. Also, it was the right time of year to assemble parts as this was leading into Black Friday and sales galore. I also picked up several portions of another build (an FM2+ HTPC) with just one vital component needed to proceed but as a bargain hunter I must exercise patience.

Eugene is Named

The name Eugene comes from Eugene ‘Flash’ Thompson, Peter ‘Spider-man’ Parker’s high school nemesis and later close friend. Back in the 60s and 70s he went off to Vietnam, and then returned without a scratch and a hot wife in tow. More recently he was retconned to be sent to Iraq, have his lower legs blown off by an IED, and then become the new host of the Venom symbiotic to become a superhero in his own right.

ANYWAY…. Flash memory is a really big part of this machine, so I used that to inspire the name. The fact that it is also the middle name of Chaos Manor’s proprietor is purely coincidence. Probably.

The CPU and Motherboard

This new build had been a near future plan for a while but the combined special on the ASUS Z170-AR motherboard and Intel Core i5-6500, combined with the knowledge the Samsung 950 was available, compelled me to pull the trigger. The rest of the components, nearly all offering an attractive price, quickly fell into place. Even the SSD, while commanding a price premium compared to SATA models of comparable capacity, had a decent discount at a time when most retailers aren’t bothering due to demand outstripping supply for the moment.

The CPU belongs to the most recent Sky lake generation, the sixth since the Core i3/5/7 line began, as indicated by the model number. The lack of a ‘K’ at the end of model number means it has a locked multiplier, the determinant of the processor’s internal clock rate compared to the rate at which it communicates with the rest of the system, and is thus unsuited for overclocking.

That became a source of difficulties.

Overclocking Woes

Recently, motherboard makers have found a method of overclocking CPUs with locked multipliers due to a difference in how Skylake and its chip set work compared to previous generations but this is too recent to be a factor in the board we used. ASUS has released new firmware supporting the technique for several other of their ZI70 board but not for this particular one as yet. Which is alright as testing PCs to destruction is a sport I’ll leave to others.

Motherboard Improvements

The 6500 has a number of improvements over its predecessors, most of which are aimed at the mobile sector but some are universal, such as significant improvements to the video subsystem that in turn raises the ante for the entire PC market as Intel IGA (Integrated Graphics Adapter) remains the lowest common denominator that developers look to in their design decisions. PCIe 3.0 is standard, raising the overall bandwidth available with slightly less than 8 Gbps per lane where PCIe 2.0 delivered 5 Gbps with substantially greater overhead.

Another platform advance is DDR4 memory, with lower power, greater speed, and higher density potential. DDR3 topped out at 128 GB per module, and DDR4 beats that by a factor of 4, going all the way up to 512 GB in a single slot. While this isn’t going to figure into consumer desktops any year soon, it does translate into systems that are both more affordable and more powerful once the market shifts to the new standard. DDR4 prices have already dropped around 50% from early 2015. Intel does support the use of DDR3 with Skylake for low cost systems but the cost advantage should disappear within 2016.

One big feature that didn’t make it into Skylake is USB 3.1. As with USB 3.0 and USB 2.0, Intel is rarely in a hurry to integrate barely dry standards and this leaves the market open for third party chips on motherboards and add-in cards. Since Skylake uses a new socket, LGA1151, requiring newly designed boards all around, all but the cheapest feature USB 3.1 via a third party chip.

The most common is the Asmedia ASM1142, the latest from a longtime supplier of USB ICs. This chip connects to the system by a single PCIe 3.0 lane. At first glance this would seem inadequate to support the 10 Gbps bandwidth of USB 3.1 but the protocol overhead between the USB host and devices is great enough that the single lane is sufficient to handle the traffic to the rest of the system. The upcoming Kaby Lake generation from Intel is due to have USB 3.1 as a native feature and may perform better but probably not so much that it will be easily perceivable.

SSD Slots

A big part of this generation isn’t really new but is entering the mainstream with Skylake and its motherboards is the M.2 slot for SSDs. The spec has appeared in high-end laptops for a while, and in the X99 generation of motherboards but these implementations were mostly either SATA or using older, slower PCIe with fewer lanes.

The fully realized version seen in Z170 systems utilizes four lanes of PCIe to connect to the system with a raw bandwidth of 3.2 GBps. That’s gigabyte with a capital G and capital B. This is such a massive gain in performance that it is wasted much of the time as the load from typical desktop apps doesn’t provide much challenge.

Memory Expands

When systems with 32 GB or more of RAM are used with applications handling data measured in the tens of gigabytes, the difference will be obvious. Easy enough for serious top resolution video editing or 3D animation rendering but most of us aren’t creating the next Pixar feature.

It will take a while for clever engineers to find ways to make this more useful to the average user. The difference between this and a SATA-III SSD is noticeable in various operations that complete with unexpected speed but it is subtle compared to the dramatic difference when first going from a spinning platter drive to an SSD.

How future PCs will exploit this performance remains a matter for speculation. If Intel and Microsoft have a concrete idea it hasn’t been publicized much, likely for fear of the Osborne Effect.

Intel says their Optane, non-volatile memory that is supposed to hit the market in 2016, will be a thousand times faster and ten times denser than flash memory. Applied to the M.2 form factor used by the Samsung 950 in Eugene, this would allow for a 5 TB drive about the size of a few stacked business cards.

Intel has suggested that one way this will be sold is as DIMM memory modules rather than treated as drives for secondary storage. This means the Optane would become part of the memory map alongside the system’s RAM.

This where 64-bit addressing really takes off and the ability of DDR4 to support a 512 GB DIMM sees practical use in a consumer PC. (This won’t be using the slots in existing DDR4 motherboards but rather a new extended spec Intel is introducing. These will appear first in servers where the user base is better equipped to deal with the new concepts required. Just to stir things up further, Intel has suggested a future PC might not have any volatile DRAM at all, though this would be severely limiting for video performance.)

The earliest PC implementation would likely treat the Optane block as a virtual drive – RAM disks, as they used to be called back when floppies stalked the earth. Apps and data would still load into RAM to be used. Later, as the OS and apps catch up, the mapped memory would be treated as normal memory that is a little slower and has apps in suspension waiting to be invoked.

The difference between having the app running from RAM and running from Optane will be small enough that it will require some design work to make the system smart enough to know which apps are deserving of the greater speed of RAM vs. the risk of data loss from power failure. That is all in the future but those trying to figure out how to make this work have the PCIe SSDs now to start the process.

Old Amiga hands may find some familiarity in this. On the Amiga there was Chip RAM and Fast RAM. Chip RAM was shared with the co-processors performing audio and video tasks while Fast RAM was solely seen by the CPU. This was an important consideration when performing a CPU intensive task or allocated memory for a RAM disk. Twenty years later a similar situation is arising, although at orders of magnitude greater amounts of memory and speeds.

Although the ATTO benchmarks are stunning, the PCIe SSD is a bit of a letdown for casual use in a desktop. The advantage for mobile PCs and very small systems like an Intel NUC is obvious. Unless one is building RAIDs of 3.5” drive and/or installing multiple video cards, there is little reason for a full feature desktop PC to be much larger than those currently targeting HTPC use.

Perhaps I’ve gotten spoiled.

SSD Drives

Last night I updated an older 2007 laptop that hadn’t been turned on in months. It uses SATA-II, so installing an SSD is of limited value. It felt excruciatingly slow compared to the HP AMD A6 laptop with an SSD. If I strain my memory, I can recall that the initial transition from parallel hard drives to SATA didn’t feel like much of an upgrade in casual use, even if the benchmarks made it clear there was quite a difference, especially if RAID were used.

So is M.2 too much of a good thing? Might there not be a place for something faster than SATA but within the realm of current system ability to exploit, less demanding on system resources, and perhaps less of a pain in the wallet? Much of the industry thought this might be the case and the ASUS, like nearly all Z170 boards but the smallest, has what they came up with as a solution. The only problem is you’ll never have the option to use it.

On these boards you can spot what appears to be a pair of SATA ports and a third smaller port, positioned away slightly from the other SATA ports. These three are a standard called SATA Express. If it looks like two SATA ports ganged up to form one port with twice the bandwidth, well, it pretty much is, along with some ideas borrowed from the Serial Attached SCSI (SAS) format use in high-end storage systems found in enterprise data centers.

The two ports can be used separately as normal SATA-III 6 Gbps connections. But given a SATA Express device, the pair and their little friend can be used to provide a 12 Gbps connection to an SSD which should be significantly lower priced than an equivalent capacity M.2 drive, thanks to being able to use lesser performance flash memory in the roomier and less thermally sensitive 2.5” hard drive form factor.

The design also allows for transitional devices that use existing controllers to offer more savings while raising the performance ceiling over SATA. The idea was that a desktop PC could have a single SATA Express drive for its primary boot and app volume and still have plenty of SATA ports left over for more hard drives and optical drives.

Sounds great, but for the problem that nobody is producing SATA Express devices. Although a few devices were demonstrated at trade events, none of the companies with the level of market power needed to place sufficiently large orders for the new parts involved was willing to commit.

The looming approach of M.2 and its awesome numbers overwhelmed the other practical considerations in favor of SATA Express. So you’ll likely never use SATA Express and since most people don’t utilize the entire bank of six SATA connectors, it comes off as rather a waste.

But it isn’t a complete wash. Some clever folks felt the same concern and found a way to utilize the SATA Express port:

Because you cannot have too many USB 3.1 ports, can you?

Although this is a lost generation for SATA Express, the story doesn’t end there.

SATA Express

A new spec, building on SATA Express but leaving behind the transitional elements and implementing a 3.2 GBps interface compatible with M.2, is coming, possibly as soon as Intel’s Kaby Lake generation but certainly in the following Cannonlake.

The new spec is called U.2, and has the same four lanes of PCI-e 3.0 providing the bandwidth. The main difference between U.2 and M.2 is the use of the 2.5” hard drive form factor, allowing for higher capacities and less concern about heat. This should give future U.2 drives a small cost advantage over M.2 drive, making them the preference for desktop builds while M.2 owns the mobile and HTPC spaces.

Some Build Challenges

The build had a few challenges along the way, even though most of the parts were a real pleasure to use.

The Corsair power supply is simple and competent, offering all the plugs needed for a system drawing the level of wattage it can deliver. Eugene as currently configured comes nowhere near that and there is extensive untapped potential for adding drives, video cards, etc.

A modular PSU would have been nicer, eliminating the need to find places to tuck away unused cables but it would have been significantly more expensive and might even be a bad choice for those who have difficulty keeping track of the spare parts from their PC.

The Thermaltake Chaser A71 case has an obvious heritage in common with the cases used for Alien Artifact and Swan systems, but is much less expensive. Most of the major attractions are there, even so. Removable bottom air filter, four front panel USB ports divided between 2.0 and 3.0, SATA drive docking station on the top front, removable left panel for easy routing of cables behind the motherboard tray, removable drive carriers, additional fan spacer to ensure a liquid cooling radiator has enough clearance for a card in the x16 slot most often used for video, and more. It is a very nice case for the money.

Cooling Challenges

The cooling system is where I first encountered difficulty. This was my first time building a system with liquid cooling and it involved having to consider things like air flow that had been easily taken for granted before.

The package includes a fan to push air through the radiator and the instructions detail how an existing rear fan can be used in conjunction to pull air through to the outside world. But the screws needed to mount both fans this way are not included, just enough for one or the other. That should be adequate for Jerry’s usage but is a bit disappointing. At the least, they could have detailed the specs of the needed screws to simplify obtain them for yourself.

The packaging of the liquid cooler indicated it was usable on several socket types used for recent Intel and AMD systems, including LGA1150. All of my research indicates anything designed for the mechanical aspects of LGA1150 should also work with Skylake’s LGA1151 but if that is true I have to wonder about the accuracy of this mounting system.

It took a good deal of wrestling to get it screwed in place and there was considerable added anxiety when the story broke around this time of Skylake processors being damaged by cooling system mounting mishaps. It was not this brand of equipment but it was a worry I could have done without.

A Clock Too Fast

The next big issue was caused by the motherboard being very clever in its design but the accompanying documentation far less so.

Overclocking, running a processor at greater than its factory specified rate, is a big emphasis on gaming oriented boards. The cutting edge of new game releases challenge PC performance and the dedicated gamer can never have too much horsepower in his box or try to squeeze more from those ponies. This is all well and good but can become an annoyance for those wanting the overall quality and features of the high-end board without risking stability or outright destruction of components.

On the board is a three position switch, offering Off, TPU I, and TPU II. According to the manual this is to maximize CPU performance by specifying the method installed: TPU I for air cooling and TPU II for liquid cooling. This seemed in keeping with the dedicated power header for liquid cooling pumps also featured on the board. Nowhere in the description was it overtly stated that this was solely for use with overclocking and it should be left in the Off position if one doesn’t intend to overclock.

When the time came to power up the system for the first time, it automatically chose a setting (15%) that was too unstable to allow for an OS installed. Poking around in the firmware turned no obvious method to simply turn off overclocking. The best I could do was to reduce the overclock to 12%. This was fairly stable and allowed Windows to be installed but ran into problems if the machine was allowed to go into hibernation mode. A forced shutdown would be needed to regain use of the computer.

I was stubbornly determined to find the answer on my own but once I relented I soon learned of the TPU switch’s true function from a hardware site forum. Turn TPU to Off and Eugene has run reliably at the proper speed ever since.

Front Panel Irritations

The next issue had to be my fault but raises an issue that has annoyed me for years. Motherboards are still using the same block of pins method for connecting front panel functions after nearly thirty years. The ASUS motherboard included a pin block that greatly simplifies the task because you make all of the connections and place it on the mother board as a single item.

But there can still be problems. The connector for reset button is two side by side pins but the reset on the motherboard is three pins. You only need two but getting the right two was surprisingly difficult. I began to wonder if the case and motherboard were incompatible.

In the past I’d gotten past this by doing a little surgery on the case connector, cutting the end in half so the pins could be placed individually. I wanted to avoid that this time and with some searching found a two pin male to female extender. Annoyingly, these were only sold in groups of four and worse, I ended up not needing them.

I did some research to assure myself that I understood which pins needed connecting and set about doing it over. This time it worked.

Why I had to repeat this was a mystery I’ll chalk up to cosmic rays affecting my brain. Yet, why was this necessary at all? Why isn’t there a single standardized connector to get the essential PC case functions set up? Power, power LED, reset, and HDD activity. Those four are a given on every PC. It’s long since time a single keyed connector, similar to those for front panel USB and audio ports, was standardized for everyone to use.

Wrapping Up

Complaints aside, this was a very enjoyable build. Much of the future was revealed, between incredible storage speed and native video support for 4K displays. An LG MU27 27” 4K monitor was obtained to put the latter through its paces and we’ll be reporting on that experience in the future. Suffice to say, the 1080p screens I once dreamt of possessing are now merely OK.

We welcome comments about this build. And if you have built a nice system, we invite you to share your experiences with other CMR readers. Learn how you can submit your article to CMR here.

Parts List

Here are the components used in the building of Eugene, along with shortened links to the product pages. All links will open in a new window.

CPU: Intel Core i5-6500 :

Case: Thermaltake Chaser A71 :

PSU: Corsair CX750w :

Motherboard: ASUS Z170-AR :

SSD: Samsung 950 Pro :

Cooling: Thermaltake Water 3.0 liquid cooling :

Optical drive: LG 16X BD-RW :

RAM: and

Display: LG 27MU67 4K IPS monitor :

A New XBox for Chaos Manor

[Chaos Manor Advisor Eric Pobirs installed a new XBox One for Jerry at Chaos Manor. Here is Eric’s report – Editor]

Picked an Xbox One with Kinect and the optional Media Controller remote for Jerry and set it up at Chaos Manor today. Some stuff worked fine as expected. Other stuff, especially in areas I’d not had the opportunity to examine previously at my own home, were a bit troublesome.

Getting the 1 year subscription code entered was easy enough but was taken aback when I tried to claim the current Xbox 360 Games With Gold title for Jerry’s account in hopes it would eventually gain backward compatibility support on the Xbox One. (This isn’t shipping yet for most Xbox One owners but if you’re in the testing program it’s pretty slick.) The site decided it was time for Jerry to prove his identity, possibly because the account had never been used in relation to an Xbox before and I hadn’t set up the machine yet. It wanted to send Jerry a code via email and receive it back as verification but the email never arrived at the designated address. After five hours there was no sign of it.

This is no tragedy as Jerry is unlikely to ever become a big player of the Gears of War series but it might have been something to have around if the grandkids are having a prolonged visit.

Initially I set up the Xbox to take advantage of the TV integration. Unlike most such devices, the Xbox One has an HDMI In port as well as the expected HDMI Out port. Combined with the 2nd generation Kinect this allows a variety of whizzy features where the Kinect responds to voice and gesture commands and controls the TV and cable/satellite box via IR. The setup went well enough, with the equipment identified and supported automagically. The problem came when the OneGuide, the grid display for the TV schedule, failed to include the essential channels 2 – 13. I suspected there were other versions of these same channels in the Time Warner lineup but I didn’t find them quickly and it is difficult to fight force of habit, especially for accessing the traditional major broadcasters. People expect channel 2 to be CBS if that is how their TV has worked for decades.

This is possibly the answer for the missing channels, in the third entry:

Until I can test the issue the Xbox will remain on the TV’s HDMI 2 input, which is a bit less convenient and loses the integration feature.

Out of the box, many of the standard hardware features of the Xbox One remain unsupported by software until the appropriate App is installed. For example, Blu-ray movie support.  The Blu-ray app is just a few dozen megabytes out of the standard 500 GB hard drive (models with 1 TB drives are now shipping for a $50 price difference) and I suspect this is due to licensing costs. The primary firmware required an immediate 2 GB update to be downloaded and installed the first time the Xbox was booted. This may seem remarkable to someone who hasn’t looked closely at game consoles since the days of ROM cartridges but nowadays these are fairly sophisticated devices with both positive and negative aspects. The expectation is that the typical location will offer a broadband connection and the value of the console is affected if this isn’t available.

The optional Media Player app is bare bones but effective for giving the user access to locally stored video, audio, and image files. USB drives and DLNA network volumes are supported. (There is a separate client app available for the far more elaborate Plex server software which far beyond a simple listing of files.) Oddly, the Media Player will not look at an optical disc for files to play. This is a bit inconvenient if you’re setup to produce BD-R discs for sharing large items and I can only suspect it is a sop to Hollywood’s demands for piracy control. Despite this, the Media player supports the MKV wrapper format popular on torrent sites for its features and lack of patent encumbrances. The previous generation of Microsoft and Sony consoles ignored the existence of MKV but they would play files they did support off a burned disc. Since flash drives and NAS boxes, both with massive capacity, are now remarkably inexpensive, I’ll take this compromise over the previous generation’s compromise.

Although it works fine with my Netgear NAS at home, I was unable to test the Xbox One media player with the D-Link NAS at Chaos Manor. It turned out that at some point the NAS had forgotten much of its configuration and no longer appeared as an accessible volume on the network, not did it present as a DLNA volume. (The D-Link is a bit elderly for a consumer/SOHO NAS and doesn’t ever mention the term DLNA in its firmware or documentation. Instead, it has a UPnP AV server feature which is the same thing in all but name.) We were able to reset the unit and restore some of the configuration but getting it to do DLNA again meant it had to scan several hundred gigabytes of files, a task at which it is glacially slow. So we ran out of time while waiting and may have to do it again before the DLNA functionality can be configured.  Since there is a need to reduce the number of PCs left running upstairs and jacking up the monthly power bill, a more substantial NAS box may be the solution to the household’s storage and backup needs, preferably one with at least four drive bays to support the greatest data integrity from the RAID.

The 500 GB internal drive can be easily filled if the user likes to keep their whole game library at the ready. Retail games ship on Blu-ray discs and can consume dozens of gigabytes. Adding additional capacity is as easy as plugging in a USB 3.0 drive and formatting. The system automatically decides where to put stuff and management is minimal.

The range of media apps is quite varied, with a great deal of free content available, along with many subscription driven options. In between there are regionally driven apps. If you get your service from one of the major cable TV MSOs, there is a good chance you can get an Xbox One app that give you access to a large library of on-demand material. I installed the Time Warner app, which also features live TV channels. This wouldn’t be of much use in the same room the cable box is found but could be of value on a household with good networking and a desire not to have a rented cable box in every bedroom. Unfortunately, the TWC app wouldn’t work. It just produced a blank screen. Pressing B or the logo button on the controller allowed one to escape but that is the best that can be said for it so far. I’ll try fiddling with it some more on my next visit. I’m sure if this were a widespread problem it would have produced more meaningful results when I attempted a search. Most likely the Chaos Manor Murphy Field at work.

Other apps I’ve installed include Netflix and Hulu, which each require their own subscription but Jerry had expressed interest. Since he is an Amazon Prime subscriber the Amazon video app should give him plenty to work with without incurring added expense. Amazon has been developing a lot of its own exclusive content to stake a claim on cord cutters’ entertainment budgets.

Another area that has been problematic thus far is also one of the leading features of the package. Having the Kinect accessory allows the Xbox One to be controlled by voice commands. This generally worked fine for me, though there is a bit of a learning curve due to the limited range of things the system understands. The upcoming ‘Windows 10’ update to the Xbox One will bring with it Cortana, so the sophistication should gain a fair bit. Meanwhile, there was a bigger problem: the Xbox couldn’t seem to understand Jerry. This may be a case of humans still having a great advantage, as everybody I’ve observed seems to understand him fine, although those are all people who’ve known him long before his two big medical issues, so maybe we have an unfair advantage. Even so, this was frustrating when sitting side by side it would ignore a command from Jerry and respond to the same command from me. Was it somehow trained to my voice from doing the setup? Maybe but I didn’t find any documentation suggesting it would become attuned to specific users.

This might help:

If these issues can be overcome, the Xbox One is a pretty powerful set of features. A bit on the pricey side if the gaming aspect doesn’t cater to your tastes but so many of the lower cost choices are painfully slow, due to CPU performance and limited RAM. The price range of the Xbox One puts it on par with an HTPC, many of which use a close relative of the AMD APU inside, but for someone looking for what the old Media Center team used to call a ‘ten foot UI’ the Xbox One is more of a turnkey solution.

A note from Jerry: I had an early Xbox but that was long age; I’m busy with Cthulhus and this has to wait a bit, but my early experiences with the XBOX have been quite good.

[Add your comments below; note that there may not be any response, but we welcome your thoughts – Editor]