I’ve decided to document my system which I built just around X-Mas because I’m really thrilled with how everything worked out. It had been more than 5 years since the last system I built but having previously done this I was not too worried about running into potential problems.
This was by far the hardest part of the process for me. It had been close to a year since I considered building a new system, frankly my biggest problem was the lack of competition from AMD on the quad-core CPU battlefront. I was very interested in making a quadcore system from the moment the Intel quads hit the market and the long delays from AMD simply left me hanging. When the Phenom CPUs finally hit the market it was a bit disappointing – clearly not only were they slower than the equivalent Intel chips but they couldn’t even compete in performance per clock cycle. This is performance/clock is a front AMD had been ahead of Intel for many years and I almost jumped the gun on a new Intel chip.
However, the AMD-fanboy inside me simply couldn’t cope with the consequences of building an Intel computer for myself, and I was also impressed by the 790FX motherboards as they came out. As I don’t do much gaming and AMD had beens so good for me over the years I decided to simply stick with AMD and if the CPU has problems I would eventually upgrade it to a newer model in a year or two.
Amazingly the next biggest challenge came when deciding what case to buy! Has anyone looked at all the PC enclosures available today? First off it is very overwhelming, a few years back the good case manufacturers could be counted on the fingers of one hand, these days there are dozens of manufacturers many specializing in custom built cases which cost hundreds of dollars. Sadly finding a solid case with good airflow and a basic appearance was my goal – I dislike see-through doors and LED fans. This made my search fairly narrow but still took me more than a month of browsing online and reading reviews to finally settle on a case. Even though I wanted a case which only had 120mm fans on it I did settle for 92mm fans in the end.
Another battle for me was the graphics card. I have had all types of cards in my systems over the years. Similarly to the CPU I am a bit fond of ATi cards – unlike the CPUs however I have a very functional reason for going with nVIDIA though – their linux support is far better. The next issue was the newest cards available on the market from nVIDIA were impossible to purchase – actually within a week of the 8800GT hitting the shelves it was sold out and significantly overpriced. I was giving the Radeon 3800 series a good hard look in the meantime – they were available – but more than a month after their public release there was no linux driver support for these cards! In the end the linux driver lagging support from AMD convinced me to buy the first available 8800GTS card which was released to the market almost immediately as they became available for purchase.
So here is a complete list of the hardware components, I bought almost everything from Newegg:
- Antec Titan 650 Case
- Asus M3A32-MVP Deluxe AM2+ AMD 790FX Motherboard with Wifi
- AMD Phenom 9600 Agena
- Gigabyte nVIDIA GeForce 8800 GTS 512 MB G92
- G.Skill 2GB DDR2 1000 SDRAM – four of these babies total of 8GB of RAM!
- Samsung Spinpoint T 500GB 7200 RPM Serial ATA 3.0 GB/s – two drives with the plan to use them in RAID1
Well there were other hardware components of course but these were the big ones. I’ll provide a detailed overview of some of these components below especially the case which was an absolute joy to work with!
Antec Titan 650 Case
I had settled down on the case before I even started seriously considering the choice of CPU for the system and I ordered it about a week or two prior to the rest of the system. Once the case arrived I was immediately sure I had made the right decision, this case had everything I wanted in a computer case.
Above you can see a photo of the new black case after it was unpacked standing next to my old blue workstation. First off the case is huge and easy to work around in, it is meant for servers or workstations and there is nothing compact about it. From the photo you can see the case is actually not as tall as my older case which is also an Antec derrived case. However, the new case is much deeper thus giving you a lot of extra room to properly set up your motherboard and install gigantic graphics cards. This case will fit the longest graphics cards you can find on the market without any problems.
Secondly this case has great ventilation. It only comes with a 120mm fan installed in the back but I opted out to install the optional 92mm fans on the front to make sure it can breathe comfortably. There is also a window on the side door which can be used to fit a 80mm fan to help keep graphics cards cool by blowing cold air directly into them, once again this is something only overclockers may be interested in. I’m not a fan of the side vents at all – however I’ve ended up using this side vent to look inside and see if the motherboard power LED lights up when power is applied.
As you can see the rear of the case is very clean – the major ventilation is provided by the big 120mm fan on the rear. The power supply also has it’s own 120mm fan which is mainly intended for the cooling of the power supply but it does provide some pull of air from the front of the case too. By the way the case does not come with any fans installed outside of these two – frankly they’re not really required especially if you’re going to run some of the newest hardware components and are not planning on doing overclocking. Also keep in mind this case is intended for a server and in generals server systems do not employ overclocking but rather massive RAM quantities and multiple CPUs in order to perform their function.
I did decide to install the two fans which are optional on the front and purchased a couple of Antec TriCool 92 mm fans along with the rest of the hardware. Even with the 92mm fans the case is very quiet, this must be due to the very sturdy construction of the case and the thick steel material (1mm) the monster is built out of! I can’t emphasize enough how well the case parts fit together – side door which you will most commonly have to remove in order to access the insides snaps in perfectly and there’s simply no vibration once it’s installed correctly.
Above you can see the little gate which you install the 92mm fans onto in the front of the case. This is immediately next to the hard drives and any air flow generated by the front fans will directly cool the hard drives you have installed.
The only things I would change about this case are the material of the front cover/door and the fact the case does not come with a speaker. While the speaker really is optional and only helps out when troubleshooting motherboard/CPU hardware installs by outputting series of beeps during the POST and booting sequence I believe they could’ve provided a loose speaker for those who need it without making it part of the case. The front of the case, including the hinged door, are made of plastic which is in fairly sharp contrast to the rest of the thick rolled steel construction. If they make the doorway and front vent out of steel this would be simply the best looking case ever and would add a lot more prestige to the brand. Even with the plastic I still think it’s one of the best cases I’ve ever seen only to be challenged by much more expensive Lian Li and CoolerMaster Stacker cases which cost hundreds of dollars more and DON’T come with a 650 Watt power supply!
Attaching the hard drives is simple. The case came with rails for the hard drives similar to many other newer cases, these rails (shown in the photo above) are well insulated with rubber to minimize hard disk vibrations from spreading to the rest of the case. Also the rails fit perfectly into the hard drive structure of the case and snap resoundingly into place once pushed into the installed position. To install a new hard drive you have to remove the side door and the front cover of the case which becomes unhinged easily when the side door is removed. Once you’re familiar with this workflow it takes less than a minute to open up the case and replace a hard disk and you never have to work inside the case with a screw driver.
A final note for the case: this case supports any and every workstation motherboard. From micro ATX (which would be silly) to the super extended titanic quad CPU workstation motherboards made by Tyan. Please don’t take this to mean you can mount a rack board in here, it’s a workstation case not a refrigerator… If you’re planning on putting a single or dual socket motherboard into this beast you’ll have plenty of room – I imagine the quad socket boards might be just about right but I don’t have one at my disposal to test the theory. Anyways, Antec claims this case fits EATX mobos and I believe them!
Motherboard – Asus M3A32-MVP Deluxe AM2+ AMD 790FX
After reading some of the earliest available reviews about this motherboard I immediately became convinced I wanted it and this sealed the deal for me if I was going to get AMD or Intel. Once I made up my mind on the motherboard I still considered whether to buy an X2 5000+ Black Edition CPU but really convinced myself to spend a bit more money and buy the quad-core chip instead. Here is a photo of the motherboard prior to adding the CPU, RAM and sliding it into the case:
Any time you have to install a CPU into a motherboard I encourage one to wear an anti-ESD (electro-static discharge) wrist strap. Such straps are very cheap and are comfortable to wear. This is very important, at the very least you should try to ground yourself properly by touching a neutrally charged object. Failure to ground yourself properly may result in the destruction of your CPU the moment you touch it! While newer hardware touts improvements in ESD protection these chips feature such small wiring inside that even a couple of volts getting through will wreak havoc on the internal circuitry. The chip might work even after a jolt but might die much sooner or simply be unstable… anyways, consider yourselves warned! I’ve had a few friends who destroyed their CPUs through ESD and went out and bought myself a strap for some peace of mind.
About the motherboard – according to Asus it is one of the highest quality motherboards they’ve put out – particularly the materials used for the capacitors on the board are the main reason why the motherboard is so expensive (+$200)! However, these high quality materials ensure clean voltage which will keep your CPU (and other hardware) alive much longer and they also provide lots of headroom for overclocking for those who are interested.
On the side of the motherboard you can see the pretty boxes my G.SKILL RAM came in on. Not only were the actual modules absolutely beautiful – yes I’m talking about computer hardware here – but even the boxes they came in were slick looking. I especially like the work G.SKILL put into designing the logo and engraving it into the heat-sinks of the modules.
The motherboard also comes with a special memory module cooler which I ended up not using. First off it requires a very small screw driver to actually relocate the component which bolts onto the motherboard’s North Bridge to match different types of memory modules. Secondly, the cooler is set up for two RAM modules but subsequently you can add another two modules and configure it to partially cool each of the four modules. In my case this turned out to simply not work in practice because of how thick my RAM modules were with the heatsinks already installed on them. I ended up abandoning using the extra heat sink but for folks who are into heavy overclocking this might be a huge bonus and according to Asus it helps to cool the modules very effectively.
The motherboard also comes with a Wifi router! I don’t believe in wireless and currently don’t have any wireless connections around the house so I immediately disabled it in the BIOS but this feature alone may sway lots of buyers towards this motherboard.
The CPU and RAM install went without a problem.
The AMD Phenom CPU came bundled with a factory heat-sink and fan. I decided to use these for now and seeing if the chip runs hot before investing in a different type of cooling. Also I have no plans of overclocking this CPU. Subsequently it turned out this cooler is very efficient and my CPU never goes over 50 degrees Celsius under load. You can once again see the beautifully designed RAM modules in the photo above!!! I think they’re sexy! Even more sexy is the kitchen sink pictured here as proof of everything which went into the building of this system – har har!
RAM Warning – Good luck getting it to 1066!!!
I must say here that I don’t know where the problem is. The BIOS on the motherboard is very extensive and provides good guidance here, I spent a few hours trying to get it to work and after concluding I am NOT an idiot by consulting with one of my overclock freak friends I’ve decided there is simply a problem. This might be a problem with the motherboard, or the RAM, or the combination of both… or simply a limitation on the capacity. None of it makes sense to me because the motherboard clearly supports this, so do the RAM modules on their own, I think it’s the total capacity in my case but I really wish I knew exactly where the problem lies.
While at first I thought I had the RAM over-clocked properly through the BIOS after adjusting the voltage to it and booting into Windows went ok… CPU-Z showed otherwise! Linux hardware monitor tools have also hinted at the fact I cannot properly overclock the RAM to work at 1066. I believe this is partly due to the fact I’m running 8 GB of RAM, some people have reported much better results with 2×1 gigabyte configurations. Frankly said I’ve not cared too much about it, I wanted the RAM capacity more than the theoretical benefit of being able to run it at 1066 and thusfar I’m very pleased with the setup – I’ve yet to actually need a swap file!
Graphics Card Install
Before installing the graphics card I slid the motherboard into the case and started connecting all the cables for power, SATA and the case wiring for the front USB, Firewire and power/reset buttons. The motherboard came with this awesome little adapters for this job:
This makes the job of installing the motherboard into any case a breeze and saves you from trying to connect the power/reset button wiring into a crammed case.
As you can see the actual wires belonging to the case were already well labeled in my case but in the past I’ve worked with cases which weren’t so user friendly. Really though, I must commend Asus on including such a nice feature into their motherboard, very impressive!
Here is a photo of the Gigabyte graphics card. There are apparently a couple of different variants of 8800 GTS (g92) cards produced by Gigabyte including one with a Zalman cooler – the one I got was the reference design as provided by nVIDIA which does use two slots once installed because of the thickness of the cooler on the card. While this isn’t a big problem and I only plan on using one card in my system it immediately blocks one of the only two PCI slots available on the motherboard I purchased! Seriously though, I can’t complain, if I didn’t care for the performance I could’ve easily purchased a lower end card which doesn’t use two slots.
Going back to the case – the graphics card shown above is long! While it may have problems fitting into some cases (like the Antec 900) this case swallowed it whole and there was plenty of room to spare.
Obviously with 8GB of RAM I would have to run 64-bit operating systems to make full use of this hardware so I forked out the money for the OEM Windows Vista 64 bit OS while I was buying stuff from Newegg. I had heard many bad testimonials about Vista and was a bit weary but I had plans to use Linux on this computer and I was sure Vista issues would be resolved eventually. The biggest thing I was afraid of is investing the money into XP64 and a year or two down the road there might be something I need Vista for… then what? More money down the drain. Microsoft has chosen not to support DX10 (direct x) on Windows XP for example, there will be other things too which soon won’t work under XP. Really, they have an amazing business model! I’ve been trying to use Linux more and more over the last few years just because of this business model and I’ve almost completely made the switch now.
First came the Windows Vista 64 Bit Ultimate install. After everything was properly connected I pressed the power switch, saw the lights come on and fans spinning and … nothing! A black screen refusing to power on! Quickly checking the cables I immediately confirmed the graphics card was indeed powered with the extra six-pin connector. As a matter of fact this was the loudest damned thing in the entire case as it was blasting at 100% fan speed. My next thought was that I have a dud graphics card as clearly the rest of the system was powering up… well it turned out I had missed a power connection to the motherboard. Besides the main power cable there is a small 4-pin connector which plugs very close to the CPU – as a matter of fact there’s space for another 4-pin cable just like it which is blocked off from use – I’m wondering if this must also be plugged in should I ever consider running quad crossfire graphics cards… anyways! Once the power problem was resolved the system came up, I could get into the BIOS and start playing around.
Booting off the Windows Vista CD was not a problem but it refused to recognize the RAID 1 array I had created in the BIOS. Inserting the CD which came with the motherboard did nothing – there was apparently no driver there for Windows Vista to help recognize the RAID config! Subsequently it turned out a driver can be created by booting up through the Asus CD and following the instructions then storing the file onto a USB key. But before I found this out (who reads motherboard manuals anyways?) I un-RAID-ed the hard disks and unplugged one of them and proceeded to install Vista onto it. This time I had no issues at all and managed to get through the entire install fairly quickly and without any trouble.
Once in Vista I was quickly annoyed with the so called “security” features this OS is famous for. However, I decided to suck it up and not disable anything just yet. The biggest shock came when attempting to install the WHQL nVIDIA drivers though… it turned out they had packaged the 32-bit uninstaller with the 64-bit install and the driver would abort in the middle of attempting to install itself. So much for WHQL… lucky for me the beta driver worked and didn’t have this bug in it. After the graphics driver was installed I could bask in the glory of Windows Vista and the famous Aeroglass! Not that impressive considering what I had already seen in Linux on my old box but still neat. After I managed to install everything I needed on the computer the annoying pop-ups stopped appearing and using the computer became much friendlier. I did have a few BSODs in Vista since installing it – however I believe it is a hardware problem with my setup because the only time they happen is if I leave a USB stick plugged into the front of my case. Outside of this I have not managed to crash Vista and I’m not really sure why so many people are complaining about it.
Wait… let me rephrase this. I am sure why so many people are complaining! It’s a resource hog. Just booting up into Vista x64 was taking up over a Gig of RAM! Of course I have 8GB so no big deal in my case but I can see how someone attempting to run this OS on old hardware will quickly run into problems once they open a few applications.
Next came the Ubuntu x64 install. I was determined to give Ubuntu a shot after reading an interview online with one of the folks from Canonical. I am not sure who the man was and don’t have a link to the interview but he said some things which impressed me very much… stuff about how Linux should be in terms of ease of use. Not only was I in agreement with what this guy said but the attitude impressed me so much I remembered to download and give Ubuntu a shot even though I had been using openSUSE for months and was quite fond of it. Well the Ubuntu install didn’t happen on the AMD Phenom hardware. After inserting the live CD and selecting Install the system froze repeatedly! NOT GOOD! It turned out this has something to do with the gigabit ethernet controller on the motherboard but who searches the internet for problems when an operating system fails to install! Subsequently, as seen above with the RAID driver issue, I ran out of patience and quickly downloaded openSUSE 10.3 x64 for a try. This worked without any issues and for once installing the graphics drivers under Linux was easier than under Windows! Here’s a screenshot:
As I was already quite familiar with openSUSE I really didn’t waste much time configuring this thing to the way I like it to be set up.
Edit: It has now been a few months since the initial install. The last remaining items on the configuration list were resolved. My greatest annoyance came from my inability to properly set up the RAID as I wanted. It turned out the black SATA ports were NOT the Marvel chip ports, after consulting with the motherboard’s hardware manual I finally got the RAID setup working properly. Another item which has changed from my initial setup was that I decided to give Fedora 8 a shot and have now been running it for a little longer than 5 months with no desire to upgrade to 9 or to switch to another distro because everything is working perfectly.