Upgrades!! Part 2 Installing an Intel T9300 in my Dell Inspiron 1525 Laptop Computer

After literally weeks of waiting my Intel T9300 has finally arrived.  Honestly, my performance on this laptop has been adequate for my usage needs, so I’m not sure there was any real necessity to upgrade my CPU on this machine.  But an approximately 60% performance improvement (based on the Passmark website averages for the Intel T3200 & T9300 CPUs) for just $24 seemed too good to pass up.  When the CPU finally did arrive it came in the thinnest box I’ve ever received.  I was a bit worried that the CPU would have some bent pins.  Fortunately the CPU was not damaged.

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From the research I did before hand I found that the T9300 was the best value for performance increase available for the Dell Inspiron 1525.  In the past I have always found that CPUs that are a few steps down from the very best are usually the best value for money.  For example, the Intel T9500 is only about 8% better than the T9300, but the going price on these right now is $46!  Almost double the cost for a negligible performance increase.

My first step was to install the Passmark PerformanceTest 7.0 test suite to test the system.  I did a trial run of the CPU testing suite expecting to achieve results similar to the averages posted on the Passmark site.  In the past systems I have tested have been very close to the averages as shown on their site.  So when I saw the following results I wasn’t at all surprised.  The Passmark site average for the Intel T3200 is just 1046 – so a 1012 is pretty close to the average.  However, if you look at the CPU usage graph at the top of the screenshot below you’ll see the CPU at 59%.  After I noticed that I realized that one core was already running at 100% so I killed the process causing the issue and reran the test.

Screenshot from 2016-03-21 13-01-16

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To my surprise the cpumark score was in the high 1580s.  I was pretty shocked so I tested the system again twice and each time the score was within a few points.  This number was 50% better than the average.  I was only hoping to achieve a score of about 1680 with the new CPU and seeing how high the score was already I was a little worried that there wouldn’t be much benefit to the upgrade.  Regardless, I have the chip and I’m certainly going to install the thing.

Doing the work:

To replace the CPU on the Inspiron 1525 I needed to remove the large access panel on the bottom of the laptop.  Once removed there also is access to the RAM slots as well as the wlan, wwan & uwb slots.

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With the access cover off I then removed the CPU/GPU heatsink assembly.  There are five numbered screws on the assembly.  I would assume one is supposed to screw them in numerical order.  So with that in mind I unscrewed them in the reverse order.  Here is a view with the heatsink removed:

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The CPUs look pretty similar but the T9300 has a larger die.  Switching the chips out was pretty simple.  There is a lock on the CPU socket that needs to be turned with a flat screwdriver to release the CPU.  Then the installed chip can be easily lifted right out of the socket.

With the new chip in I was excited to boot the system.  Unfortunately the machine would only turn on for a few seconds, the screen didn’t even light up.  I was a little worried that the chip was bad, but then I realized I probably should have updated the BIOS.  Of course, I had to switch back to the original chip to get the computer to boot again.  What was worse was that there doesn’t appear to be a non-Windows BIOS update program for this particular machine.  So I was forced to boot an old laptop HDD that still had Windows 7 installed so I could run the Dell BIOS update.  I was on revision A16, and there was only one newer update, A17.  Luckily the BIOS flashed properly.  I rebooted the system to give a little test for stability and then proceeded to switch out the processor once again.  This time, success!  I hit the setup key to enter the BIOS and it seemed to freeze up the computer.  It turned out it was just doing something, very, very slowly.

Worth the 24 bucks?:

Now for the performance test.  Given the higher performance numbers that this machine generated on the old chip, I was at least hopeful of similarly better performance for the new chip.  But I didn’t rule out the possibility that I would only see the performance number that the Passmark site shows.  After a few minutes of waiting and wow!

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With the T9300 installed the machine pulled Cpumark score in the 2380s.  Which is a 50% performance increase over the T3200 chip.  I’m not sure what the discrepancy is for the superior performance of this particular Dell laptop.  I may have turned off any power saving features in the BIOS, however I don’t recall doing so.  It may also be because I have openSUSE linux installed.  My speculation here is that Linux may be able to use the system more efficiently.  Though that seems unlikely as well.  When I have used the Passmark software in the past I have achieved very similar results to the averages.  Usually a few percentage points above average but not too much.  I generally attribute that to the motherboard or performance features in the BIOS.

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The comparison between the chips is very interesting.  In some areas the T9300 is twice as fast as the T3200.  However in other areas the T9300 only out performs the T3200 by about 20%.

The upgrade worked great and I am very happy with the performance of the machine.  In my original article about this Dell Inspiron 1525 I figured that this laptop cost me about $91 including an estimated cost of parts I had on hand as well as parts I purchased including this Intel T9300 processor.  With this CPU upgrade my performance is still about 30% lower than the i5-460M in our other laptop.  But since my actual cost was only $40 out of pocket I really can’t complain.

The Next Day:

So after writing up this article I started to feel more and more like how could these numbers be so skewed compared to the averages on the Passmark test site.  The next thing I did was install the Passmark PerformanceTest 8.0.  When I ran the CPU again I came up with a result of approximately 2030 on each of 3 occasions.  This seems to be a rather large difference between versions.  Now I was curious how the old T3200 would perform.  So I ended up reinstalling the T3200 and rerunning the CPU tests.  On three tests I averaged out at 1360, which is 30% faster than the average.  The T9300 test results of 2030 are roughly 20% faster than the site average.

The interesting thing about both versions of PerformanceTest is that the T9300 outperforms the T3200 by about 50% overall in each version.  So, although the numbers were different between versions, they did effectively come up with the same results.

Though it was a pain to switch back and forth to the old CPU the information it provided was worth the effort.  I’m still very happy with the upgrade!

Budget openSUSE 13.2 Acer Aspire easyStore H340 NAS

A few months ago I picked up an interesting bit of technology, the Acer Aspire easy Store H340.  The price was right at just $50.  But of course it was craigslist and I offered $40, because you’ve just got to ask, and they accepted!

Quick Feature List:

CPU/Processor:  Intel Atom 230 Processor @ 1.60GHz (64bit)
RAM/Memory:  2GB DDR2 533 MHz (one slot only=single channel)
Chipset:  Intel 945GC Express
Video:  Intel GMA 950
Factory OS/Operating System: Windows Home Server
4x Tool less Hot Swap SATA 300 Drive Bays
1x Integrated 256MB USB Flash Drive
Size:  7.9″ Wide by 7.1″ Deep by 8.3″ Tall

81QUR1WRuuL._SL1500_cropThese are nice machines that feature a compact design with a cool modern look to them.  The drive bays are cooled by a large 120mm fan, however the unit is a little noisy, and the hard drives didn’t stay as cool as I might have expected.  Looking at the opposite side of the case the power supply is clearly blocking air flow, which is probably the reason for both the noise and heat.  I do like the look and feel of the power button, but as it is so large I have accidentally turned the machine off bumping it while opening the door.  I also appreciate the convenience of the front side USB port.

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This unit had a 2TB Western Digital HDD installed along with a 1TB Seagate HDD.  Unfortunately the 2TB had multiple S.M.A.R.T. issues including failure imminent on a number of checks.  The 1TB drive checked out fine, and I still feel I received a fair deal on the device.  I would at least hope that the original owner was unaware of the disk condition when they sold the machine to me.  Regardless, everything else about the machine was excellent.  Overall condition was clean and looked practically like new.  The original owner still had the accessory box and manuals that came with the unit.  And the OS was reset to factory (WHS).

Since this box had a license for Windows Home Server, I thought why not check it out.  After viewing numerous reviews & posts online I came to the conclusion that perhaps I should just install Linux (probably openSUSE, because that is what I know best).

This device has integrated graphics onboard, however there is no port on the back of the machine to connect a monitor.  The mother board contains a proprietary video/ps2 keyboard/mouse header but no cable was produced by the manufacturer for the general public.  This adapter cable can be purchased online, someone in Germany manufacturers them.  They are a little over $40 US for the VGA cable alone.  To me, this wasn’t worth the cost.  Computers are a fun hobby, but I don’t put much money into them.  Instead I looked for a 1x PCIe video card that would fit in the expansion slot.  At the time I thought it lucky the motherboard had that slot.  I got on eBay and found an ATI FireMV 2250 256MB for $14 bucks and used the best offer to offer the seller $10.  Again I was fortunate enough for the seller to accept my offer.  The ATI FireMV 2250 supports two monitors via a DMS-59 port which requires an adapter to use with any monitor.  Once again my luck was with me, I found a DMS-59 to dual VGA for just $4 with free shipping (not really sure how a seller on eBay can make any money with a price like that but I’m not complaining).  With those two parts I was ready to install the new OS.  As you can see in the images below, there is not much room to get any expansion card installed.  I had to detach the card bracket to get the card into position and then screw the bracket back onto the card once installed.

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My original idea was to install the OS onto the integrated 256MB USB flash memory.  First, I attempted to install openSUSE 13.2.  Unfortunately I could not get all the way through the installation program.  I tried multiple times, but seemingly random crashes would happen.  My first guess was some type of hardware failure.  I checked the RAM, and I tested the newly acquired video card in some other comparable hardware.  At the very least, those parts seemed to work fine.  I tried a number of other OSes, including Ubuntu 15.04 server and Windows XP to see if I could get any system running on the machine.  After many failed attempts I was starting to think that perhaps the motherboard had some undisclosed issue.  After a bit, it dawned on me that perhaps the new video card was the problem, like an incompatibility with other installed hardware.  My best guess is probably a conflict with the onboard video, which I don’t think could be  turned off in the bios (or jumpered off on the motherboard).  Ordinarily, I might have just installed the OS on a comparable machine, and then move the disk drive to the computer that won’t install.  Since I was so intent on using the integrated USB flash as the primary disk drive I hadn’t considered that option.  The machine only has 4 onboard SATA ports, so if I would use one for an OS, I would only have 3 left for my raid (or at the very least for single drive hot swap use).  Certainly you could probably add a 1x PCIe SATA controller, but the case configuration is pretty tight and there is hardly enough room to sneak in custom mounted 2.5″ HDD anywhere.  Finally, I did end up deciding to install openSUSE 13.2 (minimal CLI server) to a similar machine onto a 2GB USB stick.  I figured, at least maybe this way I could finally find out if the machine was damaged or there was just some funky issue with installation.  I added a small script at boot time to write to a file and say “worked”.  Sure enough, the installation on the USB stick started right up (after letting the H340 boot for about 2 minutes I just yanked the USB and plugged it into a different machine to see if it had written the file).  I had configured the network settings during the initial install.  However, I did not know what name the interface would get in openSUSE.  Once again, I modified the 2GB USB disk in a different computer to run the command “cat /proc/net/dev  >> /somefile.txt” at boot.  Then after the H340 was booted up, I pulled the USB stick and read somefile.txt on another machine to find the network interface name.  Next I modified “/etc/sysconfig/network/ifcfg-interface_name” on the flash drive, to replace “interface_name” with the interface that I found in somefile.txt, such as eth0.  With that last change, I booted the system one final time and was able to SSH into the machine soon thereafter.

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I was somewhat worried about adding a flash drive as a hard disk for a couple of reasons.  Mostly I was concerned it may be slow, but I was also concerned that it could get broken off.  Fortunately it is right below the ethernet cable and doesn’t appear to be in any particular danger of physical damage.  As for the speed, it seems fine.  I don’t use the device for much other than cleaning and checking hard drives, which isn’t disk intensive on the OS drive of course.

In the weeks that followed the build I found the H340 to be a competent and reliable performer.  Though a little doggy, the Intel Atom 230 did well enough for what it is.  When cleaning 4 hard drives at the same time the CPU usage was at consistent at about 60-65%.  The openSUSE 13.2 installation has never crashed, at boot time it uses just 120MB of RAM.  The hot swap drive bays work great, and I love how they are tool less.  I didn’t bother trying to get the drive bay lights to come on, or to stop the i from flashing on the front panel.  I know others have worked at this, and it may be fun, but I guess it isn’t really necessary.  I have considered using this machine with a raid array and nfs.  Sadly, I don’t have any other conveniently tool less hot swappable available setups like this.  So the ability to pop a hard drive into a machine to test/clean/recover is a better use for me.  Due to the machines small size I was able to install it on top of my main workstation, looks pretty cool!

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One of the great things about this setup is that the H340 really becomes almost an extension of my main workstation.  Since I control it remotely through ssh on my main rig, and since it is within arms reach while I’m at my desk, it is just as good as having an additional 4 hot swappable hard drive bays inside the main case.  Linux is perfect for this type of setup, and probably makes it seem a little more seamless.  I’ll do a post on my trash picked Intel Dual LGA1366 workstation sometime soon!

In conclusion, though this was a frustrating build it did turn out very well.  I ended up spending $54 on the build total, but of course, I didn’t really end up needing the video card and adapter cable ($14).  I’ve seen the H340 going on eBay for about $100 (depending on disk configuration), so my price to value ratio was pretty good.  I would definitely recommend this item to anyone considering one for a reasonable price.