Thursday, May 28, 2009

I’m still alive, but I can’t say so much for the Inspiron!

I know I've been away for quite a while, but life has a way sometimes of getting really busy, especially when doctors are involved. I'll spare you the dirty details, unless you request a "deep dive" as they say at work.


Last time I wrote about Frag-Mom and her new video card. Well, both success and failure. I usually don't talk bad about manufacturers, but Dell REALLY bit the big one with the Inspiron 531. After changing out the video card, it worked well for a few days; then it started the BSOD issues again (0x00000E if that means anything to you). But I think we've found a fix for the problem. We're buying a new computer and pressing this one into service for doing accounting and inventory for our new businesses.


Yes, I said businesses, plural. I'm getting tired of the way the Air Force works (you'd figure that after 21 years, I'd have figured it all out, but no). In the past 2 weeks, I've learned that both of the people above me a few levels, the CIO and the one below him, are moving to different jobs. There is no stability in the Air Force leadership, and THAT, my friends, is why the military in general (no pun intended) cannot get anything accomplished in a reasonable length of time. So, I'm going to try to build up my businesses part time while I'm working until I can support my family in the manner to which we've become accustomed without being a government contractor. I have no idea how long that will take, and I have no idea if one day I may just get so fed up with contracting that I just walk off. Only God knows what the future holds.


So, I'm guessing you're wondering about my new businesses. I'm going to withhold that information until everything gets stabilized in the part-time realm. So you can wait for a few months until I hammer out all the details. I will share one part of it, though. Go to this site. Poke around and let me know if you have any questions. I'll respond in less than 24 hours, Lord willing.


Well, back to Frag-Mom's new computer. You'll have to wait for that, too, just like we do. TigerDirect says it should be here around June 2nd, so once it get's here, there'll be unboxing pictures and a nice long article about the "construction" process (because I'll be building it from parts).


I'm going to keep this one short, because I'll be posting more in a few days once the box is completed.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Happy Mother’s Day, Frag-mom!

Let me start out by saying that we've never been a "normal" family. In fact, in my house, "normal" is only a drier setting.


Let me continue the lead-in by adding that my wife has never been one for the typical gifts, mostly because she's not a typical wife. A few years ago, she sent me to Home Depot to get her a new circular saw for Christmas because there was one on sale. I went to Home Depot, found the saw, went to the check-out counter and waited in line. When I put it on the counter I said "I'm getting my wife this for Christmas." The woman at the register looked at me with that look you give someone who is obviously going to do something stupid and said "You don't want to do that." I explained that this was exactly what my wife had asked for and she just looked at me, shook her head, and rang up my purchase. I just don't think she believed me, but it was true!


With Mother's Day coming up, I wanted to make sure my wife got something she would use every day, and something that she needed. No, not a vacuum cleaner; that would just get me hurt. Time for me to give you a little more background.


About 2 years ago, I got my wife a Dell Inspiron 531. It was a decent computer for a good price, and we got it at Wal-Mart. At least I thought it was a decent computer. For the past year or so she's been getting the dreaded BSOD, and worst of all, it would happen at the most inopportune times, usually during a battle while playing World of Warcraft. The BSOD's pointed to 2 issues; memory problems and the graphics driver.


My first attack against the dreaded BSOD was to find the memory problem. I booted up with The Ultimate Boot CD (TUBCD). TUBCD is an awesome collection of diagnostic tools for troubleshooting or fixing a PC. TUBCD has more than 50 tools and utilities to help you diagnose and/or fix computer problems. OK, so I booted with TUBCD and ran one of the memory diagnostics. I got an error in the 2nd DIMM. So, I rebooted and ran it again just to make sure; same error. I turned it off, removed the power cord (safety first, just like Norm says), and looked at the mother board. Hmmmm, which is DIMM 2? Count from the top or the bottom? I guessed, pulled a DIMM, moved them so they were all adjacent, put the power cord back on and rebooted with TUBCD and reran the test. Success! No more memory errors. I ran the test again, just to be safe; same successful result. Cool, one problem down.


My next attack was the video driver. I checked the Dell website and got the "recommended" driver for the 531. No joy. So I downloaded the driver from the nVidia website. Still no joy. She got a BSOD during combat! That wouldn't have been so bad except that we were under Skysong Lake in Nagrand, doing the Agitated Spirits of Skysong quest. Not a good place to get a BSOD! We both assumed she'd come back dead.


Don't get the idea that this all took place in a short time span. These events took about 2 weeks, just to let you know.


So, I'm reviewing all these issues, and I hit on an idea. The 531 has a graphics card on the MoBo. Integrated graphics cards share system memory, and sometimes have problems. That's when the light bulb went on. A new graphics card!


I started doing the research like I always do. We have a Microcenter not far from our house (about 22 miles), and on the way between our house and most of my doctor appointments, so I wanted to find a graphics card I could pick up on my way home from the doctor.


I did my research at Tom's Hardware. Tom's is great, and they do a monthly feature article on graphics cards (among other things). Specifically, I was looking at the best graphics card for the money, ~$65. Tom's recommended the Radeon HD 4670 with 512MB GDDR3. I looked at Microcenter, and they had them for a decent price. Time to take a few extra minutes on the way home and pick up a Mother's Day present! Yes, a new graphics card; the perfect Mother's Day gift for the gaming mom.


But wait, the story isn't over yet. We also decided that I should get one for a Father's Day gift. I'm cool with that. My graphics card only gives me 20 to 30 frames per second (FPS) in WoW, so a new one would be helpful. Into Microcenter we go, and I start searching the aisles for the desired card.


I love Microcenter. I have renamed it "Geek Mecca" because I need to make a trip there every so often to maintain what little sanity I have. But I also like consistency. If things change, I tend to get confused. Microcenter is rearranging their build it yourself section, and I couldn't find the graphics card I was looking for. We must have spent a good 15 minutes just wandering around once we found the aisle of graphics cards. I couldn't find the cards I wanted. Once I got some help from Daniel, everything was better. Daniel pointed out a few similar cards, and then my eye was drawn to a sale placard (my wonderful wife, the ├╝ber shopper pointed it out). It was for a Diamond Radeon HD 4670, but it had 1GB of DDR3! With a $42 rebate! W00T! So, we picked up two of the cards and took them home.


Installation of the cards was easy. No additional power connection is required, unlike some of the higher-end graphics cards. Simply remove the power cable (thanks Norm), push the card into the PCIe slot, make sure it's locked down, close it up, plug it back in and boot. The software on the disk was outdated (not a major surprise) so after we installed the initial drivers, we down-loaded the newest off the ATI website.


So, what's the verdict? The FPS in WoW went up from 20 – 30 for me to 55 – 60, no matter where I went, and that was after improving the way the graphics were displayed, i.e. deeper depth of field, adding shadows, etc. They are very impressive cards. I also noticed that when I use graphic intensive applications (like GIMP) the variable speed cooling fans on my desktop don't go to full speed, which tells me the graphics card is doing the heavy lifting, like it should.


Oh, and a happy ending to the combat tale of woe, she didn't drown in Skysong lake. She came back, swam up, and got to safety!


Happy Mother's Day, all you gaming mothers out there. Go get yourself an awesome graphics card.


P.S. – For some reason, the Dell 531 is STILL getting the BSOD, but so far it hasn't happened while we're playing WoW. More troubleshooting on the way, or it's time to start looking for a bare-bones system to put all the good stuff on.