Build-A-Rig Round 2: SilverStone and Crucial Interviews and $800 Back-To-School PCsby Ian Cutress on October 13, 2015 8:00 AM EST
Interview with Jeremy Mortenson (Crucial Memory)
Jeremy Mortenson: Senior Product Manager for DRAM, 11 years
Name of Rig: Ballistix Bantam
IC: So what does a Senior Product Manager for DRAM at Crucial do?
JM: I typically work with the consumer product lines, so that’s UDIMM, SO-DIMM and the Ballistix category for performance modules for Micron CPG (consumer products group), which includes the Crucial and Ballistix brands.
IC: How competitive are the SSD and DRAM markets right now?
JM: I think with any commodity market it’s always going to be very competitive. The market has its ups and downs, but we’re well positioned because we are backed by Micron who is one of the semiconductor manufacturers for DRAM. We take their products and integrate it into our products for the channel. But for sure it’s a very competitive market.
IC: Any geographical differences for Crucial? From our perspective you’re pretty much worldwide, right?
JM: Even though we’re global, North America is very strong, Europe is very strong, as is Asia. We really play across every space and category, with our key hubs in North America, Scotland and Singapore for Micron CPG specifically. Asia is always a huge and growing market for the PC and client space and there are always a lot of systems out there. There’s also Latin America too, and we have to consider the local economics and tax related things as part of some of those emerging and growing markets as far as what products to sell, how to import and so on.
IC: How has the reaction to DDR4 been so far?
JM: For the client space, DDR4 is now starting to get legs underneath it with the recent release of some of the newer chipsets and platforms. This means that the OEMs will start to produce their designs for DDR4 so we will see growth here. We’ve been in the server space with DDR4 for a while, so the consumer side is important and it’s not just the enthusiasts as we’re seeing it move into the standard client area. This is exciting due to the benefits that DDR4 brings. Then of course capacity, as we move into 8Gb IC density which means we can provide 16GB SO-DIMM or UDIMM for clients. It’s perhaps not as important for some of the high end systems that have multiple slots but for those smaller form factors (like this build here) with two slots or even one slot it will be important to have the higher capacity on a single module. These are all interesting to me, anyway!
IC: What about in reference to the consistent news that the PC market is in decline? How does Crucial keep ahead of the competition and improve market share?
JM: As you mentioned, the PC market is in a decline but what we see is that the enthusiast side of the equation is growing in share, segmenting into the higher end desktop or smaller form factors or even all-in-ones for example. For us specifically, we find that there’s a long upgrade cycle for each PC shipped so a lot of what our brand addresses in the channel is a lot of upgrade markets and there’s still a big upgrade market for years to come. There’s still a lot of flux, so as that flux disappears we’re going to have to come up with ideas on how to address those markets. It really depends on where the evolution of technology goes after this – after DDR4 I’m not sure what’s next for the PC space as there are a lot of interesting things out there from Micron and others so we’ll see how that evolves over the next few years. But for now, DDR3 has been out for seven or eight years which makes a long upgrade cycle for those machines so it challenges DDR4 to be as long. But after that, the crystal ball is not exactly clear on the way things will go. We’ll continue to innovate and to use the technologies that come out of Micron as well as addressing our customers based on what their needs are and what sort of products we can support them with.
IC: Which are the bigger outlets for Crucial right now – end user builds or working with system integrators?
JM: It’s a good balance of both. We have a lot of datacenter customers that aren’t quite as visible to the average consumer; we deal with some OEMs and ODMs, system integrators and also consumers direct. The way Crucial started, about 15-20 years ago, was selling online direct to consumers and Micron didn’t really have a direct to consumer market model at that time. So the website started a long time ago with some special tools that we still use today and we have a good strong base of clients and consumers where a customer only needs one part/line. But we do a lot of business with bigger companies where we’re selling many parts to one customer. So it’s a pretty good balance, depending on what needs the market will address accordingly.
IC: For Build-A-Rig, how was the call to action for an $800 system?
JM: That’s the fun thing about this sort of exercise – it’s hard to pick with so many choices out there so it’s difficult where to spend the money and where to put the effort. I know we had a set budget but within that there’s a number of trade-offs you can make in various directions so I can see how you can come up with some quite separate machines depending on what people want out of it. Everyone’s going to have an opinion – some will take it but others will leave it!
IC: As we speak, I’m still waiting on a name for the part list you’ve chosen. Do you have a name yet?!
JM: We have several, we’re not sure if we should go with the funny witty one or the specific descriptive one so we’re still deciding! (Jeremy chose 'Ballistix Bantam' in the end.)
IC: So what becomes important in a back-to-school system for $800 from your perspective?
JM: I think it’s easy to spend $800 but the challenge is figuring out what the use model is, and you know if I was going back to school or maybe buying something for my son who is fifteen and then thinking about what sort of system I would help him configure and buy. So it’s easy to spend the money, but challenging to pick and if I would go with a newer chipset or save money with an older chipset, or how much processing power is needed, how much gaming for graphics do you want to do etc. It’s easy to spend – there is plenty of stuff that is expensive, but hard to figure out what solutions to go for with the budget.
IC: For the build you went for an i3, which is almost double the price of the nearest Pentium, as well as taking the older chipset with the DDR3 route. Did DDR4 factor into your decision at all?
JM: There are so many things to look at potentially because you get the DRAM and you don’t necessarily buy a system just to get DDR4 – you’re picking the board and processor first. People tend to focus on how much compute power and what kind of graphics they can use. Obviously if you’ve got a PCIe slot there’s a lot of flexibility for graphics. In terms of the board and processor with this budget we decided that an i3 is a good base line to get a student going. I have several systems at home that have pretty old processors and they still hang pretty well with a new graphics card inside so just to get that base line for the price I thought the i3 had some good legs. The chipset and motherboard had some good features in it too, so that’s kind of why we went with the i3 with the high end frequency. For graphics, I think the GTX 950 gets the system into some basic games when running on a 1080p monitor with medium to higher settings depending on the game being played and certainly does the job for most of the things they’ll be doing in school except for some of the more specialized fields. I think this is a nice balance in terms of compute and graphics.
IC: You’ve chosen an mSATA for this build, even though M.2 as a form factor is increasing in popularity?
JM: Oh absolutely. You can see it today. You know the board we chose is a little bit of an older chipset and has been out there for a little while, and in terms of space and there’s a reason to go with mSATA for now to give the flexibility to upgrade later. The SSD gives them a nice fast boot drive with space for a couple of games or some important applications that you want to get the speed benefits of an SSD. In that case, in the cube it has some room to add a few more drives perhaps for later upgrades beyond the single 3.5-inch drive we also selected. But absolutely, things are moving towards M.2 as you can see with the motherboards on the Skylake platform.
IC: Why have you chosen Windows 8.1 over Windows 10?
JM: You know part of the reason is that because this system is being given away, and Windows 10 being the latest and greatest, I look at it more that it’s great to give people choices. So the person that wins this might want 8.1 or they want 10 and for now they get the free upgrade to 10. They can choose to keep it if they like it or are familiar with it but for a little while they can still upgrade to Windows 10 for free. It’s all about flexibility.
IC: Is a small form factor design in your view good for a BTS build?
JM: I definitely like the size and the form factor for back-to-school, that smaller cube. It’s not as tiny as a NUC but it’s a smaller footprint to a tower and gives power in a limited space such as a dorm room. Plus, if you’re an enthusiast, this system has some cool effects built in and they can be turned on and off. I think there’s some interesting features in the case design itself and some of the components that are going into it.
IC: What about small form factor in terms of the market as a whole – does Crucial feel a hit due to the trend from the large machines to the smaller personal devices?
JM: I think small form factor is very important. To go to my comment earlier, with the overall desktop market decline it’s going to segment back into the high-end enthusiast where people are putting maybe multiple graphics cards and the systems that are left are going to be asked to do more regarding content creation, content management and then you consume it on smaller devices such as a tablet. I mean the other piece is that you might want to do some light content creation on a desktop so it’s going to roll back into the small form factor in this kind of cube size or smaller down to the NUC where it looks like nothing more than a small accessory on your desk. I think it’s important and personally I like the smaller form factors – I went through a phase of the giant towers and I still have a couple but I like the condensed smaller form factors as the thermals and power consumption of the processors and graphics decreases due to temperatures without being too loud.
IC: You’ve mentioned that the system is geared slightly towards gaming, so are you a gamer? What titles are you playing?
JM: Absolutely! I play a little bit of everything. You know as you get older with kids and a career it’s harder to dedicate as much time to a title where you really have to build up a character or multiplayer because you end up at a disadvantage because other people spend so much time on it. But I cut my teeth on really old-school games a long time ago and ever since then I’ve been playing. Today currently I’m looking forward to the new
Raven Shield Rainbow Six that’s coming out, and I also like the Battlefield games as well as the Star Wars titles coming out soon. Today I do a mix of some of the first person shooters and I hop on and off of those, as well as some old school stuff and some indie games – I’m big on buying the Humble Bundles and some of those titles where you get a lot of bang-for-your-buck for the number of titles you get as well as the variety and quality. Lately it tends to be titles I can jump in and out of easily just due to time constraints, but I have a long library with CDs and everything else dating back over a decade and more. I cut my teeth on an 8086 and having to deal with memory managers for games to get things working, so gaming is what really got me into computers in the first place. For example Wing Commander (which I still have) with its pseudo-3D and I had the joystick and at the time it really felt like flying. I think I also have WC2 and WC3 somewhere in the library.
IC: What system do you use for gaming at home?
JM: I have a number of them, but the latest one I have is an X99 based system. It’s an ASUS X99-Deluxe, a lot of Ballistix memory, and I think a GTX 780 graphics card in there. The setup is with dual monitors and a couple of SSDs which does the trick for me.
IC: So to finish, if we were to take this build of yours and spend $400 in upgrades this time next year, what should we focus on?
JM: I think it depends on the user. If I wanted to play more demanding games or push a bigger monitor resolution I would probably go with the graphics first and you could easily spend a few hundred dollars just on the graphics. The configuration the way we did it with the power supply means it has some extra juice in it for a bigger graphics card which the case can handle, so a GPU would probably be the first thing I would look at. Of course there’s some room to also put in some additional storage. Probably those two is where I’d focus first or maybe even the memory. As it stands it has 8GB which tends to work for most things but it depends on the user and how many apps are running. Especially if they’re a student and studying a complex branch of computer science or need a number of virtual machines they will need the additional memory. The nice thing about this board is that you can go up to the i7-4790K as well, with or without extra cooling. The system allows for a range of upgradeability for sure.