I had an epiphany the other day. Long time AnandTech readers will know that I used to do a far better job of keeping you guys apprised of what it was that I was working on. Somewhere along the way that got lost so today I’m going to try something...old, I guess. Here’s an update of what’s been going on.

The WePC Update

I've been working on a side project with ASUS called WePC.com. The idea is pretty cool: ASUS is tapping the community for ideas on what they'd like to see from its users in future notebook designs. I wrote about this at the end of last year but I've done a lot of work on it since then so I thought it'd be worthy of an update.

Last week I wrote about how simple it was to build a HTPC with a nice interface thanks to maturing integrated graphics platforms and good media center plugins. I also talked about the future arrival of Westmere and when the best time would be to buy your next laptop. Around the Athlon X2 7850 launch I talked about replacing aging PCs on a budget and seeing some pretty good performance results.

The netbook market is a very fast growing one so I broke out the crystal ball and tried to figure out where it was all going. I touched on NVIDIA v. Intel, the purported death of the desktop, SSD capacities and styling from a company other than Apple. It turns out I've written quite a bit over there, so check it out and join the discussion.

I’m working on SSDs Again

A couple major things have happened since my last in-depth look at SSDs. For starters, some drives now support the almighty Trim command. Both OCZ’s Vertex (and other Indilinx based drives) as well as the new Samsung drives should support Trim. Obviously you need the right firmware and you need an OS (or a utility) that supports Trim to take advantage of it, but it’s there and admittedly it’s there much earlier than expected.

That’s a good thing for drives like the new Samsung ones (Corsair’s new SSD is based on this drive) because their worst case scenario used performance is just bad. I’ve briefly touched on this in previous articles, but Samsung’s controllers don’t appear to do a good job of managing the used scenario I’ve been testing with. Thankfully, the latest controller’s support for Trim should help alleviate this issue. I’m still working on figuring out how to identify if a drive properly supports Trim or not.

I’ve also received the new OCZ Vertex EX (SLC) drives as well as the 30GB and 60GB variants of the MLC Vertex drives. The former is too expensive for most consumers but I’ll be putting it up against the X25-M to see how it fares in a high end desktop, all while trying to get enough together for Johan to do a proper enterprise level test. The 30/60GB Vertex drives are spec’d for lower write speeds so I’m going to be testing those (finally) to see what the real world impact is.

I can’t help but mention Windows 7 at this point, because I *really* want to switch to it for all of my SSD testing. Windows 7 is far more reliable from a performance standpoint. Although our recent article showed that it’s not really any faster than Vista, my SSD testing has shown that it’s at least more consistent with its performance results. Part of this I attribute to Windows 7 doing more intelligent grouping of its background tasks than Vista ever did, although it is surprising to me that we’re not seeing noticeably better battery life as a result.

How much would you guys hate me if I switched to Windows 7 sooner rather than later?

Nehalem Mac Pro: Upgrading CPUs

I actually finished testing the new Nehalem based Mac Pro several weeks ago, but in keeping up with tradition I had to see if it was possible to upgrade the CPUs on the new Mac Pro.

Indeed it is, but it’s a bit more complicated than you’d think.

Apple makes two models of the Mac Pro, one with two sockets and one with only a single LGA-1366 socket. The two socket model, often referred to as the 8-core Mac Pro, actually uses Nehalem CPUs without any heatspreaders. I suspect this is to enable them to run at their more aggressive turbo modes more frequently (high end Xeons can turbo up to higher frequencies than regular Xeons or the Core i7). The single socket model uses standard Xeons with heatspreaders, so there’s nothing special there.

I actually managed to kill a processor card doing the CPU swap but I’ve taken the hit so you all don’t have to :) It’ll all be included in the article, I’m simply waiting on a replacement heatsink since an integrated thermal sensor got damaged during the initial swap. For now just know that it is possible to upgrade the CPUs in these things and it’s not too difficult to, you just need to know what to expect and to be patient.

If you’re on the fence of buying today, opt for the slower CPUs and upgrade later if you’d like. And if you already have a good Mac Pro and aren’t terribly CPU bound, save the money and buy SSDs instead - in many cases the performance improvement is far greater. Once again, I’ll address all of this in the article itself.

Nehalem-EX: 2.3 billion transistors, eight cores, one die

I spent about 45 minutes on a conference call with Intel yesterday talking about the new Nehalem-EX processor for multi-socket servers. Here’s a crude picture of the die:


That's 2.3 billion transistors thanks to 8 Nehalem cores and a 24MB L3 cache

Nehalem-EX, which I’ve spoken about before, is an 8-core version of Nehalem. It is not socket-compatible with existing Nehalem platforms as it has four QPI links (up from two in the LGA-1366 Xeon versions). The four QPI links enable it to be used in up to 8-socket systems for massive 64-core / 128-thread servers.


Four socket Nehalem-EX platform

Remember that the Nehalem architecture was optimized for four cores, but it was designed to scale up to 8-cores and down to 2. As such, the Nehalem-EX is actually a monolithic 8-core processor with a gigantic 24MB L3 cache shared between all 8 cores. Also remember that Intel wanted a minimum of 2MB of L3 cache per core, so Nehalem-EX actually goes above and beyond that with 3MB per core if all cores are sharing the cache equally.

Hyper Threading is supported, so that’s 16-threads per 8-core chip. I’d also expect some pretty interesting Turbo modes on an 8-core Nehalem.


Eight socket Nehalem-EX platform, note that the CPUs connect through SMBs before getting to main memory. Say goodbye to FB-DIMMs, but hello to on-motherboard buffers.

The memory controllers are a bit different with the Nehalem-EX. Each socket supports up to 16 DIMMs, but instead of supporting FB-DIMMs Intel moved the memory buffer onto the motherboard. The Nehalem-EX memory controllers communicate directly to memory buffers (Intel calls them Scalable Memory Buffers) which in turn communicate directly to standard DDR3 memory. This is a much preferred approach as it keeps expensive, slow and power hungry FB-DIMMs out of the majority of the server market where it doesn’t make sense and enables large memory installation on these gigantic servers with 64 DIMM slots.

Intel expects to be shipping Nehalem-EX by the end of this year, with the first systems shipping at the beginning of 2010.

AnandTech Bench: Thanks for the Feedback

I made a post last week about me adding the Atom 230 and 330 to AnandTech Bench and shortly thereafter received a tremendous amount of very useful feedback.

I agree completely that we need to get rid of the “shorter bars mean better performance” metrics, as well as tidy up the interface a bit. I need to hammer out a list of specs but it does help to have your feedback and you can expect to see much of what you’ve asked for in future versions of the app.

I also asked to see what sorts of older CPUs you’d like to see included, and to my surprise there was a lot of demand for very old CPUs like the Pentium III or Athlon XP. I tallied up all of the responses and by far the single most requested CPU was the Athlon XP (granted if you added up all the different Pentium 4 variants that would easily take the cake).

As a result I’m going to be dusting off an old Athlon XP system, in addition to a single-core Hyper Threaded Pentium 4 as well as VIA’s Nano and will be running benchmarks on all three over the coming weeks.

Many of you also want a mobile CPU version of bench; rest assured, I do too. Let me see about getting these older desktop CPUs in first and then I’ll work on mobile.

That’s all for now. Hopefully I’ve provided a good taste of what’s to come in the not too distant future.

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  • Jaybus - Wednesday, May 27, 2009 - link

    The trade off is a more expensive motherboard, though, that has buffer memory. It wasn't clear to me where this memory would be, separate ICs soldered to the mb or integrated into the chipset. My guess is the former, at least to begin with, in which case RAM manufacturers won't hate the change nearly as much. Reply
  • tshen83 - Wednesday, May 27, 2009 - link

    Instead of subsidizing FB-DIMM's AMB chip on each DIMM sold because of extra power consumed, now Intel can charge for the SMB chips individually(8 socket system would require a whooping 32 SMB chips).

    Depending on how much Intel wants to price those SMB chips, it could make or break Nehalem-EX's platform. (A simple $10 per SMB would easily mount to 320 dollars cost to the motherboard manufacturers, which could then turn into a 600 dollars+ premium on the motherboard)

    This approach is indeed the correct one from a technical perspective. Basically Intel wants all the memory premium associated with Nehalem-EX platform by forcing the memory makers into producing commodity DDR3 DIMMs, not FB-DIMM2s.

    128 threads + 128 DIMMs...this is porn.
    Reply
  • KentState - Tuesday, June 02, 2009 - link

    A $600 premium isn't going to add much to the overall cost. I would bet that an 8-way server with 128GB of ram is going to run $40k+. Reply
  • sprockkets - Wednesday, May 27, 2009 - link

    Looking forward to it. Reply
  • vol7ron - Thursday, May 28, 2009 - link

    Did he say he's gonna compare the new SLCs to the X25-M. Isn't the X25-M an MLC? I know Intel puts out a decent SSD, but is that a fare comparison? Reply
  • vol7ron - Friday, May 29, 2009 - link

    by fare I meant fair Reply
  • sbuckler - Monday, June 01, 2009 - link

    If they are of a similar size/cost then obviously it's fair to compare them as people looking for a drive of that size/cost will be able to pick either. Reply
  • vol7ron - Monday, June 01, 2009 - link

    I thought cost was almost negligent with regards to the enthusiast market :)

    I thought you compare on comparable performance and then evaluate the costs; since, after all, prices change due to rebates, sales, and demand.
    Reply

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