Posts Tagged ‘Custom build’

New Core i7 PC: The Experience

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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. 

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New Core i7 PC: The Build

[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

Overviewimage82

Hello, folks… here’s a long overdue post on my Core i7 build.   I actually built two quad-core i7-860 computers with the hardware selection detailed in this post: one for me, and one for my father-in-law, who does video editing and production.

In general, both custom builds went without a hitch.  However, there are a few points of advice that might save you a few hours if you’re planning to build your own custom PC.

The builds took, surprisingly, much longer than I thought:  about six hours each.  This includes thoroughly cleaning out each old case, as well as taking pictures of the “build experience.”  It also includes cleanly routing and tying off all the various cables in the case, for a tidy presentation – as well as better airflow. 

I also installed an aftermarket heat sink on my father-in-law’s system, which took about an hour.  I highly recommend a heat sink — more on that below.

After double-checking the all the motherboard connectors a final time — hard drive, video, fans – I sat back and paused for a moment of reflection – then hit the power button.   On each build, the system started right up without any hitches –much to my relief.

Build notes

Note to first-time builders: it is critically important that you take measures to prevent damage to sensitive electronics components from static electricity.  Simply walking across the room can build up thousands of volts of static. 

See “Avoid Static Damage to Your PC” (PC World) for tips.

For both builds, I re-used the existing case, after gutting them of old motherboard and components.  Then I gave them them a thorough cleaning – unable to bear putting the elite processor and beautiful new components in an dusty, dirty case.    

I took it slow and enjoyed the whole process of building the new system.  Everything pretty much only fits in one way, so as long as you don’t force anything, you’re good.    

Bottom of Intel stock CPU coolerThe only real issue I had was some angst over the proper seating of the stock Intel cooling fan (right) on the i7-860 processor:  it wasn’t especially clear when the fan assembly was seated properly and securely on the motherboard.  Since direct contact on the processor is essential for cooling, it seems like this part of the process should be more foolproof.  

Lessons Learned

Get a CPU cooler up front. Through the magic of overclocking, you can leverage your investment in the entire system and make your system run like it had a much more expensive, faster processor in it.  The ASUS P7P55D-E motherboard I selected comes with automatic overclocking software takes me up to 3.6 GHz (from 2.8 GHz on a stock i7-860). That’s about a 30% performance boost. 

But with frequency and voltage comes heat.  You could really make the system smoke…  literally, if you’re not careful.  Why take chances cooking the silicon wafer at the heart of your high-tech monster?  You spent around $1,000 for your new system, all told; but for a mere $35 to $70, an aftermarket cooler will enable you to safely overclock your system to run around 30% faster.  That’s 30% return on 3.5% to 7% investment, as I see it – pretty much a no-brainer.  In addition, to future-proofing and fire-proofing your box, it’s a great value.

The strong consensus on the forums, Cooler Master Hyper 212which matched my own experience, is that the stock Intel cooler is really not up to the task of cooling an overclocked i7.   After some research, I selected the Cooler Master Hyper 212 (right) for a very affordable $35 – highly rated and available on Amazon.

Note: the Cooler Master Hyper 212 is an impressive-looking piece of finned hardware, but has horrible install instructions — NewEggers agree.  Where are the Cooler Master folks??  It’s a perfect opportunity for crowdsourcing.

Configure RAID up front. if you’re planning on using the onboard Intel Matrix raid, set up the RAID array before installing the operating system – even if you only intend to use a simple mirror (RAID-1).  

The Intel Matrix RAID bios is apparently, unbelievably incapable of simply mirroring one existing, data-containing drive onto another identical, blank drive!  (Why, Intel, why?!)   So the mirror setup – at least in the BIOS — requires the destruction of all info on both drives.   Sad smile  

I had to suck it up, create the mirror, and reinstall Windows 7.  Good thing I have a fast machine.  Winking smile

Case design. Consider investing in a good case.  I can now see why good case design is important… I always thought of a case as just a case, but in this case (no pun intended) I see what excellent design features it can add.  My father-in-law’s Antec case has a solid, heavy metal frame, with beautiful lacquered silver paint and a latching ez-swing-out side panel for access to the interior.  It has two convenient pop-out hard drive cages for a total of four 3.5” bays, as well as easy front-slide-out bays for 5.25” equipment like the DVD drives.   This makes it very easy to remove or change components.  It also has wiring for front case USB and firewire connectors.

You can go cheap on cases, for sure;  but consider a cooler, higher-end case if it’s only a few more bucks.   Go ahead, you deserve it.

IMG_2990The front slide-out 5.25 bays on the great Antec case

Build #1

This is my personal system;  I built it first so that I would be able to apply any lessons learned to my father-in-law’s build.    Its highlight is an extremely quick 1TB RAID-10 hard drive array (mirror of stripes) built on of four Seagate Barracudas.  I re-used an existing, older Antec 430W power supply.

Ingredients:

  1. Core i7-860 Processor $250
  2. ASUS P7P55D-E ATX Motherboard $150
  3. 4 x Seagate Barracuda ES.2 ST3500320NS 500GB 7200 RPM SATA New $600, street today ~$350?
  4. XFX Radeon HD 4650 Video Card $65
  5. G.SKILL Ripjaws Series 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3 1600 RAM $115
  6. LITE-ON Black 24X DVD RW Player $25
  7. Antec True Power 430W power supply

Total outlay:  ~$600.   This doesn’t include the cost of the enterprise-class hard drive, power supply, or case.

Build #2

This system is for my father-in-law,who is replacing a 2004-era Pentium 4 box very similar to my Dell PowerEdge 400SC.    Following my own best practices, I built it with two hard drives in a mirror array (RAID-1) so that a single hard drive failure will not be able to take the system down: for the extra $100, well worth it.    Since this system will be used for video editing, it has a much more capable graphics card, the XFX Radeon HD 4850, which is a dual-slot monster.

Blend together and serve over crushed ice the following:

Total cost: ~$1,000, not including case

Installation Checklist

After installing Windows 7 (64-bit), these were the major post-OS software installs that I did to get the systems up to speed:

  • ASUS drivers from mobo DVD:  chipset, lan, Intel Matrix, USB, etc.  link
  • ASUS utilities from mobo DVD: Turbo EVO, etc – CHECK
  • Update Radeon drivers via Device Manager
  • FireFox v3.6 – my preferred browser
  • Internet Explorer 8 – for completeness
  • Run Windows update
  • 7-Zip
  • LastPass
  • Picasa
  • Avast AntiVirus – free

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.

image


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?

Build or Buy a New Core i7 Supercomputer?

[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

Overview

I’m usually a strong proponent of choosing to “buy” standardized computers (e.g. Dell) rather than “build” a custom server.  But in this case, the stars are aligned in favor of a building a handcrafted system that should be a real screamer – and hopefully a lot of fun in the process.

The Landscape

In a prior post, I discussed the merits of computers based around the latest, greatest CPUs, concluding that the benefits of raw computing power and energy efficiency made it pretty much an open-and-shut case for investing in the latest technology.

image I thought I would seal the deal by simply ordering a Dell PowerEdge server, as I’ve done with great success in the past: I own a PowerEdge 1600SC and a PowerEdge 400SC, both really excellent machines for their time.  But I was curious to see what the latest and greatest advances in mainstream chip technology had brought us.

I followed up with a little research on the Intel Core i7 family of processors with the new Nehalem architecture.  In particular, I looked at the two primary choices at around a $200 price point:  the Core i7-860 and the Core i7-920.   (The i7-860 edged out the i7-920…  read the post if you’re interested in the details.)  These quad-core processors are basically supercomputers on a chip.

Being a software architect, it’s one of my “core” beliefs (no pun intended) that a deep understanding of the target platform is a great way to design the best software solutions.

The Decision…

It’s been roughly ten years since I built a custom PC.   Reading about the latest motherboards and components, I realized that the industry has had ten more years to perfect the art of producing standardized pc hardware components.   Reviews of motherboards on NewEgg.com rave about “overclocker’s dream” and “works flawlessly.”

I was intrigued:  how hard could it be, now, to throw a new motherboard into an old computer chassis, plug in a CPU and some memory, and power it up?   The alternative was a pretty tasty Dell system that I could snap my fingers and have delivered.

Which to choose? Let’s back up for a minute and look at what I want out of this system.

Needs

I wanted to get the following out of this new computer system:

  • Be future-proofed enough to run well for five years: this includes expandability and performance.
  • Be able to run computationally intensive modeling and pattern detection applications in support of the new stock market analysis platform I’m creating with some folks.  So it has to be fast.
  • Be able to take advantage of new virtualization technologies (VT).  This is nothing short of a revolution for the IT crowd:  the ability to run complete “images” of computers on one physical box.  So for instance, I could have the equivalent of  complete Windows 7 and Windows XP machines running on the same box.    Amazing.

Specs

I sketched out a pretty capable system meeting these needs.  The key components looked like this:

  • A Core i7-860 processor. Has four separate physical cores, hyperthreading (which doubles the effective cores to a total of eight), awesome memory bandwidth, and great energy efficiency (95W TDP).  See my post comparing the Core i7-860 vs i7-920.   It’s one of the fastest desktop CPUs available today:  definitely meets the “future-proofed” criterion.
  • 8 GB of RAM, expandable to 12 GB or 16 GB. By simply adding more RAM, I can use virtualization to “host” multiple complete virtual computers on this one “supercomputer” – no need to buy a whole new system.   So RAM expandability is key.
  • Support for SATA RAID on the motherboard. Using redundant arrays of disks  is absolutely a best practice to avoid the headaches that come with a single hard drive failure.   I read a great quote the other day: “The difference between a good hard drive and a bad one is that the good one hasn’t failed yet.

I’m not into video games, so I don’t need anything special in the graphics category like “Crossfire” or “SLI” display technology:  a solid & capable dual-DVI graphics card should do the trick.

Picking a system: the pre-built road

Dell PowerEdge T310My prebuilt system of choice was a Dell PowerEdge T310, configured with a Xeon X3440 @ 2.53 GHz (more or less a slightly slower i7-860), 8 GB RAM, 250 GB hard drive for around $1,050.    Add a graphics card for $150 and the total system cost is $1,200.

I generally choose the PowerEdge servers (vs. consumer desktops like Dell XPS’s) because of their high quality and reliability;  I also install the OS myself so I avoid all the adware/trialware crap that bloats these new machines.

The T310 is a pretty awesome machine for a home server.   The Dell motherboards and bioses are engineered for business server use – which most of the time is fine.

Picking the system: a custom build

I have a spare case, an extra Antec True Power supply lying around, and four enterprise-class 500 GB SATA drives, and I wanted – I as mentioned above Corsair Dominator DDR3– to see what a custom build experience would be like, ten years later.    In addition, it might be fun to play with overclocking the i7-860 processor (in all my spare time!). A lot of folks having fun with this based on the comments in the NewEgg reviews and other forums on the web.

Since I have the spare case, power supply, and the hard drives, I would just need CPU, RAM, motherboard, and a graphics card.  I could put more into the specific components I wanted, specifically a great motherboard and as much high-quality RAM as possible.

A quick breakdown of a custom build looked something like this:

Component Price
Motherboard $200
i7-860 CPU $250
8 GB RAM $250
Graphics card $150
Total: $850

At $850 for a custom build vs. $1,200 for the Dell, this was starting to look like a good deal.  While I would end up with an overclockable, high-performance computer, I would miss the convenience and build quality of a new Dell server.

Conclusion

I love buying standard Dell PowerEdge servers, but in this case it’s hard to resist playing:  I’m going with the custom build this time.

For fun, I’ll hand-pick a quality set of components, including a socket LGA 1156 motherboard, RAM, and a display card.  I’ll post updates here and on Twitter as I look around.

Do you have any advice on i7-860 system components (or any LGA 1156-based), including motherboard, RAM, or video card selections?    Post a comment.

References and more reading…

Virtualization technologies: