Tutorial #23: Taming the beast (Dell XPS 7590 Core i9)


One of the significant purchases I made over the past 6 months is the Dell XPS 7590 with Intel's Coffee Lake Core i9-9980HK, Samsung's 32 GB DDR4-2667 RAM, Toshiba's 1 TB SSD, Nvidia's GTX 1650 and the crème de la crème that is the 4K OLED panel made by Samsung. But before you get any ideas, this is not a device that I would have otherwise purchased but for the fact that I found a single piece listed on Amazon 2 days prior to its official launch of the device at a price that was lesser than the 2019 Acer Helios 300. The risk was worth it as it came sealed with a valid 12-month Premium Plus support from Dell. There are instances in one's life where one doesn't mind getting lucky and this was certainly one of those.

Normally, I would be prompt in reviewing devices within the first few weeks of purchase. However, in this case I think I am too biased towards the device to perhaps put up a worthwhile review. Hence, I thought it better to post a tutorial that would be of some assistance to fellow users. One thing that I am certain of is that the hardware has outgrown the XPS chassis design over the years and the Core i9 pushes things a bit too far in terms of what the chassis is capable of handling thermally. Hence, I went on an optimisation quest with the intention of lowering the temperatures and increasing the overall efficiency of the device. I will own up to the fact that I don't intend to use the device on battery at all unless I am forced to but for that eventuality I decided to find a compromise which would at least provide stock performance at lower battery consumption as against higher performance when operating directly on AC.

The tool of choice in this case for the CPU is Throttlestop which offers significantly more tweaking potential than Intel's Extreme Tuning utility. As for the GPU, the mainstream tool to use is MSI Afterburner. However, in case of this GPU, I found that the temperature limit setting on MSI AB was locked for some reason even after unlocking all the advanced options and the Auto Overclocker resulted in far too frequent game crashes. Hence, I instead went ahead with Asus GPU Tweak II which allowed the GPU temperature target to be set upfront. By default, this is set to 75 Celsius and I instead bumped it to the stock value of GTX 1650 which is 87 Celsius. However, the idea in general is to still not exceed 75 Celsius during most strenuous tasks but to provide the headroom to exceed that if needed.

With this background, in the interest of time, I have decided to simply post the screenshots of the various screens from the tools since further elaboration on each parameter can be found on their respective forums. In case of the GPU, I eventually stuck with simply pushing up the clocks by 10% as undervolting using the frequency curve resulted in far too many instability issues. Is this the most optimum setting possible, most probably not. However, I believe this is the best setting I could identify with trial and error, as attested by the 88 unexpected reboots on record. I could certainly push the clocks and voltages quite a bit more but in general it led to instability and I am certainly no fan of BSODs. Another point to note is that while Asus GPU Tweak II can be set to start on reboot, Throttlestop requires additional effort in setting up the task scheduler which is what I have indicated below.

Starting Throttlestop on Login:

Throttlestop settings for AC profile:

Throttlestop settings for Battery profile:

Now to focus on the fruits of the labour or the pudding so to say. I am not a fan of benchmarks in general but in this case, I needed something to comparatively measure the impact of the changes and a few basic benchmarks provide the easiest reference in this case. Note that I ran all the benchmarks with only the discrete GPU enabled with the overclock settings, so it represents the worst possible scenario in case of thermals.

UserBenchmark:
This might not be the first benchmark utility that springs to mind but for the fact that it allows comparative analysis for similar hardware components and is of considerably short duration. In this case, the CPU came up at 97th percentile and the GPU at 100% percentile which, considering the fact that is mostly going up against much bulkier gaming laptops with much better thermals, is noteworthy. Overall, the CPU efficiency is excellent with the tweaks providing higher performance at lower power. The discrete GPU however doesn't scale up in terms of efficiency and while it is possible to get more performance out of it, it comes at a significant cost in terms of power and heat.

Cinebench:
Cinebench really pushes the CPU and is thus a good test of its ultimate performance. A sequence of 2 consecutive runs also pushes the CPU to its thermal limits. Not surprisingly then, the 1st run score of 3684 is more than 20% better than stock and even the 2nd consecutive run scores better than the stock settings with lower average temperatures.

Heaven:
This benchmark was run at the Extreme preset. As I have already mentioned previously, pushing the GPU doesn't really yield huge benefits in this constrained form factor as the any performance benefits come with equally higher power consumption and heat generation. However, as can be seen in the results, a 3% performance boost in Heaven comes with lower CPU temperatures and the GPU power consumption is lower even though it hasn't been undervolted. So, a win-win overall.

Lastly, how do these modifications fare with a modern game. I happen to have Hitman 2 installed at present, so I thought I'd give it a go with the in-built benchmarks which I frankly didn't find to be entirely consistent across different runs. But I believe it should give at least give an idea of what the laptop is now capable of, even though it is not meant to be a gaming laptop.
I set all the details to the maximum possible apart from lowering it a notch to 'High' for 'Level of Detail', 'SSAO' and 'Shadow Quality', besides turning 'Motion Blur' to 'Off'. The Mumbai benchmark produced a score of 70.95 FPS with CPU averaging at 79C and the GPU at 70C. The more demanding Miami benchmark chewed out 54.04 FPS with CPU/GPU temperatures averaging at 78C/69C respectively. A more than serviceable gaming machine if I may say so.

Review #39: AmazonBasics USB 3.0 Extension Cable (1 meter, 3.3 feet)

The pursuit of (not) back breaking speed!
I can't imagine this cable being useful to anyone else other than the poor souls whose only option to experience USB 3.0 speeds is through the ports on the motherboard at the back of the desktop cabinet. I have had to call my gymnastic skills to action on a number of occasions, re-enacting Mission Impossible style laser grid scenarios to simply plugin USB 3.0 devices. External hard drive manufacturers must be in cahoots with cabinet and motherboard manufacturers by providing the shortest USB 3.0 cables possible and thereby exacerbating the situation.

In my case, I wouldn't blame the motherboard manufacturer for they have provided front USB 3.0 headers. But I can't for the life of me convince myself to buy a new "box" and hence the decade old cabinet with USB 2.0 front panel continues to thrive. I had alleviated this situation a few years ago by purchasing a USB 3.0 hub but, as if by design, it barely made it to the top of my table. Thus, it has been a constant tussle with gravity when using the hub. Moreover, the infatuation of laptop and tablet manufacturers to only include a single Type-A USB port ends up making the hub a travel companion and thus subject to frequent unplugging from the desktop. Thus, my decision to purchase the USB 3.0 cable materialised.

In the past, I have had really troublesome experiences purchasing cables online as well as offline since cables are difficult to judge by appearances alone. It is true that you can filter out the worst of them on the basis of the thickness of the cables and the moulding of the ports, but beyond that it is complete guesswork. Hence, AmazonBasics has become a go-to brand for me for cables as it offers a modicum of peace of mind in terms of quality. Going by the quality of other AmazonBasics products, I can expect it to be a barebones product that does the job. It is always true to the specifications even as durability remains a question mark over the long term. But that is true of any cable and Amazonbasics is best of the bunch in that regard. I imagine a rotten apple seeping through once in a while but in all other cases, there simply isn't anything better for the price you pay.

Tutorial #14: Tips on a fresh installation of Windows Creators Update


For all the cruft that had built up since the Anniversary Update, I decided to do a fresh installation of the Creators Update released earlier this month on my tablet (Dell Venue 11 Pro 7140). Re-installations are much easier now than a decade ago with cloud backups eliminating the worries of losing data. However, it still takes some effort to reduce installation time and to ensure that Microsoft's data acquisition and bloatware installation is limited. Following are my tips learnt from experience.

1. Direct ISO downloads are a thing of the past as far as Microsoft is concerned and it wants you to rely on the Media Creation Tool instead. That's fine for the most part, but it happens to download a device specific ISO. So, if you happen to have multiple Windows devices, especially with different editions of Windows 10, then it is best to download the international ISO.

2. USB installations are undoubtedly faster than disc based ones. However, SSDs are much faster than standard USB flash drives. In my case, I have converted a discarded 64GB M.2 SSD into a USB 3 flash drive which reduces the initial installation process to just 5 minutes.

3. Rufus is by far the best tool to write the ISO to the USB drive. In order to write to SSD flash drives, make sure you enable the 'List USB Hard Drives' option.

4. After installation, when you boot to the profile setup screen, I would recommend not connecting to the Internet. This causes the PC to reboot into the offline setup mode and you don't need to link your Outlook account. It is said that an offline account limits the telemetry sent to Microsoft, though I can't vouch for it personally.

5. For additional privacy, you can disable all the privacy options presented on the setup screen. If you need any of them, you can always enable them later.

6. Make sure you keep the drivers from your manufacturer handy before the installation. You can copy them to the USB drive that you use for the Windows setup. In my case, Dell provides a single CAB file containing all the drivers and I usually place the extracted CAB file on my USB SSD drive for easy access. This enables the manual installation of the correct drivers using the Device Manager.

7. A very important step is to disable installation of hardware drivers from Windows update in case you already have all the manufacturer drivers. In my case, I found that the drivers from Microsoft for my device caused a lot of issues, especially with the display and battery management. Hardware driver installation can be disabled from Advanced System Settings > Hardware > Device Installation Settings.

8. Microsoft also tends to install a lot of sponsored apps like Candy Crush Saga on the device as soon as you connect to the web. Hence, it is a great idea to open the Start Menu and remove all the icons for the apps that are awaiting download. Note that you can only do this in case you didn't connect to the Internet during the setup process.

9. Whenever you login to Microsoft Apps like Mail or OneDrive, make sure that you sign in only to the app and not associate it with the Windows account. This again ensures better privacy and account management.

This just about covers the most important things to keep in mind when undertaking a fresh installation of Windows. It maximises privacy and minimises the conflicts that you may encounter, thereby streamlining the installation process.



Musing #29: StarCraft discovered


Blizzard caught everyone by surprise earlier this week with the free (as in beer) release of the original StarCraft along with its Brood War expansion. Although it last received an update within the past decade, a 2-decade old game is always treading on the grey area of abandonware. While the intellectual property of the game continues to be of immense values as far as sequels (or prequels) are concerned, the product itself can be considered to be obsolete. 

Hence, it was a masterstroke to release the original version of the game which was certainly not out of altruism but as a promotion for the remastered edition. It is also a great move to maintain compatibility across the two releases since it ensures that there will be a substantial online community associated with the game, even if not many are paying for it.

Against this back drop, it is quite odd then that I never experienced Starcraft in any form, despite being a 90s kid. I had read about its follow-up being a staple diet of eSports events, but even then curiosity eluded me. Some of it must be due to the fact that my first PC and net connection arrived at the fag end of 90s but that doesn't explain it all. India was quite a different place 2 decades back in terms of accessibility to computing as well as the web, but I still reminisce the NFS 2/3 and FIFA 98 days with friends. Hence, it must simply be the social circle that was much more focussed on Age of Empires and Command & Conquer as far as strategy games were concerned.

However, it's better late than never as I fired up the free release of StarCraft just a couple of days back. I can't really be convinced to run it on my gaming desktop, but I found it to be an ideal fit for my Windows tablet (Dell Venue 11 Pro 7140) with its keyboard dock. In what is generally a rarity, the low powered Core M processor ends up being quite an overkill. The gameplay seems to be holding up really well and I guess it has a lot to do with the fact that the 90s were a period where the focus was much more on engagement through gameplay than graphics since processing power was quite limited. I am unsure whether the interface and controls have been tweaked since the original game, but it is surprisingly playable with the small trackpad and the 10.8" screen does more justice to this game than what a separate monitor or TV would. I guess that is precisely the reason why one might wish to go with the remastered edition, but for something that's free, this game is a real gem that beats most of the stuff that comes out on mobile these days.

Tutorial #11: Thermal control of Core M 5Y10 (Broadwell)

The first generation Core M was an engineering marvel in terms of the power it managed to fit within the 4.5W TDP envelope. In terms of performance, it sat somewhere in between the 5th generation U-series Core i3 and i5 which bear TDP of 15W but blew both of them out of the water when it came to efficiency. The fanless design not only cut down the weight of the tablet but in fact removed a significant point of failure. My gut feeling is that whirring fans are not a good fit for use cases which involve significant movement à la tablets. On the flip side, the processor package is nothing short of a toaster with its sky high temperature under sustained full load.

This led me to fire up Intel's Extreme Tuning Utility (XTU) on my Dell Venue 11 Pro 7140. Normally, devices in a portable form factor like tablets and laptops leave very constrained thermal dissipation and hence are not good tuning candidates. Hence, unsurprisingly, only the voltage and turbo power controls are on offer in the case of the Core M. After trying out over two dozen profiles, I settled on the following three detailed in the table below wherein I have listed the changes made to the default (reference) settings. Profile 1 aims at a temperature of mid-60s under turbo boost which is akin to what you may find in fanned processors. Profile 2 has turbo boost set to the TDP and allows for sustained usage without thermal throttling. Profile 3 on the other hand is the default profile but with stable under-volting that reduces the temperature just enough to limit instances of thermal throttling under sustained full load.


To check the impact of these profiles, I have used the benchmark within XTU (XMarks) as well as the CPU stress test (duration of 1 min). Additionally, I have used the CPU Mark and 3D Mark tests of PassMark as they seemed to be particularly responsive to the changes. Lastly, any CPU test would be incomplete without CPU-Z and hence its bench also makes an appearance.


As can be seen from the table above, there is a compromise to be made between temperature and performance depending on what floats your boat. In my case, I decided to go with 'Profile 3' for now since sacrificing power in a mobile device is always a tough choice. Even then, it is an improvement over the default profile in terms of performance as well as temperature. Profile 2 seems like an especially good option in case thermal throttling is a major concern while Profile 1 plays it really cool if you cant't warm up to the idea of using the tablet as a finger heater. Overall, I am to this day impressed by the Core M package, enough to have it don a triple avatar.

Review #27: Transcend MTS600 M.2 SSD (256 GB)

I had simply alluded to the Transcend MTS600 in my previous post on the M.2 SSD enclosure but this time the spotlight is firmly on it. The fact is that when I set about to update the SSD in my Dell Venue 11 Pro 7140, I realized that I wasn't exactly going to be spoilt for choice. The only references to compatible M.2 SSDs in the 2260 form factor that I could find were the Crucial MX200 and the Transcend MTS600. Since only the latter was available locally, I didn't even get the opportunity to decide.

The chief concern that I had was that the SSD was reported as not playing nice with Intel's Link Power Management, though the forum posts were from a year or two back. I had also read a couple of posts referring to firmware updates that resolved this issue. The outer cover states that the SSD supports DevSlp and I am glad to report that I have been able to leave my SSD idle for hours at a stretch without encountering any BSOD. My SSD, manufactured in July 2016, came with firmware version O0918B which is the latest available at the time of this writing.

The total disc space on a fresh Windows installation comes out to be 238 GB. While increasing the storage capacity was the primary reason for the upgrade, I was really hoping that I would get a speed boost as well since the 64 GB SanDisk X110 was not one of the fastest SSDs around. While the SSD read speed didn't quite touch the "up to 550 MBps" figure stated on the package for the 512 GB version, I am glad that it came pretty close and offers a significant boost across the board when compared to the default SanDisk X110 SSD. I rest my case with the following chart:


I was lucky enough to snag this locally for a price (INR 7700 or USD 110) comparable to the one on Amazon US (USD 107) as it has since appreciated by over 25% at the same store. Based on my personal experience, this SSD gets my wholehearted recommendation for the M.2 2260 form factor.

Review #3: Asus UX305FA(MS)-FC268H (Notebook)


The 5th Gen Core branding may be a bit misleading for some people considering that this one comes from the low TDP "Y" series lineage and isn't a successor to the regular "i" line-up. However, Core M isn't a slouch by any means, though definitely not a power house. It also isn't the top Core M variant but then there isn't too much of a performance difference between them. As a fanless processor, it is known to get really hot and hence not ideal for lap use. The flip side to this is the enhanced battery life which is what you'd really want for casual usage like surfing and watching movies. 

Some may fault Asus for trying to imitate Apple but that ensures good looks and build quality on its own. Those astounded by the resolution should know that it is not the most colour accurate and the high pixel count definitely hits the performance of applications running at its native resolution. 

The SSD is a big plus and 4 GB RAM should be enough for Windows to chug along. The speakers aren't much to speak of in spite of the MaxxAudio branding but should be good enough when watching the odd videos. The keyboard lacks backlighting which is a huge bummer. 

All in all, it is the most bang-for-the-buck ultraportable you can find. Weight matters a lot for portability and Asus delivers on that front. All the other specs are simply good enough to get the job done without any complaints. This is the price point at which one can finally see the Core M going mainstream. Tablets like the Dell Venue 11 Pro 7140 with the same processor are finally touching the $500 price point in the US, making them comparable in pricing to tablets like Surface 3 that come with the Atom x7. So, it isn't really a surprise to finally see a Core M product land in India at less than 50k, though this one retails for $699 in the US with 8GB RAM. 

Bottom Line: The most VFM ultraportable. Look at other options if you are really looking for a workhorse laptop. 

Edit: Flipkart later changed the display from QHD+ to FHD and also removed the reference to the touch screen which I had assumed to be a mistake from the beginning. Also, they still have "Pentium Dual Core" mentioned in key features. An unprofessional effort by Flipkart as it indicates a blind copy-paste from the Asus website without checking the product itself. I would revise my rating to about 3.5 if only I could knock half a star off the rating system.
Originally published on Flipkart on 15th May 2015.