03
Dec
2017

Vega 56 Introduction

I’ve finally upgraded the last piece in Flammenwerfer – my 2017 build using AMDs Ryzen. The GTX 960 served me very well, but alas, it had no place in an 8-core, 16 thread system. I opted to go for Vega 56 – this article will go into the details why I went with Vega 56 and my first impressions, and later on I will delve into the performance metrics.

The main problem with RX Vega 56 (and the 64) at the moment is the pricing. As of writing this article, prices seem to range from £450-550 (which is ridiculous). I was very lucky to spot a Powercolor RX Vega 56 for £380 – which is getting very close to MSRP levels. Since then, prices have gone back up – so I am very glad I went for the card when I spotted it.

A very tasty upgrade over the ASUS GTX 960 Strix (pictured above the Vega 56). I personally like the look of Vega 56 – though some have said they find it boring. The RADEON logo on the top side lights up red, with the absolute perfect brightness of red. In my build (pictured at the top), I have gone for a black and red theme, to which this card fits absolutely spot on.

Why Vega then? Why didn’t you get a 1070? My reasons, in no particular order:

  • My LG 29UM68 supports FreeSync
  • The reference cooler matches my build (no aftermarket coolers yet 🙁 )
  • I get to use all of my CableMod custom cables
  • The performance is awesome – more than plenty for my needs
  • New architecture – better support for new APIs (eg, Vulkan)
  • AyyyyMD (I am a bit of an AMD fanboy – supporting the underdog!)

My first initial gripes:

  • I’m fairly positive I’ve heard jet engines quieter than this card under load
  • The drivers are very beta at the time of writing
  • The power draw is a tad high (especially compared to a 1070)

Fortunately, the card is extremely quiet at idle, and the idle power consumption is very good (on par with the 960). The 650W power supply for this system is perfect – with everything maxed out (and I mean maxed, the most I have been able to record at the wall is 550W AC – about 500W DC). Usually whilst gaming I see about 300W.

As for the noise under load, it’s definitely noticeable. It’s more of a “whoosh” rather than a “whine” – although it can get quite loud, its not annoying. Wearing headphones or having the sound turned up in a game quickly removes the noise issue for me. I have, however, discovered the best way to get rid of the noise – and that is to use FreeSync.

From AMDs marketing slides on FreeSync

Holy balls. FreeSync. It’s the future, man. This LG 29UM68 has a variable refresh range from 40 to 75Hz – where essentially the monitor will refresh at the same rate that the GPU can render frames. This gets rid of tearing when V-Sync is disabled, and removes latency when V-Sync is enabled (since the monitor isn’t duplicating frames when the frame rate dips below 60Hz).

The trick, I have found, is to enable FreeSync in the AMD Driver, then use V-Sync enabled in games with the maximum refresh rate set to 75Hz. This then caps the frame rate to 75FPS and allows it to dip below without encountering stuttering and latency issues. Additionally, this means the GPU isn’t cranked out at 100% all the time – resulting in lower power usage, thermal output and fan speeds!

FreeSync is one of those technologies you have to see to believe. It’s a night and day improvement over a standard 60Hz experience. My monitor does 75Hz, which is immediately waaay smoother than 60, but you can find screens quite easily that will do 144Hz. G-Sync offers a similar feature-set to FreeSync, except due to it’s proprietary nature the panels all cost a significant portion more compared to the equivalent FreeSync displays. So you can either spend more on Vega and get a cheaper display, or spend less on an Nvidia card and pay more for the display…. nice.

In the next posts I will talk about the performance and overclocking!

 

07
Jan
2016

Windows 10 Crashing at Idle: Solved!

This is a weird one. Before, I posted about how Windows 10 after being left for about 10 minutes would bluescreen, with no idea why. Each bluescreen was slightly different, though they seemed to point to NTFS.sys.

wp-1450434508926.png

Strange. I had reinstalled the OS and it was still crashing. I reset the BIOS to it’s default values and they seemed to be fine, and Linux was perfectly stable. I went on the Google and found some tools for analysing the memory dumps that the bluescreens leave, the best tool that I used was WhoCrashed.

The tool told me that it was unlikely to be a hardware issue and more of a driver issue, like I had suspected before. I rebooted into Safe Mode with Networking and tried again, but this time the system did not crash after 10 minutes and seemed to be totally stable. Safe Mode runs Windows with a lot of services disabled, so I started looking at what services ran after 10 minutes of idle in a normal environment. Then, I found it.

Windows Defender.

Yep, Windows 10’s own built in anti-malware service was running after 10 minutes and using up a load of CPU and disk activity, before eventually crashing the system. Now, in Windows 10, you cannot turn off Windows Defender. You can temporarily disable it, but it gets turned back on automatically – so I can’t just use another (probably better) solution. I did some more research and worked out that indeed some power saving settings in the BIOS were causing interference. I’m not sure why, but having the C6 states enabled in the BIOS would cause Windows 10 to crash when Windows Defender needed disk access and CPU time.

tm1

So that was strange. Since changing that setting I’ve not had any problems with Windows 10, and Grand Theft Auto V doesn’t crash anymore. Maybe it was a hardware problem after all? Aw well, it’s fixed now.

29
Nov
2015

Phew, everything worked out!

So, in the last post, I whined about the stupid situation I had got myself into – with Windows plain straight-up refusing to boot if it wasn’t in the first partition on the drive. I was annoyed at this, because any decent OS should be able to be bootable no matter where it sits on a drive (in my opinion).

I re-imaged everything and let Windows be at the start, and it fired straight up! I didn’t have to do a boot-repair or anything, it just worked straight away. Excellent, that works just fine. Now, all I need to do is image Linux across and set up the boot loader. The image was very fast (going from SSD to SSD), but I couldn’t figure out how to update the bootloader on the new SSD easily, using boot-repair-disk Then, I realised I was making things hard for myself…

I had a working Linux copy on the old SSD! I just ran update-grub on that and let it find the Linux install on the new SSD! I set my BIOS to load the updated bootloader from the old SSD and booted into the new SSD from that! And, it worked like a charm! Once I was in the new SSD, I was able to run update-grub and voila, grub was installed properly and both Linux and Windows are fast and easy to boot.

I still have the problem where Windows will completely overwrite GRUB when it does something like a service pack update, so I’ll be needing to keep the old SSD around just in case, so I can use that with a SATA-USB adapter to boot into the Linux partition and redo the boot loader! Here is the current layout of my new Kingston HyperX 240GB SSD:

Screenshot_2015-11-29_22-26-01

This setup works just fine now – though it baffles me that Windows is such a picky b***ard about booting. Sigh…

Anyway, I’ll leave you with a picture of the new SSD! Cyber Monday is tomorrow, pray for my bank account!

Jpeg

26
Nov
2015

Rant time.

So I just got bitten by the Black Friday deals that are flooding the internet and I got myself a shiny new Kingston HyperX 240GB SSD for cheaps. It’s rather quick actually, I got the following speeds below:

Screenshot_2015-11-26_19-29-47

So yeah, half a gigabyte per second reads and writes! Noice. Sorry about the weird text issues, I have no idea why this happens when booting from a live USB (any ideas anybody?).

I thought, yay! Time to image over my OS’s and make them nice and fast. I thought to myself, 40GB for Linux and 200GB for Windows (I have a RAID5 array with Linux, and it doesn’t need as much room). So I used the article I made a short wile ago: Use Linux to move a Windows Installation to another drive! and got to work.

I started with Linux. I put Linux at the start of the drive and expanded it a bit from my 30GB SSD size to 40GB on the new SSD (just to make the numbers nice and round). I imaged it over and booted from the new SSD very easily (and much much quicker too). No problems thus far.

I shrunk my Windows 10 partition on my 500GB HDD down to something like 80GB so it wouldn’t take long to copy (and that it would fit on the SSD). It ended up taking sdd2 and sdd3 for the “Recovery” partition thing. Alright then, I’ll just boot the SSD again into Linux and do an update-grub! This seemed to work fine, with everything listed properly. I restarted and attempted to boot Windows 10.

…except it wasn’t to be. Just a white flashing bar and nothing else. I then remembered – ah, the Windows recovery thing needs to do a startup repair. Fair enough, I’ll boot my USB into the Windows 10 installer and chose to Repair my PC. All looked fine, went into Advanced and selected “Startup Repair”. It said it was “fixing issues” then got to about 30% then failed miserably, with nothing in the “log”. The next thing I tried was good old bootsect /fixmbr. Nope. All I did was kick GRUB out and make the entire drive unbootable. ARGH.

Back to the Linux install USB, run grub-install /dev/sda again. Except that wasn’t working either. It just said that it couldn’t find something to do with /cow. I figured it was a live USB thing, and remembered I still had a working copy of Linux on my 30GB SSD that I had unplugged.

I booted that up, and it loaded just fine, as if I had never touched it (and I hadn’t). I used that to fix the GRUB bootloader on the SSD, but I still could not get Windows 10 to start.

I did some poking around, and I discovered that Windows has to be at the start of the drive in order for it to boot properly.

What-the? WHY. There is no fathomable explanation why this should be the case. Linux works just fine no matter where the heck you plonk it on a disk. Why does Windows need to be so picky that it needs to be first in line once the disk is called up? I had a think – maybe it has something to do with Secure Boot? Oh no, that can’t be it. Linux works fine with Secure Boot and being on the disk anywhere. It’s times like these when I wonder why I bother with Windows anymore. I only use it for games really, and maybe a bit of programming.

So I’ve had to start over entirely from scratch. This time, I’ve put Windows 10 at the f***ing start of the drive. If it doesn’t work first time, it can rot on the hard drive where it was originally.

I’ll post back tomorrow with my conclusion. I’m not happy.

19
Nov
2015

So something incredible just happened

So my poor Grandad phoned me earlier today, asking me to fix his PC. I said OK sure, and I went over.

This is the specs of the PC:
– Some Advent branded thing
– Intel Core 2 Quad Q6600 @ 2.4GHz
– 3GB DDR2 800
– Nvidia GeForce 620
– 250GB Hitatchi HDD

image

So this was a very high end PC when it was purchased way back in 2007, still more than capable of running a very decent desktop experience these days. RAM can be increased if he needs it, but its not necessary. 3GB is enough for emails and web browsing (about all he uses the PC for).

I then realised what the problem was. After all this time, he was still running probably the worst OS Microsoft has ever released.

Windows Vista.

He powered the machine on for me and then said right let’s go get a cup of tea. I was puzzled, but then it clicked. It takes so long to boot that he sets it going and goes for a cuppa. I’m used to booting off SSDs, and I can be up and browsing under 15 seconds. This PC took 20 minutes to bring up the desktop and finish loading startup programs.

He told me he had PC World look at the machine, and they had cleaned out some ransomware that he was hit with a while back. I said that’s great – I didn’t have to do any virus removal. What I did have to do though, was get rid of the source of the slowness. Vista.

I went online and got a key for Windows 10 Pro and made an installation USB. I had to backup his stuff to an external hard drive (this took Vista 2 hours to do 70GB), then I just said to him “Say goodbye to Vista. I can’t believe you used this for 9 years.”

I installed Windows 10 Pro 64bit as a fresh install, and I was seeing sub 30 second boots and an actual responsive system. I restored all the files, Microsoft Office, set up emails, did updates etc then said I was done. I handed the machine back to my Grandad and he asked me if I has swapped the machine with a brand new one without him looking! He said that it had literally never been so fast in its whole 9 year life. I said we can still do a couple of upgrades, an SSD and RAM would add another 3 years (maybe more, until it dies) onto its usability (and a new larger hard drive).

This story made me think about when I had an old HP laptop with 256MB of RAM running XP (HDD churn all day long). When I gave that an extra 512MB I was blown away with the responsiveness. This was a much bigger jump for my Grandad. Going from the worst OS with 9 years of bloat to (one of) the best OS with no bloat is a quantum leap!

The only downside is, my Grandad won’t be making as many cups of tea anymore.

22
Oct
2015

Use Linux to move a Windows Installation to another drive!

So, you have a cranky old 2.5″ 160GB drive with Windows on it that just won’t do (yes, this is what I had for a long while). Its time for a drive upgrade! But you don’t want to reinstall Windows to the new drive! That’s just more work than it needs to be. Fortunately, there’s a better way.

You can use a Ubuntu Live USB stick for this, follow this guide on how to make one!

What this guide will show you how to do is directly transfer a Windows installation from one drive to another. You will need BOTH drives connected to the same PC for this to work (you could do it with some networking, but that’s beyond the scope of this tutorial).

The first thing you want to do is make sure that your Windows installation is smaller than the target disk. If you’re moving to a bigger drive you can skip this step. You’ll need to move some stuff off the Windows drive then shrink the partition using GParted:

Screenshot_2015-10-22_16-37-24

Once your Windows partition is small enough (I advise making it 2-5 GB smaller than the target drive), you can start to transfer the partitions over. It’s not entirely straightforward, however.

Above you can see that Windows creates multiple partitions for stuff like boot partitions. We need to mirror those partitions over to the new drive.

The first thing that you’ll need to check is that there is nothing on the new drive. Doing this will overwrite it. If you have a new drive, work away. If you have a used drive, it doesn’t hurt to scrub the drive first.

The next thing is to set the new drive up with identical partitioning. Use the following command to do this:

sfdisk -d /dev/sd<source> | sfdisk --force /dev/sd<target>
sfdisk --re-read /dev/sd<target>

The above commands use sfdisk to send over the partition structure to the new drive. Make sure you don’t get the labelling mixed up. If you do you will end up losing the partition structure to your current Windows drive. Your source drive could be /dev/sda and your target drive could be /dev/sdb – or it could be the other way around. Double check. Install gnome-disk-utility to help you.

Once it’s sent the partition structure over, you can use the following command to snapshot the partitions over:

dd if=/dev/sd<source>x of=/dev/sd<target>x

…where x is the partition number of each partition you are sending over. Again, make sure you get the labelling right or you’ll end up wiping your old drive. Start from /dev/sda1 and move upwards to /dev/sda2 etc. This will take a while depending on the size and speed of your drives.

Okay, you’ve made it this far. The good thing about this process is that you still have a working Windows drive, and a new drive with the same copy of Windows on it. The next thing we need to do is boot the new drive!

When I did this, I had a boot error (something to do with an inaccessible drive). You’ll need to fix this by booting the Windows install DVD/USB drive and doing a startup repair (it should find the problem straight away and fix it). This error might or might not happen to you, but if it does you can fix it easily enough.

The next thing you should notice is that the new Windows drive is the same size as your old drive/shrunk partition. You can expand the drive using the Disk Management console in Windows, or Gparted in Linux (I used Gparted and that worked fine).

The last thing:

lel

If  your old drive was full, do a defrag! If you’ve moved to an SSD, don’t bother doing this. You can see from above that my 160GB drive was horribly fragmented and all this had been moved to the new drive. You can see how the 160GB partition only sat at the top of the new 500GB drive. After Defragglering the new drive (which took 9 hours), your system should reap the benefits of getting a new drive! You could also defrag the drive before doing this process (best if you’re moving to an SSD), but it’s better to do it after to make use of the extra room.

Remember, if all goes south, you haven’t modified your old Windows drive in any way! You can still boot from it and use it the exact way as before (I’ve put mine away in a cupboard as a backup). This won’t mess up your Windows Activation since not enough components have been changed – only the boot drive, so as far as it’s concerned it’s in the same computer.

I hope this helps, post comments if you want help or if you have questions!

05
Oct
2015

The Windows Registry: Vulnerabilities

So once again, I’ve had problems with Windows. I’m running good old faithful Windows 7 SP1, and whilst I was able to use the OS normally, I couldn’t open CCleaner. Or regedit.

Alarm bells ringing, I rebooted into safe mode as fast as I could. Some sketchy stuff was going on. I used Safe mode with networking to download Malwarebytes AntiMalware (I actually had it already installed, but I downloaded it again to be sure). Then something else happened.

I couldn’t run Malwarebytes. Or regedit. Or CCleaner. In safe mode. At this point, I let out a long sigh. Why, Windows, why do you drive me closer and closer to insanity. I run Linux as my main OS for many reasons, and this just got added to the ever expanding list.

So I was ready to download an ISO and reinstall from scratch. But I wasn’t done yet. Look at the screenshot below:

bs3

See what I have done? I renamed mbam.exe to notav.exe (any other name would have been fine, but I wanted to fool whatever mechanism was preventing me from running the exe). Luckily for me, Malwarebytes fired straight up under the different filename. I updated the database and ran a scan pronto:

bs1

bs2

Malwarebytes, you beauty! It found the offending registry keys and was able to remove them. You can see that ccleaner.exe, mbam.exe and regedit.exe, along with a load of other antivirus programs, are listed here to disallow execution (or shove into the debugger, I’m not sure why there are Debugger lines). It didn’t find anything else, so I don’t think any extra malicious exe’s were ran. I also ran an AVG scan and that came up clean, so I think I got away with something there.

I think I know where this came from. I was messing around with some dodgy files, and I think one of them bit. What really annoys me here though, is that at no point did I allow Administrator rights. I believe the registry changes were made from the user-level, which is pretty awful in terms of security. Now I think back, Malwarebytes no longer ran at startup but I didn’t think much of it. Now I know why.

So to sum up: I have been extremely lucky here. If this kind of manipulation can be done from the user-level, I could not imagine what else could be done. The Windows 7 install I use is just purely for gaming – I do no productive stuff and I don’t keep anything of importance on my Windows drives.

If you find that you can’t run your antivirus software, or CCleaner or regedit – do what I did, get Malwarebytes and rename mbam.exe to something else. It’ll be allowed to run then and clear out this registry crap.

You can avoid this by not being a plonker (like me) and not running slightly dodgy files… but that should be common sense by now. Stay safe everybody!

27
Aug
2015

The Cost of Virtualization

I’ve been wondering – does running an OS virtualized impact performance in any meaningful way? A bit of background:

Virtualization is the process of running an entire OS inside another. Doing this allows you to run many OS’s in one machine. You can configure each OS to use a certain amount of resources from the host computer. I am running a six-core machine with 8GB of RAM, and I could configure an OS to have 4 cores with 2GB of RAM if I wanted, or two OS’s with three cores each. It depends on what you want to use these virtualized OS’s for.

I use xubuntu as my main OS, but sometimes I need to use a Windows program that doesn’t behave well with Wine. Many times I need to use a Linux program and a Windows program at the same time, and you can’t do this with a dual-boot system. So, I use VirtualBox to virtualize Windows 8:

Screenshot_2015-08-26_23-33-28

I give it access to all six cores and 3GB of RAM. My question is – how much performance do I get?

To test this I am going to run the Blender benchmark (you can get the benchmark blend file here). I ran the benchmark by opening the file and pressing F12. The times are below:

  • Ubuntu 15.04 64bit (normal boot): 6 mins, 49 secs
  • Ubuntu 15.04 64bit (normal boot, CUDA GTX 750Ti): 3 mins, 30secs
  • Windows 8 64bit (virtualised): 20mins, 10secs
  • Windows 7 64bit (normal boot): 11mins, 58secs
  • Windows 7 64bit (CUDA GTX 750Ti): 3mins, 19secs

Already we can see that the CPU performance of Blender on Ubuntu vastly outstrips that of the Windows versions (CUDA was about the same). The real test is to compare Windows virtualized vs Windows normally booted.

So it seems that running Windows 8 virtualized has a big negative impact on rendering performance in Blender, almost taking twice as long compared to running Windows normally. I don’t do any rendering normally, so let’s think of another test… Stay tuned!

blenderoutput

11
Aug
2015

AMD’s FX Series: Single Threaded Performance?

This has been a highly debated topic, but I have never decided to try and find out what the big deal is by myself. I decided to use my 2009 PC and my 2012 PC.

The 2009 PC has a Phenom II X4 at 3.6GHz, whilst the 2012 PC has a FX6300 at 3.5-3.8GHz (depending on load). Now, some benchmarks!

Lets start with Asus’ Realbench:

  • Phenom II X4 965:

Realbench

  • FX6300:

Realbench

Image Editing uses GIMP, which only uses a single thread. As you can see, the Phenom II system here does 19% better, but falls under the six cores of the FX6300 system. The OpenCL score can be ignored since we are not testing graphics horsepower today.

Next, CINEBENCH R15:

  • Phenom II X4 965:

CINEBENCH

  • FX6300:

13

Similar story here: the older Phenom II system does better, but by only 9% this time. In the multithreaded test, the FX6300 wins. You can see how AMD changed their architecture here in the MP Ratio scores. The older Phenom II used true individual cores, yielding a near perfect scaling going from 1 core to 4 cores, whereas the FX system had a lower scaling score since resources are shared between pairs of cores (“modules”).

More and more newer games are utilizing multiple cores, but older ones still run off a single core. 3DMark06 is a good benchmark to show the difference in single-threaded performance:

  • Phenom II X4 965:

3DMark06

  • FX6300:

2

This benchmark is now greatly CPU-limited, which explains why there isn’t a massive difference between scores, even though the GTX 750 Ti is vastly more powerful than the HD5750. The Phenom II system had a 12% better CPU score here, but the faster GPU pulled the FX system out in front. I might try running the same GPU in both systems in the future, to really see how older games are impacted by this difference in single threaded CPU performance.

So to conclude: it can be seen that the single threaded performance of AMD’s FX lineup is not as good as their previous generation of processors: the Phenom II series (at similar clockspeeds). AMD is promising much better single threaded performance with their next platform: Zen. Much excite!

02
Jun
2015

Windows 10 Insider Preview: Part 1 – Introduction and First Look

In the next series of posts, I will experiment with the latest version of Windows 10:

Desktop

As you can see, I am running the latest (as of now) version of the Windows 10 Pro Insider Preview (build 10074). The first thing I did was install Google Chrome, and now I am writing this post from within Windows 10. I have to say that it is a huge improvement from Windows 8.1, since the Start menu can be used just as you could with Windows 7:

Screenshot_2015-06-02_20-00-27

…but wait, whats this?

AlarmApp

…is this an Alarm app? YES! Finally! A built-in alarm app! I’m liking this already.

However, I am not a huge fan of the “Search the web and Windows” thing in the taskbar. Not to worry! This is easy to get rid of too:

Screenshot_2015-06-02_20-04-40

And now it looks great. I do also like multi-desktops:

Screenshot_2015-06-02_20-07-01

More on this soon, as I get more used to this new OS!