SATA to IDE converters

If like me you are (or are looking to) running an SATA HDD/SSD in you K6 machine, you are probably wondering if you should buy a dedicated bootable SATA host-bus adapter PCI card or maybe use an IDE to SATA converter to plug your SATA drive on the motherboard’s IDE ports.

convertet-box

A good Promise PCI card will cost you around 30€ and it works flawlessly and performs very well, but what about these adapters from China you can get for 10€? Well, I tested 2 of them; they all use the same chipset and only the PCB differs a bit. Both adapter’s PCB look like shit with soldering marks all over the place; they are cheaply made but at first glance they work well.

converter-pcb

Unfortunately, they perform horribly bad to the point where I had the feeling my K6 system was 4-5 slower doing any action using the disk…so do yourself a favour and avoid them. Buy a good SATA controller instead!

Old Hardware Shop

One of the most frustrating experiences when building an old system is to be able to buy cheap parts but then have to pay a lot for all the shipping costs from different sources and countries…at least this is what I was faced with when building my K6 system 🙂

Fortunately there are some specialised online shops which actually sell old hardware for a very low price so one can combine shipping costs; I ordered several parts from CBO-DO.de and they are very nice and helpful 🙂

Gigabyte GA-5AX performance optimisation

Having my working K6 system since a couple of weeks now I began tweaking the BIOS settings for my Gigabyte GA-5AX rev 4.1 to find the best performance, as it took quite some testing I’m now sharing what I found 😉

First of all let’s remember the system:

  • AMD K6-2+ 550 MHz
  • 768 MB PC133 CL2  RAM
  • nVidia GeForce 3 Ti200 64MB
  • Fast SATA HDD
  • Windows XP SP3

I began by setting reasonably good BIOS settings and after each individual setting change I  ran a series of 5 benchmarks using the good old Quake 3 v1.32 with “timedemo 1, demo four”. Quake 3 has the advantage of giving very consistent and reproducible results over any other benchmark tool and after all I’m using this system for old games…

The first tests I made is not BIOS related though…I tried to find the best nVidia driver working with my card. The 23.01 gave me an average of 28 FPS and the 21.83 WHQL an average of 28.7 FPS so there is the first base…I’ll be using the ForceWare 21.83 WHQL for the rest of the tests.

Now I’ll go trough each BIOS setting and give the fps change from this baseline…note that the changes are “incremental” by always keeping the previous test’s best performance.

Primary Frame Buffer

  • 2 MB (BIOS default): 28.7 FPS
  • All: 28.2 FPS
  • Disabled: 28.8 FPS

VGA Frame Buffer

  • Enabled: 28.8 FPS
  • Disabled: 27.7 FPS

Data Merge

  • Enabled: 28.8 FPS
  • Disabled: 27.7 FPS

Tweaking “IO Recovery Period” or “AGP Texture Size” didn’t change anything. Then I changed the CPU from an AMD K6-2+ 550MHz to an AMD K6-3+ 550 MHz to see how the 128kB additional L2 cache influenced the result. Well the fps jumped from 28.8 to 31.1 FPS which is nice!

As you can see I wasn’t that wrong with my default configuration as I only managed to “lower” the result by tweaking some settings…that’s experience talking 😉 Here are the pictures of my final best result settings…

GA-5AX BIOS – Base Menu

GA-5AX BIOS – Power Management Setup

GA-5AX BIOS – PNP/PCI Configuration

GA-5AX BIOS – Integrated Peripherals

GA-5AX BIOS – BIOS Features Setup

GA-5AX BIOS – Chipset Features Setup

Arctic Cooling Copper Silent 3

Quickly after installing my K6 system I realised how noisy all the fans were back then…the stock CPU cooler just runs a small fan at full speed regardless of the CPU’s generated heat and I wanted to throw the whole system out of the window after 30 minutes.

So I began searching a good and quiet cooler for the K6 box…as nobody is selling Socket 7 coolers nowadays it wasn’t easy at first. Then I remembered that the Socket 7, 370 and A actually had the same fixations and it turns out Arctic Cooling is still selling a very nice cooler for them!

So I bought a couple of Arctic Cooling Copper Silent 3 (also known as Copper Lite) for Socket 370/A. I doubt they will continue selling them for much longer so grab one if you can…as you can see on the picture above it’s a massive cooler with a copper core. In the package there is also a tube of thermal paste which is nice.

On the GA-5AX you’ll have to cut away an unused part of the fixing system because there are capacitors on the way…not a big issue.

The biggest issue you’ll have with such a large cooler are the capacitors on the side of the Socket. In the picture above with the 12.5mm tall capacitors I replaced it works just fine, but with the stock 15mm capacitors found on the GA-5AX it will not fit unless you work with your Dremel.

The fixing mechanism has to be installed this way, with the pression point at the center of the CPU. I found that the best way to mount the cooler is to remove the screw, gently put the cooler into place while the mounting pins are lose and then apply a moderate pressure with the screw.

As you can see the final result is quite massive but also very quiet and the K6 runs at a completely cool temperature…no wonder there as it was designed for the very hot Athlons at the time. On the package it’s even written “Cooling Capacity: 90W” so don’t worry too much about cooling a K6 😉

K6 Box Part 2 – GA-5AX Capacitors

One thing that will inevitably bite you on old hardware are dead capacitors…they either dry out, explode or leak inevitably regardless of their initial quality after 15 years. On one of my GA-5AX boards I had some instabilities and this is exactly the sign of dried-out capacitors 🙁

One of you is dead!

So I ordered a bunch of new ones to replace them all, there are 2 types on the motherboard:

  • 8mm diameter 330uF 25V a bit everywhere
  • 10mm diameter 330uF 25V close to the CPU
If you can’t find 25V ones you can take caps rated at 35V instead and it will just work fine.

The removed old caps (the blue ones are from a GeForce 3)

Replacing them all (around 20 pieces) took me a good 2h of careful work…the soldering wasn’t that easy to do and I had to drill trough some of the old soldering with a very small drill bit.

Fitting the first new capacitors…

The new capacitors are also a little bit shorter, 12.5mm height instead of 15mm which is absolutely perfect around the CPU as many heat-sinks will now fit off the shelf without requiring some adjustments. Oh and the board is stable again now 🙂

New capacitors!

You may have notice the 2 places on the previous picture where capacitors were planned on the motherboard but never fitted? Well meanwhile I soldered some in there and it didn’t change anything…nothing burned 🙂

Cacheable RAM on Socket 7 platforms

One thing I completely forgot about since I had a Socket 7 system was the whole “Cacheable RAM Size” also called “Cacheable Area” concept.

In short this implied that you could have a motherboard supporting 768MB RAM but only the 256 first MB could be accessed quickly by the CPU and the 512 other MB were slow at the point your system could be slower with 768 MB than 256 MB…so you probably wonder where this limitation comes from and what to chose today to max out the 768 MB you want on your motherboard, right? 😉

First of all you have to remember that in 1998-2000 not that many people even had 256 MB in their systems so this problem didn’t affect many users. But let’s go to the cause of this problem…the “Tag RAM”; it’s a small memory usually located in the chipset which keeps track of where in memory the entries stored in the L2 cache are. So the “Cacheable RAM” one can address is dependent on the Tag RAM size and the chipset design.

For K6 and K6-2 CPUs (not the K6-III and “+” models) the rule to know what RAM size is cacheable is quite “simple”:

 VIA MVP3 with Write Back cache strategy set in BIOS

  • With 512 kB Level 2 Cache, 64 MB are cacheable
  • With 1024 kB Level 2 Cache, 128 MB are cacheable
  • With 2048 kB Level 2 Cache, 256 MB are cacheable

VIA MVP3 with Write Through cache strategy set in BIOS (2-3% slower system)

  • With 512 kB Level 2 Cache, 128 MB are cacheable
  • With 1024 kB Level 2 Cache, 256 MB are cacheable
  • With 2048k B Level 2 Cache, 512 MB are cacheable

ALI Aladdin V revision D and E

  • With 512 kB Level 2 Cache, 128 MB are cacheable
  • With 1024 kB Level 2 Cache, 128 MB are cacheable

ALI Aladdin V revision G

  • With 512 kB Level 2 Cache, 512 MB are cacheable
  • With 1024 kB Level 2 Cache, 4096 MB are cacheable

Just to help you a little bit more, the ALI Aladdin V revision G chips are used by ASUS for the P5A since revision 1.06 and for the P5A-B since revision 1.05. Most of the P5A boards out there are revision 1.04. But how does one actually check for the revision? Well it’s written on the northbridge, it’s the last letter from the line just above “Taiwan”.

ALI Aladdin V

ALI Aladdin V Northbridge – Revision E

Now you are probably thinking you are pretty much screwed as finding an ALI Aladdin V to support your shiny 768 MB RAM isn’t an easy task…well not completely…let me introduce you the K6-2+ and K6-3(+).

With these chips and their onboard L2 cache (256 kB for the K6-III(+) and 128 kB for the K6-2+) all these issues magically disappear and the limit is 4 GB! So just install one of the “+” chips if you can and need RAM…

Now there is another thing to be aware of…due to a hardware design problem, the Asus P5A with the ALI Aladdin V revision G do not support the “+” CPU well at all, in fact they run extremely slow!

So, now you pretty much have all the info needed to maximise your RAM usage!

Diskettes!

Today I had to undergo an horrible experience namely find a computer with a diskette drive, a diskette drive for my K6 system and some diskettes. In the K6 days every computer was expected to have a 3.5″ 1.44MB diskette drive so when you had to update your BIOS you had to make a boot diskette with the flash utility and the BIOS on it.

Back of a 3.5″ diskette drive

Even when you install Windows XP and want to provide additional disk drivers it’s only capable of loading them from a diskette…

Front of a 3.5″ diskette drive

Today I was a bit in a stupid chicken and egg situation; I had to update the GA-5AX BIOS so I needed a boot diskette. Unfortunately no PC in my home has a diskette drive nor do I have diskettes…nor do the modern motherboards have a connector to plug a diskette driver on them 🙂

As I had thrown away all my diskettes years ago being ABSOLUTELY SURE I would never use one again I went to my local computer shop and guess what? Verbatim started to produce some diskettes again due to demand. So here is a brand new 2012 diskette box!

A new diskette box!

Now that I had my diskettes I went to a friend’s home which I knew still had an old PC…he was able to generate a boot diskette for the BIOS update and another diskette with the Promise SATA controller drivers for Windows XP on them. I now had diskettes with the right content on them!

I then went to my local computer shop again and could salvage an old, ugly and dusty diskette drive from a case in the recycle bin…after some cleaning I fitted it to the K6 system and it worked!

Windows XP after loading SATA drivers from the diskette!