Hardware Guides

Flashing firmware used to be a sort-of haphazard process that often resulted in bricked motherboards. At least, that was my experience when working with pre-UEFI motherboards in a lab environment. The widespread adoption of UEFI in modern motherboards means that usability has been substantially improved, and with that in mind, flashing no longer requires a bootable CD with command prompt loaded.

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This quick tutorial shows how to flash your firmware (update BIOS) using any modern ASUS board. We used an ASUS Crosshair V in this guide, but the steps apply to any other E-Z Flash-equipped board. Note that some modern board manufacturers (MSI and ASRock both included) will also allow BIOS flashing over ethernet or wireless connection, though USB is still the easiest and safest method.

Computers can get gross. We've already posted disturbing, NSFL before-and-after photos of preventative maintenance for extremely dusty, uncleaned PC internals; now it's time to look at the only component to accumulate more human filth than the inside of a power supply -- keyboards.

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Luckily, cleaning keyboards isn't overly difficult by comparison. Sometimes. Then again, we've all seen the decade-old boards that are caked in brown fuzz, and I'm not so sure I'd even bother cleaning something like that.

Mechanical keyboards have the advantage of easily-removed keycaps and wider spacing between the keys. With the right tools and about 30 minutes of time, a dirty mechanical board can be restored to mostly pristine conditions. In this quick guide, we'll cover the basics of cleaning a mechanical keyboard by removing the keycaps, applying some putty, compressed air, and adding a bit of elbow grease.

It's felt like an agonizingly slow five years, but SSDs are finally affordable for most PC builds. The 2009 consumer launch saw the arrival of Intel's X25 SSD, built atop SLC architecture and priced accordingly. I remember testing some of the first X25 SSDs and the resulting stack of $1200 paperweights that had accumulated. Thankfully, things have come a long way since then. With the advent of new NAND types that can pack multiple bits into a single cell, affordability and flexibility of use have arrived to the SSD marketplace.

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This year in particular has seen the rapid expansion of consumer-ready SSDs, particularly with a refresh of Crucial's budget-class SSDs, ADATA's forward positioning, and Corsair's updated Force lineup. And there's more, too -- Seagate, Samsung, Kingston, PNY, SanDisk, and Mushkin have continued to ship into 2014, with Samsung planning more releases in short order.

With all these choices and the beginning price-war, it's an ideal time for consumers to jump on the constant SSD sales and the rapidly collapsing price-point. This buyer's guide will introduce the best SSDs for the price in gaming and enthusiast uses, hopefully helping with tips on selecting an SSD. We're going to stay away from the high-performance / professional marketplace in this guide.

Normally we wait until a product has been benchmarked to talk about it on camera, but we're presently waiting on a driver update for both the ZBOX and NZXT's new CLCs. While we wait for the CAM software update to properly accommodate the X41 & X61 CLCs, let's get a quick hands-on with the new coolers.

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The newest addition to the world's lineup of gaming-grade home-theater PCs is Zotac's ZBOX EN760, which we first wrote about a few weeks ago. Zotac has been making its "ZBOX" product line for years now, though the EN760 is the first model to have serious competitive potential in the living room gaming market.

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The original plan was to have our EN760 review and benchmark online by now, but issues encountered with nVidia's 337.88 drivers have stalled that  temporarily. Zotac's new EN760 -- not yet shipping on the consumer market -- uses an nVidia GTX 860m mobile GPU for its graphics solution. The 860m ships in two SKUs: a Kepler-powered unit and a Maxwell-powered unit. According to the specifications provided by Zotac, it appears that the EN760 uses the Maxwell architecture 860m GPU in league with a portable i5-4200U CPU (1.6GHz / 2.6GHz turbo boost). These components together are what have created driver compatibility issues with 337.88, though nVidia and Zotac are working to resolve them rapidly.

SSDs are surrounded by terminology that generally isn't understood beyond a relative level. There's this top-level concept that one type of NAND is superior to another, that synchronous is preferable to asynchronous, that endurance is tied to P/E cycles, but a lot of the knowledge halts there. We've worked closely with several SSD and controller engineers over the past year to educate ourselves on the inner workings of the storage world's biggest recent advancement; now it's time to start organizing that education in article form. Over the next weeks, we'll be releasing several "SSD Architecture" postings (so be sure to like / follow / subscribe) that focus on different aspects of solid-state drives, controllers, and NAND.

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This installment includes a video component. The video showcases a discussion with LSI's Kent Smith and spoils the basics of what we'll cover throughout this series. I highly recommend watching the video, especially for those who benefit from visual aids. We covered SSD questions pertaining to varying voltage levels on evolving NAND types (SLC, MLC, TLC), cell decay when an SSD goes unused, P/E cycles and endurance, and "what's next" after TLC for Flash types. That's a lot of stuff. Each item is complex in its own way -- hence the chronicle-like release of in-depth article components.

Today we're talking about top-level SSD anatomy and architecture, defining what "NAND Flash" actually is, evolving NAND types (MLC vs. TLC, what's after TLC), capacity calculations, and providing an "SSD primer" of other basic elements. This is what will lay the foundation for our more advanced articles.

Intel has started acting a bit strangely as a result of its uncontested dominance in the mid-to-high-end marketplace; as discussed in our Z97 vs. H97 chipset comparison, this is the first Intel platform in recent memory that has expanded compatibility between CPU and chipset generations. Haswell, the Haswell Refresh, Devil's Canyon, and Broadwell are all LGA1150 socketed chips, and although there will be some incompatible 8/9-series board/CPU combos (check before buying), a lot of these will work together.

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Devil's Canyon (detailed here) is yet unreleased and Broadwell still looms on the 4Q14/1Q15 horizon. Intel has released its "Haswell Refresh" CPUs in the interim, including the new i7-4790, i5-4690, and i3-4360; the CPUs are effectively replacing the i7-4771, the i5-4670, and the i3-4340 respectively. Astute readers will notice that the refreshed CPUs are each xx2x higher in number count than their championed component.

In this Intel CPU buyer's guide, we'll look at whether the Haswell Refresh CPUs are worth buying for gamers given their unique positioning between HW, Devil's Canyon, and Broadwell. We'll also talk about overclocking options and lack thereof on the i7-4790, i5-4690, and i3-4360.

First, the specs:

Z97 motherboards have been floating around for a little while now -- here's our round-up of them -- but we haven't had a chance to actually look at the Z97 chipset as a product. Z97's immediate accompanying CPU is the Devil's Canyon chip that was announced at GDC, but will later host the 5th Gen Broadwell CPUs. Devil's Canyon is due out shortly, though another Haswell Refresh (i5-4690, others) was recently posted that has seen minimal interest thus far; Broadwell is due out in 4Q14 or later and features a die-shrink to 14nm fab process.

sata-expressThis is a SATA Express connector -- effectively dual SATA ports with additional power/ground.

Thus far, we know of Intel's Z97 and H97 chipsets and have heard no news of an "H91" or "B95" equivalent from last generation. For this Intel Broadwell 9-series chipset comparison, we'll look strictly at Z97 vs. H97 for gaming and overclocking purposes; the goal of this guide is to help PC builders determine which chipset will perform best for their objectives while remaining price-scaled.

I wrote a similar chipset comparison for AMD FM2/FM2+ chipsets last week.

AMD's Kaveri APU has been out for a while now. As the FM2+ platform has stabilized post-APU launches, we're seeing increased adoption of APU-based budget rigs among our PC build guide readers. Kaveri and Richland are both interesting chips from an architectural standpoint; Kaveri has increased the die allocation of the GPU component to nearly 50%, resulting in one of the most powerful consumer-ready integrated GPUs ever available, yet still retains performance right around (or under) Richland in CPU power.

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As with any growing platform, AMD's chipset selection has expanded on FM2+ as technology has iterated; the company currently pushes A88X, A78, and A55 chipsets on most FM2+ motherboards found online; A85X and A75 are still around, but limited to FM1/FM2 boards. A88X was just getting big around CES, where we demoed some of the first A88X boards at MSI's suite. Still, AMD doesn't have its block diagrams easily accessible and doesn't make it easy to learn the differences between each chipset, so that's why this article is here.

In this AMD FM2+ / Kaveri APU chipset comparison, we'll look at the differences between A88X, A85X (FM2, Richland), A78, A75 (FM2, Richland), and A55, then discuss what's best for your gaming needs. AMD A75 and A55 have been around since FM1, A88X came out with Kaveri, and the rest are in between. If you're interested in a similar post about Intel's 8-series Haswell chipsets, check this out.

Small form factor enclosures were huge at this year's CES. Last year we saw a few behemoths -- like the 900D -- but with the advent of "Steam machines" and boxes like the Brix Pro, mini-ITX is gaining traction in the marketplace. Some companies have always been in the space, others are riding the trendy wave; SilverStone is a good example of a manufacturer that's been present since the get-go, especially with their high-quality SG08.

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Lian-Li is another that's been in the mATX/mITX game for a while. As with nearly all Lian-Li enclosures, the PC-TU100 is a fully-aluminum case with a brushed-like finish. All-aluminum materials lend to a 4 pound overall weight, aided by the small 6.3" x 10.8" x 9.5" dimensions. The case is targeted at those who move their systems around a lot -- LAN gaming is the easy example -- and is equipped with a handle, a single cooling fan, and enough space for a low-profile video card.

In this quick Lian-Li PC-TU100 case overview and unboxing, we'll look at the specs and primary uses for what is one of the lightest mini-ITX cases.

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