Hardware Guides

The silicon powering modern microprocessors consumes significantly less wattage than consumer technology leading up to this point. Look back at the GTX 400 series (Fermi) for an example of this: The flagship GTX 480 was 250W, and it ran damn hot, too. NVidia acknowledged this when we toured their facilities, noting that the complaints of noise, heat, and power consumption directly impacted the development of Kepler units. To put things into perspective, the GTX Titan also draws 250W and has approximately 2.5x the transistors over the GTX 480 (7.5B vs. 3B).

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Despite the overall trend toward improved power-to-performance ratios, a mid-range gaming machine can still easily pull 500W+ under full computational (CPU/GPU) load -- that's a lot of power. Even idle, without BIOS advanced power saving features configured, you could easily be resting on a couple hundred watts. Personally, I've got almost a constant system up-time, and that consumes a lot of power. In order to mitigate power consumption and the electric bill (~$20 / mo. with full up-time on my machine, dropped to $10 / mo after taking these steps), we can use modern advanced power saving states implemented by Intel and AMD.

We previously posted a series of case modding intro videos that were targeted at helping system builders break into case modding. The truth is, of course, that really getting in deep requires time and tools (and other expenses), so it's often easier to start with something else -- like installing aftermarket lighting kits.

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This quick post-build guide aims to highlight some of the basic add-ons for gaming PCs after they've been built; these are items that can be installed with a screwdriver or a bit of manual work, but won't require more advanced case modding initiatives. You'll find product examples of each component type below.

The concept of a "virtual" reality has existed for decades and has nebulous origins, but the first technological steps can be pinpointed to Ivan Sutherland's head-mounted display (HMD); the device, lovingly-dubbed the Sword of Damocles for its massive size and imposing demeanor, was built in 1968 and placed the user into wireframe rooms. The term itself, "Virtual Reality," didn't even popularly exist until 1985.

Since Sutherland's pioneering innovations, the industry has had disorienting cycles of ups-and-downs for Augmented & Virtual Reality tech. There were holes in the yet-unfolding plot: Missing technology (we'd only just moved from tubes to transistors), a smaller pool of talent, and the interest and funding were primarily in medical or military-industrial fields.

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The equipment that was purpose-built for those fields made tremendous technological leaps, but would by-and-large never be faced with a consumer. And, as with many technologies that started in the military, much of the early VR/AR equipment was classified.

We've previously written in great detail about the SSD development lifecycle and SSD manufacturing processes, but we've yet to delve into what really drives solid-state drives: Controllers. An SSD is effectively its own, self-contained computer-within-a-computer. It's got a CPU-equivalent in the form of a Flash Storage Processor (or Controller), complete with on-board cache, memory management, low-level firmware, and channels to the NAND Flash modules.

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Because an SSD's Flash Storage Processor is effectively a specialized, purpose-built CPU, we'll limit this article to a few key, top-level aspects of controllers; we'll break the controller's numerous complex elements into several individual articles, with this one focusing on overprovisioning, write amplification factor, and video content.

Overprovisioning and Write Amplification Factor (WAF) were selected as our key topics for a few reasons: First, WAF plays a massive role in the longevity of the NAND Flash as it ages, directly impacting the usable life of the drive; second, the overprovisioned space on a drive dictates the available user space and performance. When helping our system builders select an SSD, our two most common questions have been "What's the endurance like?" and "Why is the capacity different between competing drives? Why is one 256GB and the other 240GB?" This article answers both of those questions.

Let's hit the video content first:

A significant aspect of any silicon engineering lifecycle is chip post-mortem, providing engineers with insight to a chip's inadequacies and specific points of failure; as the manufacturing process continues to decrease in physical size (we're nearing sub-20nm on most commercial microprocessors), increasingly powerful scopes are required to analyze internal electrical defects.

nvidia-systemThis is how nVidia does system building: A custom Danger Den box outfitted with custom sleeving and lighting.

NVidia Silicon Technology Failure Analysis Director Howard Marks gave us a walkthrough of some of the lab's multimillion-dollar analytical tools, seen in the video below. If this sort of content interests you, we'd also recommend checking out our recent walkthrough of Kingston's automated SMT lines and shipping robotics facilities.

We recently visited Kingston Technologies' headquarters in Fountain Valley, CA, where we were able to tour on-site production facilities and talk about RAM & SSD assembly. Most of our time was spent exploring labs and wandering through the aisles of SMT lines, finally concluding with a trip to the shipping robotics and packaging room. This article and accompanying video give an insider walkthrough of SMT lines and the memory testing & assembly process, providing a bit of insight as to "how it's made."

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Anyone producing board-mounted hardware (memory, motherboards, video cards) is using SMT lines (Surface-Mount Technology) at some point in the process. SMT lines use largely standardized, industry-wide machinery to assemble a product, solder components to it, electrically test the product, and eventually spit out the unit for shipping and/or further testing. Because SMT lines are standardized, they can be configured to produce multiple types of products -- the same lines that produce RAM can also be used for motherboards (though are configured differently).

Kingston Senior Technology Manager Mark Tekunoff gave us a walkthrough of the SMT lines and packaging machinery in their Fountain Valley, California facilities; the SMT lines weren't in operation when we were there, unfortunately, but we still show the equipment and Tekunoff explains how it all works. The packaging robotics (toward the end of the video) are in full operation and are quite cool to see in action, so definitely check those out.

As an aside, you may find our previous collaborative effort with Kingston/LSI of interest, which explains the design-dev-test-fab lifecycle of an SSD.

As part of our extended stay in California, we were able to visit MSI's City of Industry headquarters and get a walkthrough of all their upcoming and released gaming products. A number of you have posted questions on our forums pertaining to gaming laptops lately, and appropriately, we spent the most time looking at MSI's large selection of gaming portables.

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Let's get right to it, starting with an overview of some high-end gaming notebooks, then moving to MSI's new "Stealthy" GS70 system. We're looking at MSI's GE40, GE70, GT70 Dragon Edition 2, GX70, and GS70 gaming laptop specs and offering some hands-on impressions; let us know in the comments below if you've got questions.

We previously published an article that gave a top-level overview of motherboard selection for new PC builds. In this year's revised edition, we'll approach the topic with a bit more depth than previously and will account for Intel's Haswell CPUs and AMD's FX line of CPUs.

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Selecting the best motherboard for your gaming PC build is important to ensure upgradability going forward, access to Haswell/AMD overclocking features, and overall system stability. Chipset selection is tied-at-the-hip with motherboard selection, but if you need help finding the right chipset, check out these previous two articles (Intel - Haswell; AMD - FX).

Toward the final steps of silicon fabrication, individual dies and NAND Flash modules are tested for frequency and voltage tolerance, among other things; the stability (or volatility) of the silicon chip is gauged within a spec range, then the factory bins-out the chip for use in specific product lines. Some chips outperform the target spec, some underperform - this talks about what's done with those units.

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This article will discuss the process of binning-out silicon dies and Flash modules for use in your hardware. Silicon is not created equal, so some units will perform noticeably better than others, and some will far-and-away exceed their expectations. The goal here is to explain why certain products (K-SKU OC editions, for instance) have a higher threshold for frequency and voltage tolerance, have higher overall stability, and run at more thermally-sound temperatures. Is this information going to make your computer faster? No, but it's cool to know, and more importantly, it can inform your purchasing decisions in the future.

Let's dive into it!

In continuing our Haswell coverage (following up from our "is Haswell worth it for gaming?" post), today we visit the topic of the CPU's most intimate counterpart: the Chipset. As more of you begin to evaluate the place for 4th Gen Intel components in your upcoming PC builds, it's important to understand the various chipsets and their inherent use case scenarios. If you're brand new to all of this and aren't even 100% sure what a chipset is, check out this previous article: "What is a Chipset, Anyway?"

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Intel's previous generational tick (IvyBridge), known as the 3rd Gen Intel Cores, operated on the LGA1155 socket with 7-series chipsets. You're all familiar with Z77, Z75, and H77 chipsets at this point, but with the Haswell drop comes the 8-series ("Lynx Point") of chipsets -- and Intel has made a good deal of changes, especially for power and voltage regulation.

In this article, we'll compare Intel's Z87, H87, and H81 Haswell chipsets, talk about the differences, and evaluate what you need for your machine. Let's talk about the major differences between Intel's new family members.

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