Sun Jan 4 14:08:30 CST 2009

Hail Nehalem

In what seems to be a continuing string of fanboi-ism, I must say that the people at Intel have done it again! I used to be an AMD fanboi, denouncing the "Wintel" consortium at every opportunity. I still am a fan of AMD processors, but I'm a bigger fan of the new Intel Core i7 "Nehalem" chips.

I should say that after we shuffled loose the cable coil (sticking with DirecTV and a big ole antenna in the attic which, by the way, very crisp HDTV--I think Cox compresses the feed), and some other financial advantages, I thought it might be time to do another upgrade and patented "trickle down". It's been two years since the great Hackintosh build, so I looked to upgrade either that Core 2 Duo 2.13 GHz system or my Athlon x2 5400+ (and trickle it down with a board that had integrated video that could do VDPAU). I figured I'd get a Quad core with a board and put the Quad into one of my rigs and put the dual core with the new nVidia graphics-enabled motherboard together in a Myth system.

My first searches revealed that a Core 2 Quad Q6600 was much more expensive than an AMD Phenom Quad. I was about to pull the trigger on a Phenom with an integrated nVidia 8200 board, then I realized it. My current Athlon board was only an AM2 board, and the Phenoms require an AM2+ board--so there would be no 8200 put into a myth system because i couldn't just drop the Phenom in my rig. That being the case, I decided to look towards the Core 2 Quad, because I knew that Intel hadn't changed socket design since the Pentium Dual Core LGA775 (until the Core i7 came out), meaning a Core 2 Quad would drop into a Core 2 Duo system.

And then, it happened. I looked at the Core 2 Quads, and saw that the Q6700 at 2.66 GHz was only about $20-$25 cheaper than the Core i7 920 at the same speed. I wondered what the dealio was as I hadn't even done much research into the new chip yet. I read some benchmarks, and it appears that since Intel re-enabled Hyper Threading (apparently more effectively) and other improvements over the Core 2 made even the 920 outperform the extreme Core 2 Quad in most benchmarks, in some cases by a lot. Soo, I went ahead and spec'd out a system using the Nehalem system. It would require a new board as well, the Core i7 is LGA1366. And at this point in the game, the motherboard manufacturers are charging that "new hotness" prices. Of course, I had to check on compatibility with the new X58 chipset with Linux, because no Linux would be a non-starter for me. I found forums on Phoronix that indicated that the boards were good. I finally decided on the Gigabyte EX58 UD5, mostly on all the included stuff (that I'll probably never use like 3-way SLI or Crossfire or lots of overclock options). We had a 25% Amazon coupon from Amex, so I used that in addition to a free trial to Amazon Prime to get the free 2-day shipping. I actually ordered only the 6GB of memory, a 750 watt power supply and the i7 920 from Amazon (limit on the coupon) and opted to save some cash and get the board elsewhere. Oh, and that is 6 GB of 1333 DDR3 RAM!! The i7's talk to them three at a time (borrowing from AMD the CPUs have integrated memory controllers). I can "only" squeeze 24 GB of RAM on the board. The times-they are a changing!. It was going to be Christmas big time on Wednesday, the 31st. I jokingly told my daughter that this would likely be trickled down to be her first computer.

Once it came, I found out that the new 4+4 or 8-pin extra motherboard connector that I thought I lacked prompting the PS purchase was actually included on my current power supply. As luck would have it, the power supply box I consulted in storage was apparently a different one as it clearly did NOT list that 4+4 as a connector. I guess next time, I'll stop being lazy and pull out and look at the actual power supply. Any who, it's all good as I probably didn't have a power supply with the right 24-pin connector to take the AM2 board, anyways (haven't gotten that far in the trickle down, yet). I got the system installed and booting. I did a quick cat /proc/cpuinfo and saw 8 glorious processors (4 real + the 4 virtual ones that HT gives you). I then let it sit for a few days.

Part of the trickle down involved upgrading the OS from Sabayon 3.5.1 to either Sabayon 4.0 or Ubuntu 8.10. I've learned to roll my own Ubuntu MythTV packages, so I'm nearly as comfortable with Debian/Ubuntu as a platform as Gentoo/Sabayon, with regard to .deb versus .ebuild. I first tried to upgrade Sabayon, but upon boot, I was presented with a black screen instead of the graphical login and even the terminal screens were blackened and unusable. I eventually tried Ubuntu x86_64 version, which nicely found my troubled and much maligned ATI/AMD HD3870. I even got XVideo working which was NOT in Sabayon, but that was the fault of compiz + fglrx driver, not the fault of Sabayon. I have to disable the pretty Compiz effects to get decent video playback performance, which I hope AMD fixes soon or I'll fully go back to nVidia fanboi-ism and drop 2 or 3 GTX 260s or 280s (yeah right-not at their current price) in here.

Finally, the tweaking and tricking was mostly complete (I have a nagging hardware issue that the NIC disappears if I soft-reset, so I have to power down on reboots--but Linux doesn't require a lot of reboots). I happened to have a DVD TV show I was converting to H.264 last week. Last week, on my Athlon x2 5400+ with 3GB of RAM on Sabayon 3.5 64-bit, I could get about 16 frames per second while converting. Today, I ran some of the same videos through the same script (which uses mencoder to produce PS3-compliant H.264 content), and I got a whopping 65 frames per second! I wasn't expecting such an increase. In the graph below, you can see that the encode took over a little bit of every processor (click to see full size).

Note: I compiled the mencoder and libx264 on my Sabayon system from scratch with aggressive compiler flags, whereas the default build on Ubuntu is more for compatibility, and probably just the generic amd64 arch. Still, I must say that the hype about Nehalem being the most significant upgrade in the Intel CPU in a long time seems to be holding true. Definitely worth the extra $20 + (plus the hundreds in auxiliary purchases). As a side, I'm still looking to get a Q6700 or something to drop in my Hackintosh when those drop down. I'll also likely turn this Nehalem into a dual boot that does the gaming (yes, folks I'll probably buy another copy of Windows) once I get a 2 or 3 way SLI going-but I've heard that only Windows 7 will fully take advantage of the new hotness. Until then, Linux as usual!


Posted by james | Permanent link | File under: News, Geekdom