Technical Difficulties from on Top of the Mountain
2013-07-26
  Dealing with new tech
I'm not a particular fan of pre-assembled computers.  Back in the dawn of time when a computer was more money than a car, and computer companies designed their own chips, wrote their own operating systems, and sold you the final product...sure.  But these days, its a race to the bottom, and the choices most companies make to appease the mass market doesn't appeal to me much.

So I build my own.  Most the time, its not to hard.  But sometimes it really bites you in the butt.

I had just finished building two systems based on AMD FM2 motherboards and reasonably low power processors.  Loaded them up with oversized CPU heatsinks (quiet fans), SSD drives, lots of RAM and high efficiency power supplies; and they were doing well.  But for the beast I keep down in the basement, I decided to go big.  I wanted more room for hard drives, and extra graphics cards in case I ever built the super-wall of monitors.  So I waited for the Zambezi parts to arrive, and then ordered all the pieces for my monster machine.

That was November 2012.  Those parts then sat on a shelf for five months.  Embarrassing? Yes, but life happens.  And it turns out, I saved myself a lot of grief.

So the core parts included:

So I started putting pieces together in April, and immediately ran into problems.  The first one was simply a geometry issue.  I had spec'd such a large CPU cooler because I want things to stay cool without whining from high RPMs, but the thing hangs right over half the motherboard, including where the RAM is supposed to go.

And so my high end RAM just wouldn't fit.  So, knock down from 32GB to 16GB.  Sigh.

Next, I had to hunt down my lone SATA DVD drive which I had used to install the OS on another box (and hid afterwards in a paper bag sitting on the floor), and the media code for Windows 7 I had purchased for this machine which eventually turned up, and I was finally ready to bring this thing to life.

I fight a little while having my keyboard plugged into a USB3 port (not advised before the OS boots), and I finally get everything up and going.  OS installed, enough drivers for usb, graphics and networking, do a few updates.

Hrmm.

Now the MSI card has what looks like enough ports to drive four monitors. So if you guessed you could hook three screens up to it, you wouldn't be the first.  But you would be wrong.

Digging into tech notes and griped from other owners, it turns out you can only hook up three screens.  Ok, that's fine for now, but I couldn't get it to work with more than two.  Reading further, it turns out you need to have one of the screens hooked up to the Display Port.

Ok, Amazon, send me a Display Port to HDMI cable.  Done.

Still doesn't work.  Read further.

Turns out you have to have a real Display Port device hooked to it.  When you use a converter cable, the card knows you're really talking to a HDMI port, or DVI port and that requires a HDMI clock.  The problem?  There are only two HDMI/DVI clock sources on the card.  So only two of the four ports can be hooked to DVI or HDMI or DP2HDMI devices.

Ok, Amazon, send me a Display Port "active converter".  Hurrah, now I have three screens working. Except now when the screens blank/power save, they never come back.  Update the graphics driver, fiddle with settings...no change.  Ok, turn off screen saver for now.

Lets at least take this thing for a spin and see what it can do.
People who work with me know that 99% of the time, I use my computer as a highly advanced terminal.  I connect into server farms, edit code in a text editor designed in the 1970s, debug using command line tools and printf's, and get my work done in a fashion not much different from 30 years ago.  Sure I now have a ten megapixel workspace, battle dropped connections with autossh, navigate through layers apon layers of nested persistent screen sessions with open connections spanning far off places--but its not that much different from what we were doing in the graphics lab at Caltech when we got a brand new batch of HP Unix workstations with the freshly minted X11R2 installed, back in 1987.

One thing that does get the CPU clocks pumping, is converting my DVD collection to play on my Android tablets.  So I fire up Handbrake, to see how fast it can crunch those pixels.  Five minutes in, I hear the fan speed up, and then the machine shuts down.

Dang.

Go look for patches (there are some from Microsoft), go look for utilities to watch temperature, update the MB BIOS, and start becoming an expert on issues with the new AMD processor and MSI motherboard. Unfortunately, there's plenty of suffering out there.

Some people have RAM issues, some power supply, some temperature.  Ran the MSI utilities to monitor board values (voltage/temp), and also enabled "green" mode for the fans.  That made some difference, and got it through encoding a MPEG4 file.  But I had to manually run the program and enable settings every time I turned the machine on. Not ideal.

Finally read a series of comments about how the MSI settings for Vcore and CPU-nb.  Since I don't overclock, the default voltage settings are way to low.  Based on various recommendations on the boards, I set my Vcore at 1.32 and nb at 1.21; and it has been stable since.  So fingers crossed.

So now my computer's mostly working (I still don't have screen blanking on), and its doing the job. Hopefully I won't have to go through this again anytime soon.

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