Monday, February 20, 2012

G.SKILL Ripjaws X 8GB DDR3 1600 RAM

Rating: 4 out of 5
Pros: Inexpensive, works as expected, nice heat spreaders included.
Cons: One initial faulty module, heat spreaders may cause clearance issues with some CPU heatsink/fans.

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


My last system had 4GB of RAM, and it had been sufficient for the majority of my computing needs. However, since I was building a new computer anyway I could see no reason not to increase the memory, especially since new games and software come out all the time requiring better and better hardware to function. I wanted to save as much of my budget as possible to spend on the video card though, so I decided 8GB of RAM would be the ideal amount for me. I made sure to pick up a configuration that gave me 2 sticks of RAM that were 4GB each, rather than 4 sticks of 2GB each. This way it left me with 2 free slots in my motherboard in case I decided to add more RAM in the future. The G.SKILL Ripjaws X 8GB DDR3 1600 RAM kit was among the cheaper of the highly rated kits I found for sale, and it happened to have an offer for free shipping so that pushed it to the top of my list.
 
It arrived in a nice blister pack that kept it in good shape during transit, but one of the two sticks in my dual channel kit was faulty when it arrived. G.SKILL allowed me to only return the faulty stick instead of the whole kit (so that I could continue using the other 4GB stick while waiting for the replacement), but they did not guarantee that the new stick would be from the same batch. This is important, as it meant there was a chance that the two sticks would not operate in dual channel mode, but I went ahead and sent back the single stick anyway because I did not want to wait another week to use my new computer.

You're going to get a faulty piece once in a while regardless of what product or manufacturer you go with, that's just a fact of life. I can't hold it against G.SKILL too much because it happened to be my turn, but I'm still going to knock one star off of my otherwise perfect rating of the product because of it. At least the RMA (return merchandise authorization) process was fairly quick, easy and painless -- I just shipped the faulty module back to them in the original package, and a week or so later I received my replacement. I plugged it in beside the first one, they operated in dual channel mode just fine and I haven't had a single problem with them.

Memory sticks are really easy to install, they really only fit in one place and only in one direction. There is a clip on each end of the RAM slot that you must pull back and then you slide the memory stick into place. There's a notch about a third of the way across the bottom that you align with to the notch in the motherboard slot to ensure that the RAM is installed the right direction. DDR and DDR2 sticks also have this notch, but its location is different so that you can't install the wrong type of memory. It's fairly idiot proof, just make sure that you're grounded with something like an anti-static wrist strap or mat because RAM is very vulnerable to static charge.
 
This kit consists of two 4096 MB modules of unbuffered, PC3-12800, non-ECC DDR3 RAM. This means a maximum bandwidth of 800MHz (DDR3-1600) and a peak transfer rate of 12,800 MB/s. It has 9-9-9-24 timings and uses 1.5V of power. It does include a heat spreader on each stick to help keep them cool, and it's a fairly attractive red piece of aluminum with fins jutting from the top. I like the heat spreaders, as they allow my memory to run cooler and improve the life of the modules. They don't add much to the width of the sticks, but they do add about a half of an inch to the height (1.58" total height). This is something to keep in mind for possible clearance issues depending on your motherboard and CPU heatsink/fan.
 
While this kit is compatible with Intel P55 & AMD Phenom II/Llano platforms, it is Intel XMP (Extended Memory Profile) certified and designed for 2nd generation Intel Core processors and Z68 & P67 motherboards. G.SKILL strongly recommends that you use the voltage and timing specs of the kit instead of selecting auto or default for the memory settings in your system BIOS if using an AMD platform. This is to help ensure system stability. I tried using the automatic configuration to start with but it only set my memory to 667MHz. Manually setting the timings worked correctly and set the memory speed to 800MHz like it was supposed to though, so it's probably a good idea to follow their advice.
 
I received Windows Experience Index memory subscore of 7.3 while using the G.SKILL Ripjaws X 8GB DDR3 1600 RAM. This kit cost me $75 when I purchased it in March of 2011, and it can be found for about $47 at the time of this writing. The kit is backed up by a limited lifetime warranty.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Neewer Blue PS2 Controller to USB Adapter


Rating: 4 out of 5
Pros: A great inexpensive alternative to buying separate PS2 and PC controllers that works well
Cons: Thin, brittle housing. Build quality seems cheap all around

I play a lot of computer games, and for many of them I would much rather use a game pad than the keyboard and mouse. Now I've had some pretty good game pads in the past, like the Logitech Dual Action, but I've always preferred the PlayStation controller (and some of the great third-party alternatives). Browsing around online one day, I discovered the Neewer Blue PS2 Controller to USB Adapter that would let me use my PlayStation 2 controllers on my computer. It cost a whopping $4.55 including shipping, so I ordered it immediately and patiently awaited its arrival.

It came packaged in a plastic bag along with an unmarked miniature CD that I can only assume has some type of driver on it. I never used it, as the device worked flawlessly in Windows 7 by simply plugging it into an available USB port and plugging the PlayStation 2 controller into the other end. The device itself is really light-weight and made of thin, brittle plastic. It literally feels cheap... but that's because it is! The device is about 2.5" long, 3" wide, .75" tall, and the USB cable is only 16" long. I would have liked the cable to be a few inches longer as it just barely has room to be plugged in and sit flat on the desk behind the computer, but it's sufficient. The transparent blue plastic case matches the transparent blue DualShock controller quite nicely, if you happen to have that color.

Despite the cheap build quality, the device works great. Not only does it let me use my PS2 controller on the computer, but it actually has 2 ports to use 2 separate PS2 controllers at the same time while being plugged into a single USB port. There's no noticeable input lag, and it has performed admirably in every game I've tried it with. It supposedly supports PlayStation DDR pads as well the rumble function of your PlayStation controller, but I don't have any games installed that have rumble support to test it with nor do I have a dance pad. I can, however, confirm that it works with both PS1 and PS2 controllers (in both digital and analog mode) as well as third-party controllers for both systems.

Overall it's a wonderful product, and if you already have PlayStation controllers laying around it's much cheaper than buying a separate game pad for your computer. I give the Neewer Blue PS2 Controller to USB Adapter a firm purchase recommendation, especially if you're a fan of the DualShock controllers in the first place.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

ASUS M4A87TD EVO Socket AM3 Motherboard



Rating: 4 out of 5
Pros: A solid, fully featured motherboard with a good layout.
Cons: Could be a hair deeper to accommodate 3 additional standard mounting screws.

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 last year, I was aiming to build a decent quality system that would last me for the next couple of years before I had to build another. I wanted to keep the total cost around $700, and a good chunk of that I had reserved for the video card because I play a lot of games. I wanted to make sure that the motherboard had enough features and upgradeability that if I wanted to add some more memory, a faster processor or a second video card that I would be able to though. After comparing a number of motherboards from various manufacturers, I settled on the ASUS M4A87TD EVO motherboard.

The M4A87TD EVO is a pretty solid motherboard, featuring an 8+1 phase power design and using solid state capacitors throughout. It uses an ATX form factor that measures 12" long by 8.8" deep (not quite full-sized), it only uses 6 of the 9 standard ATX mounting points to secure the board to the case. It seems sturdy and holds well, but the far edge of the board isn't supported quite as well as you would expect. It's not a big deal, but you should take care to support the edge with your finger tips when you're plugging in the main 24-pin ATX power connector or inserting memory sticks.

Highlights of this board include the AMD 870 northbridge, SB850 southbridge, 16GB maximum supported memory, dual PCI Express 2.0 x16 expansion slots, 6x SATA 6Gb/s ports, USB 3.0, 5200MT/s HyperTransport 3.0 and an AM3 CPU socket. I wasn't sure initially what type of processor I was going to use with this system, that would all depend on the cost of the other components I added to the system. With this in mind, I decided that an AMD processor was probably my best bet. Intel had a stranglehold on the high-end, but for my modest system AMD was offering the best bang for the buck at the time.

The board supports Phenom II, Athlon II and Semperon 100 Series processors -- including 45nm CPUs. Initially I was going to go with a quad core processor, but I decided to use a triple core processor instead and put the savings towards getting the best video card that was within my budget. Since this board uses a standard AM3 socket, I'll still be able to upgrade to a four or six core processor at a later date with no issues. This board also has 4 memory slots that will hold a maximum of 16 GB of 240 pin DDR3 RAM. It supports 1066, 1333 and 1600MHz memory normally and 2000MHz when overclocked. I chose to place an 8GB (2x 4GB sticks) kit in mine, leaving the other 2 slots available for a possible upgrade if necessary in the future.

The ASUS M4A87TD EVO does not have an onboard video adapter. I chose to purchase a board without onboard video because I play a lot of games on my computer, and I knew that onboard video was not going to be sufficient for my needs. I was obviously going to have to purchase a dedicated video card with much more power than any onboard solution would provide me. The 8 channel high definition audio that the motherboard features was plenty for my modest sound needs, and comes complete with a noise filter and S/PDIF output ports in the back.

The 6x SATA 6Gb/s ports are plenty for my DVD burner and both of my hard drives. This also leaves me 3 ports available for future expansion if I decide to install a second optical drive and/or another hard drive or two. They also support RAID 0, 1, 5, and 1+0. There is also a single IDE/PATA port available for up to 2 older IDE devices to be hooked up, and it's located at the very edge of the motherboard and aligned facing towards the front of the case. This could be really nice for cable management purposes, though all of the other ports on the board are sticking straight up. I don't use the IDE/PATA port in this computer, but a couple of the other computers in the house still have at least one IDE drive and it's a nice feature to have. There's also one external SATA 3Gb/s port in the back of the computer.

The RTL8111E PCI Expres Gigabit Ethernet controller works as well as any other network interface card, letting me plug in an ethernet cable and connect to the network. Similarly the 6 available USB 2.0 ports in the rear of the board work as you would expect, and it has an additional 3 USB 2.0 headers internally. I only have one of these internal headers in use, connected to the 2 USB ports in the front panel of my case. Also in the rear of the board is an IEEE1394a (FireWire) port, 2 USB 3.0 ports and PS/2 ports for the mouse and keyboard. The board features 2 PCI Express 2.0 x16 slots for installing dual video cards in a CrossFireX/SLI configuration, though the second (black) port only operates at 4x. It also as a single PCI Express x1 slot and 3 regular PCI slots for expansion cards.

As far as overclocking a processor, the M4A87TD EVO has a number of options. Firstly, the TurboV EVO software will try to automatically tune your processor to the fastest stable clock speeds. In addition, the CPU Level UP feature lets you pick a processor you want to overclock to and let the motherboard tweak your settings to match. I've not tried either of these features, as I don't trust "automatic" tuning of critical system components. I did, however, manage a stable manual overlock of my Athlon II X3 450 from 3.2GHz to 3.6GHz with the stock heatsink and fan. Your mileage may vary but if your overclocking attempt fails and the system freezes, the CPU Parameter Recall feature will pop up the BIOS when you reboot to let you change the settings back.

I also attempted to unlock the 4th processor core in my Athlon II X3 450 that was disabled from the factory using the ASUS Core Unlocker feature of the motherboard. This is a simple setting in the BIOS that attempts to unlock the additional core, and if it fails it will automatically reboot with the original 3 cores enabled. Mine apparently tried to work, as it did get to the Windows logo once before freezing and crashing, but it was obviously not stable. If you get lucky with your processor you may be able to squeak out an extra core for no additional cost though, so again your mileage may vary and it's probably worth the attempt if you have a processor with a core disabled at the factory.

I'm not real worried about how my motherboard looks -- I don't have a clear side window and flashy neon lights all over my computer. That being said, the M4A87TD is a pretty clean looking board, dark brown in color with black and 2 shades of blue to colorize the connectors and the aluminum heatsinks on the northbridge and southbridge chipsets. The layout is also quite nice, with ample room to reach everything and get your fingers in between things. The box came nicely packed with the motherboard in an anti-static bag, along with the rear I/O shield, 2 SATA cables, a single IDE cable, a rather thick user manual and a CD containing random ASUS software and the various drivers.

There have been a couple of BIOS updates since I purchased the board, but they're really smooth and easy to apply. Just download the updated BIOS file from ASUS's website and throw it on a bootable flash drive, plug it in, and select ASUS EZ Flash 2 from the BIOS menu. It will start up and you can select the BIOS file from the flash drive, let it verify and install it, and then reboot. It's really easy, especially compared to some motherboards that make you boot into DOS and install the update from a floppy disc. I mean, many of us don't even have floppy drives, so this is a welcome feature. If you do (somehow -- power failure maybe?) manage to botch the flashing process, CrashFree BIOS 3 allows you to restore the corrupt BIOS from a flash drive as well. Currently the newest BIOS is version 2001, which is dated April of 2011.

I paid $110 for my ASUS M4A87TD EVO in March, 2011 -- and it still runs about that much today, nearly a year later. That alone should tell you that this product holds its value well. It has a lot of features packed into a moderate price point, and I'm extremely happy with my choice of motherboards.