Posts tagged with “desktops”

The Dome

A couple of weeks ago I found a very reasonably priced iMac G4 being sold locally, and having always been somewhat interested in them (and having never had one before) I decided to get in touch with the seller and go pick it up. What I ended up getting was a fantastic condition first generation iMac G4/800. It has a few minor scuffs and marks on it here and there, but nothing a couple of alcohol wipes couldn't take care of.

What has kept me away from iMac G4s in the past has been the fact that, by and large, they are OS X only machines. I have very little interest in PPC OS X as it largely still feels too new to be "retro" and yet is too slow and incompatible to be used for much. I tinker with it from time to time, but System 7 and Mac OS 8 and 9 are where most of my interest lies. Only the first revision of the first generation of iMac G4 could run 9, and even then only it's special version of 9.2.2 (which is not hard to find), but that is good enough for me. I decided to take a gamble on this particular machine because 1) it was very cheap, 2) it looked to be in good condition, and 3) it was a 15", and all of the first gen iMac G4s were 15", so there was a chance that this one was a first gen. Reading the service manual I also learned that not only is the first gen the only generation to be able to boot natively into 9, but only machines with serial numbers less than xx305xxxxxx will as well. This machine is in the xx200 range, so it should boot 9 just fine. It's also the highest end first generation model sold - with the 800MHz CPU, 60GB HDD, and Superdrive. It was also factory upgraded to 512MB with a single PC133 DIMM, leaving the SO-DIMM slot vacant. The airport slot is also surprisingly empty, but that's not really a problem for me as I have little interest in WEP encrypted 802.11b.

Now, the bad news. Unfortunately this particular machine has screen issues. Particularly, the "white screen of death" that seems to be not entirely uncommon when researching these machines. This one in particular boots as one would normally expect when the power button is pressed - it chmes, the fan spins up, if an HDD or CD with OS loaded is present you can hear it begin to boot - but the screen is forever white. When it first kicks on the screen is more of a gray, in fact it's the same gray that you would expect for a machine of this era's first image (all of my G4s do it too) but instead of showing a happy mac, or the "OS not found" symbols, within a few seconds it transitions to a bright white. One way I know that the machine is booting is that I am able to enter open firmware and use commands to shut down, reboot, and eject the optical drive tray. This is good news, as it tells me that the motherboard works properly, and when I hear it booting from the HDD or optical drive I know that the IDE bus works as well.

I don't know which part is causing the problem, but I have been able to narrow it down to one of three things: the video connector on the motherboard (very unlikely), the video cable that runs from the board, up the neck, into the screen (somewhat likely, but I would expect flickering when the screen is articulated and wiggled), or it's the LCD panel itself - most likely, I believe, and frankly also probably the easiest to replace. The second easiest would be the logic board, but the video cable is contained within the neck itself, and getting a new neck with wiring harness so far seems rather difficult. I would also like to avoid replacing the logic board because there is little certainty that I would get another 800MHz first-gen board, which is what I very specifically want.

The Neck

Now, this machine does actually have video output. It's one of the few macs (along with a handful of iBooks, PowerBooks, and other iMac G4s and G5s) from the early 2000s to use "Mini VGA" which, aside from having a weird connector, is exactly what it sounds like. On this machine it doesn't allow for adding a second extended display - it can only mirror the primary display - but in this case that happens to be exactly what I want to do. Enough macs used Mini VGA that there are a plethora of the adapters available, and I was able to pick one up for about $4 shipped. So you may be able to see where I'm going here.

What I have chosen to do is remove the neck and screen assembly entirely, and what remains is what I have chosen to name "The Dome". The Dome is, obviously, the bottom half of an iMac G4 - a white plastic hemisphere driving an external monitor. It looks a bit strange, sure, like a mac mini about to pop, but it is a more compact G4 running OS9 than either the Quicksilver or Digital Audio, so that's a plus. And at 800MHz with 512MB RAM, it's no slouch either. Granted the GPU is fixed (GeForce2 with 32MB) but seeing as it's only ever driving 1024x768, that's not really an issue. No potential for a SATA card either, but I plan to at least get it upgraded with a 7.2k hard drive - the original superdrive will stay.

The process for removing the neck and screen is fairly trivial. Remove the bottom case, disconnect all the wires, and set it aside. Remove the drive carrier, power supply, and fan from the upper housing. The hardest part is removing the extraneous wires from the blind mate connector. This connector carriers a number of signals - power/sleep LED, microphone, display inverter voltages, fan, and speaker. Everything but the fan and speaker is in the display, so I removed those pins from the connector. The fan could be powered from the drives' molex connectors, and you could forgo a speaker, but I didn't want to do either. I also took this opportunity to clean out the fan and top of the case, as well as the peculiar two-part power supply. The neck is secured to the base with five screws, and once they are removed it pops straight off, and the various wires are fed through the hole left behind. I may 3D print something to cap this hole, but for the time being I am going to leave it as is.

As mentioned earlier, I do plan to upgrade the hard drive to a 7200RPM unit. The costs of PC133 SODIMMs are also so low right now that, at $8 shipped, there's really no good reason to not upgrade it to 1GB RAM. The fan is a standard 92mm PWM unit, so I plan to upgrade that to a Noctua as well. There's no real need for this - the included fan works just fine - but I would like something with greater airflow at lower speed. I would also like to find something that allows me to monitor the temperature and fan speed in OS9, though I don't know that such a utility exists. I have also noticed, in a couple of days of using it, that it is far more stable than my Digital Audio. This will require some further followup and investigation, and perhaps a future post.

GPU Weirdness

Earlier this week I encountered a very strange problem with the 1050ti in my desktop TS140 - the same setup I had posted about here earlier. This is what happened. The machine had just completed a windows update and prompted to reboot. I was working on the other TS140, goonie, at the time and needed local video on it, so while the desktop-TS140 rebooted I pulled it's displayport cable and moved it to goonie. I finished doing what I needed to do and moved the cable back, yet, no video. So I reset the machine - the BIOS splash displayed as normal, but when the loading screen normally transitions to the windows login screen, the display went dark. And not just black - no video signal was being received.

I figured a windows update nuked something, so I booted off my veeam recovery disk and restored the previous day's backup (yay for taking regular backups), then rebooted, but encountered the same behavior. As soon as windows started, the display went dark. So I grabbed my windows 10 install drive and did a fresh install - the install process went just fine, but as soon as it loaded the desktop and windows started automatically downloading and enabling divers - boom, display goes dark again. At this point I don't know what to think. I tested the HDMI and DVI as well, but only saw the same behavior.

Wanting to test on more than windows, I grabbed my ubuntu 18.04 drive and did a live boot off the install media, and while it did display full resolution, I didn't think that the video was being accelerated. At this point it was getting late, so I pulled the card and switched back to the onboard video, then once again restored the previous day's backup. Windows booted up just fine, and after updating the driver for the iGPU (which most certainly made me nervous) it was just fine. At this point it was about 1AM so I packed up and went to bed.

On the way home from work the next day I had to swing by the storage unit to drop off some more stuff, and while I was there I decided to pull out the T3500 - my only other full-size PC with PCIe. I do have the other TS140 at the house but I wanted to test on something totally different. Once I got it all setup and the card installed I did a fresh install of ubuntu 18.04. When it booted up the display was again at full resolution, but after running some GPU tests it was most certainly not accelerated. I installed the latest stable nvidia drivers for ubuntu and rebooted again, fingers crossed. As soon as the machine came back up and the display manager started... you guessed it... the video signal dropped out. Every time the GPU was initialized with drivers it was crashing. I ran the windows 10 install on this machine too and again saw the same behavior - no problem during the install and first boot, but as soon as windows grabbed and started the GPU driver the display dropped. Frustrated and certain that the card was not only dead, but not covered under warranty, I went to bed.

The following evening (yesterday evening, if we're counting), I decided to pop off the card's cooler and take a look at the thermal situation. I didn't think that this was a heat related issue, but still - might as well take a look at the card and the die while I can. The thermal paste was plentiful and very dry, so I grabbed some alcohol and q-tips and went to town cleaning everything up. I re-applied the paste and put the card back together, and then wondered if it was worth testing again. I figured it was, but wanted to take a slightly different approach.

I powered down and grabbed the other TS140, goonie, and put a spare SSD in it. I made a windows 7 install drive, and after mounting the card in the machine, began the process of installing and updating 7 on this box. Once it was all up and running, I made the fateful trip to the nvidia download page and grabbed the latest installer. Unlike in windows 10, the GPU driver wasn't initialized right away, so I rebooted, expecting the worst. It came right back up and displayed a full resolution login screen, so after I logged in I checked device manager right away and the 1050 ti was listed, with no errors.

So far I have run benchmarks with Geekbench, Cinebench, and FurMark - including a 10 minute stress test with FurMark. The card gets rather toasty, about 60ºC, but the fans never ramped up, so I guess it was doing just fine. In any case, the system never crashed - it just kept chugging along. I don't know what to think. I really doubt that my replacing the thermal paste did anything, and I would be surprised if both the T3500 and other TS140 were messed up somehow. I have another 1050 Ti (a short card this time...) on order, should get here tomorrow, and I'm really hoping that it doesn't exhibit any weirdness. I am going to test this card in at least one more system, a friend's Optiplex 790, and until then I'm going to essentially expect it to die at any time. Right now the only test I have left that I'd really like to do is Ubuntu 18.04 on goonie and see how that compares. If I have to use this card on this machine in windows 7 that's hardly the worst thing in the world, but it certainly is confusing....

Re-Fitting the 1050Ti for the TS140

When I first configured the TS140 as my new desktop, I ran into an issue that I pretty much immediately ignored - caused by the 1050Ti's fan shroud. The front panel USB3.0 header and fifth SATA port were completely blocked. Not a "tight fit" situation, but absolutely blocked. My solution was to simply not have front panel USB or a fifth USB port, but that got old quick. Turns out easily accessible USB ports are added to the fronts of many cases for a reason, who would have guessed. Also, I eventually decided I needed to use the optical drive, and the only spare SATA connection was the one blocked by the card, so I had no choice.

My initial solution was to just hack that corner of the shroud off with a dremel and side cutters, but I stopped that line of thought before it got much further than that. Not only would it permanently disfigure the card (making it much harder to sell should I chose to) but I didn't know for sure that the actual heatsink wasn't also playing a role in blocking those parts of the motherboard. The hope was that the fans would be attached to the heatsink somehow so that I could pull off the shroud around them. When I removed the four 1.5mm hex screws holding it down, I learned that I was 1/3 right - in that one each of the three screws holding the fans in place screw into the heatsink.

I pulled off the shroud and removed all six screws keeping the fans in place (not noticing that while the screws are the same length and diameter, those that go into the plastic of the shroud have a much coarser thread than those that go into the metal of the heatsink, causing quite a bit of confusion.)

Once the shroud was off, the hardest part was getting the fans out of it without damaging anything - the wires between the fans, the shroud itself, or most importantly - the blades. It took and incredible amount of finessing and wiggling in order to get them in place. As far as I can tell the manufacturers must either solder the fan wires in after placing the fans, or they have a lot more trust in the flexibility of the blades than I do.

The fans do only attach to the heatsink with one screw each, but they hold in place just fine and don't pivot or hang from that screw due to how they're held in place, and the fact that they don't weigh very much at all. I know it's not an optimal arrangement, but honestly it works just fine as far as I can tell - the GPU gets no hotter than it did before under load. I know some people will probably complain that by removing the shroud I have upset the thermal profile that this was engineered for, and I probably have, but keep in mind that this card is running at less than 75w anyway and I have had cards that pull twice as much power with similar, or worse, cooling configurations.

What really matters is that I can get to the FP-USB3 header and SATA3 unobstructed now. The cable for the USB ports is quite heavy and, if pushed just right, could bump up against that fan, either stalling it or rubbing. I was able to tuck the cable down and it seems to be holding in place just fine, and I can always add a zip tie if need be.

The card looks very naked now, but I can get to the connectors I need and it can still cool effectively. Positioned directly beneath it is a slot powered m.2-SATA adapter. If the m.2 drive in it were a real NVME card it could boot from that slot as well, but it's not so I use a short SATA lead, which works just fine.

Fun Little HP Tower

While there isn't a whole lot I like about living in Charlotte, having easy access to a place called "The Grid" is really awesome. The Grid is a store run by Goodwill, and unlike your typical Goodwill, The Grid only sells tech - computers, TVs, game consoles and games, lots of accessories - if it plugs into a TV or Computer, it'll show up there. Quite a few of their donations come from local corporations and businesses, and often really interesting hardware shows up there - it's actually where I found the then bare-bones ML350 G6. Lots of machines they get still work fine, and so they get tested and have windows installed on them, and while they aren't too poorly priced, they are priced higher than I'm interested in, especially given that I don't care for a licensed OS, RAM, or storage devices. Back in the far corner there's a series of shelves for the "as-is" laptops and desktops - stuff that is either too old to bother testing (rarely older than a core2, granted) or obviously heavily damaged. I have gotten a lot of good finds out of that "as-is" pile.

Every once in a while I have noticed these little HP consumer desktops in the fray, but often they're in too bad shape to consider. Today, however, they had two almost identical units - each for $10. A very reasonable question to ask is why on earth would I be interested in some junky $10 consumer HP desktop? Well, it's because of just how junky and low end they are. This machine is a member of the HP p2 line, likely HP's lowest-end consumer desktop - I've come to understand that they could often be found new for $200-300 or less. My machine is a p2-1334, and one could almost describe it as a netbook in a MicroATX case. The motherboard is actually Mini-ITX - no PCIe slots (not even for WiFi!), absolutely no socketed processor, and no standard 20pin power. It runs off a standard 65w 19v HP laptop power supply, which I have a few of (yay hoarding?)

It's pretty good looking from the front, if a little plain.

No power supply or slots - it's a normal MicroATX case otherwise. I find it surprising that they opted for DVI over HDMI - perhaps newer models use HDMI? Normal audio jacks, four USB2.0 on the front, two at the front, headers for two more are unpopulated. Ethernet is only 10/100 - super cheap Realtek chipset. I do appreciate that the I/O shield is a knock-out variant, I may move this board into a Mini-ITX case someday.

This should give you a good idea of how empty the case is inside. There's a single exhaust fan at the rear, and just a void where the power supply and MicroATX slots would be. The optical drive is actually part of why I decided to purchase it in the first place - I'm running low on drives that can burn DVD-DLs, and believe it or not, this one can - so I figured at the most I was playing $10 for an optical drive. I added the SSD once I got it home, it's mounted just to the left of the motherboard, on the underside of the brace. There are screw holes for both 2.5" and 3.5" drives - clearly suited for whatever was cheapest that day. Both drives are powered directly from the motherboard, and I imagine it can't handle much current - no 15k drives here. There are no mounts for additional drives, but there are a few spots where one might have mounted other accessories. One version of this case held a card reader by the front panel USB ports, but it's not populated here.

While removing the board, one of the plastic brackets around the SATA power connectors decided to come off with the cable. It did slide back on easily enough, but it goes to show that these things were not meant to be disassembled. This is a total throwaway computer.

Not surprisingly, this is a very bare board. I decided to pop it out in order to clean off the bit of dust present as well as to at least do the CPU and FCH the honor of replacing their thermal paste, which was horrendously caked on. The RAM, DDR3, is the users' only option for expandability, and apparently the AMD Hudson-D1 FCH supports up to 32GB RAM. HP's docs for the board say it caps out at 8, but I have tested it with as much as 16 myself, so I am assuming it could handle 32 - though why someone would put $150+ of RAM into something like this is beyond me.

The CPU is an AMD Fusion E2, this one specifically is an 1200, though they are apparently sold with up to an E2-1800. The TDP is less than 20w, thus the passive clip-down heatsink. I haven't benchmarked it yet, but my expectations are low.

Update: For giggles I threw Windows 8 on it this morning and ran Cinebench. Performs about as you'd expect.

Right now I have Arch installed on it, because that's sort of my go-to for new x86 machines these days. Eventually I will try Windows 8 (as it shipped) on another drive, but I don't have the patience for that right now. For what I have done on it so far (which, granted, has been very little) it feels just fine, snappy even. I imagine even with Windows 8, as long as it had 8GB RAM, this machine would be perfectly suitable for basic day to day tasks.

For reasons that are beyond me, I have already developed a very peculiar attachment to this machine. Expect to hear more about it in the future...

PS - I love that the board was manufactured by "PEGATRON" - what is that?