Warning, excessively long post, short review and only a few pictures.
Its been a crazy few weeks as it relates to computer goodies in my house. Rewind about 2 months and the following was my household setup.
My desktop computer was an Intel Core 2 Duo E7500 overclocked slightly to 3.1Ghz with 4GB of memory, a 60GB SSD boot and application drive, 30GB SSD application drive, 500GB hard drive and 2TB hard drive as well as ATI 5570 video card. My wife’s computer/family laptop was a very old and massively overweight and oversized Toshiba Satellite l355d (2Ghz dual core Turino processor) and “tying it all together” was a file server running an AMD Sempron 140 2.7Ghz single core processor with 2GB of memory, a 30GB SSD boot drive, a 1TB hard drive and a 2TB hard drive. The house backbone is CAT5e running through the basement and main level walls with a Gigabit ethernet switch (8 port). This connects the wireless router (Netgear WNR3500l w/ 640GB hard drive hanging off of it for low power movie streaming for standard definition movies), Verizon FIOS supplied slower router (used only for DHCP and WAN connection to the internet), network printer (some crummy HP printer) and 2 media streamers (Seagate Free Agent Theater+) in the house.
That was the sum total of all of the computer hardware in the house. Oh, I guess you can throw in the two iPad 2s and my wife’s iPhone as devices connected through/too all of this.
Then in early April the file server started acting up. It is use mainly for file back-ups (80% of its use), media streaming for HD movies (15% of its use) and hosting my book library (caliber server, 5% of its use) for access by my/my wife’s iPads. So even though it was relatively low power, roughly 40w of power at idle, it was kind of wasteful to leave it on 24/7/365. So I had it setup to enter standby/sleep mode (S3) after about 10 minutes of network inactivity with a couple of tasks setup to weekly wake the server at 2am on Sunday mornings to pull backups from my machine to the server as well as pushing any movie updates from the server to the drive sitting off the network router (where standard definition movies go to live and be watched, as 90% of movie watching is either netflix streaming or are things like kids movies and the sort from that drive and through one of the media players). When we needed the server for something, like an off schedule backup, pulling a file or streaming it was a quick click on a desktop icon to run a wake-on-LAN program I had set up in a batch file or else quick click on the wake-on-LAN app on our iPads or iPhone, a few second wait and the server was awake and back on the network.
Back to the acting up. It was taking the form of the server not waking properly, either hanging on wake up or hanging during file transfers. After about a month of this I traced it to some kind of motherboard issue that I couldn’t exactly diagnose the root cause. After some hemming and hawing I decided to just go ahead and upgrade the file server as it was pretty obvious it was going to pot. I quick bought a Biostar H77 uATX motherboard and a Celeron G530 processor to go in it (2.5Ghz, dual core) and for good measure chased it with 8GB (2x4GB) of G.Skill DDR3 1600 low voltage (1.25v) memory. The memory was because I knew I was going to upgrade my desktop soon, so the memory was going in my desktop.
The parts showed up, a quick evening later of reinstalling windows and the hardware upgrades (the 4GB of memory, 2x2GB, from my desktop machine, also low voltage, but 1.35v, went in the server as well) later and it was back up and running. Total cost, $130 not including memory costs. The new machine at idle now uses only 17.5w of power down from 40w and is significantly faster/more responsive, with things like webpage loads accessing the Caliber book server easily 2-3x faster than before. Streaming an HD movie now uses about 22w of power down from about 45w of power. Network transfers are no faster, but I am using the same Intel Gigabit Ethernet card that was in the older server in the new one. Network transfers are generally limited by the disk speed or the maximum theoretical speed of gigabit ethernet minus the overhead of TCP/IP (large files transfer at 115-120MB/sec either direction when not disk limited).
Then move forward from that mid May server upgrade to early July. I have been planning to upgrade my desktop for a pretty significant amount of time. My last upgrade was a little over 3 years ago and I committed the cardinal computing sin of going to older stuff when I did upgrade. I figured saving $100 or so was a good idea at the time in a budget of around $600 for my upgrade at the time, so I got a processor and motherboard that was a hair over 2 years out of date at the time I bought it. If I had spent a little more money I probably wouldn’t have been upgrading now.
Well, I bit the bullet over the 4th of July as Newegg was having a sale on brand spanking new Intel Core i5 3570 processors (a whooping $15 off). So I went ahead, bought the processor, a new Gigabyte Z77-UD3H motherboard and a 120GB Vertex 3 SSD to increase my high-speed storage for the operating system and applications (as well as Photoshop scratch disk). This all went in to my desktop computer (along with a nice large 120mm tower heat sink for the processor for better/quieter cooling) a couple of weeks ago and a new install of windows. I am still cranking along on the new desktop getting a feel for it, but it is currently running at 3.8Ghz on all 4 CPU cores at a relatively cool 52C after extended punishment, so I figure I can probably push the processor to the maximum overclocking that Intel allows on their partially unlocked processors (which is a total of “5 bins” of overclocking, which equals 500Mhz so long as you don’t tinker with the base clock). I’ve been overclocking it 100Mhz per week and running it hard to ensure it is stable and temperature/noise isn’t an issue.
Under heavily multithreaded applications, like video encoding, the upgraded computer is running approximately 5 times faster than my old dual core processor was. Even single threaded tasks are running about twice as fast. Yowza! Eventually I need a better case, video card (doesn’t have to be that good, I don’t do a lot of gaming and the gaming I do isn’t that demanding) and maybe a better power supply (well, something more efficient anyway).
Then, the laptop decided it needed an upgrade. Or at any rate I decided for the laptop and my wife agreed. The 4th of July was the last straw. The laptop got lugged to my in-laws house for the big reunion. The 17 inch behemoth weighing in at 7lbs was just too much and it is just too slow. Taking over an hour to export 70 odd RAW images from my OM-D E-M5 to JPEG was just WAY to long, let alone the 8-12s per image it took to apply the basic lightroom camera default settings to each picture as I clicked on it to view/edit it bogged down the editing process as well, badly (times that by viewing several hundred pictures over a few days and I probably spent 5-6hrs in front of the laptop over the week editing pictures and a couple of hours of away from computer time exporting them).
In consultation with my wife, which was mostly just me telling her what I wanted and her saying, “that is fine dear, so long as it works and I have veto power, pretty much whatever you want”, we decided upon an HP Envy 4t laptop. I/we wanted something smaller, thinner and definitely lighter. Basically anything short of a netbook was going to be faster than the old laptop we had, but I personally wanted something with some decent speed to it with the potential to last a few years without seeming really slow. Basically something that could handle some basic gaming at decent enough frame rates to be playable, as well as handle files from my OM-D E-M5 in light room without bogging down badly. The small and light were the most important features though.
The HP Envy 4t is not the smallest laptop in the world, it is a 14″ class laptop, but it is a lot smaller than the old l355d 17″ class laptop we had/have (still in the process of trying to sell it to get a couple of bucks back). It is also massively lighter at a hair under 4lbs and roughly half the thickness. It also looks a lot spiffier, has a better keyboard, trackpad and screen. As well as all of that extra computing power, storage space/speed and much longer battery life.
Amazon had a deal over the weekend for a free $100 Amazon gift card with a price on the laptop of $826. So in effect, $726 final price. As equipped from HP’s website, taking in to account the $50 off promotion HP had running at the time, their price would have been roughly $850 including taxes. So I jumped on the one on Amazon almost as soon as I saw the deal (with maybe 30 minutes of mulling it over and discussing it with my wife).
The laptop showed up Monday unannounced, was unboxed that night and by Tuesday before bedtime it was finally done being configured, programs loaded and generally getting ready for real use (keep in mind, I have 3 young children, so about the only time I have to do this sort of stuff is from about 8:30pm until I pass out to get ready for the next day). I had read a lot of reviews of the laptop and many other ultrabooks and near ultrabooks, but honestly I like the laptop a lot more than I had prepared myself for. I expected to like it, but I REALLY like it. My budget was roughly in the $800 range and I figured I’d have to break my budget a little bit to really get it equipped the way I had wanted to, but that it would still be cheaper than similarly equipped ultrabooks (and generally most regular laptops weren’t an option as they are too big/heavy for what I wanted) or the ultrabooks that were in the same price range had too many draw backs (really bad keyboard or really bad screen, etc).
As equipped the Envy 4t has an upgrade to a 500GB hard drive and 4GB of memory (a single SODIMM) which HP throws in for free (they might have always thrown it in for free, who knows). In addition the “costs money” upgrades were to an Intel i5-3317u processor with HD4000 graphics, a 32GB SSD caching drive (using Intel’s SRT) a backlit keyboard and the wireless network card is upgraded to include WiDi (Intel’s wireless display streaming technology). I could have done without the last 2, but Amazon didn’t have an option to get one without it.
The basic chassis, lid and keyboard rest are made of black metal. I’d assume brushed aluminum, but it may be magnesium for parts of it. The under side is soft touch plastic (silicon probably) in red. Your tastes may vary, but I personally like the look overall. The thing is thin, very thin, only a little over 3/4 of an inch closed, is about 13.5″ long and 10 or so inches wide and about 3.9lbs. The screen is a lot better than I had feared based on reviews. I don’t know if standards have been raised a lot over the last couple of years, but it is a “bog standard” 1366×768 resolution TN LCD panel. The reviews I read said it was only a little better than the average panel with only average viewing angles at best (but generally it just washes out or over-contrasts, it doesn’t do a lot of color change with large viewing angles), but generally good contrast and color straight on. Anyway, personally I think it is pretty nice and has a wide enough viewing angle to be able easily find a position for the screen where the colors are accurate and nothing is washed out. You could probably even sit two people next to each other and watch a movie on it with no problems, though 3 or more people crowding around and one or more people are going to be watching a washed out screen (maybe 15-20 degrees off axis and it becomes washed out, progressively worse the further off axis you view it).
The keyboard, oh the keyboard. I haven’t used too many laptop keyboards over the years, maybe only 15-20 total and no ultrabook keyboards (I have used several netbook keyboards though). Reviews generally complemented HP’s keyboards, including the Envy 4t and 6t keyboards. In this case the reviews definitely got it right. There is generous key travel, a very positive feel and sound behind it (not very clicky to the ear, but enough of a sound so that you can hear as well as feel the key click). The layout is good and there is a nice set of function keys along the top (volume, screen brightness, backlight control, wireless control and a couple of others). My only real complaint is that for gaming the arrow keys are pretty small and the up/down arrows are sandwiched right between the left/right arrows without the up arrow really raising above the side arrows. I’ll get used to it in time I am sure, but after about 2hrs of gaming on the laptop last night I was still hitting the shit key a fair amount when I meant to hit the up key (though my error rate dropped from about 1 in 2 miskeys to maybe 1 in 20 and will probably continue to improve).
Now for the speed of the thing. I’ve never experienced Intels Smart Response Technology, which is their label for using a small solid state disk to cache frequently used small files for a hard drive giving “the best of both worlds”, lots of bulk storage for the hard drive as well as high speed read rates from the SSD, super low access times (on the order a tenths of a millisecond instead of maybe a dozen milliseconds), as well as really great IOPS (Input/Output Operations Per Second). The caching SSD in the HP 4t is a 32GB Samsung model. At least so far that has proved to be large enough to cache enough of the operating system (Windows 7) and the few frequently used programs (Lightroom, Photoshop Elements 10, Internet Explore and a couple of games) that they all are pretty fast to load. Initial loads are still slow on things as they have to be read off the hard drive, but after that they are much faster since a lot of it is then on the SSD caching drive.
For processing and graphical power the laptop is also pretty decent. Worlds better than the old l355d for sure. Processing power wise, I’d say in most cases it is at least as fast if not faster than my old Core 2 Duo desktop, especially in multithreaded applications. Which makes sense. The old Core 2 Duo E7500 is processor technology that is about 6 years old now and had 2 physical CPU cores running slightly overclocked at 3.1Ghz. The Envy 4t has a processor running 2 physical and 2 logical CPU cores (2 cores + hyperthreading) at a base speed of 1.7Ghz and turboing up to 2.6/2.4Ghz (2.6Ghz for a single core and 2.4Ghz for both cores). I haven’t run anything that will load all of the cores for significant periods of time, but the heat sink/fan as well as chasis on the 4t are at least capable of allowing the CPU to run at maximum turbo core speeds for at least a minute or so with no throttling evident using some hardware monitoring tools and without CPU temperatures getting unbearable in that time (didn’t break 60C in the 1 minute or less when testing and monitoring things). I do want to do something that will load the CPU for a prolonged period of time (15-20 minutes at least) to see if this remains true or not. Graphically it is also pretty decent. I have only tested it on battery (spent 2hrs on the couch playing Evil Genius, a really fun James Bond/Austin Powers/Sims inspired game) and it is just dandy. Granted this is a game that is about 8 years old now and could only run at 1024×768, but I did have detail maxed out and generally there wasn’t much in the way of screen lag or bad frame rates. I have the laptop setup on battery power to set the graphics to medium power savings and passive cooling policy (so it is going to throttle the CPU and graphics significantly more than it would on AC power). Star Craft 2 at 1366×768 also looked pretty nice and smooth, but that was in menus only, I haven’t had a chance to actual play at all yet.
On battery power, so far pretty darned impressive. After around 2hrs of gaming on the couch there was 64% battery life remaining, granted this was NOT a heavily demanding game and CPU/GPU are set to be throttled (as well as 50% screen brightness on battery). If the CPU/GPU were set to run at maximum and screen brightness was at max, those 2 hrs of gaming probably would have reduced the battery to something south of 1/3rd remaining (just a rough guess). Even under a more demanding game I’d guess I could probably manage at least 3hrs of gaming before running the battery flat. No idea on movie watching, internet surfing, document writing, etc. HP claims, I think, up to 8hrs of battery life, which of course means everything turned off/down and probably idling on the desktop to get 8hrs, but those battery life figures were also with the original processor that the laptop was available with, which was a Sandy bridge 17w ULV processor, and this is a 17w ULV Ivy bridge processor. Sounds the same, but Ivy bridge has been shown to be more efficient both at idle and lower power tasks. It also manages to cram a higher frequency in to the same power envelope and architecturally is around 5% faster at the same clock speed. All that means even running full-out, at its worst the processor will use the same amount of power as an “old” Sandy Bridge processor, but it’ll get the work done faster and can go to a low power state sooner saving power overall. That out-of-the-way, I’d guess doing some basic stuff like surfing the internet or watching a movie I could probably get at least 5-6hrs of battery life with the settings I have on the laptop, maybe even up close to the 8hrs HP claims you can get under the right circumstances. That may not set records, but to me that is hugely impressive. My iPad spoils me a fair amount with is 10hrs or so of battery life while gaming and 13 or so hours of battery life doing basic things like reading a book or watching a movie, but I also come from a laptop that MIGHT manage a little over 2hrs of battery life simply surfing the internet. This new one can probably at least triple the old battery life in a smaller package, putting out less heat and do stuff a lot faster than the old one could (and less noisy, with the CPU fan ramped up I’d hazard a guess that the Envy 4t is maybe 1/3-1/2 the volume of the l355d with it’s fan(s) spun up to high).
Future “plans” for the laptop include loading up throttle stop, which is a great little overclocking program for laptops, and seeing what kind of reasonable settings (I wouldn’t mind finding another 200Mhz or so for the base frequency as well as both turbo straps) I can get on the laptop for overclocking, (at least on AC power) without either hitting temperatures I am not comfortable with (which shouldn’t be an issue as the chassis was designed to run a 17w ULV sandy bridge processor + a roughly 30w AMD 6970m discrete graphics processor as well) or running in to instability. I also want to see what I might be able to do about giving the HD4000 graphics a bit more head room. Also, at least a smal part of the reason why I picked the laptop I did is I know based on user reviews it shouldn’t be too hard to upgrade later. Those plans (probably a year+ from now) include changing the memory from the single 4GB SODIMM of DDR3 1600mhz 10-11-11-32 1.5v memory in there to a pair of 4GB (8GB total) SODIMMs of DDR3 1600mhz 9-9-9-27 1.35v memory (the lower latencies and extra bandwidth of running in dual channel mode should help out the GPU a fair amount and shouldn’t hurt the CPU either and 1.35v SODIMMs should result in only a little more power consumption/heat than running a single 1.5v SODIMM, about a 60% increase in power use from two modules at the reduced voltage rather than roughly twice the power use from two modules at the current 1.5v) Also I am planning on ditching the 500GB hard drive in there at some point for probably a 120GB SSD. Between a 120GB SSD and keeping the 32GB caching SSD in there (but used as a regular storage drive) that should result in roughly 140GB of formatted capacity, which should be more than enough for the way we use a laptop (which is basically operating system, some applications, a handful of games and maybe a little music and few movies from time to time).
A final note/question is that apparently the manufacturer that makes the 1366×768 LCD panel in the Envy 4t also makes a 1600×900 panel that seems to match the dimensions and connections of the existing panel (and only runs about $50 on eBay). I’d be kind of curious at some point to see if swapping LCD panels would be a viable option, not that I’d be heart-broken if I couldn’t.
Another finale note, I’ve pretty much used up all of the storage on the 640GB drive that we stream standard definition movies from as well as space getting a little tight on the server and on my computer. Nothing too critical as the space is mostly being used up converting my extensive collection of DVDs and blu ray movies, but I am steadily eating it up as well as now that I have “gone digital” all my pictures from my OM-D E-M5 are also eating it up (at roughly 15-17MB per RAW image) probably at a rate of about 3-6GB per month, more in months with a lot of stuff going on (total from the family reunion was about 8GB, plus probably another 4-5GB from the rest of the month of July so far).
So as it stands, soon I need more hard drive space. The plan is to repurpose the 640GB USB external drive from storing movies for streaming to be the backup target from the server for pictures and important documents (tax documents, etc). The 500GB drive in my desktop right now will probably just be set aside and the 1TB drive in the server will get dropped in to my desktop for some extra storage (pictures, documents, rarely used applications, music storage, etc) as well as buying a new 3TB drive for movie storage. The 2TB drive in my computer is going to get pulled and dropped in to the file server along with another 2TB drive (all of them are/would be Samsung f4EG 2TB drives) for a total of 3x2TB drives in a RAID5 configuration for some extra redundancy and speed giving a total of 4TB of storage on the file server, up from 3 right now. For streaming, instead of the split SD/HD streaming setup we have right now, I am looking at getting a used/cheap single disk NAS appliance and putting a 3TB drive in it. That should satisfy storage space for all of our movies for now (and for likely another couple of years at least) and also tick the boxes for low power always on streaming source. Even at 17.5w, the file server just seems a little too “high power draw” for me to leave it on/awake 24/7/365, compared to maybe more like 8-10w for a single disk NAS, it is also yet another backup of our movies, which we have basically all of the physical DVD/BR disks for…but represent hundreds of hours of work to copy the disks and thousands of hours of CPU time to convert them.
So we’d have 3 backups on site in various (mostly) electrically separated and physically separated devices (across 2 different floors and several different rooms and one or two basically “hidden, short of tearing apart walls or going through crawl spaces)). Photo, music, document, and movie “originals” on my desktop, all of the same on the file server and then photos and documents on the 640GB USB drive on the router and movies and music on the single disk NAS. Finally at some point a backup of at least some of the more meaningful photos as well as important documents in encrypted cloud storage (mentioned in the previous post).
The storage is going to have to wait awhile though. At least at current market prices, the 3 drives plus the single disk NAS are going to run at least $500 up to around $600 for it all and money is way too tight for that, especially after all of the recent computer upgrades/purchases. Maybe this fall, especially if hard drive prices come back down much closer to pre-flood prices.
As I mentioned, a long, long post. Hopefully you either ducked out early or you were interested enough to actually read the whole thing without having to brew a pot of coffee.