Wednesday, 31 December 2014

PC Build - It's done!

It took a while, partly due to me going away before Christmas, partly due to me having to return the graphics card, partly due to me getting a cold and feeling crap and partly because I'm lazy. But the new gaming rig is built and is up and running!

It's that beastly looking thing to the left there....

There's not a great deal to say about it really, I had the issue with the damaged Radeon R9 295 X2, but changed that without any problems.

Building it was a bit of a challenge, I've not built a PC for many, many years and while things haven't changed a huge amount, they've changed just enough that I had to do some research.

I assembled the main components outside of the case
The main thing was my graphics card being water cooled. I had to install a radiator and fan for that. It was one of the things I screwed up too! I built the system outside the case, installed the CPU, added the RAM and attached the heatsink/fan. That was a real hassle, and another thing I messed up.

Take a look at this picture, can you spot the mistake?

If you are observant, you'll notice that the cooler is upside down! This means it's pulling air in from the left and blowing it out to the right. This is wrong, the air is pulled in from the front of the case and exhausted out the back.

It was frustrating as I didn't notice this until after I had put the motherboard in the case and had it all cabled up! So, as a result, I had to disassemble the entire PC and essentially start again. Not to be defeated, I did that, not that I really had any choice in the matter. Then I unpacked the graphics card as that was the last thing to install and discovered the damage to the radiator. See my other post about that here: Damaged MSI Radeon R9-295 X2

It was at this point that I went away for a week so the build went on hold until I got home. When I got back the replacment card had arrived so I was able to complete the build. But I was hit by another snag, with the large CPU heatsink/fan, I wasn't able to install the radiator of the watercooling unit into the case, it wouldn't fit! So I had to once again, remove the motherboard to install the radiator first, and then reattach everything. Here's a picture of the radiator installed, space is tight with that massive Cooler Master V8.

It's a tight fit for that radiator!
The above picture also illustrates the air flow I've gone for. Out of sight at the bottom on the front of the case are two 140mm AF intake fans pulling air in. Then at the top of the case there is a 120mm SP fan above the radiator on the right pulling air through the fins and out the top of the case. Next to that is another 140mm AF fan blowing air in, down onto the heatsink. The heatsink fans blow from right to left and exhaust though the rear of the case where the final 120mm AF fan pushes hot air out. The overall air flow hopefully looks something like this:

The theory behind this is that I have cool air coming in from the front bottom and travelling up through the case to the top rear. The exception to this is the radiator for the R9 295 X2 which vents out the top of the case, but as this is an enclosed system I'm hoping that it won't have any effect on the rest of the case's airflow. With three fans blowing air in and only two out I should have positive air pressure in the case which apparently helps to reduce dust in the case. This will be helped by the fact that all the fan locations have dust filters too thanks to the Cooler Master Cosmos case.

With the system fully built and running, here are a few pictures, you can click them to enlarge:

So there it is, my gaming rig for the next few years! It's quite a monster, I'm very happy with the performance. The one thing I might change though is the CPU cooler, it's really big, takes up a lot of space and when it's running at full speed is fairly noisy. I might swap it out for an all in one water cooling sytem such at the Corsair H100i, but that's something I'll do in the summer if I think I need to. For now the system works well. Here's a couple of screenshots showing the performance:

Tomb Raider, average of 143.6 FPS
Above is Tomb Raider, I had all the settings maxed out and I was running in my Eyefinity triple screen setup. That's at a resolution of 6034x1200!

iRacing, hitting 580FPS with all settings at max
Another game, this time iRacing, I've got my three screens going here as well and everything is turned up to the highest settings. It's a slightly older game with less demanding requirments, but even so, hitting 580FPS is just crazy!

Putting it through some benchmark tests yielded the following results from Unigine Valley:

Valley Benchmark @ 1920 x 1080
Valley Benchmark @ 6034 x 1170 (Eyefinity)

On a single display at 1920x1080 it is topping out at 185.5FPS and averaging 123FPS. In my huge triple screen setup it struggles a bit more but still holds an average almost 70FPS and hits an impressive 141.3FPS at its fastest point.

I also ran it through the more demanding Heaven benchmark too, the results are still just as impressive, though it did fall just below 60FPS in the Eyefinity test. All I can say is I'll have to buy another one and run it in a QuadFire setup!

Heaven Benchmark @ 1920 x 1080
Valley Benchmark @ 6034 x 1170 (Eyefinity)
There's not really anything else I can say about it, I'm happy to answer questions if you have any. Just leave them in the comments below. To finish with here's a picture of my triple screens running the Heaven benchmark, just because I can :-)

Oh, also it's the 31st December, so HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Damaged MSI Radeon R9 295 X2

This is a post for the support department at Overclockers showing the damage to the MSI Radeon R9 295 X2 8192MB GDDR5 PCI-Express Graphics Card I purchased. The box is in perfect condition so it looks like this happened at the manufacturing stage.

Clearly with a liquid cooled solution I would be foolish to install this in a PC case as the radiator could very easily leak if I powered it up.

Here are the photos:

Can see the fins are bent in several locations.

Close up of the most damaged area, but also notice the fins to the left also show signs of damage.

Here someone has (badly) tried to cover up the damage to the radiator casing with black paint or a permanent marker.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Time for a new PC

My PC died yesterday, I was happily playing a game of iRacing trying to get my D license before the end of the season this week. When I quit out I had some weird messages about my backup software being unable to connect to my D:\ drive (which is my data drive, my C:\ is an SSD that runs the OS).

When I opened Explorer the D:\ was indeed missing... "odd" I thought, "that's never happened before". I'd only just used the D:\ drive to save a couple of pictures before I started playing iRacing, so I knew it had connected on boot up.

I thought I'd try a quick reboot to see if something weird had occurred in the drivers. When the PC booted into Windows I instantly got a BSOD with a KMODE_EXCEPTION_NOT_HANDLED error message. Oh.....

My only option was another reboot, but this resulted in another BSOD and another KMODE_EXCEPTION_NOT_HANDLED error. Mild panic began to set in, I know my backups will be okay, I have three separate copies stored elsewhere as well as the data on the disc itself. But fixing PCs is no fun!

Eventually Windows figured out there was a problem and offered to fix it... unsurprisingly it failed. So then I had the option of rolling back to an earlier restore point, so I did. I had one from just a week ago.

Sadly that didn't work either, and neither did any of the previous restore points going back six months. The next option is to try a "refresh" which keeps your files but re-installs Windows... but I was scuppered because you need the Windows install disc.

There are ways around all this, I could probably have re-installed Windows if I'd persevered long enough. but I'd been seeing the early signs of hardware failure for a while and I'd sort of ignored them. Random crashes, display glitches etc... When the PC died it made me remember a lot of things and they all made me come to the conclusion that I needed to update my system.

When I bought my current system I didn't have my three screens, I also did almost all my gaming on my XBox 360. But since I got an Eyefinity setup and the "next-gen" of consoles have been released that's all changed. I don't have an XBox One or a PS4 and every game I've played in the last 6-12 months has been on the PC.

I decided I needed a computer that could handle anything I wanted to throw at it, so I went about choosing components for a new build. Something I've not done for 10 years or more... The last two PCs I purchased were off the shelf offerings from Dell.

I figured I could get a lot more for my money by doing it myself, so without further ado please let me present you with the components I've purchased for my gaming rig 2015:

- Case: Cooler Master Cosmos SE Mid Tower Case
- Power Supply: SuperFlower Leadex Platinum 1000W Fully Modular "80 Plus Platinum" Power Supply - Black
- CPU: Intel Core i7-4790K 4.00GHz (Devil's Canyon) Socket LGA1150 Processor - Retail
- Cooler: Cooler Master V8 GTS High Performance CPU Cooler
- Memory: Kingston HyperX 16GB (2x8GB) PC3-19200C11 2400MHz Dual Channel Kit - Black/Red (HX24C11BRK2/16-OC)
- Graphics: MSI Radeon R9 295 X2 8192MB GDDR5 PCI-Express Graphics Card
- Primary Storage: Samsung 1TB SSD 840 EVO SATA 6Gb/s
- Data Storage: Seagate Barracuda 4TB 5900RPM SATA 6Gb/s 64MB Cache

The price tag associated with all this is rather scary coming in at, wait for it......  £1987.85!!!!!


So that's Christmas for everyone else cancelled then! It will all be delivered tomorrow by DPD, so I just have to remember how to build a PC now!

Sunday, 4 August 2013

EODS The Tempest

Last night I went to see EODS's production of The Tempest, in my job I see a lot of shows on an almost daily basis. I've never blogged about one before, but this is different. It's different because it blew me away!

Shakespeare's plays are always difficult to do well and if they aren't done extremely well then it is all too easy for the actors to lose their audience. It's simply a fact that the language he uses along with the similes and metaphors are not easily understood by today's audiences. A Shakespeare play is certainly not something you should attempt to watch if you have no prior knowledge of it, you'll likely get lost quite quickly.

That said, the quality of all the performances were truly outstanding. EODS is an amateur dramatics group, words that are sure to bring most professionals out in a cold sweat :-) However in this production there wasn't a single performer who didn't deserve their role. This is even more impressive when you learn that the lead Mike Barber (Prospero) only took on the part the week before due to the original actor having to pull out at the last minute. The fact he learnt his lines is astonishing, that he did so and put on such a strong performance is a testament to his abilities. Mike wasn't alone in taking over at short notice though, director Gareth Brighton had to step into the role of Stephano when James Bell was taken ill. Both he and Nick Carn as Trinculo played a great double act together with Nick ending up coming off worse having to take two full submersions in the pool.

Finally David Fricker as Ariel was also a fairly late addition to the cast, but his interpretation of the character was fantastic. He was very spritely in his movements and mannerisms, even when the action wasn't focused on him he remained very ethereal.

For a production beset with problems during the rehearsal period it certainly didn't show in the performances!

A stunning setting with superb staging, above
Nick Carn as Trinculo and David Fricker as Ariel
This year the choice of play really couldn't have suited the location any better. Taking place at Holywell's Italian Gardens the backdrop of the sea is the ideal setting for a play based on an island! The stunning view was aided by the natural sound effects of the waves lapping against the shore with the birds and other natural wildlife all playing their part to add to the atmosphere.

The innate beauty of the surroundings was enhanced by the fabulous staging built primarily by Ashley Jones. The central pond flanked by two catwalks and a bridge gave the actors a great set on which to work. It also had some nice hidden features that made for some memorable moments, most notably Ariel appearing from the opposite side of the arena after hiding in a wooden trunk. No doubt the input of legendary magician Paul Daniels as the magic advisor for the production played its part here. Also Calibans first entrance through the smoke from a trap door in the catwalk was simple yet tremendously effective. Mr Daniels input was evident in other small touches too and it all added to help flesh out the characters. It would have been all too easy to let the temptation of the magic overpower the show, but all the effects used felt right and were played well.

With the production starting before sunset you don't really notice the lighting until you come back from the interval. By then the moon is shining down and Douglas Morgan's design is able to take over from the sun, it's a difficult space to light with the limited resources available but he managed to do a superb job. There are general washes to make sure everything is lit well, but also numerous additions to highlight certain actors at key points. The lighting is subtle but crucial to the overall experience.

The full company
Sound is used at several points, and if there was a weak link, then this is where it lies. Although the spot effects for magical moments and storms were all good and worked well within the action, the quality of the PA was poor. It's a shame as so much more could have been made of the sound but it seems the equipment was holding them back. While being picky, the only other area that could have been improved was the set dressing. Rocks were represented with some painted ground row flats, it would have made a huge difference if they had been able to source some real rocks. Finally, the pond lining could have been disguised a bit, the blue plastic did stand out a little. But these are small things that in no way detracted from the piece as a whole.

The night I was there it was a complete sell out, and the reputation they have built over the years is well deserved. Unfortunately by the time this is posted the run will have ended, but you should never the less try to see one of their future productions!

Photos: Copyright Paul Spink, used with permission.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Triple monitors, calibration & Eyefinity

Just over a year ago I splashed out and purchased two matching Dell U2410 IPS monitors. While normally such a high end display would cost in the region of £500 a piece, I was lucky enough to pick up a couple of "reconditioned" displays. I've always been slightly wary of such bargains in the past, however these came with a 12 month warranty and the IPS panels were guaranteed to be 100% perfect, no bright or dead pixels. The only thing the description said was there may be some superficial marks or scratches to the casing.

Well, to be honest, I didn't really care about the casing, I don't look at that anyway! Besides, if they arrived and I wasn't satisfied with their condition, there would be nothing to stop me sending them back for a refund.

They had three available and I was able to buy two of them for a total of £600 including VAT and delivery. That's almost half price!

I'd been using two monitors for a good few years already, but they had always been different sizes and resolutions, not to mention wildly different brightness / contrast and colours. This was simply because the monitors were so wildly different there was no way of getting them to even closely match.

So anyway, the new monitors were delivered the next day by courier, excellent service. I eagerly tore the tape back to inspect the quality of my goods. I wanted to see how bad these marks were! It was obvious that they had been opened before, the boxes were missing original packaging and only one box had a manual. The thing is though, who actually needs a manual for a monitor?

Once I'd assembled the panels on their stands, I was able to take a good look. To my complete surprise, no matter how hard I looked, I couldn't actually see anything wrong with them. Not a scratch to be found, these were to all intents and purposes brand new displays! WIN.

Having got them all connected things were so much better than before. As promised the panels were flawless. No dead pixels or anything to indicate they were anything other than brand new. However I wasn't entirely happy, no matter what I tried I couldn't get the colours to match across the two monitors. They were close sure, but being side by side it was still noticeable.

I lived with it for a few days and then I decided that spending so much on matching displays was a bit pointless if they didn't actually match. So I started looking into calibration. To cut a long story short I ended up buying a Spyder 3 Elite on eBay for quite a lot less than its price new.

This is a pretty cool bit of hardware, and it looks smart too. What it does is calibrate your display/s. This is important if you are into photography or any sort of graphics work and need to know that the colours you're using in your image editor such as Photoshop will match the colour of the final printed work. While this was of some interest to me, I had really bought it for its matching feature. This would enable me to calibrate one monitor, and then use the device on the other display to make sure everything matched.

Doing this was surprisingly easy, you just put the device which has a sucker on it on the monitor and run the wizard. Then save the profile and repeat the process for the second display. Once you are done you get a before & after comparison. I have to say the results were nothing like what I had expected.

I'd bought what I thought were expensive studio monitors, reviews had said these were a great choice. But the difference after calibration was like night and day! Colour reproduction was astounding, gone we're the heavily saturated colours which are frankly a marketing gimmick. Now when looking at a photo of a person, it actually looked like seeing them though a window. It's hard to describe it properly, but they looked lifelike and things seemed to have more depth. What I wanted we're matching displays, what I got was so much more!

I was so impressed that I would highly recommend you get your monitor calibrated too, even if you only have one screen. Having accurate colour reproduction will make it seem like you've invested in a new monitor! Now obviously results will vary, I got the excellent results I did because I invested in a quality display panel. If you try to calibrate a £150 display you shouldn't expect it to work miracles, but you will notice a marked improvement. Manufacturers like to set their displays to look good on a display stand, but not on your desk when you're editing your holiday snaps.

About a week or so after I'd been getting used to my new monitors, one of them just died. It came back to life, but from then on it had a habbit of just powering off at random intervals. Eventually one day it just wouldn't turn on at all, oh dear... Time to get in touch with the company who sold it to me and check out the 12 month warranty! An email to them resulted in a response within the hour apologising for the fault, they arranged for a replacment to be sent out that day and for me to return the defective monitor to them when the courier dropped off the new one. Amazing service! When buying reconditioned you're always taking a risk, that's reflected in the price you pay, but to have this level of after sale support was fantastic. As promised the replacment worked fine and I've never had a problem with them since.

I should probably tell you who this amazing retailer is, but part of me wants to keep it secret! If I tell you then you'll all buy cheap reconditioned items and leave nothing for me. But I will share it, the company is NRG:IT who can be fouud on-line at, you should check them out!

Anyway, fast forwarding to a year later which is more or less now, I'd been seeing lots of talk about Eyefinity or triple monitor gaming. In the past my PC would never have been able to cope, but I purchased a new system towards the end of last year. An Intel core i7 beast with 12 Gb RAM and an AMD Radeon 7870 with a 256Gb SSD. While it's not bleeding edge, it's pretty far up there!

I decided my PC should be capable of producing enough pixels to give me a reasonable frame rate across three displays. Hence the temptation got the better of me and I was back in touch with NRG:IT for a third Dell U2410 so I had three identical displays. This was again ordered and delivered the next day, again it was in pristine "as new" condition, the only thing giving away the fact it wasn't new being the box it came in!

With three moniors the desk space required by all the stands is quite significant, so I also picked up a XFX triple monitor stand from Amazon too, which actually cost more than the monitor even though it's one of the cheapest triple monitor stands you can buy! Anyway, with everything finally assembled and calibrated I had my triple screen setup sorted.

The above photo was actually taken before the newest screen (left) had been calibrated. You can see the difference in the colour reproduction, the centre and right monitors are the older ones which had already been matched. With everything setup it would have been rude not to try some games, which after all is the whole point!

First was Dirt 3, with this game the extra width really gives an enhanced sensation of speed as things fly past your peripheral vision in a blur. With so much width it's not really a case of seeing everything at once. It's more a sense of immersion where your entire peripheral vision is taken up with the displays. You would think, and most peoples first reaction is that the bezels would be intrusive and ruin the effect. However, it really isn't noticeable after a couple of minutes. Just make sure you configure the bezel correction in the video cards driver settings, this makes sure that things line up correctly in the games.

Dirt 3 Eyefinity

With my current graphics card I'm able to run Dirt 3 at the highest quality setting and still get a steady 60+ FPS from it. Quite impressive! Other games I've tried include The Witcher 2, Half Life 2 and a few others:

Witcher 2, struggles to get a good frame rate
With Half Life 2 being an older game I was able to get over 160FPS on my Eyefinity rig. However the Witcher 2 really suffered, I had to turn the settings right down to get 30FPS. Still playable but not as beautiful as it could be.

I hadn't really thought of using my third monitor outside of gaming. Sure my dual monitors always got a lot of use, but I didn't really see how I could utilise three screens at the same time. That didn't last long though, the first Formula 1 race of the season saw me setting up all the stats and data I could wish for!

As you can see, I have live timings, a driver tracker and the TV coverage all in view. It was fantastic to have all this information right in front of me and I can't wait for the next race.

In terms of productivity, I've even made use of all my screens during the recent revamp of the ugvm website. Below the live website can be seen on the left screen, my CSS editor is in the middle allowing me to make changes on one screen and see the results in the other. The third screen had my email, Twitter and web browser open. Quite a lot going on, but it's so much nicer having the space and not having to switch windows constantly.

So, three screens, it needs a lot of space and can cost a lot of money, but the difference is incredible. The down side is that my above average GPU can't really handle the pixel pushing required for three 24" displays in modern games. I'll probably upgrade it when the new range of AMD cards are launched later in the year. My current card only has 2Gb RAM and really it needs 3Gb or preferably more. I'm sure I can manage until then with lower quality settings or enjoying some games from my back catalogue until then. Check out my new gaming diary at to hear about that.

If you can afford it, I can't recommend it highly enough, and you don't need the expensive monitors. You could get a set of three cheaper displays for the cost of one of mine. For example NRG:IT are selling some Dell 22" displays which are 1920x1080 for only £94 each. I'm sure the experience wouldn't be a great deal different, you just need to make sure your graphics card can take the strain!

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Windows 8 Preview First Impressions

I recently decided to trial the Windows 8 Developer Preview on my PC, the main reason for me wanting to do this was to see how the touch interface was going to work on tablets. I have an HP TouchSmart laptop which should have been perfect for experimenting with this. Unfortunately my efforts to install it to a Virtual Machine on my laptop didn't go too well.

Firstly I couldn't install the 64-bit version because my laptops CPU doesn't support hardware virtualisation, so I had to download the 32-bit version. This wouldn't install either for reasons I still don't understand, the Windows 8 installer just kept throwing error messages. My only option remaining is to set up a partition on my HDD and install it properly, but I'm not ready to do that just yet. Instead I decided to install it to my main desktop PC.

This was remarkably simple compared to the trials I'd been through on my laptop. The Virtual Machine was set-up in just a few seconds, I enabled the Hardware Virtualisation in my PCs BIOS and mounted the Windows 8 .iso into the virtual DVD drive. Booted it up, and the installer ran without a hitch, although it did take a while to complete.

So then, what are my thoughts? Well before going in I had reservations about the new Metro UI they have been showing off. My gut feeling was that it wasn't going to work on a desktop PC, having now used it, I can confirm my worst fears are well founded. The Metro UI feels like a badly tacked on interface that is restrictive, basic and unwieldly. It simply doesn't work well with a mouse and keyboard, the gestures are impossible to use and the UI feels very poorly thought out. There is no easy way to exit Metro apps and nothing about it seems at all intuitive. When I first picked up an iPhone, I pretty much knew exactly how to use it, the same was true for Android. However, I felt totally lost and confused inside the Metro apps, it's hard to explain it, but it all felt wrong.

One of the main problems I experienced with the Metro UI was the inability to perform touch gestures using the mouse and keyboard. I can see how in theory the Metro UI would be quite slick on a touchscreen, it just doesn't translate at all well to more traditional PC control methods. The problem with this is exacerbated by the forced use of the Metro UI as the Start menu.

Let's focus on that for just a moment, the Start menu is gone in Windows 8, you click on the Windows icon in the taskbar, it takes you into the Metro UI. From there you get the tile interface seen above, this is where you launch all your apps from. The problem with this is it's a mess, you can't get much on a screen because the tiles take up so much space and it's hard to find anything. Getting fast access to your programs is going to be a thing of the past!

The other problem is going to be with developer uptake, in order for a program to run in the new Metro UI it needs a totally new interface designed, but not just one! Traditionally a developer designs one interface for Windows and the OS deals with resizing the window to whatever the user desires. It can be any size too, unlike in Metro when you can only have two apps open side by side!

Now they need to design the traditional desktop UI, as well as a full screen Metro UI, a split screen Metro UI and the tile UI. It puts much more of an onus on the developer not only to design their applications, but also to test them too!

My prediction will be that classic Windows desktop applications, like Photoshop and office will continue to have only the desktop interface. The extra effort involved in creating all the interfaces will outweigh the benefits.

It seems that the plan is to get tablets running the same software as desktop PCs. The big problem with this is that tablets are not designed for productivity, they are designed for consumption and they are great at doing that. However, a tablet that can edit pictures in Photoshop or edit videos in Premiere is unlikely to be a realistic proposition. The CPU and graphic requirements these programs will demand is going to far outstrip tablet technology.

Microsoft have taken the wrong road, Apple and Google have both developed an OS that runs on phones and tablets. It's a tactic that works well and keeps the desktop OS separate in the case of MacOS and to a lesser extent ChromeOS.

This is what MS should have done, developed an improved Windows 7 for the desktop as Windows 8 and then developed Windows Phone 7 further to accommodate tablets.

I fear for the future of Windows now, unless MS decide to make the Metro UI totally optional so it can be disabled on a desktop, mouse & keyboard PC, I don't see any way that Windows 8 can be a success. Hopefully they'll come to this conclusion as well, and the sooner the better!

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Site connection issues

So here's the thing, I have a website ( and I have a user who regularly contributes news articles to it. However for the last week she has been unable connect, I've not seen anyone else reporting problems. It could just be a problem with her local machine, but she has tried in several browsers and done all the basic checks such as emptying page cache etc.

It's only my site that she is having a problem with, which is odd. Can anyone think of any reason why this person is getting blocked? She is seeing error messages like:

Opera: Connection closed by remote server.
Chrome: No data received, the server closed the connection.

I've got her to connect to the site through and through their proxy the site seems to load fine for her. I've just asked her to do a trace route to see if that gives any clues, but I've not had the results back yet. This one has me stumped, any suggestions?