Core i7 Skylake PC Build

 

It’s been 4 and a half years since I built my Sandybridge based workstation and it while it isn’t a terrible performer, I do more video and photo editing than I did in the past and wanted a machine with more power. Since Intel finally came out with the Skylake line of processors and the next upgrade won’t come out for a while I decided to do a new build now. In order to keep costs down I reused the case, power supply, storage devices and video card from my previous workstation. This limited my costs to $520 for a new motherboard, processor, and RAM.

Parts List

This build is essentially a motherboard, CPU, and RAM swap from the previous system.  Since this case is old enough to not support USB 3.0 I decided to add a USB 3.0 expansion panel to one of the front drive bays for convenient access. I also stuck with the stock CPU cooler for this build since they are actually pretty quiet and this CPU generates considerably less heat then the Sandybridge it replaces.

Software

Windows 10 installed perfectly and runs great on this machine, as expected.

Power Usage

  • Idle – 42W
  • 1080i MPEG2 to 720p MP4 H.264 Compression (Freemake Video Converter) – 85W
  • Bluray Ripping (MakeMKV) – 54W
  • MKV Bluray Rip to MKV 1080p Compression (Freemake Video Converter) – 95W
  • Adobe Lightroom RAW to JPG Conversion – 94W

Loop Skywire Antenna & Remote Tuner

Now that I’ve had this antenna setup for a few years now I have come to recognize the drawbacks. The biggest of these is a lack of tuning bandwidth. This resulted in having to retune the system even when changing frequency by only a few kilohertz, very annoying. After playing with a MFJ 926B remote automatic antenna tuner at Field Day this year I decided to modify my antenna to make use of one of these units and see if it improved my operation. The 926B is actually pretty similar in design to my LDG tuner except it is mounted in an enclosure suitable for use outside and can be powered via coaxial cable using a BiasTee power injector so no extra cables are needed. It automatically initiates tuning when a mismatch over 2:1 SWR is detected while transmitting and it saves the match settings to memory.

The idea of a remote antenna tuner is that it allows the tuner to be located at the feed point of the antenna. This means that the tuner is matching the impedance mismatch of the antenna only; not the antenna, plus feedline combination that it was dealing with previously. This allows the tuner to find a match much more easily and also results in a much better tuned bandwith because the only variable changing is the impedance of the antenna not the impedance of the antenna and feedline combined.

A side benefit of this new setup is that in order to reach the tuner as it is mounted on the side of my house I had to add some wire to my antenna which now contains approximately 270 feet of wire. The antenna is now solidly resonant in the 80 meter band. In addition to adding wire I separated the feed point in the air by about 10 feet. This allows the wires to drop to the tuner at an angle in order to keep the shape of the loop as intact as possible and prevents the two ends from contacting or crossing one another. I also installed an Alpha Delta TT3G50 surge protector in the coax line from the tuner.

In the short time that I’ve had this setup on the air I have been very pleased with its operation. To tune the system I switch to CW mode on my Icom 7200 and transmit a tone (with the power turned down to 10W). The tuner then initiates its tuning cycle and matches the antenna. This generally only takes 2-3 seconds, much faster than before. It also tends to find much better matches and regularly achieves close to 1:1 SWR. As hoped, the tuning bandwidth is greatly improved as well and I am no longer required to retune every time I move around a band. This new setup is also much cleaner looking on the house with no ladder line or balun, just wires going to the low profile tuner and a coax run along the brick.

Gaming PC Build

After playing around with streaming PC games to my TV from my main workstation to my HTPC with limited success, I decided to make use of some of the spare components I had lying around and make a dedicated gaming PC connected directly to my home theater setup. After reusing the case and power supply from a previous HTPC build along with RAM and storage from other PC builds the only parts I had to buy were the motherboard, CPU, and video card. Reusing this many components limited my costs to $470 ($530 with 16GB of RAM).

Parts List
  • Case – Antec Mini P180 (reused)
  • Power Supply – Corsair 430W Modular (reused)
  • Motherboard – Gigabyte GA-H81M-HD3
  • Processor – Intel Core i5-4590 (3.3 GHz, Quad-Core, 84W)
  • RAM – 8GB GSkill DDR3 1600 (reused) Upgraded to 16GB
  • SSD – 120GB Intel 520 (reused)
  • Hard Drive – 1TB Western Digital Black (reused)
  • Video Card – EVGA GeForce GTX 960 2GB

This was a pretty standard PC build. The only modification I made was to add a coaxial SPDIF connector. Due to the way I have my entertainment system setup, I wanted to run the PC video straight to my TV, but I still wanted to get digital audio into my AV receiver for surround sound. The motherboard has an optical SPDIF out, however, the only free SPDIF connector on my receiver is coaxial, so I made my own SPDIF header. I am also really glad I was able to find a good use for this PC case. I used it for years as my HTPC until about 2 years ago. It is a very well made, great looking case with excellent ventillation and a lot of internal space for large video cards despite not being a full tower.

Overall I have been very pleased with the performance of this PC. I wanted to hit the sweet spot between cost and performance and this combination of CPU and GPU really hit that mark. I can run the Batman Arkham games, Bioshock Infinite, and Formula 1 2015 at max quality with good frame rates. We’ll see how well this system holds up to some of the new games coming up that I am looking forward to, primarily Just Cause 3 and Rise of the Tomb Raider.

Software

  • Windows 8.1 (upgraded to Windows 10, August 2o15)
  • Steam (configured to launch on startup in Big Picture Mode)

Power Usage

  • Idle – 50W
  • Idle (with Steam Big Picture Mode running) – 59W
  • Gaming (Batman Arkham Asylum) – 135W
  • Gaming (Formula 1 2015) – 185W
  • Gaming (Bioshock Infinite) – 140W

Games (updated as necessary)

  • Just Cause 3 – After playing several hours of Just Cause 3 I am very pleased with how this system performs. I don’t have any hard stats, but at 1080p and near max settings the game runs at a solid frame rate and I haven’t had any major issues. Certain onscreen graphic popups (like at the completion of missions) can cause things to chug for a moment or two, however, this does not happen during regular gameplay. I think this is most likely due to hard drive performance and not graphics since I don’t have any game data on the system’s SSD.
  • Rise of the Tomb Raider –

Loop Skywire Antenna – Update

After reevaluating the trees in my yard I realized that I could rework the layout of my loop skywire antenna. This would allow me increase the size of the loop, improve the feed point arrangement, and increase the height of the antenna.

After adding a fifth anchor point the loop is now a distorted pentagon instead of trapezoidal in shape (see the sketch for the rough layouts). The new arrangement is not only larger, but also higher than before, which should help its performance. With a new circumference of approximately 244 feet of wire the loop is much closer to resonance on the 80 meter band than it was previously.

Due to the repositioning of the feed point I had to shorten the feedline. I decided on 37 feet of 300 Ohm ladder line as an acceptable non-resonant length for the feedline. This is a good length since it keeps it well off the ground while still providing some slack for movement. So far the performance has been at least as good as the previous version.

Mini Home Theater PC

In order to fill my need to endlessly tinker and upgrade my HTPC, I decided to build a new system using one of Intel’s Haswell CPUs. These are not only faster and more power efficient than past models, they also feature much improved graphics capability. I also decided to switch to external hard drive storage since USB 3.0 is not only well supported in Linux, it also performs nearly as well as internal hard drives. This allows me to more easily swap or add drives while keeping the size and noise of the HTPC to a minimum.

Parts List

The key to this build is the effectiveness of the USB 3.0 external hard drives. By moving to external storage I can use a much smaller case with an external power supply, all of which reduces the cooling requirements and consequently the noise of the PC. The only internal drive is the SSD which generates no noise and little heat. The only sound from this configuration comes from the CPU cooler which is somewhat oversized for the 35W CPU and therefore never runs at a high speed. The result is a versatile, snappy, power efficient, and very quiet HTPC.

Software

For this build I decided to go with Linux Mint as I have grown progressively tired with Ubuntu‘s UI tinkering. Otherwise my software choices are similar to past builds.

Network Sharing

For network sharing I use the Samba utility (repository package:  system-config-samba) which makes it easy to setup and manage shares with other computers on my network.

Backup

For backups I use the Scheduled Tasks utility (repository package:  gnome-schedule). With this I run various RSYNC scripts every night which synchronize my local hard drives with my FreeNAS server.

I am currently using a backup tool called Back In Time in place of my RSYNC scripts. I like it a lot and it provides significantly more functionality than a simple backup sync.  Back In Time creates snapshot style backups which allow for recovery of deleted files from past backups. It also has a lot of configuration options regarding how often backups occur, the exclusion of certain files, and the removal of old deleted files to save space.

Media Playback

  • VLC – media player
  • XBMC – media player and streamer (using plug-ins)
  • PLEX – media transcoder (works great through its Roku channel)

Bittorrent

  • Deluge – my favorite torrent client

Performance

Here’s an informal comparison between this build (bold) and my old HTPC (in parenthesis):

  • Time to import 227MB, 128kbps MP3 into Audacity – 0:53 (2:16)
  • Time to re-compress 227MB, 128kbps MP3 at 64kbps with Audacity – 6:40 (10:08)

While this is a sizable improvement these numbers don’t show how much snappier the system is in general, especially when multitasking.

Power Usage

While I anticipated a significant power consumption drop due to the lack of a video card, I was pleasantly surprised at how much of a drop I actually measured.

  • Old HTPC – 43W
  • Current Configuration (including external hard drives) – 30W

That’s quite a significant drop. From past experience I believe the video card used about 10W of power, therefore the Haswell CPU uses 3W less power on average than the Sandybridge model I was using previously.

Noise

This was another area of significant improvement. The combination of reducing the number of fans from 4 to 1 and swapping the stock cooler for a more efficient one results in this build being nearly silent.

HTPC – Case & SSD Upgrade

My home theater setup has changed somewhat over the last year since I moved into my house and my HTPC tower ended up being tucked away in the corner of my dining room. Needless to say this was not an ideal location. I decided to look for a more traditional HTPC case that would allow it to fit on my TV stand with the rest of my gear. I also wanted to take this opportunity to swap out the boot drive for an SSD.

New Parts

I hadn’t planned on getting a new power supply or CPU cooler, however, after reassembling my HTPC with my Antec Earthwatts 380 power supply and a stock Intel CPU cooler the system was just too loud, not to mention all of the excess cables. The new modular power supply is not only quieter, it allows for a much cleaner installation with no unnecessary cables. I like this Arctic CPU cooler a lot, it installs with a combination of push-pin clips and screws that doesn’t require you to take the motherboard out to install. It was a tight fit though, due to the close proximity of the RAM slots on my motherboad.

This Silverstone case is not only a great value, it is surprisingly versatile. It supports several different hardware configurations both with and without an optical drive. I chose not to reinstall the DVD burner from my previous build because it has seen little use of late and eliminating it frees up enough space for both 3.5 inch hard drives to use the included silicone mounts which greatly reduce hard drive noise. If I absolutely need an optical drive in the future I have an external USB model that I can plug in on those occasions.

The only other modifications I had to make to my existing hardware were due to the slim profile of the case. I made a new bracket for my coaxial SPDIF connection and switched to the low profile bracket that came with my video card.

SSD Setup

Using an SSD with Ubuntu has been one of the most dramatic performance improvements that I have had with an SSD. The system now boots in about 10 seconds once it clears the BIOS, a huge improvement.

While current Linux kernels support the Trim function for SSDs, it is not enabled by default in Ubuntu. I found these posts very helpful in setting up my SSD.

Power Usage

With the replacement of my boot drive with an SSD and the elimination of the optical drive, I expected the power usage of my HTPC to go down a few watts but I was pleasantly surprised by the end result.

  • Previous Configuration – 53W
  • Current Configuration – 43W

Not bad for a hard drive swap.

Noise & Heat

My previous build helped keep the noise down by using silicone hard drive mounts, large slow moving fans, and fanless CPU & GPU coolers. This new design uses a much quieter power supply (the 120mm fan is a big improvement over the old 80mm), similar hard drive mounts (with one less drive), a nearly silent CPU cooler (the fan barely has to run due to the 35 Watt CPU), and two 80mm Antec Tricool Fans set to very low speeds. This new arrangement is significantly quieter than my old one. A good thing since it is now closer to my seating position. You can only notice the slight fan noise when the room is very quiet.

In addition to keeping the noise down, this build also keeps the component temperatures under control. The CPU temperature doesn’t fluctuate nearly as much as it did with the stock cooler, generally staying around 40 degrees C, and the hard drives don’t go much over 30 degrees C despite the tight space.

FreeNAS Server

After two hard drives in my Home Theater PC failed this summer, almost resulting in some significant data loss, I decided to move toward a better local backup solution. My previous backup strategy involved syncing hard drives on my HTPC. Although this was a simple and effective solution, it wasn’t the most efficient use of my hard drive space and it doesn’t provide much redundancy. After looking at my options I decided that a FreeNAS Server was the way to go.

Parts List

Hardware

For my server build I not only wanted to keep the cost down, I also wanted it to be as quiet and power efficient as possible. I chose the case because of its noise reduction features in addition to its build quality and 6 hard drive bays. The motherboard offers 8 SATA ports and 4 RAM slots for future expansion. I was planning on using an Intel Celeron processor, but the Pentium G630T is more efficient, generates less heat, and doesn’t cost much more. I considered reusing some of my 2TB Western Digital Green drives from my HTPC, but in the end I decided to get 3TB Red Drives instead. Besides their larger capacity, they are specifically designed for this application as well as offering a better warranty and support from the manufacturer.

Software

FreeNAS has a lot of useful documentation, but I found Engadget’s tutorial to be a better starting point for basic setup. This got me started with basic CIFS sharing that I can access with both my Windows & Linux PCs. I set up my 4 hard drives as a RAID Z2 array which should be able to survive one hard drive failure without affecting performance and two hard drive failures without data loss. After creating the array, I ended up with about 5.5TB of space available for storage. This should be more than enough for the forseeable future, but I can aways get two more hard drives and recreate the array to increase my storage capacity. Another key part of this setup is the recognition that my server will be used for backups only, never as the sole repository of data.

I ran into some issues, however, when I tried to RSYNC from my HTPC to the FreeNAS box. Using a scheduled RSYNC every night is how I plan to backup my media files and is critical to my local backup strategy. After a lot of Googling and experimenting I discovered how to properly setup the permissions on both the FreeNAS server and my HTPC in order to be able to RSYNC properly.

For my purposes I only have a Guest account on the FreeNAS server. This account does not require a password and has full access to all of the files in the share. On the HTPC side I setup Ubuntu to mount the remote share every time it boots by modifying the “/etc/fstab” file with the following line:

//192.168.10.200/Archive     /mnt/Server cifs guest,uid=joe,gid=joe 0 0

In this application 192.168.10.200 is the IP Address of the server as perminently assigned by my router. “Archive” is the name of the CIFS share I created on the FreeNAS server. The directory “/mnt/Server” is the local directory on my HTPC that I created to mount the server’s share to. CIFS (Common Internet File System) is the file sharing standard. The next three additions are key to getting the permissions correct:  “guest” is the user ID on the FreeNAS server, “uid=joe” designates my user ID on my HTPC, and “gid=joe” designates my group ID on my HTPC. When the server’s share is properly mounted I then had to make sure that the files I planned to share gave full read/write access to both my user and group.

With these set properly I can now RSYNC my media files from my HTPC to the server with the following command:

rsync -avru –delete –progress /local_directory/ /mnt/Server/remote_directory

Conclusion

Now that I have my permissions and RSYNC issues resolved, I am very pleased with my FreeNAS server. With the fan speeds set low it is very quiet and over a week of use it had an average power usage of 48 Watts. File transfer speeds are also pretty good over my newly installed Gigabit network. FreeNAS is a versatile platform and I look forward to learning more about it in the future.

Solar Chargeable Portable Battery Pack

There are a lot of rechargeable lithium battery packs available. Some have a lot of capacity and others can be used with solar panels, however, I could never find one that fits my requirements. The solar models that I’ve seen generally don’t have much capacity and use such small solar panels that they don’t charge very fast. Then I came across Adafruit’s USB/Solar Lithium Ion Charger board and it solves all of my problems. This board has a lot of cool features: it can charge a battery via a solar panel or any other 5V input and it can deliver power to the MintyBoost from both the input and the battery simultaneously. In this way you could charge a device on a not so sunny day by drawing some power from the solar panel and the rest from the battery.

My main goal for this project is to have a versatile power pack for use when I go camping/backpacking. I have a fair amount of devices that I typically bring with me that can be charged via USB: camera, headlamp, UV water purifier, cell phone, mp3 player, etc. The 6600mAh battery can charge any of these devices multiple times, providing many days of capacity before needing to be recharged. On sunny days the 3.4W solar panel can recharge the battery if I am away from power for a long period of time. At full power the solar panel will take about 12 hours to fully charge the battery. While this is a long time, for my use case this should be fine as I will most likely be topping off the battery with the solar panel not charging it from zero. I like this solar panel for its combination of size and capacity. A larger panel could charge the battery faster, but would be a lot less portable.

Parts List

Adafruit has a detailed tutorial that explains how the charger board works and shows how to wire it to the other components. Basically the charger board is connected to both the battery and the MintyBoost and uses either a USB or solar panel input to provide input power when you want to charge the battery. The charger also has the option to output the charging status (charging, charging complete) to external LEDs.

For this project I used a red LED to indicate that the unit was charging and a green LED to indicate that the battery was fully charged. I also isolated the battery from the remainder of the system using a power switch. This prevents the small self drain inherent to the MintyBoost from discharging the battery when I am not using the unit. You just have to remember to turn it on when you want to charge the battery. In addition I used a coaxial power jack for the power input and modified both the solar panel and a USB cable with matching coaxial power plugs of the same size. The final piece was using a scavenged panel mount usb port for the MintyBoost’s output.

I have to say that I really like this setup. I can charge all of my devices and when placed in the sun, the solar panel started charging the battery with no problem.

Mini ITX PC Build

While assembling my new ham radio station I decided to build a dedicated PC to use for digital communications as well as logging. To save space I decided to do this build using the Mini ITX form factor. Other than being a tight fit in the case, this was a relatively straightforward build. It’s pretty cool to be able to build such a small and inexpensive system using desktop PC components.

Specs

Performance, Power Usage & Noise

I have now built a couple of systems using the Sandybridge based Intel Celeron processor and I have to say that I am impressed. While I wouldn’t want to use it for video compression, for typical computer usage this processor is plenty fast. This system doesn’t sweat running multiple ham radio related apps at once.

With the CPU as the only major component to power, this system is a power miser. At idle it uses about 20 watts and during typical usage it generally stays under 30 watts. Not bad at all.

The same goes for the noise generated by this system. The stock Intel heatsink & fan keeps the processor cool without rising above a whisper. Overall I am very pleased with this system. It’s the perfect combination of size, performance, quiet operation, and low cost.

Loop Skywire Antenna

Design

When I bought my house this spring, I immediately started planning an HF antenna for my ham radio station. It’s been several years since I last had a permanent base station set up and I wanted to get on the air. After evaluating my options, I decided that a loop antenna would be my best option. The biggest advantage for me is that a large loop antenna fed with ladder line allows for good performance on a wide range of frequencies using a single antenna. This design also allows me to maximize the amount of antenna that I can fit on my 1/2 acre lot (an 80 meter loop is only 72ft on a side vs the 135ft overall length of an 80 meter dipole) without having to put up masts or towers.

The general idea of a loop skywire is to put up as much wire as possible, without worrying about cutting it to resonance, and feed it with ladder line. Since ladder line exhibits very low loss compared to coaxial cable, even with a large impedance mismatch, the total amount of signal loss in the ladder line will be minimal. With a good antenna tuner between the ladder line and the radio, all of the HF ham bands should be available.

Components

For wire I purchased Wireman #531, which is insulated wire made up of stranded 13 AWG copper-clad steel. The steel core makes it strong (400 lb breaking strength) and helps minimize stretch, while the copper cladding gives it good electrical conductivity. The insulation helps to protect the wire from the weather.

The feedline I chose is 300 ohm ladder line, which is a little harder to find than its 450 ohm cousin. Some ladder line is cheaply made, but this type from DX Engineering uses 18 AWG copper-clad steel and works very well. They also make a great antenna feed point kit with built in strain relief slots for use with their 300 ohm ladder line. It is well worth the money.

While I could have used a balanced tuner, or some other type of manual antenna tuner, I decided to go with an automatic antenna tuner for my station due to their ease of use and their ability to store impedance matches to memory. The memories allow the tuner to pull up previous tuning settings without having to rematch the radio to the antenna, saving a lot of time. I use a LDG AT-200ProII in my station and it has worked great so far with my loop antenna. I chose this model for its wide impedance matching range, its ability to store 4000 frequency & impedance combinations, and its 200 Watt power rating. Although I don’t plan on using more than 100 Watts in my station, the 200 Watt model is only slightly more expensive and because of its higher power rating it will hopefully be even better equipped to withstand the high impedance mismatches that this antenna presents.

The final piece of this arrangement is the balun. In this case I used a high power current balun between the ladder line and the antenna tuner. This device blocks the current on one side of the ladder line from continuing on to the shield of the coax on the other side. In this way it transforms the balanced load of the antenna and feedline into an unbalanced load for use with the antenna tuner and radio. I could have made my own balun, but I decided to buy a DX Engineering BAL050-H10-AT. This is heavy-duty (rated for 10KW) balun designed for exactly this type of application and is much better constructed than anything I could have made on my own.

Construction

Putting up the loop was a relatively straightforward process. The first step was to pick which trees to put the support ropes in. I don’t have a ton of options on my small lot, but four trees were spaced appropriately for me to make a trapezoidal shaped loop. To get the ropes (I used 3/16″ Dacron) into the trees I used some light nylon cord tied to a wrench and tossed the wrench over the highest branch I could reach. I then pulled the heavier rope up over the branch. Next I attached the insulators that I had made using 1 inch 45 degree PVC elbows (painted black for stealth) and bungie cords. The bungies act as a stress relief between the trees and the antenna, thereby allowing the trees to move in the wind without jerking the antenna too hard. I used bungies on three of the four corners, leaving only the corner nearest the feed point without one.

I then ran the antenna wire through the insulators until I had both ends at the location of the feed point. By taking the slack out of the ropes I was able to start trimming the antenna wire such that when the insulators were lifted as high as I could get them the antenna wire was tight. After a few adjustments, and some branch trimming, I was able to get the antenna in the air. I then set the antenna back down and attached the ladder line to the feed point and raised the antenna to its final position.

Finally I mounted the balun to the side of the house and ran the ladder line to the balun. To support the ladder line I attached some rope to the feedline with zip ties and hoisted it using an eyebolt screwed into the eave of the house. I also made a spacer/strain relief for the ladder line to keep it away from the aluminum siding on my house. This is necessary because if ladder line is too close to anything conductive it can unbalance the feedline, thereby causing it to radiate like the antenna.

Performance

After trimming, my loop ended up being 215 feet in circumference and uses 47 feet of ladder line. I lucked out on the length of ladder line that I needed; you have to be careful not to use a length that is harmonically resonant on any of the frequencies you wish to operate, otherwise the feedline could radiate and cause interference. While this antenna is technically a little short for use on the 80 meter band, it will tune on that band along with all of the remaining HF ham bands (except 160 meters).

Considering the limitations of my property in terms of the size and height (around 30 feet) of the antenna, I couldn’t be happier with it so far. I love the ability to operate from 3.5 to 30 MHz without having to switch antennas. Overall performance has been great. In my limited time using my new station I have been able to contact stations in Europe and throughout the US, as well as have a lot of fun in the Pennsylvania QSO Party (my home state) where I was able to contact pretty much every station that I could hear.