Building a PC, 2002

Part I: Assembling the Materials

Cooler Master ATC-101 all-aluminum computer caseMarch 24, 2002: It was just April of last year that we rolled out a new machine and a new major article for savvy Summitlake.com readers: Building Your Own PC. It was not the first such project for us, but it was the most ambitious. Starting with a high-end “barebones” box (now discontinued) and motherboard combo from PC Power and Cooling , we added a 1GHz Pentium III CPU, our hard drives and PCI cards, DIMMS, and the various goodies that go into a loaded system.

But you knew that, sooner or later, we’d again catch upgrade fever!

Chip speeds double every year (Moore’s Law), and then too, pricing on the newest lines of CPU vary exponentially with speed. When shopping for motherboards, we aim for a new model that hopefully will still be current enough to support a faster CPU in a year or two. When shopping for the CPU, though, we try to stay about in the middle of the exponential price curve. A new Intel Pentium P4 2.2GHz is retailing now as high as $699. A year from now it will be less than half that price.

Before we go any further, the usual disclaimer: this is not a how-to page. If you’re thinking of doing something like this yourself, it’s not hard, but do your homework on the web first. Check out both retail and OEM sites for info, instructions, specs and prices on CPU’s, motherboards, cooling devices and other devices you can’t bring with you from your old system. We enthusiastically recommend Tom’s Hardware. You could easily do much worse on your very own than by just faithfully picking and building a system that has already been built at Tom’s.

If for whatever reason you’re not able or willing to do that kind of research, you might be much better off just buying a new retail box. All the thinking has been done for you, which is not a bad thing when you have plenty of money and very little time. In that case, you should at least not have to hold your breath when you turn on the power switch for the first time.

It is true that you can save money by rolling your own. Putting in just a new CPU or a new motherboard and CPU into a favorite existing system is usually much cheaper than buying even a barebones retail box. If you are buying all-new (case, hard drives, CD and CD burner and the works), you will probably come out above a barebones retail box in price, but well below a high-end system from a major manufacturer.

The real incentive is to gain control and customization over every component in the box.

Choosing a CPU

To get from the “old speed” (1Ghz) to a meaningful speed increase, the experts use a 1.5 multiplier as a rule of thumb. I was looking, then, at something in the 1.5GHx range or faster. Which is better, Intel or AMD? Don’t ask questions like that unless you want to start an argument. Early Pentium IV’s were out before I bought my 1GHz Pentium III, and word on the street was that they were pricey underperformers. This year, Intel has come out with a newer P4 architecture and manufacturing process using “0.13 micron” technology. Smaller transistors and higher density means faster speeds and lower power consumption. The new P4 is reportedly very good, and it’s priced accordingly.

Let’s look at how that translates to price. One local vendor (who is slightly high) prices out their Intel Pentium IV Xeon line this way:

Speed 1.4 1.5 1.7 1.8 2.0 2.2
Price 239.95 250.95 309.95 309.95 489.95 699.95

Table 1. CPU speed vs. cost. Pricing on all CPU’s includes 3 year warranty and retail box (manufacturer’s CPU cooler included)So you can see the “middle of the curve” is around 1.7-1.8GHz. We may spend serious money on hardware that’s going to last, but not an extra $390 for 400 more Mhz when it’s going to be state of the art for about three months.

AMD Athlon XP 1800+Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) has been making barn-buster processors for years. For various reasons (including timidity) we always stuck with Intel. This year, we decided to try AMD.

The new AMD line of XP processors feature an accelerated architecture for certain kinds of instruction sets, and support for double data rate (DDR) memory to speed processor throughput (for details, see Tom’s Hardware or the AMD site). The new line still uses the 0.17 micron architecture (Intel spent billions converting to 0.13) so the chips are a little larger and run a little hotter. AMD has long been the favorite of the “overclocker” crowd (turbocharging, for processor chips), and I knew that 1.4’s had been cranked up to over 2Ghz. We’ll have more to say about overclocking later!

To understand AMD and processor benchmarking, you need to know that AMD chips are sold with two speed measurements: raw cycles per second (same as Intel), and the objective “benchmark” speed compared to the accepted default Intel standard. Like RISC for Motorola processors (Macintosh), processor speed isn’t the whole story. All rating organizations on all platforms use standardized benchmark programs to measure how much useful work a machine will do in a unit of time. That’s why, last year, a 600MHz Apple beat out a 1GHz Pentium box on standard tests like PhotoShop rendering time or MS Office tasks!

The AMD Athlon XP 1800+ runs at 1.533 GHz, but benchmarks about the same as a 1.8 GHz P4. Obeying the price curve rule, I was looking at an 1800+ or 1900+ CPU candidate, which weigh in in the $224-$275 range (comparably equipped).

Choosing a Motherboard

Soyo SY-K7V Dragon PlusLast year’s choice, the Tyan Trinity 400, was made for me. It was bundled with the PC Power & Cooling barebones starter box. This year, the choice was tough. We spent many evenings at Tom’s Hardware, taking notes and printing out OEM specs. The new lineup for both Intel and AMD processors are impressive, full-featured, and most offer tempting goodies like more advanced BIOS, built-in overclocking support, and built-in extras like ethernet and “better” quality sound and audio support.

You won’t get far until you decide which chip family you want. The new VIA 266A chipset supports a 266 MHz front side bus. The older 100 and 133 FSB’s were a real bottleneck for the new fast chips: the village blacksmith could now hammer out an awesome 266 iron horseshoes an hour, but the same apprentice helper could only pull 133 hot ones out of the forge in the same time frame.

We looked at specs and tests for ABit, ASUS, Epox, Iwill, Soltek and Soyo. Gosh, it would seem this year it’s hard to buy a “bad” board. ASUS had a surprise quirk on one model that forced you to reinstall the OS on a motherboard upgrade. I just did that in migrating to Windows XP, and I sure didn’t want to do that again.

In the end, opportunity and economics made the decision for me. Fry’s Outpost.com had a combo sale: top-rated Soyo SY-K7V Dragon Plus motherboard, bundled with the AMD Athlon XP 1800+ (retail kit) for $299.99. Sold!

Cooling, Clocking and Noise

Swiftech MCX462 Heat SinkIndecision! We thought it would be fun to experiment with modest overclocking on our new 1800+ and Soyo motherboard. Overclocking means tweaking the voltages and speed multipliers to crank out more speed, somewhere short of the point where the chip overheats, or the motherboard complains with a blue screen or abrupt reset. The higher speed means more heat. “Extreme overclockers” go to bizarre lengths to keep their overheated chips from frying in an instant. While the CPU “retail box” comes with an OEM cooler (vent fins and a fan), this is only good for CPU’s running at their rated speeds.

To combat this, the obvious solution is bigger fans and more cooling fins on the “CPU Cooler”. A variety of oversize cooling packages are available. There are also thermoelectric solutions, basically an electronic refrigerator on a chip, which can consume up to 400 watts of power to suck away the extra heat. Last but not least, there are water-cooled solutions available from Swiftech!

We decided on the simplest, brute-force approach, which is a bigger cooler fan with more fins. Even though the AMD chip comes with a toy-sized fan and cooler, we ordered the already legendary new Swiftech MCX462 Heat Sink.

It was more that we’d bargained for, but not for the reason you’d think.

The MCX462 will fit in our case. It’s really heavy (the whole assembly’s about 25 ounces). Believe it or not, Swiftech supplies a well designed solution for mounting this monster to the motherboard, while maintaining solid heat conductive contact with the face of the CPU chip core itself — all without snapping the motherboard. This baby dwarfs the chip like a Pratt & Whitney turbocharger mounted onto a go-kart engine.

But I’m a noise freak, having nearly developed ringing of the ears (tintinnitus) with an old Mac clone that had three SCSI hard drives and big blower fans howling in the background, day and night.

Most of a machine’s noise is in the cooling fans and hard drives. One or two big, high-rpm drives (7200 or 10,000) are better than a bunch of slower, older, noisier drives. The power supply cooling fan is usually the noisiest device. Often there are also auxiliary cooling fans to vent the computer case, and all the teeny little fans that cool the AGP and PCI boards. Noise sources are additive. My existing 1GHz machine is at the high end of my tolerance threshold, probably around 50 dB(A) total. But at least I don’t have to raise my voice to converse.

Having already purchased the Swiftech MCX-462, I researched noise levels. The 80mm ball-bearing fan moves 68.5 cubic feet of air per minute. It generates an awesome 48.5 dB(A) sound level all by itself. Swiftech sells a little rheostat for $9.95 to slow down the fan, for a 9 dB(A) noise reduction.

This is still a fan for hard-of-hearing overclockers who want to implode the apartment roof when they turn on their overclocked machines. This is the “Cape Canaveral” of CPU coolers.

To the left is a photoshoot from the Overclockers’ Convention in Florida.

A reviewer at Mikhailtech had this to say:

The EHE is more powerful, pushes about 80.6 CFM while spinning at 5900RPM. I really don’t know the noise level for this one but it’s freaking loud, trust me, the loudest fan I’ve ever heard. Not even the rheostat set on lowest could calm this fan down. …But I think I managed to prove that MCX462 is the greatest cooler you can find or didn’t I? It is up to you to decide, I am more than happy with it and I even found a way to turn it into a very quiet piece of hardware (no, I didn’t remove it from my computer); I replaced the Delta fan with a regular 80x80x25 mm case fan which is very quiet. But the performance still rocks: with the stock 1.2GHz TBird I don’t get temps above 40C even at full load and room temp at 25+ C. How about that?

I had already ordered a new case from Outpost.com, and a silent power supply from PC Power and Cooling. I turned around and ordered an 80mm “Silencer” fan from PC Power & Cooling (20 dbA) for this project.

AMD and Swiftech coolers side by side
To the right is a picture comparing the AMD retail box CPU cooler (left) with the massive MCX462 (right) before any modifications.

Would the AMD cooler have been enough? If used at the factory-set and recommended 1.533 GHz, yes.

For any kind of overclocking, even modest, heat buildup is a funny thing. Running a CPU at 100% for even a short time can shoot temperatures through the roof if there isn’t enough reserve in the heat sink and cooling system. An overcrowded, poorly ventilated case on a hot day can make even a chip that is running at factory settings behave poorly, or, under extreme duress, burn up. Since there is usually very little free air space left in a case that has been in my possession for any time, good air circulation and proper attention to component cooling is probably a good idea to prevent runaway heat buildup.

Finding the right mix may require a little experimentation. It is plain I’ve used up the experimentation budget for 2002, isn’t it?

Cooling power is generally proportional to the current drawn by the fan motor. Table 2 shows this. Coolers in the picture above use the AMD retail fan (left *) and the Delta model FFB0812SHE fan supplied with the MCX-462 (right **).

Model speed amps @12VDC fan air noise level
** Delta SHE 80mm 4900 rpm 0.87 A 68.5 cfm 48.5 dB(A)
Delta EHE 80mm 5900 rpm 0.90 A 80.16 cfm 52.5 dB(A) extreme
* AMD retail n/a 0.21 A n/a n/a

Table 2. Detailed specs on fan models. Given the amperage rating on the PC Power and Cooling “Silencer” model (green band), it appears that the low rpm and 20 db(A) noise level is achieved by some kind of built-in current regulator, probably a rheostat. This fan carried a rave endorsement from an audiophile magazine for its low noise factor. Go figure. Audiophiles are another nice bunch of folks who generally will feel right at home at a Canaveral launch. “Golly, listen to that REALISM!”

Computer Case

This wasn’t supposed to be part of the plan. We admit to wanting a new case, but there seems to be no middle price ground between the el cheapos stacked on the floor at Fry’s, and the high-end server cases that start at $200 and rapidly skyrocket to $400 and over. We actually priced out cases for about a dozen different manufacturers. There are your sculpted Darth Vader cases, and your Apple lookalike see-though clear plastic cases, and your $479 solid steel chrome and black 12-bay 48-lb server cases on casters.

In an apartment we had a space requirement; the unit could not be more than ’19” high yet had to have (4) exposed 5.25″ drive bays, so we could install BayCoolers or front-load CDR and DVD. In Phoenix we have a great full-size tower, but it is 24″ high, which is why it is in Phoenix. To trade up from a 17″ with one less 5.25 bay seemed the height of lunacy. Still, we priced a particularly nice unit by Cooler Master at $279.00 and decided to pass.

The CPU and motherboard combo and the MCX-462 cooler arrived from Outpost.com. We checked out the instructions and targeted Saturday as install day. That means doing all the backups, and we did them — just in case.

Saturday morning (yesterday) we pulled out the 17″ case and inventoried all the bays one last time. We need our choice of a 3.5 or 5.25 inch exposed bay for the motherboard, which comes with a nifty front-slot USB and Smart Card reader combo bay. That would go into the empty 3.5 inch slot below the floppy — Gadzooks, wait a minute, there’s a 20GB hard drive behind that slot.

That’s the trouble with always living with maxed-out equipment (whine, whine). We found the Cooler Master ATC-101 all-aluminum computer case for $249 at, you guessed it, Fry’s Outpost.com. So, we did the mature thing and ordered the bigger box, even though this completely blows the project budget out the window. Until it arrives, you can see its picture at the top of the page.

The Damages: Total Cost

So, what started out as a motherboard-CPU upgrade rapidly escalated into a full-blown new machine. Oh yes, we’ll take the HD’s and PCI’s and graphic card. Before this very moment we have not added up all the costs.

Source Description Price (before tax, shipping)
Outpost.com Soyo SY-K7V Dragon + AMD Socket-A ATZ motherboard 131.81
AMD Athlon XP 1800+ socket A boxed processor 167.19
Swiftech MCX-462 CPU Cooler for socket A/P4 59.95
Outpost.com Cyber Cooler HC-160 Hard Drive Cooler (2) @7.95 15.90
CoolerMaster ATC-101-SX4 Aluminum Mid ATX case 249.00
PC Power & Cooling (2) Silencer 80mm aux. fan @9.00 18.00
S40ATX Silencer 400W ATX Power Supply 169.15
Brass thumbscrews 2.00
  TOTAL 813.00

We crowed earlier in this article that just buying a whole new computer off the shelf comes with all the decision making done for you. It’s obvious from the list above that we didn’t make all the right decisions the first time, and that’s a second risk (and cost) of rolling your own.

Building your own computer has clear parallels to Pete’s Ace Hardware’s Plumbing Law: it always takes four trips to the hardware store to complete any plumbing project.

We had a perfectly good 300W power supply in last year’s PC Power and Cooling box, but at 300W it is not on the AMD recommended list, the Silencer 400W is (and it will be much quieter). We ended up buying two CPU coolers (one with the AMD retail box), yet obviously overbought on the MCX-462 and had to back off with a quieter fan. The cost of the case was ruinous, and we jolly well better be darned satisfied for years to come.

That’s OK, all of this is valuable experience for the retirement years, when I’ll be posting articles about building economical computers out of cardboard shoe boxes and discarded components that developing nation scrap dealers wouldn’t touch.

Next: Putting It All Together

At this writing (March 25) all we have is the CPU, motherboard and the Cape Canaveral Cooler. I’m reading the well-written Soyo motherboard manual. This board supports RAID. Only a crazy person would reformat the boot drive, put in a second one of the same size, and stripe them together for 80-100 mb/s throughput. So, one of the big questions is: will I do it?

I got interested in the idea reading the Soyo manual, which comes with some elaborate third-party RAID software. Striping allows you to combine two physical disks into one “volume” in such a way that data is read, or written, to the two different drives at once. This roughly doubles transfer speed. Mirroring, as the name implies, gives you 100% real-time redundancy with two physical drives but no speed increase, since each bit of data is written twice, once to each drive. Windows, NT, 2000 and XP support their own versions of RAID. If I do this, I think I’d prefer to let the low-level Windows software do this.

I have a day or two to think about it while all the remaining parts arrive, in which to get cold feet, or go crazy for it.

(continued) – Part 2 covers what happens.

Alex
March 25, 2002

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