Future PC

aka Bob is assimilated by his Borg Cube...

 

The future is not to be forecast, but created.
Arthur C. Clarke

With the Borg Cube operational (notice I didn't say "finished"), what's next?

More speed, of course! I make it a practice to upgrade whenever I can effectively double the performance of my system. I take the guts of the old system, which are still pretty potent, and upgrade one of my hand-me-down machines. In this case, I will be using the former BorgCube to create a more powerful machine for my son.

Future Trends

Some random thoughts on the make-up of a future Borg Cube...

Crystal Ball: Or Mad Onion?

If you haven't already, give some thought to signing up for MadOnion. They make the famous 3DMark series of benchmarks, and their site is really interesting. You download 3DMark2001, run it on your computer, and it has an option to upload your results to their database. From there, you get to see how your system compares to others in performance. Very nifty!

What's even more interesting is to read the unabridged list of benchmarks and see what kinds of configurations are at the top of the heap. You can quickly find out what CPU, graphics card, and motherboard are needed to be at the top of the heap. Most of the top placed systems are overclocked, so you get a kind of crystal ball that tells you how faster the next generation will be, since these overclockers are running at next generation speeds.

For comparison, my Borg Cube today turns in a score of 6952:

Two Borg Cube benchmarks and the Micron's pathetic benchmark...

At the time I finished the Cube, the high score was held by a Finnish fellow named macci: 13,101! He has been known to do things like experiment with liquid nitrogen cooling!

13,101!?!!

A couple of things are interesting to note. First, my old Micron 733 at 1628 is only about one third the performance of my 6952 Borg Cube, running a 1.4 GHz Athlon. Time and again we have seen that the AMD chips are much faster than Intel for a particular clock speed. The trouble is that Intel usually gets them to clock a little faster. As I write this, you can buy a 3 GHz Pentium, but the fastest AMD chip is the 2800+, which runs at a clock speed of 2.25 GHz. Even though it is much slower, the AMD is fully the equivalent of a 2.8 GHz Pentium. Trouble is, you can buy a 3 GHz. Worse, the Pentiums are currently highly overclockable. The fellow at the top of MadOnion today, holicho, is running his at 4GHz!

The other factor contributing hugely to this particular benchmark is the graphics card. The Micron has a TNT2, and the GeForce3 just crushes it. Since I bought my G3 card, two newer generations of graphics technology have appeared. First, nVidia released the GeForce 4, of which the Ti 4600 is the most powerful incarnation. Not too long after, ATI released the Radeon 8500 and then the 9700 pro. Video cards have, in fact, outstripped the CPU's in terms of their performance increases. The top of the Mad Onion board, as of December 2002, is now an amazing 21,504 using a 4GHz Pentium and an ATI Radeon 9700 Pro card! If you own an older computer, your biggest upgrade bang for the buck is a new video card, at least if you like games.

As you can see, with the amazing MadOnion scores we see today, doubling Borg Cube's performance, and hence triggering an upgrade has become almost too easy. Let's look at some of the technologies likely to be used for the BorgCube upgrade:

ATI Radeon 9700 Pro: The current alpha dog of graphics cards...

I want a particular variety--the Tyan Tachyon 9700 Pro:

Tyan Tachyon G9700 Pro

I favor this board for three reasons. First, all the other 9700 cards are just the ATI reference design--just relabeled versions of the same thing. Tyan has done something different in hopes of achieving even higher performance. Second, cosmetically, it matches the BorgCube a lot better than the bright red ATI cards. Third, I want to take advantage of the funky cooling sink. I intend to use it as a heat spreader in conjunction with water cooling so that both the GPU and the memory chips get some cooling!

You too can have supercomputer visualization on your desktop these days, not that you need it. Any major Borg Cube upgrade will definitely have to have one of these bad boys.

AMD CPU Progress

I prefer the AMD CPUs to Intel's because they are faster for a given clock speed and because they are cheaper. In addition, it's easier for me to upgrade the hand-me-down PC's around the house if they are all using compatible technologies. It so happens that for most of the time, even though AMD appears to have a vastly inferior clock speed to the Pentium 4's, that the chips have benchmarked out as the fastest things going. Currently, the fastest available chip is the 2800+, which retails for $350ish.

Both Intel and AMD have major new processor technologies in the pipeline as well, with the biggest news being Intel's hyperthreading architecture. This is basically just a way for a single CPU to pretend that it's really 2 CPU's as far as the OS is concerned. It does this because current CPU's have so many parallel components that it becomes easier to keep them all busy with 2 threads to choose from rather than one. With the advent of generally available multiprocessing operating systems (i.e. Windows XP Pro) to take advantage of these architectures, it only makes sense to go ahead and produce them in hardware. Apparently, this can lead to about a 20% performance increase in applications that are prepared to multithread. Oddly, I read somewhere that an unnamed Intel official confirmed hyperthreading already exists on the P4 chip, but is disabled. I guess they like to keep some guns in reserve in case AMD pulls a fast one!

AMD has two new technologies on the way--Barton and Hammer. Hammer is a whole new ballgame, so I'll wait to switch to it. This will be my last non-Hammer configuration though. Barton is just a more souped-up version of the existing Athlons, with more cache among other things.

Not enough? Rest assured, after panicking about a year ago, chip engineers now tell us we've got at least 10 years on the Moore's Law cycle with current known physics. Predictions are that we'll be seeing 5-10 GHz Pentiums before too long. Wow! If we can get a 5x improvement like that from the CPU's, and corresponding improvements everywhere else, it means the 3DMark for those machines will be almost 100,000. That's about 20x the Borg Cube. Seems like that ought to allow photo-realistic gaming. Unbelievable!

The Hannacroix Concept PC: What Intel thinks the future of PC hardware will be:

We can't let the disk drive technology lag behind on this project!

I think the serial ATA technology for drives is really cool. The old flat IDE ribbon cabled have been around for as long as I can remember looking inside computers and its about high time it was replaced. The new technology should be both faster, and more reliable. Apparently, it has double the bandwidth of the old ATA100 standard. The standard was finalized in June, 2000, but is not expected to see any actual adoption until the second half of 2002, according to a Maxtor white paper I read.

Apparently, there will be parallel to serial dongles that effectively change the old ribbon cable connections to serial ATA and vice versa to ensure easy migration.

I'd love to upgrade the Borg Cube with a motherboard that featured Serial ATA with an onboard RAID controller and perhaps some of the first (as yet unannounced/unreleased) 10,000 rpm IDE drives.

The Hanncroix also features USB 2.0 and Firewire coming on strong. These are great high bandwidth peripheral connection topologies. I'm looking forward to a 20GB Nomad Jukebox sporting a USB 2.0 connection sometime in 2002. As these plug-and-play technologies get ever faster I find myself wondering how long it will be before motherboards start to really limit the number of PCI slots supported? I guess they are cheap, but lots more trouble for a user than plugging in USB. The Hannacroix Concept PC appears to have a single PCI slot and the AGP slot for a graphics card, and that's it. Given how fast graphics cards evolve on performance, and how profound their effect, I'd hate to see the AGP slot taken away any time soon.

What's needed is a standardized form factor to allow hot swapping USB devices into standard sized drive bays. The back of the bay would have a plug-in power connector and USB. You could buy modems, network cards, digital camera/PDA/mp3 docking ports, hard disks, CD ROMs, and almost anything else to plug right into these bays without ever having to open the machine up. Boy would that be cool!

10/100/1000 Ethernet

Yes folks, 1GB Ethernet NICs are available at Fry's for about $75 when last I looked. There are some listed at www.pricewatch.com for $40. A D-Link 9-port 1GB switch is about $600, and on its way down. This will be the technology to go for, providing a full gigabit over ordinary CAT-5 copper wiring, even though a use for it in the home might never be discovered. With a network this fast, maybe you really can PC Anywhere within the LAN and have it be just as fast as using the same computer, or darn close to it. If nothing else, it should speed accessing my backup server. Interestingly, I have discovered that when my backup program is running, it only consumes about 1/3 of the network bandwidth, but when I am copying from Explorer to Explorer it can get to almost 100% consumption. Yes Virginia, we definitely need that gigabit networking!

AMD Motherboards

It's a choice today between a board based on the Via KT400, the current champ, or the new nForce 2 chipset. Interestingly, AMD asked earlier reviewers of their 2700+ and 2800+ to please benchmark on an Asus nForce 2 mobo, promising better performance. I think the jury is still out, principally because Abit (the overclock champs) have yet to get their nForce 2 story straight, but the nForce is promising. It has the ability to lock some of the buses while still increasing memory bandwidth which makes overclocking a little easier. The 9700 Pro graphics cards, in particular, are often the bottleneck to extreme FSB overclocking, and this board overcomes that issue. Some folks are saying its just a lot more stable at high FSB.

BTW, the whole FSB issue is another example where Intel leads AMD. The bus speeds on Intel are dramatically faster. The nForce 2 helps narrow that in two ways. First, its easier to run higher FSB's. Second, they support double bank DDR memory, which can be faster with two sticks of RAM than the other modes. The nForce 2 also supports AGP 8x, though I have yet to read a review that could detect a performance difference between 4x and 8x of any consequence.

The reigning champ for overclock performance is the Abit KD-7, which is a KT400-based board. It's got a lot of cool overclock features and is slightly more feature rich than the stripped KX-7 overclock boards of yore--meaning it has onboard sound and LAN. I'm still agonizing over the choice between a KD-7 and an nForce 2 board, but it'll probably be the KD-7--it's cheaper, easier, and more proven technology. The KD-7 can also be had with Serial ATA, which is kind of cool. Probably won't matter--before I get to SATA I'll want a Hammer mobo!

3GIO Uber Buss

Intel's 3GIO is apparently the standard that will replace PCI, although AMD would probably love to intercept that with HyperTransport. Everybody who is anybody has signed up to make 3GIO the PCI replacement, with the target timeframe being 2H2003. That's puts it 1 Moore Cycle (18 mos) after 1Q2002. If you, like me, wish to upgrade every time performance doubles, what you buy now will then be trumped by one of the new 3GIO in the latter half of 2003. Curiously, 3GIO is a serial interface, which means it requires fewer wires than PCI by far. It does have the ability to gang multiple "lanes" to produce higher connect speeds, as well as the ability to isolate sub-buses for various purposes. All in all, it looks to be an extremely potent replacement for PCI.

Water Cooling

 

See how the Borg Cube will get Water Cooling...

New Front Panel

How do we add this to the Borg PC?

Peltier Cooling

At some point every good modder has to try active cooling of one kind or another. There are two choices, either Peltier (solid-state thermoelectric) cooling or Phase Change Cooling (i.e. a little mechanical refrigeration unit connected to the CPU). Given the size constraints of the BorgCube, it's better suited to Peltier cooling. Given this involves completely redoing my CPU water block that I worked so hard on, the logical time to do this is when I go Hammer.

BorgCube To Do List

 

Water Cooling

 
     Finish Radiator Assembly (4" CCFL Kit, Vinyl Dye? Socket Head Hardware? 120mm Hole Saw? Weather Strip)  
        Install Radiator Shroud Mounting Tabs  
        Mount 120mm fan to shroud  
        Install 4" CCFL in Shroud  
              Sleeve & Route Fan & CCFL Wiring  
        Mount Radiator in Shroud, Sealing Around All Edges  
        Mount Shroud + Radiator to Back of Case  
     Finish Pump Assembly  
        Build Fan Relay Controller  
        Fabricate Pump Bracket  
        Mount Pump, Connect Wiring  
     Purchase & Install New Abit KD7 Mobo w/ Athlon 2400+ CPU  
        Install Water Block on CPU  
        Install Mobo in Cube Case  
        Connect Hoses  
        Fill & Bleed  
        Boot 'er up and make it all work!  
     Install UV CCFL's  
     
  Fan Strobber or other special effect on the radiator fan  
     
  Blue LEDs in front panel and drives.  
     
  Organize the Wiring  
        Finish Wiring, Mounting, & Cleaning Up UFO Mod  
        Need a longer floppy cable!  
     
  Star Trek TNG Assimilated Front Panel  
        Plexi Case Panels  
        Touch sensitive power and reset switches.  
        Hard Disk VU meter.  
     
  Peltiers on CPU & GPU  
 

Oh Yeah!

 
     
  Blue LED and Backlit Digital Doc 5  
  Blue LEDs for Digital Doc  
  Blue Laser LED downwash lighting for drive bays  
     
  Carbon Fiber and Latches on side panels  
     
 

Integrated USB Hub

 
     
  Try a Volt Mod  
  EL lit keyboard  
  Lit mouse scroll wheel, blue LED conversion  
     
  GeForce4 Glow Mod...  

 

Stay tuned for further Borg Cube developments...

 
All material 2001-2006, Robert W. Warfield.