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Black Box I Refresh 2012

The lowly Black Box I gets a CPU, RAM, SSD and PS upgrade for the new year. Its all supposed to come to an end this December so why not..... whats new... read more...

After Newegg sent me a price update, I decided to swap my frugskate Propus 640 for the uber high end Phenom II X4 965 Black Edition CPU that is compatible with my motherboard. What a deal! Way back in when I purchased the Propus 640 for $100 the Phenom black edition chips were going for ~$240. Oh how time has eroded the price of the Phenom's down to Propus level :) 

 Phenom II X4 965 Deneb Black Edition
5x Winner for Processors - Desktops Customer Choice Award NewEgg
Where the Propus lacked an L3 cache this one delivers 6MB. Where the Propus peaked at 3GHz, this Deneb cycles 400MHz faster. It should give a solid increase in performance! With almost 2000 user reviews on NewEgg, It seems to please with performance and stability. 

64GB 2.5-inch SSD 830 Series
The current energy efficient WD 1TB Green HD spools along at a poky 5400rpms: this saves power but makes boot up and program launching laggy. In general spinning hard drives have lackluster performance, but they give storage space per $ ratios that make SSD's seem outrageous. In light of this fact I went with a small and inexpensive SSD from Samsung: their 3rd generation SATAIII technology is all done in house by Samsung (Samsung controler, Samsung pcb, Samsung mlc nand flash chip): a generous 256MB DRAM cache in the SSD also makes the 32MB DRAM on the WD Green seem cramped. Its not the fastest performing of the SataIII drives: but it did come at a fantastic price, and these are known for reliability!

Ubuntu 11.10 is already a fast booting OS. On my slow green drive it goes from off cold into the OS in about 40 seconds. Others have found that using an SSD as the boot drive can reduce this time to less than 15 seconds. Launching programs like GIMP, Blender, Libre Office, Chrome, Shotwell, Inkwell, Celestia, XAOS, and Huggin Stitch currently takes anywhere from 3 to 8 seconds. If something heavy is running in the background like SL, this can double program launch delays. The system bottleneck currently hampering performance on my Black Box are mostly related to the slow spinning mechanical HD. The WD green is going to be reformatted for bulk storage when the system is rebuilt to make use of the new SSD for boot.

G.Skill 4 x 1GB in 5-5-5-15 DDR2 800MHz
Customer Choice Award Winner : Over 3000 Reviews NewEgg
Memory gets doubled from Kingston Value Ram 4 x 512Mb 667MHz to G.Skill 4 x 1GB in 5-5-5-15 DDR2 800MHz. Faster RAM almost always makes notable improvements in a computers responsiveness. I am most reminded of going from 2x1GB of 400MHz DDR2 to 4x1GB of 800MHz in my fathers budget Dell desktop and it literally quadrupled the overall responsiveness. While 2GB is fine most of the time in Ubuntu, anytime I have lot of stuff going on, the swap file starts to load when the ram has only limited buffer left, and this introduces lag. Adding more RAM alone would improve the multi-tasking situation, but going from 667MHz to 800Mhz also makes the RAM perform better :) My motherboard supports faster RAM, but I was going for value on the upgrade. NewEgg sale prices make more sense then a minor spec bump and these one were extremely well reviewed by thousands of people! 

Antec EarthWatts 380D Bronze 80+ 
Editor’s Choice Award -
An Antec 380 D Bronze + Power Supply rounds out the upgrade to keep the new slightly hotter running parts running on the smooth and low with clean efficient power! I used this same PS in my girlfriends computer and in the Black Box II that I sold to my brewing partner. My aging iCutie supply is 330watts and its 6 years old. Rather than waiting for it to fail, I will keep it as a spare. Make no mistake, this is not a gaming computer: the PS has just enough power headroom to safely power the beastly CPU and my power frugal graphics card + the other lower wattage system loads. 

The ASUS M4A785-M mobo is also rock solid! I got the lastest revision of this board :) 2 years after it launched on extra secret probation discount on New Egg for $50 ! lol It actually has onboard HD4200 graphics with HDMI, DVI and VGA. If the graphics adapter ever goes south, I have backup video built right into the motherboard :) 

This combination of upgrades should boost overall system performance significantly on the low and solid~  I will write a review of this as soon as its all up and running smoothly. 
(Pending the arrival and installation of said parts: starting with a fresh install on the SSD)

I will include a review in this post of the upgrades ^^ as soon as that is possible. 

About This Machine : Black Box I 

This Machine is used as a GIMP photo editing station and for bulk storage of my movies and pictures! The limited SSD on my primary computer (macbook) causes me to offload storage on this machine.

It was purpose built as a linux only platform back in 2006. Original it sported 2GB of 667 DDR2 with a AMD 3800+ CPU rated at only 35Watt on a M2N-E motherboard with a NVIDIA 7600 series GPU with 256MB Video Ram and a 250GB WD HD. In Jan of 2011 I upgraded the CPU and Motherboard to Propus 640 and Asus M4A785-M and changed out the broken HD with a new WD Green 1TB spinner, while the GPU went from a 7600GB to an ASUS Fermi 430. 

For March 2012 it gets more/ faster RAM, a faster CPU and an SSD for booting! With the freshest bios installed, everything is good to go. The iCutie PS will be retained as a spare. I am also going to hang onto that Propus 640 as a spare.

Why a desktop ? 

Typically on a $ per $ ratio you get about 2.5-5x the performance with a desktop. Desktops are also modular, so rather than changing out the whole thing every time like a laptop, the desktop can be updated with individual components (this allows for bargain hunting for parts) (you can get last years high end gear on the clearance discount). Unfortunately desktops are power hogs. Even with the most conservative modern performance budget builds your looking at 75 to 400watts with a desktop. Laptops with decent performance typically consume only 15-40watts. 

Laptops are always going to be more power efficient because the are designed to operate for hours on small batteries. Laptops use smaller lower voltage RAM and special ultra low voltage CPU's: they have smaller board interconnects and everything is optimized for power conservation at some level. There is certainly a drive in the desktop sector to move towards more performance per Watt of power: Intel and AMD have aggressive energy efficiency objectives in their developments. As the die shrinking moves down from 32 to 22nm, efficiency increases. When it moves from 22nm to 15nm energy efficiency increases again. GPU's are also developed with improved power efficiency in mind: GPU's benefit in the same way from die shrinking technology.

The Upgrade Review 

Beastly! It warms my room slightly if I cruze on it for hours! (editing lots of photos carefully for example- its main use). 

Fast: we are not talking an high end ivy bridge i7 : more like a mid-range sandy bridge i3 on the CPU side. The SSD and RAM revolutionized overall system responsiveness!

Boot time from cold off to login is 17 seconds, but 4 of those seconds are used in the mobo post test: which I could disable, but I like to let the board do a quick diagnostic step pre-boot to make sure everything is electrically functional.

My aging late 08 macbook unibody is still quick, but the black box is at least 4 times faster overall (excluding boot time). The macbook boots from cold off to loged in in about 24 seconds (also SSD based).

Everything launches quickly, and the performance seems to have improved with use: I believe that samsung's SSD technology does some "use analysis" ordering the "MRU" items (most recently used) in a way that is increasingly (until fully optimized) efficient.

The minor ram upgrade can be seen working its magic if I have a large TIFF file in GIMP while running some HD youtube action in the background, and a half dozen other image heavy web-sites. In many ways comcast has become the bottleneck where the web is involved, although I am not complaining. 16-25mbps down is great : xfinitiy ^^

I try to keep it off all the time. I only boot up, update, do my thing and then shut it down. Sometimes that can take a few hours, but it my times with this box are mostly quick affairs. I try to keep it off to keep from burning anything out, and to not waste power. The macbook, iPad , Nexus 7 and iPod Touch are more than sufficient as computer for most casual computing tasks. (like writing this blog)

Overall I would say the upgrade was a good value. The Black Box 1 has the chops to handle heavy loads with time efficiency, and at less than 280watts peak, its also not the most power hungry of performance desktops either :)

A New GPU (October Update) 

Nvidia recently launched a new low-end graphics solution called the Kepler GTX-650. It is an amazingly power efficient that is essentially 4 times more powerful than the GT430 I am currently running. Both are 128bit cards.

By The Numbers: Comparing the GT 430 (current) to the soon to be updated GTX 650: 

Data Comparison from

The *upgrade* GeForce GTX 650
Core Clock speed of 1058 MHz (%151 improvement)  O.o 1.3 Billion Transistors o.O
1GB GDDR5 memory at 1250 MHz. 80000 MB/sec 178% improvement
28 nm design
384 SPUs (4x more)
32 Texture Address Units (2x more)
16 Raster Operation Units (4x more)
Texel Rate 33856 Mtexels/sec 202% improvment
Pixel Rate 16928 Mpixels/sec 505% improvement
64 Watts

My computers case is not large, so the EVGA flavor of this GTX 650 makes the most sense since it is smaller than the other cards of this type. This one is only 6inch long!

Newegg Order on the Way
Only 1 review: the card was just launched recently, so few have their hands on it, other than review sites. Its not the most powerful gaming card, but that is kinda- the idea. I want something that can run calmly on my Earthwatts 380D powersupply: which rules out all mid-range cards. This specific card only draws 64watts peak, so its well within the total power envelope ^^ Power consumption of my black box will only increase by 4watts! For the amount of increase graphical processing power, that is amazingly efficient. The power efficient performance increase can be largely attributed to NVIDIA's internal emphasis on electrical efficiency. The old Fermi GT430 card was litho'd at 40nm, while the new Kepler 650 was litho'd at 28nm. This die size feature shrink enables everything to perform better at lower wattage. So even with a high clock speed, more GPU cores, faster RAM and enhanced IO, the new design uses roughly the same amount of power while performing nearly 4 times better in some respects and 2x better in others.

We are not talking about a performance beast here. This is a value oriented game capable card with a modern core and a design that descended from the most powerful GPU' solutions available, also using the Kepler Core design. This card has a GK107 core with 1.3 billion transistors lithographed at 28nm.

"The GeForce GTX 650 performs well in popular games like League of Legends, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, and DOTA 2, rendering the action at 1920x1080 with high-to-maximum settings enabled. In World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria, the GeForce GTX 650 runs at a breezy 46 frames per second at 1920x1080 with DirectX 11 and 4xMSAA enabled. In more intensive, graphical titles, like Battlefield 3, Max Payne 3 and Batman: Arkham Asylum, the GTX 650 plays at medium detail levels, in all cases delivering over 40 frames per second." said NVIDA in the article about the new GTX 650.

Interesting, but not directly applicable to me. I do not run windows 7, and I do not play PC games much. So why would I need such a card: dual boot option ^^ in the future I will put windows 8 on a small SSD as an ALT drive ^^ and this card with CUDA will shine there. It will also in Ubuntu Land give my SL package a little more grunt ^^ for better settings for more eye candy ^^ With winter on the way it seems like a fitting upgrade for those gloomy days and downtime therein.

Just less than 6inch long, this card is also small ^^ good for the mid-tower it will reside in.

"The GTX 650 can output to three monitors simultaneously and sports popular Kepler features such as Adaptive VSync and FXAA anti-aliasing, all while drawing less than 5 Watts of power at idle, and less than 13 Watts of power when accelerating 1080p video." said NVIDA in the article about the new GTX 650.

From EVGA on the GTX 650

Brand new processing engine which delivers twice the performance/watt compared to previous generations.

Enables lightning fast anti-aliasing in a huge variety of games with the simple click of a mouse.

Get the image quality of 8X MSAA with the performance hit of only 2X MSAA. This means a smoother gaming experience without the loss in FPS normally associated with this level of eye candy.

NVIDIA Adaptive Vertical Sync
Adjusts Vsync to your monitor's native refresh rate for the smoothest game-play possible.

Frame Rate Target
Set a target frame-rate with EVGA Precision X software (win 7) and your card will automatically adjust the power/performance to meet that target. This feature delivers the ultimate in efficient gaming.

PCI Express 3.0
Offers double the bandwidth of PCI Express 2.0, for the highest data transfer speeds to allow for maximum performance in bandwidth-hungry games and 3D applications. The GTX 650 is still backwards compatible with all existing PCI Express motherboards.

Attention to Quality
EVGA's attention to quality is worth noting, from performance to appearance, even down to the package contents and protection. EVGA cards ship with cover caps over the critical components, eliminating worries about any dust build-up or damage that could occur.

EVGA High Flow Bracket
This new bracket vent design lowers operating temperatures by as much as 3 degrees Celsius.

The GTX 650 with the vent shroud removed ^^
The NVIDIA reference card is very similar to the EVGA version!


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