Thursday, June 30, 2016

M14x R2: Overclock Locked CPU & 16GB RAM @ 2133MHz

The Alienware M14x R2 laptop was (and still is) a great laptop. It had some good options and was great for either gaming or daily work activities. But some things that most people were (and are) unaware of about the laptop, which can make it great, have never seemed to be truly revealed. While this laptop is getting older, it can still provide a lot of power, if you know how to unlock it...

M14x R2
The Alienware M14x R1 came in with an Intel Sandy Bridge CPU with a NVIDIA GT 555M graphics card. Later on, the M14x R2 came with an Intel Ivy Bridge CPU with a NVIDIA GT 650M graphics card. The biggest upgrade obviously being a GPU (as the M14x R3 was said to have a weaker GPU than the R2), and the move to Ivy Bridge allowed for the jump to PCI Express 3.0.

The screen resolution was either 1366x768 (720p+) or 1600x900 (900p), which was 14" in size (hence the name M14x). It normally came with 6GB DDR3L RAM with a voltage of 1.35v, but it can take 1.5v.

My M14x R2
I did not get my M14x R2 until years after it had been discontinued. My father had seen my M17x R2 and decided he wanted an Alienware laptop. He had me purchase one on his behalf. Once he finally received it, he tried it for a few days before moving back to his older laptop. Recently, he gave it to me, and it is practically in new condition!

The specs on mine are almost as good as they could get when bought. It came with a i7 3840QM, a GT 650M 2GB GDDR5, and a 900p screen. There was a HDD instead of SSD, but I have since installed a M.SATA Samsung 850 EVO 500GB SSD. It also had 6GB (2GB+4GB) 1600MHz RAM, which I changed to 16GB 2133MHz RAM.

The only issue that this laptop has is the trackpad has you accidentally moving the cursor around at times because your hand will touch it while typing. It had another mouse issue, which was the main issue my father had with it, but I was able to disable this in the Windows settings.

As for the graphics card, there were supposedly different variants. There was a GT 650 1GB GDDR5 and a GT 650 2GB DDR3 version available. Thankfully, when my was bought, it had the best version, which was th GT 650 2GB GDDR5 variant. While that sounds great, it is not a powerful graphics card. It can be pushed to do better (with an "unlocked" BIOS), but it falls short of the options of today. And even though the CPU is upgradeable, the GPU is not. It is soldered in. However, it can still play most modern games on medium or low settings.

Possible to OC Locked CPU?
The 3840QM is a great i7 Ivy Bridge CPU. It has a stock clock of 2.8GHz with a turbo up to 3.8GHz. In comparison, the unlocked 3920XM has a stock clock of 2.9GHz with a turbo up to 3.8GHz, and the unlocked 3940XM has a stock clock of 3.0GHz with a turbo up to 3.9GHz.

Essentially, my 3840QM will run as fast as a 3920XM (in terms of turbo) when it needs to, and almost matches the 3940XM. If I were to replace the 3840QM with either Extreme Edition CPU (XM) it would still cost me at least $300, if not more. That is far too much for the little gains I will get from a XM CPU. I may be able to push an XM to around 4.2GHz safely, but it still does not seem like a great idea economically.

While I was researching about my CPU recently, I came across a couple articles about overclocking the 3840QM. One gave very little information and was just someone asking if it was possible, with a response that it was not. But the other had very useful information. Someone stated and showed that they were able to overclock their 3840QM up to 4.0GHz! That is impressive just for the speed, but even more impressive knowing that this CPU has a locked multiplier and should not have any way to do so!

So, I decided to try this for myself and see what I could. I did several tests and watched my clocks for differences. In the end, yes, I was able to push my 3840QM to a turbo of just over 4.0GHz!!! (3.99GHz consistent!)

I have since read that the Ivy Bridge era did allow for these overclocks, but no generation after has been allowed to do so.

Overclocking Locked CPU
This will require you to download ThrottleStop. ThrottleStop 6.00 is the last stable version released, however, if you search the TechInferno thread on ThrottleStop, you can find an active ThrottleStop 8.00 Beta version. It is unnecessary to use the newest beta version, as it does not add anything that we will need.

The first thing to be done will be to enter the BIOS. Once inside, find the option for turbo and disable it. The next steps all relate Throttlestop:
  1. Open Throttlestop.
  2. Check "Clock Modulation".
  3. Check "Chipset Clock Modulation".
  4. Check "Set Multiplier".
  5. Check "C1E".
  6. Uncheck all other boxes.
  7. Under "Set Multiplier", ensure that it is at the highest multiplier setting, or has a "T" next to the number.
  8. Click "TPL".
  9. Change the cores to all run at "42".
  10. Click "OK".
  11. Click "Turn On".
Note: For whatever reason, I found that "42" was the multiplier number required to hit 3.99GHz consistently. Anything higher would do the same.

If you want to test the validity of the frequency achieved, try running a benchmark like Intel's Extreme Tuning Utility (IXTU) that tells you the maximum speed it hits. You can also use ROG Benchmark that will show its own CPU stat, or keep Throttlestop open and watch what frequency the CPU hits.

Running 2133MHz RAM!
While Ivy Bridge does support 2133MHz, that does not mean it is always achievable for other laptops. Factors can be the RAM itself, the motherboard, etc. Just because a CPU can do something does not mean it will. For example, Ivy Bridge can run up to 32GB of RAM, but that is impossible for an Alienware M14x R2 to achieve due to its motherboard.

Many forums discussing this very laptop claimed it was not possible to run RAM at 2133MHz, but I know this to be untrue since I have done so. I will explain how I did this so others can emulate it.

To do this, I bought a pair of 8GB Kingston HyperX Impact Black DDR3L RAM @2133MHz. If installed immediately, you may not be able to post. Install one stick and set the RAM settings in the BIOS to run at 1866MHz. This will allow you to post while using both (or one) sticks of RAM:
  1. Download IXTU.
  2. Open IXTU.
  3. Change to the "Advanced Tuning > All Controls" tab.
  4. Scroll until you see settings for Memory, DIMM or RAM controls.*
  5. If you hover over each timing setting of the memory, you will see the recommended values for that timing setting. Record the recommended values.
  6. Change to manual/custom timing settings for the RAM.
  7. Input all recommended values of the memory timings recorded in step 5.
  8. Save the timing settings.
  9. IXTU should prompt you with a reboot, select "Yes".
  10. Upon reboot, the laptop may not fully boot and get stuck. If it does, give it a minute before doing a hard shutdown (press and hold the power button).
  11. When you boot back up into Windows, open IXTU again.
  12. The recommended values should now be inputted, but you may have a value(s) that is not sticking. If not, you are done. If so, continue on...
  13. Note the setting(s) that is not sticking and turn off the laptop.
  14. Boot into the BIOS.
  15. Go to the RAM timing settings.
  16. Change the timing setting(s).
  17. Save the BIOS.
  18. Reboot. If the laptop does not boot up fully, wait a minute before shutting it down.
  19. Reboot the laptop.
  20. When you boot back up into Windows, open IXTU again.
  21. All the recommended values should now be showing. If not, repeat steps 14-20  again.
*If you do not have any memory options, then your laptop does not support this. This should only be true if you are using this tutorial for a laptop other than an Alienware M14x R2.

This is the process I went through in order to get 2133MHz RAM to be recognized and work properly. It will work, and enable the fastest RAM available for Ivy Bridge. But if you do not check the timings, you will either get the RAM speed pulled down to something slower, or if you have not changed all the timings to the proper values, you could cause instability.

Hard Shutdown
These are a couple of secrets people are unaware of. It is very possible to run locked Ivy Bridge processors at higher speeds than their turbo, and you can get the best RAM available for this generation!

To be able to do this, and on a laptop no less, is an amazing feat. With a setup like this, what would be the point of upgrading when this is just as powerful now as it was when it was first introduced?

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

How I Got a GTX 980 Ti (NIB) for $350!

The last time I wrote about getting a deal was for a GTX 970, and a GTX 980 the time before that. And today I will complete the high-end trio with a GTX 980 Ti! At the time of this posting, this is still a great deal, just as it was when I got it.

Why did I need a GTX 980 Ti? Well, because a couple of things occurred that led me to having a reason to need one...

I had initially bought my GTX 970 because I was doing an eGPU (external GPU) setup, which I had planned to post about. I successfully used this setup with an ExpressCard interface on my Alienware M17x R2, and was attempting to get it to work via mPCIe (mini PCI express) on my Alienware M14x R2. After several issues, one rendering my M14x R2 useless, I decided the best thing to do was to cut my losses and go for a different setup.

The setup I wanted to do was to get a new Alienware 17 R3 (AW17R3) laptop with an unlocked CPU, for future-proofing, and which would have the ability to use an Alienware Graphics Amplifier (AGA). An AGA essentially lets you connect a desktop graphics card of your choosing to use instead of the soldered in GPU the AW17R3 offers. With an unlocked CPU that could be overclocked to match the performance of CPUs released later on, and an AGA that would allow me to use any future GPU, it would be an ideal situation to run for at least 2-5 years before ever considering another "upgrade", if desired.

Since this was my goal, I needed money to fund this objective. So, I decided to go ahead and sell off my laptops, the eGPU, as well as some other things. I was well on my way and even went ahead and purchased an AW17R3 so that I would not be without a laptop. But another problem occurred that changed things a bit...

At that time I had a three-monitor setup that would be the equivalent of 1400p+, something the GTX 970 handled quite well. However, one of my monitors went a bit nuts, and I decided to go ahead and grab a UHD TV, often mistakenly called a 4K TV by most people. The TV was refurbished and cost about $230+ total! Another great deal! Oddly enough, after I made the purchase, the monitor sorted itself out and now works, but I had no intention on ditching my UHD TV.

But keeping the UHD TV presented another problem. If I were to use it for gaming, I would need a stronger card than the GTX 970. I love the GTX 970 and think it gives great performance, but it would just not be able to provide decent framerates at UHD resolution (at least, not at the highest quality settings). Having tested the GTX 980 at UHD, I knew that it would not be enough to give a good experience either. The minimum I could use was a GTX 980 Ti.

The Hunt
I sold the GTX 970 about a day or two before the official GTX 1070 launch, which also meant the GTX 1080 was already out. I paid just under $240 total for the Zotac GTX 970, and I sold it for $210. I immediately started searching for a GTX 980 Ti since people would be trying to get rid of them in order to upgrade to a GTX 1070 or GTX 1080.

I ended up messaging about 15 people or so, getting different responses to my offers. Finally, I got a reply that accepted my offer of $350! It was for an EVGA GTX 980 Ti SC, a reference edition. This was perfect, the AGA does not seem to have any type of cooling system along with its built-in PSU, so I would rather have a blower fan that will move out the air, rather than an aftermarket fan(s) that will move the air around in the enclosure.

The best part of this deal? The graphics card was never used! It was only opened to ensure everything was included and put back because the owner did not have the time to put it into his rig that he was building. When the time came to get a card, he went ahead and bought a GTX 1080 instead and decided to sell the GTX 980 Ti.

I will also add that because it is an EVGA graphics card, the warranty can be transferred. But this card had never even been registered, so I am the official first owner!

GTX 980 Ti vs. GTX 1070
A GTX 1080 would be great for UHD resolution, but they continue to command a $700+ price tag. So, the real debate would be why get a GTX 980 Ti over a GTX 1070? The GTX 1070 is newer, should perform better, and will do it at less watts. This is all true, but they also cost at least $450, and this is for a preorder that you may not get for weeks.

Even more important, I need a graphics card purely because I need it for a UHD TV. If you compare the GTX 980 Ti and the GTX 1070 in gaming benchmarks, they are fairly close. Most of the time the GTX 1070 is up by a minor amount of FPS (frames per second), but there are a few times where the GTX 980 Ti actually matches or surpasses the GTX 1070. And if looking at different resolutions, you will notice that by the time they are tested at UHD, the amount of FPS difference between the GTX 1070 and GTX 980 Ti is either gone or all but gone! Why should I pay (at least) another $100 for almost identical performance?

The only way the GTX 1070 would be more beneficial to me would be if I constantly used applications that could take advantage of the CUDA cores. While I do use at least one application where this could be beneficial, I do not presently use it enough to warrant an additional $100+.

Something else to add, that I did not know until I had my GTX 980 Ti, is that the AGA does not seem to allow for large overclocks like a desktop computer could. This means that paying more for a GTX 1070 would have been an even bigger loss if I had thought that an overclock might do far better than an overclocked GTX 980 Ti...

Bi Bi
So, even now, the GTX 980 Ti, despite NVIDIA slashing their prices, is still being sold for more than $350. The only other deal I saw that was similar to mine was for a used GTX 980 Ti on the same forum from where I bought my graphics card. This was probably only a couple weeks before I bought mine, and I do not believe it was even an EVGA card; meaning that the new owner cannot make any warranty claims if they should ever need to get the graphics card repaired.

I believe I got the best deal possible, and everything I have seen so far suggests that. Even when dwindling GTX 980 Ti supply gets to the price I paid (and remember mine was a total, market prices would not include tax), the amount of time that will have passed since obtaining my graphics card will be more than enough to be a major factor of what a great deal I got.