Archive for July, 2009

tech: Shuttle SG31G2v2

This is a review of version 2 of the SG31G2 platform. I’m not sure how it differs from version 1, other than version 1 was no longer available from my vendor. [Update from Jerry: the difference between v1 and v2 includes updated rev of ethernet controller, different IEEE1394 controller, removed floppy interface and cable, one less USB header, added 2 serial port headers, added 4-pin Molex-to-SATA power converter.] I found the tech specs on the Shuttle site a little lacking. Since I was building it entirely from mail-order parts, I didn’t want to be short a cable or similar. So for anyone else doing it, here are the details.

I didn’t have a wrist grounding strap. So I touched any anti-static wrapper I had to the metal frame of the case before opening the wrapper, touched the inside of the wrapper to the case after opening it, and didn’t move myself until the part was installed. I wanted to take special care with the CPU and memory.

With Newegg, be aware of the return policies for the case, CPU, memory, and Windows OS, they are not the standard return policies. Once you’ve opened the box, no changing your mind. I suspect other retailers aren’t much different.

The SG31G2v2 includes the case, power supply, motherboard, cables, drivers, and other miscellaneous parts. What you need to add is a CPU, memory, and hard disk. And any other accessories you want, such as keyboard, mouse, monitor, card reader, DVD drive, etc.

I really like the small form factor of the Shuttle case. That’s why I paid a bit extra for the case, versus a full-size desktop.

It has an LGA775 CPU socket. I chose to install an Intel E7400 CPU, which is a Core 2 Duo running at 2.8GHz. I didn’t want to pay significantly more money for a slightly higher clock speed, the price/benefit ratio for that falls out of whack. I think the performance constraint is going to be with the disk I/O anyway. Align the triangles and very carefully place it in the socket. The pins are in the socket instead of the CPU die. The E7400 comes with an Intel CPU fan, you won’t need it because the Shuttle has a built-in cooler named ICE2 than runs a liquid-filled coil across the CPU and into the chassis fan. The benefit of that is only 1 fan in the case but still having CPU-specific cooling. The Shuttle also comes with thermal paste to seal the cooler to the CPU, the Intel CPU does not come with thermal paste.

There are 2 DIMM slots for a 2GB module in each, for a max total of 4GB. It’s best to remove the drive bay to reach the DIMM slots. The DIMMs just pop right in as you would expect. At 4GB for $50, it’s a no-brainer to put in as much memory as possible. I selected G.Skill 240-pin DDR2 800. I’m amazed at how far the RAM prices have dropped over the last couple years. Some of the RAM gets used by the video, so I really get 3.24GB of usable RAM in Windows.

Drive TrayThere is a removable drive bay which can take a total of 3 drives: an internal 3.5 inch, another 3.5 inch with optional external faceplate (such as a floppy drive, another internal hard disk, or in my case a multi-function card reader), and a 5.25 inch slot with optional external faceplate (such as a DVD drive).

Internal hard drive: I selected a Western Digital WD1001FALS Caviar Black 1TB 7200RPM SATA drive. The price is right, the capacity is great, and it is basically silent even during high use. There are 3 internal SATA data connectors on the motherboard, and the case comes with 1 SATA data cable (locking). So if you are using an OEM hard drive that didn’t come with a SATA data cable, you are set. Shuttle even provides 2 sets of screws for the drives. One set can be used for the 3.5 inch hard disk, and the other for the DVD drive. Shuttle provides a power cable with two SATA power connectors, so no Molex-to-SATA converter is needed for up to 2 SATA drives. Even if such a converter is needed, Shuttle provides one in the accessory box, so you could run a total of 3 SATA devices using the included parts. I used the SATA data cable provided by Shuttle for the hard drive.

Card reader: I selected a Rosewill RCR-IC001 which is the size of a floppy drive. It exposes the front of the reader right below the DVD drive. It connects to the motherboard via USB for both data and power. It uses a USB header connection which is different than the usual external USB A/B connector. The Shuttle has 1 USB header port on the motherboard. The reader has a USB header cable permanently attached to it, and it plugged right in to the header connection on the motherboard. The power to this reader is supplied by USB, so no separate power connection is required. Since this is a retail package instead of an OEM package, Rosewill provided screws to secure the reader to the drive bay. It’s a little weird that SD cards go in the reader upside down, but that’s not a big issue.

DVD drive: I selected a Samsung SH-S223L dual-layer SATA DVD burner with LightScribe. I wanted this PC to be legacy-free, so I chose SATA instead of IDE. If your hard disk is SATA, you will need to acquire another SATA data cable (such as this one) for a SATA optical drive, Shuttle provides only one. An 18 inch SATA data is the perfect length. Luckily, Shuttle provides not 1 but 2 SATA power native connectors. So you can run 1 power connector to your SATA hard drive, and the other power connector to your SATA optical drive. Thank you Shuttle! Even though this DVD drive comes in OEM packaging (as opposed to retail, meaning there is no screws, cables, manuals, or box, it’s just a raw drive wrapped in bubble wrap), it does come with a CD that contains Nero burning software and firmware updates. Be careful when installing Nero, it will try to own just about every possible file extension for audio and video files. Yuck! I clicked “Deselect All” in the Nero installer so that those file extensions will continue to be owned by Windows Media Player and iTunes.

There also is an IDE bus on the motherboard, and the case is wired with an IDE cable that can connect 2 devices (master and slave). Although there are 3 SATA data connectors on the motherboard, the middle SATA data connector is a bit hard to reach when the IDE cable is present at the same time. The IDE cable collapses from a full-width ribbon to a layered reduced-width cable right there near the connector, so it is crowded. Since I don’t have any IDE devices, I removed the IDE cable from the case. This definitely helped it be less crowded. If you want to use an IDE optical drive, there are a total of three 4-pin Molex power connectors. And there is an audio-out cable for the optical drive, in case you want that. I don’t bother with that since I rip my old audio CDs to MP3. The SATA DVD drive didn’t have an analog audio-out interface anyway.

I don’t have any PCI or PCI Express cards. Just using the built-in video. I’m not a gamer.

So after I was done, there was 1 SATA data port, 1 IDE data bus (that could run both a master and slave device), and three 4-pin Molex power connectors unused. The Molex-to-SATA power converter provided by Shuttle also went unused. All the drive bays were full. The PCI and PCIe slots were unused. I had all the screws I needed, and ordered just a single SATA data cable.

For the OS, yes, I picked Windows. But XP. I wish I could run Linux, but the family has applications that are Windows only. I don’t like sending money to Redmond. No need for Vista, XP Home works fine, and I already have all the peripheral drivers I need. I got the system builders version. It does come with media and a license sticker for your case. Just boot the CD and follow the on-screen wizard. It did take about 3 hours to do a full format of my hard drive.

Since I wanted to let the family use this computer, and I’ll take over the old one, we now have 2 computers in a small space. No room for a 2nd monitor/keyboard/mouse. I wanted a KVM switch to reuse the monitor in our small desk space. I got a Startech SV215MICUSBA. I like the wired remote control that I can put next to the monitor to switch between the 2 PCs, no need for a keyboard sequence. And I like that it includes audio out for speakers and mic in that connects to both computers. It expects a USB keyboard and mouse, and analog VGA video output and monitor. When you switch from one computer to the other, the keyboard and mouse get disconnected from the non-selected computer: you hear the audio cue that Windows is disconnecting USB devices. And the selected computer sounds about finding new USB devices. But it all seems to work fine.

The original keyboard I had was PS2 connected, I wanted to replace it with a USB one. I found a Saitek PZ30AU Black USB Standard Eclipse keyboard that had lots of recommendations. I like that the keys are backlit (in blue), as the desk is in a room that doesn’t have much natural light. The backlight has 3 settings (bright, dim, off) that are controlled from a small button on the keyboard. Even with the backlight novelty, I think the keys move OK. I also like the built in wrist rest.

And during installation, Windows hardware detection would hang until I discovered that my existing USB mouse was flaky. It wouldn’t hang if I disconnected the mouse. It had been acting a bit weird on the old computer. I replaced it with a simple Logitech SBF-96. You can’t get much more simple than that.

Total parts list:

Shuttle barebones SG31G2v2 $200
Intel E7400 CPU $118
G.Skill DDR2-800 4GB RAM $50
Western Digital 1TB SATA hard disk $100
Samsung SH-S223L DVD drive $29
SATA data cable $3
Rosewill card reader $17
Windows XP Home $90
Keyboard $45
Mouse $10
Total $662

Shipping costs for everything was $39 extra.

It is fast and quiet. Niiiiice.

There is a blue power LED on the front of the Shuttle case. It is really bright. So bright that at night it bathes the room in a blue glow. I need to close the doors of the computer desk at night.

I tried a Microsoft Comfort Curve keyboard, and eventually decided that for the Curve to really work you have to consistently use that keyboard. I spend most of my computer time on a regular laptop keyboard, so the Curve keyboard would be the exception. For the little bit of time I used this one I had to look at where I was typing, which I don’t typically do. I gave up on it and went with the Saitek keyboard.

For a while, I was rather displeased with the video quality from the analog VGA connection. It looked blurry, and the contrast appeared too low and the saturation too high. I spent a bunch of time fiddling with the color correction settings on the card via Windows Display properties. When I finally remembered that my LCD monitor had its own settings, I selected the monitor’s “auto config” and it’s much better. Just a teeny bit less clear than my old computer, but now it is OK.

The Shuttle web site says it has 7.1 surround sound. Be aware that there are several 1/8″ headphone-style connectors for analog, not a single S/PDIF optical or coaxial digital output.

It’s kind of amazing to do a “dir c:\” and see only 3 entries: “Windows”, “Documents and Settings”, and “Program Files”. No junk installed by the manufacturer.

Overall I’m really pleased with how it turned out. I was basically quite surprised at how well everything came together. Part of that credit should go to Shuttle, they did a nice job. I had been looking at a pre-built system from a well-known manufacturer for about the same amount of money, but they had a smaller disk drive but included an LCD monitor. Between 5 iPod users and 3 camera owners sharing this PC, we need the disk space. Even though the specs looked similar, I think I ended up with a higher quality system. I understand that in the razor-thin-margins of the PC industry, finding the cheapest components is what it is about. And as in most places, you get what you pay for. I think I ended up with a good balance of price and quality/performance. I’d do it again.

tech tips marcelk 30 Jul 2009 5 Comments

fun: family pics

In the age where the traditional film camera with associated prints is gone, make sure you preserve your digital photos so your memories don’t disappear when your hard drive does. Get some hardcopies and put them in a physical album. And don’t underestimate what a good photographer can do. My wife and I recently had a photoshoot with a photographer friend. Yup, it costs money, but sometimes you get what you pay for. It’s good to have something hanging on the wall that you can look at and smile.

life tips marcelk 14 Jul 2009 No Comments

life: advice for the new father

After having significantly more kids than the average family (well, I didn’t give birth to them, but I did cut the cord), to say that I have learned some things is a vast understatement. Some of these things took a long time to learn, even as late as the last kid. For the men out there that are a first-time dad, here are some of the lessons I learned.

  • Having kids is the most wonderful thing that can happen to you (outside of getting married to a wonderful woman, of course). Having kids will also be the most stressful and trying thing that can happen to you, which hopefully is unlike what happens being married to a wonderful woman. Let me be blunt: having kids will force you to give up selfishness. You are going to have to put more things than you are used to of your own desire on the back burner. Prepare yourself for doing that, and do it willingly, and do it out of love for your family. Guys typically aren’t naturally good at this. You aren’t supposed to completely sacrifice yourself, especially in a passive-aggressive manner, but you are going to need to give up things. If you can be selfless, and do it for the right reason, you will be amazed at the happiness it brings to you and your family. Not giving yourself to your family is going to put your wife through the wringer, don’t do that to her.
  • If you wife has a vaginal birth (not a C-section), you are going to need to give her time to heal before being physically intimate again. Being intimate will happen again, especially if you do the bullet above. However, recognize that pushing a small watermelon through your pelvis is going to do some damage. If you listen to the OB, they will probably give you an estimate on how long your wife will need to heal after birth. I suggest that you double it. Putting your wife in pain for your satisfaction is not consistent with the spirit of physical intimacy, no matter that you are not used to waiting that long. Be patient and deal with it. If men were the ones to get pregnant and give birth, we would go extinct as a species.
  • I was talking to a guy several years ago, and he said, “When I have kids, I will work at my employer as long as possible every day so I can afford to buy my kids all the stuff I didn’t have.” My response was, “Dude, kids (well, the small ones until we teach them otherwise) don’t care about objects. What they want is your time. They are happy playing with a big cardboard box, and they want you to get on the floor and play with them and read them stories. They don’t need things, they want you.” The best present you can give your kids is yourself when they ask for it. That doesn’t always correspond to when you want, or what you expect. When you depart from this mortal life, your family is the only thing you can take with you. The sad thing is that at some point your kids will probably stop asking to play with you.
  • It is so easy for your wife to get completely consumed with being a mom. With a newborn, there is not a full night’s sleep and there are no vacation days.
    • You have to give her a break. When you come home from work, take over the kids and let your wife do something of her own choosing for a couple hours. It doesn’t matter if you had a hard day at work and need some break time, she started when she woke up in the morning and won’t finish until she goes to bed, and likely there will be middle-of-the-night fulfillments. That’s more than your 8.5 hours.
    • The rule is “when the baby sleeps, mommy sleeps.” Baby naps are not always to be used for mom to catch up on chores. Mommy needs to catch up on sleep so she can be a functioning person. When she is caught up on sleep, then she can catch up on chores.
    • Don’t forget that your wife is still your wife and not just a mom. It is very easy for both parents to become parents and forget to be spouses. Find someone you trust to be a babysitter earlier than you think. Go out for a short date and talk about things other than just the kids. The intention is for the kids to grow up and leave the house, but your wife should stay with you.
    • The house is going to be a mess. Just expect it. Instead of being part of the problem, be part of the solution. You will need to own more chores. There is no sharing equally and keeping track of points. You need to jump in and do as much as you can, independent of what your wife may or may not have done.
  • If your wife is breast feeding instead of using formula, her breats will get bigger. However, they also become very tender, especially at the start of nursing. Treat her carefully. The skin will toughen up over a few weeks to handle the nursing. They will return to usual size after nursing stops. Also, when a baby is breast feeding, the poop actually isn’t too bad. It’s when you go to formula or solid foods that it turns into the classic stinky mess. Enjoy it while you can.
  • Be patient. Take a deep breath and don’t have a temper. Kids will throw enough temper tantrums, you don’t need the parents doing it too. Just let the unimportant things go. Yes, having kids will dramatically alter your perspective on what is important. Lack of patience is one of the easiest ways to mess up a family.
  • Jump in and be willing to figure it out. Every child is different, and every parenting situation is different. Figure out what works for you and your family. Experiment. What works for child #1 may not work for child #2, even if they are twins. You’ll find lots of things that don’t work, followed by an “aha!” moment.
  • The What to Expect When You’re Expecting and What to Expect the First Year are good books that dads should follow along in as their wife reads. At lot of stuff that seems weird actually is quite normal. And the only way to learn it is by experience.
  • Kids don’t actually cost very much money, except perhaps in healthcare. If you can get hand-me-down clothes or go to Goodwill (they destroy clothes anyway), it’s really not bad. They don’t eat much, don’t need expensive toys, can travel in your lap on airplanes, etc. Don’t bother buying them nice new expensive things, because when they are little they don’t care. It’s later when they need car insurance and college tuition that it starts to hurt your wallet.
  • Kids are amazingly resilient. They bounce good. Typically the parents need to take a deep breath instead of panicking.

I hope you find this useful. Having kids is a trip. I didn’t think it would be so before it happened, but my life would be so empty if I lost my kids. My life is way more complicated now with kids, but I’ve grown to prefer it that way – it’s more fulfilling.

life tips marcelk 02 Jul 2009 2 Comments

tech: free IBM WebSphere Application Server (J2EE server) for developers

If you are a J2EE developer, you should be interested in this. The IBM WebSphere Application Server runtime is being made available to developers at no cost. Developers can use the development runtime test environment that is identical to the WebSphere Application Server (WAS) production runtime environment on their desktop at no charge for development and testing. And this is the recent version 7 of WAS. If you are considering a J2EE server, this is a great way to try out WAS.

(Disclaimer: yes, I am employed by IBM.)

cool stuff that doesn't cost much &tech tips marcelk 02 Jul 2009 No Comments

Fancy Fast Food

Wow, if it only looked like this when it came out of the paper bag. But, I don’t think the taste is changed.

entertainment marcelk 02 Jul 2009 No Comments