Tag Archives: intel

Here comes Steam Machine: a quick look

At CES in Las Vegas I got a first look at Valve’s Steam Machine. This Brix Pro model comes from Gigabyte and will cost $499 for bare bones – no RAM or storage.

I was surprised by how small the thing is – quite cheap-looking in fact, especially when compared to something like Microsoft’s Xbox One which is large and sleek, and costs a similar amount (though smaller is good in most ways).

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Next to it you can see the controller, which gives you an idea of the scale.

Ports on the back are hdmi, DisplayPort (better quality), Ethernet and 2 more USB 3.0.

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and on the front, two USB and an audio socket (supports digital as well as analogue).

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Power is on top.

What counts though is the spec. Core i5 4570R (an i7 is also available), Intel Iris Pro 5200 graphics with 128MB ED RAM, wifi included. Max RAM is 16GB. It’s going to cost at least $100 –$150 extra to make it a working box.

Intel showed the Brix Pro driving a large display at 1080p.

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However, I was told that the little box has enough power to drive a 4K display as well as a second display at 1080p. In principle, you could have a Steam Machine with 3 4K displays for the perfect setup; Intel said that its Iris Pro 5200 is capable of this though not in this particular configuration.

Running Linux (SteamOS) and tapping into the huge Steam community and app store, Steam Machine is one to watch.

Just three Windows 8 on ARM tablets at launch? Not good for Microsoft

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Bloomberg reports unknown sources stating that only three Windows on ARM (WOA) tablets will be available at launch:

There will be fewer ARM-based devices in the rollout because Microsoft has tightly controlled the number and set rigorous quality-control standards, said one of the people. The new version of Windows will be the first to use ARM processors, which are most commonly found in smartphones. Windows 7, the current version, only works with Intel’s technology. Three of the Windows 8 ARM devices will be tablets, the people said.

This may be nonsense but I can see this playing out badly for Microsoft. I am making several assumptions here:

1. The design of Windows 8 is all about tablets. If it fails on tablets, then it has failed.

2. Windows 8 Intel tablets will not compete with the Apple iPad and will probably not do well. The main reason is the old one: Windows desktop is mostly unusable with touch alone. I mean, you can get it to work but it is not much fun, and that will not change.  Supplementary reasons are that Intel CPUs are less efficient than ARM which means shorter battery life, and that traditional Windows applications expect lots of disk space and RAM, and that OEMs will want to pre-install anti-malware and other foistware, and repeat the mistakes of the past that are driving users with relief towards iPads.

I can also imagine Windows 8 Intel tablets being sold with add-on styluses and keyboards that are necessary to operate desktop applications, but a nuisance in all sorts of ways.

3. Windows on ARM has more potential to be a compelling iPad alternative. Metro-style apps are designed for tablets and will work well with touch alone. ARM devices may be lightweight and with long battery life. The locked-down Windows Store is some protection against excessive OEM interference. With Microsoft Office compatibility thrown in, these might appeal to a business user who would otherwise buy an iPad.

Despite the above, my guess is that Microsoft’s OEM partners will instinctively put most of their effort into Windows 8 on Intel tablets, because that it the way it has always been, and because of an assumption that someone buying a Windows 8 device will want to run Windows applications, and not just Metro-style apps.

The problem is that such people will try Windows 8 on Intel tablets, hate them because of the reasons in (2) above, and end up buying iPads anyway.

The counter argument? That Apple conquered the tablet market with just one model, so perhaps three is more than enough.

Fixing a Windows 7 blue screen with Driver Verifier

A recent annoyance was a blue screen when I was in the middle of typing a Word document. “Memory management” it said.

You might think faulty RAM, but I did not think so as I had tested it extensively with the excellent Memtest86. So what was causing it? And no, I do not regard Windows as an unstable operating system, not any more (not really since Windows 98 days).

I started troubleshooting. The first step is to install the Debugging Tools for Windows, if you have not already, run Windbg, and load the minidump which Windows usually creates when it crashes. Minidumps are saved in the /Windows/Minidump folder.

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It said VISTA_DRIVER_FAULT and identified the SearchProtocol process, but I was not convinced that this process was really to blame. My reasoning is that it is a Microsoft process that is running on most Windows boxes so unlikely to be badly broken.

I decided to look for a faulty driver. You can do this by running the Driver Verifier Manager, summoned by running verifier.exe (this lives in /Windows/System32 but you can start it from anywhere).

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This application enables a debugging mode in Windows that will scrutinise the drivers you specify for errors. This slows down Windows so it is not something you want to leave enabled, but it is great for finding problems.

I elected to check all drivers and continued. Reboot, and as expected, an immediate blue screen.

While Driver Verifier is enabled and causing a crash you can only boot into safe mode. However Windbg works OK in safe mode. I took a look at the new minidump. The process name this time was services.exe. That means any of the services could be at fault, so not all that illuminating.

I ran msconfig and disabled all non-Microsoft services. Restarted and verifier was happy. Now it was a matter of “hunt the service”.

Eventually I discovered through trial and error and hunch (it had to be a service which I had recently installed or updated) which service failed to verify. The guilty party: Intel Desktop Utilities. This application monitors sensors on an Intel motherboard for temperature and fan speed, and fires alerts if the readings go outside safe limits.

I uninstalled the desktop utilities. No more blue screens since.

I find it hard to believe that an Intel utility distributed with all its motherboards is causing Windows blue screens; on the other hand in my case it seems clear cut. And yes, I did have the latest version 3.2.0.038b “for Intel Desktop Boards with 5 or 6 Series chipsets.” My board is the DH67CL. I would be interested to know if others with same version can successfully boot with Driver Verifier enabled.

Hassles with Intel RAID – Rapid Storage Technology

I have recently fitted a new Intel DH67CL motherboard and decided to use the on-board RAID controller to achieve resiliency against drive failure. I have four 1TB Sata drives, and chose to create two separate mirrors. This is not the most efficient form of RAID, but mirroring is the simplest and easiest for recovery, since if one drive fails you still have a complete copy ready to go on its mirror.

I thought this would be a smooth operation, especially since I have two pairs of identical drives. Everything was fine at first, but then I started to get system freezes. “Freeze” is not quite the right word; it was more an extreme slowdown. The mouse still moved but the Windows 7 64-bit GUI was unresponsive. I discovered that it was possible eventually to get a clean though time-consuming shutdown by summoning a command prompt and waiting patiently for it to appear, then typing shutdown /s. After reboot, everything was fine until next time, where next time was typically only a few hours.

I was suspicious of the RAM at first and removed 8GB of my 16GB. Then I discovered that others had reported problems with Intel RAID (also known as RST) when you have two separate arrays enabled. The symptoms sounded similar to mine:

When the second RAID array is enabled (tried both RAID1 and 0), Windows (Win 7 Ultimate 64bit) will freeze after 10+ minutes of use. This initially manifests itself as my internet “going out”. While I can open new tabs in the browser, I cannot connect. I can’t ping via CMD either. I can’t open Task Manager, but I can open Event Viewer (and nothing really is shown in there re: this). If I try to Log Off or Restart the PC via Start Menu, Windows hangs on the “Logging Off” or “Shutting Down” screen for at least 10 minutes, up to several hours (or indefinitely).

There is no solution given in the thread other than to remove one of the arrays.

The system is 100% stable when I remove the second RAID1.

says one user.

I broke both of the mirrors and used the system for a while; everything was fine. I found an updated driver on Intel’s site (version 10.8.0.1003, dated 17th October 2011) and decided to re-try the RAID. Now I had another problem though. Note that I was using the Windows management utility, not the embedded utility which you get to by pressing a special key during boot, since it is only with the Windows utility that you can preserve your data when creating a new array. My problem: I could not recreate the arrays.

Problem number one was that the drive on Sata port 0 disappeared when you tried to create an array. All four drives looked fine in the Status view:

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but when you went to create an array, only three drives appeared:

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Following a tip from the Intel community discussion board, I removed and reinstalled the RST utility, following which I also had to reinstate the updated driver. Now the drive reappeared, but I still could not recreate the arrays. I could start creating one, but got an “unknown error.” Looking in the event log, I could see errors reported by IAStorDataMgrSvc: FailedToClaimDisks and FailedVolumeSizeCheck. Curious, especially as I had used this very same utility to create the arrays before, with the same drives and without any issues.

Just as an experiment, I booted into Windows XP 64-bit, which I still have available using Windows multiboot. I installed the latest version of the Intel storage driver and utility, and tried to create a mirror. It worked instantly. I created the second mirror. That worked instantly too. Then I booted back into Windows 7 and checked out the RST utility. Everything looks fine.

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The further good news is that I have been running with this for a few days now, without any freezes.

Is it possible that the latest driver fixed a problem? There is no way of knowing, especially since Intel itself appears not to participate in these “community” discussions. I find that disappointing; community without vendor participation is never really satisfactory.

Postscript: Note that I am aware that Intel’s embedded RAID is not a true RAID controller; it is sometimes called “fakeraid” since the processing is done by the CPU. Using Intel RST is a convenience and cost-saving measure. An alternative is Windows RAID which works well in my experience, though there are two disadvantages:

1. Intel RAID performs slightly better in my tests.

2. Windows RAID requires converting your drives to Dynamic Disks. Not a big problem, but it is one more thing to overcome if you end up doing disaster recovery.

Breaking Intel RAID: what happens to your data?

I am upgrading my desktop PC, wondering as I do if this is the last time. I did this four years ago; maybe four years from now cloud, mobile and virtualisation will make this unnecessary.

But I digress. My PC is creaking and I am replacing most of its innards. I use an Intel motherboard with its embedded RAID controller to mirror the data on the main 1TB drive. Since I am now getting new, faster drives, I want to break the RAID. The question though: will this delete all the data?

The puzzle here is that the Intel Matrix Storage Manager insists that when you delete a RAID volume, all its data is lost. But why should you lose data if you are breaking a mirrored (RAID 1) volume? In this configuration, each of two drives maintains identical data. In fact, Intel’s User’s Manual says:

All data on the RAID drives will be lost unless the volume that is selected is a RAID 1 volume.

The utility itself is less comforting though, and when I go to break the RAID it says data will be lost unless it is a “Recovery volume”, which is something slightly different.

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Now, if you are like me you set up the RAID in the first place because you would rather not lose that data. On the other hand, my suspicion was that the data would in fact be preserved. Caution prevailed, and I made a Windows system image backup of the entire thing, which took most of a day.

Then I deleted the volume. No data was lost and Windows booted perfectly, though it did reconfigure its storage drive and ask for a restart.

The second drive also retained all the data. Windows made it offline, because according to disk manager:

The disk is offline because it has a signature collision with another disk that is online

which is fair enough.

I can confirm, then, that in my experience you can delete an Intel RAID mirror without losing the data. Still, if this is data you care about, I guess you are going to take a backup anyway before pressing Y.