Posts Tagged ‘Core i7-860’

Intel Matrix RAID-10: down for the count

Summary

Intel’s Matrix RAID-10 is cost effective and extremely fast — even with regular old 7200 RPM drives — but it is not a trustworthy solution for a desktop PC. 

Go figure

No sooner did I open my mouth and blog about it, my Intel RAID-10 array died.   In dramatic fashion, two of the four drives suddenly were marked failed, and the lengthy resuscitation attempt ended in death by bluescreen. 

RAID-10 array with two of four drives failing
Not what you want to see from your RAID array

This array, composed of four enterprise-duty Seagate 500GB SATA Barracudas at 7200 RPM, provided almost 1 TB of very fast storage — faster even than a lot of SSDs. 

But it had been quirky from the moment it started life in March 2010, with almost weekly “verification” and “rebuilding” sessions.   Hey, I’m running mirrored RAID for a reason:  I hate losing data.    With the frequent issues it had, I could never completely trust the Intel Matrix RAID array.

I had a sneaking suspicion that sleeping and resuming Windows was a trigger for the Intel RAID issues;  but I can’t prove it. 

Kiddie RAID?

The opinion of “deep IT” on the forums of Tom’s Hardware and AnandTech.com is that the free-on-your-motherboard Intel Matrix RAID (the ICH9R/ICHR10R chipset) was playware.   These guys, some of whom maintain corporate servers for a living, think that folks needing “real” RAID should buy a dedicated card from Adaptec, LSI, 3Ware or Areca, at $300 and up.

For example, see the thread “A RAID that just works – no matter what” on Tom’s Hardware.

Also, having a dedicated chip on the motherboard, Intel Matrix RAID is technically firmware RAID, but actually considered to be a software RAID solution, in essence;  only dedicated controller cards are true hardware RAID. 

The OS RAID built into Windows 7 (Pro, Ultimate) and Windows Server editions runs just about as fast as Intel’s Matrix RAID, but does not support RAID-10 arrays.

RAID FAIL

I had been unwilling to part with $300 to $600 for a dedicated RAID controller – overkill except for application or database servers.

Now, the mortally wounded Intel Matrix/RST RAID-10 array was somehow showing two simultaneous failing drives out of four.   To me, the chances of two hard drives failing at the same time are astronomical, barring a power event.  Because of my poor experience with Intel’s RAID, I’m inclined to put the blame on the Intel implementation.

Intel Matrix RAID-10 array fail

I tried all the tricks in the book:  marking bad drives as “good” and rebuilding; powering down;  checking all connections; resetting the BIOS to stock settings.  I even unplugged the system to let the components “rest”  — basically the equivalent of hardware voodoo.

At the end of the day – literally – the RAID-10 array finally booted, but Windows 7 went all Code Blue on me, booting fine but crashing right after I logged in.   Safe Mode didn’t help, nor did Repairing or Restoring or anything else:

Windows 7 bluescreen

Death by RAID

She’s Dead, Jim

I had had it:  I was done with the Intel RAID array and all the verification and rebuilding… and now, its failure.  I didn’t want to waste any more time fooling with it.

Fortunately, I have put a lot of effort into organizing my documents and data – my “digital IP,” as it were.   Almost all of it resides on my primary fileserver and not on individual computers.  So if there was any bright spot to the RAID array crash, it was that I could decide at any instant to scrap my Windows install.  Which is exactly what I did.

Tip: I always re-map Windows “special folders” to network shares on my fileserver, including My Documents, My Pictures, and My Downloads.  Not only are the network shares multiply backed up and secured, but I see the same My Documents, Pictures, and Downloads on whatever computer I log into.

So I disconnected the four RAID-10 hard drives, fished out a 500 GB spare, and installed a fresh copy of Windows 7 64-bit.  No doubt this was a pain in the rear –  but it’s nothing compared to the good old days, when a hard drive crash for me usually meant losing data.

First, using the single 500 GBdrive, I tried to restore from my Windows 7 backup on the network, which failed – even though the backup had completed successfully AND I had created the recommended recovery boot CD.

Plea to Microsoft:  in 2010, this is unacceptable!  Please make Windows backup and restore completely idiot-proof!

Windows 7 restore from system image: FAIL

My, isn’t the blue background pretty?

Despite these slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, about an hour later, I had a fresh copy of Windows 7 Ultimate installed with my “core” software apps loaded: FireFox and plugins, Picasa, Windows Live Writer, etc.

Out of balance

A balanced system has few bottlenecks due to mismatched components.   Here, with the single 7200 RPM hard drive, I realized exactly how important a fast hard drive is for top-of-the-food-chain processors like the Core i7-860: the system ran noticeably slower

In my last post, “The Experience" of the i7-860, I wrote that apps like FireFox and even Internet Explorer exploded onto the screen.  Now, the experience was more like click… wait… wait…  done.   I could hear the hard drive chattering away.  

Wondering precisely how much performance I had given up, I ran PassMark’s Performance Test on this drive, a Seagate Barracuda SATA 500GB.  What ‘s interesting about these numbers is that the RAID-10 array was composed of the same type of Seagate drive:

  • It scored an overall Disk Mark of about 500, whereas the RAID-10 array scored about 1,110, over twice as fast!  
  • It benchmarked at  76 MB/s sequential read and 55 MB/s sequential write, where the RAID-10 array benchmarked at 154 MB/s read and 144 MB/s write, about twice as fast reading and three times as fast writing! 
  • Its random seek read-write was about 4 MB/s, where the RAID-10 array was 9.5 Mb/s, again over twice as fast.

    RAID-10 Array, 4 x Seagate 7200 RPM: Disk Mark DiskMark: Intel Matrix RAID-10 with 4 x  7200RPM SATA Barracuda 500GB

    Seagate Barracuda 500GB 7200RPM SATA: Disk MarkDiskMark: Seagate 7200RPM SATA Barracuda 500GB

Forging ahead

This wouldn’t do at all:  I loved the responsiveness the fast hard drive array gave Windows.  It just didn’t seem to make sense, pairing one of the fastest desktop CPUs in the world with a single hard drive whose platter-spinning technology – and speed – had remained largely unchanged for at least ten years.  

The only thing that would get me close to those speeds was an SSD.  As a consultant, all that time spent trying to recover the RAID-10 array was costing me real money.

Kingston SSDNow V Series 128 GB SSD So despite the huge premium, I  bought the highly ratedKingston SSDNow V Series 128 GB SSD for use as a boot drive ($250 from NewEgg.com). 

Conclusion

The RAID-10 array was wonderfully fast and far less expensive per GB than an SSD.

But I had so many issues with it, even with “enterprise-duty” drives that are designed for server and RAID use, that I can’t really recommend Intel Matrix RAID (now Intel Rapid Storage) for this kind of array.

I am hoping the SSD will be the best of both worlds – speed and robustness.  With my new SSD on the way,  I’m excited.  Hopefully I will at least be thanking the Intel RAID team for ushering in a new era of performance storage in my life. 

Next Up: Experience and benchmarks running the Core i7-860 off an SSD.

***

More reading

  • Kingston SSDNow V Series SNV425-S2BD/128GB 2.5" Desktop Bundle 128GB SATA II Internal Solid State Drive (SSD)   On Kingston.com – On NewEgg.com 
  • A RAID that just works – no matter what” (Tom’s Hardware forum thread)
    Overwhelming consensus is that hardware RAID is the way to go for serious users.
  • ICH10R – RAID failure” (Tom’s Hardware)
    Another from-the-trenches view of the real world
  • RAID-5 vs. RAID-10 (Art S. Kagel)
    An interesting, well-informed dissection of why RAID-5 should never be trusted with your data.
  • Intel Rapid Storage Technology Wikipedia
    Intel Rapid Storage Technology (early Intel Matrix RAID) is a firmware RAID system, rather than hardware RAID or software RAID.

New Core i7 PC: The Experience

 image82image202image162image282image68image242

First Impressions

Where we last left off, I had tightened the last Phillips-head screw on the last hard drive, double-checked all the power connectors, and sat back for a moment of reflection after five hours of PC assembly. 

The moment of truth had arrived:  I pressed the power button. 

The fans jumped and spun, the motherboard flashed green and amber lights, and the hard drives ticked and began their soft whining climb up to a cruising speed of 7200 RPM.   The whole system settled into a muted whirr — not too loud, I thought, even with the case still open. 

Now – on to the operating system.

Software installation: like butter

Windows 7 Ultimate 64-bittook only about five minutes from beginning to end for a complete install from DVD.  It turns out that on this new PC, everything installs with whiplash.  The entire Microsoft Office 2007 Professional suite took only about five minutes as well.    Kudos to Microsoft for their single-click OS install.  I like it.

If you recall, Windows XP required an inordinate amount of babysitting, popping up every few minutes to ask a silly question.  Yes, why couldn’t they ask *after* the install??

For a while, I ran around, downloading and chucking installations of must-have software into the maw of this beast:  FireFox, Picasa (image management), Avast!(antivirus), 7-Zip, Windows Live Writer (blogging), and so on.   It felt a little like I was tossing branches into a tree shredder.  Everything happened at breakneck speed – and no matter what I was doing, I could run off to do something else in another window, with no slowdown. 

We love multiple independent cores. 

Fast, redundant storage

In addition to the fabulous quad-core i7-860, I set this system up with a fast rear end: a RAID-10 “mirror of stripes” hard drive array.   The P7P55D-E motherboard has onboard Intel Matrix RAID, so I used the BIOS to set up a RAID-10  array of 4 x 500GB enterprise-class Seagate Barracuda SATA drives (“NS” class), for a total of near a terabyte of redundant, striped storage.  

This setup achieved a PassMark Disk Mark score of 1060 with a sequential read of 150 MB/s and sequential write of 133 MB/s.   I was pleasantly surprised it ranked within the Top 20 of “High End Hard Drives” (as of July 2010), besting a passel of SSD offerings from Crucial, Kingston, OCZ, and Intel.  

Fullscreen capture 762010 120658 PM

 

Fullscreen capture 762010 120602 PM

So I ended up with fast, reliable storage that beats almost anything out there in the consumer/desktop space, including a lot of SSD’s – with 7200 RPM SATA drives!  SSD’s are around 3x to 5x the cost for the same storage, anyway.

Editorial opinion: At the time of this writing, SSD’s are still too expensive for general use at around US$2.50/GB, as compared to the cost of conventional spinning hard drives at around $0.75/GB.   That’s a premium of three times the cost.  But there’s no doubt that SSD’s will eventually replace today’s hard drives.  Now, they’re most effective as OS boot drives.   Related:  “Personal computers pre-configured with SSD drives?” on Philip Greenspun’s weblog.

Warning: RAID-10 arrays are not for the faint of technical heart.  They can be temperamental beasts, requiring rebuilding and “revalidation”  much more often than I would like.  The effect of this is more psychological than anything else:  I have never lost data with this array, but I can’t say it’s been completely maintenance-free.   There’s no real reason why they need to be so fidgety – it seems like the issues are mostly software ones:  I’m less than impressed with Intel’s Matrix Storage Manager, now rebranded as Intel’s Rapid Storage Technology (RST).   It’s so hard to see or understand what’s really going on with the array: what behavior the hard drives are exhibiting, or what even things like “verification” and “ media errors” are.  Intel guys, please read Donald Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things!  

Eight cores of goodness

If there was one thing which viscerally brought home the raw power of this new computer at my beck and call, it was this image from the Task Manager showing a full eight cores available to Windows:

Task Manager showing eight cores
Cores, glorious cores!

We really only have four physical cores — hence the “quad-core” processor designation — but eight cores appear to the only through the magic of hyperthreading.  It’s is kind of like cheating — but sometimes it’s not.    

Hyperthreading is a technique whereby the processor design can take advantage of wait states in multithreaded applications to make a single physical core perform almost as well as two cores. 

Let there be light

Beyond the installs, everything opens almost instantly.  Frequently used apps like FireFox 3.6, Outlook 2007, Microsoft Word 2007, and Picasa seem to leap onto the screen when called.  Even Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, which is so painfully slow I switched a few years ago to FireFox (love it), opens its fat self within two seconds.

Ironically, one of the slowest applications to load is the one I’m writing this post in:  Windows Live Writer (Build 14.0.8117.416).   It seems to take forever to load, sometimes up to 20 seconds, even when I haven’t even told it to open a blog post!  I’m convinced that this is a classic data access strategy problem:  it’s hitting the web (my blog) on startup, even though (a) I didn’t ask it to open anything and (b) the designers should have cached all blog info locally, and quietly checked or re-loaded it on a background thread.   Windows Live Writer team: you officially have my permission to use any of the other seven threads that are available on my i7-860.  (Love your software, it’s the best.)  

With 4 GB of RAM, easily expandable to 8 GB, I no longer had to keep mental tabs on how many apps I had open: it didn’t matter.  I could have eight FireFox sessions with thirty tabs open (total); Microsoft Word, Picasa, Outlook, Windows Live Writer, TweetDeck, Windows Media Player; all open at the same time.  It didn’t matter. The box handled it easily.  

Overclocking

One of the reasons I chose a custom build vs. an off-the-shelf buy was to play with overclocking.  And, being a red-blooded American male, I just wanted to see how fast it could run.  Fortunately, Asus includes a handy, idiot-proof overclocking utility made just for folks like me, called Turbo EVO.  

Turbo EVO offers several ways to effortlessly overclock your system: CPU Level Up, which lets you choose from several levels, from “Fast” to “Crazy,” and TurboV AutoTuning, which through a series of reboots will tune your system to the maximum safe speed possible.  

The fastest I got my system to without really trying too hard (I selected the Extreme Tuning mode) was 3.66 GHz.   This put my system in the top ten fastest high-end CPUs in the world, according to the PassMark website.  

Fullscreen capture 772010 41723 PMUnfortunately, I did not install a CPU cooler the first time around (recommended).  When I downloaded and ran the Prime95 CPU torture test, the Asus TProbe utility complained as the CPU temperature rose from around 40 C to 70C, then 75C, then… I stopped it at 80 C.  Surely I should check before I subject the 45nm silicon to temperatures above the boiling point.  (Answer:  keep it at around 70 C or less.)

Tip: choose and install a CPU cooler with your build.  Most coolers require the motherboard to be out of the chassis for installation.

Since the box ran so fast anyways, I had no problem dialing back to stock speeds until I had a heat management solution in place.  After some research, I chose the very popular and effective Cooler Master Hyper212; unfortunately, I had to tear the system down to the motherboard to install it. 

Energy consumption profile

At stock settings of 2.8 GHz (i.e. not overclocked), this Core i7-860 build drew around 110 watts at idle, proving to me that reusing my Antec 430W True Power supply was an appropriate choice.  

Overclocked to 3.36 GHz via CPU Level Up, “Crazy” setting – my current everyday setting — the system draws about 150W during normal operation, and peaks at about 290W during a Prime95 run. 

Considering that’s about the amount of energy used to power a light bulb or two, I thought this was a pretty good use of watts.  In addition, my other two Dell servers draw about 100-110W each, and they run ten times slower.   

Energy efficiency was one of the reasons I decided to invest in the latest chip technology;   see Evaluating PC computing hardware.

Conclusion

Easy build, great system, love it. 

New Core i7 PC: Selecting the Components

[tweetmeme source="KeithBluestone"]This article is part of a series in 2010 on custom-building a high-performance computer with the latest Intel Core i7 processors:

  1. Build or buy a new Core i7 supercomputer?
  2. Choosing a New CPU: Intel Core i7-920/930 vs. i7-860/870
  3. New Core i7 PC: Selecting the Components
  4. New Core i7 PC: The Build

Summary

After deciding to build my new computer instead of buy it (see “Build or buy a new Core i7 supercomputer?”), the next task was to figure out which components to buy.  Armed with a thorough review of the choices and some spare PC parts, I ordered a balanced mix of new components that, for only $600, should make me the owner of one of the faster PCs on the planet.

Before you race off to build your custom PC, peek into the future to see some of the lessons I learned on my build; hopefully it will save you some time.

The Winners

I already had a spare tower case, a lightly used and excellently rated Antec 430W True Power supply, and some enterprise-class SATA hard drives.   That left me in need of a motherboard, a processor, some memory, and a graphics card.

Here were the components I picked (and bought) as a fantastic performer that should last for at least five years (prices include tax and shipping):

  Component Cost
image Core i7-860 Processor
Powerful quad-core CPU
$250
image ASUS P7P55D-E ATX Motherboard
Solid performer future-proofed with USB 3.0 and SATA 6 Gbps
$140
image G.SKILL Ripjaws Series 4GB DDR3 1600 RAM
Fast, reliable memory
$115
image XFX Radeon HD 4650 Video Card
Enough to get the job done well for me
$60
image LITE-ON Black 24X DVD RW Player
With the old one a little finicky – why not?
$30
  Total: $595

Backstory

I’ll admit it: I spent a whole lot more time researching the system components than I ever thought I would.  I read hundreds of peoples’ comments on NewEgg and Amazon;  browsed a score of product reviews;  and sifted through countless conversations on top tech forums.

I included rating, cost, power, noise, reliability, efficiency, and good ol’ ease of use when looking at components.

=> It’s definitely a whole lot easier to go buy a Dell – particularly a top desktop like the XPS, and especially their PowerEdge servers.   You’ll pay for the convenience, naturally; but you’ll get a high-performance system instantly.  For me, taking the time to learn about the latest in computer technologies and hand-select a top-performing system was a lot of fun.

=> As a software architect by profession, it’s important to understand the details of computer architecture: how the components operate, communicate, and coordinate their jobs within the computer.   As a tech guy, I’m frequently asked for advice by friends and family on what systems or components to buy, so it’s nice to be informed and able to share well-reasoned advice.

Needs

If you’re trying to make sense out of this post (and a million other out there), it will surely help you to understand what I am looking for in this system.

  • I don’t need an “extreme” gaming-style rig, which would spike the price, suck more power, and almost certainly make more noise.   No super-overclocking motherboards, gotta-be-faster-than-you RAM, or frag-you-more dual Crossfire video card configurations.
  • I wanted a quiet, powerful, flexible system, just short of extreme: it would do everything well and last for about five years at least.

I wanted to be mindful of a computer’s primary performance bottlenecks, attacking them in a balanced fashion.  I would no more want to pair a world-class processor with slow memory than I would want a fancy graphics card when I really need a faster hard drive.

Without further ado, the components and their runners-up…

imageThe processor: Intel Core i7-860

The Core i7-860 is an all-around top performer that bests its close competitor the i7-920 in most benchmarks and uses less energy.  For a summary of the differences and why I chose the i7-860, read this article.

    Pros Cons
This is the one I chose Core i7-860, $250 Well-loved everywhere, bests i7-920 in most benchmarks, uses less energy Costs a little more initially than i7-920
  Core i7-920, $220
Core i7-930, $250
Excellent processor, almost statistically identical to the i7-860 Uses more energy, fewer & more expensive motherboards, requires RAM in banks of three
  Core i5-750, $180 Very close to i7-920 and i7-860, while less expensive. A great option if you’re cutting costs. No hyperthreading, so appears to OS as four cores instead of eight

image The motherboard: ASUS P7P55D-E

The ASUS P7P55D-E motherboard is a midrange, classic choice from a top manufacturer.  While the “midrange” designation stung for a while – who wants to be midrange? — it’s midrange only in that it lacks extra bells and whistles (dual Crossfire/SLI, dual network cards, 10-channel sound) that most of us don’t need; and it doesn’t cost as much.

This “E” series motherboard from ASUS has everything I need, plus adding a bit of future-proofing by supporting the next round of USB and SATA standards: USB 3.0 and SATA 3.0.

=> I didn’t have any problem paying for features I needed;  but I’d rather buy features that would really contribute to the overall performance of the computer.  Think fast GPU or solid-state drive (SSD).

Selecting the motherboard was the most difficult task after selecting the processor itself.  There are a myriad of options to sort through, including support for RAM, number and type of PCI card slots, max number of hard drives supported, and various permutations of audio, network, and USB/FireWire support.

My primary sources were the reviews on NewEgg.com, supplemented by expert reviews on top technical sites like AnandTech.com , TomsHardware.com , and a few others.   I looked through the NewEgg reviews and discounted boards that had too many DOA comments (board died), compatibility issues, or just too many negative ratings.

=> When it comes to user product reviews, there’s always a sprinkling of haters who are apparently never satisfied with anything.   I keep this in mind when reading product reviews.   Some people are determined not to be happy…

In the LGA 1156 arena (the socket type mandated by my choice of the Core i7-860 processor), there are a lot of choices.   Reviewing the many options, I decided that what I didn’t want was:

  • I won’t need dual GPU’s (graphics cards) running at full speed.  A major feature divide in the motherboard set is whether it supports dual Crossfire or SLI, meaning you can have two GPUs installed and running at full tilt.   Most GPUs today support dual monitors, which is fine for me.
  • I won’t need maximum overclockability.  I do definitely want to be able to play around with overclocking.  It seems like it would be fun to tweak system settings.   Some motherboards (ASUS Maximus III) have featuresets created with the extreme overclocker in mind.  Not me.
  • I won’t need anything too fancy.  Dual network interface cards (NICs), huge number of PCI Express x16 slots (the best & fastest), flashy LED lights on the motherboard, 10-channel sound – all cool, but not required.

What I did want out of the board:

  • I did want to future-proof it with USB 3.0 and SATA 6 Gb/sec interfaces.  USB 3.0 has a massive bandwidth and power increase over USB 2.0.  In three to five years, USB 3.0 devices will be cheap and plentiful.  The same can be said for SATA 6 Gb/sec interfaces.  I could always buy a USB 3.0 card later for probably $30, but why not get it integrated now?
  • I did want RAID support.  RAID makes it easy to defend against a single hard drive failure (RAID-1, “mirroring”) , as well as increase performance (RAID-0, “striping”).  I plan to have four 500 GB drives striped and mirrored in a RAID-10 array, giving me the best of both worlds.  (Note: if you just want basic RAID variants, Windows 7 and WS 2008 have support for RAID-0, 1, 5, etc.  More advanced RAID style  like RAID+10 – mirroring and striping – require motherboard support or 3rd-party RAID adapters.)
  • I did want support for fast memory.  Today’s major computing bottleneck is not in the processor, it’s in the communication between the CPU and the memory.  While giant strides have been made in processor architectures, memory latency has seen far less improvement.  I wanted fast memory and the ability to use it;  this translated to selecting boards that supported at least DDR3 1600.  Most of the boards do support this, btw.

Here are the finalists in the motherboard category, narrowed down from many more.  They’re all top-rated boards:

    Pros Cons
This is the one I chose ASUS P7P55D-E, $140. Highly rated version of the P7P55D standard, but adds support for USB 3.0 and SATA 3.0. None for me!
  Asus P7P55 SuperComputer, $240. Excellently rated;  offers huge extensibility through its five PCIe x16 slots.  Reviewers raving about the excellent build quality. Relatively expensive and generally overkill. I just don’t need that much extensibility.
  Asus Maximus III, $250. Well liked, with tons of overclocking options Aimed at the enthusiast overclocker;  overkill for me.
  GIGABYTE GA-P55A-UD4P, $195. Excellently rated board with USB 3.0, SATA 6 Gb/sec, and supporting high-speed dual GPUs. None;  this was a runner-up, and in the end, I wanted to buy an Asus board because of their reputation.

I also considered other ASUS motherboards in the P7P55-E family. These included the “Pro” and “Premium” designations.   In general, they all were excellently reviewed, but simply had more features than I needed: most of the options were fast dual GPU support (e.g. dual x8 Crossfire: two PCIe x16 slots that degrade gracefully to x8 in dual GPU config); enhanced audio; more PCIe slots (and typically fewer legacy PCI slots).  In my case, I felt the extra money could better be put to use for extra RAM, another hard drive (or a faster one), or a better graphics card.

  • ASUS P7P55D-E Premium, $290.  Dual GPU-capable @ x8, USB 3.0 + SATA 6 Gbps, 4 x PCIe, 2 x PCI, 10-channel audio, dual NICs.
  • ASUS P7P55D-E Pro, $200.  Dual GPU-capable @ x8, USB 3.0 + SATA 6 Gbps,  5 x PCIe, 2 x PCI, 8-channel audio, single NIC.
  • ASUS P7P55D-E, $140.  Dual GPU-capable @ x4, USB 3.0 + SATA 6 Gbps,  5 x PCIe, 2 x PCI, 8-channel audio, single NIC.  (This was the board I chose.)

Lastly, I ruled out all the non-“E” ASUS motherboards (e.g. P7P55D/Pro/Premium) because they did not have USB 3.0 and SATA 6 Gbps.

image Memory (RAM): G.SKILL RipJaws

With the motherboard selection out of the way, the RAM was pretty easy.   With memory, I was looking for:

  • Compatibility.  I wanted to throw the memory in my new motherboard and have no issues or hassles.
  • Speed.  I wanted the fastest possible RAM without being “extreme” and hockey-sticking the price.  DDR3 1600 seemed to be the standard here.
  • Robustness.  While overclocking was not my prime objective, I did want the flexibility to play with it.  So I wanted RAM that would tolerate OC’ing well.

There are a ton of RAM choices out there, so feel free to browse away.  I spent the least amount of time looking at RAM options, since I just wanted it to best fast and stable.  My selection and the runners-up:

    Pros Cons
This is the one I chose G.SKILL RipJaws Series 4GB (2 x 2GB), $115. Excellently reviewed, fast RAM with heat management. Plus, they look cool. None for me!
  G.SKILL 4GB (2 x 2GB), $105. Excellently reviewed, fast RAM. None
  Corsair Dominator 4GB (2 x 2GB), $150. Excellently reviewed, high-end RAM with great heat management for OC’ing. A little expensive

XFX Radeon HD 4650 Graphics card (GPU): XFX RADEON 4650

My goal for the graphics card was to be capable and well matched to the rest of the system.  Since I’m not a gamer or a professional videographer, I wouldn’t need a top-of-the-food-chain GPU.   But with the rise of video and the convergence of TV and the internet, I wanted to be able to at least play full-screen HD content flawlessly.  On my old PC, a Dell PowerEdge 400SC server with an aged ATI Radeon 9600 card, I couldn’t play HD content on YouTube without an occasional stutter.

Desktop GPUs have become big business:  modern GPUs are basically little computers-on-a-card.  They have dedicated processors on them, up to 1 GB RAM, dedicated cooling systems, and in some cases, even require dedicated connections from the power supply.

In fact, there are a ton of cards out there which are power hogs and can significantly increase the energy consumption of the entire PC.  The high-end graphics market seems to be dominated by gamers (more power to you), who are typically playing mano-a-mano first-person combat games with each other over the internet.  They need high frame rates and blazing graphics speed.   But some of these top-end graphics cards explicitly require 500-watt or 600-watt power supplies.

What I personally wanted of out a graphics card:

  • Dual monitor outputs. If you haven’t experienced the joy of a dual-monitor setup, you don’t know what you’re missing.  The good news is that most cards out there today support dual outputs.
  • DVI interface. There are two basic types of connections from a PC’s graphics card: VGA (older; analog) and DVI (newer; digital).  Moving forward, I won’t be needing the older analog VGA connections.  If you have digital displays, e.g. an LCD or other non-tube display, there’s little sense in sending anything but a digital signal to it.  With a VGA signal, the GPU card has to first convert the digital info (from the computer) to an analog signal (the VGA output), then the monitor has to take the analog VGA signal and convert it back into digital form again.
  • Ability to play full-screen HD content. There’s a tsunami of HD content on the way, but even watching YouTube videos at HD is fun now.
  • Reasonable power consumption. No power hogs.
  • Quiet. I didn’t want a GPU with a noisy fan.  Silence is golden.

There are a ton of highly rated choices out there between $100 and $200.  The NewEgg crowd seemed to especially like cards by XFX and EVO.   I chose the XFX because it seemed to have everything I wanted.  At the very worst, I could buy a more capable card if needed, and I’d have a spare graphics card.

My choice, with the runners-up:

    Pros Cons
This is the one I chose XFX Radeon HD 4650, $55. Very capable, very quiet, and very affordable. Reviewers seemed to love it; they confirmed that  it could run full 1080P HD content (1920 x 1280), and many mentioned it did fine with gaming. This is a budget card as GPUs go
  XFX Radeon HD 4850, $140. Highly rated, a ton of memory (1 GB), quiet, reasonably priced, and moderate energy requirements (450W power supply).  Looks beastly cool. More expensive
  EVGA GeForce 9800 GTX, $135. Similar to the XFX HD 4850 (above). Fast and powerful.  NewEggers bought this in droves, judging by the number of reviews (900+). More expensive; half the memory (512 MB) of the XFX HD 4850; more noisy than the XFX card?

Power supply

I had a relatively new Antec True Power 430W lying around; after doing a little research on the web, it turns out the Antec 430W supply is an excellent, high-quality, low noise power supply (if you’re interested, you can see AnandTech’s review from 2003).   It seemed like a waste to just leave it sitting around, so I decided to try it.  If the Antec reviews had been anything but stellar, I would have invested in a new supply.

Getting a good power supply is important for the life of a computer: it has to provide clean, stable power to the sensitive system components.  If you want your home-built system to last, don’t scrimp on the power supply.  Apparently most RAM failures are due to electrical overvoltage issues.  It has a reasonably tough task to do: converting the oscillating 120V signal (in the US) from the wall into varying DC voltages of 3.3V, 5V, and 12V.

=> It’s highly recommended you use some form of UPS, battery backup or power conditioning to protect your system.  For my critical servers, I have an APC Smart-UPS, which provides backup battery and power conditioning;  but at minimum, use something like a APC Back-UPS, which provides outage, surge and spike protection.

A power supply should be rated to support the maximum demands of your system at full load.  If the power supply cannot keep up, it will just shut down the system.  The main power-hungry components by far are the CPU and the graphics card.  Reasonable guidelines today would seem to be 450W (minimum), 500W to 650W (mid-range), and 700W to 1000W for the high end.

=> When in doubt, buy more power supply than less.  A high-rated power supply does not use more energy than a lower-rated supply for the same load, in general.  E.g. a 650W supply doesn’t use more electricity than a 450W supply.

Besides providing adequate power to run the computer, here are some desirable features in power supplies today:

  • Active PFC. I don’t understand all the details of active PFC, but it seems to enable more efficient power supplies. Widely available today.
  • Quiet operation. Achieved mainly through the use of fans designed for silent operation.
  • Modular cables. Prevents case clutter:  unneeded modular cables can be detached and stored, whereas non-modular cables must be tied and otherwise managed within the case.
  • Under/overvoltage protection.  Protects the system against sudden spikes or drops in AC voltage.  Like when you turn the vacuum cleaner on.
  • Energy efficiency. A power supply is converting from AC voltage to DC voltage, and the conversion is not perfect. The higher the efficiency, the less power wasted (and heat generated).  Greener power supplies will have a Bronze, Silver, or Gold energy certification, but will cost more than non-certified PS’s.
  • Connectors.  How many SATA hard drive power plugs are there, or fan plugs, etc. coming off the PS?  Not really a big issue, since the real issue is power, and cheap adapters can easily easily be bought to provide more plugs of any type.  Be aware that some of the mid- to high-end graphics cards require a direct four- or six-pin connection from the power supply.

Antec BP550 is a great value There are a lot of choices out there.  A basic i7-860 system (or other Core i3/i5/i7 system, such as a i7-920 or i5-750) without an over-torqued graphics card will probably never use more than about 200-250W;  but to be safe and to enable extensibility, it seems prudent to pair it with a 450W or so power supply, minimum.

So I began my search for power supplies with active PFC and 500-600 watts of power.  Some of the favorites the NewEggers love include Corsairs (voted “Best Power Supply Manufacturer in 2009” by PC Magazine) and Antecs (“Most Reliable Power Supply Brand,” PC World France), Zalman, and Rosewill, among others.

In the mid-range arena, these were the most highly rated, reliable, and quiet power supplies that I found.

    Pros Cons
  Antec BP550 Plus 550W, $70. Highly rated, modular cables.  Not advertised as having a quiet fan, but reviewers’ consensus was “very quiet.”   (I bought this one for my next build) Not energy certified – but seems close enough.
  Antec earthwatts EA500 500W, $70. Highly rated, 80 PLUS-certified energy efficiency, low noise cooling fan. Non-modular cables.
  Corsair CMPSU-650TX 650W, $100. Very highly rated, thermally controlled fan, 80 PLUS-certified, lots of cables. Slightly more expensive; non-modular cables.

Conclusions

I sifted through hundreds of user feedback comments, scores of products, and a lot of detailed product reviews on the web to build a stable, powerful, quiet, affordable supercomputer based around an Intel Core i7-860 processor.

There are a ton of computer components out there with every conceivable option you could want.   When I chose this system, I wanted to make sure I had the dollars invested in all the right places to end up with a balanced set of matched components without any major bottlenecks.  Since I had some spare parts available, I was able to put together for around only $600.

Hopefully this article will help you save some time!

=> In the next article:  I’ll provide an update on the actual build experience.

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References

Power Supplies

Graphics Cards (GPUs)

Additional Notes

In browsing and selecting from the many components available, I made heavy use of NewEgg’s wish lists.  I created a wishlist for each of the system component types: motherboard, RAM, GPU, and power supplies.  As I searched through products and read reviews, I would add leading contenders to the wish list for later consideration. This way, I could efficiently narrow down my search.

What NewEgg could really use is a product feature comparator to compare similar products side-by-side.  For example, Intel’s CPU comparison wizard is great.  Are you listening, NewEgg?