Thursday, December 19, 2013

Upgrading to an Intel Core i7-4770k CPU: UEFI, USB 3 and Windows 8.1

Finally got around to upgrading from an Intel Core i7-920 to a Core i7-4770k. These are roughly 3 processor generations apart (Nehalem microarchitecture to Haswell microarchitecture respectively). As has been their custom for as long as I've been building PCs, the switch necessitated a motherboard upgrade as the 920s used socket LGA1366 while the 4770k requires LGA1150.

I decided to stick with an Asus (pronounced uh-soos) motherboard and picked up their Z87-Plus. The board being replaced, the P6T, was also an Asus board. Come to think of it, so was its predecessor (the A8N-sli). Before that it was an Intel board. Even though I don't do much overclocking I love the attention to detail that Asus puts into its products. And its website is well organized - always easy to find drivers. A few years back a quick comparison of their website to the website of their competitors (Gigabyte, MSI, etc...) sent me flying into their arms. They're not the least expensive boards but I've had good experience with them.

I fallen in love with the front panel header connector they ship with their boards. You plug the front-panel connectors (power LED, reset switch, PC speaker, etc...) into the connector (pictured below) then plug the connector into the board. It's a lot easier to swap out motherboards because you don't have to reconnect the sometimes lilliputian shunts onto single pins.

Front Panel Connector
The processor itself is tiny. Back in the Pentium and Pentium 2 days the processor was huge. Size-wise I recall installing one that was somewhere between the size of an audio cassette and VHS tape (closer to the latter than the former). The processor's these days are not much bigger than a postage stamp though their fans seems to have gotten larger.

CPU and stock fan
One of the reasons I went with the Z87-Plus is that it comes with a UEFI firmware config (aka BIOS). UEFI is the next generation of computer firmware, the successor to BIOS with an emphasis on speed and security. UEFI includes a sophisticated menu system so there's no longer a need for add-on board ROMs to daisy chain prompts and increase the length of time it takes to boot. Beyond that, BIOS writers have richer libraries and greater access to machine resources. The UEFI BIOS on this thing blows me away - it's a mouse-driven modern graphical user interface instead of the standard text based interface that has been a staple of BIOS for over 2 decades.
UEFI BIOS for Asus Z87-Plus
And it displays each of the settings that have been changed in a confirmation dialog before saving them!
UEFI BIOS Confirmation Dialog (apologies for the fuzzy picture)
Performance-wise this thing is a beast. Even though it only has 8 Gigs of RAM Windows 8.1 consistently boots in under 10 seconds. The motherboard itself completes POST so quickly that I've had to turn on a 5 second pause (another nifty BIOS option) so that I have a chance to enter the BIOS if necessary before POST completes. There are all sorts of optimizations this BIOS offers; you can turn off any (or all) of the USB or SATA ports. You can disable initialization of pretty much every connected device. There's something called "hardware turbo" mode that is so fast that I had to turn it off (again because it was nearly impossible to enter the BIOS when POST completes in under a second).

As a pc hobbyist since the mid 90s it amazes me how much easier it has become to build your own PC. I haven't cut myself on an add-on card or connector in going on 10 years. :)



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