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GadgetBuilder's VNF4 Computer Project        

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Not all my projects are related to machining - computers are another area of interest. As a retired EE/programmer, I enjoy the change of pace provided by machining but old interests never die. Plus, I'm a sucker for a good sunshine pump. After reading several enthusiastic reviews of the NF4 chip and its capabilities, I decided to build a new computer using an NF4 based board. My needs are modest, no gaming or overclocking, just web surfing plus building web pages and handling pictures, email, etc. -- the old HP computer handled all this nicely but uses WinME so I was looking forward to trying out WinXP and having better storage, especially a DVD writer.


Hardware Selection

I chose the Antec Sonata case because it is very quiet, cools well, and includes a 380W PSU rated 12v/24A. The Chaintech VNF4 Ultra with AMD 3000+ Winchester CPU uses modest power, especially with the X300 video card which is low power also. Memory is 2x512kb Kingston HyperX DDR400. The video card is an HP PCIe based on the ATI Radeon X300. The Chaintech VNF4 mobo matches my needs very well: I need a serial port, parallel port, several USB ports, a stereo headset connection, and a regular keyboard connector; I don't need Firewire or a second NIC.


For storage I chose a Seagate 80gb SATA and a Plextor 712SA SATA (DVD/CD writer/reader) plus a floppy for historical compatability.


The build was done on 3 February 2005 and went very well: the parts snapped together and it started immediately when powered up. I poked around in the BIOS to see what it offered, then restarted and booted Memtest86 off floppy. Memtest86 ran for over an hour without errors; I like to verify that memory is OK before loading Windows -- memory is a fairly common problem so testing memory immediately on a new system avoids many mysterious difficulties.


System Configuration and Software Setup

Following basic testing of the hardware I formatted and partitioned the disk using BootitNG and installed BootitNG in its own tiny partition. My partition setup is designed to simplify backing up using images saved with BootitNG. My experience is that the operating system is most often the item that requires restoring from an image so I made a relatively small 10gb partition for WinXP, and two larger 20gb partitions, one for my data and another to hold compressed images. This has proved to be a good arrangement: I have restored the WinXP partition numerous times in my struggle with the nVidia drivers and have never (so far) needed to restore the data partition.


WinXP Home SP2 loaded from the CD with no difficulty, contrary to some reports that an all SATA system needs drivers loaded from floppy. The Chaintech VNF4 worked flawlessly when the CD was simply inserted into the Plextor -- XP was up and running in about 20 minutes. The nVidia drivers were loaded off the CD (except the IDE and audio drivers). The Realtek audio driver was also loaded from the CD; I listen to internet radio using WinAmp frequently and the Realtek drivers are excellent for this.


The My Documents folder was shifted to the D: partition; most all my data is kept in My Documents. A new folder, My Mail, was created in My Documents and OE's mail storage was pointed to this folder. As noted above, this simplifies backup and also minimizes the probability of losing mail if the system needs to be restored or reloaded. A Downloads folder was created in My Documents; all programs and drivers downloaded from the net are kept here so if XP must be reloaded then all the drivers and applications are available on the data partition for installation. The system was tested for connection to the web and worked normally.


The Catalyst video driver was downloaded from ATI's site and installed. ATI is a helpful company; unlike nVidia, they responded to my question about the HP card (they supplied the chip but didn't make the card) and indicated which driver I needed within a few hours. nVidia doesn't have any way to establish contact and their response to user questions is always: "We make chips, see your mobo manufacturer for questions about drivers" even though the mobo manufacturers are supplying drivers from nVidia - more about drivers later. For contrast, visit the ATI driver download page (XP/Radeon/Catalyst) and read the release notes. Notice the feedback link near the bottom of the download page -- the contrast with nVidia is stark!


XP was configured to connect to the local network - communications seemed a little shaky but did work. I used Karen's Replicator to move all the info from the old computer to the new via the LAN. Per the above description of partitioning, this was mostly the contents of My Documents on the old system. Replicator works well for this type of transfer, rapidly copying all selected files and folders from the original disk onto the new disk. Because the connection was shaky and paused for varying periods during the transfer, I ran the transfer again -- Replicator doesn't re-copy, it simply ensures that the same files exist on both systems and copies only files/folders that are not found on the target disk; in this case it found that the target copy was accurate so the second pass was quick.


Applications used on the old computer were installed from the new Downloads folder which now contained all these applications, courtesy of Replicator. The shakiness of LAN communications was eventually remedied using info from HomeNetHelp.


In summary, the hardware worked well right out of the box, software installation went reasonably (I glossed over a second installation of XP, needed because I made an error while setting up dual boot with XP64 - something I abandoned when I found that some needed drivers were not available) and the system worked fairly well right off. There were some issues with the nVidia drivers: the NIC would drop communications temporarily from time to time and IE's favicons would disappear and sometimes reappear, plus NAM accessed the disk 3 times per second. Overall, the hardware was flawless, the system worked well and XP was (and is) far more reliable than WinME -- only the nVidia drivers are a disappointment.


System User Notes

The VNF4 has been absolutely rock solid, especially compared to other PC's I've used. This is my first XP machine so perhaps the improved software reliability is part of this impression but the VNF4/XP combination has worked better than I ever anticipated. Similarly, the Seagate SATA hard drive has worked flawlessly. The only problem has been the nVidia drivers, as mentioned elsewhere, and the DVD failure mentioned below.

A pleasant surprise has been the audio quality provided by the ALC850 via the Realtek drivers. I listen to WinAmp music often with headphones, where the fidelity is well beyond what I expected. I find I listen much more frequently with this computer than I did with its predecessor, mainly because of the better sound provided. Stereo for my headphones is much simpler than the complex sound requirements of games, so others may need to add a sound card while I'm quite happy with the onboard sound.

The DVD burner is the backstop in my backup scheme. I back up to DVD periodically by copying the latest (of more frequent) image files from the hard disk partition used to hold images. Compressed images of the XP partition and the data partition (about 4gb for both) fit nicely on one DVD. I haven't had to restore the system from DVD (yet) but have tested them by successfully extracting selected files from images on DVD with BootitNG's TbiView utility. Compressed partition images are made with BootitNG, requiring about 5 minutes per partition, storing them on the image partition, E:. These large image files are then copied to DVD; another 7 minutes or so.


In March 2006 I attempted to burn backup images to DVD and the Plextor 712SA failed with a Pwr Cal Failure. I tried different media without improvement. I poked around and found I could test the quality of a burned disk with CDSpeed; evaluating all the images previously burned showed the burn quality was poor on all. CDSpeed showed high levels of recoverable errors on all of my backup DVDs. Since the 1 yr warranty had expired, I replaced the Plextor drive with a BenQ 1655. The burn quality from the BenQ is excellent (using the same TDK media), far better than this particular 712SA ever produced. Moral of this story is that DVDs are more complicated to use than they appear and a DVD drive should be evaluated immediately after installation to ensure it works properly -- DVD drives incorporate powerful error recovery so they can seem to be working perfectly even when they're not - only evaluating the underlying error rates will expose problems before disks become unreadable.


Further Adventures of a Newbie in nVidia Land

A Continuing Saga...

I use FavOrg to copy IE's favicons to my disk so they won't disappear due to the well known IE problem. I looked through numerous forums for a clue to why IE's favicons mysteriously disappeared and reappeared on my new system but were stable on the old ME system. Eventually, I came across a comment which said disabling nVidia's firewall allowed favicons to work normally. This made no sense since my favicons are stored on my disk and could not be affected by the firewall which operates on the NIC data stream. I tried disabling nVidia's firewall anyway and oddly, it caused IE's favicons to work properly! Since I wanted to use nVidia's hardware firewall, I began using Firefox instead of IE -- Firefox's icons are not affected by nVidia's firewall and I found I prefer Firefox. The NIC communications dropouts continued with or without nVidia's firewall and NAM continued to hammer the disk.


nVidia released the 6.39 mobo drivers on 4 February 2005. I assumed these would fix the problems I was experiencing so on 11 February I downloaded the drivers and imaged my system prior to installing the drivers. The release notes said to remove any nVidia video drivers prior to installing the 6.39 release. I have no nVidia video drivers, only ATI's Catalyst. So, I installed the 6.39 drivers over the existing nVidia drivers from the CD (the normal way drivers are installed). This trashed my system, causing a BSOD on subsequent boots. Fortunately, I had the image so I reverted to it using BootitNG. I read more about driver installation on the net and tried many things -- Driver Cleaner, removing Catalyst, removing Catalyst and nVidia mobo drivers, a pinch of salt tossed over my left shoulder, etc., etc. Nothing I tried worked and I always had to revert to an image (I made a new image prior to each attempt so I wouldn't lose any changed settings or updates). Lots of work and no results...


nVidia released 6.53 on 17 March 2005. Older and a little wiser, I waited several weeks and didn't notice much change in the complaint level on the nVidia forums. I downloaded 6.53 anyway, imaged my system, removed the nVidia drivers, and loaded the 6.53 release. The installer seemed more civilized and the result was better: the system was stable until I accessed the net, then BSOD. Back to the image. I tried several variations on what I removed and how I loaded but was not successful. I noticed that one ASUS-SLI group seemed to be successful in stabilizing systems with the latest drivers so I plugged through their archives to find the magic answer. Turned out that they did a clean install of XP SP2 followed immediately by the nVidia drivers. So, I imaged again, formatted the XP partition, reloaded XP and immediately loaded the 6.53 drivers. This worked - the system was stable and allowed access to the network without a BSOD. I imaged this, restored the original image, saved settings, favorites, address book, etc. to the data disk, restored the XP/6.53 image, installed applications and restored saved settings. It took several hours but I was now running 6.53. The problem with favicons was fixed but the occasional NIC dropout continued and NAM continued to access the disk 3 times per second.


I had been monitoring several forums, including the nVidia mobo forum, for several months and concluded that I was in better shape than many others using these drivers. I also found others who ran into the problem with continuous disk access by NAM, apparently an uncommon but not unknown driver complaint. The NIC dropout problem is common, with many owners experiencing it and I suspect many experiencing it but not recognizing it as a driver problem. In monitoring user complaints about the nVidia drivers I noticed patterns to the complaints and started keeping notes summarizing some user complaints.


In mid-June '05 I updated my VNF4's BIOS to V4.0 in hopes this would help the NIC dropout/disk access problems -- it had no effect. Based on rumors that Intel Beta 7.12 works for AMD systems too I downloaded it, imaged my system, and installed these drivers over the existing 6.53 drivers. I was amazed to see this normal install work and not cause BSOD's afterwards - this installer is the best so far. Of course, the NIC dropout and 3 times per second disk accesses continue.


nVidia released AMD 6.66 mobo drivers on 15 July 2005. I'm still waiting and watching - again, the complaint level on the nVidia forums hasn't dropped. According to individual driver revision numbers, they are mostly identical to the drivers in the Intel Beta 7.12 release I'm using currently so there is little chance of anything improving with installation of 6.66. Still, hope springs eternal...


nVidia released AMD 6.70 drivers on 26 Oct 2005. On 1 Nov 05 I loaded the 6.70 drivers. Installation went well and all seemed normal initially, but then I noted occasional distortion in jpg's read over the net. Based on a suggestion from PaulDriver at PCPer, on 6 Nov 05 I changed the settings to limit Ethernet autonegotiation to speeds of 100mb or less. This eliminated the jpg distortion problem but did not affect the ongoing NIC dropout and frequent disk access problems.


In March 2006 I replaced the Plextor 712SA (SATA) CD/DVD burner with a BenQ 1655 (IDE) burner (Unfortunately, I allowed the 1 yr warranty to expire before I figured out the Plextor drive never wrote properly). Surprisingly, this burner replacement fixed the 2-3 HD accesses per second that had plagued my system since the beginning. The file accesses by NSVCIP in the log were a red herring that erroneously led me to blame the nVidia software. I was never able to pin the problem down using SysInternals tools, the best I've found for this type of investigation. The NIC dropout problem continues and I have lots of company there, judging by the nVidia forum.


Fewer is better with the nVidia mobo drivers. I load as few as possible to reduce my exposure, using only those where there is no real choice if I want to use the capabilities I paid for in the NF4. I avoid the IDE and audio drivers and load the others. I am able to load and use the firewall while many owners report serious problems when they do so - my feeling is that this is random and I'm lucky here and unlucky with NIC dropouts. nVidia mobo drivers remain a crapshoot, in my opinion, with some small minority of users experiencing one or more of several common problems; nVidia successfully ignores this minority because the majority of users either don't have problems or don't recognize the problems they do have as driver related.



VNF4 Miscellaneous Details

S/PDIf out on VNF4 Ultra

Radioshack has a cable assembly that can couple the VNF4 mini-plug optical output to an A/V receiver TOSlink input. It is Catalog #: 15-1597, $6.97. Apparently the optical 2.5 mm mini-plug connector is used on some MP3 and portable CD players. The Chaintech manual mentions optical output but doesn't give any details.


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