Saturday, December 29, 2012

Rosewill 7' Cat 6 Network Cable


Rating: 5 out of 5
Pros: Works well, inexpensive, perfect length for my patch cables
Cons: None if you like the rubber clip protection covers

When I replaced all the networking cables and equipment in the house, I opted to use 7' cables for patch cables between the equipment and the individual computers. Some of them previously had 3' cables, and one even had a 1' cable, and while these worked fine there really wasn't any slack to move things around at all. I figured 7' was an optimal size because it was short enough to not be too unwieldy, but long enough to allow flexibility in placement.
 
To that end, I purchased six of these Rosewill 7' Cat 6 Network Cable. The cable modem is has one of these connecting it to the wireless router, and then the router has two more of them connecting the individual computers in the main room. I also have a 25' cable snaking across the ceiling into the other room and into a network switch, where two more of these 7' cables connect the individual computers in that room as well; the remaining cable I threw in my box of cables for a spare.
 
Since the 25' cable I used (RCW-565) is black in color, I opted for the RCW-580 grey ones for the 7' patch cables so that I could tell at a glance whether the cable I was removing was a long run or a patch cable. The black version of this 7' cable is RCW-562 if you would rather have them match. Like it's older 25' brother, the 7' cable came in a sealed foil and plastic bag and was wound into a coil to prevent kinking.
 
Cat 6 cables are backwards compatible with Cat 5/5e applications, so they can be swapped right into existing networks without messing anything up. They have reduced impedance, crosstalk and structural return loss due to typically using larger twisted wire pairs (22 AWG as opposed to 24 AWG for Cat 5 cables). I noticed these cables weren't quite as flexible as most of the Cat 5 & 5e cables they replaced, but they were still plenty flexible enough and I had no issues routing them.
 
Network speeds are the same as before, with the hard drive being the limiting factor in transferring across the local area network and the terrible 1.5mbitcable being the limit over the internetfor me. I went with 10/100 BASE-T networking, but this Cat 6 cable would work just as well for GigabitEthernet if I had chosen to go that route. It meets all EIA/TIA Cat 6 TIA/EIA- 568-B-2.1, draft 9 standards and has a gold-plated RJ-45 male standard connector on each end.

This cable also has the little rubber protective things covering the clips on the connectors at the end that I really don't like. Others may like them as they do prevent snagging and breaking the clip off, but I'm typically a little more careful with my cables. The only time I've broken the clips off have been when they got snagged while buried loose in my extra cable box. I chose to cut the rubber covering off the ends of all my cables with a pair of wire cutters and call it a day.

I'm perfectly happy with these 7' cables and the 25' cables I purchased, and they (at the time of this writing) only cost $2.49 on Newegg with free shipping. They also typically have volume discounts for ordering multiple cables, and while it's not a large discount it's never a bad thing to save money if you need multiple cables like I did anyway. An easy recommendation.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Rosewill 25' Cat 6 Network Cable

Rating: 5 out of 5
Pros:Inexpensive, good quality, works well
Cons:None if you like the little rubber clip protectors

I recently decided to redo my home network setup with all new parts in an effort to get my cable company to step up and provide the service they are supposed to. You see, they like to blame slow network speeds on customer equipment 100% of the time no matter what, so I thought I would just nip that in the bud. One part of the upgrade involved replacing all the old Ethernet cables in the house; after some research I decided to go with Category 6 network cables, and after some price and quality comparisons I decided to go with the Rosewill brand.
 
For my network, the cable modem plugs into a wireless router which then plugs into the two computers in the main room. From that router, a 25 foot Ethernet cable goes up the wall and across the ceiling into the other room, where it plugs into a network switch that in turn plugs into two additional computers. For that 25 foot cable length I replaced my old Cat 5e cable with this black Rosewill 25' Cat 6 Network Cable. I also replaced the router, the switch, and all the patch cables going from the network devices to the individual computers.
 
The first thing to note about Cat 6 cable is that it is backwards compatible with Cat 5/5e cables, which means you can swap it into existing applications without issue. Both cables use the same connectors and contain four pairs of twisted wires inside a sheath, but Cat 6 cables typically use larger (22 AWG) wire than Cat 5 cables (24 AWG) to help reduce impedance, crosstalk and structural return loss.
 
This particular cable came packaged in a sealed plastic and foil bag. It was coiled up nicely in a big coil to prevent kinking, and twist-tied together on one side. The first thing I noticed when I opened the package was that the cable was noticeably thicker than the Cat 5e cable it replaced, and thus wasn't quite as flexible. It still had plenty of flex to it, but if I laid it down on the floor it tended to fall back into a coil shape or a straight line rather than just flop all over the place. I had no problem routing it up the wall and the along through some looped hooks in the ceiling.
 
One thing I don't particularly care for that others might like is the little rubber protective cover that surrounds the clip on each end of the cable. This makes it so you don't snag the clip on things and break it off, but at the same time it makes the cable harder to remove since the rubber is a little stiff. Personally I grabbed a pair of wire cutters and cut off the protective cover on all my new cables to make it easier on myself later.
 
Network speeds are the same as before, with the hard drive being the limiting factor in transferring across the local area network and the terrible 1.5mbit cable being the limit over the internet for me. I went with 10/100 BASE-T networking, but this Cat 6 cable would work just as well for Gigabit Ethernet if I had chosen to go that route. It meets all EIA/TIA Cat 6 TIA/EIA- 568-B-2.1, draft 9 standards and has a gold-plated RJ-45 male standard connector on each end.
 
I'm very happy with this cable. It's currently selling on Amazon for $5.99 and on Newegg for $4.49 with free shipping; when I purchased my cables a couple of months ago on Newegg it was $4.99 and had a 20% off promotional code, which made it a heck of a deal. I picked up a second one to keep in my box of extra cables as a spare, and I would easily recommend this cable.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Rosewill 40-in-1 3.5" Internal Card Reader (RCRIC001)



Rating: 4 out of 5
Pros: Inexpensive, works well, installs easily and reads a lot of different formats
Cons: Doesn't read common microSD cards without an adapter

When I built this last computer for my mom, we decided to throw a memory card reader into one of the available 3.5" external drive bays. While it's not something she uses regularly, it's nice to have on hand for for reading the memory card out of her phone or camera occasionally and it also has an additional USB 2.0 port in it as well. Also, since it was only $6 on sale it wasn't really going to affect the price of the build much, so there was little reason not to include it.

This build:
 

AMD FX-4100 Quad-Core Processor
ASUS DRW-24B1ST DVD Burner
Cooler Master GX-450 Power Supply
G.SKILL Ripjaws X Series 16GB DDR3 1600
Gigabyte GA-970A-D3 Motherboard
MSI Radeon HD 6450 1GB Video Card
Rosewill Challenger Gaming Case
Rosewill 40-in-1 Internal Card Reader
Samsung Spinpoint F4 EcoGreen 2TB Hard Drive
Zalman N Series 2.5" Solid-State Drive

 
I'd picked up a similar card reader in the past for a previous build, and it was a little short and only had one mounting screw location on each side. It sat in the case fine but it did pivot a minuscule amount up and down because there was only one screw holding it on each side. This Rosewill RCR-IC001 card reader didn't have that problem because it's longer and takes advantage of both screw mounts on each side of the device, which makes it feel more stable and secure in the case.
 
The card reader also comes with a changeable front panel. There is a black face plate installed out of the box, but there's an additional silver face plate in the package in case it matches your case better. It's easy to change with one little tab to depress on each side to make it pop right off. Hooking the device up to the motherboard is also easy, as the connection consists of a single USB 2.0 cable that you run to one of the USB headers on your motherboard. The cable is probably 18" long so there's plenty of length to make it reach wherever you need to on your particular motherboard. I ended up using a zip tie to tie off a loop of extra slack and laid it under the drive, out of the way.
 
This device is a 40-in-1 memory card reader, but when they say "40" they really mean "5 types and most of their variations". It supports Compact Flash, Memory Stick, MultiMediaCard, Secure Digital and SmartMedia cards. Many of the variations like miniSD, microSD and MS Pro Duo only work with the appropriate adapter that may or may not come with the memory card. The device also supports the SDHC (Secure Digital High Capacity) format that is prevalent in most phones and tablets these days.
 
The card reader works by having four different slots in the face, along with a USB 2.0 port and a couple of LEDs for activity (green) and power (blue). The top slot on the left is used for MS/MSPro/MS Duo/MSPro Duo, and the top middle slot is used for CFI/CFII/MD cards. The bottom left is for SD/MMC/RS MMC and the bottom middle is for SMC cards. We've only used it with SD cards (and microSD cards with the adapters) so far since that is the only type of card that any of us have laying around. SD cards must be inserted upside-down into the slot, but they worked just fine and were about the same speed as my external card reader.
 
The slots are hot swappable and you can use multiple slots at once (as well as the USB port) if you have different types of memory cards, allowing you to transfer data from one to another. Supported operating systems include Windows 7/Vista/XP/2000/ME, and it also seems to work fine in Linux Mint (which implies it will likely work fine in Ubuntu and Debian, and probably most major Linux distributions). No drivers were necessary for me to install in either operating system. The device can be operated in temperatures ranging from 0ºC to 50ºC at a humidity between 10% and 95%.
 
The package contains the card reader itself, four screws for mounting the device, the extra silver face plate, and a folded up single-page user manual. The manual contains a brief introduction and specifications in seven different languages on one side, and surprisingly clear installation diagrams and instructions on the other. This device is made in China and backed up by a 1 year limited warranty.
 
Overall this was a good purchase and I recommend it. You can usually find it on sale for $6 or $7 and it's just one of those things that is nice to have on hand even if you don't use it too often.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Kingston 16GB Class 4 microSDHC Card


Rating: 2 out of 5
Pros: Worked well enough in the generic Android tablet it was picked up for
Cons: Worst random 4k write speeds; no included SD adapter or plastic case

My young nieces have birthdays that are close to each other, so their mom got them each a $90 generic Android tablet to play with. They enjoyed the tablets a lot, but the 4GB of internal storage was a bit lacking for all the games they wanted to download and play. Now I could have picked up identical microSDHC cards for them but I decided to be clever and pick up two different brands so that I could compare the two and review them in the process.
 
First of all we have this Kingston 16GB microSDHC Card (SDC4/16GBSP), and secondly we have a Mushkin 16GB microSDHC Card MKNUSDHCC4-16GB). I decided on these two cards in particular because they are both brands that I've had a positive experience with in the past. I skipped out on some of the similarly priced generic brand cards for the opposite reason. I also previously reviewed a Patriot Signature Line 16GB microSDHC Card (PSF16GMCSDHC43P) that we used in a Motorola DROID 4 Phone that I will poke comparisons at as well for variety.
 
Three separate manufacturers. Since all three of these cards are the same size, same speed rating, price and format the comparison should help figure out which is the better deal. This review will mostly focus on the Kingston 16GB microSD card, though I will mention the others at times and point out if they were particularly better or worse.
 
The first thing I noticed was that this Kingston card did not come in a full plastic package. Instead, they opted to go with sandwiched cardboard that was easier to open by snipping off the top with a pair of scissors and pulling the blister pack out of the middle that held the card. The blister pack did sort of snap shut and held the card in place, but it's flimsy and large and not something that you would want to use to keep the card secure and undamaged.
 
That's the second thing I noticed... unlike the other two cards, this one did not come with a rigid plastic carrying case to protect the card while it's not in a device. It was also the only card not to come with an SD adapter to use in tablets, cameras and laptops. The package I liked; the lack of a case and adapter were a little disappointing but not really a big deal overall since I already had two of each from the other manufacturers' cards.
 
This is a standard microSD card with the normal notched side to prevent it being inserted the wrong way. Like most cards this one is black, but it's really noisy looking with a ton of text across the front. Hey, it's not like you're going to be looking at the card anyway though -- I assume it will be crammed into a phone, camera or some other random device most of the time. It comes preformatted with the FAT32 file system and has a total formatted capacity of 15,699,279,872 bytes (14.6 GB). For comparison, the Patriot card had a capacity of 14.9 GB and the Mushkin had a capacity of 14.4 GB.
 
I assumed since they skimped on the adapter and the case that maybe they put a little extra work into the card; would the Kingston be the winner of the three? As it turns out... no. This was the only one of the three cards that Windows 7 would not let me use for ReadyBoost. Since it's a Class 4 card we should see a minimum performance of 4 MB/s for both reading and writing on a new card. Well, we easily got that but we assumed that going in. Looking at the benchmarks below we see a 20 MB/s sequential read speed and about the same for 512k random reads, which are moderately fast. We also see 5 MB/s sequential write speeds which falls well within the class 4 specification.
 
Random 512k and 4k writes are slow like they are with most cards, but the 4k write speeds in particular were abysmal. Yes, that's the correct amount of zeros, I ran the test three times (0.007, 0.006 and 0.007). You're probably not going to do a whole lot of random 4k writes so that's probably the least important of the tests, but it's also the one that was drastically and substantially different from either of the other cards (0.964 for the Patriot and 0.604 for the Mushkin). Benchmarks were taken using CrystalDiskMark 3.0.1c at the default settings.
 
Seq Read: 20.04 MB/s
Seq Write: 5.034 MB/s
512k Read: 19.59 MB/s
512k Write: 0.788 MB/s
4k Read: 3.292 MB/s
4k Write: 0.007 MB/s

 
Overall the Kingston 16GB microSDHC Card is pretty average; it works well enough in the generic tablet and is fast enough for normal use. However it loses points for having a 4k random write speed that was 100 times slower than the other cards, not including an SD adapter, and not including a protective case. Both of the other cards included these two small bonus items for the same price and managed to give us a faster card as well.
 
While this card isn't terrible, I would avoid it in favor of either of the other cards. Out of the two remaining cards, I would recommend the Patriot because it had significantly faster write speeds across the board and also had the largest formatted capacity out of the three cards to make it the clear winner.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Mushkin 16GB Class 4 microSDHC Card

Rating: 3 out of 5
Pros: Can record HD video. Comes with an SD adapter and a really handy carrying case
Cons: Average speeds; you can do better for the same price unless this is on sale

I picked up a couple of different brands of 16GB microSDHC cards for my nieces' generic Android tablets. Since they each got one, I figured I would be clever and get two different brands of cards so that I could compare them and see which was better. The cards I got were a Kingston 16GB microSDHC Card (SDC4/16GBSP) and this Mushkin 16GB microSDHC (MKNUSDHCC4-16GB) Card. I also previously reviewed a Patriot Signature Line 16GB microSDHC Card (PSF16GMCSDHC43P) that I picked up for a Motorola DROID 4 Phone, so that gives me a good variety of similar cards from different manufacturers.
 
All three cards are 16GB in size, they are all microSDHC and they are all Class 4 cards. Having similar sizes and speed ratings, you would think that they were all pretty comparable... but you would be mistaken as one of these cards is ahead of the others by leaps and bounds when it comes to performance. This review will focus particularly on the Mushkin 16GB microSD Card, though I will poke at the others for the sake of comparison.
 
First of all, the Mushkin card arrived in a nice blister pack. Opening it up I was presented with a familiar plastic case 2" wide by 1.5" tall plastic case containing the microSDHC card itself, as well as an SD adapter so that I could use the card in a regular SD card slot. I don't care if every one of my cards comes with an adapter, but it's sure convenient to have at least one on hand so any time a card does come with one is an added bonus.
 
The transparent plastic case is also pretty nice; it's fairly sturdy and has a latch on the right-hand side to make sure it stays closed and your precious cards don't come tumbling out and get lost. There are form-fitted notches inside the case that both the card and the adapter sit into so they're also not banging around inside the case. The adapter simply says "microSD Adapter" on it and is otherwise plain black, and features the standard write protect locking lever on the left hand side to prevent overwriting data. The card itself has the Mushkin brand name, microSDHC and 16GB written on it but is otherwise plain black as well. Both pieces have the standard notch in the top left corner to prevent them being inserted upside down or otherwise incorrectly.
 
Being a Class 4 card, this card should adhere to a minimum 4 MB/s speed for both reading and writing on a new empty card. This coincides with the sequential speed test in the below benchmarks. Your data will not always be written and read in order from a fresh card though, so I also find it important to check out the random speeds for 512k and 4k chunks of data to get an overall picture of how the card will perform for me.
 
The Mushkin 16GB microSDHC card comes preformatted with the FAT32 filesystem and has a total capacity of 15,464,398,848 bytes (14.4 GB). Windows 7 offered to let me use it for the Windows ReadyBoost feature; while that's not really useful these days with the price of RAM being so low, it at least tells me that the card meets the minimum speed requirements to be used as such. I've used Mushkin memory modules in the past and was happy with them, so I had high hopes for this card.
 
Benchmarking was done using CrystalDiskMark 3.0.1c using the default settings. Interpreting the results we see that the sequential read speed and random 512k read speeds were good, which is to be expected. The sequential write speed was well over the 4 MB/s minimum as well, but the random 512k and 4k writes were average to slow. The Kingston card I picked up at the same time for the same price was pretty comparable across the board, but it had random 4k write speeds much slower (0.07 MB/s). On the other hand, the Patriot card had significantly faster write speeds across the board for the same price... as well as a larger total formatted capacity (14.9 GB as opposed to 14.4 GB).
 
Seq Read: 20.03 MB/s
Seq Write: 5.100 MB/s
512k Read: 19.26 MB/s
512k Write: 0.854 MB/s
4k Read: 3.713 MB/s
4k Write: 0.604 MB/s

 
It's not that this card is slow, it does fall within the SD Association Class 4 speed range, it's just that the Patriot card I had before was so much faster and identically priced. This card is perfectly average in every way and should work well in any device that requires a Class 4 card. It works well in the tablet and would work similarly well in a phone or camera, and is fast enough to write a streaming HD video recording from your device.
 
However, if you don't find it on sale somewhere I'd suggest picking up the Patriot card instead since it has significantly faster write speeds for the same price.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Silicon Power 32GB Class 10 microSDHC Card

Rating: 3 out of 5
Pros: Large capacity, good price, fast enough to record HD video from the phone
Cons: Comparable speeds to the Patriot class 4 card in my brother's phone

Since we had our son in May my fiancee has been taking loads and loads of pictures with her phone and quickly filled up the 8GB memory card she had. I decided that we would just skip getting a 16GB memory card upgrade and go straight for the 32GB card, which is the maximum amount officially supported by the Motorola DROID 4. I heard some people had luck with 64GB microSDXC cards if they were reformatted, but I didn't want to chance it. 

Newegg had a couple of cards in one of the email newsletters that week; one was a Team Group class 4 card for $16 and the other was a class 10 card from Silicon Power for $20. I have one USB flash drive from each company on my desk and I was unhappy with the speeds of both, so I decided to get the class 10 card for the extra $4. I figured if the speeds weren't up to par, they would still be good enough if I purchased the faster card to start with.
 
The card is a microSDHC card and comes with a microSD to SD adapter so that you can use it in things like laptops and printers that may have an SD card reader built in but not a microSD one. I do have a USB card reader that will take either one, but the old laptop we have will only take full size SD cards so it was nice that they included this. This also makes it possible to use the card in devices like cameras that take full size SD cards in the first place.
 
This Silicon Power microSDHC card comes pre-formatted with the FAT32 file system and has a total capacity of 31,902,400,512 bytes (29.7GB). It is a solid black, standard sized card (about 15mm long, 11mm wide and 1mm thick). It also has the standard notch on the right side so that it can't be inserted upside down. The included SD adapter is also notched for correct insertion and features the normal write-lock switch that you can slide down to make the card read-only until you slide it back up.
 
This card is designed for high-speed continuous shooting capability, and the class 10 speed rating means the card should write at a minimum speed of 10MB/s. Benchmarks were taken using CrystalDiskMark 3.0.1c at the default settings. As we can see this card just meets the class 10 requirements for writing sequential and 512k random chunks of data. Good enough to write HD video streaming from the phone's camera anyway.
 
Sequential Read: 20.03 MB/s
Sequential Write: 11.90 MB/s
512k Random Read: 19.69 MB/s
512k Random Write: 11.38 MB/s
4k Random Read: 3.384 MB/s
4k Random Write: 1.321 MB/s

 
It's not a bad card and it does work well in the phone, but I'm a bit disappointed overall that the speeds aren't a bit higher considering it's a class 10 card. This class 10 card is comparable across the board to the 16GB class 4 Patriot Signature card that we picked up for my brother's phone; a little faster in a couple of the tests and a little slower in a couple others. It is fast enough that Windows offered to let me use it for Windows ReadyBoost when I inserted the card reader with the card in it.
 
The cards are RoHS compliant and fully compatible with the SD 2.0 standard. They have built in Error Correcting Code (ECC) and are rated for a minimum of 10,0000 insertions. They can be used in an operating temperature of 0ºC to 70ºC, and stored in temperatures ranging from -25ºC to 85ºC at between 8% and 95% humidity. These cards are assembled in Taiwan and feature a lifetime warranty. I'm fairly happy with the card in general, but I wish it was a little faster since it's barely an improvement over the class 4 card from Patriot. Three stars.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Silicon Power Blaze B10 16GB USB 3.0 Flash Drive




Rating: 1 out of 5
Pros: Cheap, decent capacity
Cons: Inexcusable, abysmal speed. Thin and brittle plastic housing

I picked up this Silicon Power Blaze B10 16GB Flash Drive on Newegg during one of their Shell Shocker deals for $10.99 with free shipping. It seemed like a pretty good price for a USB 3.0 flash drive to me, and all of my other flash drives were only USB 2.0. Only two of the computers in the house support USB 3.0, but I figured when I needed to copy stuff to or from one of those computers this would be a lot faster than using one of the USB 2.0 drives so I really wanted to pick one up. Since this one was a good price, I decided to give it a shot even though I had no experience with Silicon Power products in the past.
 
It's a pretty standard sized flash drive, measuring just under .5" thick, .75" wide and 3" long. It feels like it is made out of really cheap, thin plastic and has a cap that could be easily lost. It has rounded corners and a hole for a lanyard or key chain on the end of it. The USB plug itself is blue instead of black because this is a USB 3.0 drive, which is nice because if I forget which drive was the fast one I could tell at a glance (not withstanding the fact that it says 16GB_3.0 on the front).
 
The whole drive is black except for the "futuristic geometric pattern" which is really just a series of angled lines. These lines are mostly Turkey Blue in color when the drive is cool, and they turn Blaze Red when the drive warms up for any reason (contact with skin, normal operating, getting placed in the heat). It doesn't take a whole lot of temperature to make it turn colors, and in fact it has sat here red most of the time on my desk because of the 90ºF temperatures lately. The activity LED is also red, which is only noteworthy because I think the LED in every other flash drive I have is blue.
 
The drive comes formatted with the FAT32 file system and has a capacity of 15,502,147,584 bytes (14.4GB). It's fast enough to be used by Windows ReadyBoost even when plugged into a USB 2.0 port. These benchmarks were taken using CrystalDiskMark 3.0.1c and the default settings. As you can see from the following benchmark the USB 2.0 performance is pretty good when it comes to reading data, but the write speed is abysmal and very disappointing.
 
USB 2.0
 
Seq Read: 34.73MB/s
Seq Write: 20.78MB/s
512k Read: 33.98MB/s
512k Write: 3.600MB/s
4k Read: 5.287MB/s
4k Write: 0.179MB/s

 
Well it can only get better by plugging it into a USB 3.0 port right? That's the whole reason I picked this particular drive up anyway, so lets give it a shot. If it's fast with USB 3.0 then I'll be happy with the drive for this price and it should serve its purpose well. The drive advertises up to 70MB/s read speed and up to 20MB/s write speed, so let's see how it fares.
 
USB 3.0
 
Seq Read: 43.77MB/s
Seq Write: 20.69MB/s
512k Read: 42.43MB/s
512k Write: 3.555MB/s
4k Read: 7.001MB/s
4k Write: 0.150MB/s

 
What?! Yep, I had to verify that it was indeed plugged into one of the USB 3.0 ports and then I had to run the test a couple more times just to make sure. It's just nowhere near the speed it should be, and in fact is the slowest flash drive I've tested to date. Absolutely horrible speed all around, except in the sequential read and write tests where it had an average score. The sequential speeds are the least important too, as it's not often all of your data is going to line up sequentially so you're much more likely to get speeds closer to the random 512k or 4k random speeds on average.
 
So what can I say about the Silicon Power Blaze B10? Stay away. Even for the low price tag I picked it up for during Newegg's Shell Shocker deal it was absolutely not worth it. What possible purpose could you have in picking up a USB 3.0 drive that is slower than most USB 2.0 drives? Sad and disappointed is what I am; this flash drive gets a 1-star rating from me and I don't recommend it to anyone for any purpose.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

AMD FX-4100 3.6GHz (3.8GHz Turbo) Quad-Core Processor

Rating: 4 out of 5
Pros: Good performance for the price. Overclocks well (and easily due to the unlocked multiplier)
Cons: Not a "true" quad-core. Won't be setting any speed records

This build:
 

AMD FX-4100 Quad-Core Processor
ASUS DRW-24B1ST DVD Burner
Cooler Master GX-450 Power Supply
G.SKILL Ripjaws X Series 16GB DDR3 1600
Gigabyte GA-970A-D3 Motherboard
MSI Radeon HD 6450 1GB Video Card
Rosewill Challenger Gaming Case
Rosewill 40-in-1 Internal Card Reader
Samsung Spinpoint F4 EcoGreen 2TB Hard Drive
Zalman N Series 2.5" Solid-State Drive

 
This was a $500 budget PC build where the goal was to make it remain a viable everyday system for the next few years. It wasn't going to be used for much in the way of gaming, but it was going to run 24/7 and get quite a workout with other applications. The main steps were to grab a lot of memory and a quad-core processor that ran at a decent speed, and the AMD FX-4100 seemed to fit the bill nicely. Not only does it run stock at 3.6GHz, but it the turbo mode would automatically bump it to 3.8GHz when it wasn't utilizing all of the processor cores.
 
AMD's FX-4100 is a quad-core processor, but not in the strictest sense of the word. Instead of four physical cores, the processor has two physical "modules" that each contain two arithmetic logic units and two address generation units. Each module contains 2MB of L2 cache and there is a further 8MB of L3 cache shared between them. It has support for normal instruction set extensions such as MMX, SSE and 3DNow!; in addition it has support for newer extensions like AVX, SSE4.1, SSE4.2, AES, CLMUL, XOP, FMA4 and CVT16.
 
The "Bulldozer"-based FX-4100 is manufactured using a 32nm High-K Metal-Gate silicon-on-insulator process, and has a thermal design power of 95W. It has native support for DDR3 memory as fast as 1866MHz and features Hyper Transport v3.1. It uses the 942-pin Socket AM3+ CPU socket, which is also backwards compatible with AM3 processors like the Athlon II and Phenom II. Some AM3 motherboards may support the new AM3+ socket wit ha BIOS update if the manufacturer decides to implement it, but it's not officially supported by AMD so your mileage may vary.
 
The processor cost $95 with a promo code from Newegg, which wasn't too bad. I could have used an FX-4170 for about $25 more, but I decided against that for one main reason. While the FX-4170 is faster (4.2GHz, 4.3GHz Turbo), it's only because of an increased multiplier. Since the FX-4100 has an unlocked multiplier, you can just pop into the system BIOS and increase it yourself to get the speed benefit for the lower price. A quick bump from 3.6GHz to 4.2GHz in the BIOS takes about 15 seconds to change the multiplier from 18x to 21x, and it runs perfectly with the stock heatsink and fan using stock voltage (at least for me -- due to subtle differences, your mileage may vary).
 
For about $30 we could have jumped to the FX-6100, which is a six-core processor that runs at 3.3GHz. Unfortunately, most of the applications being used on the system wouldn't benefit much (if at all) from having six cores instead of four. On top of that, the lower clock speed would be detrimental and it would be a slower processor overall for what it was going to be used for. Skipping this one was a no-brainer. The FX-6200 seemed to be about the next "upgrade", with a six-core processor clocked at 3.8GHz (4.1GHz Turbo). It did cost an extra $60 or so though, and the only real upgrade part would be the two extra cores that wouldn't be utilized very well in this system.
 
As for Intel processors, the i3-2100 is comparable to the FX-4100 for the most part -- but it would have cost an extra $25 as well. The i5-2500 would be a big upgrade over the FX-4100, but it was more than double the price. Since this was a budget build, we decided that the FX-4100 seemed to hit the sweet spot of value for cost while still fitting into the overall system budget. Due to the way Windows 7 schedules tasks for processors, the dual "module" design isn't as effective as it could be. Installing a couple of hotfixes from Microsoft will help to mitigate some of this performance degradation (KB2645594 and KB2646060). Windows 8 has already addressed these issues and has further scheduling improvements to help even more.
 
Installation was easy; line up the arrow on the processor with the arrow on the CPU socket, gently place the processor in the socket and then pull the socket lever down to hold it in place. The heatsink and fan installed cleanly too; we just used the pre-applied thermal pad for this build. Set the heatsink on the processor, hook one clip over one side and the other clip over the other side. Make sure it's pretty straight, and pull the retaining lever back. Not really much to it.
 
Since this system was going to be used more for applications than for gaming, we decided to pair this processor with 16GB of DDR3-1600 RAM. We also installed an inexpensive ($15) video card for good measure, as this provided some additional video memory, processing and an HDMI output. The GA-970A-D3 motherboard was decently priced at $80 and provided USB 3.0 support, four memory slots, six SATA 6.0GB/s ports and plenty of expansion slots for future use. The goal here was to make this PC reliably and realistically last for at least 5 years for moderate to heavy application usage without having to worry about it being totally obsolete and useless.

Overall this is a great budget processor, regardless of the application. If you have more money to spend, by all means pick up an i5-2500k or something, otherwise the FX-4100 is a safe bet that has decent performance for a really good price. The fact that it has a lot of overclocking potential is just icing on the cake that will give you even more bang for the buck.

At stock speeds this processor achieved a Windows Experience Index rating of 7.2. You can hear the stock fan but it's not too loud, and it keeps the CPU at about 33ºC at idle and up to 51ºC while stress testing with Prime95. I realistically don't see any reason for more processor power than this for this computer in the foreseeable future, so this was a great choice for the processor; it runs everything thrown at it with no trouble. I took the liberty of running a few benchmarks at stock 3.6GHz speeds; the results are below.

SiSoft Sandra Lite 2012.SP5a
 

Aggregate Native Performance: 39.14 GOPS
Dhrystone Integer Native SSE4.2: 47.77 GIPS
Whetstone Double Native SSE3: 32 GFLOPS
 
Aggregate Multi-Media Native Performance: 107.92 MPix/s
Multi-Media Integer Native x16 AVX: 127.86 MPix/s
Multi-Media Float Native x16 FMA4: 91.08 MPix/s
Multi-Media Double Native x8 FMA4: 49.47 MPix/s
Multi-Media Float/Double Native x8 FMA4: 67.12 MPix/s
 
Cryptographic Bandwidth: 1.63 GB/s
Encryption/Decryption Bandwidth AES256-ECB AES: 4 GB/s
Hashing Bandwidth SHA2-256 AVX: 679 MB/s
 
Inter-Core Bandwidth: 7 GB/s
Inter-Core Latency: 118.3 ns
 
ALU Power Efficiency: 10.12 GIPS
Power Efficiency: 5.30
 
PassMark PerformanceTest 7.0
 

CPU Mark: 4392.9
Integer Math: 840.2
Floating Point Math: 2751.1
Find Prime Numbers: 1182.5
SSE: 15.9
Compression: 5357.8
Encryption: 15.7
Physics: 278.1
String Sorting: 3391.3
 
Hyper PI 0.99b
 

Test: 1M
Instances: 4
Best Time: 27.487s
Worst Time: 27.862s
Average: 27.662s

Zalman N-Series 64GB SSD

Rating: 4 out of 5
Pros: SandForce controller, decent performance; mail-in-rebate made for an outstanding deal
Cons: "Decent" performance, not a whole lot of capacity

When I assembled this last budget computer build I hadn't planned on including a solid-state drive. They do cost quite a bit and you don't get a whole lot of storage capacity for the price compared to conventional platter-based hard drives. However, after picking up all of the parts necessary there was about $45 left in the budget, and Newegg happened to have a good deal on a solid-state drive that could be picked up and still keep us under budget.

This build:
AMD FX-4100 Quad-Core Processor
ASUS DRW-24B1ST DVD Burner
Cooler Master GX-450 Power Supply
G.SKILL Ripjaws X Series 16GB DDR3 1600
Gigabyte GA-970A-D3 Motherboard
MSI Radeon HD 6450 1GB Video Card
Rosewill Challenger Gaming Case
Rosewill 40-in-1 Internal Card Reader
Samsung Spinpoint F4 EcoGreen 2TB Hard Drive
Zalman N Series 2.5" Solid-State Drive


The price of the Zalman N-Series 64GB Solid-State Drive was cut down to $79.99, and then there was a $40 mail-in-rebate on top of that bringing the total cost down to $39.99. For forty bucks I couldn't think of a good reason not to grab the drive, so it got added to the build at the last minute. I'm pretty happy with the results.
 
This is a standard 2.5" SATA II solid-state drive. It supports the Windows 7 TRIM command and is optimized for AHCI mode. The drive features the SandForce SF-1222 controller and advertises 280MB/s read speeds and 270MB/s write speeds, which were faster than the other Zalman S Series solid-state drive that was on sale for the same price. It features built-in ECC and wear-leveling technology and is fast, silent and resistant to damage from jarring because it has no moving parts.
 
I was actually kind of surprised when it arrived since it came via the postal service in a lightly padded manila envelope. I actually thought it was another flash drive that I ordered at the same time because I'm used to my hard drives arriving in big plastic clam-shell packages wrapped in bubble wrap and stuck in a box surrounded by crumpled paper or other packing materials. Even the little retail box inside the envelope felt cheap and was made of thin cardboard.
 
The tiny drive is really light, weighing just a few ounces. It appears to be made of aluminum and has an attractive dark, brushed metal appearance. While the drive did come with 4 small screws for installation, it did not come with an SATA cable so you'll have to pick one up separately if necessary. The motherboard we picked up only included 2 SATA cables, which we used for the DVD burner and the 2GB conventional hard drive, we had to use a spare to complete the installation. Luckily I have piles of things like that lying around that were extras from previous builds, so I just used one of those.
 
The Rosewill Challenger case that we used also came with a plastic 3.5" to 2.5" adapter, and we made use of that to install this drive into a standard 3.5" hard drive bay. Most cases do not include such things and one is not supplied with the drive, so make sure to pick one up if required. This will not be an issue with laptops or netbooks because they use 2.5" hard drives to start with. The shock resistance of the solid-state drive is of even more benefit in a mobile computing platform, as you're less likely to damage the drive if the laptop gets tossed around in your bag or knocked off of a table.
 
Installation was easy enough; I just set the drive onto the adapter and inserted the four screws into the bottom. After that I attached the drive rails to the sides of the adapter and slid it into an open 3.5" drive bay. You may have four more screws to use instead to attach the adapter to the drive bay, or even small clips or some other type of tool-less installation in your case, but it's all about the same and it takes very little time or effort. The final part of the installation was plugging in an SATA power connector and then running an SATA cable from the drive to an available SATA port on the motherboard.
 
Keep in mind that the rated read and write speeds are best-case scenarios under ideal conditions. The actual numbers are going to vary drastically depending on the other components in the computer and it's setup. To benchmark the performance of this drive I used CrystalDiskMark with a 5x 1000MB test, and AS SSD. AHCI is enabled in the BIOS and Windows 7 is using the AMD_SATA driver. Here are the results:
 
CrystalDiskMark 3.0.1c
 
Seq Read: 191.8MB/s
Seq Write: 66.56MB/s
512k Read: 180.0MB/s
512k Write: 65.67MB/s
4k Read: 18.6MB/s
4k Write: 64.67MB/s

 
AS SSD 1.6.4237.30508
 
Seq Read: 194.48MB/s
Seq Write: 58.17MB/s
4k Read: 16.10MB/s
4k Write: 43.37MB/s
4k-64Thrd Read: 97.86MB/s
4k-64Thrd Write: 59.15
Read Access Time: 0.231ms
Write Access Time: 0.294ms
Read Score: 133
Write Score: 108
Overall Score: 310


Not terrible, but also not spectacular and certainly nowhere in the same ballpark as what is advertised. That seems to be about par for the course these days though, with manufacturer's claims for all sorts of products bordering on false advertising. I'm still pretty happy with the drive though and it's significantly faster and more responsive than a conventional hard drive. If you've got the big bucks to spare on a larger, faster drive then by all means get one; otherwise this is a solid choice.
 
I didn't time the installation of Windows 7, but it was noticably faster than installing to a conventional hard drive. After it was completed, the drive showed a 55.8GB total capacity (60,019,437,568 bytes). You'll notice that this is about 4GB shy of what it should be, and this is because solid-state drives keep a small amount of capacity set aside for wear-leveling to ensure that your drive remains functional for as long as possible. This particular drive is rated for 5000 program/erase cycles and should last the average person for many years.
 
The computer starts up much faster and shuts down much fast. In addition, the computer comes out of hibernation mode almost instantly which is a drastic improvment over conventional hard drives. Usually I turn off hibernation mode because I'm too impatient to wait 10 or 15 seconds for it to get back to normal, but with this SSD I'm presented with the Windows login screen almost instantly when I press the power button. The fact that this makes it worth using hibernation mode for me means some sort of savings to the electric bill in addition to the savings attributed to using the SSD over a conventional hard drive in the first place.
 
This ROHS compliant drive uses MLC NAND flash and has a 1,000,000 hour MTBF (Mean Time Between Failures). It has a standard operating temperature of 0ºC to 70ºC and a storage temperature of -40ºC to 85ºC. It is made in Taiwan and is backed up by a 3 year limited warranty. I certainly recommend picking up a solid-state drive, at least for your main Operating System drive, and this is a good one for the price.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Rosewill Challenger Gaming Case


Rating: 5 out of 5
Pros: Screw-less design, included 2.5"-3.5" adapter, lots of cooling options and included fans
Cons: None really... maybe one motherboard screw location requiring a short screwdriver

On paper the Rosewill Challenger Gaming Case looked pretty good and seemed to have all of the features I required, as well as some that I considered to be bonuses. After finding it on sale for $29.99 shipped to the door I decided to give it a shot for a computer I was assembling for my mother instead of using the Antec 300 that I normally use for builds. It turned out to be a really nice budget case that was pleasant to work with so I will probably use again in the future.

This build:

AMD FX-4100 Quad-Core Processor
ASUS DRW-24B1ST DVD Burner
Cooler Master GX-450 Power Supply
G.SKILL Ripjaws X Series 16GB DDR3 1600
Gigabyte GA-970A-D3 Motherboard
MSI Radeon HD 6450 1GB Video Card
Rosewill Challenger Gaming Case
Rosewill 40-in-1 Internal Card Reader
Samsung Spinpoint F4 EcoGreen 2TB Hard Drive
Zalman N Series 2.5" Solid-State Drive 


The Rosewill Challenger Gaming Case measures about 7.48" wide, 17.08" tall, 18.5" deep and weighs 12.76 pounds. This makes it a mid-tower case, and it will accept full size ATX motherboards as well as MicroATX boards. The box comes with a small 9 page user manual that has installation instructions with some pretty nice diagrams, and it's actually written in English that can be understood (which is rare these days). The case is backed up by a 1 year limited warranty.

The case is a nice flat black color that does not retain fingerprints. The paint is good and not easily rubbed or scratched off, which is always a plus. The main body of the case is made of SECC steel and the front bezel is made of black plastic. It features two USB 2.0 ports, an eSATA port and audio input/output ports in the front of the case for easy access. As for drive bays, it has three 5.25" drive bays for things like DVD burners, two external 3.5" drive bays for things like floppy drives or card readers, and five more internal 3.5" bays for hard drives. Seven expansion slots in the back round out the expansion capabilities of this case.
 
The Challenger comes with three fans preinstalled. This includes a 120mm rear exhaust fan, a 140mm top exhaust fan, and a 120mm fan in the front to pull air across the hard drives and through the case. The front fan also lights up with blue LEDs, and while it does put off quite a bit of light at least it's not glaringly bright. I figured that worst case scenario I would just swap it with the rear fan if it was too bright because the light in the back wouldn't be as bothersome, but it hasn't been necessary. The rear fan has a regular 3-pin fan connector, while the front and top fans both have 4-pin molex connectors with pass-throughs. There are also mounting holes for two more 120mm fans in the side panel if you decide you want to install more in the future.
 
The power supply is mounted in the bottom of this case instead of in the top, which is one feature I really like in a case because it helps the case remain stable by lowering the center of gravity. There is some type of felt padding around the power supply area to help isolate it, and while it's a nice feature it was just far enough off that it was halfway covering a couple of the power supply screw holes. It wasn't a big deal though as the screws still went in just fine. The power supply can also be mounted either direction, and the bottom of the case has a filtered air hole if you chose to install it with the fan facing down. I chose to install mine with the fan facing up, but if you install it the other way make sure it's on a flat level surface and clean the filter regularly though so that it doesn't get too hot.
 
The front of the case is made of a steel mesh (with dust filters) to help with case cooling, which is pretty common these days. What isn't so common is the rear expansion slot covers also being made of mesh. This was especially nice since I bought some SilverStone Aero Slot covers for an earlier build and they were $10 for a package of four. I wasn't planning on getting any for this build, but if I had this would have saved me the $10. One final thing I want to mention about cooling is the fact that the case has two holes pre-cut in the rear of the case at the top for water cooling piping.
 
There is no removable motherboard tray, but there is a big cutout so that you can get to the back of the motherboard under the processor for some kinds of processor cooling options. The Challenger also features a screw-less design for securing drives, which I always find handy. This includes the use small pieces with pegs for the 5.25" drives and drive rails for internal hard drives. The internal hard drive area is set sideways so that the drives face one side of the case or the other instead of facing backward towards the motherboard, which makes it more convenient for working with the cables and connectors.
 
The drive rails are nice too because they can be reversed so that you can install the hard drives in either direction; it just requires popping the pegs out and moving them to a different hole in the rail and then it fits in there facing the other direction. By default the drive rails let you install the drives facing towards the right, but I chose to switch them so that they face the same way as everything else in the case so that I only have to remove one side panel to access most things. Otherwise I would have to take off the right side to access the hard drive connectors and the other side to get to the motherboard, which just seems like extra work to me.
 
Surprisingly the case actually came with 10 drive rails, which is enough to fill all five of the internal 3.5" bays. It also came with a plastic 3.5" to 2.5" adapter, which allows you to install two 2.5" solid-state drives or hard drives into a single internal 3.5" bay. I made use of this to install the single solid-state drive that was going into this system, and it worked well.
 
Despite the screw-less design, the Challenger came with plenty of screws for the motherboard, hard drives and optical drives; it also came with enough motherboard standoffs to mount a full size ATX motherboard with a couple to spare, which is always nice. The standoffs went in fine, but I had to screw a couple of them in with my needle-nose pliers because there was a tiny bit of the interior black paint in the screw holes that made them tough to insert by hand. They went in smooth with the pliers though (or a small nut driver).
 
The only other issue I had with the case was putting the middle screw in the top of the motherboard. The hole was very close to the top of the case, and the edge of the case where the side panel slides into was in the way just enough that I couldn't get my regular screw driver in there straight enough to insert the screw. I tried removing the 140mm fan hoping that it would give me enough clearance, but it was still a no-go so I put it back in place and dug out a shorter screw driver. Not a real problem, but just slightly annoying.
 
The cables from the front of the case for the USB, eSATA, audio and the lights/switches were all plenty long enough to reach anywhere in the case. There is no case speaker mounted in the case, but it did come with a nickel-sized speaker attached to wires that you can just plug into the motherboard and let it hang there. Looks like it will work just fine, and certainly better than the non-existent case speaker in my Antec 300 case.
 
The case has a lot of features, is sturdy, solid and well designed. It was really a pleasure to work with and makes for an easy recommendation, especially for such an inexpensive price tag.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Kingston 16GB DataTraveler Micro

Rating: 4 out of 5
Pros: Tiny, inexpensive, large capacity, 5 year guarantee
Cons: Speeds slightly on the slow side of average. Cap is real easy to lose

I hate listening to the radio because there are usually more commercials and talking on than there are songs. Likewise I'm not a big fan of carrying piles of CDs around in the car because they get repetitive pretty quickly and it's annoying to have to dig through them to change them out constantly. This is why we picked up a stereo unit for the car that had a USB port and had MP3 support -- so that I could take all of my music from my computer at home and listen to it in the car.
 
I put my 8GB Corsair Flash Voyager in the car for a while with the music on it, but since it's a full sized flash drive it stuck out the front of the radio quite a bit and occasionally got in the way if the passenger was trying to use the radio controls to skip a song or adjust the volume. I decided the best solution would be to buy a micro flash drive that barely stuck out of the USB port; at $9.99 the Kingston DataTraveler Micro was the least expensive flash drive on NewEgg that met all of my requirements at the time.
 
Granted this is a 16GB flash drive and I don't even have a fraction of that much music, but I really had to take the size per cost ratio into account. If I could get 16GB for $10 or 8GB for $6, I figured it would be worth the few extra dollars to have the extra space available. This way if I'm gone somewhere and wish I had a flash drive on me I can always grab it out of the car and throw some extra stuff on it until I get home.
 
This thing is 1" long, .25" tall and just over .5" wide. When you remove the cap and plug it in, only about .3" sticks out of the USB port which made this absolutely great for what I wanted it for. It would also be terrific for things like laptop or netbook computers because you can just leave it in all the time, and due to it's small size it won't get in your way. The only issue may be that it's so easy to lose if you do remove it -- or easily misplacing the removable cap if you leave it plugged in all the time.
 
The DataTraveler Micro is an azure blue color (it also comes in black) with very little in the way of markings. The drive itself only has a tiny "16GB" label on the far left, while the cap says "DT Micro" in white and has "Kingston" engraved in the same blue color on the top. The drive portion has a tiny part that sticks out on the left with a hole through the corner so that you can insert a lanyard, though it did not come with one in the package. It's worth noting that the flash drive is quite snug in the USB port, more than most of my other USB devices. Not so much that you're worried about it, but it's a noticeable amount. Personally I'm glad since this is going to stay in my car stereo pretty much forever, I don't have to worry about it slowly getting worked lose.
 
The flash drive comes formatted with the FAT32 file system and has a capacity of 15,716,286,464 bytes (14.6GB). Benchmarking of this drive was done with CrystalDiskMark 3.0.1c, using the default settings. Keeping in mind that this is a USB 2.0 drive, the results show pretty average speeds across the board (though my Corsair Flash Voyager reads significantly faster).
 
Sequential Read: 18.91 MB/s
Sequential Write: 16.57 MB/s
512k Random Read: 18.95 MB/s
512k Random Write: 7.68 MB/s
4k Random Read: 2.563 MB/s
4k Random Write: 0.993 MB/s

 
The Kingston DataTraveler Micro is a Plug & Play drive that works out of the box in Windows 7/Vista/XP, Mac OS X 10.5+ and Linux v2.6+. It is designed to operate in temperatures ranging from 32ºF to 140ºF and be stored in temperatures ranging from -4ºF to 185ºF. This product was assembled in Taiwan and is backed by a pretty decent 5 year guarantee with free technical support.
 
I figure if you need something much bigger than 16GB you may as well get a USB 3.0 drive because the read and write speeds would make it take forever to use it to the fullest extent. If you're in the market for an inexpensive USB 2.0 drive I would certainly recommend this one though; it's really small, decent looking and it holds a lot.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Patriot Signature Line 16GB Class 4 microSDHC Card

Rating: 5 out of 5
Pros: Good speed and capacity. Comes with a case and SD adapter
Cons: None noticed

I've had good luck with sticks of RAM from Patriot Memory in the past, so when it came time to order a new microSD card (microSDHC in this case) I had no qualms about choosing this brand over Kingston or Corsair. Since this card is going into a cell phone (Motorola DROID 4) I wasn't too concerned about the speed rating, but reliability was important followed closely by pricing. Since this card was a little cheaper than the Kingston card I was comparing it with, I opted to pick this one up.
 
This card (model number PSF16GMCSDHC43P) is a 16 GB memory card. They do also make an 8 GB version as well as 4 GB and 32 GB versions in the Patriot Memory Signature Line of microSDHC cards. This 16 GB card comes pre-formatted with the FAT32 file system and a capacity of 16,002,318,336 bytes (14.9 GB).
 
This card being a microSD card is really small. Measuring only 15 mm long, 11 mm wide and 1 mm thick you can lose this thing easily. Thankfully this card came in a nice plastic case that measures 1.75" long by 2" wide by .25" thick. Also inside the case is a SD to microSD adapter which allows you to slide the microSD card into the bottom of it and use it just like a regular SD card. It's really nice to get the adapter free in the package because not all card readers will have microSD card slots (my USB card reader that I use with this computer has both, but the card reader in the other computer only has an SD slot). The adapter also has a standard write protection switch on the side. Both the card itself and the adapter have side-by-side notches inside the case to keep them held in place, and the case hinges open on one side and latches on the other.
 
The card is plain black without any unnecessary colorful designs or goofy patterns. Since the card is usually going to be stuck down inside a device most of the time, that's perfectly fine with me. It does have the brand name and capacity stamped on it in white though, along with the microSDHC logo. The card is also notched about half-way down the right side, helping to prevent it from being inserted upside down. I have seen one wedged into a card reader upside down before, and I don't know why they shoved it in so far because the thing broke apart pulling it back out, ruining the card.
 
This is a class 4 card which means it should sustain a minimum write speed of 4 MB/s. Some devices require higher speed classes to function properly, especially things like DSLR cameras and other devices that stream high quality video. As you can see from the following benchmarks this card is about triple that, but remember the 4 MB/s rating is a minimum speed. The following benchmarks were taken using CrystalDiskMark 3.0.1c:
 
Sequential Read: 16.97 MB/s
Sequential Write: 12.67 MB/s
512k Random Read: 18.84 MB/s
512k Random Write: 11.74 MB/s
4k Random Read: 3.807 MB/s
4k Random Write: 0.964 MB/s

 
The Patriot Signature Line 16 GB microSDHC card complies with SDA 2.0 specifications and is compatible with all microSDHC card readers. It has an operating temperature of -25ºC to 85ºC, and a storage temperature of -40ºC to 85ºC. This device is made in Taiwan and comes with a 5 year warranty.
 
Overall a good card, and it even comes with that SD adapter and a plastic carrying case -- all for a $10 price tag. The speed, capacity and quality are all good so I'm happy with this card. An easy recommendation unless your device requires something faster like a class 6 or class 10 card. One final note would be to make sure your device can handle SDHC cards, because some older devices can only handle regular SD and hot the High Capacity variant.

Update: Well, we had this in my brother's cell phone and he accidentally put it through an entire wash cycle and half of a dryer cycle. The phone was toast, but this microSDHC card still worked fine. Whether that can attributed to the phone design or the card is debatable, but hey, at least it worked!

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Samsung SpinPoint F3 Hard Drive

Rating: 5 out of 5
Pros: Fast, cool, quiet, reliable; good amount of space
Cons: A bit of a loud whirring sound during spin-up

Current System

AMD Athlon II X3 450 3.2GHz Processor
Antec 300 Case
ASUS DRW-24B1ST 24x DVD Burner
ASUS M4A87TD EVO AMD870 Motherboard
ASUS Radeon HD 6850 1GB Video Card
Corsair Builder Series CX600 PSU
G.SKILL Ripjaws X 8GB DDR3 1600 RAM
Samsung Spinpoint F3 1TB Hard Drive
Samsung Spinpoint F4 EcoGreen 2TB Hard Drive
Samsung SyncMaster 2333T 23" LCD Widescreen Monitor


When I built my current computer I installed this 1TB Samsung Spinpoint F3 SATA-II hard drive as the main system drive. The price per gigabyte of hard drive space made 1TB drives the best deal at the time, and it allowed me plenty of space to partition the drive to install Linux beside Windows. Since I also threw in 2TB Samsung Spinpoint F4 EcoGreen SATA-II hard drive for storage, I will be making comparisons between them for the benchmarks later in the review.
 
I ordered this drive as a bare OEM from Newegg.com like I do the vast majority of my computer related purchases. It came in a clear plastic case without an SATA cable, but this was expected and the motherboard came with cables to use anyway. I don't recall if the drive came with mounting screws or not, but I use the thumb screws that came with my case instead of normal mounting screws anyway. Many computers these days have some type of drive rail or latching system to eliminate the need for screws either way; your mileage may vary.
 
A hard drive is typically simple to install depending on how it's secured into your case. Usually it just slides into the hard drive bay, and you plop two screws in each side to hold it in place. If you have a drive rail system you just set one rail on each side of the drive so that the pegs sit into the hard drive's screw holes and then slide it into the hard drive bay until it clicks. One of the cases here even has black plastic pieces with wing nuts on them, and you slide the hard drive into the bay and then put the two pegs on the plastic piece into the screw holes and tighten the wing nut to hold the piece to the case. Your case should either be pretty obvious or come with instructions, but it shouldn't be difficult no matter how you slice it.
 
The 1TB Spinpoint F3 is a 2 platter hard drive with four read/write heads. It rotates at 7200 RPM with an average seek time of 8.9ms, an average latency of 4.17ms, and has a decent sized 32 MB cache. The total capacity of the drive is 931GB (1,000,097,181,696 bytes) when formatted with a single NTFS partition.
 
The Samsung Spinpoint F3 hard drive is a standard 3.5" desktop hard drive. While it does warm up a little, it doesn't get hot at all -- at least not in my case. I have a 120mm intake fan in the front of my case that sucks in air and blows it into the case across the hard drives.
 
It features the same SilentSeek and NoiseGuard technologies that the F4 EcoGreen uses to help keep the drive quiet during operation, and they seem to work pretty well. The drive doesn't make any more noise than the fans in my case, except when it's first spinning up. Then, you can hear an audible whirring sound until the drive gets up to speed; after that it's back to calm and quiet operation. The F4 EcoGreen does this as well, but it seems to do it more often because I use that as a storage and backup drive. Since the F3 is my main system drive it usually stays spun up most of the time and I completely forget about it.
 
I've had this Spinpoint F3 drive running in my computer nearly 24/7 for about 16 months now, and I've had absolutely no problems with it. I can easily see this thing outlasting the 3 year warranty from Samsung, which is great because a hard drive failure is one of the most annoying hardware problems to have due to the loss of data.
 
Benchmarking of this hard drive was done using DiskMark 1.0.0.7 from NetworkDLS. The first run was done with the default settings, using many runs with a fairly small set size to simulate copying multiple smaller files. This included 128 files of 64 KB each, and the test was ran 320 times for a total of 2.5 GB. The second run was done with a lot less runs, but a much larger set size to simulate copying a smaller number of much larger files. This included 128 files of 6.25 MB each, and ran 32 times for a total of 25 GB.
 
Hard Drive: Samsung Spinpoint F3 SATA-II (7200 RPM)
Allow Caching: No, Set Size: 64.00 KB, Rounds: 128, Per Set Size: 8.00 MB, Runs: 320, Total Set Size: 2.50 GB
Write Performance: Min: 59.37 MB/s, Max: 131.66 MB/s, Average: 127.63 MB/s
Read Performance: Min: 63.38 MB/s, Max: 153.97 MB/s, Average: 151.30 MB/s
 
Hard Drive: Samsung Spinpoint F3 SATA-II (7200 RPM)
Allow Caching: No, Set Size: 6.25 MB, Rounds: 128, Per Set Size: 800.00 MB, Runs: 32, Total Set Size: 25.00 GB
Write Performance: Min: 91.91 MB/s, Max: 120.07 MB/s, Average: 116.03 MB/s
Read Performance: Min: 112.78 MB/s, Max: 121.74 MB/s, Average: 120.15 MB/s

 
The same set of tests was then completed on my 2TB Samsung Spinpoint F4 EcoGreen SATA-II hard drive for comparison. The F4 EcoGreen is a 5400 RPM hard drive with Advanced Format 4096 byte sectors, while the F3 is a 7200 RPM drive with standard 512 byte sectors. Both drives were hooked up via SATA Rev 2.6.
 
Since both drives are Samsung Spinpoint drives, this should tell us a lot about how this drive compares to it's newer, larger cousin.
 
Hard Drive: Samsung Spinpoint F4 EcoGreen SATA-II (5400 RPM)
Allow Caching: No, Set Size: 64.00 KB, Rounds: 128, Per Set Size: 8.00 MB, Runs: 320, Total Set Size: 2.50 GB
Write Performance: Min: 98.68 MB/s, Max: 164.24 MB/s, Average: 153.68 MB/s
Read Performance: Min: 88.17 MB/s, Max: 174.24 MB/s, Average: 168.09 MB/s
 
Hard Drive: Samsung Spinpoint F4 EcoGreen SATA-II (5400 RPM)
Allow Caching: No, Set Size: 6.25 MB, Rounds: 128, Per Set Size: 800.00 MB, Runs: 32, Total Set Size: 25.00 GB
Write Performance: Min: 97.73 MB/s, Max: 101.70 MB/s, Average: 99.25 MB/s
Read Performance: Min: 99.17 MB/s, Max: 100.17 MB/s, Average: 99.79 MB/s

 
From the benchmarks we can see that this F3 isn't much different overall from the newer F4 EcoGreen. While the F3 was a little slower with small files, it was faster copying large files so it all came out in the wash overall. Each test was ran three times on each drive and the middle result was used.
 
Honestly this is probably the best hard drive I've owned. It's pretty fast and fairly quiet, doesn't get real hot and has been reliable. If you're not going with a solid-state drive then I suggest you give the Samsung Spinpoint F3 a shot. It's also available in a 500GB version, but the cost per gigabyte makes this 1TB drive more cost effective.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

SanDisk 2GB Cruzer Micro Flash Drive




Rating: 2 out of 5
Pros: Dependable, slider mechanism instead of a cap
Cons: Ridiculously slow speeds, U3 software auto-install

The 2GB SanDisk Cruzer Micro is a flash drive that I've owned for a long time. I've upgraded flash drives a few times since owning it, and it's currently still in perfect working order and in the possession of my fiancee who keeps her documents on it along with a lot of pictures. While I'm not a big fan of the drive, it has been dependable, so the main reason I upgraded was because of the size; 2GB was enough space when I originally purchased the drive, but as time went on I found myself needing more.
 
The total drive capacity is 2,047,442,944 bytes (1.90 GB), which is enough for somewhere around 500 photos taken with the Motorola DROID 4's camera). This has been plenty of space for her thus far, but now that we have a child she's quickly filling up that room with pictures of him so I will likely have to pick her up a larger drive in the near future.
 
The main design feature worth noting about the Cruzer Micro is the fact that it has a sliding mechanism on the top of the drive, and pushing this forward extends the device's USB port out of the plastic housing. Pushing the mechanism back retracts the USB port back inside, effectively eliminating the need for a cap that can be easily misplaced. While you can still get a little bit of dust inside the end, it really takes no time to blow it out once in a while and not have to worry about a cap.
 
The Cruzer Micro is black in color and measures about 2.5" long, just under 1" wide and about .25" thick. While the drive is made entirely of plastic and feels a bit like a toy, at least it's a decent quality toy because everything is tight and sturdy. The matte black finish doesn't collect fingerprints at all, though between the white sliding mechanism and all the printed text (brand, model, U3,, U3 Smart, FCC and CE markings, etc) the surface looks pretty noisy and busy. The sliding mechanism even has an obnoxious bright amber glow when the drive is plugged in. Sigh.
 
My Cruzer Micro came with a dark blue lanyard to hang the device around your neck or whatever. When I was the primary person using the device I used to hang it from a tack on the wall near my computer, but then I removed the lanyard entirely and opted to use the tiny keyring on the bottom of the drive instead.
 
The SanDisk Cruzer Micro is a pretty slow drive though. Check Flash 1.16.2 records this USB 2.0 flash drive having a read speed of only 17.45 MB/s, and an even slower write speed of 7.37 MB/s. It's a pretty dismal showing as far as performance goes, easily the slowest of any of my flash drives. Obviously this isn't going to work for Windows 7/Vista ReadyBoost, and even filling the drive up is going to be painful. Best used for a lot of small files that you don't need to copy back and forth all at once.
 
One last notable thing about the Cruzer Micro is the U3 software that comes installed on it. This creates a virtual CD drive with autorun that pops up a little icon in your system tray every time you insert the drive. This icon acts like a miniature start menu, allowing you easy access to any U3 portable programs you have installed on the drive. Not exactly what I wanted when I purchased the drive, but I thought it was a novel concept that was worth further experimentation.
 
The drive came with some synchronization program, Skype and some type of antivirus installed for the U3 platform by default. I chose to also install OpenOffice, Firefox, 7-Zip, Notepad++, VLC Media Player and a number of other programs that I thought I might use at different times. It sounded like it would be really handy sometimes, but I realized a couple months later that I hadn't used a single one of those U3 programs even once. I really only use programs on my own computers, and if I'm somewhere else with my flash drive I'm there to copy files back and forth and not use random programs just because I have them.
 
At least the software could be uninstalled with a utility on SanDisk's website, though it did require a reformat of the flash drive. The U3 software automatically installs itself on every Windows computer that you plug the drive into (it thankfully does nothing in Linux or on a Mac), and why they opted to make their software act like a trojan and go installing itself willy nilly is beyond my comprehension. At least a little "Would you like to install U3 software?" box would have been nice.
 
The Cruzer Micro is Plug & Play on Windows 2000+, and apparently also in Linux (tested various versions of Linux Mint, Ubuntu, and Debian over the years). It has a long-expired 2 year limited warranty and is made in China.
 
While the Cruzer Micro isn't a terrible drive, it's not something I would recommend. Between the U3 software and the ridiculously slow speed, there were much better options back when it was new. These days that goes doubly so, as you can pick up a 16 GB drive for around $10 or a 32 GB drive for around $20 online at retailers like Newegg.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Verizon 4G/LTE Motorola DROID 4


Rating: 4 out of 5
Pros: Wonderful physical keyboard, 4G/LTE, good performance
Cons: Slightly below average display, misrepresented storage capacity and no SD card included

Motorola DROID 4
 

We had a pair of the original Motorola DROID phones for a couple of years, and when our 2 year contract with Verizon was up we decided to pick up new phones. There were a few decent options to choose from like the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, the Motorola DROID RAZR MAXX or the HTC Rezound, but we really wanted to have a physical keyboard. We also really wanted the phones to support 4G/LTE even though it wasn't available here at the time (and still isn't available within an hour's drive in any direction).
 
That really left us with two options; either pick up the Samsung Stratosphere, or wait another month for the Motorola DROID 4 to be released. I did check out the Stratosphere, but it only had a slower single-core processor, about half the memory and ran an older version of Android. To the Stratosphere's credit though, it did have a Super AMOLED display which is much sharper and has much better contrast than the TFT LCD in the DROID 4. However, that one positive was not enough to outweigh everything else about the phone, so we waited another month and picked up the DROID 4 a month or so after it was released.
 
Verizon had the DROID 4 listed on their website for $149, but when we went up to the local brick and mortar store they were $199. They looked on Verizon's website and couldn't even find the $149 price at all, until I logged in and opened up the site on my original DROID and showed them. After a quick phone call they said they couldn't match the website's price, but they could cut it down to $169 and then give us a deal on any accessories we needed to help make up the difference. It ended up costing us a hair more, but not much, and we got our phones right away and didn't have to mess around any longer.
 
Setup
 
The first thing to mention was that the DROID 4 uses a micro SIM card now, where the original DROID did not, and this cost us an additional $3. The DROID 4 also did not come with an SD card for more storage, but I just had the guy at the store take the 16GB SD cards out of my original DROID phone and put it into the DROID 4. Taking the back cover off of the DROID 4 is a little bit annoying since you can't just slide the cover off like I could on the original DROID. Instead, the phone has a little hole in the top-right back of the phone and it comes with a little plastic "key" that you use to open it.
 
You press the key into the hole, and then you slide the cover down and pull it off. I was a little hesitant at first because it actually took quite a bit of pressure to open the back, and even then it didn't come off smoothly. It slid down a little bit and then kind of got stuck there hanging by the top right corner while I fought with it and wiggled it back and forth before it finally came off. Thankfully a paper clip works just as well, because that tiny little key is just a plastic tab with about a quarter inch tip protruding from the bottom. Small, easy to lose, and completely ridiculous.
 
Once the cover is off you'll notice that the battery is not replaceable. I knew this going in, but what a bummer it is! You can't carry an extra battery to swap out while traveling, you cant pull the battery if your phone locks up, and you can't buy an extended battery to get longer usage out of your phone. This, followed closely by the lack of a Super AMOLED display, would be the main downside to the phone.
 
You'll also notice a plastic decal stuck to the inside of the back cover with instructions on how to insert the micro SIM card to get started. This just involves lifting up a rubber grommet cover to access the card slots, and sliding the micro SIM card into place. You also need to lift this cover to access the micro SD card slot. Thankfully replacing the cover goes a lot more smoothly than removing it by just sitting the cover low on the back of the phone, making sure it's flush, and then pushing it up until it clicks into place.

Inside the box you'll find the phone itself, the little plastic key for the back cover and a charging USB cable and a wall plug to insert it into. You'll also find various little informational booklets: Important Consumer Information, Master Your Device, Consumer Information About Radio Frequency Emissions and Responsible Driving as well as Product Safety and Warranty Information. Note that the one year warranty only applies to the original purchaser and does not transfer with the phone if you sell it.
 
Design
 
The Motorola DROID 4 is a whopping 5" tall, 2.65" wide and a half of an inch thick. It weighs about 6.3 ounces and is made entirely of black plastic. The corners of the phone have a bit of an odd curve to them, but overall the phone is pretty square and sleek looking. The little lip at the bottom of the previous DROID incarnations is noticeably missing from the DROID 4, and the whole phone seems to have a no-nonsense appearance to it. It's also very comfortable in your hands, being just big enough that the keyboard is easy to use and the screen is large enough to watch video or play games on.
 
The power button on the DROID 4 is on the top of the phone, but it's placed directly in the center instead of on the right-hand side like my original DROID. Slightly left of the power button we have a standard 3.5mm headphone jack, and on the bottom of the phone there is a microphone in the middle. The left side of the phone has a micro HDMI port at the very bottom, with the micro USB port directly above it for charging your phone or plugging it into a computer.
 
The volume rocker is in the regular place on the left side of the phone, but noticeably missing is a physical camera button. That's a little disappointing, because I used to pick my original DROID and push the physical camera button and then start taking pictures. With this phone however, I have to pick it up, hit the power button to turn the screen on, swipe to unlock my screen, and then finally click the camera shortcut that I have on my home screen. While it works just fine it's a bit more cumbersome, and if you see something you want to snap a picture of in a hurry you may very well lose the opportunity.
 
The back of the phone has a speaker at the bottom left and the camera flash in the top center. The actual camera lens is offset just to the left of the flash, and then that goofy little hole to unlock the back cover is up in the top right. On the front of the phone, you have a speaker in the center and directly to the right of it are the light sensor and proximity sensor. Finally in the top-right corner we have the front facing camera.
 
The physical keyboard slides out smoothly and is really, really nice. Not only does it have the standard qwerty layout that you would expect, but it also has a full row of number keys across the top and a full set of arrow keys in the bottom right corner. The buttons are rubberized and have a distinctive press to them; they even make a faint but welcomed click when you press them . Each key is a button itself instead of a sheet with the buttons cut out of it, and the tiny gap between each key makes you feel like you're typing on a keyboard -- unlike the original DROID which felt more like typing on the side of a cereal box. The back-lighting works brilliantly and lights up bright and clear, and it even turns itself on and off based on data from the light sensor on the front of the phone.
 
The virtual keyboard works well enough and it's easy to use, but I could never get used to the thing taking up half of my screen every time I had to type something; it's just so annoying and distracting to me. On top of that, the Swype keyboard is preinstalled on the phone and the two can be toggled between in the settings menu. I really like the Swype keyboard, but it's not nearly as accurate as I thought it would be. Sometimes it is spot on, and other times I Swype a word like "raptor" and it spits out "Taipei". Real nice when it works, but I find it a bit useless having to backspace through incorrect words when I have a physical keyboard that's as accurate as I am.
 
The phone also has a series of 4 capacitive buttons across the bottom underneath the screen, and these are shortcuts to the menu, home, back and search. They work well, though there isn't really any feedback when pressing them. Also noteworthy is the fact that even though the buttons are the same, they are slightly rearranged from they way they were laid out on the original DROID.
 
Under the Hood
 
The DROID 4 features a dual-core 1.2 GHz OMAP4430 processor from Texas Instruments, 1 GB of DDR2 RAM and a 1785 mAh non-user-replaceable lithium-ion polymer battery. It contains an 8 mega-pixel rear camera with auto-focus, digital zoom and an LED flash that is capable of recording video in 1080p. The front-facing camera is only 1.3 mega-pixel and has no flash, but can still record 720p video. It's perfectly acceptable for snapping pictures of yourself for forum avatars or video chatting, but for most anything else you're going to want to use the rear camera.
 
While the DROID 4 touts having 16GB of internal storage, the space is actually split into a few different partitions so you will really only have access to half of that. The other 8GB is split between 3GB of application storage and 5GB dedicated to the operating system and updates. You can further expand your storage by installing an SD or SDHC card up to 32GB in size. I've taken a number of pictures and have installed quite a few games and apps. Like I mentioned earlier, I opted to use the 16GB card out of my original DROID, but I've still got internal space left even without putting anything on it.
 
The 4" TFT (thin film transistor) display has an aspect ratio of 16:9 and resolution of 960×540 pixels (qHD). Since Motorola opted not to go with the Super AMOLED display that many competitors are using, the picture is not as sharp or as vibrant as I would have liked, but it's perfectly acceptable. There's a little fuzziness and blurring once in a while, and watching some types of video (sports, fast action movies) or playing fast-paced action games will reward you with a minor amount of ghosting, but overall it's not a bad experience.
 
Where the display becomes the most annoying is in the sunlight. I was sitting in the car at the doctor's office reading a book on my phone and the sun came out from behind some clouds to shine through the windshield onto my phone. I could hardly see it at all, despite adjusting the brightness settings all the way up. Shielding the screen with my sun visor helped a little, but I was still unable to see well enough to read at all. Walking around the parking lot didn't make things much better, and I was pretty much unable to do anything my phone that required seeing the screen until I went inside.
 
The touch screen is really responsive though, which is a huge plus for me. I play a lot of games on my phone, as well as browse the web on it when I'm not at home, and it's nice that it works smoothly and accurately. The pinch-to-zoom works great, and everything looks good in general aside from the aforementioned blur and fuzziness on occasion. The performance is great as well, and I haven't really experienced any latency switching between desktop screens or stuttering in any of the apps or games I've played. The housing doesn't collect fingerprints very well, the screen however is a fingerprint magnet. I recommend picking up one of those inexpensive film screen protectors to help with that.
 
The 1785 mAh lithium-ion polymer battery is also a bit of a concern since it is not user replaceable. Motorola claims 750 minutes of continuous talk time with up to 205 hours of standby time. While I don't actually talk on my phone a great deal, there's no way it would last 205 hours on standby. I left my fully charged phone in the car for two days and when I went back out to get it that night it was so dead it wouldn't even turn on. I can usually get 4 hours of use out of a full charge if I'm browsing the web and playing games the whole time though, like I often do while we're out running errands, sitting in the waiting room at the doctor's office or taking a trip in the car.
 
Your best bet would be to plug it in whenever your not using it instead of just letting it charge overnight. Make sure you pick up a car charger for when you're driving, and plug it into the wall or into your computer to charge when you're not using it at home. Charging more often like this has left me with plenty of battery life whenever I do want to use the phone, but if that non-removable battery could have been replaced with an extended life version or swapped out for a spare battery it would have been much better.
 
Phone & Sound Quality
 
Where I'm living now we don't have the best of service. I average about 3 bars of service when I'm standing outside, and can get up to 5 on occasion, but sitting at my desk in the house I usually get 1 or 2 bars. Even so, phone calls sound crystal clear and I have yet to drop a call. The speaker phone isn't quite as good, occasionally sounding garbled and distorted. Lowering the volume when I have someone on speaker phone does help to lessen the problem, but it's not spectacular. Perfectly usable, but I often have to pay more careful attention to what the other person is saying.
 
Games and apps sound good though. The phone is loud enough that I can plug it into my television with a micro HDMI cable (purchased separately) and leave it sitting on the entertainment center, and I can use the phone for sound while the picture is on the television. I can still hear it fine 10 feet away on the sofa as long as I don't have the air conditioning running, the fan on high and people talking around me. I tried in the first place to run a cord from the phone's headphone jack into an adapter and plug it into the red and white RCA jacks, but when I tried that I didn't get any sound from the phone or the television.
 
At least the sound was loud enough to hear it from the phone anyway, but it would have been nice if I could have gotten it to come out of the television speakers like I intended. Watching Netflix on the phone this way was a bit of a let-down though, as no matter how I turned the phone the picture stayed vertical on the television and was letter-boxed on both sides with wide black bars. The Netflix stream was also really blurry and blocky on the 42" television, though it did smooth out a little bit after a while.
 
Though there is no 4G/LTE coverage near me yet, it's nice to have it supported by the phone for when it does make it to my area. In the mean time, the 3G coverage is pretty good and it's actually faster than the horrible cable service in the area. Using the free Ookla Speed Test app from the Google Play store my phone shows a 117ms ping time to the Lansing, Michigan server with a download speed of 1494 kbps and an upload speed of 635 kbps. Note that these are the averages taken from 3 runs of the speed test application.
 
Software and Apps
 
The Motorola DROID 4 runs Android version 2.3.6 (Gingerbread), with a 2.6.35.7 based Linux kernel. There have been rumors about an Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) release getting pushed to the DROID 4 since about the time of it's release in February, but now that we're a week into June it's still not here yet. Not that Gingerbread is bad or that the update is necessary, but Ice Cream Sandwich could potential bring a whole slew of new features to the device like unlocking the handset with facial recognition, real time speech to text integration and better camera performance.
 
While the interface is not stock Android, it's not too much different with only the thin Android UX overlay instead of the intrusive MotoBlur software that Motorola has used on some of their other phones. Still, I replaced it immediately by installing the free LauncherPro application as an all-encompassing replacement homescreen and app launcher. I usually leave my contact list, Google Voice, web browser and the Google Play store as my shortcuts -- so having to remove one of those to have an application list pinned at the bottom too was disheartening. LauncherPro solved this problem as well by giving me a little square app drawer icon in between my four standard shortcut icons at the bottom of the phone screen.
 
There is a lot of bloatware installed on the phone by default, and some of it is even impossible to uninstall. I really, really hate that. If I wanted that garbage on my phone I would install it myself. Why should I be forced to have it sucking up valuable storage space constantly with no ability to get rid of it? Not only do you have the standard Amazon Kindle app, Netflix and Twitter apps, but you also have things like Slacker Radio, Madden NFL 12, Lets Golf 2, NFL Mobile and a slew of other random applications.
 
While I do use a couple of them like Netflix and Kindle, they would have been quick installs from the Google Play store if I wanted them. Being unable to uninstall things like MOG Music and Slacker Radio is ridiculous. I use Pandora, why do I want to leave that other stuff on my phone forever just because some clown over at Verizon or Motorola thinks I should.
 
Some other free apps that I like and use regularly include Fancy Widgets, TeslaLED, Pandora Internet Radio and Dropbox. Fancy Widgets especially is one that gets installed right away, as it includes a very sleek looking clock and weather application in a variety of sizes. It's similar to the clock from the HTC Sense interface or the Beautiful Widgets app. TeslaLED is nice as it turns your rear LED flash into a flashlight.
 
I also play a lot of random games on my phone. Many games and apps are so cheap that it's no problem to pick up a dozen of them here or there, so I sort of play the field with a variety of them. I play casual games such as Angry Birds, Cut the Rope or Draw Something to slightly more involved games like Inotia 3 or Zenonia 3 and everything in between. There's such a large variety of both free and paid games that you'll be hard pressed to not find a dozen that you like.