and now, let’s talk about mechanical keyboards

UPDATE – There are a number of other Filco Majestouch keyboards available on Amazon right now – supplied probably limited as these are no longer in production.

Anyone following my hardware posts as I build my new workstation (named PREFECT, for reasons which are unlikely to become clear again at the moment), will notice a pattern: each and every single component was chosen after agonizing and masochistic research into trying to determine the optimal choice, balancing performance, cost, and my projected usage pattern – mainly WoW, MATLAB, and Office. (Though I also will be dabbling in programming and web apps development).

At any rate, the few components I have not had to research were monitors, mouse and keyboard. I actually did look into new monitors, but was flummoxed by the fact it’s nearly impossible to find 1920×1200 widescreens anymore – almost all new monitors are 1900×1080, to fit the HDTV aspect ratio of 16:9. I really want my 120 lines of vertical real estate, so i took my father’s old pair of Sceptre X24WG Naga 16:10 screens while he went out and bought himself a honking 32inch HDTV monitor. My wireless keyboard and mouse were also hand-me-downs, a Logitech media set which worked well enough but weren’t the greatest thing in the world to type on (especially in comparison to my Thinkpad T42).

However, I’ve been having intermittent issues with that aging keyboard – first of all, it runs on 2 AAA batteries, which it positively devours. Lately I’ve also been having issues where keys pressed don’t always register which makes my already-high typo rate even worse. And the keyboard is flat as a board, which is another obstacle to me finally learning how to type. Like most keyboards, it’s a rubber-dome mechanism which is essentially a throwaway technology. Given that 99% of my interaction with my computer is via the keyboard, I’ve decided to make the switch to a mechanical keyboard instead. Overclock.net has a great primer to mechanical keyboard technology which really makes the case. It turns out that one of the best switches made is by a German company called Cherry, whose MX-series key-switches are used in virtually all the mechanical keyboards on the market. But these switches come in different variants, which vary in their tactile response and audible sound. The main issue then boils down to what type of profile I want, and then find a vendor who makes that type.

There are other switch technologies like Alps and Topre but for simplicity I am sticking with Cherry-based keyboards (which are also a little cheaper generally, though not always). Let’s go through the various Cherry switches again (I am assuming the Reader is familiar with mechanical keyboard technology or has read the primer I linked earlier).

Cherry MX Blue – a tactile, “clicky” switch. The audible sound is a very loud click, which gives you auditory feedback but may not be the best thing for a quiet environment. The tactile and audible feedback let you move on to your next keypress quickly, which is optimal for typing. These have moderate actuation force (50g) meaning you can rest your fingers on the keys but still easy to initiate a keypress – this is the switch to get if you’re a high-speed typist. However it is not optimal for gaming since the release point is above the actuation point, which means if you are double-tapping a key or pressing the same key a number of times in quick succession, it may not register.

The Das Keyboard and the Razer BlackWidow series both use Cherry MX blues. The BlackWidow comes in a regular version for $70 or an Ultimate version for $120 with backlighting and a USB hub. The Das Keyboard is $130, for both a standard lettered version and also a blank, featureless version, both of which have USB hubs.

UPDATE – You can also get Filco Majestouch 104-key blues at Amazon for $149 – these are no longer manufactured so supplies are limited.

However, I’m pretty certain I’m not interested in a blue-based keyboard because I don’t want a loud “click”. Also, I’m not going to be using it exclusively for typing, so I do want a bit more linear response. So that rules out the Razer for me. Moving on…

Cherry MX Black – basically the opposite of the Blue, with no tactile feedback and no audible clicky sound. The black switches have a linear response where the point of activation is the same as the point of release, which makes it optimal for gaming where you might be pushing the same key a number of times in succession. These are reported to have a very smooth feel, but are supposedly not as great for extended typing. They also have a very high actuation force – 60g, which means a keypress must be very deliberate (minimizing accidental keypresses).

A lot of mechanical gaming keyboards out there use blacks, the most notable of these being the Steelseries 6GV2 for $100 and it’s big brother the Steelseries 7G which adds audio ports and a ginormous palmrest. These keyboards have superior NKRO and make the deliberate decision to exclude a Windows key. Deck Legend keyboards fetauring backlighting can also be found using blacks, in the Fire ($149), Toxic ($159) and Ice ($159) variants.

UPDATE – Amazon has tenkeyless Filco Majestouch keyboards with black MX switches available now for $139.

The silent non-clicky nature of the MX black appeals to me. However, since I am not exclusively a gamer, I’m not sure if a black-based keyboard would be ideal for me. Fortunately there are other options, such as…

Cherry MX Brown, Cherry MX Clear – These are hybrids of blacks and blues, both with a tactile response, but no clicky sound. The main difference between them is that browns have less actuation force than blues (45g) whereas clears have actuation force in between blues and blacks (55g). Thus browns are for warp-speed typists and clears are a good hybrid for gaming and typing. Neither have the linear response of blacks.

You can order Deck Legend keyboards with clears, in Frost ($176) and Ice ($169) variants.

Das Keyboard also comes in a “silent” variant using browns, again in lettered or non-lettered variants, both $135.

UPDATEFilco Majestouch 104-key Brown keyboards are also in stock for $149 at Amazon. As mentioned above, these are discontinued boards so supplies are limited.

Cherry MX Red – these have the same linear response as the blacks, but with lower actuation force of 45g akin to browns. No tactile response and no audible click.

I actually could not find any keyboards for sale at the usual retail outlets or online using these switches.

UPDATE87-key (tenkeyless) Filco Majestouch with red switches is available at Amazon for $165 and free shipping – extremely rare, worth snapping up if you have even passing interest. Possibly the ideal hybrid keyboard for typing and gaming.

UPDATE 2 – the tenkeyless Filco Reds are out of stock now but they have full-size 104-key Filco Reds instead for $179. Still worth snapping up!

All of the keyboards above with the exception of the Decks have sculpted keys, where different rows have different height, to accomodate the different distances fingers must travel from the home row. And all of them support n-key rollover, where multiple keypresses will register without the “beep” (also called anti-ghosting), to varying extent. You always get better NKRO using the PS/2 port than if you use USB, so you should use a USB to PS2 adapter (which is included with the Steelseries, unsure about the others).

SUMMARY – So, as usual, I need to make a decision. I don’t like the lack of sculpting and higher cost of the Decks. And I don’t want a blue, as I’m not a warp-speed typist and am not interested in clicky sound, ruling out the Razer. All things being equal I’d lean towards a clear-based board, but only Deck makes those. Brown might also work, if I can live with accidental keypresses, but Das Keyboard is expensive. The Steelseries seems to be the best balance of features and cost, but it’s only available with black switches. However as I am not a great typist so maybe that would be ok. I’m just not sure. Probably any of these boards (well, apart from the blue – just not a fan of loud click) would be a dramatic improvement for all my writing and gaming over my current membrane-based Logitech. There are some comparative reviews of mechanical keyboards from BenchmarkReviews and from Tom’s Guide, but these aren’t much help.

Sigh. Decisions, decisions. I think the Steelseries is probably my best bet. Any advice?

hard drive and storage woes

Figuring out the optimal solution for backup and storage has been really difficult for PREFECT, not least because both the original WD Caviar Black and then the replacement Samsung Spinpoint F3 drives I purchased as main drive seemingly failed. In the former case it was BSOD after BSOD, and then the latter it was repeated disk read errors. The WD was from NewEgg, the Samsung from Amazon, so yesterday in frustration I drove to best Buy and bought an overpriced Seagate Barracuda. If this drive starts throwing disk read errors then I know its a software issue as I’ve cycled through all the major retailers and vendors at this point.

I had earlier decided against RAID, but now I wonder is that might be a solution again. I have this Barracuda in place, which gives me some breathing room (and a 30-day return window). Given that Spinpoints are on sale for $55 apiece right now at NewEgg, what if I bought two of them and set them up in RAID-1? That would be about the same price as this single barracuda, and it’s a faster drive (see HD Tune benchmarks for the Samsung, the Barracuda, and also the 2TB Caviar Green I am using as a data store, below).

My backup strategy is to have a 2TB drive in the system (the Caviar Green) where I store Windows backup files, a copy of all my backups of the other PCs in the house, and assorted files like VDI and ISO and torrents. I also have a 1 TB external drive, where I also store a copy of the old backups. And then my primary drive has my OS, apps, and documents in current use. I also am evaluating Backblaze which seems to be a little more robust than Carbonite and less expensive than Mozy, for off-site cloud storage.

If I replace the primary TB drive (currently the Barracuda) with two Spinpoints in RAID-1, then if I understand it correctly, I might even see some slight read-speed advantages, while gaining redundancy from disk failure. My biggest fear is that a disk failure leads me to lose some short-term data which isn’t captured by my backups or by Backblaze.

Am I being overly paranoid? I’d like to solicit some opinions from you all. I’m not interested in spending more money aside from potentially replacing the Barracuda with the pair of spinpoints. I could see an argument for buying a single SSD for just the OS, however (though not right now, later). What do you think? go for the spinpoints? do RAID or not?

benchmarks from HDTune below the fold… Continue reading “hard drive and storage woes”

I dodged a bullet…

Thank god I pulled the trigger on my new build in December prior to Sandy Bridge. Had I waited, I’d probably have convinced myself to do a Sandy Bridge build instead, and then I’d be facing this:

Intel has today announced that its 6-series chipset, for use with the Sandy Bridge processors released earlier this year, has a serious flaw and that the company is recalling and replacing the affected parts. The chipsets, which provide PCI Express, USB, and other connectivity to the processor, have a problem in their SATA controllers causing performance to degrade over time.

In its statement, the company states that customers who have taken delivery of systems with the P67 and H67 “Cougar Point” chipsets can continue to use their systems “with confidence,” suggesting that the flaw is restricted to a performance issue and cannot cause data loss. Nonetheless, such users should contact their computer manufacturers to obtain a fixed system.

bottom line, anyone who has a Sandy Bridge motherboard and CPU is going to need to return their components for new ones.

Anandtech has way more detail. I’m quite happy to have dodged this bullet, and that I ignored lots of advice to wait for SB.

Sharikou is going to gloat like crazy about this one!

hard drive woes

UPDATE: In retrospect, it’s probable that the BSODs with Carbonite earlier were not Carbonite’s fault, but the bad drive. No impugning of Carbonite was intended 🙂 My apologies to the Carbonite staff who are not reading this post anyway.

I’ve had a bad time of it, but thanks to the support from Microsoft’s forums it’s clear that my hard drive is the problem. The OS loses a connection to the drive, which could be a bad or loose cable. I think that its bad blocks however as my file backup hangs in certain specific places and I might actually have to abandon some data (though I have the bulk of it copied to a new disk).

My intention is to use the secondary drive (2TB Caviar Green, lower performance but great power consumption profile) as local backup and bulk storage. The question is, what do I do now for a primary drive? I am considering several options:

– an SSD. Advantage, massive performance boost. Disadvantage, would only hold the OS and then my secondary drive is my data bottleneck. Given my problem with Carbonite earlier I am cool on cloud backup now. Also, cost of course. And then I would also need to decide whether a drive supporting SATA 6 Gb/s woudl be worth it or not.

– a 1TB drive (performance oriented). Advantage: Cheaper. I’d probably go with Samsung instead of WD because I want a 1TB, SATA 3 Gb/s drive instead of 6 (the caviar black drives all seem to be 6’s now, unless you go up to 1.5 or 2 TB). Disadvantage: the hard drive would be the bottleneck of the system. Here’s a useful comparison of 2-platter terabyte drives, proving there really was no point in paying extra for the WD drive.

I have the old 1 TB drive from the kids computer to tide me over until I decide what to do. I am torn here. I simply need a fast drive for the OS and my primary data store, which I can backup to the secondary drive.

Actually, I’m not torn. The Spinpoint is only $60 at Amazon, so if I want to do SSD later on I can always do that, the F3 will be useful until then and even afterwards as “primary” storage secondary to the SSD. Guess I’ll pull the trigger on this…

Carbonite backup caused BSOD on Win 7 64

UPDATE: In retrospect, it’s probable that the BSODs were not Carbonite’s fault, but due to a bad drive. No impugning of Carbonite was intended 🙂 My apologies to the Carbonite staff who are not reading this post anyway.

I installed Carbonite as part of my backup strategy for PREFECT, and started experiencing all sorts of issues – my system would slow down, freeze, become glacial, and even on occassion do a BSOD. I didnt realize it was Carbonite at first – started wondering if I had damaged the CPU while installed the cooler, or somesuch – but eventually realized the culprint when my router fortuitously lost a connection, causing Carbonite to disable itself on reboot of the system when no network could be detected. The system became much more functional immediately, so i uninstalled it. Again, fortuitously, I had a BSOD immediately afterwards and the XML log indicated Carbonite as the culprit. I’ve uninstalled it now and am running a memory diagnostic, after which I’ll throw Prime95 at it for good measure. I am not 100% positive Carbonite was responsible for the general system instabilities, but the evidence it caused a BSOD was undeniable (see here for my post at Technet support forums).

I don’t see much else out there about others having issues with Carbonite on W764, so it could just be my unique environment. I am running Dropbox and Live Mesh, so maybe all these cloud services don’t play nicely with each other? I’m not sure. I’ll give Mozy a shot instead; some advantages of Mozy are monthly billing instead of annual (though no 15-day free trial period like Carbonite), and also they will mail you DVDs if you need to do a full restore (never underestimate the bandwidth of a truck carrying DAT tapes, as the legend goes).

At some point I should post all my benchmarks for PREFECT – if I can get these issues sorted out, this machine should be a real beast by all measures.

(Though why my memory usage is at 21% after boot with no apps running, I am not exactly clear… I’ve got 8 GB on here for MATLAB!)

on the merits of SATA 3…

In a nutshell, I made a mistake spending extra for the 6 GB/s version of the Caviar Black terabyte hard drive, rather than the $20 cheaper 3 GB/s SATA II version.

I should have had the foresight to google the performance benefits of SATA III on traditional hard drives ahead of time; my earlier posts in this series are well-laden with links to my research for the other components. I originally was going to reuse the 1 TB Hitachi drive, but I found it limited my WEI score to 5 whereas the rest of the components were solid 7s. Benchmarks with HDTune were also slightly disappointing; basically in a system I designed for balance, the hard drive was the weak spot.

In hindsight, I should have realized that the 600 MB/s data rate for SATA III exceeds the physical capability of any mechanical hard drive. SATA II’s uppermost limit of 300 MB/s is already near the ceiling of a hard drive’s data access time, unless there’s some massive technological improvement ahead (akin to perpendicular magnetic recording, but more so).

At some point, I’ll move to an SSD drive for my main OS install and then use the terabytes for secondary storage (JBOD). I’m waiting for the 256 GB SSDs to come down in price to where the 128 GB drives are now – basically, I’ve realized that for a midlevel enthusiast build, the magic price point is $200 for any given piece of hardware. An extreme, gamer build will have a price point of $300 per piece. This is a rule of thumb I need to flesh out more when I do my final post on building this new rig.

Anyway, I guess i have a very future-proof disk now 🙂 The other big gotcha I encountered was that I did not set my BIOS to enable AHCI mode prior to installing the OS, which meant that changing the mode after OS install gave me a BSOD. Basically, the problem and the solution as described in Microsoft Knowledge Base article 922976. I ran the fixit, rebooted to BIOS, set everything to AHCI, and it worked. I forgot to redo the HDTune and WEI benchmarks, I’ll do that later today along with the other usual benchmark tools and post them here, with some pics of the new build.

In other news, I installed a DVD drive (multi r/w with BR playback), and I still need to put my CPU cooler in (the Mugen reviewed here). I’m going to call the machine Prefect, in keeping with my H2G2 theme. It definitely is the best machine I’ve ever owned and likely to last me a long time.

nested RAID level 0+0 – ultimate performance?

I'll take four of these, please... RAID 0+0 = win?
I briefly considered RAID for storage in my new system, but realized that RAID is basically useless as a backup mechanism. Others have made the basic case for why RAID sucks as backup better than I can; I went ahead and ordered a new Caviar Black with the 6 Gb/sec interface as my main drive, and will re-use my older Hitachi for regular internal backup and large video files, torrents etc. Regular Windows backup tool will be enough; I’ll also add a network disk on teh router for network backup of all the machines, and probably get a service like Carbonite for offsite backup.

While researching RAID, though, I became fascinated by the concepty of nested RAID (I had watched Inception twice on a recent flight :). Nested RAID levels are of course nothing new – RAID 1+0 and RAID 0+1 being the most common, giving you advantages of both mirroring and striping for both redundancy and performance.

But what if you nested RAID 0 twice? In other words, four disks, each pair a RAID 0 array, and then those arrays also in RAID 0?

RAID 0 gives you almost double the performance of a single disk (much as SLI gives you almost double the performance of a single GPU), at double the cost (double the drives). Does nesting RAID 0 scale linearly? Would RAID 0+0 give you almost 4x performance at 4x cost?

Triple SLI doesn’t quite give you triple performance, as there is some overhead in coordinating between the cards, In the case of RAID, the overhead is borne by the RAID controllers, however, and theoretically each controller only has to worry about 2 logical units. So I would expect that nesting level 0 RAID arrays would be less burdened by overhead and would be closer to true linear scaling.

Has anyone ever done this? It’s insanely expensive of course – 4 disks, with 4x more risk of drive failure and absolutely no redundancy at all. Though you could envision a RAID 0+0+1 array where you have 4 disks in RAID 0+0 and then do a simple RAID 1 array at the very top with a much larger drive. An example would be to do RAID 0+0+1 with 4 128 GB SSDs and 1 500 GB hard disk. It would be easy to simply reduce the nesting level for performance comparisons, to see how RAID 0+0+1 fares against RAID 0+1, RAID 1+0, RAID 0, and RAID 1 as the baseline.

I don’t have 4 SSDs and a spare 500 GB disk lying around. Or 5 hard drives of any sort, frankly. But I bet the Tom’s folks have the hardware to spare lying around the bench. I’ve posted a forum topic there to see if I can get their attention.

If someone were to spend money on this, though, clearly the best hardware would be four of these Sandforce-based 128 GB drives from ADATA, which basically has all the tech sites swooning. Couple that with a 500 GB WD Caviar Black for the +1 part of the RAID 0+0+1 array and you’d have serious hardware. Total cost for the drives alone would be about $850 as of this posting date, for 500 GB of storage. But if I’m right about the linear scaling, then this would be ridiculously fast.