Friday, November 21, 2008

Conclusion of "Are PCs more Analog than Digital?"

This is the final wrap-up from the diary of my PC-building experience, which I had published on my original "The World is Analog" site in January-2008.

In this conclusion, I found that sometimes standards aren't...

Main Entry: stan·dard
Pronunciation: \ˈstan-dərd\
Function: noun
4: something set up and established by authority as a rule for the measure of quantity, weight, extent, value, or quality

The standards not adhered to here were JEDEC Standards, but I wonder if Karen Bartleson has a commandment for this in her 10 commandments for effective standards? If not, I suggest that one of the most vital requirements for an effective standard is... adhere to it!

If you aren't adhering to the standard, don't imply that you are. There are lots of reasons why manufacturers of hardware and software do that... and it always causes problems. This one cost me months of my time, and many $$$ to figure out. (Not to mention more than a little bit of marital tension.. "Why did you want to build your own PC again?").

I hope this and my previous articles help you to avoid the pitfalls I fell into.

Non-standard standards... PCs ARE more analog than digital!

Hello everyone and Happy New Year!

Part of my time over the Christmas/New-Year holiday was spent continuing to debug my home-built PC... a process that seemed like it would never end. I was shocked to find that my original posts on this topic were done over another holiday weekend 4 months ago... Labor Day!! It's been that long that I have been trying to find the source of my PC's instability; display corruption and freezing, blue-screens, spontaneous rebooting...

In the process of troubleshooting my PC I have replaced every component except the memory and CPU. From the beginning after assembling the machine I was led to suspect that the graphics card was at fault, since the symptom I saw most often was that the display froze, leaving the PC unresponsive and requiring a reboot. Sometimes this happened while I was doing some intensive work, and sometimes it just happened on its own during the middle of the night.

If I did get one of those infamous Microsoft error messages upon reboot ("System Has Recovered from a Serious Error"), the error code always pointed to a device driver, so of course I suspected the graphics card. The only other card was a PCI wireless network adapter that was working fine in my old machine, the Intel device drivers for the Intel S975XBX2 motherboard were up to date, while the Diamond Radeon X550 was new. Nevertheless, I picked up a cool USB 2.0 wireless adapter from Fry's for $10 in an attempt to isolate the problem, thinking that maybe the old D-link card was somehow incompatible. This was a lot cheaper experiment than getting a new graphics card, and a lot more convenient than taking my PC down while I shipped the card back for an exchange.

I disconnected everything I could; the CD & DVD burners.. 2nd hard-drive.. but still the problem persisted. Along the way AMD(ATi) Customer Care tried to help troubleshoot, but their recommendation of trying the card in another PC just didn't work for me, as mine was the only PC available to me with the PCI-E bus. Finally AMD referred me to Diamond Multimedia for a replacement, which I did, but at the same time I invested in an XFX NVIDIA GeForce 8500 GT card as well.

I experienced so many problems with the ATi Catalyst Control Center software, that I swore off using any more ATi cards. Anybody interested in buying a graphics card? :-) Well, anyway... unfortunately the PC experienced the exact same problems with the XFX NVIDIA card as it had with the Diamond ATi card. So now what?

I then turned to Intel Customer Support, and I have to say that I am very impressed.. they are awesome! I could get a real person on the telephone live.. and email responses were very prompt as well. Intel recommended stripping the PC down to a "minimal configuration", nothing but one DDR2 memory stick, the CPU and graphics card, but the problem remained. Since I had replaced the graphics card already, Intel justifiably assumed that the motherboard was at fault.. so they gave me a replacement... 4 months after I built the PC! That meant I finally had to take the PC down completely for over a week, but I was relieved that my problem would be solved, and very happy with the customer support.

So... Christmas comes and I get my new motherboard... Wooo Hooo! But excitement quickly turned to disappointment... new MoBo.. new graphics card... same problem! And... my wife was about to kill me for the time I was spending on this, especially over the holidays. What was left to troubleshoot? The CPU or the memory?

I decided to call OCZ, since I had purchased and installed 2Gb of their "Special Ops" RAM, only because it was on sale at Fry's and it had good reviews. I was sure that Intel would replace the CPU, but that meant more long downtime.

Slight sidebar... how does one go about choosing memory for a PC? All the manufacturers conform to industry standards... right? There is DDR, DDR-2, and now DDR-3. The DDR-2 memory standards that my PC supports are set by an industry group.. JEDEC. I know that my motherboard supports an 800MHz data rate to the memory, and the packaging must conform to the DIMM sockets, so that means I can use PC-6400 memory sticks. Then it's just a question of how many and the total number of gigabytes... right? I decided on 2Gb of DDR2-800, PC-6400 memory. Let's go shopping! What's the best deal at Fry's? Maybe check customer ratings online just to be more confident..Not so fast!!

Apparently... as I have now learned the VERY hard way... these standards are made to be broken and you're not likely to know that unless you do some very detailed research. Maybe some of you are big PC gamers, and you are gurus of over-clocking to push things to the limit so all of this seems obvious. But I just wanted a robust, high performance PC, and I believed that standards mean just that... a standard, everyone conforms to the same electrical and mechanical specs. Naive? Well, if you are like me, be warned... all DDR2/PC-6400 devices are not the same! And it's in the analog specs where the designers are breaking the rules!

Now, I am torn as to whether to slam OCZ or praise them. I feel like slamming them, because the memory I bought is sold at Fry's (literally a stone's throw from their office in Sunnyvale) ... without any indication that it is non-standard. It's 800MHz, DDR2, PC-6400.... all "standard" terms that you need to know if you are going to build your own PC.

But, I also have to give OCZ lots of credit, especially in these days of offshore customer "support". OCZ's customer support is GREAT. Their tech support informed me that the"Special Ops" RAM that I bought requires a 2.1 volt supply, and that I should go into the BIOS to set it. Ooops... the Intel BIOS and the S975XBX2 motherboard don't provide such a feature. So I checked with Intel.. yep.. the DDR-2 standard is for a supply range of 1.7 to 1.9 volts, 1.8volts nominal. What the heck?

Why didn't the packaging and advertising say this? Sure enough, if you go on the OCZ web page for "Special Ops" RAM it says 2.1 volts... so I guess I was supposed to know that is out of spec? After replacing the wireless network card... the motherboard... disconnecting all the peripherals...and oh, installing a new hard drive to ensure a clean configuration.... it's an analog problem?

Fortunately, OCZ prides themselves on 110% customer satisfaction, and they appear to stick to that in my experience. Even better, their office is near mine in Sunnyvale so I could do an exchange in person. I'm going to install the "fully JEDEC compliant" (yep.. they say that on their website) OCZ DDR2 PC2-6400 System Elite Dual Channel that I received in exchange for the non-compliant "Special Ops" RAM. The System Elite is guaranteed at the 1.8 volt supply standard for DDR-2.

My conclusion? Even in the realm of "digital" PCs and memory, the world is analog!

Have a great '08!


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