Sunday, April 17, 2016

A Little Brain Surgery

I did an upgrade today that I've been putting off for a little bit too long ...
Earlier in the week, I went eek as my machine finally ran out of space while doing a Windows update. Ok, not totally out of space but it ran out of room on the disc that Windows is on. What's in my machine at the moment ?

C: drive - is the one that Windows is on. This used to be on a 60GB Solid State Device drive which really wasn't big enough for Windows 7. C: is the one that has been upgraded.
E:, F: and G: drives are the drives from my old Windows XP system. I can't quite remember why I split them up, probably because I was thinking about having a peek at Linux again ...
B: and H: drives are a newer large normal hard disc. H: is where my games and most of the data goes.

How come it's like that ? It's an artifact of conditions in the world when I was building this machine which got called Pumpkin due to the date when it was put together. (Here's the post !) Basically, there was massive flooding in Thailand where the hard disc manufacturing plants were. This drove the supply down massively and with demand staying the same, the prices went up massively. It took a good few months before I could acquire that B/H drive (was actually one I spotted on discount when Best Buy's abortive attempt at competing with PC World went belly up!).

So I built Pumpkin with one of these new SSDs for speed and as big an SSD as I could afford at the time. Only 60GB but that should really be big enough. I've said before a few times that SSDs are fast - they are basically fast Flash drives. They have a number of advantages of the old spinning rust drives :

They don't care where the data is;
Data can be fragmented and the drive doesn't care;
They can get to the data incredibly quicking;
And chuck the data out much faster than the rest of the computer can typically handle it.

The only disadvantage they have is size. Now that prices have stabilised again, you get far more storage on a conventional drive than an SSD. Here's the comparison (from Novatech) at the £80ish price point :

2.5" laptop drive from Western Digital - 1TB - £79.
3.5" desktop drive from Western Digital - 3TB - £83.
2.5" SSD from Kingston - 256GB - £83.

Yep. In the same sized package, a conventional drive can hold four times as much data and a medium sized but very slow looking desktop drive can hold 12 times as much. So you put the part that depends most on speed on the SSD and put the data on the conventional drive. Sometimes, you put applications (games!) on the SSD too for better performance when they load in new bits. Most of the time, that doesn't matter but where the scenery changes often, it helps to have faster load times.

Today's latest bit of brain surgery was to switch out that 60GB drive for a much bigger 250GB drive. It feels weird looking over to a drive monitor I have to see 164GB spare, instead of the tiny 5-7GB spare. Due to the wastefulness of modern software, I was having to continually manage the garbage that people like nVidia (1.5GB in unwanted driver downloads going back almost a year) litter up the machine with.

Anyway - too much geekery ! How about the dusty bits ?
It can be a bit cramped in a PC. In mine, the SSD lives in the bottom right corner, screwed to the bottom of the case. There are two leads that have to plug into it and the current SATA connection isn't the most robust connection you could wish for. (Translation - it'll fall out of the socket at the slightest excuse).

One thing that has helped is that the new sound arrangements mean I don't pull the speakers off the desk when I move the machine. I can plug everything in where I have better access and then move it back to where it lives. This is really handy when things don't go as you expect. (Case in point, I had to tweak something to make it go.

Machine has changed over the years to being a bit of a FrankenPumpkin. It's still ok inside and works really well still but over the years :

Power supply - replaced.
Graphics card - replaced twice.
Sound - had to go to a sound card because the original silently went boom.
Screen - don't think I've replaced this ... yet ! (it's on the list)
Hard disc - now on its fourth ... None have gone bang, it's just natural evolution.
Processor, case, memory and cooling - still the same (Intel i5-2500K, 8GB memory)

It's still coping remarkably well. I don't notice any significant frame rate drops in Elite (frame drops are where the machine can't keep up so it cheats by making the screen updates less frequent) and I've avoided the recent games that really push the system. (Cos I'm not interested in the Far Cry's, the Just Cause 3's and the other half baked ideas that I find don't actually work well as a game).

I do wonder where we are going with our IT though. It seems as if the software people are increasing in incompetence and in a plan to wrest control of our machines away from us. They are needing to fund a business model that started breaking when IT got to a point where people simply didn't need to upgrade any more. The PC market is collapsing right now due to this. Apple seemed like a good alternative, except that since the death of Steve Jobs, they have forgotten that they used to make strong software for users. It's gone back to them imposing bad design on those users. Things like me refusing to update to iTunes 11 or 12 because I think the interface is an abomination. I think we're just going past the point where buying Apple is a sensible proposition. Microsoft with Ribbon Office, similarly an abomination.

And the software companies impose these changes upon us through cutting the backwards compatibility. Gamers like me had to ditch Windows XP because newer games could not support it. We are seeing that again with Windows 10 where games like Quantum Break are Windows 10 only. I can't run games like Elite or even the very simple (graphically) Darkest Dungeon on my Macbook Air because I am refusing to update the OS.

Personally, I'm hoping that this machine stays viable for a little while longer. It amazes me that a 4.5 year old processor is still up to the job of playing modern games. That comes from living in a time when you'd be replacing the engine of a machine maybe every 2 years because it couldn't keep up with the developments in hardware. Graphics have advanced, to the point where my R9 380 card is more than 4 times as capable as my old GeForce 760 card. But that's through massive parallelism (thousands of simple processors doing simple sums) giving power through scale.

We'll see where things go ! I doubt whether the software situation is going to improve at all though while the software companies are looking out for their own interests (making sure we buy again after 3 years of ownership) instead of just making good software.

I wonder if FrankenPumpkin will last until they stop doing updates for Windows 7 in perhaps 4 years ? Maybe. Until then,
I must try to keep all the right bits in all the right places ...

Cya !
PS the upgrade seems to be working ... making another tweak (56GB of Windows became 68GB when I turned compression off) has taken away some of the "Machine Is Working" type pauses I was seeing. Good times !
PPS There is a third type of hard disc, called a hybrid drive. £77 will get you a 1TB Hybrid drive, which will give a very appreciable smoothness boost on a Windows laptop. Worth a peek, although you'll need a widget and software like the highly recommended (by me cos I've painlessly used it twice) Acronis TrueImage to switch the drives over.

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