Creative X-Fi Xtreme Audio Express

A package arrived from ebay today, it was the X-Fi Xtreme Audio Express Card for my Vostro 1400. Hopefully I’ll be able to find the 5.1/7.1 extension for docking with my speakers. Sound wise, it’s much better than the on board sound, which through the internal speakers is not that great. It’s not that bad, but with external speakers the on board sound is much better, and the X-Fi is that much better. Vista didn’t automagically get things working right away (sort of disappointing since everything else just worked). Creative is now better with their driver installer as they allow just installing the driver without the other added software (read as more or less crapware). Software installation was quick and painless, required a reboot as I chose to install ALchemy. Some actual testing will occur later this weekend.

-John Havlik

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Core 2 Duo X9000

What is fast? When in Vista you double click on Firefox’s desktop icon and it’s ready to go. When Thunderbird loads just as quickly. When Visual C++ 2008 loads even quicker. When MPLAB, something that usually takes quite some time to load takes the amount of time Firefox used to take to load. Intel’s Core 2 Duo X9000 is one fast beast. It runs at a slightly higher voltage than the T5270 when powering off of the battery (1.0375V vs 1.01V), but it does correctly clock down to 1Ghz when appropriate. Vista estimates the same battery life as with the T5270. Vista’s performance checker evaluates the processor as a 5.6, up 1 whole point from the T5270’s 4.6, additionally the memory metric went up a full point to 5.0 from 4.0. The only thing holding this back now is the X3100 graphics, but the purpose is not a gaming laptop so I can deal with that. Though I must say it does run Sim City 4 quite well.

Installing the chip was easy. The thermal assembly was held on with four screws near the processor and one near the heatsink. Finding my Arctic Silver 5 took longer than replacing the processor, this was mainly due to the remodeling that we are doing. I did a quick 20 minute burn in with CPU burn-in, one process for each core, and then shut down the laptop. The performance gain was not entirely noticeable until after letting it cool down for the first time. A few more CPU burn-in cycles and that Arctic Silver will get setup for better thermal conductivity.

-John Havlik

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Vostro 1400

A week ago the Intel turbo memory module arrived, the last component that needed the keyboard to be removed in order to install. My Vostro 1400 came more or less stock with the following specs:

  • Intel Core 2 Duo T5270 (1.4Ghz, runs at 1.6Ghz according to CPUz and is related to the L7300) (A X9000 is on it’s way :D)
  • 2GiB DDR2-667 RAM running in Dual Channel mode (PQI brand)
  • 160GB 5400RPM Segate SATA Hard Drive
  • Dell wireless 802.11g (model DW1390) (Replaced with Intel WiFi Link 802.11abgn)
  • 56Wh Li-ion battery (up to 6hrs according to Dell)
  • Intel Robinson Turbo Memory 1GiB (Added)
  • Dell Bluetooth 2.1 (model 360) (Added)
  • 14 inch wide screen display (1280×800)
  • Intel Media Accelerator X3100 graphics

After a little over a week with this laptop, I must say Dell put together a very nice machine. When I first received it I powered it up to make sure it worked, and to see how well Dell’s wireless card worked. It wasn’t able to find my wireless network, but it found every neighbor’s network, unfortunately no one keeps their networks open anymore. Replacing the wireless card requires getting behind the keyboard, on the two Compaqs that I’ve taken apart before that required unscrewing some things on the bottom of the computer, and nothing was detailed in the user manual. Not only did the manual lay out exactly what needed to be done, two nice little green plastic tools were provided for aiding in removing the media panel. Good thing they were provided as the media panel is fairly secured and required patience in removing.

Replacing the CPU should be easy as the CPU and cooler assembly has it’s own lid, as does the hard drive and the memory. Installing the blue tooth radio was easy as everything else had been. Installing the drivers was painless, Vista did everything for me. The same was true for the Intel cards, just had to insert the Intel CD when prompted, and everything “just worked” (sounds Macish doesn’t it?). This is even on Home Basic, a version that ran slower than molasses at 5am Wednesday morning this week (It was -15 degrees Fahrenheit) on a Pentium D 2.8Ghz with dedicated graphics and 2GiB of ram.

Dell with its Vostro line, as well as with the XPS line, does not install crapware. Though I did uninstall some of the preinstalled software, Google Desktop (I don’t bother searching for things in Windows), as well as some unneeded Dell software (I’m looking at you software modem driver) I really wouldn’t count those programs as crapware (compare to what a Toshiba comes with). Vista, really is not that bad. I do not like the constant “Are you sure you want to run this” prompts, but beyond that things are very responsive, I think I’ll give Intel the credit here for their Core 2 Duo being so awesome of a chip.

I have a Western Digital Scorpio 120GB (8MiB cache) that I’ll install Gentoo onto and run KDE 4 on it as the desktop manager. This hasn’t happened yet as I’m primarily waiting to do this until spring break in March. Additionally, due to the nature of Gentoo, its advantageous for me to wait for my X9000 to arrive as it is twice as fast in clock speed alone which will really help for compile times.

Speaking of CPUs I should go a little in depth on my findings on the 1.4Ghz chip in this laptop. Even though it reports to Vista and CPU-Z as a T5270 it constantly runs out of spec for that processor. It seems to like to run with a 8.0x multiplier on a 800Mhz FSB, resulting in a speed of 1.6Ghz. Added to that, the reported CPU VID of 1.013V, which is under the 1.0375-1.3V range that it is supposed to operate under. Additionall, CPU-Z gets a bit confused as the top CPU name is claims the CPU is a L7300 (which would explain the lower voltage, but not the constant overclock). Even when running two CPU Burn-in processes, the temperature didn’t get over 30C and once the fan kicked in a bit, still nearly silent, the temp dropped to 22C. I’m going to do more tests on the processor and post results sometime during spring break. With comparisons to the X9000, it should be interesting.

-John Havlik

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Retiring the Zen Micro

My old Zen micro 5gb served me well for the last three years, however during the last semester the on-off-lock switch became unresponsive, requiring a cleaver hack to turn on and off the device. This was my first hard disk based mp3 player, and I’m returning to a flash based device (so that I can run while listening to music). For Christmas I received the 8GiB Creative ZEN, which is sort of the spiritual successor of my Zen micro.

Let me be the first to correct the others out there that make it seem like you have to transcode everything to WMV to play on it. While it is true that the ZEN needs mpeg1/2 files transcoded, they don’t have to be transcoded to WMV. The ZEN does natively support Xvid/MPEG4-SP/DivX in addition to WMV. Since I do have many mpeg music videos I will have to transcode some, but MediaCoder does a good job at that. Most users would transcode anyways as playing a 720p video on a 320×240 screen is overkill and would eat up battery life in order to scale the video while playing, the size benefit is there too, 30MiB or less for most music videos under 5 minutes in length. Hope you all are having a merry Christmas.

-John Havlik

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Forerunner

Never trust the weather forecast, very rarely is it correct. Today, day number 5 or 6 in the rain-a-thon that we Minnesotans have experienced turned up fairly dry. The sun even managed to peak out from behind the clouds a few times today. Thus, at 47 degrees and mostly cloudy, today was the best day for running in the past several days. Seizing the opportunity to try out the birthday gift from my parents, I went for a quick 20 minute run.

It turns out, if I had done an out-and-back of my route, I would have covered 3 miles. I did not realize that the start lap button must be pressed before the Forerunner will record the run, I ran over a mile before figuring that out. Hence, the GPS recorded 1.72 miles but the actual route was more on the lines of 2.72 miles according to walkjogrun.net (a very cool site by the way).

The GPS is not sensitive to running under power lines, which is good, but I can not say the same for the heart rate monitor. From the get-go it said I was at 100BPM or higher (not even close to resting heart rate). Most of the time it though I had a heart rate near 190BPM, and for a good stretch of time it was at 204BPM. Doing quick math, 204BPM is near to what my max heart rate should be. This high of a heart rate is not possible to sustain for extended periods of time with out heart failure. According to this, I should have collapsed during my run. After the run I did a little pulse vs. heart rate monitor and found it off by nearly 40BPM. For one moment I was able to get it measure an accurate heart rate of 74BPM at rest, it then spontaneously jumped to double that. The heart rate monitor will need to be figured out eventually, but for now every thing else works.

When just looking at the Forerunner, it looks a bit awkward due to the L shape of the body that wraps partially around the arm. When running that oddity makes sense, as the GPS antenna is located in this part and the way human arms move when running this part of the GPS is always facing the sky. The weight of the Forerunner, which is not that high to begin with, is transparent while running. Design wise, Garmin did their homework with this GPS and created a very nice product.

The feature lacking Garmin Training Center (GTC), which allows the transferring of data to and from the GPS, is basic but useful. GTC creates nice graphs and has data/lap view and statistics. Its mapping is practically useless as at anything under 1 mile = 1 inch scale is considered over zoom and has literally no local roads, what it does do though is plot your course on the map accurately. Hands down, the best feature of GTC is the import/export data options. Data output is in a nice XML formatted document, which will make life easy for me when writing WP Trainer. With this one run and the data from it I will be able to begin writing WP Trainer as no “hacking” of the export files will be necessary, and my experience with RSS will really help here as both are XML documents.

The Good:

  • Fits well
  • GTC software exports a XML formatted document
  • GPS locks in quickly after initial region discovery, even locks in when indoors in some cases
  • Accurate even in non-ideal conditions
  • Software and firmware updates are easy
  • Not-evil software, easy to disable windows tray icon

The Bad:

  • Had to install a firmware update for the new day light savings time
  • Heart rate monitor is inaccurate

The Ugly:

  • GTC software maps leave much to be desired, Garmin could learn allot from Google Earth

-John Havlik

[end of transmission, stay tuned]