The age of the APU?

I never thought I’d see the day when I’d actually want an integrated graphics solution.

When I began in PC Gaming, graphics chips appeared in two forms; a competent GPU on a discrete card with a thermal solution that can charitably be described as “quaint” by modern standards, and a chip snuck in under the even more anaemic heatsink that served what was then known as the Northbridge Chipset on the motherboard.  The latter was usually an underpowered, under-supported and often-abandoned excuse for a gaming GPU.  Integrated graphics meant trouble.

You can imagine my puzzlement when AMD bought ATi back in October of 2006.  Even though Intel’s Core 2 CPUs had launched just three months before, it seemed odd that AMD would acquire graphics expertise to help them compete in the CPU business.  CPUs are basically monolithic cores that are designed to complete single, complex tasks as fast as possible; examples would be encryption, word processing and many of an Operating System’s vital tasks.

Fast forward to 2011, we see the first of AMD’s new Accelerated Processing Units, or APUs:  Llano.  The APU vision was a computing landscape where the CPU and GPU were on the same package, and effectively one and the same, and they could shunt data within the same program seamlessly between the CPU cores and GPU cores.  The CPU cores handled the complex operations while the many, much simpler but specialised tasks could be taken on by the GPU.

Sadly, without much support from software, APUs remain little more than CPUs with a GPU in the same package.  AMD’s ageing K10 architecture was a real millstone around the neck of the APU right up to Bristol Ridge, making the concept unappealing to programmers.  After all, suppose your program was being designed for everyday use by all kinds of computing demographics; as AMD only held 20% of the CPU market share back in early 2017, do you really want to go to the trouble of implementing radical new code that only, according to 2012 figures, 75% of those users, or 15% in total, will ever use?

Things are changing fast, though.  In just three months, AMD raked back more than 10% of the CPU market share on launching Ryzen, the biggest gain ever seen in history.  Ryzen not only reached it’s target of a 40% increase in IPC over it’s predecessor, but crushed it, achieving 52%.  While Ryzen is still a little deficient compared to Intel’s CPUs when it comes to single-threaded performance, multi-threaded performance presents a serious threat to the Intel hegemony.

I have been a long time believer in the APU concept.  Hell, the laptop I’m typing this post on has an AMD A10-4600m inside, and I have owned two APU-powered PCs besides.  With this in mind, you can imagine how much I am salivating over the announcement of Ryzen-based APUs, the Ryzen 5 2400G and Ryzen 3 2200G; Quad Core, the former with SMT for another four threads, and GPUs with 704 and 512 Cores respectively, all wrapped up in a cool 65W TDP.  With these Ryzen-based APUs launching early this year, it’s not too hard to see many people finding a cheap, competent, power-efficient yet gaming-capable PC in 2018.  Not to mention some truly tiny machines along those lines.

Unsurprisingly, Intel has taken notice and has made a rather surprising move.  Enter Kaby Lake G, a line-up of mobile Intel CPUs with AMD graphics chips onboard, the latter made by the same division that produced the graphics for the Xbox One and PS4.  The flagship model, the i7-8809G, packs four 8th-Gen Intel CPU Cores with Hyperthreading, along with a staggering 1536 GPU Cores.  That’s with a TDP of 100W, and including 4GB of HBM memory, and reports suggest that the combo can beat an i7-7700HQ and a full-fat Nvidia GTX 1060.  Astonishing.

The latter example is perhaps more significant here.  It’s a tacit admission by the CPU giant that the APU concept is one worth taking seriously, if only with the focus being on gaming performance at present.  As more users are wooed by these products, and their user base grows, it only follows that programmers that originally spurned the idea of GPU acceleration in traditionally CPU-dominated programs will rethink their stance.

The rise of APUs also has the potential to shake up the way PCs are built as well.  The PC market is an odd anomaly in today’s society, in which the machines have stubbornly stuck to the ATX form factor while just about everything else has shrunk; mp3 players, laptops and mobile phones have gotten thinner and lighter, and yet we all seem to have PCs which look ridiculously cavernous inside with the only expansion card being the graphics card!

So is this the age of the APU?  I think so.  There will still be room for discrete GPUs at the medium and high ends of the market, as long as their TDP can be measured in hundreds of watts, anyway.  But for anyone else, maybe it’s time to consign the pitiful, DDR3-equipped low-end cards to the museum, and not a moment too soon.

Cabinet ‘Commodation Part 5: My 99% Perspiration is over with… Thank Christ…

Bedside PC with mounted Monitor Arm

Well, it’s official:  The Bedside Cabinet PC is complete!  Learn about what’s inside from it’s entry on the Muh Regs Page.  Before we get to the close-ups, here’s some interesting facts about this rough-and-ready machine:

  • The motherboard tray is secured by two bolts which don’t need nuts to secure them; they are held in place by friction against the sides of the PC compartment!
  • The bizarre combination of construction methods is the result of me not really planning them; I essentially used this project to test ideas for construction work in future projects, for instance, the front panel is made up of 12 separate cuts of 6mm plywood, in order to test the idea of constructing complex 12mm panels by doubling the 6mm parts up.
  • I was considering building an AMD APU machine originally, using the A10-7850k as the central component.  This machine would have probably had an entirely 3D-Printed case (another experiment I ought to get around to), and would have simply resided on top of the bedside cabinet.  This idea was scrapped mostly because the parts I had lying around (from my old Serious Rig) would serve just as well once underclocked.

As is appropriate for such a victory, a parade of photos is in order:

Bedside PC Front Panel
Probably should get around to remove those marking-out lines…
Bedside PC Nest of Cables
…not to mention tidying these cables.
Bedside PC Rear Cables
On the plus side, this is a lot tidier than I was expecting 🙂

To end on a scientific note, I’ll show you a couple of tests I did to gauge the effectiveness of the underclocking.  Both GPU and CPU under full-load would have originally overwhelmed the PSU, thus I had to be sure that I could get them in a state where both could be under duress without any risk of freezing mid-game.

Underclocking notes Bedside PC
Saved ~100W through that. Might have saved a little more if MSI Afterburner had let me snip off a little more GPU voltage.

Stay Curious.

Cabinet ‘Commodation Part 4: I have returnded… to talk about stuph I should have mentioned a month ago…

Bedside Cabinet PC Structurally Complete

Well, it’s been a month since I actually completed my Bedside Cabinet PC Case.  It’s far from operational, but it’s in a state where I can playfully press the power and reset buttons while I envision it in service 🙂

So how did I find the project?  It’s mentally invigorating to actually build something serviceable following no concrete plans, crossing all bridges as you come to them no matter how close they are to collapse; Some may call that careless – perhaps even unprofessional – but answer me this; what do you do when (not if, when) your finest plans get burned?  Without some human improvisation, what’s the case for the droids of the future to keep us around, even if only as pets?

Lessons:

  1. If you want a perfect construction, start anew – this affords you intimate knowledge of what materials are in the build, before you commit jigsaw to MDF.
  2. If you are dead-set on modifying an existing piece of furniture, it is wise to run tests on scrap material, especially when you are cutting a precariously-thin part, BEFORE you attack the part in question – If you don’t, only humiliation will likely result…
  3. Epoxy is an extremely poor choice for affixing acrylic windows – use nuts and bolts and stud lock should you need a permanent window.
  4. Lighted Vandal-Resistant switches are a superb solution for power and reset functions – ModMyToys and Lamptron do some awesomely tactile power switches, while KustomPCs.co.uk also do some pre-assembled cables with the required connectors for instant fitment, no soldering required.
  5. Epoxy is bastard-hard to spread over large surfaces.
  6. Making open plywood panels in pieces, and assembling them using epoxy or other assembly methods, is a very effective way of saving space; it does however introduce potential failure points, and it makes the final dimensions of the part more unpredictable if you’re building by hand.
  7. If all else fails, superglued nails solve everything 😉

The last stages of the build were actually a lot easier than the planning made them out to be, the challenges along the way usually having deceptively-simple solutions:

Bedside Cabinet PC Hardware Installed
A single Air Penetrator wafts air over the Graphics Card, a configuration chosen to give the PC a monocular look!
Bedside Cabinet PC Rear View
This is how I’ll be viewing the machine every morning, apart from the inevitable nest of cables!

The only major question that remains is should I go with old guard Windows, or build a Box of Steam?  Well, that and should I control it with an Xbox controller, if I can get past the bizarre typing controls.

Cabinet ‘Commodation Part 3: Wood of the Ply

I remember mentioning in this post that I couldn’t expect to build my Bedside Cabinet PC anytime soon due to job resignation; let me correct that – I can build it (as evidenced by two Cabinet ‘Commodation posts in a row!), but I may have to operate it in a lesser state than originally planned.  Capital is elusive in my world, so a £120 passive edition of the nVidia GTX 750 Ti is well off the cards in spite of the nought-decibel nirvana it offers.

Instead, I’ll inaugurate the new system with the guts from my previous Serious Rig, which involves the use of a GTX 560 that has borne witness to the hilarious failure of a paper cooling shroud (I thought this would work.  Seriously.).  The wireless gaming peripherals will also have to wait, pity, that Steelseries Sensei Wireless looks sweet.

For your delectation, my progress on the wooden things in my hack-job; click the image for commentary:

So you see, it’s not all hopeless, I’ll just have to accept the fact that I built it.

Cabinet ‘Commodation Part 2: Apply the Powerrr…

Bedside PC PC60 Mobo Tray

What you see above you is the birth of a procrastination station.

The initial specs are pretty much the same as my old Main PC; Core i5-2500k, 8GB DDR3 1866MHz, Nvidia GTX 560 (non-Ti), ASUS Xonar DG Sound Card and I’ve sourced an old 2.5″ 320GB HDD for storage.  All of this is hooked up to a 300W Silverstone SFX PSU – wait, what?  300 Watts?  The GTX 560 has a TDP of 150W alone!  Aren’t you breaking the 50% rule of PC power draw?

It seems so, but I’ll rely on a little dirty word called Underclocking.  My target frequencies are 2.5GHz for the 2500k and 600MHz/3000MHz on the 560 (down from 3.3GHz and 800/4008MHz).  It may not be a perfect solution, especially with regards to bedside gaming, but remember for example that the HST was initially a stopgap solution before a series of 140mph trains hit both the ECML and WCML; only now are these old goats being replaced with the Hitachi Super Express!  So there may be life in these boards yet.

Surgery on the Tray

Being the lazy Gibbon I am, I reckoned it was easier to cut an aperture and 4 screw holes for an ATX to SFX adapter, then secure it using screws laced with Stud Lock.  These plates are stamped en-masse by a huge press, so they contain features that would be impossible to make by hand, like those stiffening channels you find in most motherboard trays.  With this in mind, I marked out the hole and aperture locations, as well as where the tray will be trimmed to fit into the space the Bedside Cabinet provides.

PSU mounted on mobo tray
I’m aiming to make this PC reside on the Mobo Tray as much as possible – this move alone saves much hassle.

What follows is some fairly straightforward metalworking procedures, so I’ll tell the story via this gallery:

So you see, being lazy pays dividends in many cases.  As long as you don’t jeopardize vital aspects of your construction, going for “that’ll do” can actually be the best option, especially if you’re spread around your projects like Thermal Paste; like I am.

If you’ll excuse me, I’m off to revert to age 12 and pour Wonka Nerds into model train wagons pretending I’m hauling them along the little railway I imagine around my dream home.

Is passivity all bad? A look a Silent Graphics Cards.

Western Society has a thing for Activity, doesn’t it? “You can’t win it if you ain’t in it” are perennial thought-terminating clichés slogans drummed into us since we were kids…  yeah, and you can’t survive N.Fowleri if you don’t catch it.

Over the time I’ve been a PC Enthusiast, I’ve seen fans expand and expand; from the 60mm hurricane jobbie I had over my Athlon XP, to the 200mm hovercraft lift fans I now equip in my main machine.  Okay, I’m cheating by comparing HSFs to Case Fans, but we’re still seeing 140mm heatsink fans these days, even on low profile coolers.  If you count watercooling equipment, you can even get radiators for the aforementioned 200mm fans!

Why this trend towards the gargantuan?  Basic Physics.  And the Square-Cube Law.

The Square-Cube Law states that if all linear dimensions of an object are doubled, then it’s surface area quadruples and you see an octuple increase in volume, which are 22 and 23 respectively; this holds true regardless of what shape the objects are, as long as the shapes are consistent with one another.  With this in mind, let’s compare the 120mm fan (the current standard size), with the 80mm fan (the standard circa 2002, roughly when I got my first PC).  120mm is exactly 1.5 times the size of the 80mm in terms of width and breadth, and the airflow of a fan responds to the area the fan blows – thus 1.52 gives 2.25 times the airflow for the same RPM.

My point here is that as hardware has gotten more powerful, fan sizes have had to explode to keep up, which should give an indication to a prominent feature of the Passive Graphics Card – the gigantic heatsink.  Keep in mind that even mid-range GPUs easily outstrip CPUs in terms of TDP, so it’s a wonder that GPU HSFs can stay as thin as they are, only taking up 2 PCI-E slots; from here it’s easy to imagine a passive heatsink taking up 3 slots or, more commonly, rising a good inch or two above the top of the board.

Yet in spite of this, Passive Cards are also reknowned for running hot.  Most Graphics Cards top out at around 60-70°C, while passive models can screech past that into the 90s when pushed hard.  This is sadly true unless you opt for a low-end card with a pitifully small TDP, and performance to match – APUs, anyone?

So Passive Cards are bulkier, run hotter and they’re slower, mostly unforgivably slow. Sounds like a bad spread, no?

But then we come to the one defining trait of the Passive Graphics Card – total silence in operation.  Building an HTPC?  Scratch one needless fan!  Audio Editing?  Combine all passive components, and bask in the lack of audible presence! Sounds like a treat.  But remember to add a few lights in your PC, just so you know it’s on 😉

Sounds like the perfect time to introduce a couple of passive cards that aren’t abysmal.  AMD’s best foot forward right now is the Sapphire Ultimate Radeon r7 250, featuring 384 Stream Processors rocking at 800MHz (this card is listed as having 512 SMs, GPU-Z apparently recognizes this card as a 7750, huh…), while the memory is 1GB GDDR5 at 4500MHz (bizarrely listed as a frankly concerning 4.5MHz!).  This isn’t a card that should be bought with 1080p in mind, Bioshock Infinite’s average frames (DirectX 11, Ultra) will barely breach 20fps.  I would recommend this option for those with 1366×768 monitors, and absolutely cannot spend more than around £80.

Nvidia’s Moriarty is the Palit Geforce GTX 750 KalmX and it’s deadlifting brother, the GTX 750 Ti KalmX.  Now these cards are marvels.  The £100 GTX 750 has 512 SMs at 1020MHz boosting to 1085MHz, the £120 750 Ti has 640 at the same speeds; Memory is 2GB at 5010MHz and 5400MHz respectively.  With the 750 Ti at 1920×1080, Bioshock Infinite at DirectX 11 Ultra, you get average rates of 60.5fps.  What you have in effect with the 750 Ti, is a card that’s faster than the Heat-Haze Generating GTX 480 (a 250W card, mind), whilst not even needing a PCI-E Power Plug!  Progress, eh?  Lovely.

So are you passive?  Are you the silent hunter, or a thundering herd of wildebeest?  Let me put it to you this way, the wildebeest can mow down entire villages in one fell swoop, but let’s face it, we’d get annoyed with all the hooting and pushing after a while…  well, I would…

Cabinet ‘Commodation Part 1: Immobile Computing for them vegetable days…

Bedside Laptops.  An instantly recognizable fixture of the Bedroom, dying thanks to the influx of tablets, but we’ll gloss over that.  Indispensible for… I’ll stop talking now.

Tablets are on the march to glory over laptops for the simple reason that they are simpler machines, but, in fulfilling the Gibbon part of my name, I’d like to pursue the opposite direction – Bigger, beastlier and made of of old bits.  I see many problems with a bedside laptop; the keyword being I:

  1. Their hardware is largely fixed; with the exception of memory, network cards, hard drives and if you’re fortunate, CPUs, it’s mostly impossible to upgrade a laptop.
  2. Whenever I upgrade my main machine, the parts therein are far from the end of their service life, so it seems such a waste to see them consigned to eBay so soon.
  3. If your laptop happens to be noisy (like mine is), there’s precious little than can be done about it without either cooking it or putting it out of your reach entirely.

The natural Helipad of the Bedside Laptop is, of course, the Bedside Cabinet.  And this has got me thinking – if a bedside laptop virtually never leaves the bedside, might it as well be a PC inside the cabinet?

Bedside Cabinet for Gaming PC
Small, pointlessly ornate and begging for bodging. Oh yeah.
Lian Li PC60 ATX Motherboard Tray
So much work evaporated in an instant, phew!

I’m sure you’ve seen the back of ATX PC Cases, so many complex folds and rivets to make them slots and holes it’s untrue, surely this project is dead in the water?  Wrong.  A trip to KustomPCs.co.uk will see to that – they sell Lian Li motherboard trays in EATX, Standard ATX and Micro ATX sizes.  I got the ATX tray from the PC60, and lo and behold, it fits!

Lian Li Motherboard Tray fits into Bedside Cabinet
If it fits, it sits.

It might not have escaped your attention at this point that the motherboard tray does not hold the PSU (vital) nor the SSD (double vital!) and HDD (just kinda there).  Don’t worry, the modding scene has us covered.  The PC60 tray has an 80mm fan mount above the I/O Panel, ample room for an SFX PSU which, amazingly enough, I have – 300w on tap, not a great amount (originally for the SLA 3D Printer PC), but it’s a semi-passive Silverstone unit.  The Storage options are seen to with a Mounting Plate that fits into one of the PCI Slots; the upshot is that it is entirely possible to build a PC into the cabinet that can be removed as a unit for servicing.

Front of Bedside Cabinet PC Mod
Ahh, didn’t take them fans into account, should there be No Fans? A suicidally tempting proposition…
Read of Bedside Cabinet PC Mod, showing SFX PSU hack
Nevermind, extension cables ought to sort that out.

Okay, that’s the main unit sorted, what of the Monitor and Peripherals?  Good question, one that needs answers.

Replacement Rabies!

The Illustrious Sandy Bridge line.  The days when the K-Series Quad-Cores of the range could reach speeds of over 5GHz, more than 1.3GHz faster than their turbo clocks and more than 1.7GHz faster than their standard clocks.  The days where upgrading from the previous generation of CPUs actually made a noticeable difference to your computing life.  The days I’ve just dispensed with.

First time I've seen this little beggar in years!
First time I’ve seen this little beggar in years!

Don’t have a heart attack!  I’ve retained the parts for future use, probably in a bedside PC of some kind (I’ve never claimed to want to leap out of bed 😉 ).  The new king is the Core i7-4790k along with 16GB 2400MHz memory and an ASUS Maximus VII Ranger, up from an overclocked 4.6GHz i5-2500k with 8GB 1866MHz memory and an ASUS P8P67.  An imposing specification, one that shall do well when I get round to editing videos en masse, but it did get me thinking as to why I still consider it a worthwhile venture.  Raw performance hasn’t shot up like it did going from the Core 2 Duo E8200, so why did I drop close to £500 on such a seemingly pointless upgrade?

The Ups that come to mind are:

  • Hyperthreading to help with mincing video content in Powerdirector
  • Lower energy consumption, leaves more power for the planned r9 290 crossfire setup
  • PCI Express 3.0 support, again for crossfire
  • Haswell’s C states mean that my PC consumes barely more power when on standby than completely turned off!

The Downs?  Yes there are downsides to an upgrade:

  • Overall temperatures are up, despite power consumption going down; Intel’s NGPTIM not quite a match for the traditional Indium-based alloy?
  • Not nearly as much overclocking potential, CPU runs at a heady 4GHz standard clock already with another 400MHz on tap. May only overclock for a slew of benchmark runs then return it to default, even with a miracle CPU I can expect at most 4.8GHz

It is true that the days of significant upgrades between CPU generations being a thing of the past, as the limits of Silicon painfully encroach on our ability to design a smaller transistor.  This probably explains the current trend of not chasing performance, but driving power consumption through the floor with decent performance being retained.  Look at the press releases concerning Broadwell and Skylake, AMD’s APUs and even Nvidia’s Maxwell generation of Graphics cards; low power features dance around on the centre stage while it’s casually mentioned that there’s some higher frame rates…  somewhere…

And yet, as much as I crave new, stratospheric highs in performance, I cannot bring myself to hate this development.  I’ve been a fan of low power computing for some years now; when I was speccing out my SLA 3D Printer PC I specifically chose AMD’s Athlon 5350 over an A6-6400k purely on the grounds of power consumption (I also wanted a decent GPU to run Creation Workshop’s GUI, hence why I didn’t opt for an NUC).  The bedside PC, for which I still need to create a proper specification, enshrines low power gaming into the very fibres of it’s being; the Nvidia GTX 750 Ti is a central component at present, and I’m even considering underclocking the old 2500k to as little as 2GHz which may enable a truly passive PC.

How does this tie into an incessant need to upgrade?  That those afflicted with Replacement Rabies will literally take any excuse?  Sounds like it.

Prettiness vs Practicality, the agony of choice…

4k.  The last word in PC excellence.  Those console serfs in their 1080p and 30hz hovels, they can eat cake… and then 5k rolls in from the Jobsless (ha) Apple.  I’m not envious of that effeminate bunch, really, I’m not! *twitch*

*Shoots tiniest dose of Valium into system* …  I’ve been to Portchester recently to reach a conclusion to my dilemma as to whether to go with two more 1080p 144hz monitors on either side of my current display, or to relegate it to lesser duties in favour of the upcoming standard, 4k.  I can tell you it ain’t easy when you know you’ll stick with that monitor setup for years to come – I had my 1080p Dell for 7 years in a row, missing out on developments such as Dynamic Contrast!  To help my strained brain train to make major decisions, I’ll do a comparison on this rigmarole.

Shipwreck unrelated, but a cool find at low tide.
Shipwreck unrelated, but a cool find at low tide.

4k – the Scimitar of Sharpness

I feel like I’m preaching to the choir, but in the interest of balance, let us go through my likes:

  1. Sharpness – even compressed video with all it’s artefacts resemble game footage in terms of detail
  2. Icons are tiny, and cute – I like smaller icons, so I find the furore about the scaling problems in Windows 7 to be a trifle at best
  3. I could potentially use a 28″ monitor like 4 x 14″ monitors and still get reasonably sharp windows
  4. Games could probably dispense with Anti-Aliasing, the pixels are so small
  5. Camera shots I take can be viewed in close to maximum detail – 4288 x 3216 on 3840 x 2160 🙂

At risk of causing a kerfuffle, I’d like to share the dark side to my upgrade to 4k:

  1. I’d be reverting to 60hz, not too bad, but I’d be so sad to see my silky desktop go
  2. 2 screen setups are a bitch to buy and setup, god help those who want 3 screens!
  3. Affordable 4k means 28″ monitors for the most part, this could cause problems with anyone with 24″ dual-screen setups
  4. The UI of some software I use (Creo Elements Direct to name one) could be scaled down into oblivion, making them damn-near unuseable

Eyefinity – The Broadsword of Broadness, yep, I went there

Think that I’ll be stuck in the past?  Probably, but consider these:

  1. Field of View is massively increased in FPS games
  2. I can keep 144hz in older titles, I wouldn’t count on newer games doing the same… yet…
  3. One more window to place shit on while I work
  4. Potential to be replaced with a trio of 4k monitors at 144hz once technology has pulled it’s finger out
  5. I already have one good monitor to be used in the setup 🙂

Inspiring stuff, but would I be happy with these dinosaurs once I experience these issues?

  1. Cannot view 4k videos as of yet (then again, given the state of the internet in the UK, It’ll be a while before 4k can be viewed without it exploding)
  2. Spans more than 1 metre, could prove a problem when I move house
  3. Potentially fragile, again with regards to moving out
  4. Black Borders – Maybe they won’t bother after all, but right now it seems like I’ll be viewing the game through an early WW2 aircraft canopy

So it’s a choice between letting my ego pursue Apple’s $3000 one-up on 4k, versus using my bigger head (as opposed to my smaller one and it’s two burly “advisors”) and taking my productivity to a new level.

All in all, I have achieved with this trip what I expected – Shit-all.

I never said I always had answers…