My main desktop computer at home as been a little neglected for some considerable time. This is mostly because despite my taking what I thought was a lot of care in its various rebuilds over the years, including provididing a very high quality and powerful modular PSU and 8Gb of excellent fast DDR2 memory, it was very unreliable.
More recently, I have come to realise that the problem was Zone Alarm. When it expired recently, I was not keen on the deals to renew and ended up picking up a 3-user license for the latest version of Norton Internet Security. Time shall tell how stable that is.
Had I spent more time in Linux, I would have spotted that the problem was with Windows rather than the hardware, but the PC is mostly used to work on photograpy editing and the main applications I use for this are Windows or Mac only!
However, a couple of weekends ago, I stayed down in Swansea to take a break from the weekly round-trip to Telford area. My wife was in the middle of her clinical placement (Physiotherapy) course and had a lot of reading to do, my younger daughter was in middle of ‘A’ level exams, and I had a load of photographs from a recent shoot to process.
As I did not have my desktop with me, and knew my netbook, old Toshiba touch-screen laptop (now running Ubuntu very well) and my work dual-core laptop would not cope with processing photos, I looked into alternatives. Primarily, this was seeing if I could rent a computer in the area, but this did not look easy. Instead, I asked a colleague who lives in the Swansea area if he knew of anyone who would rent me a computer. Fortunately, he said he was able to help me out personally, or at least his 12yr old son could probably cope for a couple of days without his game playing desktop.
The machine, whilst not especially high-specification, handled the processing of hundreds of photos through Adobe Photoshop Lightroom and Adobe Photoshop CS5 with ease (I used the 30-day fully working trial versions). I then realised my own desktop PC was very lacking.
This weekend, having invested in the latest version of Corel PaintShop (Corel Paintshop Photo Pro X3 – phew), as there were features I wanted similar to those in the latest version of Photoshop which I could not afford, I tried doing some basic edits and found myself very irritated.
Had it come time to invest in a new PC. Perhaps one based on an overclocked Intel sandybridge i5-2500K. This would be an investment heading for £1000 – cheaper to get a regular specialist PC supplier like Palicomp (who can get parts cheaper than I can for a single build) supply exactly what I wanted.
It then struck me that whilst the heart of my current PC was somewhat long in the tooth by today’s standards given I had purchased at the budget end in 2008, the motherboard (an Asus M3A), a so called AM2+ motherboard, was able to take very recent multicore AMD processors. The only difference really between an AM3 and an AM2 motherboard is that the former uses DD3 and the latter DD2 memory, and the AM3 processors fit in sockets from either board (AM2 processors cannot fit in AM3 boards as the AM2 processors have 2 more pins than the AM3 sockets support).
I looked at the prices of the more recent AMD Phenom II processors, including the AMD Phenom II X6 Six Core 1100T Black Edition 3.30GHz. After some reading, I realised that six cores rarely get used and a better value four core with a higher frequency in the first place would be a more sensible choice.
Not being able to wait for Overclockers to open and post me something, I decided to pop along to a compter fair on the Sunday. Northern Computer Markets had a fair on in Stoke (not far from a DWFitness centre we had yet to try, so we had two excuses to head that way). The fair was pretty empty, only half of a largeish hall being used and no more than a dozen traders. However, a couple of them sold a range of processors and one was prepared to deal a little more than the other and beat the Overclocker prices (even if only by a pound – better than costing £20+ more as the other dealer did).
The processor I had chosen as ideal was AMD Phenom II X4 Quad Core 970 Black Edition “125W Edition” 3.50GHz available for £120 but the closest the dealer had was AMD Phenom II X4 Quad Core 965 Black Edition “125W Edition” 3.40GHz for £98. I decided that was good enough and bought it. A retail package version, so includes the standard heat sink.
In order to ensure my old motherboard recognised the newere processor, I needed to upgrade the bios. I had already checked the latest bios support the AMD Phenom II processors. These processors require 125 watts, whereas the board originally only support 95 watts but this turned out to be just to achieve some “green” rating. A few of the newer processors are rated at 140 watt and will not work on this board, but these processors appear to be an anomaly in the range and generally you will only find 125 watt versions now.
Generally, the BIOS updates are very easy these days. Download a new ROM package and run the Windows installer which will reboot the machine and overwrite the old BIOS. Naturally, things did not go so easily. Firstly, the Windows installer does not like 64 bit Windows!
The Asus M3A motherboard has a neat facility with a built in easy method of updating a new bios. Called something like EzBios, you can start it on boot by hitting Alt-F2 or select it from the BIOS setup menu. In either case, you can then point it at a source on a FAT or FAT32 drive (e.g. a memory stick) and off you go.
Sadly, my first attempt resulted in the reasonably up-to-date BIOS which would probably have worked, being replaced by an older BIOS from some backup within the board somewhere which did not want to play at all. I decided after a little playing that it probably had troubled with the installed 8Gb of RAM, so removed all by one 2Gb stick and rebooted. All was fine and I was able to install the latest BIOS with no problems. Well, I say no problems… I managed to bend (yes bend) two memory sticks including one supposedly nearly impossble to break Corsair stick! I made the mistake, twice, of shoving the flash drive into a usb port on the front of the computer which is covered by a pretty heavy and strong solid metal door which, it turns out, is forced closed if the computer is laid on its side with the hinges to this door resting on the floor, especially if some idiot presses down on the computer for some reason.
Once the BIOS was sorted, it was a matter of a couple of minutes to whip the old processor off (actually, I extracted with considerable force complete with the large heatsink that it was very firmly glued to). I slipped the new processor in, locked the socket and popped the heat sink on top, clamped it down, plugged in the power lead for its fan and rebooted.
There was a small distraction of the BIOS having lost some settings which meant it looked in the wrong place for the boot menu, but that was easy to fix. Windows 7 64 bit loaded without problems, and no driver changes were required. I did notice the processor had changed and insisted Windows needed to be authenticated again (as when first installed) but this was done online automatically in seconds.
I immediately went into Corel PaintShop Photo Pro X3 (where do they get these names) and went through the same steps attempted earlier in the day which suffered lots of stuttering in the feeback (erasing part of the bakcground of a photo). It flowed beautifully and fluidly this time. The processor upgrade had done the job.
A few more tests proved everything was working as normal but more snappily. I have had it running under load for a good few hours now, and am writing this blog post on it, and the temperature is fine and the machine appears to be completely stable.
It is most certainly not as fast as a new sandybridge intel processos, but it is certainly fit for my purposes for now (and seems faster than the PC I borrowed). Not bad for £98.