Dawning of a new age: A Quad-Core system finds a new home



[Print This] By mjhammel ~ March 1st, 2009. Filed under: Acer Aspire 1690i, Fedora, Hardware, Linux, MythTV, NVidia, Video, x86-64.

For the past 4 years I’ve worked happily at home with my Acer laptop.  I’ve discussed many of the issues I’ve had with running this laptop with Fedora.  For the most part, despite how those posts may sound, I’ve actually been pretty happy with both the laptop and with running Fedora on it.

But times change and so have my computing needs.  I now find it too difficult to work on multiple projects simultaneously on the laptop, even with dual monitors attached to it.  The power of the mobile Intel processor is just not sufficient to do builds, run MythTV, update my blogs and rip DVDs all at the same time.  Not to mention it doesn’t suffice to run a JBoss application server and run the companies Java clients at the same time on the laptop.  Those practically melt the CPU.

So I’ve got a brand new shiny box with all the fixins, as we say in Texas (or as I used to say, now that I’m in Colorado).  And it rocks.  Mostly.  But it wasn’t an out of the box solution.  Let me show you what I mean.

The Hardware

The whole thing was ordered as parts online through NewEgg.com.  NewEgg is my main source of hardware parts for the multiple servers I run at home.  I’ve never had any problem getting items delivered quickly and correctly from them and the few times I needed to RMA a part back to them have been handled quickly and without issue.

The hardware for my new toy is as follows:

Total cost without shipping: $718

The case is not fancy or top of the line but it’s very well designed.  The drive bays all have the sliders that make screws unnecessary – the DVD drive, multicard reader and disk all slide in and snap firmly in place.   Kudos to Cooler Master for the case design.  The front panel pops off very easily and pops back on securely.  If I’d improve on anything I think I’d like a small storage box in the bottom drive bay to save extra parts like wires and screws.

Motherboard ports

I installed the CPU with the supplied heat sink in a few minutes.  It’s always easier to install the CPU and memory with the motherboard on a table before installing into the case.  The motherboard itself fit neatly into the case with the supplied backpanel from the motherboard retail box.

The motherboard has a 6 USB ports on the back panel along with VGA, DVI and HDMI ports.  The monitors are connected to the VGA and DVI ports.  I’ve not tried the HDMI connection but based on my experience with the sound hardware I’m not expecting it to work.  There is no IEEE 1394 connector on this motheboard though the case supplied a port for it.  Just tuck the wires out of the way for this.

The power supply has both 20+4 and 12V connectors.  This was a little confusing since the 4 pin connector that associates with the 20pin was not physically attached and I didn’t (at first) notice the 12V connector.  Since both have 4 pins I was c0nfused about which connector on the motherboard it belonged to.  Fortunately, if you simply try to connect it the 12V only fits in one of the available connectors and the 4 pin only fits on the open pins next to the 20pin.  So even if you don’t know what you’re doing, trial and error works here.

Multicard reader and DVD drives

The multicard reader uses a USB connector attached to an open motherboard USB port.  It installed easily in both the case and on the motherboard, where there are 3 additional USB ports (beyond the ones on the back panel).

The DVD drive has a SATA connector.  The motherboard has a single IDE connector where I attached a second DVD drive.

Fedora 10 64Bit installation

It didn’t make much sense to me to install a 32bit OS on a quad core 64bit CPU.  Most posts that I’ve read about migrating to 64bit Linux seem to imply that F10 has made the migration pretty painless.  I have 64bit at work on an Intel Xeon but the installation always locked up trying to install as 64bit on an Intel P4.  I never figured out why and ended up installing 32bit on the P4 instead.  Having had varies success, but seeing that most people seem to have no problem, I decided I should go with 64bit F10.

I ran the installation using the Anaconda command line options I used to install on my MythTV server.  My first problem was that the ethernet port was not found, I think, because the BIOS did not automatically test for a connected wire.  Enabling this in the BIOS appeared to enable the network installation in F10 though I’m not positive about that since I made some other BIOS changes that I didn’t keep notes on.  The motherboard has an NVidia 8200 graphics chip which Fedora does not support out of the box.  So I ran the installation in text mode only.  This wasn’t a problem until I rebooted after the install completed.  Once installation started it took less than 10 minutes across my local wired 100Mb network using an NFS exported copy of the F10 x86-64 DVD.  It was, by far, the fastest installation I’ve ever done.

On reboot the network did not come up automatically.  I had to login as root at the console and start the network service to bring it up.  The text mode install caused the installed system to come up in init state 3, which does not run GDM (re: a graphical login).  To get the desktop running I manually installed the NVidia drivers (see below) and then changed the inittab runlevel to 5.  At this point the FirstBoot process was completed (still in text mode).   Then I rebooted.   The desktop comes up after this though the boot runs in a text mode unless you configure grub to use vesafb to get a graphical display at boot time.

NVidia Configuration

NVidia support always requires additional work with Fedora.  Fortunately the process has gotten easier now that the main NVidia distributions are being included in the RPMFusion repository (though they’re just a little behind NVidia’s releases).  So all that is required is a yum command:

yum install kmod-nvidia

Unfortunately it’s not quite that simple and you have to identify which version of the NVidia package to install.  You can get additional information about this from the FedoraForum FAQ. Additional detailed information on this process can be found in Mauriat Miranda’s Fedora Nvidia Driver Install Guide.

The driver pretty much works out of the box but the multimedia settings (Xine, MythTV, etc.) I used for my Intel-based laptop didn’t work.  After solving my audio problems (see below) I found I had lots of skipped video.  While various research provided examples on how to fix this, in the end the problem turned out to be audio related and not video related.

In the end I found that the NVidia GeForce 8200 works well with XVideo based video rendering.  So whatever application you use that needs it, make sure you use the XVideo option for video output.

Audio problems

My motherboard is an Asus M3N78-VM.  The only real problem with this setup was getting audio output working.  I have very limited audio needs.  2-channel output is run through a single line to an external amplifier (standard home audio equipment).  This Asus board has up to 8 channels of audio using the GeForce 8200 chip.  But I was unable to find any way to get the audio to work.

Many of the posts I found related to this motherboard or chip were related to using HDMI and the high end audio.  A number of people said it worked fine with Ubuntu or OpenSUSE 11.  The reports were not very promising, however, and certainly not consistant.  After a number of hours trying to get any audio at all I finally gave up and dropped in a 32 bit Creative Labs PCI audio card in the box and disabled the onboard audio.  Fedora/Linux recognized the card and configured it immediately.  Sound worked, though as I experimented a little more I found I had some tweaking to do in some applications.

MythTV

I run a MythTV frontend on this box.  My solution for audio required that I also switch the audio configuration in MythTV to use /dev/dsp instead of ALSA:default in the Setup->General->Audio page for the Audio output device.  With the latter setting I would get messages about audio buffer overflows and the video would skip.  When I switched to the former the overflows stopped and the video now plays smoothly with no skips.

Video playback is setup without OpenGL vertical syncing (Setup->TV Settings->Playback->General Playback).  I also disabled the OpenGL setting Sync to VBlank in the GNOME Menu Applications->System Settings->NVidia Display Settings tool.  I also created a new Playback Profile in MythTV (Setup->TV Settings->Playback->Playback Profiles) called NVidia that has a single entry.  This entry has the following settings:

  • No match criteria set
  • Decoder: Standard, Max CPUs: 2
  • Video Rendered: xv-blit, OSD Renderer: softblend; OSD Fade is set
  • No Primary or fallback Deinterlacer and no custom filters

I also use mplayer as the default video player with the -vo xv option set so it uses XVideo as the video output renderer.  In Xine, I use -V xv -A alsa (I run Xine outside of MythTV, however).

So that’s it.  The system is up and running, sans the high end audio.  I was able to rip multiple DVDs while watching MythTV, updating my blog and running a large Java build all at the same time, and the cpu meter never even got close to pegging.  I think I’ll be able to get more work done at home now.

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