Affordable Intel Haswell Laptop

As we move towards the end of 2013, 4th generation Intel Core processors are becoming more readily available in new machines at a wider range of price points. Since I know a few people are looking for a new laptop this time of year, I thought I would pass along one pretty affordable possibility that is available this week in the United States.

Best Buy (which actually has been improving the quality of their computer offerings somewhat over the past year) is selling a Toshiba Satellite P55-A5312 for $529.99 (rather than the regular price of $629.99).

This particular 15.6” model comes with an Intel Haswell Core i5-4200U processor, 6GB of RAM (in two easily accessible memory slots), a 750GB 5400rpm drive and a 1080p, non-touch screen. You can bump the RAM up to 16GB with two 8GB sticks, and with a little more work (removing about twelve screws that are hidden behind rubber covers) you can replace the hard drive with a SATA III SSD of your choosing. If you want to go more hard-core, you can remove the optical drive and put a second SATA III SSD in its place.

Here is an example of a 1.35V 16GB memory kit that uses the slightly higher speed 1866MHz memory:

Crucial Ballistix Sport SODIMM 16GB Kit (8GBx2) DDR3 1866 MT/s (PC3-14900) CL10 @1.35V 204-Pin Memory BLS2K8G3N18AES4 (Make sure to get 1.35V RAM for this processor)

Here is an example of a 1TB SATA III SSD:

Samsung Electronics 840 EVO-Series 1TB 2.5-Inch SATA III Single Unit Version Internal Solid State Drive MZ-7TE1T0BW

You could also go with a smaller capacity SSD for less money, but I would not go any smaller than 250-256GB, since the smaller capacity SSDs don’t perform as well (especially for writes) and going any smaller than that will really restrict what you can do on the machine.

The Core i5-4200U processor in this machine is the exact same processor that is in the new Microsoft Surface 2 Pro and many mid-range Ultrabooks. It is a dual-core with hyperthreading, and its base clock speed is 1.6GHz, with a Turbo speed of 2.6GHz. It also supports VT-x for better virtualization performance.  Having 1920 x 1080 screen resolution (even in a cheaper TN panel) is unusual at this price point. Having 16GB of RAM and one or possibly two, fast SSDs would let you run multiple  simultaneous VMs pretty easily. The spec sheet says it weighs 5.3lbs, but several people on the Toshiba forums claim it actually weighs about 4.9lbs. It feels lighter than 5.3lbs to me, and it is pretty thin. The battery life should be about 6 hours after you replace the HDD with an SSD (especially one that supports the DevSleep mode).

Depending on your SSD choice, you could come in at under $1000.00 for a pretty competent machine. This is a decent alternative that you might want to consider. With 16GB of RAM and a decent SSD, it would have plenty of horsepower to run some virtual machines and to do some SQL Server development work.

Building an Intel Haswell Desktop System for SQL Server 2012 Development

The 22nm 4th generation Intel Core desktop processors (aka Haswell) have been available for sale for a couple of months now, so I have had some requests to put together a suggested component list for a desktop system that would be suitable for SQL Server 2012 development and testing usage. As you may know, the desktop Haswell processors use Socket 1150, which is incompatible with the older Socket 1155 that was used in the previous desktop 32nm Sandy Bridge and 22nm Ivy Bridge processors.

That means you will have to get a new motherboard to use a Haswell processor. You should get a Z87 chipset motherboard so that you can get a nice feature set with the motherboard. You want to make sure you get a motherboard that has four memory slots, instead of two, so you can have 32GB of RAM. You also want to pay attention to how many total SATA III ports you are getting. The Z87 chipset natively supports six SATA III ports (with hardware RAID support), and many motherboards will have an extra Marvell controller that can support either two or four more SATA III ports (with hardware RAID support). Having SATA III support is vital for modern SATA III solid state drives.

This system will have an Intel Core i7-4770K quad-core  processor (plus hyper-threading), and 16GB of RAM (which can be expanded to 32GB of RAM for about $129.00 more). You could also back down to an Intel Core i5-4670K processor, which is a quad-core without hyper-threading. The Core i5 has a slightly lower base and Turbo clock speed and a smaller 6MB L3 cache compared to the Core i7, but it is $80.00 less at Micro Center. Both of these processors have Intel HD Graphics 4600 integrated graphics, which save you the cost and extra power usage of getting a discrete video card. You would probably have to spend about $100.00 to get a discrete video card that has better performance than the Intel HD Graphics 4600 integrated graphics, and I just don’t think you will need to do that for normal desktop usage.

This system will have better CPU and memory performance than many older production database servers (although you are limited to 32GB of RAM). Depending on what you want to do with this system, you may need or want to add additional SATA III SSDs or conventional hard drives. If you skip the optical drive, you can add seven more drives to this system before you run out of drive bays and SATA III ports. With enough fast SSDs, you may have better I/O performance (under a light load) than many production database servers. On the other hand, you won’t have redundant components (such as dual power supplies) like you would have with a rack-mounted database server. You will also have SATA consumer-level SSDs that cannot handle a heavy server workload with consistent performance as well as expensive enterprise-level SAS SSDs.

Below, I have links to the manufacturer information about each component, along with links to the components at Micro Center and NewEgg.

Motherboard               Gigabyte GA-Z87X-UD4H                              Micro Center                                   NewEgg

This Gigabyte motherboard has a total of eight SATA III slots between two separate controllers, with hardware RAID support (with no cache memory). In my experience, Gigabyte motherboards typically let you install server operating systems (including Windows Server 2008 R2 or Windows Server 2012) without any driver issues. Another alternative would be Windows 8 Professional, with Hyper-V, so you can run Windows Server 2012 in VMs. Micro Center is currently selling these for an insanely low sale price of $114.99, plus you get $40.00 more off the motherboard when you buy it with an eligible processor. Update: This motherboard actually uses an Intel NIC, that Intel (in their infinite wisdom) does not allow you to install the NIC drivers on a server operating system, such as Windows Server 2012.

Processor                    Intel Core i7-4770K                                      Micro Center                                   NewEgg

This is the “top of the line” Haswell desktop processor, with an unlocked multiplier. It is also the main Core i7 processor that Micro Center carries and is eligible for their $40.00 motherboard/processor bundle discount. It does support VT-x with Extended Page Tables for hardware virtualization support, but it does not support VT-d for directed IO with virtualization. If you are really concerned about VT-d, you can always get an Intel Core i7-3770 (that does have VT-d) from NewEgg or Micro Center. It will cost $309.99 at New Egg or $249.99 at Micro Center, and you would not get the motherboard bundle discount from Micro Center. I would say that with a decent number of good SSDs, you are much less likely to have any I/O bottlenecks with virtualization.

Power Supply              Corsair CX500M                                           Micro Center                                   NewEgg

This is a high-quality, modular power supply that can easily support a system like this. It has an 80 Plus Bronze efficiency rating, which is pretty good. A lower wattage power supply is more efficient at lower output levels than a higher wattage power supply, so a power supply like this will save you money over time and be less expensive to buy.

Case                            Fractal Design Define R4                               Micro Center                                   NewEgg

These Fractal Design cases get universally excellent reviews, and they are very easy to work on when you are building the system, with excellent cable management features. They are also very quiet, with sound deadening foam inside. This case has eight 2.5”/3.5” drive bays and two USB 3.0 ports on the top front of the case. It does not have any silly gaming features.

Memory                       Crucial Ballistix Sport 16GB DDR3-1600         Micro Center                                   NewEgg

This is pretty decent memory that is eligible for the $10.00 bundle discount from Micro Center when you buy it with a motherboard. NewEgg’s price is actually a little cheaper on this one item. You could also spend more money on higher speed memory, which you may or may notice that much benefit from in real life.

System Drive               256GB Samsung 840 Pro SSD                       Micro Center                                   NewEgg

These are one of the top consumer SSDs available right now, with lots of good reviews. I have bought a number of these and they are very fast. They are also eligible for a $20.00 bundle discount from Micro Center when you buy them with a motherboard or processor.

Optical Drive               24X LG DVDRW  OEM                                   Micro Center                                   NewEgg

I still like to have an optical drive, even though I rarely use it. If you have an external USB optical drive, you can use that to install the OS, or you could use a thumb drive.

As you can see below, if you are lucky enough to live near a Micro Center, you can save a significant amount of money by getting all of these components from Micro Center instead of NewEgg. You will have to pay sales tax at Micro Center, while you probably won’t at NewEgg. Most of the components (except the case) have free shipping from NewEgg.

Item Model Micro Center Price NewEgg Price
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-Z87X-UD4H 114.99 – 40.00 Bundle 189.99 w/FS
Processor Intel Core i7-4770K 279.99 339.99 w/FS
Power Supply Corsair CX500M 59.99 – 10.00 MIR 69.99 – 10.00 MIR
Case Fractal Design Define R4 89.99 99.99 + 9.99 Ship
Memory Crucial Ballistix Sport 129.99 – 10.00 Bundle 115.99 w/FS
System Drive 256GB Samsung 840 Pro 239.99 – 20.00 Bundle 239.99 w/FS
Optical Drive 24X LG DVDRW  OEM 15.99 17.99 w/FS
Total 850.93 1073.92

I’ll also have a post up in the near future that talks about how to build an Intel Sandy Bridge-E or Intel Ivy Bridge-E system, that can have six-cores (plus hyper-threading) and 64GB of RAM. One of those systems will be considerably more expensive, due to a more expensive motherboard, more expensive processor, and more RAM.

First Intel Haswell Desktop Build

Last Sunday, I was in line at 11AM at the Denver Micro Center (along with a number of other computer geeks) to buy the parts for a new Intel 4th generation Core (aka Haswell) desktop system. This system was destined for my fiancé, Veronica Thomas, as a replacement for a system I built for her back in January of 2011.

Since most of her computer time is spent on Facebook and Gmail, I figured that a Haswell Core i5 processor would be more than sufficient. I also wanted the system to use the the least amount of electricity possible and to be as quiet as possible (without going to any extreme measures). Here are the exact components that I selected:

LG 24X  SATA DVD-RW (OEM)                               $15.99

Samsung 256GB 840 Pro SSD                              $229.99

Crucial 16GB (2×8) DDR3 1600MHz RAM                 $79.99

Corsair 430W CX-430M modular power supply        $59.99

Gigabyte GA-Z87-D3HP LGA 1150 motherboard    $119.99

Intel Core i5-4670K boxed processor                    $199.99

Fractal Design Define R4 case                               $109.99

The Fractal Design Define R4 case is very easy to work with, with lots of room and openings to route the cables in a separate compartment under the motherboard. It also has sound deadening material lining the inside of the case. It also has eight 3.5/2.5 internal drive bays with drive carriers that easily accommodate 2.5” SSDs, with screw holes in the right positions.

The Gigabyte GA-Z87-D3HP motherboard is a mid-range Z87 motherboard that has six SATA III ports and four memory slots, along with lots of USB 3.0 ports. I did not see any reason to get a high-end gaming-oriented motherboard. I did enable Extreme Memory Profile (XMP) in the BIOS for a mild overclock.

The 22nm, 3.4GHz Intel Core i5-4670K is the top-of-the-line, unlocked Core i5 desktop processor that has the improved HD4600 integrated graphics, which are more than capable of handling normal desktop and non-extreme gaming usage. Using the integrated graphics would save money and electrical usage compared to discrete graphics. I decided to just use the included, stock air cooler for now. Since it is a K-series, unlocked processor, it does not have VT-d virtualization support for directed I/O, but that was not a factor for this system. You can see the CPU tab from CPU-Z in Figure 1.


Figure 1: CPU tab of CPU-Z for Intel Core i5-4670K

I would have like to have gotten a Seasonic modular, fan-less power supply, but Micro Center no longer carries them. I ended up with a pretty nice 430 watt, Corsair 430M modular power supply that is 80PLUS Bronze rated. The reason for getting a low wattage power supply is that power supplies are less efficient when they are only putting out a small fraction of their rated output, so if you know that you are building a system that will only use a small amount of electricity, you are better off to get a good quality, low wattage power supply rather than a 750-1000 watt power supply. Don’t make the mistake of getting a $19.99. no-name 400 watt power supply though.

The 256GB Samsung 840 Pro SSD is still one of the best desktop SSDs available right now, and there was an $20.00 discount if I bought it along with a processor or motherboard. It is actually available for $10.00 less on Amazon right now, but I did not want to wait…  You should make sure to download the Samsung Magician software, so you can easily download and install the latest firmware and optimize your OS for an SSD. This is more important with Windows 7 than for Windows 8. Figure 2 shows the CrystalDiskMark results for the Samsung 840 Pro SSD.


Figure 2: CrystalDiskMark Results for 256GB Samsung 840 Pro SSD

As you can see in Figure 3, this relatively modest system has a Windows Experience Index (WEI) score of 6.7, with the lowest scores being for the integrated graphics. A 6.7 score is not bad at all, and the other scores are 7.7-7.9. Not too bad for a system that cost slightly over $800.00 and only draws 25 watts at idle.


Figure 3: WEI Results for Core i5-4670K System

As you can see in Figure 4, this system has a 32-bit Geekbench score of 10090, which is quite good for a Core i5 system.


Figure 4: Geekbench 2.4.3 Results