Coffee: The Next Chapter

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Still a very hard coffee nerd, and after a few years of brewing with everything from a V60 to a siphon, it’s time to try espresso. Due to my lack of counter space and limited budget for something I’m still entirely unsure on, I decided to grab a Breville Barista Express. Blah blah blah integrated grinder, Breville is the suck, etc. Yes, this isn’t a pro level machine. Yes, this isn’t a stepless ultra-accurate grinder. Yes, it’s a single boiler. But guess what? It was less than 600 bucks, and it has a really small footprint, the integrated grinder means I don’t have to dick with my current SmartGrinder when doing drip, and will wholly satisfy my needs to explore espresso and decide if I want to put more money into a prosumer machine and a separate grinder.

More pictures to come, but the above is my first attempt at a milk drink, and I was quite surprised at how well it turned out. I’m rolling with Smile Tiger natural process Ethiopian Kaffa, grind setting 8, 16 grams in, ~28 second extraction. Good crema, good flavor, but the milk could have gone a lot hotter. Was surprisingly pleased with the foam I was able to create on my first try! Will be looking forward to more tests over the coming days! Lots to learn!

Monitors!

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Okay, the 144hz idea was good for a bit, then I played BF4 on a TN panel and wasn’t overly happy. So, I ordered 2 Acer G257HUs! 2560×1440, 25″ S-IPS LCDs with DVI, HDMI, and Displayport inputs. I really did not expect the resolution bump to be this awe inspiring, but wow, am I ever shocked. I’m very much wishing I did WQHD a long time ago, even if hardware wasn’t quite up to snuff.

The ultrawide is now mounted to the right on a monitor arm, and wow does it ever look foolish in portrait! There’s 0 contest, the Acers are the better screens too. I really feel I’ll be eventually getting another one of these to replace the Ultrawide, but until then, it’ll be nice for chats and reading long forum threads.

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Other new things include a plethora of Aukey branded stuff from Amazon – A 5 port charger for the bedroom, a 3 port charger for the backpack, and half a dozen 4 foot USB cables which seem to be of very good quality. An Aukey mouse mat was also purchased, and man, it’s huge! See the Amazon link here. I’m actually really pleased with the quality, it’s very thick, it has a nice rubber non-slip bottom, and all the stitching is very well done. It also covers that nasty missing finish on my desk. You’ll see some of it in the image above.

Other than that, all that was ordered was a 64GB Lexar P20 flash drive, which is surprisingly spry for a flash drive, and carries a limited lifetime warranty. It’s very well built, and very recommended so far. Time will tell if it holds up! Hopefully I don’t have to use that warranty.

Upgrade Plans: 2016 – Final Build Complete!

 

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It’s done! Well, at least as done as I want it right now, there’s a few more tweaks that could be done, but in the end, this is pretty representative of the final configuration. Onto component choices! First up is the EVGA SuperNOVA 650W P2. It’s platinum rated, fully modular, with a fanless eco mode. It’s also based off the Superflower Leadex platform, which is known for it’s rock solid stability and high performance. This model is great! In testing by reviewers, the fan wasn’t even spinning up until it hits ~500w load, something I don’t think this system could achieve currently. The 90% efficiency is great, and topping that off, with the current power consumption for Nvidia GPUs, should give me plenty of headroom for SLI if I feel it’s necessary.

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The video card I chose was of course the GTX 970 STRIX as outlined in the previous post. It matches the motherboard, and has some really impressive build quality and cooling capabilities. The huge heatpipe and low power consumption of Nvidia GPUs lets the thing run without fans until it hits about 67 degrees load, in which it starts ramping up.

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It’s not longer than the GTX 670, but it is wider to accommodate Asus’ design changes with the heatsink and their custom power delivery system. Overall, in doing some playtesting on Battlefield 4, Planetside 2, and Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, I can say I’m very happy with the performance jump. 2560×1080 seems like it still might be a bit much for the card to drive at full ultra settings for some games, but I can assume that’ll be solved with a bit of overclocking.

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Of course, here’s the Mushkin Reactor 1TB mounted to the rear of the motherboard tray, with the 850 Evo. It’s taken the place of my games drive. I’ve decided I’ll be doing VMs exclusively on the virtual server, and large format media/game recordings will go to the file server. Cloning my 640GB Western Digital Black was simple, as I still had a copy of Acronis True Image HD kicking around from Karyn’s SSD upgrade. The whole process took a few reboots and about half an hour, from installing the new drive to removing the old one. I’m very pleased with the speed differences between old and new too! Games take 0 time to load now, especially long loading titles like Battlefield 4 and Planetside 2. To top it off, no more hard drive noise! I feel I could have done better with the cable management in the back, but there’s still lots of room.

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And the finished build shot. It’s extremely clean with the hard drive cages removed, and only having 4 of the included cables plugged into the power supply makes cable management a breeze. I’m also very pleased with the even further improvement in acoustics. I actually have to have my ear on the case to hear anything at idle, and even then it’s just a mild vibration. Under full gaming load (~1 hour or so of BF4) temperatures on the GPU hit a maximum of 67 degrees, which cased the video card fans to ramp up to 35% or so, and the CPU hit a maximum of 59 degrees on the package. (~59-61 on the cores). All the while the case and processor heatsink fans continued spinning at ~500RPM. Of course, the problem now is the loudest things in the room are my servers, but I’ll be outlining plans on what I want to do with those in another post.

So, in the end, I’ve achieved my silent build. Ultimately this is hitting the performance targets I want currently while being practically inaudible. But, what’s next for upgrades? Being a hardware enthusiast, there’s always an upgrade path. My immediate thoughts go to moving from 16GB to 32GB of RAM, which can easily be done for under 200 dollars. Of course with offloading all of my virtualization and RAM heavy tasks to a virtual host, I don’t think it’s necessary. The other thoughts would be getting an NH-D15 with 2 NF-A15s to replace the NH-U12P. This I think would only be necessary if I’m going to be pushing the processor pretty hard in the future. I guess if I was to do anything right away, it’d be to install the Intel gigabit NIC I have sitting on my shelf for a direct link to the file server to allow for better latency when doing Shadowplay.

For now, my concentration is going to be on a new desk, and new monitors. I’m pretty much decided that 2560×1440 is a bit much for the GTX970, so I’ll be sticking to 1920×1080 for the immediate future. I’ve also decided i want to see what all the hype about 144hz monitors is, so I think I’ll be grabbing at least one LG 24GM77 to begin with, and possibly another to replace my 21.5. The unit seems to be the best of the bunch for accuracy when it comes to TN panels, and has the best motion blur reduction implementation. Top that off with an egronomic stand (Height adjustable, pivot, tilt, etc), a whole host of inputs, and even a USB3 hub. I’ll likely only need one 144hz display, but if push comes to shove, I may end up with three. The option is there! I’ll be outlining more in another post when I talk about desk ideas.

Upgrade Plans: 2016 – Initial Build Complete!

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Everything was in on Wednesday! What really surprised me was how Canadapost managed to deliver my processor the day before the motherboard and SSD, even though it shipped a day later. Same shipping method, same place of departure. I don’t get it. Oh well, waiting the motherboard and SSD was a good thing, as I the case and fans arrived at the same time. Build went very smoothly, I wish I did get more pictures, but the ones I did pick out were the best lit.

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Install was smooth, build was very reminiscent of socket 1156, which was to be expected. Lots of cleanup needed to be done. My NH-U12P needed the toothbrush treatment, and I burned through 2 cans of compressed air cleaning that, the video card, RAM, and hard drives. The power supply was actually fairly dust free, but it did have a mesh filter intake. I gotta say, I was super impressed with the build of the Asus board, but I did miss the lack of q connector for the front panel input. Lots of clearance around the socket for larger heatsinks too, which is great. IO is minimal (6 USB ports on the back panel total), but acceptable, as it’s what I had on my P55 FTW. I do get 4 USB3 ports however, so it’s definitely an improvement over old IO. The sound on board is top notch, everything isolated and the actual Realtek ALC1150 is EMI shielded. I don’t really take notice of the lights on the board, but they’re there. I guess it’d be nice if I had a case window. Slot selection is perfect, and definitely acceptable for what I need. I’m only using a single PCI-e x16 right now, but there’s slot availability for additional graphics cards, and more importantly, additional IO like USB3.1, or network adapters. Fan header layout is good, with 2 CPU fan headers (CPU and CPU_OPT), along with 3 chassis fan headers spread along the bottom, left, and right of the board. All headers are 4 pin PWM compatible.

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I gotta say, I loved Noctua fans from when I was buying NF-P12s on the regular, but man, they’ve really stepped up their game. The NF-F12s and NF-A14s are engineering marvels. I thought the P12s were well built, but these are a step above. I won’t go over everything here, but you can see the features of the F12 here and the A14 here. The basics are that the F12 is designed to focus it’s airflow directly behind the fan, instead of letting it spill out everywhere. These are great for radiator and heatsink use due to higher static pressure too. The A14 is kind of a jack of all trades – It has some pretty good throw, but it also performs good in radiator tasks where it needs to push or pull in confined areas. In this case, I used the F12s mounted push/pull on the NH-U12P, and the A14s took up the front intakes and rear exhaust of the Define R5.

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Noctua included a pretty killer accessory pack too. You get a PWM splitter, a 4 pin extension cable, a 4 pin low noise adapter, and their standard mounting gear. All very well sleeved and worth the extra premium paid per fan. I’ve used a few of these accessories to have the fans share some PWM headers for easier fan control.

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Final build in the R5 was very clean considering the parts I was working with. I opted to remove the 2×5.25″ and 5×3.5″ drive cages in favor of additional airflow. The NF-A14s in the front are sharing a PWM header, as are the NF-F12s mounted to the heatsink. I mounted the SSD to one of the the removable trays behind the motherboard to keep things a bit cleaner. The Define R5 was a top notch case, and from a builder’s perspective, hit all of the major notes. If I had any real complaints, it’d be the front fan mounting was a bit difficult with the extended screws, but that may be in part due to the silicone vibration dampening on the Noctuas. If I was to list my favorite features, it’d be the center standoff for motherboard alignment, the fully removable drive bays, the latched side panel, and the easily removable dust filters.

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Windows installed in about 10 minutes thanks to USB3 and the 850 EVO. I took the extra time after installing windows to format my old SSD (I created a VHD out of it late last week) and drive test a few other hard drives that are being sold. I also ended up setting up my fan control with Fan Xpert 3 from Asus. Though I’m not a huge fan of the interface, it worked well to identify the lowest RPMs the fans are capable of, along with letting me set up custom fan curves for each header. My current curves are set up to keep all the Noctuas at about 500RPM until the processor hits 50, then slowly ramp up to max speed at about 80. Fan Xpert can also control spin up and spin down times as well, making the sound curve a bit smoother. My GPU fan curve was set up once again with EVGA’s Precision X, and is pretty much identical to what it was before. At idle and medium loads, the computer is spooky silent. I opened up Planetside 2, and played for about half an hour, and didn’t hear any fans except the GPU. The processor hit a maximum of 60 degrees, and the GPU about 65. Borderlands The Pre-Sequel pushed things a bit further, and I ended up hearing the GPU spin up a lot more, but the rest of the case remained eerie. There will be more testing, but for right now I’m pretty satisfied.

Now that the initial build is complete, I can discuss my ideas for the rest of the upgrade path.

Asus GTX 970 Strix: The GTX670 is 2 generations removed at this point, and with plans for higher resolutions and newer games, a GTX 970 seems to hit the price to performance sweet spot for resolutions up to 2560×1440. The Asus Strix model works well in my build due to it’s fanless operation under no/light load, it’s quiet fans when under heavy load, and it’s matching of my board (What can I say, color/brand coordinating parts is nice). Once Pascal (Nvidia’s new architecture) releases, I’ll be prepared to evaluate and upgrade again at that time if necessary. If I do deem an upgrade is needed, the 970 should retain a lot of it’s value for resale.

Mushkin Enhanced Reactor 1TB SSD: I can hear the hard drives. Actually, they’re probably the only things I can hear in the computer now, until the video card spins up. I run a really old 640GB Western Digital Black as my games/larger programs drive, and 2TB Seagate Barracuda 7200.12s striped with Windows built in RAID features, which I generally use for scratch files, and recording game footage. Replacing all of those drives with another back mounted SSD should give me loads of room for games, lots of speed, and virtually no noise. I can also remove the drive cage too, which should improve airflow even further. If I want to record game footage, I figured Shadowplay has some fairly low write speeds, and could probably be handled to the file server over the network, but I’ll need to test this. I’m choosing the Reactor because of it’s price point mainly – 1TB of flash memory for under 300 dollars is almost unheard of in Canada. Topping off the great price, it couples that with MLC NAND (Generally more durable and better performing than newer standard TLC NAND) and a proven, problem free Silicon Motion controller. If I do choose to record any footage to the Reactor, it shouldn’t be an issue. Doing the math, it’s good for about 131GB of writes a day, for 3 years. I don’t think I’d be worried about that kind of volume.

Modular/Semi Modular PSU: This one is a tough choice, but I’m pretty sure I have it narrowed down to a final few. The non modular TX650W I currently have is an absolute champ, and it’s actually pretty darn quiet, but it’s getting old, only bronze rated for efficency, and non-modular. There’s an absolute mess of cables behind the motherboard tray, and I’d love to cut down on that a lot. I’ve narrowed my choices down to a 650w-750w model from the Corsair RMi or RMx series, or a 650w-750w model from the EVGA GQ or G2 series. All power supplies considered contain a semi-fanless mode at low/medium power consumption, and are 80Plus gold rated. The current leader of the race is the FSP built EVGA GQ series, considering it’s a bit cheaper due to being semi-modular (Hard wired 24 pin ATX), but includes all ribbon style modular cables. The RMi/RMx/G2 series are all very nice as well, but only really have the advantage of being fully modular, with slightly better voltage regulation/ripple suppression. The RMi series also includes Corsair Link, which I don’t think would be overly useful.

Matching QHD Monitors: This one is a pretty big maybe. The 970 seems to benchmark pretty well in QHD, so I was considering trying to find a good deal on a triplicate of QHD displays. The current front runner seems to be Acer 25″ H257HUs, offering QHD IPS matte panels, DVI, HDMI, and Displayport inputs, and really slim bezels. Only real downside is they’re pretty spartan – No VESA mounting and a pretty average stand. With 3 of those, I’d end up getting rid of my 19″ and my 21.5″, and I’d mount the ultrawide over the center monitor, likely with an arm. This setup will give me a lot more screen real estate, matching IPS LCDs, and the option to play in Nvidia surround if I wanted to.

Here’s hoping for another update soon!

EVGA ACX Cooling Fan Curve – How I Learned I’ve Been Punishing My Ears

I setup my fan curve initially to be extremely aggressive. The GTX670 was a pretty speedy card, and coming from watercooling, I knew that low temperatures meant a happy, and more importantly, non-throttled video card. I think I set the thing initially to start ramping up at 40 degrees, to hit around 100% fan speed at 65 degrees. Kepler needed to be kept under 70 degrees, or it started stepping down it’s boost clock to maintain thermals. Of course, this aggressive fan curve lead to an absolutely roaring fan, even under fairly light loads (2 EVE clients displayed on screen). In my quest for quiet computing, along with installing low noise adapters on the fans in the file sever, and some ghetto sound dampening in the ESXI box (Duct tape and corrugated cardboard for the win!) I decided to try a much less aggressive fan curve on the GTX670.

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Reading further into ACX unit reviews, especially with newer cards, it’s not uncommon for cards to run with their fans off, even under light to medium load. Why not try to replicate that with what I have now? With the above fan curve, the thing pretty much constantly runs at 30% fans while on the desktop and doing regular stuff like watching videos, or browsing the web. Light gaming like Minecraft, AOEII HD, and EVE don’t really even cause the fans to spin up further. Loading Planetside 2 and playing for about an hour saw loads under 70 degrees, and a much quieter case. I think this, coupled with the Define R5’s noise dampening panels, should be perfect for a low noise solution while still maintaining awesome gaming performance. And who knows, maybe one of those fancy GTX970s with the “0 decibel” feature will make its way into my hands. GTX980 even? Asus Strix, I’m looking at you.

New Etymotic HF2s

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After about 5 years of use, my old Etymotic HF2s kicked the bucket. The IEMs were stripped down to bare wire and still working! Of all the things to fail, the cable strain reducer at the 3.5mm connector was the failure point – arguably the best looking part of the old things. Anyway, once they died, I ended up rolling my Apple dual drivers (With foam supertips!) for a good couple months, the entire time wishing I had a new pair of Etys. Bonus time came around, and bonus was good! So the first thing I did was order some new Etys. I was very close to getting the ER4s, but I couldn’t stomach the price difference, considering my source (Google Play Music).

Upon receiving the new HF2s, I replaced the stock brain-ticklers with a pair of medium Shure olives (My new favorite tips for these), and I’ve been in audio nirvana ever since. A lot of people would be turned off by Etymotic’s sound signature – Most describe it as cold and lacking in low end resolution. I however find that it’s amazingly accurate! The highs are extended, but not harshly bright. The mids are very revealing – Lots of microdetail – with excellent separation even in the busiest of tracks, and the low end hits are very well represented, with a fantastically quick decay. While I can agree that the vibrating bass you’d expect from a dynamic driver isn’t there, the quality of the bass, along with the accuracy is unmatched. Listening to anything from dance pop to mellow indie acoustics is an absolute treat. To top it all off, the isolation, even with the Shure olives vs the brain tickler triple flanges is exceptional. Expect the world to melt away with a nice deep insertion.

As always with Etymotic, highly recommended if you’re looking for a fantastically analytical and clean sound. Bassheads beware – These will give you quality, but not ear shaking quantity. Etymotic products like the HF lineup will always be a top choice in my books! On a side note, shout out to the Apple IEMs for being what they are. If you’re strapped for cash, and can find a pair in the 30-50 dollar range, I found them very similar to the Etymotics, with less microdetail/clarity in the mids, and a bit more thump in the low end. On a tight budget, they’re probably the best analytical IEMs out there!

Upgrade Plans: 2016 Continued

Alright, to continue on the last post, I’ve finalized and ordered the upgrade parts! Everything should be here Tuesday next week (Yay holiday weekends…). The final list changed a bit, but it’s not too different:

Intel Core i5 4690K
Asus Z97-PRO GAMER
Samsung 850 EVO 250GB SATAIII SSD

I decided on the Asus over the Gigabyte board in my previous post as i felt it was technically superior for a similar price point. After reviewing the specifications, it seemed to have better reviews, newer Intel gigabit LAN, and a better on board audio setup utilizing an isolated section of the PCB for audio, better capacitors, and an EM shielded audio chip. I plan on dropping my HT Omega Striker, so I’m trying for the best on board audio in my price range. The processor in the order remains the same – I’m used to having a Core i5, and performance wise it’s very similar in gaming and day to day usage as the i7 4790k is, so I don’t see a point in hyperthreading. I have an ESXI lab box for anything that’s massively threaded anyway. I also decided to drop the M.2 SSD in favor of a SATAIII model, mainly because the M.2 would disable 2 SATA ports, and the unit I wanted was back ordered. The 850 EVO SATAIII has great reviews, and performance seems to be solid.  I’m also going to try operating without a dual gigabit NIC in my desktop to try streamlining my network a bit. I’ve since removed my poor man’s VLAN management switch, threw my ESXI management on the main network, and direct connected the file server’s second NIC to the ESXI box. This should cut down on cabling tremendously.

Next step in the upgrade train will be a case overhaul, along with a new set of fans. I’ve decided on:

Fractal Design Define R5 Windowless
3x Noctua NF-A14 PWM
2x Noctua NF-F12 PWM

I’ll be keeping my NH-U12P, and replacing the P12 that’s currently running on it with dual NF-F12s. This is primarily for PWM control, but the F12 is also a bit of a higher performance model as well. I unfortunately lost the second set of fan clips for it, but a quick message to Noctua with the invoice for the NH-U12P got a set of them shipped to me at no charge! Can’t complain about that level of support for an 8 year old heat sink. The Define R5 is a quiet case, which is a bit of a departure from what I’m generally used to, but I don’t really need the extreme levels of cooling or the gamer looks afforded by my history of Coolermaster cases. I want to start prioritizing noise in computing, and the Define R5 is one of the best options for silent cases at it’s price point on the market. Coupling this with the amazing performance and sound levels provided by Noctua fans, all the PWM headers on the Z97-PRO GAMER, and Asus’ great fan control options, I should be able to have a quiet system that can really push some air when load starts to get a bit heavier.

Once everything with the case and initial upgrade is completed, I’ll evaluate and determine what might be next. I believe my GTX670 is going to be plenty of video card for my current needs, but if I find myself gaming more, I may look into a GPU upgrade – The Asus Strix cards have really caught my attention with their “0 decibel technology” which basically doesn’t spin up the fans until a certain temperature is hit, allowing for silent operation. The GTX970 would be a very good stepping stone from the GTX670, and would definitely fall in line with all of my past GPU purchases (Value enthusiast FTW!). I may also consider replacing all of my mechanical storage in the desktop with solid state stuff. 1TB SSDs are coming down considerably in price, and the file server generally handles any large storage requirements like virtual machines or video storage. Time will tell. Upgrades have been a long time coming, and considering how long of a life I generally get out of my hardware, I don’t mind splashing out a bit of money for good stuff.

Anyway, another boring text post, but I do hope to have a lot of pictures of the upgrade.

Rest In Peace, DFI LANParty

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I know the brand has been dead for many years now, but my upcoming hardware upgrade made me think of how awesome the LANParty series of boards was from DFI. I only really have experience with the P35-T2RS and the Blood Iron, but man, the overclocking fun I had with that T2RS gives me a fuzzy feeling. If I could go back and redo things, would I choose a LANParty P55 board over my EVGA? I really can’t say. I can say that if LANParty was to ever make a return, it would probably re-spark a bit of the enthusiast in me.

2016 Mobile Setup

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My first taste of good notebooks, and my first taste of thin and light was with my Acer Aspire Timeline X 3820TG, which I feel was essentially the precursor to the Ultrabook. Extremely slim (for it’s time), packed with a Core i5, loads of RAM and storage, a switchable GPU for extra performance, lots of connectivity, and an absolutely killer battery life for the time, it was a mobile workhorse and carried me handily through my 2nd year in college with lots of back and forth travelling. I fondly remember using it all day in class un-tethered from the wall running virtual machines, web browsing, writing, only to hop on the bus and blog for an hour during my weekend trips back and forth to Amherst. I’d get home to Amherst and connect it to an HDMI monitor and a wireless mouse, and it was like I never left my rig at my apartment.

Of course, with notebooks from that era (2010! Six years ago!) build quality, although pretty alright, was mostly plastic. Only business models like Thinkpads, or Apple products like the Macbook Pro were built to any extremely high standard. The Timeline was falling apart by the end of it’s life in 2014. Had it still been in my hands at the time, it may have lasted longer, but that’s in the past now. What we do see, and thanks to the Macbook Air, is a big push for higher quality, thin and light devices, all backed by Intel and their Ultrabook format. I decided in 2016, I wanted to finally get a notebook that would meet my needs for a high quality travel companion. My requirements are below:

Good screen: 13.3″ or lower IPS LCD screen, 1920×1080 minimum.
Thin and light: Under 2cm thick.
Good build quality: Aluminum unibody, or very high quality plastic build.
Good keyboard: Typing shouldn’t be a chore.
Adequate daily performance: It doesn’t need to be a monster, but being able to handle my workload is a must.
Killer battery life: Seriously, I want that feeling the Timeline X gave me.

The choices very much came down to the Dell XPS 13 Skylake Edition, a loaded Thinkpad x260, or the above pictured device, the Asus UX305CA. I went with the Asus.

13.3″ 1920×1080 matte IPS LCD
Intel Core M3-6y30 @0.9GHz
8GB DDR3 1866MHz
256GB SSD
Intel dual band 7265 AC wireless
3x USB3.0, MicroHDMI, SD card slot, combo headphone jack
45 Wh battery

Build quality is extremely good. The device is 12.3mm at it’s thickest point, and constructed of aluminum. This makes it less thick than the 12 inch Macbook! It’s not quite as light however, weighing in at 2.6 pounds. There’s no real flex in the keyboard tray, or on the screen, and when open the screen doesn’t wobble. It’s amazing what 6 years can do for differences in build quality and engineering. The Aluminum build also helps a lot with heat dissipation, which is necessary because this is a fanless computer. For usability, the keyboard has a surprising amount of key travel for such a thin device, but there is no backlighting. This isn’t a dealbreaker for me, so I won’t complain too much about it. The layout of my model is the bilingual version, so it is a bit different than my keyboard at home, but I’m used to it. The trackpad is large and responsive, but they clicks can be a bit loud. Not a dealbreaker though.

For performance, the Core M3-6y30 is a device designed for low TDP devices like tablets and fanless notebooks. You may think this automatically makes this device slower than a ULV CPU or a regular CPU, but it’s surprisingly zippy! From my research, it’s not that far off burst performance wise from current generation Skylake ULV CPUs, which is helped along by the fact that this is a hyperthreaded dual core with a 2GHz turbo. Considering the aluminum build is great for heat dissipation, extended operation at 2GHz isn’t an issue. I would easily put this on par with the Timeline X I had performance wise daily, but with the added benefit of solid state storage and more RAM. I won’t lie, I was skeptical going into this, but spending some time doing my daily stuff such as installing and running virtual machines, web browsing, listening to music, and even playing some games (AOEII HD and Minecraft) I can say I’ve been very pleased with the performance overall! I still have some stuff to try out like basic photo editing, but I’m confident this is going to handle any mobile blogging needs necessary.

The screen is very impressive. The UX305CA also has a QHD touchscreen flavor, but the hit on battery life and system performance wasn’t worth it in my opinion. On top of that, the matte screen on the 1920×1080 model makes this pretty usable outdoors too! Color accuracy should be good considering the IPS display, and although not professionally measured, I can say nothing looks off. Viewing angles are great as expected too. The adaptive brightness does a good job regulating, and maximum brightness is pretty eye-searing which should be awesome if I do any outdoor work with it. I find 1920×1080 on a 13″ screen is a bit much at 100% scaling, but I did find that 125% was readable while still feeling like it was displaying a lot of information. 150% felt a bit too cramped in comparison. UI scaling in Windows has a ways to go, but it’s mainly developers coding static UIs. At 125%, there are some applications that look fuzzy, but I can live with it. Anything I tend to use daily looks great.

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For battery life, after testing for a few weeks, depending on workload, I can expect anywhere from 6-11 hours on a single charge. If I’m just browsing the web in bed, it’s closer to 11 hours, where if I’m actually doing something like playing games or working with virtual machines, or watching a lot of YouTube, it’s closer to 6 hours. This is still very much on par and even exceeding my Timeline X’s battery performance. I’d love to see even longer battery life, but heck, the thing has a larger screen and still has better battery life than my tablet! Color me impressed.

If I was to list a weakness of the thing, it’d probably be the speakers. They’re not horrible, but they’re downward firing and a bit uninspiring. They’re loud enough to fill a small room, but don’t expect any real depth or richness from them, although clarity is on point. I would have also loved to see the M7-6Y75 model more actively available with my current configuration, but the M3-6Y30 is still plenty fast for my use case.

mxanywhere2

For accessories, I grabbed an MX Anywhere 2 from Logitech. I used to have a VX Revolution, but I recently discovered it’s dead. I did what I could to clean the battery leads, and I even opened it up to ensure everything was connected correctly and there was no corrosion on any of the cables, but alas, it just would not power up. The MX Anywhere 2 drops a few buttons, and there’s no middle click, but it does offer what I want in a mouse: Hyperscroll, side scrolling, forward and back mouse buttons, USB rechargeable, and a Bluetooth connectivity option. I’ve been pleased with the performance of the MX Anywhere 2, however my unit does have a defect. To switch between regular and hyperscrolling, you need to press down on the scroll wheel. This doesn’t work 50% of the time, and requires fiddling with the wheel to get it to function. I would have liked to replace through Best Buy, but they’re currently out of stock. I’ll keep my eyes open, and if they don’t get any stock anytime soon, I’ll just RMA through Logitech, which always had great support in my past dealings with them.

I also ended up grabbing a notebook sleeve, as although the build is robust on the UX305, I’d still like to keep it separated from other things in my backpack. I don’t have any current pictures of the sleeve, but I found a Kapsule branded one on sale at the Source which also included a few nice deep zippered pockets on the sides to store stuff like the tablet, mouse, charger, and any extra cables/drives I might need to take along. It’s half decent looking too, so I may have photos up eventually.

Overall, this is a fairly impressive thin and light mobile setup that meets my needs for daily use! I’m pretty happy with my choices, and I hope they keep impressing me as I use them further.

 

Upgrade Plans: 2016

It’s 2016. I’ve had my current processor and motherboard since 2010. That processor and motherboard released in 2009. I feel like a total scrub, but I’m using SEVEN YEAR OLD HARDWARE. And you know what? It’s actually not that bad. You can definitely feel a bit of a performance hit in modern games, but day to day usage isn’t hindered by speed. If anything, I really want to upgrade for newer standards, like USB3, SATA3, and M.2. The SSD is still plenty fast, but 120GB of storage is feeling cramped. So, I’ve set out with a few requirements in mind, and I think I hit most of them with my choices.

Larger SSD
Core i5 or better
USB3/SATA3/M.2
Dual Intel Gigabit LAN
SLI Functionality

I believe my final choices will be:

Intel Core i5 4690K
Gigabyte Z97X-UD3H-BK
Samsung 850 EVO M.2 250GB SSD
HP NC360T Dual Gigabit PCIe x4 NIC

Intel Core i5 4690K: This processor is a 4th gen Intel Core i5, which is considerably faster than my first gen i5. I’m opting for a K series unlocked CPU in case I choose to overclock in the future. I’m currently running my processor stock, so even at stock clocks it should be leaps and bounds ahead. Another great advantage to 4th gen processors is they still support DDR3 fully. Although it would be nice to grab a Skylake CPU, I don’t really want to drop the extra money for a RAM upgrade. The 16GB of Mushkin Blacklines I have now will be plenty of RAM for the time being, though I may see myself expand to 32GB over time.

Gigabyte Z97X-UD3H-BK: After a lot of searching, this seems to be the board of choice. It supports USB3 (4 USB3 and 4 USB2 ports on board), SATA3 and M.2 (6 SATA3 ports with 4 usable while the M.2 slot is in use), and has on board Intel Gigabit LAN, even though it’s only a single port. rounding that out, it fully supports SLI with 2x PCIe x16 slots (Running at x8 with 2 cards installed) and a 3rd PCIe x16 slot that runs at x4. Reviews are favorable of the on board sound too, with custom capacitors, and a decently loud built in amp. I’ll likely retire the HT Omega Striker in favor of the on board audio.

Samsung 850 EVO M.2 250GB SSD: Affordable, fast storage, in the M.2 2280 format. Should save space and be a bit quicker than regular storage, and let me have plenty of breathing room for games that benefit faster loading times. I may decide to go with a regular SATA3 SSD if it’s priced any cheaper, but right now this M.2 drive is in a pretty sweet spot.

HP NC360T Dual Gigabit PCIe x4 NIC: Since I couldn’t find an affordable Z97 board with dual gigabit Intel NICs, I think the NC360T is a great choice for an add in NIC. Not only is it basically an Intel Pro 1000 PT dual port, it’s also freaking affordable, regularly selling on eBay in the 30-40 dollar range. This is due to them regularly being pulled from off lease/EOL servers. I’m very pleased with it’s performance in my ESXI box, so I can’t see it being disappointing in my regular box. I could go with a single port, but for 5-10 dollars more, it makes sense to just grab a dual port.

At the moment, all in this upgrade should roll for under 800 post taxes and shipping, and I’ll be able to sell my existing gear for a bit of cash to offset. If this lasts for another 6-7 years, I think I’ll be pretty happy. The only upgrades I can see occurring after this are video card related, and it may just end up with me grabbing another GTX670 for SLI, or migrating into something completely different once the performance gap between my card and something newer is a bit higher. For right now, I can run 3 EVE clients at max settings pretty easily, and I can max out any Source engine game at 2560×1080 pretty easily. There isn’t much that I play that would benefit currently from a new video card. If there’s any more hardware upgrades, it’s gonna be more monitors!