Big Bubbles (no troubles)

What sucks, who sucks and you suck


BB thought our AMD Athlon XP 2000-based system was pretty cutting-edge when we installed it three years ago. Well, by “cutting-edge” we mean “approximately equivalent to the Ars Technica Budget Box” recommendation of the day. Trouble is, we continued to think of it as cutting-edge while the days flew by and the rest of the world went 64 bit. Then we discovered that LightZone required a processor capability known as SSE2 - a capability that Ye Olde Athlone lacked.

SSE2 is primarily an extension set designed to aid realtime graphics processing, so it makes sense that LZ would prefer it (it’s the successor of MMX and SSE). However, this makes LZ the first and, to date, only piece of software we’ve encountered that definitively classes our hardware as obsolete and unsupported. There’s x86 software that won’t run on some x86 CPUs? News to us. Anyways…

Trouble is, the world has moved on and a new CPU means a new motherboard which in turn means new RAM and, if one isn’t careful, new hard drives too. The current minimum SSE2-capable AMD processor is the Sempron, preferably in AM2 socket form. That requires DDR2 memory. And most motherboards today expect you to use SATA interface hard drives, carrying only a single legacy IDE-PATA interface for backward compatibility with optical drives. (OK, we could upgrade components on our existing Skt A motherboard, but what’s the point in sharpening a stone chisel, particularly when it costs about the same as modern tools to do so?)

Looking around, the Asrock AM2NF3-VSTA board seems to be one of the few remaining budget AM2 boards that still carries a full complement of two IDE channels, so we can still use our (mirrored) IDE drive pair. (The alternative would be to either bite the bullet and buy SATA drives - with the accompanying data migration nightmare - or use the legacy interface for the drives, if it supports booting, and buy a SATA-compatible optical drive.) We’ve gone with a dirt-cheap Sempron 3200+ CPU (there’s a significant price break before the lowest-priced Athlon 64, and the differences don’t appear major) and a luxurious 2GB of DDR2 667 RAM, so hopefully we can now run LZ and VMware simultaneously without pain. (We would suggest that our employer picks up the tab for this, as we only need VMware to run their crappy legacy VPN solution and crappy legacy email client - but then they might ask why we want to run LZ during workhours. ;-) The Asrock board lacks onboard graphics as well, sporting only a legacy AGP slot, but that’s OK ‘cos we still have an AGP card - we’re not wedded to it, but it wasn’t cheap and it still works so might as well keep using it.

Total cost: about a hundred quid. Future-proofing: apart from the SATA interfaces, very little. We’re buying time here, not advanced technology. The Sempron just about gets us into 64 bit territory (not that we need to run a 64 bit OS yet), but the AM2 socket is due to be “enhanced” later this year (although new processors may remain compatible with AM2 for a while), those hard drives will need replacing at some point, there are no PCI-Express slots and dual core remains a pipe dream. By the time the next required upgrade rolls around, we expect DDR2 to have been superseded (by DDR3 if nothing else) but hopefully SATA will still be the storage interface du jour. The only other risk is that the AGP card craps out, but we guess eBay is our friend.

The software’s free but the processor is gonna cost yer, guv.

Update, 2007-06-13

Well, the upgrade is in and working fine, bar one minor hiccup with the CPU fan (memo to self: make sure the power cables aren’t snagging the blades). Unfortunately, during the process we managed to knock the spare/backup USB drive off a shelf, killing it. We also discovered that the GPU fan on our MX440 card has died, but it doesn’t appear to make much difference. Overall performance isn’t startlingly better, but then again it copes with running several large apps without grinding to a complete halt and then dying. As a bonus, the Linux cpufreq module now works to automatically lower the CPU speed and save energy, and the inbuilt audio on the new board is a vast improvement on the last VIA chipset. Now to wait for Athlon FX2s to drop in price, and meanwhile contemplate the relative merits of CentOS 5 vs. Fedora 7…

Other bubbles