Thursday, May 25, 2006

PSP : Small and Silent Surfing

Sony added an official internet browser to their Play Station Portable (PSP) back in August last year. I've had mine since the very early days of it's first release, but never got around to updating my firmware until only recently. So how well does Sony's "Portable Entertainment Revolution" (aka PSP) perform for surfing the internet, well let's find out...

The PSP actually has a very beautiful screen that is wonderful for viewing digital photos. The back light is bright, tones are natural, and color saturation is just right.

The 4.3" wide aspect 16:9 screen is actually a decent size and packs a high resolution of 480 x 272 pixels with 16.77 million colors. Those who have actually used a PSP know what I mean. Unfortunately my screen shots hardly do the PSP justice; you might notice the moire pattern appearing in many of the shots (like looking through a mesh/screen door), but this is not visible on the actual screen. It is very difficult to photograph lcd screens using a digital camera without moire (you can read more about this on Wiki).

The unit is very portable and equipped with Wifi, allowing surfing from practically anywhere where you have wireless coverage. It's much easier to bring this to the local Starbucks than a laptop (by the way in a recent trip to London I was appalled at the lack of free wireless internet access - whether as a paying customer at Starbucks, or at the London Library, a four star hotel, or Heathrow airport, only PAID wireless connections were available!).
Although it does require two hands to hold/operate, it weighs only 280 g or less than 2/3 pound. The battery life is acceptable, lasting over three hours surfing the internet and downloading podcasts with screen brightness set at maximum. Fully recharging the 1800mAh Li-Ion battery took less than 2 hours.

As there are no hard drives or fans, the only source of noise is the UMD (optical disc drive). Occassionaly the PSP will perform a seek if you have a UMD inside, but simply take it out and you can surf in absolute silence. Well ok, operating the keys/controls on the PSP makes a little bit of noise, but they don't click and can be pressed lightly.

How the web page is fitted to the screen can be set in the Display Mode option. I found Just-Fit mode worked the best where "Page width is adjusted to match screen width."

Only needing to scroll vertically makes reading pages easier.
In Smart-Fit mode, "Page content is reordered so page width matches screen width." which also means a page can be streched out very long as it tries to stack up all the frames.

Navigating around a web page was actually quite comfortable and easy to get used to. The analog controller on the left (similar to the "eraser-head" pointers on IBM notebooks) moves the cursor around the screen. Simultaneously pressing down the (square) button on the right allows scrolling around the whole web page. Alternatively a four way cursor key on the left allows jumping around buttons/links on the page. Pressing the (circle) button on the right is the same as a left click on the mouse. One nice feature is if you hold down the button over a link, it will open the link in a new page (hey Internet Explorer should have such a handy shortcut as well, instead of the slower right-click "Open in New Window").
How about entering text? Well this is really where Sony drops the ball. Obviously the PSP is not meant as a text entry device, but certainly they could've come up with a much better interface. Instead they opted to copy the numeric keypad tap method used in old generation cell phones. So for example, GHI4 is grouped on one square, and JKL5 on the next. Pressing the GHI4 square once gives G, twice H, and so on. For those accustomed to sending a lot of SMS, this entry method could be usable, except there is no numeric keypad and you must use the cursor keys to scroll to the button you want to press (so if I just tapped D, I have to push DOWN-DOWN-LEFT-LEFT to reach PQRS7 and to select S click four times). There was a lot of talk of an add-on USB flip-down keyboard being developed by the company Logic3, unfortunately that was dropped with claims of lack of support from Sony. In anycase Sony could have included predictive text input (found on recent cell phones) or made better use of the analog controller and 10 plus buttons available on the PSP.
Certainly this rules out anything that requires significant amount of typing (writing/replying emails, posting to forums/blogs, chat/messenger, etc.) but it is still usable for entering addresses once (and adding them to the bookmark), account/passwords once (and using cookies to memorize them), or a quick search. Lucky there is the bookmark feature for easy calling up of a web page.

Unfortunately there are more limitations here. Web pages do take longer to load, especially pages that require a lot of bandwidth. On the most part a little patience means browsing news sites, blogs, forums, email, and even photo sites is quite acceptable.

If you've ever tried surfing the internet on a mobile phone, using GPRS or even 3G, that is excruciating slow. The page loading speed using the PSP is somewhere between that of 3G and a regular PC.

Although the PSP browser now supports Macromedia Flash content, there are still pages/content that it is not compatible with. I could not get MSN to load at all (but no problems with Hotmail), and on some sites the PSP came back complaining "There is not enough memory".

I guess PSPs 32MB system RAM is not sufficient, and it's not making good use of the memory stick. Of course any sites that require plugins or other software to be installed on your system won't work either. Hopefully with the constantly increasing size of the memory sticks (now more than 2GB available), future updates to the browser will help overcome some of these limitations.

The PSP does support RSS Channel. RSS or Real Simple Syndication allows for easy access to a summary of the content on a website (with RSS support) such as new sites, podcasts, blogs, etc. However it seems that the PSP is only supporting audio content at this time. Subscribing to an RSS feed is as simple as clicking on the website's RSS link and confirming PSP's prompt. Some sites that have audio feeds that worked with my PSP include CNN, Engadget, Tech Nation, Business Week, Nvidia Podcast, Insomnia Radio... More sites listed here on and .

Here the PSP is playing back a podcast from CNN. After a while the screen will automatically turn off (to save batteries) while the audio will continue. An iPod might be a better solution for catching up with podcasts, especially if there are regular podcasts you follow (download by iTunes on a PC, dock your iPod for transferring, and listen at your leisure without worrying about broken/poor connection), but with PSPs wifi you have the option to browse and listen to new podcasts on the fly. The PSP built-in speaker is also quite decent if you don't want to use headphones.

Well the PSP isn't about to replace the PC as the main browsing tool. However being completely silent, extremely portable, and having acceptable battery life plus a very nice screen of a usable size, certainly makes it a nice complementary browser for reading up on the latest news, blog posts, forums, email, even perusing photo sites. It also works nicely for quick checking of information like the weather or market data, and keeping up with podcasts. All this can be conveniently done from practically anywhere (with wireless coverage); while having breakfast in the kitchen, lying down in bed (even without disturbing a sleeping spouse or significant other), sitting on the window sill, even someplace private (fill in your private place here) where one normally wouldn't have access to the internet. It's also easy to slip into a big pocket, small backpack, or purse if you want to take it outside where you'll have access to Wifi.

Unfortunately the poor text entry interface makes it impractical for any use where you need to type more than a handful of words (such as posting to a forum, replying email, filling in online forms, etc). Also the incompatibility with some web pages and limited memory, could prove annoying. The slower loading times on the most part is not so bad unless you visit sites requiring high bandwidth or need to frequently load new pages. Compared to anyone who's tried surfing on a cell phone or PDA, this certainly would be a much better experience (although some PDAs with larger screens, wifi, and a touch screen might not be so bad either). The PSP can't match a laptop's speed, compatibility, functionality, or keyboard, but then again the PSP is priced at a tiny fraction of the cost (under $200) and is more portable with similar battery life.

There are other small and portable "multimedia" machines that offer internet browsing capabilities like Nintendo's DualScreen or Gizmondo. Certainly would be interested to hear about other's experiences with these devices as small and silent surfers.

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Wednesday, May 24, 2006

P2-AE2 : Optical Drive

I've had my Pundit for about four months, and it's been happily running on my desktop all this time (and silently). Because of how I placed it, when the optical drive tray is open, the bottom faces me and I have to reach around to put in a CD/DVD. Flipping over the drive (mounting it upside down) would solve this problem. As I rarely use the optical drive, I didn't look into this possibility until today.

The optical drive cage and the bottom of the HDD cage are on one frame, which is held down to the bottom of the Pundit's case at three points. After removing the top of the HDD cage, this frame can be removed simply by sliding/pushing it towards the back of the case and lifting it up.

I had to first remove my larger 80mm CPU fan in order to slide the frame back, however with the stock 70mm fan it probably is not necessary.

Here is a closeup of the three points where the frame is held to the base. One on the right side (near the optical drive) and two on the left side (near the HDD).

The optical drive slides into the frame and is held in place with two screws on each side. The screws on the left side are actually recessed from the edge (this can be seen from the bottom).

In the back, there is also an interface board/plate attached to the drive with two screws. This converts the regular IDE plug and a FDD sized power plug into what I assume is the standard interface plug for slim optical drives.

Here you can see both sides of this interface board/plate.

And here is the Toshiba SD6112 slim DVD-RW that came with my Pundit.

As you may have guessed, the asymmetrical mounting holes (one side recessed) means the drive can only be mounted one way. So unfortunately mounting the optical drive upside down is not an option (and any drilling or frame deformation is not in my plans).

However I hope this take-apart helps poster Coconut who asked about the possibility to install an optical drive in a Pundit that comes without one. I believe the mounting holes, size, and interface should be pretty standard and therefore any standard slim optical drive should be fine. From the images of the NEC-6750A on, it looks nearly identical to my optical drive and I do not see any reason why it wouldn't fit.
However you do need to be sure the Pundit barebone you are getting does include the interface card/panel. This is attached directly to the optical drive, so if your Pundit comes without an optical drive this would have to be taped to the frame or packaged seperately in the box with the screws(assuming it is included).

One thing to note, the opening on the front panel does make for a snug fit for the optical drive tray. As the drive frame is only slid into place (and also there is some play in the front panel), you do need to carefully line up the frame. This is not difficult, but just may take some trial and error and may need some adjustment over time.

Pundit Bared
With the drive frame removed, I did take a few shots that show more parts of the motherboard I didn't see before.

Here is a better look at the mini-PCI slot at the left. I suppose it is possible to find a mini-PCI wireless adapter and plug it into the Pundit for an internal wifi solution. Also the BIOS chip can be seen in the lower left corner.

On the right we see the power switch connector (green and white wires) and also an AUX and CD AUDIO connectors. I do not believe slim optical drives have the CD AUDIO connectors so not sure what this could be used for. Maybe some extra audio-in connections if you decide to use the Pundit as a recording station?

And since I have the Pundit open, a quick check to see how the foam/cool pack/notebook HDD/pencil case enclosure is holding up. There have been one or two users who reported finding condensation in such a setup, but fortunately I found no such signs. All felt dry and everything pretty much looked the same as four months ago.

Only the foam showed an impression of where it was pressed against the HDD and also seemed slightly whiter at the same spot. Possibly due to the extended exposure to the hot surface of the HDD, but it didn't seem to be anything of alarm.

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Friday, May 05, 2006

AOpen XC Cube hushed

After having more time to tweak the cooling of my AOpen XC Cube with the PicoPSU, I am glad to report back I now have a much quieter SFF than before. I would like to give some background on the original airflow setup of this SFF which will give readers a better understanding of the changes I made.
On the left side panel towards the front of the case is a large intake vent. The HDD is located behind this vent and in my original setup I added a Zalman 80x15mm fan to increase the incoming airflow.

On the right side panel towards the rear of the case is a smaller exhaust vent. The CPU heatsink is located directly behind this vent and on the other side of the heatsink is a fan pushing air out in this direction.

Here is a close-up of the CoolerMate Ice Cube CPU heatsink I used to replace the stock cooler. The dense packing of fins is not ideal for exhausting hot air, however it did a better job than the stock heatsink at keeping the CPU cool.

The CPU fan I had installed on this heatsink is also a Zalman 80x15 fan.

And here is a closeup of the nice Athlon XP Mobile chip. The days of AMD's fragile and exposed cores (now the majority of newer Athlon 64 chips are covered with a stronger heat spreader) which actually allowed these hotter chips to transfer heat directly to the heatsink more effectively. This is actually an XPM 2200+ and not 2400+ which I mistakenly stated in my last post (it's been a long while since I worked inside this system).

The original PSU also pulled air through it's restrictive vents and exhausted air out the back of the case using an 80mm fan. So in summary, we had one large intake vent towards the front left, and two somewhat restricted exhaust vents, one through the CPU cooler at the right back, and the second through the PSU at the rear of the case.

With the removal of the stock PSU and installation of the PicoPSU, a large opening in the rear panel was freed up for exhaust. Reusing the same 80mm fan, it now had a direct airflow path and the volume of air it could exhaust quietly increased. Therefore my thinking was the CPU vent could now be used instead as an intake instead which should help keep the CPU run cooler.
As the CPU fan was not located directly next to the vent, but had to draw air through the heatsink, I took some electricians tape to seal up the gaps around the fan mounting frame and the heatsink in order to insure most of the air would be sucked in from the vent instead of the sides of the cooler.

The intention is for the fan at the left of this photo to pull in air through the heatsink (from the right side of the photo where the vent would be located) allowing it to better cool the CPU. The hot air would then be exhausted by the rear case fan.

Oddly there seemed to be no temperature difference compared with the before when the CPU vent was used as an exhaust. However fiddling with the fan settings I found that completely turning off the intake fan at the left side of the case actually improved temperatures. It occured to me that the using both fans as intake was actually causing the airflow to work against each other. Even with only two fans, I was even able to run the rear fan at a slower speeds while keeping the system equally well cooled. Needless to say this allowed the system to be quieter than before.
I decided to add a duct around the CPU cooler to allow it to make full use of the intake vent. I fabricated this with 2mm thick paper board. Although flammable material is probably not the best choice for putting inside a PC, I don't expect the temperatures in this system to get high enough where it will pose a danger... but we'll see. The paper board is actually very easy to work with and holds it's shape nicely. A ruler and exacto knife allows it to be easily cut to the exact size, and a light etching with the knife along the seams allows it be bent. The end result actually looks very nice for something completed in such a short time.
I decided to use the same material to cover up the opening in the back panel. Cutting a circular whole for the fan was a little more difficult, here you see a misshapen hexagon. But from the outside it looks fine and it is rigid enough to serve it's purpose.
The fan is still mounted on the exterior of the case, but now with the extra room inside the case I could always move it back inside. In anycase to keep for consistent testing I'll leave it on the outside for now. The vent didn't do wonders, but did the allow the CPU to run slightly cooler by 1C.
I decided to add a small 40mm Sunon Mag-lev fan to see if it would help. Normally small fans tend to be screamers and do not move a lot of air, however when volted down this Sunon is very quiet and moves just enough air to help cool down hot components like a NB heatsink.

Unfortunately the short wire of this fan meant I had to plug it into the CPU fan header and move the CPU fan to the chassis fan header. On this motherboard these fan headers are run by different chips so their PWM settings are different (ie 15% CPU header does not equal 15% CHASSIS header). So I had to readjust fan settings for the CPU fan as well and cannot compare exact same settings. However this fan did help with system cooling and running at 9% setting brought down system temperatures by 1-2C compared with it being turned off.

For the power input jack of the PicoPSU, I decided to mount it where the Coaxial SPDIF out connector was located. The circular coax connector was slightly larger, but let the power jack fit securely once the exterior nut is screwed on. You can see it to the right of the parellel port (just below the fan) in the photo. I do need SPDIF audio for my HTPC, but I figured I could always use the optical SPDIF connector instead.
Then I remembered oddly the optical connector at the back of the AOpen is in fact audio in, the audio out optical jack is located at the front of the case, too ugly to have a wire dangling from there. Fortunately I have no use for the parellel port so off that came and the coax connector happily relocated there. In addition I sealed up the tiny vent holes with blue electrical tape. Sealing these holes actually made a significant improvement to the overall cooling, both CPU and system temperatures dropped by 1C and HDD temps dropped by 3C. I suspect these holes served as fresh air intake for the original PSU, but with the modified air flow these holes become unnecessary as there are no components it will cool on the way to the exhaust fan. In fact they reduce the amount of air being drawn in through the other two intake side vents. The final settings and temperatures:

Fan settings using Speedfan
LOW FAN - CPU 3% - Chipset (40mm) 5% - Exhaust (80mm) 9%
HIGH FAN - CPU 5% - Chipset (40mm) 9% - Exhaust (80mm) 15%

Temperatures based on an ambient of 28C
IDLE - LOW - CPU 42 - SYS 44 - HDD 34
PRIME95 - LOW - CPU 50 - SYS 50 - HDD 35
PRIME95 - HIGH - CPU 45 - SYS 45 - HDD 34

Noise-wise the system is quiet and it produces a soft smooth low frequency whoosh/hum that is quite pleasant to my ears. It's not inaudible like the Pundit, and even louder than the Mac Mini, but the noise level is still very low and noticably quieter than before. Installed back on the compenents rack above my TV screen, in the very quiet ambient in the wee hours of the night, it becomes inaudible beyond 6 feet. During the day or when my TV screen is on, the system cannot be heard even within two feet.

Probably a more open CPU heatsink that allows for better airflow as well as running a slower 92mm fan for exhaust will allow the system to cool even better and become even more quiet, however for it's purpose as an HTPC it is more than quiet enough already. One problem though that I did find after I had it all setup again as my HTPC is that the system has trouble powering up from suspend mode. I experienced this once while testing the system on my workbench, but subsequent trials proved no problems. I suspect that the PicoPSU is the cause here as I did not have this problem before. Although noise and temperature wise it is perfectly acceptable if I leave it on permanently, I am not happy with the idle power draw of around 50W as it would be like leaving a lightbulb on all the time that you weren't using (unfortunately Athlon XPs have poor power management at idle). I will have to see what can be done about this.

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