Browsing Posts in Hardware

In Improving Your Audio: Hardware Edition, I focused on the importance of good audio hardware. No amount of post-processing is going to turn poor raw audio into a listenable podcast/webcast/screencast. It would be like trying to print a high resolution image from a grainy scan. Sure you can interpolate pixels to clean up the graininess, but you’re not going to make detail magically appear that wasn’t in the original scan. The same is true with audio. You can clean up bad audio by removing pops and hisses, but you’re not going to make good sound magically appear from poor quality raw audio.

Pop FilterOne inexpensive piece of equipment that will save you a lot of retakes and clean-up is the pop filter. A pop filter is a thin screen of fabric that sits between you and your microphone and will set you back about $20. The pop filter is the black circle on the gooseneck in the image on right. (Image used with permission under Creative Common Attribution 2.0.) A pop filter prevents “p” and “t” sounds from making “popping” sounds in your audio. Without a pop filter, you end up with audio like this:

I’ve recorded the same phrase at the same distance from the microphone, but now with a pop filter between me and the mic:

The popping is caused by the rapid burst of air overloading the input capacity of the microphone, which results in clipping. You can see it if we look at the waveform of the raw audio.

Audio Clipping Due to Popping

Notice how the audio in the top recording is clipped where the microphone is overloaded. (+/- 1.0 is 100% input in Audacity.)

Most headset microphones like the LifeChat LX-3000 have a wind shield, which performs the same function as a pop filter. A wind shield is a fancy term for that piece of foam on the actual microphone. The main disadvantage of a wind shield over a pop filter is that wind shields “colour” the audio more. A good pop filter is acoustically neutral, which means that your audio sounds the same with and without the pop filter – it only eliminates the popping from “p” and “t” sounds. Also remember to attach your pop filter to your mic stand or boom and not directly to the microphone otherwise the microphone will pick up vibrations from the pop filter.

The moral of the story… If you’re going to spend money on good audio gear, don’t forget to buy a pop filter. The $20 it costs you will more than pay for itself in better audio quality and time saved in fewer edits and retakes.

Until next time, happy ‘casting!

Over the years, I’ve done a lot of audio work between podcasts, screencasts, and webcasts. So I know a thing or two about computer audio. I don’t claim to be an expert like my friends Carl Franklin or Richard Campbell, but I’ve done enough to be able to offer some helpful tips. We’re going to start with the hardware.

The quality of your computer audio can only be as good as the raw captured product. Use a bad microphone and no amount of software cleanup is going to magically produce good audio. You might be wondering how much difference the hardware can make? I’ve recorded the same audio track using four (4) different microphones on the same computer. (I didn’t record them simultaneously as multi-track recording is notoriously difficult, but I did say the same phrase into each microphone on after the other.) Let’s start with the LifeChat ZX-6000.

LifeChat ZX-6000

My voice sounds like I’m on a telephone. The sound is hollow and lacks depth. If we plot a frequency analysis using Audacity, we can easily see the problems.

LifeChat ZX-6000 Frequency Spectrum

OK, maybe not easily if you’re not familiar with audio. Let me explain some basic ideas and then you should be able to see the problems.

Normal human hearing discerns frequencies between 20 Hz and 20 kHz. The standard tuning note for musicians is the 440 Hz, which is an A above middle C on the piano. The lowest note on the piano (A0) is 27.5 Hz and the highest note (C8) is 4186 Hz. (I’m using the example of a piano since many people, even non-musicians, have at least played with a piano at one time or another.) Lower frequencies correspond to lower notes and higher frequencies to higher notes. The frequencies mentioned are the fundamental frequencies. When you play an A4 on the piano (or any other instrument including the human voice), the major frequency is 440 Hz, but there are many harmonics or overtones that occur. These harmonics give a colour and depth to the sound. This is one of the reasons why different instruments sound vastly different when playing the same note – the harmonics produced by each instrument are quite different. This is how we perceive different ranges of audio frequencies. (Taken from Wikipedia Audio Frequency.)

Frequency (Hz) Octave Description
16 to 32 1st The human threshold of feeling, and the lowest pedal notes of a pipe organ.
32 to 512 2nd to 5th Rhythm frequencies, where the lower and upper bass notes lie.
512 to 2048 6th to 7th Defines human speech intelligibility, gives a horn-like or tinny quality to sound.
2048 to 8192 8th to 9th Gives presence to speech, where labial and fricative sounds lie.
8192 to 16384 10th Brilliance, the sounds of bells and the ringing of cymbals. In speech, the sound of the letter "S" (8000-11000 Hz)

Note how 2048 to 8192 Hz gives a presence to speech, whereas 8192 to 16384 give a brilliance. Without these frequencies present, speech will sound hollow.

With this in mind, let’s take another look at the frequency spectrum from the LifeChat ZX-6000. We see virtually no frequencies above 4000 Hz, which is making my voice sound hollow. Old analog telephones transmitted 200 Hz to 3000 Hz, which is why it sounds like I’m talking on an old phone. You’ll also note that the lower frequencies (below 400 Hz) are attenuated (e.g. not as pronounced), which is why the sound is lacking some of the bass timbre of my voice.

Let’s try a different microphone and see how it performs… Next up the LifeChat LX-3000.

LifeChat LX-3000

The audio quality is vastly improved. Let’s take a look at the frequency spectrum.

LifeChat LX-3000 Frequency Spectrum

You can visibly see the difference. We have frequency response all the way up to 20 kHz with the majority of the response in the lower frequencies, which is expected due to the timbre of my voice. The lower frequencies are also not as attenuated. The quality of the sound is much warmer and vibrant with the LX-3000 than the ZX-6000.

As our last point of comparison, let’s listen to a semi-pro microphone – the one I use for my recording work – the audio-technica AT2020.

audio-technica AT2020

The differences are subtler this time, but still noticeable. The audio has more depth and presence than with the LX-3000. Let’s take a look at the frequency spectrum.

audio-technica AT2020 Frequency Spectrum

Notice the better bass response below 400 Hz giving a truer rendering of my low voice. We also have better harmonics in the 10 to 20 kHz range, providing a more life-like sound. We can also take a look at the frequency response of the microphone, which can be found on the manufacturer’s website here.

audio-technica AT2020 Frequency Response

Note the flat response curve across the entire range of frequencies. This means that the microphone records all frequencies with equal efficiency, which results in little distortion of the raw sound. For comparison, I would expect the response curve for the ZX-6000 to drop to virtually zero above 4 kHz and show attenuation below 400 Hz. You want a flat response curve for your microphone as it will not colour or distort the recorded audio.

I should note that both the LifeChat LX-3000 and ZX-6000 have hardware noise cancellation. (Noise cancellation will remove an annoying background hum originating from fans, pumps, and other sources of low background noise. It can’t do anything to clean up dogs barking, children screaming, or other sudden noises that disrupt your recording sessions.) Applying software noise cancellation on either of these microphones has little additional benefit. The audio-technica AT2020 does not have hardware noise cancellation and benefits from applying software noise cancellation. Assuming you are working in a quiet environment the audio quality of the AT2020 without noise cancellation is still better than the LX-3000 and far superior with noise cancellation. Software noise cancellation usually involves little more than selecting a checkbox in programs like TechSmith Camtasia Studio or similar recording packages. You can perform noise removal using Audacity too, though it’s a bit more work as you have to manually select a quiet region with just the background noise that you want to subtract.

The LX-3000 is a great microphone for conference calls and gaming. It is a good, though not great, microphone for recording podcasts/screencasts/webcasts. It is inexpensive ($30 to $50), easy to use, and can be bought at most computer stores. If you’re just getting started, this is a good microphone to buy.

If you’re looking to take your audio to the next level, the audio-technica AT2020 is a great semi-pro microphone that you can pick up at reasonable cost. You’ll have to go to an audio specialty store as you won’t find these in your regular computer stores. I purchased mine at Long & McQuade, which is a chain of well-respected Canadian musical instrument stores. Now what is a reasonable cost? You’ll need more than just a microphone. You’ll also need a pre-amp to power the microphone as semi-pro and pro microphones don’t have high enough output to jack directly into your computer microphone port. You’ll need a pop filter (which prevents “p” and “t” sounds from making “popping” sounds in your audio), a mic stand, an XLR cable for mic to preamp, and a 1/4” to 1/4” male cable for preamp to computer (or 1/4” to 1/8” male if you are using a normal mic-in on your computer).

Component Price*
audio-technica AT2020 $120
ART TubeMP Tube Mic Preamp $49
Pop Filter $20
Mic Stand $20
2 Cables (XLR & 1/4”-1/4”) $20
Total $229

* Prices are in Canadian dollars.

You can get the same microphone (AT2020) with a USB option, but at a higher cost of $170, which is basically the cost of the preamp and cables. The TubeMP preamp has an actual vacuum tube that gives a warmth to the sound that is hard to achieve otherwise. Given the similar costs, I would personally err on the side of using a tube preamp over USB.

You might want to invest in a decent sound card, such as a Creative Labs X-Fi Platinum or similar card, which has better audio recording qualities than the audio-in that comes on your motherboard. It’s hard to find the X-Fi cards anymore. So you’ll have to look around to find a good quality audio card, but expect to spend $100 to $200 on the audio card alone. Remember your audio is going to be no better than the weakest link in the chain.

Is $229 of the audio-technica AT2020 worth the improved audio over the $30 to $50 LifeChat LX-3000? That’s up to you to decide.

Since Hamilton called me out, I thought I should comment on my recent tribulations around a new laptop. (For those of you wondering, Twitter is unlike Las Vegas. What you say on Twitter doesn’t stay in Twitter.) :) I’m in the market for a new laptop as my Dell D820 is giving me problems. The battery life is currently around 2 minutes. (The 9-cell battery, which initially got 8 hours run-time, is quite near death after only 2-1/2 years of use – mostly plugged in.) The replacement battery was going to cost over $300, but wouldn’t solve the lack of hard drive space, the need for more memory, or the slow processor. (The system is 2-1/2 years old, which is ancient for a developer laptop.) Heck, a new D830 with similar specs to my D820 would have cost less than $1000, which isn’t that much more than the battery!

I was seriously considering a MacBook Pro, likely running Vista. (I know. Blasphemy!) The MBP was very tempting, but the price was steep for something I would consider developer-grade. As Hamilton noted, over $3000 for decent, but not stellar components. I was close to buying the Dell E6500, but the poorly-rated NVidia Quadro 160M put me off. (I’ve had Quadro chips before. They are awful for anything other than CAD/CAM. Want to flake out with the occasional game while on the road? Forget it with a Quadro chip.) Another serious contender was an Alienware m15x, but loaded with developer-grade goodies pushed the price well above $3200 CAD. The systems are built in Miami, FL and I didn’t get the warm fuzzies when I talked to their sales department. I got the distinct impression that any serious problem would require return to Miami for service, which isn’t acceptable for a business laptop, IMHO. Still there is a coolness factor to the Alienware systems.

I’ve never considered myself a “ThinkPad” guy, but when I saw the specs of the T500 plus the price, I jumped at it. For $2K CAD (including tax and shipping), I got a 2.8GHz Core 2, 4GB RAM, Radeon 3650, and a bunch of other goodies. The one downside is that the largest 7200rpm hard drive available on this model is 160 GB. I can always replace it later if needed. One great feature is the dual video cards – an integrated Intel X4500 and the ATI Mobility Radeon 3650. You can switch between the cards without rebooting and reviews indicate that going to integrated adds about 1.5 hours to your battery life, which is already around 4.5 hours. The screen is 15.4″ widescreen at 1680×1050 – same as the Dell D820 that I’m replacing. (I’ve had a 15.4″ 1920×1200 and it hurt my eyes. I run my 24″ Acer X243W monitors at 1920×1200, which is awesome.) I considered laptops with 17″ screens, but they’re quite heavy and unusable in airplanes. (My friend, John Bristowe, told me, “Sure, you can use a 17″ in an airplane. You just kind of angle it right and type on your chest.” Uh, yeah…) Hamilton’s description of “a hundred LEDs blinking in your face” worries me, but it’s already ordered. I await the T500 with expectation and trepidation. I’ll let you know my impressions once I receive it.

Today I decided to contribute some patches to the upcoming NHibernate 2.0 release. First order of business was to get latest and then run:

nant clean build > output-debug-build.log

which compiles NHibernate and the unit tests. Unfortunately something went horribly wrong as the build finished early. Usually nant chews on a large project like NHibernate for awhile and then spits out something like this near the bottom of the output:


Total time: 57.5 seconds.

I started splunking through the output to try to figure out what was wrong and noticed this at the bottom of the output:


Total time: 11.9 seconds.

About 12 seconds to compile everything! I’m used to a quick return from nant usually meaning a failed compile. Not in this case. The Ultimate Developer Rig – Kovacs Edition is just plain fast. And that made me happy.

CORRECTION: The above NAnt command builds the unit tests, but doesn’t actually run them. Mea culpa.

UPDATE: I ran everything again including running the unit tests:

nant clean build test > output-debug-build.log

On my Latitude D820 (Core Duo 2.0 GHz), total time was 98.6 seconds.

On the Ultimate Developer Rig – Kovacs Edition, total time was 62.8 seconds.

Yes, unit tests – especially for NHibernate where you really have to touch the database for most tests – take time to run. Note that a really fast box doesn’t help unit test times as the unit tests take about 40 seconds to run regardless. This says to me that unit test times are dominated by the time spent communicating with the local SQL Server database.

N.B. NAnt does not support parallel builds. So only one core was kept busy. You can hack MSBuild to support parallel builds as documented by Scott Hanselman. Given the fact that most developers have at least dual if not quad-proc machines, I hope that build tools start officially supporting parallel builds.

As I mentioned here, my motherboard died a horrible death two days after its warranty expired. The motherboard was based on the 939 platform for AMD processors, which has been discontinued in favour of the newer AM2 platform. My choice was to either start hunting around eBay for a used (and hopefully still working) 939 motherboard or get a new one based on a different chipset. The problem with getting a new one is that AM2 uses a different processor socket (hence new processor) and DDR2 RAM (hence new RAM as 939 uses DDR). So I’d be replacing a lot of components. Decisions, decisions…

Lately I’m doing a lot of podcasting and screencasting, as well as development. Encoding audio and video is time-consuming and if you’ve got a decent encoder, is one of the few places you’ll benefit from a quad-core processor. So I started doing some research. I’ve been a big fan of AMD for years, but the reality is that the Phenom quad-core has had some problems such as the TLB bug (fixed in the B3 stepping), higher TDW than the Core 2 (125W vs. 95W), and mediocre performance compared to the Q6600. The Core 2 platform has been out for awhile, it’s stable, and has excellent performance. Since I had to buy a new processor and RAM as well as motherboard, I decided that a Core 2 quad was the way to go…

It was time to do my homework. My primary starting point was Jeff Atwood’s (aka Coding Horror) Building a PC series where he builds the Ultimate Developer Rig for Scott Hanselman – hence the title of this blogpost. With some initial ideas, I started looking for more information at Tom’s Hardware and AnandTech. (I’ve been a fan of Tom’s Hardware for years – ever since Thomas Pabst, the founder, was running the site as a hobby while interning as a physician.) One of my goals was to re-use as many of the components as I had. Here is what I ended up with:

  Scott’s My Old My New
Case Antec P182 Antec Sonata II Antec Sonata II
PSU Corsair 520HX SilverStone Strider 750W SilverStone Strider 750W
Mobo MSI P6N SLI Platinum Gigabyte K8N Ultra-SLI MSI P7N SLI Platinum
Memory 2 x Kingston ValueRAM 2GB 2 x Corsair 2GB (DDR) 2 x Patriot 4GB (DDR2)
CPU Intel Core 2 Quad Q6600 AMD Athlon X2 4800+ Intel Core 2 Quad Q9450
CPU cooler Scythe Mine Stock Zalman CNPS9700NT
Video 2x GeForce 8600GTS GeForce 7900GS GeForce 8800GTS
HDD 1 x 150GB 10,000rpm Western Digital
1 x 500GB 7200rpm Seagate
4 x 320GB 7200rpm Seagate 4 x 320GB 7200rpm Seagate
DVD 20X DVD+/-R Burner 16X DVD+/-R Burner 16X DVD+/-R Burner

* I’m linking to Memory Express, an awesome computer parts store here in Calgary. They also have a location in Edmonton with another one opening in Winnipeg soon. They’ll ship anywhere anywhere in Canada, though they cannot ship outside Canada unfortunately.

I’m not going to bother with prices as those change so quickly. I ended up replacing mobo, CPU, cooler, RAM, and graphics card for about $1000. Let’s examine the parts and my reasoning for each…


My Antec Sonata II case has been serviceable and I didn’t have any major complaints. Overall I’ve been very pleased with Antec cases. If I had to buy one right now, I’d buy the P182 (same as Scott’s) or the Nine Hundred Ultimate. Neither come with power supplies, but you’re better off buying a separate power supply than using the stock supply that comes with a case like the Sonata III. I replaced my stock supply when I put in a RAID array awhile ago as the stock supply would have been dangerously close to its limit with the 4 hard drives plus other components.


I’m running a SilverStone Strider 750W and highly recommend it. Previously I was running a SilverStone Zeus, but had to replace it under warranty a year ago. I bought a Strider so that I had a spare PSU while waiting for the Zeus to return. I’ve got the Zeus sitting in my closet as a spare because I prefer the Strider. My favourite feature… detachable cables. You only attach the cables that you need, which dramatically reduces cable clutter in your case.


I know that Jeff Atwood swears by 10,000rpm drives for your boot partition. I’m running 4 x 7200rpm drives in a RAID 0+1, which provides stripping and mirroring. Stripping for increased performance. Mirroring for data integrity. I considered running RAID 5 for awhile, but everything I’ve read indicates that the parity calculations kill performance. The advantage of RAID 5 is that you get more usable space. Maybe I’ll try a 10,000rpm boot drive at some point, but for the time being, I’ll stick with my RAID 0+1 array.

As for DVD, get yourself a good burner that does DVD+R, DVD-R, and any other format you care about. Not much to say here as you can get a decent 16x or 20x DVD+/-R for $25 to $50. You likely won’t see much difference between 16x and 20x drives as they only reach full speed at the outer edge of the disk. (CDs and DVDs are written in a continuous spiral from inner hub to outer edge.)


Gigabyte is a good name in motherboards, but I’ve never been terribly happy with the K8N – aside from it dying 2 days after warranty. Lots of minor annoyances such as a non-standard 1394 connector so I couldn’t use the front Firewire connection, SATA connectors that prevent newer (and longer) graphics cards from being installed, poor memory timings when using 4GB rather than 2GB of RAM, and a nForce4 bug that caused awful static for my Creative Xi-Fi audio card, though some of those deficiencies can be attributed to chipset limitations.

So it was time to figure out which new mobo to choose. First choice was the basic platform, not manufacturer. When choosing a motherboard, choose a chipset to match your processor, memory, and graphics card requirements, then choose a manufacturer that makes a motherboard with the desired extras, such as built-in high def audio, eSATA ports, extra SATA connectors, RAID levels, etc.

X38 and X48 boards are getting good reviews and have nice features, but they’re currently only available with CrossFire – ATI’s SLI technology. This isn’t a huge deal if you’re only running one NVidia video card, which I am, but it doesn’t leave a lot of options for the future. Plus X38/X48 boards are stupidly expensive. If you want a board capable of handling multiple NVidia cards, I would recommend a nForce-based board. (I was a bit worried given my experiences with the K8N, which uses nForce4.)

The MSI P6N, which Scott has, is based on the nForce 650i chipset. I decided on the MSI P7N SLI Platinum, which is an updated version of Scott’s board and based on the nForce 750i. It has a nice range of features and the extra cost of the nForce 780i boards didn’t seem worth it. (The 780i can handle faster RAM and has better PCIe speeds in SLI mode.) Reviewers had positive things to say about the MSI P7N SLI in terms of features, overclockability, and stability.


I loaded the system up with 8GB of RAM. Why? Because the motherboard supports it, I’m running Vista x64, and you can never have enough memory. Most importantly, it was dirt cheap. $180 for 8GB of DDR2-800 RAM!

I decided to go with DDR2 rather than DDR3. DDR3 is much more expensive (8GB would have cost upwards of $650) and the performance difference is negligible. (Read AnandTech’s DDR3 vs. DDR2 and Tom’s Ultimate RAM Speed Tests.) DDR3 is the future, but from what I’ve read, you don’t see a difference until you get DDR3 clocked at 1.8GHz, which is just becoming available. (The DDR3 above for $650 was for 1333MHz sticks.) Additionally, motherboards capable of supporting DDR3 are more expensive. So you’re paying more for your mobo and more for your RAM without seeing any real performance difference – usually in the neighbourhood of 1-3%.

What is the downside of DDR2? Everyone is going DDR3. So when you want to move up, you have to replace your mobo and RAM. The upside… By the time we’re seeing real differences between DDR2 and DDR3, prices will have dropped for DDR3 RAM and mobos such that the money you saved by buying DDR2 will more than pay for the upgrade, IMHO.

Once I chose DDR2, the next choice was manufacturer and speed. DDR2-1066 or DDR2-1200 is more expensive than DDR2-800 (aka PC6400) and once again doesn’t offer significant performance advantages. I was also warned of stability problems with the higher frequencies even with good RAM and a quality mobo. Getting good quality DDR2-800 with good timings gives you better stability and more overclocking headroom. Patriot got good scores on overclocking. Also noted in Tom’s Ultimate RAM Speed Tests is that you’re better going with high quality DDR2-800 or DDR2-1066 RAM with good timings rather than DDR2-1200 or DDR3 with average timings. So I chose two sets of Patriot Extreme Performance DDR2 4GB (2 x 2GB) PC2-6400 Enhanced Latency Dual Channel Kit, which run at 800MHz stock with 5-5-5-12 timings.


The Intel Core 2 chip is a well-engineered piece of hardware. Quad-core Core 2′s routinely out-perform quad-core Phenoms. The top-of-the-line Phenom – the 9600 Black Edition – when overclocked to 2.7 GHz is still marginally slower than a stock Intel Core 2 Q6600. At stock speeds, Q6600 beats the Phenom 9600 by over 13% on average. Yes, there are certain benchmarks where the Phenom does better, but overall, the winner is the Q6600. In most audio and video encoding benchmarks at stock speeds, the Q6600 is the clear winner.

Now Q9450 vs. Q6600… The Q6600 is an excellent chip as you can see from the benchmarks above. It runs at 2.4 GHz, has 2x4MB of cache, and currently costs about $240 CAD. The Q9450 runs at 2.66 GHz, has 12 MB of cache, and currently costs about $380 CAD. You can always overclock the Q6600, but you’ll never increase the cache size. Since trips to main memory are often a bottleneck, more cache seems like a good idea. I wasn’t able to find any benchmarks comparing the Q9450 vs. Q6600, but $140 for the extra stock speed and cache seemed like a reasonable thing to do.

CPU Coolerimage

I know that Jeff Atwood swears by Scythe coolers. After reading a few reviews, especially this Scythe Infinity review at AnandTech, I wasn’t wild about the coolers. The deal breaker for me was this quote from the AnandTech review:

Installation is very easy after the mounting plate is installed. The 775 mount uses push pins – just like the Intel retail design. However easy the mount is, the fact that the Infinity weighs right at 2.2 lbs, or a kilogram, gives reason for pause. It is very uncomfortable having so much weight held by just those pop clips.

A kilogram of metal held by pop clips? I checked the data sheet for the Infinity and it is listed as 960 grams – just shy of a kilogram. The Sonata II is a tower case, which means the motherboard is on end and the full weight of the cooler would be held by the pop clips. This just makes me nervous. If the clips gave way (or I didn’t install the cooler properly), I would have a big hunk of metal falling onto my graphics card. The sudden loss of cooling would likely have dire repercussions on my Q9450 too!

Tom’s New Reference System is equipped with a Zalman CNPS9700 cooler. This seemed like a solid cooler with good marks. Take a look at the AnandTech Infinity review where the Zalman CNPS9700 ranks near the top both at idle and under load. You’ll also note that aftermarket coolers are much better than the stock cooler that comes with your processor. Do your research though as some Zalman coolers, such as the CNPS8700LED are not recommended. A good place to start is Tom’s Hardware CPU Cooler Charts 2008, Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

The biggest complaint from reviewers regarding the Zalman 9700 was the installation. You have to remove your mobo to secure the cooler. I was replacing the mobo anyway. So this wasn’t a concern and I liked the idea of a secure mounting system for such a crucial component that meant the life or heat death of my processor. No surprise – I opted for the Zalman CNPS9700NT.


The perennial question… NVidia or ATI… NVidia’s GeForce cards are winning most benchmarks, but the ATI Radeon 3870 supports DirectX 10.1. Given that most software barely supports DirectX 10, 10.1 support wasn’t high on my must-have list. I’ve been using GeForce boards for years and they generally have good driver stability. (ATI is historically known for problematic drivers – especially with newer cards. This may have changed in recent years.) I wanted a card with dual DVI out to run my two Acer x243w monitors. (Great monitors. Highly recommended.) The GeForce 8800GTS fit the bill.

If you’re in the market for a new video card, compare the GeForce 8800GT and GeForce 8800GTS. The main difference between the two is that the GT has 112 while the GTS has 128 universal shaders. The GTS is a dual-slot card, which flows air from outside the case, resulting in a cooler case. You won’t see much difference between the two cards in benchmarks and both are good buys. I chose the 8800GTS because the sale price was virtually the same as the 8800GT. And whenever I’m looking for a new card, my first stop is Tom’s Hardware Best Graphics Cards for the Money. Look for the latest edition to see what is your best bang for the buck.


One of the key advantages of building your own developer rig is the ease of replacing or upgrading parts. You learn a lot about computer hardware, which I believe is valuable for any developer. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to build a computer. Just some research and asking around. I don’t consider myself in the same league as Jeff Atwood when it comes to building PCs, but I still find it enjoyable and rewarding to build out my own systems.

How hard is it to build a PC? Ask my wife. The first time I did it, I spent hours swearing and fiddling with parts. (I had built systems a decade previous, but connectors, cases, mobos, and everything else had changed dramatically. Plus I was out of practice.) It was a learning experience. The second one that I built, I had it assembled in less than an hour. This latest upgrade, which was sizable because I was replacing the mobo, took around 30 to 45 minutes. Most upgrades can be done in much less time. It’s not as hard as you might think.

The end result of my mobo upgrade (with corresponding CPU and RAM upgrades) was going from this:


to this:


The speed boost over the old system is noticeable. (I haven’t overclocked the system, though it is amenable to it. I’ll get around to some light tweaking eventually.) I can encode a half-hour episode of Plumbers @ Work using the Lame encoder in under 7 minutes. (As I recall, it used to take around 15 minutes to encode or about half the length of the audio.) Encoding screencasts is also much faster, though I haven’t timed it. (The old system would take roughly twice as much time as the video length for encoding. So a 10 minute screencast would take 20 minutes to encode. The new system takes about as much time to encode as the length of the video.) More importantly, the system remains responsive and usable even when encoding audio or video. I can simultaneously encode a screencast, compile in Visual Studio 2008, listen to music (without skips), and check my email without a hiccup. Multitasking at its best. I’m a happy developer. Do yourself a favour and consider building your own Ultimate Developer Rig.