Performance for Photography

I came down to the United States without my desktop, only my Dell XPS M1330, which is going on 2.5 years. Since purchasing it, I’ve done some upgrades to keep it performing at an acceptable level. The original floppy keyboard was replaced with a firmer version, the RAM was upgraded to 4GB and perhaps the key, the Hitachi 120GB hard drive was swapped out for a Patriot Warp 32GB SSD, and then a Kingston 128GB SSD.

I always thought it would be games that would be the thing that forced upgrades down the road. Quite unexpectedly, it turns out that photographic work brought my computer to its knees far before any games did (which I really don’t play anymore).

Intel’s Lynnfield launch gave me the perfect opportunity to get some great performance at a much lower price than the Bloomfield i7’s. For under $500, I put together an i5 750, 2x2GB DDR3, Radeon 4350, GigaByte mATX P55 board, and an Antec NSK1380 case. I repurposed the Kingston 128GB SSD for the desktop build, and stuck the old 120GB hard drive back in the M1330. For $500, I now have a substantially more suitable platform for photo editing. Next up will be to get another 4GB of RAM. Photoshop and Capture NX2 take up a heck of a lot of memory.

To take advantage of all that power, I picked up Scott Kelby’s Photoshop CS3 book for photographers. I’ve dabbled with Photoshop here and there, but never truly learned any formal techniques. Getting great out of camera photos is a wonderful thing, but I have to admit, most of my shots need some form of post-processing help. I’ve already tried a couple things from the book (very effective tips), and I now have one image post processed on the new computer with some new techniques. This photo is from a few weeks ago.

Upon further reflection

User Experience – SSD – Patriot Warp 32GB

Introduction

During the NCIX Boxing Day sale, I picked up a Patriot Warp 32GB SSD for $50 after MIR. While I had read all about the stuttering issues associated with the JMicron controller-equipped MLC SSDs, I reasoned that for $50, the potential benefits outweighed the risk of a crappy user experience.

Boy, am I ever glad I went ahead with that purchase.

Patriot Warp 32GB

It’s been about 3 months with the SSD installed in my Dell XPS M1330, and for over two of those, I’ve been running Windows 7 Beta. I’ll save the Windows 7 discussion for a later time, but I’ll say for now, if this is the direction of the computing experience for the next couple years, I welcome it with open arms.

Many new solid state drives tout extremely high transfer rates, sequential reads over 200MB/s and writes well over 100MB/s. While these speeds are a couple times faster than a good 7200RPM drive, it’s the random access times that really put the SSD on top. With sub 0.5ms seek times, it’s easily an order of magnitude less than hard drives. In typical productivity work, linear transfers of large files back and forth isn’t the focus. Instead most of the interactions with applications and files involve many small transactions, which at first glance, seemed perfectly aligned with the benefits of solid state drives.

JMicron – Performance Killer

Unfortunately, it wasn’t that simple. The JMicron controller used by the vast majority of MLC solid state drives was utterly poor at random reads and writes. Furthermore, the built-in request cache is quite miserly, somewhere around 16KB, compared to 256KB for the Intel controller, used in the much more expensive Intel MLC drives. With poor random read/write performance practically no buffer to mitigate the issue, most of the ‘budget’ MLC drives became an order of magnitude worse than spinning hard drives when it came to some of the things that are most prevalent in standard computing use: web browsing, instant messaging, email. When the request buffer became full, nothing could happen and performance would drop off a cliff. Windows would freeze for seconds at a time.

JMicron JM602

So, with all the issues I just mentioned, you’re probably wondering why I went and bought one of these performance crippling drives, right?

Because everyone was in agreement on one point, when they work, they work hellishly well.

Solid State Drive Tweaking

I wasn’t on the bleeding edge of SSD adoption, so there were plenty of resources aimed at mitigating the detrimental effects of these drives. The OCZ forums were an especially active area of experimentation. Their first MLC drive, the Core was received with anticipation due to its very low cost, relative to SLC drives. However, the poor performance resulted in a significant outcry by the community. As a result of the commotion, there are posts like Vista 32/64 SSD Windows Registry tweaks. The main objective of these tweaks was to reduce the number and frequency of random reads and writes and deeply queued requests that caused the stuttering.

The work flows I use my laptop for aren’t highly multitasked. While I may have many applications open at once, I rarely perform multiple strenuous things at once. For example, I don’t compile code while extracting gigabytes of archives and encoding videos. Most of the time, my actions are focused. Consequently, the causes of stuttering wasn’t very prevalent in my use case. Still, I didn’t bother trying the system out without the tweaks. My first order of business after installing the OS was to disable indexing, SuperFetch, and apply the registry tweaks mentioned. I could have gone further, such as working with Windows SteadyState, but didn’t want the tweaks to get in the way of how I used my computer.

Performance

We’re finally at the section that really means the most of all, overall performance. With the tweaks applied, it’s good, it’s very good. The Dell XPS M1330 the Patriot Warp currently resides in used to have a 120GB Hitachi 5400RPM drive. Here’s an ATTO bench of a 2+ month old system with the SSD.

Patriot Warp ATTO Benchmark

Compared to the Hitachi 5K160 drive it replaced, it’s slightly slower at block sizes below 8KB; however, whereas the Hitachi topped out at around 35MB/s for sequential reads and writes, the Patriot continues on through to 130MB/s read and around 80MB/s writes. What does this mean in terms of real world usage?

In terms of launching applications, my laptop (1.8GHz Core 2 Duo, 3GB RAM) is now significantly faster than my desktop (2.4GHz Core 2 Duo, 4GB RAM, WD 640GB 7200RPM), with both running Windows 7. Here are some example application load times, timed from the launch until the application reaches a usable state.

Adobe Photoshop CS3
Desktop – 6s
Laptop w/ SSD – 3.5s

Microsoft Office PowerPoint
Desktop – 2.6s
Laptop w/ SSD – 2s

Microsoft Office Outlook
Desktop – 4.5s
Laptop w/ SSD – 2.5s

Internet Explorer
Desktop – 2.5s
Laptop w/ SSD – 1.5s

The difference can be significant. Furthermore, typical usage is more fluid, and applications are a bit more responsive. A friend, upon using my laptop for a few minutes got the feeling that the applications he was opening for the first time were already open somehow. It was as though he were simply switching applications and not launching them at all. There’s a sense of instantaneity.

While I applied many tweaks to improve performance right after installing the operating system and didn’t have a baseline to compare to, I was still able to witness first-hand the impact they had on the system. A couple weeks ago, I noticed extremely frequent stuttering in Firefox. At first, I couldn’t understand it. I thought it might have been caused by the performance degradation claims made about solid state drives. However as it turns out, SuperFetch and drive indexing had both been re-enabled. After disabling the two features, performance was back to normal again and stutters became so infrequent they no longer affect everyday usage.

Moral of the Story

What should you take away from this user experience? Solid state drives, even budget MLC ones, have the potential to vastly improve system performance. With the tweaks applied, stuttering is no longer an issue on my laptop. If there’s one thing I regret slightly is the anemic size of the SSD I purchased, 32GB, but for the price, $50 after MIR, I can’t complain about that much. The experiment was a huge success and I’m looking forward to upgrading my laptop to a larger SSD and my desktop to one.

Newegg Canada Launch – Massive Fail

I was pretty excited about the Newegg Canada launch, hoping for great shipping rates and a wide selection of products at low prices. Instead, what we get is expensive UPS shipping from their warehouse in the United States and above average pricing on products overall. I’m pretty disappointed. I’ll be back to shopping at NCIX/DirectCanada for the time being, as plenty of others will be doing as well. Come on Newegg… That’s no way to carve out a market for yourself.

New Venues for ‘Desktop’ Computers

There’s a lot of talk of desktops dying out and laptops taking over. The trend is in place, with crossover between notebook and desktop sales either having already taken place, or will take place sometime this year, depending on who you talk to. I can easily see why this is the case รขโ‚ฌโ€œ a laptop can be useful in many more situations, and with computing power at where it is, laptops are hardly the overweight, underpowered machines they were 10 years ago. Many of the existing desktops, or even the desktops you can buy for $400 today are more than adequate for the vast majority of users, who browse the internet, write emails and edit word documents.

So is a laptop with a dock the answer for the future? I don’t think so, but I also don’t think the existing desktop market is viable. Dell’s recent announcement of the closure of its Austin, Texas desktop manufacturing plant is just another sign that desktops are no longer the dominant computing product they once were (and of course, that the operating expenses just can’t compete with outsourced operations in Asia). I believe there is still potential growth in the desktop computer market, just not in its current state; vendors are simply not approaching it in a way that attracts consumers. Very few people need to upgrade from a Core Duo to a Core 2 Quad. The incremental benefit isn’t justifiable.

Computer Upgrades
How many people are making the jump?

I’ve mentioned this a few times in the past: computers are quickly becoming a status symbol and decoration in the home. Beige-boxes and boring designs were acceptable in the past, but with desktop internals being the commodities they are now, differentiation has to occur, literally, outside the box. If anything, Apple has shown everyone the power of branding and aesthetics. Performance doesn’t sell the vast majority of computers anymore รขโ‚ฌโ€œ it’s price, ease-of-use, style, etc. Have you walked down the desktop aisle of your local big-box technology retailer? Despite some gloss here and a rounded corner there, the vast majority of desktops are still just big boxes users try to hide under a desk.

ASUS’ success in the Eee PC shows that consumers are willing to overlook performance as a trade-off for the ‘cute-factor’ and portability, especially in a machine that is designed to do trivial tasks. And let’s be honest here, most of the tasks performed by the vast majority of the computer-using population are trivial. Why not move desktops in the same direction?

Throw out the word ‘Desktop’

Let’s throw the word ‘desktop’ out the window. That’s the first step to expanding the market. ‘Desktop’ implies, well, deskbound. We want a computer that we’re not ashamed of putting out in a public place. Is the computer something you place in your living room as a piece of art? Let’s put a low-power, small form factor machine in the study. Let’s also put one in the home theatre, and let’s put one in the kitchen. These machines would be cheap, very cheap. If a full-sized, dual core PC with a big hard drive can be purchased for far less than $400 (at Dell Canada, $309 buys you a dual core Pentium E2160-based desktop), something with a dual-core Atom (or similar) in a small form factor design should be priced even lower.

To ride the multimedia (especially the high-def craze), use the concept of the Windows Home Server. Tuck a box of hard drives in a closet somewhere and stream all the content you want to the small client boxes around the home. It keeps the media content centralized and at the same time, keeps the size of the computing devices small, possibly equipped with nothing more than a 2.5″ hard drive for the operating system and applications.

Windows Home Server
Microsoft’s onto something here; just replace all the connected devices with thinner clients.

Of course, there will still be a market for powerful, full-sized desktops. Computer enthusiasts, gamers, and content-creationists will require more computing performance than the average user – but that’s exactly the point – the average user doesn’t need that sort of power.

Potential solutions on the horizon

I’m interested to see what ASUS ends up doing for its already-announced Eee desktop PC. HotHardware recently published a supposed image of the device and it looks very sleek, certainly very different from most traditional ‘desktops’. If it’s priced appropriately, I think it will be very successful. People will buy it to replace their existing machines, not because it’s more powerful (in fact, it’ll probably be less powerful, if anything) but because it’s something they can place in the living room and use as a conversation piece the next time the neighbors visit.

Alleged ASUS Eee Desktop PC
Could this be the ASUS Eee desktop PC?

The Apple Mac Mini and Apple TV are similar to what I’m proposing here, but each has a fatal flaw. The Mac Mini is far too expensive (relative) and the Apple TV is too functionally limited (I’m not counting the hacks that 99% of the population wouldn’t even consider), not to mention the fact that, despite rapid growth, OS X is still a niche and unfamiliar platform for most.

Wrap Up

Give me some nicely styled, $250 (or less) computers around the size of the Wii, and I’ll show you a heck of a lot of interested customers.

No, this is no April Fool’s joke. ๐Ÿ™‚