8 November 2005

Virtual Machines and Crossfire boards

Once again, the mighty virtual PC 2004 allows us to create a network training environment exactly to our lecturers specifications. Well done Bill for such a fantastic product. Now if I can just suggest one minor improvement... stop it aquiring settings from the primary network card when there are two cards installed.

I spent all of yesterday setting up about a dozen virtual machines by hand. I'm sure there must be a quicker way of doing this. I know you can copy the files around (which I did from home over the weekend using remote desktop), but it's the configuration that takes all the time. Things like changing the VM's network identity. Ok so I also spent some time installing the Analog-X web-server on each VM as well so the class could simulate network traffic (yes they could have used netmeeting or anything else really, but AX's web-server is easy to set-up, looks pretty and does it's job well). As a test environment for HTML/CGI pages, I don't think you can beat it for ease of setting up. Now if it just did PHP as well ;).

Do I sound like I'm picking fault with everything? I hope my comments can be seen as constructive criticism as these tools are so useful that it would have taken 3 times longer to set our lab up in any other way. Virtual PC allows us to set-up guest operating systems with different software after we've already completed the annual process of clean installs with the latest software and patches. It's fantastic to be able to add software to our standard images at any point after the beginning of the new term. As for Analog-X, well I remember the tracks on mp3.com and this guy deserves a lot of credit for all the freeware he's created over the years.

At this point I feel the need to plug a couple of sites before I get on with the Crossfire review. First is the excellent
Lanlord's guide to building a PC
which helped me understand this Crossfire stuff. A nice black & white step-by-step guide at the bottom of the page should be helpful to anyone building their first PC (all of us had a first!!!). The other one I found on the same subject is
Dr Ashen's guide
(which should not be taken at all seriously). The Evil Emperror really made me laugh.

Ok, back-patting over and now let's get on with the Crossfire review. I've recently managed to get my hands on a Sapphire PURE Advantage CrossFire (model no: PC-A9RD480Adv). I've been a fan of Sapphire graphics cards for a while but this is the first time I've had one of their motherboards. For this review I will be comparing it with my previous board (an A-Bit 3rd eye with guru clock - I forget which model, A8N maybe).

To start with, the A9RD480Adv is jet-black coloured. It's not as colourful as some of the pictures I've seen with green PCI-E sockets and yellow PCI-Express sockets. It also lacks the port-80 LED display of the A-bit board; so why buy it?

Primarily because it's for my own home PC and I want different features. For a start it uses Crossfire technology (the ability to run two identical graphics cards to get image enhancing features like ansi-tropic filtering to run on high resolution displays without everything grinding to a snails pace). It's also slightly future-proofed with it's support for AMD X2 processors and gigabit network built in.

Now the bad points and yes there are a couple. The board is shipped with ribbon cables for IDE drives. Come on Sapphire, rounded cables are only a couple of quid from the computer fairs. They also improve air circulation which is important for this boards target market (ie gamers). Another problem is the legend (white writing on the boards surface). The PCI-Express sockets are not clearly marked despite you needing to know which is master or slave for your graphics cards). Also, the front panel power-LED connector is only 2-pins so I had to service one of the connections from my Antec Lanboy case front-panel connector (3-pin) before I could connect it.

The board also comes with a slave adapter (for the unused PCI-Express socket), A back panel, a quick start guide (which doesn't tell you which PCI-Express is the slave) and three CD's (drivers, system utilities and a games disk with free limited trials of four online games). Now I would have happily swapped the four games demos for just one decent full game (Quake4 or UT2004 would have been nice but after the half-life 2 vouchers fiasco I can understand the big S not wanting to be committed). It just seems a bit strange to me to give away four demos instead of a single half-decent game.

Anyway after swapping the boards out, I realised how much neater my system looks compared to my old A-Bit board. Things just seem to be in the right place (except the front panel audio connectors). My perspex side panel now sports a well-laid out board which has been thought out. As a result my Athlon-64 (3500+) now runs at a mere 23-25 degrees (wow about 10 degress lower than it was on the A-Bit with no additional cooling).

My first attempt at installing windows proved problematic. Looking at the Sapphire site revealed there was already a BIOS update (which I naturally upgraded to). Although Windows installed, I couldn't get to windows update; it would repeatedly throw me out after the registering stage with a strange error code (0x8000170D I think). And here is todays piece of wisdom. NEVER, EVER (and I mean EVER) install windows without using the full format option. It turns out I'd forgotten to format the partition on my new drive when I got it last month and it took ages to install (causing problems later but still managing over 19,500 on 3D-Mark 2001-SE).

One drive-format later and my computer was actually performing again. The new BIOS appears to have significant changes to the memory timings section (so worth upgrading) amongst other things. Anyway with all the updates installed, I had a 3D-Mark (2001SE) score of around 20,500 which is as high as my A-Bit board got when it was over-clocked. I also managed to get all my memory (2GB Kingston) memory running at DDR400 speeds (I'd only ever got the first two sticks at that speed with the A-Bit board but then my memory does not consist of matched pairs).

My only problem with the system now is the slightest attempt to overclock the graphics card results in the total loss of on-board sound. I consider this a minor problem as Day of Defeat source now runs far more smoothly (even at 1024x768) and without the crashes which I always thought were caused by the steam engine (well with my frequent anti-spyware checks and linux firewall, what else could it have been?). Maybe it's a known issue and will be resolved in future BIOS updates. For now I can make do with an old PCI sound-card as the performance is impressive. Is the X800 really so much better than the AGP 9800-Pro? Well my system seems to think so. Either that or Sapphires PC-A9RD480Adv board was worth the wait.

OCUK returns update:
My better half commented about OC's returns system being awkward but she did manage to get a returns number. At that point we actually went in (for my new graphics card) and they swapped the faulty drive over the counter, no questions or hesitations so well done OCUK. I also noticed there were more staff on the sales counter these days and the amount of time you have to wait has been greatly reduced. Again well done OCUK. We only started using mail-order because it took so long to get served in there at one point. Nice to see things back as they were and now I can actually visit at lunch-time and still have time for lunch as well.