Archive for the ‘Doing Hard Ware’ Category

Building a Midrange PC

For some time now, my children are complaining about their PCs. The systems fail when playing The Sims, editing videos, and playing some online games. In particular, the failure to do online games triggered me.

It is clear, the kids need new PCs, and these PCs have to satisfy the requirements stated below.

Requirements

Identical PCs for all Kids

All children need to get the same PC. Otherwise there will noticeable unfairness, hence noticeable drama.

Different PC for Each Kid

On the other hand, each kid has its own special wishes, and its PC needs to be customizable to accommodate these wishes (within reasonable limits).

We solve this paradox by delivering equal basis systems to all children. Each kid can then use its own savings to customize its PC.

Future Proof

The PCs need to be future proof. That is, not composed of outdated components. And we also want the parts that will last long to be of excellent quality.

Silent

The PCs need to be quiet. Except perhaps at incidental extreme performances. Well audible PCs are very irritating. I myself have some frequency dips in my hearing, due, I think, to learning to suppress the PC noise of early PCs, during more than just a couple of years.

Energy Consumption

A new PC should consume less energy than an older one. That should be obvious.

Component Re-Use

For some odd reason we’re drowning is displays, mice and keyboards, all well -re-usable. We can also strip the DVD writers (readers) from the old PCs. Look, DVD writers are hardly ever used, so, although they are very cheap (€ 15,-), we will not spend money on new DVD writers.

The new PCs also need a backup facility. We will use the hard disks of my old NAS, by now retired, as backup disks. These disks are IDE disks; too slow for primary use, but since each has a capacity of 500Gb, ok for backup purposes.

Affordable

You would almost forget it, but a PC also need to be affordable. For a start we will assume a focus point of € 500,- per PC. Enough for quality, too little for indulgence :-).

Starting Points

Our starting point will be the desktop-best-buy-guide of September 2013 on Tweakers.net (in Dutch), in particular the basic and mainstream game systems. Game Systems are much like media systems, the main difference being overclocking. We are aiming at a basic-to-main media and / or game system.

This best buy guide provides us with the expertise available at the forums (for a), especially in the discussions concerning the components to choose. From the proposed system we pick the parts we like or choose alternatives that seem more appropriate given more or other information.

A very nice aspect of the Tweakers.net site is that we can directly see what the prices are in a broad spectrum of shops. An alternative source of advice and prices is hardware.info.

Components

Processor

With respect to processor choice, the Tweakers.net site is at the moment just the place to be. There has been a heated discussion concerning the choice between the AMD FX-8320 Black Edition and the Intel Core i5 4670K Boxed Haswell processors. I will explain the difference by motivating my preference.

The AMD processor is a bit dated. Its successor will be launched in the near future. This fact lowers its price to a great value-for-money level: The average performance level of the processors is comparable, but a current combination of processor and mother board is in case of the AMD processor about € 100,- lower. So, would you be willing to sacrifice the “future proof” requirement for € 100,-? I will not.

A number of arguments plead in favor of the Intel processor:

– It is recent; on the Dutch market only since June 2013.

– It is designed to save energy.

– It uses a new socket that we hope will be current for a while, so we might replace the processor by a successor without also having to replace the motherboard (that holds the socket).

– Very importantly: it has an internal graphical processor (igp). This igp is strong enough to run the previous generation of most-resource-hungry games, at not-the-highest-quality level, that is, it is excellent for your daily use. The AMD processor does not have an igp, so you will always have to buy a graphics card – that’s your € 100,- price advantage.

– The Intel processor is tested to have better performance in applications of video processing, so the Intel processor contributes to that requirement.

One final point. The processor proposed by Tweakers’ is of “K” type: suitable for overclocking. Overclocking can damage your processor and other hardware. So, this is not a facility we will hand over to (inquisitive) children. Our choice is therefore the Intel Core i5 4670 Boxed, without the “K”. This saves us some € 10,-.

Mother Board

Tweakers.net proposes the Gigabyte GA-Z87-HD3 mother board. This is a Z87 chipset mother board. For the new Haswell processor there are three different chipsets: Z87 for overclockers, H87: for mainstream systems, B87: with the ‘B’ of budget. So, we don’t want a Z87 board, we want a H87 board, which will (no doubt) be cheaper.

We prefer the ASRock Fatal1ty H87 Performance over the price comparable Gigabyte H87 board. The reason is that the ASRock has a better sound system: newer chip, pre-amplifier for headphones, connector for a surround system amplifier. It has also an newer LAN network chip, and it is a bit cheaper. Compared to the Gigabyte it has less precise control over the cooling fans, but we were not planning to get continued maximum performance from these PCs anyway. I suspect that a comparable H87 Gigabyte board will be a micro ATX board, a very small board. I consider that a disadvantage since it requires extra cooling measures.

The Dutch Hardware.info site has published an extensive evaluation of Haswell motherboards, see it for many more details. Perhaps this same evaluation has been published at other Hardware.info sites as well.

PC Case

At this point I really passed by the Tweakers list. AnandTech.com also reviews PC cases. Their regular guy is fond of the Nanoxia PC cases. Nanoxia is a somewhat high end brand for PC cases. They provide heavy, strong, silent and very good looking cases. And in three colors. Real thorough, sound German engineering.

I really like the lasting, silent and esthetic character of this case. It could easily last for 20 years, hold many successive PCs, and never be the rotten apple of your interior.

The preferred model is the Nanoxia Deep Silence 2. It is smaller than the Deep Silence 1, which we consider an advantage. An alternative would be the Corsair 330R. However, this case is a step back in all aspects (according to AnandTech), and available in any color … as long as its black.

Other Components

The other components we choose following the Tweakers.net list are:

– RAM memory

– Hard disk

– Power Supply

Both Tweakers’ lists suggest the same RAM memory and hard disk. We choose a modular power supply from the suggested alternatives. ‘Modular’ means that you only have the cables you actually use in your PC (instead of all of them: non-modular), which eases cable management within the case a lot (at € 2,50 extra).

Hardware List

Thus we arrive at the following list:

Component Choice Low price (€)
Case Nanoxia Deep Silence 2 (also av. in dark gray and white)

93.00

Case Cooler Packaged with the case (2x)
Mother board ASRock Fatal1ty H87 Performance

91.45

Processor Intel Core i5 4670 Boxed (Haswell)

192.00

Processor Cooler Packaged with the processor
RAM memory Crucial Ballistix Tactical BLT2C4G3D1608ET3LX0CEU

72.50

Power supply Seasonic M12II 520W

56.00

Graphics Card Internal Graphics Processor
Hard disk Seagate Barracuda 7200.14 ST1000DM003, 1TB

53.50

DVD reader / writer Re-use
Wi-Fi Re-use
Bluetooth None
Keyboard Re-use
Mouse Re-use
Display(s) Re-use
Speakers Re-use
power strip (surge protected) Re-use
Windows Re-use
Hard disk for backup Re-use
Total

558.45

Prices tend to fluctuate, so the Total is an approximation. And yes, I admit this Total is a bit higher than the original intention :-).

Kids can optionally add various components such as a (single) powerful graphics card, multiple (two, three) 16:9 displays, advanced audio equipment, up to 32 GB of RAM memory, up to six hard disks (of any size), in a RAID configuration that supports performance or fidelity, or both, Bluetooth, an additional four cooling fans, etc. etc.

The proposed system is not suited for long-lasting extremely high performance, or for use with multiple graphics cards.

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It is not easy to admit, but a few years I made a bad buy – not a bargain; bought a NAS
(Network Accessible Storage) for over a thousand Euros, of an at the time well
respected brand (no, not anymore), and the device never operated properly. It
had a hibernation mechanism, which came in handy considering the noise level,
but frequently crashed the device during wake up, after which the system
executed an extensive disk check. The NAS had 2 Terabytes of disk space and the
disk check took over 12 hours, during which the system was not accessible. Also
storing large files or reading back file – large or small – frequently made the
system crash.

Many, many hours did I spend searching the internet for a solution. Without actual success. At some point I did find a review of the model on Amazon, from a buyer with
comparable experiences. And that was it for me. The NAS was going to be
demolished and destroyed! Well, the useful parts (4  Hitachi hard disks of 500Gb each) were to be reused, of course.

And so I did. The old NAS’ hard disks in their rack, and the fan of the power supply have
been reused, the other parts garbaged. An old Fujitsu Siemens Scaleo 600 is the
basis of the new NAS. In order to avoid needing an extra hard disk to carry the
operating system, I bought a  2nd hand Promise SX6000 SuperTrak RAID Controller (€ 45,- delivered at home). The OS is Windows XP Professional SP3. Management of the new NAS is via an Ethernet cable, other data transport is via WLan. The graphics card has been removed after construction and test (reduces power consumption, and in particular heat
dissipation). Management is via a Remote Desktop.

Below you’ll find some annotated pictures of it all.

Remainders of the old NAS

Picture 1. Remainders of the old NAS. The spaghetti on the foreground comes from the old power supply.

The New NAS

Picture 2. The new NAS based on a Fujitsu Siemens Scaleo  600. The DVD devices and floppy drive are not operational. They’re just there  to draw up a clean façade.

Rear view of the new NAS

Picture 3. Rear view. The 4 leds are the RAID  Controller’s. If the NAS is on, they do an nice imitation of Night Rider’s KIT.  The little white panel with cylindrical knob is the fan (noise, heat)  controller. The antenna is for Wi-Fi. The NAS has three fans and is
surprisingly quiet.

Interior of the new NAS

Picture 4. Interior. At the upper left is the power  supply. Below that the CPU fan (and CPU and cooler). The prominent horizontal  green slate is the RAID Controller. The gray block at the lower right is the  rack holding four hard disks, thoroughly screwed to the bottom of the case. Behind  the hard disk rack the extra fan, from the old NAS is just visible. DVD devices  and floppy drive are clearly not connected.

Firmware update of the Raid controller

A problem  to be solved when building the NAS was to furnish the RAID controller with the  latest firmware. Usually that is being done using a floppy drive, but that was
not possible in this case; see picture 4, the light blue floppy connector is
blocked by the RAID controller. The solution was to create and use a bootable
USB memory stick. But how do you make you USB stick bootable (DOS)? There are
many articles on the internet about this subject.  Most are useless. For me, this article from Microsoft (in Dutch) worked. The formatting  utility the article refers to has been replaced by HPUSBFW.exe that can be  found on the HP support site (try this link).

After  updating the firmware, the BIOS’ of the pc and the RAID controller were
compatible enough to have the RAID controller build a fast and safe RAID 1+0
configuration on the hard disks.

Installing Windows XP from  USB stick, including slipstreamed RAID controller driver

The next  problem was how to install Windows XP on the RAID configuration. Since we
cannot use a DVD device, a USB memory stick I the next alternative. However,
according to Microsoft, it is not possible to install Windows from USB memory /
drive. An additional challenge is that also the Promise RAID Controller driver
needs to be installed during the Windows install.

The  solution was found in the very adequate article (in English) by Roderick van
Domburg: “Installing Windows XP from USB”. The article presents clear steps. You need the BartPE environment and the RAM disk found in Windows Server 2003’s SP1. In order to ‘slipstream’ the RAID Controler driver into the installation package, one uses
the nLite tool.

BartPE is a  pre-configured Windows environment that you use to execute an nLite augmented  Windows XP install, following the directions by Roderick
van Domburg. A walk in the park, really.

Performance  of the new NAS

See the  graph below. The system reaches a transfer rate of almost 70Mb/s. Compared to
my new workstation (yes, also homemade 🙂 ), doing almost 300 Mb/s, that is
not much. But 70 Mb/s is also not that slow, so I settled for it.

Performance of the new NAS

Graph 1.  Transfer  speeds of the RAID Controller (RAID 10 on 4 hard disks).

Notice  however the flatness of the curve. Graphs of systems without extensive caching
(the Promise controller has a 128Mb cache) show a graceful (but continuous)
decay of performance as the heads need to make larger movements.

Bloopers

So, doesn’t  one ever get into trouble, when working with all these sensitive hardware
components? Oh, certainly you get into trouble.

CPU pins

If you  inspect picture 4, you may notice the completely clean interior of an over 10
year old pc. This is the result of an extensive cleaning operation. While
cleaning, I removed the CPU fan and cooler. It then turned out that the CPU was
stuck on the cooler (by the heat gel). At first I didn’t notice, and
consequently bent a whole lot of CPU pins when reinstalling the ‘cooler’ (No
sorry, no pictures available). For hours, sweating abundantly from distress,
I’ve been prying very carefully straight paths through the pins’ bases using a
magnifier (and reading glasses) and a potatoe peeling knife. At one moment the
CPU fitted its tray again, and as it turned out, everything still worked. Pfew!

Statics

Proudly I  showed my newly acquired Promise RAID Controller PCI card to my 11 year old daughter,  who seems to develop an interest in technology. She reached out and pointed at
some extending parts. A train of sparks jumped from her hand over to the Raid
Controller card. Actually, I thought it was lost, but surprisingly, it still
worked as well as before. Pfew!