A new Workshop Computer (March 2017)

or, hours of fun with Kaby Lake

 My new Software Defined Radio was messing up my computer. A combination of software bugs (because the application is still being written) and problems with the USB ports is to blame, so I decided to build a small computer for use in my workshop. This would be advantageous because that's where the test equipment is located and it wouldn't matter so much if that computer got messed up occasionally.

 I dug out a case, a half decent motherboard and processor, a power supply and some other parts including a 250GByte SSD and installed Windows 10, but I soon found the SDR applications used too much computer power and either gave intermittent sound or just crashed the machine. My i5 computer was running about 15% processor power to run the Lime application but the new one was way over 60%. I checked and the processor was only an E2200 (dual core running at 2.2GHz). I decided to overwrite Windows 10 and go back to Windows 7, but ended up with the same very high processor load. I looked around for a cheap second-hand computer but unless one shelled out many hundreds of pounds you'd end up with a slow machine so I decided to buy brand new.


 Above... First attempt using an Intel E2200 dual core processor

 It's been some time since I built a new computer. First a new processor, but these were really expensive. I found that the terms i3, i5 and i7 are still being used, but these chips are now on their umpteenth update and I'd need a new motherboard with a Socket 1151 to use a new 7th generation product. Next I looked at benchmarks for various Intel processors. My own computer is an i5-3570 rated at "3978". Most older chips (even the quad cores) are rated at "1500" and below (my dual core E2200 is a mere "1179") so I ruled out all of these. I turned up the "G" series in the local suppliers catalogue, checked benchmarks and found that these were rated pretty high... for example the G3285 was "3812" almost as good as my i5. I looked at my supplier's pricelist and found the G4560. This is too new to be benchmarked on the page I looked at but should be something over 4000.

The price of a G4560 was a third of an i5 so I ordered one. A suitable motherboard posed a problem. The new chip is called "Kaby Lake" and red warning notices against the latest motherboards showed difficulties in using this series. I moved to the very latest boards and selected an Asrock B250. No red warnings and it was half the price of similar boards. As it uses DDR4 RAM I ordered a couple of 4GByte sticks and also a 120GByte SSD. This should be fast enough.


 I set it all up in an ancient computer case, put a Windows 7 DVD into a portable USB DVD reader and proceeded to install the operatiing system onto the SSD. It didn't work. After some checking, I swapped the portable DVD drive for an old DVD reader. It's an IDE type so I used a SATA to IDE converter. Things got underway but after a minute or so I couldn't use the USB keyboard or USB mouse so proceedings stalled. After some more checking and after some BIOS changes I plugged in a PS2 keyboard and USB mouse and started again. Things were ropey. The computer kept suddenly rebooting. Eventually, after numerous attempts I stopped to consider what was going on. It turns out that there may be a conspiracy. It's all to do wth USB architecture and the necessary drivers. A Windows 10 DVD is equipped with the new drivers but anything older, such as Windows 7 is not. Ostensibly, one cannot, or one is supposed not to install an operating system other than Windows 10 on a new computer. Fortunately, it turns out that the B250 Asrock board has the necessary bits of code on its driver CD to allow one to install Windows 7.

 There's a lot of discussion about Kaby Lake versus Windows 7 on the Net. The basic problem is not dissimilar to one found in Windows XP when this was first introduced and one wished to use an SSD. Installation failed because the XP disk had no means of recognising your SSD and so couldn't find anywhere to install itself. A hardware RAID system option was also impossible to automatically install. In both cases the operating system designers paused the installation so one could add extra drivers. This pause in proceedngs may be a mystery to lots of people installing a new operating system but it's essential in some cases, like those mentioned, when a floppy disk had to be introduced, and later a USB memory stick to add extra drivers. A second method is also possible.. that is to modify the installation disk by adding the extra drivers, but this is messy. I don't know about other motherboard makers, but Asrock's solution is to offer an additional option. The B250 motherboard has a PS2 port and this of course is recognised by the installation program, however as it's only a single socket you're faced with using either a PS2 keyboard or a PS2 mouse, but not both. This leads to some confusion. You need a keyboard so you can fill in your user name etc. and with some experimentation you can fiddle with keys to shift the cursor around as you proceed with the installation. Using a PS2 mouse will prevent you typing your user name.
 If you manage to work out appropriate keystrokes and end up with a Windows 7 desktop on your Kaby Lake setup, the USB mouse, and indeed any USB ports won't work. Asrock have included a patch on their driver CD and this sorts out the problem by adding the extra USB drivers to Windows 7. This step is not altogether straightforward however as you need to navigate around their driver CD without the benefit of a USB mouse. I got round the problem by just installing all the drivers in one go, a step which is offered automatically. I suppose you could reboot and swap your keyboard for a PS2 mouse and then be able to select what you want instead of installing everything... Buried in the drivers is the USB patch and this got added with everything else, so after an age whilst lots of superfluous things were added the desktop eventually reappeared with a working USB mouse.

 Despite understanding the restrictions I had trouble. Installation always failed at roughly the same point but I tried again and again and again, until after a while the penny dropped. I'm using a newish-looking power supply taken from the computer predating the i5 I'm currently using. I was quite happy with the old computer but it occasionally switched itself off. As I'd put this failure down to the processor or motherboard, I'd relegated the box to the corner of my workshop. I'd then cannibalised various parts and just now I'd transferred the power supply to the new workshop computer. I wondered whether the sudden loss of power, which I'd put down to a BSOD reboot, could be a faulty power supply and may have nothing to do with the B250/Windows 7 problem. I swapped the nice newish-looking PSU for an ordinary one and surprise... the computer stayed switched on. I wiped the SSD and proceeded to install Windows 7. All went well until near the end of the installation when I got an error message and the thing rebooted. I tried again... same error message 0x80070017, so I looked for an explanation and found it was probably a bad DVD. I borrowed a DVD reader from another computer. This is a SATA type, and after yet another attempt at installing Windows 7, the Windows Desktop appeared. Success... or not... the keyboard worked OK but the mouse did not.


 Above.. the new computer in the process of construction

 I now need those pesky USB drivers that are missing from the Windows 7 installation. I decided to proceed by running the driver CD that came with the motherboard. Having no mouse limited the options available, but I was able to select "Drivers" and "Install everything"... nothing else was selectable. I left the thing running as it was taking ages and possibly stalled except the hard drive lamp was flashing merrily. I came back after 30 minutes to find the Windows 7 Desktop in place and a mouse pointer resting in the centre of the screen. Wobbling the mouse showed the Asrock USB driver patch had been successfully installed.

As the installation was using a standard, low resolution graphics driver, I ran a new driver downloaded from Asrock's website and after a while I got a high definition picture. System Manager shows everything working correctly, and I loaded an anti-virus and an Office package with no trouble. The Internet works fine and I can even access my security cameras and read my i5 computer hard drives over the local network. Next I need to install the SDR software and drivers... the whole reason for the exercise.

After carrying out some testing using my Lime SDR I decided to add a graphics card. This will help to reduce processor load by off-loading the work needed to drive the display. Fortunately for the budget, I found an unused graphics card (below) left over from a computer build a year or two ago.


 This computer worked fine for the best part of a year. At this point I heard on the grapevine that Windows 10 upgrades are still available although the programme had been curtailed officially over a year ago. Being inquisitive, and having decided it was time this computer was upgraded, and now that I've handled lots of Windows 10 installations and found the latest to be OK and much better than original, I decided to go ahead... First I needed to clone the system. I'm not entirely sure this is necessary, but at least it should preserve the drivers for the SDRs I tried. I cloned the setup to an old 1GB hard drive and then having tested that it worked, logged onto the site providing the Windows 10 upgrade. After thirty minutes the computer was being upgraded. The first hurdle was an Intel program that was too old to work in Windows 10 and I couldn't proceed until this had been deleted.. in fact I had to install a later version before I could proceed. The upgrade then baulked at Vipre Antivirus, but did allow me to continue. As several other upgrades had worked ages ago I left Vipre in place, but alas the upgrade collapsed in a heap that couldn't be resurrected. I think the problem may be associated with the small partition allocated for bootup. Vipre may have declined to allow this to be opened up hence the Windows 10 bootup software (which uses more than double the reserved space demanded by Windows 7) was never loaded. Surely Microsoft should have double checked this failing... but no.. everything had bashed on resulting in Windows 10 from crashing out and Windows 7 to be unrecoverable

I decided to try again.. but this time after uninstalling Vipre, but Sod's Law rules and my fully tested clone failed to work. I was now in the situation of having a dead computer so decided to install an embryonic activated Windows 7. This I achieved very quickly on the 240GB SSD but to do this I decided to wipe the partitions from it by plugging it into my main computer because, try as I might, the Windows 7 installation procedure wouldn't delete the previous small boot partition. I had to download the Asrock LAN drivers before I could connect to the Internet, but the Windows 10 upgrade worked flawlessly without a hitch. As always I declined offers of improving my experience by deselecting Microsoft's kind offers of assistance. These "helpful" options are now presented sequentially during installation instead of one having to winkle them out via "custom install". Within seconds (much to my surprise) the new operating system had activated itself and I'd erased all the useless boxes revealed when you click Start. Apart from having to recall the hiding places for my favourite features all is now well and ready for SDR driver installation.


 First, I tried my Andrus HF SDR which doesn't actually need a driver because it operates over an Ethernet connection. Above is the Andrus connected to a front panel USB3 socket. I've seen the interference before on my main computer. It consists of a comb of spikes at 1KHz apart and at almost exactly integer KHz frequencies. I tried to discover the source of the noise and realised it was an internal SDR problem because fitting a 50 ohm terminator to the aerial socket left the spikes unchanged. I moved the USB connector from the SDR to a rear panel USB3 socket mounted directly on the motherboard. To my surprise I saw the picture below...


 All I can think as an explanation, are the front panel connectors which are wired to the motherboard via 18 inches of unscreened cable are picking up noise from the motherboard and the graphics card. I realised that as the Andrus plugs into my ethernet switch in the workshop where is also the Kaby Lake computer... why not try and access the Andrus from my main computer? Interestingly, the rear USB ports are powered from the standby 5-volt computer power supply so even with the Kaby Lake computer turned off the Andrus is powered. It works fine! I can now use the Andrus SDR remotely which minimises further any locally generated noise.


Now, by July 2019 we have Coffee Lake

 So they can keep in business the companies that make processors will bring out a new version every couple of years. These are often accompanied by new motherboards to make them work best and perhaps a new type of memory module. What is of interest to a user of an SDR is just how well can a new computer handle the software. When the designations i3, i5 etc were introduced it was easy to reckon that the bigger the number the better the processor but, every year or so a new generation number was added to the original designation. This means that an i7 which cost several hundred pounds when first introduced may be rubbish if its performance is compared with a modern cheap processor. If you're interested take a look at this website:


 The score for the E2200 was 802, the G4560 was 1986 and the G5400 is 2182.

Compare these figures with the latest i9-9900 at 2936 and what about that i7? The earliest i7 was rated at a mere 589. So you can see that it's worth checking on the performance figure before splashing out pots of money for only a tiny increase in performance.

Looking at the latest price list (27th July 2019) I see the i9-7960X (rated at 2335) is £1267 and the G5400 (rated at 2182) is £55.

It's a no-brainer... you can buy twenty three G5400s for the price of one i9-7960X to gain a mere 7% increase in power.


 Above a new computer I built recently (July 2019) using a Coffee Lake 3.7GHz G5400 on a mini-ITX Asrock motherboard (B360M-ITX/AC) in a really compact ITX case. This computer was the second built into this case because the first motherboard had failed after only a few hours of use. The first inclination of failure was a bootup problem because the lithium cell measured zero volts. A new lithium cell brought the computer back to life, but only long enough to install Windows 10 from a new DVD. This then updated over several hours but after a few tests the computer had failed to respond to the ON switch. This time the lithium cell showed 2.9 volts so was definitely being drained but whatever the fault causing this symptom, it had far more reaching effect. A new motherboard restored operation but Windows 10 activation had been removed. I followed the instructions, obtaining the UK phone number then dictating a long series of numbers to the robot and receiving an activation code in return. This worked OK and activation was re-established. I made three computers for this customer and a failure rate of a third is not good. Once bitten twice shy...I'll buy Asus motherboards next ...

It can take as little as an hour or so to build a computer like this one, but to diagnose a fault can take the best part of a day.. then returning the faulty part, collecting a new part and of course the removal of the old and refitting the good part completely wipes out any profit. In fact.. I may send Asrock an invoice to cover the work...


Comet Lake Oct 2020

 Now, it's October 2020 and I'm building two new computers. I chose an Intel i5 10400 which has a benchmark of 2609. The motherboard I selected was an Asus type based on the B460M chipset. I chose the particular model (and not Asrock incidentally as one of this make had failed a few months before) because I needed RAID and the hardware type built into the motherboard architecture is better than software RAID. In fact I notice the board uses the Intel program rather than a proprietary version.

One machine proved easier to build because the customer wanted Windows 10. The second I planned to install Windows 7, activate this, then update it via Microsoft's free download of Windows 10, but alas this wasn't too easy because I couldn't work out the tricks offered by Asus soon enough for my build schedule.

Both computers used a micro-ATX case (rather than my initially preferred mini-ITX case) which proved to be best because of the number of hard drives I needed to install. Below is a picture of the PC during construction. As two 3.5" hard drives are due to be fitted I mounted the RAID system drives in the space allocated for a single SSD as shown. The power supply is rated at 750 watts and has an awful lot of cables which could probably be tidied up somewhat.


 I mentioned the difficulty in installing Windows 7. I tried booting from a USB DVD and got as far as the screen showing the coloured dots circling around but each time I tried the coloured dots would freeze. Intitially I suspected a hardware problem such as a bad stick of RAM but soon the penny dropped and I realised what was happening. The Comet Lake B460M hardware is not compatible with the software on the Windows 7 DVD. I even tried running the special DVD modification program offered by Asus which rewrites a new compatible version of the DVD onto a memory stick.. but that failed also.

Why try to intall Windows 7, you might ask? Well, given an activated Windows 7, at the time of writing (late 2020) one can still download from Microsoft, a free upgrade to Windows 10 and in the current (late 2020) configuration, this is pretty good. Despite free downloads Microsoft sell expensive Windows 10 DVDs, which many customers are quite happy to buy. However, it's still possible to use the free version if you're prepared to wade through the technical obstructions. Both of the i5 computers covered above (one with twin SSDs for RAID and twin mirrored data drives and the other a single SSD with twin mirrored data drives were finished and working well.

You'll note that Black seems to be in vogue now!


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