My Intel Core i5 Skylake Build

After four years on an Intel i5-2500, I decided it was time for an upgrade. Also because I want to pass down some components to the other people in the household. I bought my i5-2500 back in 2012 which is four years ago. While it still performs admirably, and the new CPU will not be significantly faster, it will sit in a motherboard with modern connectors (USB 3, 3.1, M.2. etc.), as well as bringing the memory up to DDR4. The i5-2500 wasn’t the latest processor when it was bought either. Ivy Bridge was out (the 3xxx series), but still a bit costly. This time, I plunked down for the latest generation, simply because it’s the second 14nm CPU-family from Intel the first being Broadwell; it represents the “tock” in the (now defunct?) Intel tick/tock development model. The tock stays on the same manufacturing process as the previous tick, but optimizes performance and reduces power consumption. The CPU I went with is similar to the one I have. I chose the Core i5-6600K. The main differences (other than four generations of Intel CPUs in between) is the K, signifying an unlocked CPU. While I don’t usually go for overclocking, I might want to squeeze some extra performance out of this one at some later date, seeing as my upgrades are few and far between.

As an interesting fact, this Intel Core i5-6600K cost 270€, while the i5-2500 cost a little under 200 back in 2012 (196€ I think). The next one up would have basically been a locked i7-6700, at 354€. The unlocked version of the CPU I got would have been 253€, so 17 euros less.

For the motherboard, I picked the Asus Z170 Pro Gaming. There are cheaper alternatives (B and H chipsets, starting at around 60€), but I figured, with a semi-expensive CPU, I’d better not cheap out on the motherboard. I actually bought a bundle, which contained the motherboard, and an Asus ROG Gladius mouse (which isn’t actually that bad; it costs around 60€ bought separately).

For the CPU cooler, I didn’t want to all out for a Nexus at 70-90 bucks. I instead opted for a fairly well priced Cooler Master 212 EVO. At 42€ it’s a mid range cooler, which has done fairly well in the reviews I read.

Rounding everything off, I got 16GB’s of Kingston’s HyperX Fury memory, operating at 2666 MHz. A kit of two 8 GB sticks, which set me back 83€. I could have opted for cheaper memory. Words like “Fury” or “Hyper” do not really factor into my daily usage profile. But it was a 16 GB kit which is certified compatible with the motherboard, as per Asus’ documentation. That is important to me. (The cheapest 16GB DDR4 kit/stick right now costs 64€)

Pile o' Parts
Pile o’ Parts

Preparations

Installation started with a backup of my system. I use Veeam Endpoint Backup Free (v. 1.5), backing up to a 3TB NAS. In case I need a bare metal recovery, there’s an ISO file that I can burn on a disk or throw on a USB stick. Probably not but.. you can never be too sure. What’s being removed is:

  • Asus P8Z68-V Gen. 3 Motherboard
  • Intel Core i5-2500
  • 16 GB of DDR3 memory (4x4GB sticks)
  • Nexus NH-U12P (dual fan)

So I’m not touching the case (Fractal Design Define R4 Pearl Black), storage (Samsung 840 Pro 256GB SSD, 1 x WD Red 2TB drive + Intel 910 SSD PCI-E card, 400GB), PSU (Corsair 650 TX), GPU (Nvidia GTX 960) and other assorted bits and bobs.

Oh, I am getting rid of my Razer Blackwidow keyboard and my Razer Deathadder Chroma, because Razer software is shit. It annoyed me to the point of throwing out 200 € worth of Razer stuff. The mouse is already replaced, the keyboard will wait for Assembly 2016, where I will buy a Ducky. Maybe this will be another blog post later on.

I am also taking the time to clean out the case of dust and so on. A good thing to remember during the hot summer. Dust makes for bad air flow, and bad air flow makes for hot computers. And I don’t mean the sexy kind!

Tear-down

The case was absolutely full of dust. Luckily there are at least *a* filter in the bottom of the case, but most fans were still in pretty bad shape. I started by separating all case-to-motherboard cables, as well as psu-to-motherboard cables. After that, I removed the motherboard/cpu/memory/cooler combo. I forgot how heavy the Nexus NH-U12P was!

A quick dust-off, and the case was ready to receive the new parts.

Build.. up?

Ah! Forgot about the I/O backplate. Remove that, and insert the new one that came with the Z170 motherboard.

Check that motherboard standoffs are all in shape and tighten them.

I opted to install the CPU and cooler prior to putting the MB in the case. Socket 1151 installation was very simple with the included cpu installation tool. Snap the cpu into the plastic install tool. Put the tool with the cpu inside into the socket. Close socket latch. I was surprised that you could actually leave the tool in place, but it fits, and the instructions tell you just that.

First, attach the plate that comes behind the motherboard for cooler mounting. This wasn’t too hard, but it was nice to have an extra pair of hands to help. You have to flip the board in order to attach bolts to the other side. A handy tool is included for tightening them.

Small dab of thermal paste in the middle of the CPU (I always do it this way), and attach the cooler to the previously attached backplate. Very easy, although you do have to apply a small amount of force to get the spring-attached screws to bite properly.

Smoke test

I like to run Memtest86 for a night after a new build is done. Also a few hours of furmark / prime95 just to see that things are stable. Some people advocate even longer tests, and there might be arguments for this, but I’m content. Temps for the new build are very good, even with the budget-priced Cooler Master. I can readily recommend this combination (i5 Skylake + CM 212 EVO) based on my experiences.

Idle temps are X degrees, and during testing (say 3DMark), CPU reaches around Y degrees C.

Conclusion and final words

Performance increase isn’t really noticeable. Not that I expected it. Here are some 3dMark results comparing the previous build with the i5-2500 with ddr3 memory, and the current build i5-6600 with dd4. Most other components are the same.

3DMark Firestrike: 6401 vs 6608 (where the biggest differentiator was the physics score, in which this Skylake build scored 1000 points more than the older i5)

3DMark Sky Diver: 17444 vs 18394 (again CPU bound tests made the difference)

3DMark Cloud Gate: 15435 vs 17454

And finally just as a joke, 3DMark 11: 9250 vs 9550 (CPU again differed by about 1000 points in favor of the Skylake)

After writing this article, I’ve upgraded the BIOS twice: Once to version 1901 and then 1904. Both have been stable, with no noticeable differences. I’ve used the EZ upgrade thing in the BIOS, and it’s worked fine. It can also connect to the internet, but that requires and extra reboot so I’ve just placed the file on a disk, and then browsed to that disk in the BIOS. We’ve come a long way from booting to FreeDOS or something through a floppy or usb, and then flashing! There’s also an option to do this from Windows, but I’ve usually opted to do it in the BIOS. Just feels more safe.

Messy build is done
Sure, it’s not cable managed and there’s no color coordination. Sorry!

Oh, and also, I ended up getting a Turtle Beach Impact 500 at Assembly Summer 2016. There were no Ducky keyboards for sale (typical, they’ve been there every year..). But on the other hand, this 69€ keyboard has performed lika god damn champ! Cherry MX Blue switches, tenkeyless, with uh.. 6 KRO? Enough for my needs. Very good feel, compact, solid build and detachable cable. Based on two months of usage, get this thing if you’re looking for a cheap minimalistic mechanical keyboard!

Turtle Beach Impact 500
Turtle Beach Impact 500

All of my Razer stuff is in the garbage now. Adios!

Lenovo Thinkpad T460s First Impressions

I recently switched laptops from the T440s to the T460s. I’ve long been a fan of the Thinkpads, both during the IBM period and the Lenovo reign of late. The T440s was a bit of a mistake in my opinion. Sure it performed as you’d expect, but the mouse was a huge pile of dung, and the keyboard wasn’t nice either. My favorite is still the T410s, which had the non-chiclet keyboard, similar or same as the old IBM Thinkpads had. I had a bunch of issues with the T440s over its 2 year and some odd month lifespan. The SSD broke early on and had to be replaced. I broke the keyboard (no fault of Lenovo, but still), and one USB port is unusable (not sure why). Battery life is still good after two years of business use, and it has no technical faults other than the ones I listed. It’ll still serve as my secondary machine, and probably do so for quite some years.

Plan old packaging
Plain old packaging

I got the T460s hot off the press, just a week after release, or so. I opted for the 20F9-0043MS model which has the full-HD matte screen, 4 + 4GB of RAM (which i expanded to 20GB by switching out the sole 4GB stick for a 16GB one), Core i7-6600U processor, and so on.

Hardware

First, let’s look at the hardware. We have output from CPU-Z first, showing the features of the CPU:

cpuz_lenovo_t460s
Detail of the main page, showing Skylake U/Y series CPU. Note the rather cool 15W TDP and 4MB L3 cache, plus the awesome 14nm manufacturing process.
cpuz_memory_lenovo_t460s
Detail of memory page. Total of 20GB DDR4, 4GB internal soldered on the motherboard, + 16GB SO-DIMM
cpuz_mainboard_lenovo_t460s
Mainboard details. Propietary Lenovo motherboard, running 1.05 BIOS (later upgraded to 1.08)
cpuz_caches_lenovo_t460s
CPU-Z Cache page listing the CPU caches

Then GPU-Z, showing the integrated Intel HD Graphics 520:

gpuz_lenovo_t460s
GPU-Z output. Chip is Skylake GT2 from last fall

 

Then we move on to the SSD, which appears to be an M.2 type drive and not your standard 2.5″ SSD. I’ll get an internal picture later for you, but opening the bottom of the machine (which is much easier than in the T440s which had icky plastic tabs that were too easy to break off), shows you all the user replaceable parts, which are very easily accessible! The SSD is manufactured by Samsung, however the model seems to be something sold to OEMs (the catchy MZNLN256HCHP). Some forums speculate that it is similar to the 850 (EVO?) model, but nothing certain.

Here’s some output from SSD-Z:

ssdz_lenovo_t460s
Some data on the Samsung SSD. Sata-3 bus, 256GB

 

CrystalDiskMark 5.1.2 results for the T460s
CrystalDiskMark 5.1.2 results for the T460s

If you want to compare performance (I’m not saying Crystal Diskmark is the ultimate tool, and these are not official testing conditions, but they are .. comprable I would wager) to some select SSD:s, here’s my Intel 910’s (PCI-E card) results, and here are the Samsung 840 Pro results, the T440s results and finally the venerable T410s’ results. All results with 64-bit CrystalDiskMark version 5.1.2, default settings.

Mobile Connectivity

There’s a 4G/LTE card in this model, which is a Sierra Wireless EM7455 Qualcomm Snapdragon X7 LTE-A WWAN Modem. The fun part was taking out the SIM-caddy, which was surprisingly already occupied! There was a “Lenovo Connect” SIM-card inside. Apparently, Lenovo has partnered up with a number of carriers worldwide (115 countries according to Lenovo). But since those cost extra, and I already have such connectivity in the countries I need to travel to, I took the SIM out. You might want to have a look at it, but it looks like most packages have data caps, which I discard out of principle. The prices don’t look.. bad, I suppose. Here’s the link http://shop.lenovo.com/fi/fi/lenovoconnect/index.html

As for the 4G performance, I tested it in Lapland, which has superb 4G connectivity (probably due to the low amount of subscribers per cell), it works fine without additional software in Windows 10. Speedtest gave me the following results (DNA is the carrier).

Speedtest run in April of 2016 in Finnish Lapland
Speedtest run in April of 2016 in Finnish Lapland

WiFi card is an Intel Dual Band Wireless-AC 8260, and the gigabit NIC is an Intel I219-LM. Both are bog-standard intel quality and have worked fine.

There is one thing that annoyed the piss out of me. Clicking the Notifications icon in the systray…

..this one!
..this one!

You get the otherwise handy Action Center / Notification bar thing, where you can turn off things like bluetooth, wireless, and yes, even cellular (though it is not showing here right now). Well, what happens if you turn off cellular here, and you want it back? Naturally, instinct tells you to open the action center thing again and re-enable it! But, what if it doesn’t show up (like it did for me)? What then? Well the next step is to go to Network Connections, look at the adapters and enabl… oh but wait it’s already enabled. But still it’s off, and you can’t connect? Crap!

Handy action center!
Handy action center! Not showing cellular because of reasons?

So after an unreasonable amount of googling, I found some people with similar issues. Apparently you can’t enable it anywhere in Windows proper (if you can, please tell me in the comments). No amount of enabling and disabling the card in network connections or device manager brings it back, or going to airplane mode or.. whatever. Instead what you need to do is sign out, and in the login screen, click the connectivity icon (the wireless symbol). From there, you can re-enable the radio of the WWAN card. Horse shit I say!

Clean install of Windows 10

I don’t care for manufacture-bloated OS’s, so I did a clean re-install of Windows 10 Enterprise, build 1511. Because I’m a dummy, I didn’t initially realize my mistake and attempted to install from my Easy2Boot USB drive. And that works too, if you’ve read the instructions and understand what you are doing… Here’s what I did wrong, so you don’t have to do the same things:

  1. Easy2Boot works fine, but you have to understand that if the install image is of UEFI type (which the windows image is), you can’t just copy the image to the Windows directory like other images
  2. You have to follow these instructions and make the Windows install image into an imgPTN image, and then try again.. Follow these instructions: http://www.easy2boot.com/add-payload-files/adding-uefi-images/
  3. Or, alternatively, get a suitably sized USB stick (4GB should do, 8GB will most definitely do), and use the Windows Media Creation tool (only for home and pro versions), or use Rufus but select the “GPT partition scheme for UEFI” option under ‘Partition Scheme and Target System Type’, or it won’t boot correctly. Or use the Windows 7-era tool (step 12 onwards) https://blogs.technet.microsoft.com/ptsblog/2015/08/19/how-to-create-a-bootable-usb-stick-or-a-bootable-dvd-for-windows-10/
  4. In my case, it did boot, but failed to find suitable devices to install to, or was lacking other drivers
  5. And no, adding SATA or other disk-related drivers during install did nothing to fix this – It’s an UEFI issue
  6. Changing BIOS settings between UEFI only, Legacy only, and Legacy first (and the CSM setting) also didn’t help in this case

After learning about UEFI stuff, installation was straightforward. The only Lenovo tool I like to install is the excellent Lenovo System Update, which keeps track of correct drivers and helper software and makes sure it is up to date. Also updates your BIOS, which is pretty useful. As of this date, BIOS 1.08 (or.. UEFI, I guess)

There’s more to write, but so far, I’m very pleased with the T460s. Much more than the 440s. The hardware is easily accessible, it’s performant and the mouse is much improved. To quote Wil Wheaton: “Later, nerds.”