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Jamie Balfour'sPersonal blog

We all know how infuriating it can be when a computerjust stops working, and repairability is the key to making the world more sustainable. But SoCs in general have made some parts of this easier than before but have also brought many other issues with them.

First of all, SoCs or System-On-Chips are replacements for the architecture that existed for generations where the CPU, GPU, northbridges and south bridges and the main memory are in completely separate parts of the system.

Back in the days of the Core 2 Duo and Phenom and Athlon days we had IGPs (Integrated Graphics Processors) that communicated through the northbridge which meant it was a long way a way from the central processing unit and were therefore slowed by long path that they had to take to perform operations. We also had two bridges; the northbridge (or memory hub) which communicated with the main memory (RAM and ROM) directly from the CPU, and in the case of an IGP, the graphics processor. This was removed first by AMD and then by Intel (you'll actually notice that whilst AMD has always been the underdog in the CPU market, it actually brought some of the best innovations to the market such as x86-64 and HyperTransport).

But we still had the southbridge for a very long time and it continued to provide backwards compatibility with older hardware such as PS/2, RS232 and other obsolete connectors using the SuperIO hub. Lately however, the SuperIO hub doesn't really need to exist and the whole southbridge has been integrated as a chiplet into the main chip (or SoC). Not only does this improve performance, but it reduces power consumption and heat.

The separate chiplet idea is also very feasible compared with integrating everything into the central processing unit or a dedicated external chip as you'll understand if you understand the term binning chips. 

SoCs have problems though

As an advocate for the concept of a SoC architecture over traditional architectures I can see the humongous benefits that they bring, and the bridge the gap that existed before whereby the performance of a computer was affected by how long the wires between different components was, but they do bring one caveat. 

That one caveat is the fact that all SoCs in laptop computers are soldered, often using the BGA-style of socket. This means that the whole board needs replacing when the the SoC has one faulty part, and, with more being integrated into the SoC, this is more likely to happen. This means that not only is it far more expensive to replace a SoC, but it also means that it is far more difficult. 

I've replaced many CPUs in laptops in my teenage years onwards, most notably is replacing my Pentium 4 laptop with a Pentium 4 Mobile-M chip but I would be hard-pressed to try and replace a BGA chip these days. 

How they need to be improved, particularly in laptops

As the Right-To-Repair movement progresses even further, one of the main areas people should be looking to push for is PGA-based or LGA-based sockets that allow direct replacement of the SoC again. Heck, even the Pentium-M CPUs with their Socket 479 sockets were replaceable to the point of remove and slot in. In a world where slimness is the most important thing, we really need to think about sustainability too.

I finally decided to jump away from big towering desktop computers to a more reasonable laptop-based eGPU setup. 

In the next few months, I will begin dismantling my desktop setup which I have had since January 2019. The desktop I currently have has parts that have survived 5 generations of desktop PCs, and some parts in it are as old as 2007. The PSU in it replaced my 10-year-old Corsair HX850 which lasted exactly ten years from when I built my first PC in 2009. It marked the point when I was considering ditching the desktop PC altogether and going down the USB-C-based laptop route which I tried with my Razer Blade Stealth until the screen started to fail.

I have been torn between two laptops that both comply with my environmental concerns and my Right-To-Repair belief. They are the Framework laptop and the HP EliteBook 845 G9. I have mixed feelings about both, but I am more swayed towards the Ryzen processor than an Intel that offers little performance improvements over my brother's Skylake-based computer.

The Collatz conjecture, named after Lothar Collatz who introduced the idea is a perfect example of a mathematical problem that cannot be solved by mathematics and the tools available within the domain and scope of mathematics of today.

It goes a little like this:

$${\displaystyle f(n)={\begin{cases}{\frac {n}{2}}&{\text{if }}n\equiv 0{\pmod {2}}\\[4px]3n+1&{\text{if }}n\equiv 1{\pmod {2}}.\end{cases}}}$$

it's a nice little conjecture to turn into a program, so I decided to write it in YASS to try and demonstrate this based on the above syntax:

YASS
function f ($n)

  if($n % 2 == 0)
    $n = $n / 2
  else
    $n = ($n * 3) + 1
  end if

  return $n

end function

$n = input("Please insert a start number")

$iterations = 0
print($n)
while($n != 0 and $iterations < 5)
  
  $n = f($n)

  print($n)
  if($n == 1)
    $iterations++
  end if
end while

It's hard to believe, but since just under a month ago I have been over 30 years of age. But so too has the world wide web.

I was discussing this yesterday with someone and discussing how the w3 has evolved from being a simple document sharing system into something that allows you to build and use powerful applications within it. I say this because on Monday I went to one of my favourite restaurants and they use a web app to manage everything, and I say everything. It's very impressive.

Anyway, take a look at How To Geek for more information on this:

https://www.howtogeek.com/744795/the-first-website-how-the-web-looked-30-years-ago/

Posted by jamiebalfour04 in Tech talk
www
w3
changes
history

MXM or Mobile PCI Express Module is one of the most interesting standards that I actually found out about in 2005 when attempting to fix a laptop for a friend (Calum). His Fujitsu Amilo 3438 featured a removable GPU - something I had never seen. When I got asked to try to repair it I was honestly astonished at how easy it would be to do this. 

Unfortunately, it didn't end as nicely as it should have and it seemed that the laptop was beyond repair. I am happy that I got to have a chance at this though because it brought my attention to the MXM standard. 

By observing that MXM was a standard and one that was a very good idea in practice, I have for a very long time been a fan of it.

As someone who believes strongly in the Right to Repair, MXM may have a big part to play in the future, but what do the companies behind the development of systems that could incorporate MXM actually think?

What is MXM?

MXM is one of those really brilliant ideas that is unfortunately brought down by the manufacturers of computer systems. It is no doubt more expensive to follow the route of adding in replaceable graphics cards to a system compared with permanently soldering them, but it's also less profitable in the long run and this is my main concern.

The MXM standard is designed to provide owners with the ability to upgrade their systems at a later date or replace parts when they stop working. But the problem with this idea is, at least in the eyes of the manufacturer, that the customers will stick with the same computer system for longer rather than upgrading it regularly. 

Another major issue with MXM is that it takes more room than a soldered GPU and therefore doesn't allow for incredibly thin designs of laptops (like the MacBooks where Apple sacrifices everything to get thinner and thinner computers). 

MXM cards being a detachable component in the system are also more likely to fail due to connector failure. This is far less likely in soldered GPUs.

But even with all of these problems, MXM still eliminates one major concern that should be more prominent now than ever - the environmental impact. It concerns me that we have become very wasteful with computers with soldered memory and storage drives (like my old MacBook Pro and now my current MacBook Pro). Soldered GPUs basically mean that when the GPU decides to pack it in the whole system stops working. I've had this on numerous computers. MXM allows us to replace a broken GPU or upgrade an old one, bringing a new lease of life into the computer. From a purely environmental point of view, this would be amazing. 

With these new laws being passed, surely the time is right for MXM to take to the centre stage? 

Posted by jamiebalfour04 in Tech talk
mxm
gpu

As someone who loves computer hardware, I found this article a very interesting reminder of the benefits of RISC over CISC and the benefits of CISC over RISC architectures.

https://medium.com/swlh/what-does-risc-and-cisc-mean-in-2020-7b4d42c9a9de

Posted by jamiebalfour04 in Tech talk
risc
cisc
processors

Hello folks, I hope everyone is okay and not as fed up as I am with everything going on in the world at present!

Today I was thinking about something that I use every day - switchable graphics. See in my MacBook Pro I have an Nvidia 750GT - a decent dedicated graphics card that can run some games well but has never been used for gaming. In fact, my dedicated card only gets used for graphic and video editing on my MacBook and therefore remains cool and quiet using the Intel Iris Pro graphics. The fact that my computer automatically switches without me even noticing (other than the notification I have setup) is quite truly amazing.

So, what about switchable memory? Have a low power implementation such as LPDDR3 and then high-performance DDR4 as the fast memory. It wouldn't be a particularly good idea in smaller laptops but in a laptop such as 15" machine such as my MacBook Pro it might be an excellent idea. Something like this could help a device such as the Nintendo Switch, a lower power RAM for on the move then a powerful implementation that would be activated when it is docked.

Of course, there are issues with this concept of switchable memory. The main one that comes to mind is how do you keep them in sync? If one memory is to be turned off, you need a fast bus or lane to transfer the data from one memory module or type to the other. This could also end up using a lot of power. 

This is a just a thought...

Visual Basic was the first language that I learned all the way back in my early teens. I built some amazing things with it including my own Photoshop program and a web browser with many big features. But now Microsoft has declared the end for it. 

Read more below:

https://www.thurrott.com/dev/232268/microsoft-plots-the-end-of-visual-basic

Posted by jamiebalfour04 in Tech talk
microsoft
visual basic

I was talking with a friend the other day there about the topic of limiting the frames per second (FPS) in a video game when playing on your PC. The argument didn't end with a much clearer understanding than was originally the case and neither side won the argument. 

Many people do not realise how important limiting the FPS in a video game can be for performance. Think about it this way, every piece of information a computer's graphics card needs to produce is more work for the computer. 

If a computer monitor refreshes at 60Hz (around about 60 frames per second) then running 120 frames means that 60 of those frames are wasted. This is, technically, how V-sync works as well. Limiting the FPS allows the GPU to work on the next few frames without filling the GPU doing overtime. 

What this means is that your computer, which could be doing other things like calculating positions of units in a game or something, cannot be done until those frames have rendered. This is wasted CPU and GPU resources.

So go on, try limiting your frames per second.

Posted by jamiebalfour04 in Tech talk
fps
gpu
performance
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