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

Update-New Graphics Card & CPU Cooler (August, 2016)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

After upgrading the graphics card in my Gaming PC to a GTX 1060, I rolled the GTX 960 that I took out into my main desktop. This will be a substantial upgrade over my old GTX 750 Ti and be much more suited to my 1440p monitor when performing graphics oriented tasks.

While I had the case open I also installed a much more substantial CPU cooler, the Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO. Intel’s stock cooler is not bad at all, however, when performing intensive video compression I definitely noticed the fan working a lot harder and decided to upgrade to a more capable cooling system. The new cooler has lower pitched fan noise and is quieter overall as well.

Update-New Case (July 2017)

In today’s world PCs rarely need optical drives, many new cases forgo the 5.25″ drive bays required for them, which reduces the case size and allows for a much cleaner case layout. My old case was getting long in the tooth and I wanted a more modern setup with USB 3.0 ports native to the case so I re-cased this PC build using a Fractal Design Define C case. It’s a few inches smaller in height and depth than the old Antec case while providing tons of room for everything I need. The 3.5″ drive bays are in front of the power supply at the bottom of the case and there are SSD mounts on the back of the motherboard mounting panel. Taken together the case is very well laid out and results in a very clean build.

Since I still use my Blu-ray drive from time to time I needed an external enclosure to mount it in. I went with the Vantec NST-536S3-BK and it works very well. It uses USB 3.0 and is plug and play with Windows 10. I have noticed no difference in performance between using the drive in this enclosure compared to being installed in the PC and plugged straight into the motherboard.

Update-Gaming PC Parts (September 2017)

I have come full circle on my gaming PC idea I had a couple of years ago. I like the idea of having a dedicated PC connected to my big television but it also has some drawbacks, especially if you want to play a mouse and keyboard game on the couch. It is also kind of silly to maintain two high powered PCs in my house at the same time, not to mention the space the extra PC takes up. The end result of all this is that I rolled the key parts of my gaming PC build into my main workstation: the GeForce GTX 1060 graphics card and the Crucial 750GB SSD (my Steam drive). The swap went very smoothly thanks to how robust Steam is at finding games already installed on a drive and I didn’t have to re-download anything.

In the end this makes the most sense for me since all of my most powerful components are now together in one machine and I have one less Windows box to maintain. I can also take better advantage of my 27″ 1440p monitor’s higher resolution vs my 1080p television, one of the main advantages of PC gaming in the first place. This change should be a good continuation of my trend of simplifying my technology which should save some money and a lot of time.

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.

Update – More Hard Drives & RAM (June 2013)

I took advantage of a price drop and bought two additional 3TB WD Red drives and two more sticks of 8GB RAM. This brings my total storage capacity to almost 11TB.

HTPC – CPU, Motherboard & RAM Upgrades

With the new Sandybridge series of CPUs Intel has introduced some 35W parts in its Core i3 line. When I saw how inexpensive these parts were I decided to upgrade my HTPC with the following:

The motherboard I found is a perfect drop-in upgrade for my old unit since it has all the SATA ports I require as well as onboard SPDIF headers.

Performance 

Here’s an informal comparison between this build (bold) and the previous one (in parenthesis):

  • Time to import 227MB, 128kbps MP3 into Audacity – 2:16 (3:54)
  • Time to re-compress 227MB, 128kbps MP3 at 64kbps with Audacity – 10:08 (18:09)
  • FLAC to MP3 music track compression time – 0:07 (0:13)

For these compression specific tasks the new build is almost twice as fast as my old system, not a bad improvement at all.

Power Usage

The reason to go through with this upgrade was not only to get better performance, but also keep my power usage as low as possible since this machine is on 24/7.

  • Original Build – 44W
  • Original + Video Card – 54W
  • New Build – 53W

While not as much of a decrease as I had hoped, it is still a move in the right direction and the system is substantially more powerful than it used to be.

Core i7 Sandybridge PC Build

I last built a workstation about 2 years ago when I put together a Core 2 Duo box. It was solid machine and in day to day activities had more than enough computing power. Lately, however, I have been doing more video encoding and RAW photo editing and consequently decided that I needed a machine with better performance in those areas.

 

 

 

 

PC Specs

Performance

For video compression tasks using Handbrake and Adobe Premiere Elements, this new PC is easily three times faster than my old Core 2 Duo machine. It is also noticably faster at image manipulation tasks, especially converting RAW files to JPEG.

Power Usage

  • Idle:  90W
  • Video Compression:  150W
  • Gaming:  205W

These numbers are roughly in line with my previous PC, although the idle is actually lower. This is a fantastic result for a significantly more powerful machine.

Noise and Heat

My last PC was a particularly quiet machine thanks to its case’s usage of large, low RPM fans and noise reduction foam. Hard drive isolation was the only area where faltered. This time around I decided to go with a different case. In some of their cases Antec uses robust silicone cylinders to isolate the hard drive  from the case. These worked so fantastically on my Home Theater PC Build, that I decided to get a case that featured them this time as well. This combined with some low RPM fans makes this case about as quiet as my last build, minus the hard drive noise. I even purchased some Silverstone noise reduction foam as well as silicone fan mounts to cut down the noise and vibration even further.

The Core i7-2600 is a 95W processor which isn’t much heat for the Xigmatek cooler I chose to dissipate. In fact its fan never spins above its minimum RPM.

Home Theater PC / Media Server Software

The software setup for my new HTPC started with a clean install of Ubuntu 9.10. This went without a hitch and it was time to install the various software packages that I use to get my system in working order.

Network Sharing

  • Samba (located in the System -> Administration menu after installation)

In the Ubuntu repository this is called the system-config-samba package. This is a great GUI tool for setting up shares on a Windows network and allows me to view all the content on my HTPC on my Windows machines. Just input your Workgroup, what you want to share and who is allowed to view it. This tool makes this process much easier than editing configuration files. One thing that confused me at first was setting up user access; make sure to include the computer name of the user in the “Windows Username” field. For example “joe” didn’t work, but “DESKTOP\joe” did.

Backup

  • Scheduled Tasks (located in the System Tools menu after installation)

Called gnome-schedule in the repository this utility allows me to run a backup script at a particular time. This is basically a GUI frontend for CRON and therefore much easier for a Linux novice like myself. I run a RSYNC script every night at 2AM which synchronizes the hard drive containing my media archive with another hard drive. I have found this a better backup solution than having a RAID array because it doesn’t rely on any controller hardware or software. If one of the drives fails I can just replace it and copy the files to the new one. If I want to put the hard drives in another machine I can just take them out and plug them in, no other configuration is necessary. I realize there are drawbacks to this system, but I prefer something that I understand and know how to fix as opposed to other solutions that I have tried that have failed and cannot be fixed (ie. the Drobo).

Media Playback

  • VLC – media player
  • Miro – RSS media aggregator/player
  • Boxee – media center based on XBMC with great web integration

This is the standard media grabbing and playback package I have been using for a while now. I use VLC whenever I’m in keyboard and mouse mode to play video and audio files. Miro isn’t perfect, but it’s better than any other media aggregator I have tried. Boxee is fantastic for local playback as well as web content and it can be controlled via remote control. In the past Boxee was somewhat finicky when it came to your audio and video settings, but I have found the new Beta version to be much more stable.

Bittorrent

  • Deluge – my favorite torrent client, has the right balance of features and simplicity

Remote Control

  • LIRC – configured this for my Windows Media Center remote and it integrated perfectly with XBMC & Boxee

Accessories

  • GNOME Do – an awesome tool much like Quicksilver on the Mac, only for the GNOME desktop
  • pyRenamer – a fantastic, simple tool for renaming lots of files quickly

This setup served me well on my Studio Hybrid HTPC and is performing equally well on my new machine. I frequently try different software packages, but these core programs are always present on my home theater box.

Home Theater PC / Media Server Hardware

My first HTPC consisted of some leftover parts I had laying around integrated into a Shuttle XPC barebones system. My replacement for that system was a Dell Studio Hybrid which performed well, was relatively quiet, and used little electricity. The main limitation for both of these machines were their reliance on external hard drives for storage expansion. I wanted to build something with more storage and upgrade flexibility.

The following were my goals for my HTPC/media server build:

  • Storage Expandability – plenty of internal 3.5″ slots so I can reuse my current content storage drives and add more as needed in the future
  • Adequate Onboard Video – although not as powerful as nVidia’s or ATI’s products, Intel’s integrated graphics are fine for home theater use when paired with a decent CPU, they also use less power, and their Linux compatibility is generally better
  • Low Power – this system will be on 24 hours a day so it needs to be as efficient as possible
  • Quiet – this will sit next to my TV so it has to be as quiet as possible

Parts

The Antec Mini P180 has 5 internal hard drive bays, plenty of ventilation (120mm & 200mm fans) and sound reducing panels. While this case is much larger than either of my previous HTPCs, I was more than willing to sacrifice space for a better all-around system. The Intel BOXDB43LD motherboard has decent onboard graphics (an upgrade over the Studio Hybrid’s X3100), plenty of SATA ports for storage expansion and a decent assortment of AV ports. The Celeron E3300 processor fits my requirements for a processor that is cheap, powerful enough, and uses relatively little electricity. In order to make this build as quiet as possible I decided to use a fanless CPU heatsink. This is possible because the thermal dissipation required by the Celeron E3300 (65W) is low, the heatsink I chose is fairly large, and it should get plenty of airflow from the two case fans even when they are run at their lowest setting. 

Assembly

The build for this machine was fairly straightforward. The case has enough room to creatively route cables behind the motherboard to minimize air blockage. I mounted the DVD burner on the bottom because the top slot’s depth is limited by the huge 200mm top fan. I also rotated the CPU’s heatsink from its normal orientation to take advantage of the top fan’s airflow.

In order to take advantage of the SPDIF connection on the motherboard I built myself a coaxial SPDIF bracket using an old PCI bracket, a female RCA jack, some single conductor shielded cable, and a 3 pin female header. All you have to do is wire the center of the RCA jack to the pin of the header that connects to the signal pin on the motherboard using the center conductor of the cable. Then connect the cable’s shield to the outside of the RCA jack and the ground pin of the motherboard header.

Input Devices

I have used this control setup for a while now and it works very well for me:

  • Logitech K400 Wireless Keyboard & Touchpad – I have used a lot of different combinations of mice and keyboards with my home theater setup and this one is the best. It takes up less space, has great range, and features a solid keyboard with a very responsive touchpad.
  • Logitech Harmony 610 Remote (set to emulate a Windows Media Center remote) – This isn’t the most advanced Harmony remote, but it also isn’t ridiculously expensive

Performance

Superficially this machine performs about the same as the Studio Hybrid. I noticed slightly less CPU utilization when playing videos. This could be attributed to the improved graphics processor, although the X4500 does not support CPU offloading of video decoding for any format other than MPEG2.

Here’s a performance comparison between this build (bold) and my Studio Hybrid (in parenthesis):

  • Boot Time – 0:55 (1:00)
  • CD Rip to FLAC time – 2:16 (3:41)
  • FLAC to MP3 Compression time – 1:16 (1:31)

Based on this info it seems that the Celeron E3300 is somewhat more powerful than the Core 2 Duo T5800 in the Studio Hybrid. Some of the performance difference can be attributed to the slower hard drive in the Studio Hybrid and the CD ripping performance was definitely affected by the much faster DVD drive in the new HTPC. However, the MP3 compression test relies heavily on CPU performance alone and shows that the Celeron E3300 is a solid performer.

Power Usage

  • Idle – 42W
  • Play 720p Video – 51W
  • Play 1080p Video – 55W
  • FLAC to MP3 Compression – 64W
  • Average over a week – 44.2W

Previously I determined that my Studio Hybrid used an average of 27W over the course of a week. This is 39% less than the 44.2W average used by my new HTPC, however, it doesn’t take into account the two external hard drives I had attached to the Studio Hybrid that are now mounted internally. When you add in the 5W used by each of the two hard drives, it results in only a 16.3% power savings by the Studio Hybrid over my new HTPC. That’s pretty good considering this new system is faster and uses desktop instead of laptop components.

Noise & Heat

I am very happy that all of my attempts to keep this machine as quiet as possible were very successful. In terms of absolute volume its probably about the same as the Studio Hybrid, however, the fans on this system are much lower pitched and therefore blend into the background noise of the room a lot more. Another advantage is that when under heavy load the fans don’t spin up & generate more noise like they did on the Studio Hybrid. The default cooling is more than enough for the low level of heat generated by this system. The CPU stays around 38C and the hard drives stay under 30C at all times.

Update – GPU Upgrade (April 2011)

I recently decided to upgrade the video capability of my Home Theater PCby installing an Asus EN210 video card which uses the nVidia GeForce 210 GPU. This is a great low power (it uses about 5W at idle) card that is especially ideal for home theater applications since it is fanless and consequently silent.

While this new video card hasn’t made a night and day change in video quality, it has smoothed out some of the rough edges presented by the onboard Intel graphics. Most notably I can now use the VDPAU option in Boxee, which utilizes the GPU to decode h.264 and MPEG2 video resulting in a lower CPU load as well as reduced power consumption (up to 10W) when playing video. I can also now use the deinterlacing option, which would previously push the CPU too hard and make videos lag. Flash video also seems to play more smoothly than before, although I am unsure if the version of Flash for Linux supports GPU offloading as it does on Windows.

As a bonus, for some reason Audacity is now much smoother than it used to be when scrubbing through an audio file.

Dual-Boot PC w/ Toggle Switch

This is a project that I had planned on doing when I first built my new PC about a month ago. I have used software dual-boot computers before and while it can be handy I found the negatives to be too great to continue on that path. In order to dual-boot Windows and Linux you first install Windows in its own partition and then install Linux in a separate partition. In this arrangement you use the Linux bootloader to choose which OS to run on startup. This works fine unless you have to reinstall Windows; which as we all know needs to be done from time to time. Windows will then overwrite your Linux bootloader making your Linux partition inaccessible. While it is true that you can modify the bootloader to access Linux or reinstall the Linux bootloader using a liveCD, this is a fairly complicated process. I much prefer having completely separate installations of the two operating systems.

In order to achieve this I decided to build a hardware solution for switching between OS’s. The idea here is that I will use two separate hard drives and physically choose which of the two receives power, thereby only allowing one hard drive at a time to boot on startup. This is easily accomplished using two pieces of hardware:

  1. 4PDT toggle switch
  2. SATA power cable splitter

SATA_SwitchThe switch I chose is not a normal toggle switch. This model features a locking lever which helps to prevent inadvertently switching power to or from the hard drives. This is necessary since accidentally flipping the switch while the computer is running would crash the OS similar to unplugging the system from the wall. The locking lever works by using a spring loaded plunger with a pointy tip mounted on the lever. When in either ON position the tip fits into a notch on the switch body which prevents it from moving. In order to flip the switch you must pull out on the plunger which raises the tip out of the notch, thereby allowing the lever to be moved to the other ON position.

SATA_Harness1SATA1As you can see from the photos I cut the splitter cable in to 3 pieces: (1) power socket which plugs into my PC’s power supply & (2) right angle plugs that will attach to my hard drives. Normally a SATA hard drive power cable has 5 conductors: (1) 12V line, (1) 5V line, (1) 3.3V line & (2) grounds. The orange 3.3V line is rarely used and consequently removed it from the connectors, leaving me with 4 conductors each that needed to be wired to the switch. I added extensions using 22AWG wire so that the plugs could reach from the switch (mounted on the front panel) to the hard drive bays. The front panel of my PC case is made of aluminum, including the removable drive bay covers. This provided me with a fairly sturdy mount for my switch. I simply drilled a 1/4″ hole in the empty 3 1/2″ floppy drive bay cover and mounted the switch. After plugging in the power socket and hard drive plugs I reassembled my PC and tested my dual-boot setup.

SATA2SATA_Harness2This is a really simple and robust way to dual-boot a PC in my opinion since you essentially have two independent PCs using the same hardware. The only disadvantage this has versus a software dual-boot system is that I cannot access the same data from either OS since they are on separate hard drives. For me this is a minor issue since I use my HTPC as a data server which is equally accessible regardless of which OS I choose to run. I’m very pleased with this setup and it’s definitely worth the $17 in parts and about an hour of time I put into it.

Core 2 Duo PC Build

PC_front-backI had been thinking about building a new PC for a while now since my old desktop is about 4 years old and is becoming woefully under-powered. I also wanted a more powerful machine since my old box can’t run newer OS’s like Windows Vista without struggling. While I like Linux a lot and it has its place, after using it almost exclusively for my main OS over the last 18 months I’ve come to the conclusion that it isn’t the best for most of the media creation and editing tasks that I have been doing more and more of. I will also be using this machine for PC gaming and I might as well get the most for my money by using it to its fullest. In addition to building a more powerful PC I wanted to make this computer as quiet as possible as well as get a new monitor.

Below is a comparison of my two systems:

Old PC Specs

  • Case – Antec SLK1650B (ATX Mid-tower)
  • Power Supply – Antec Earthwatts 500 (500W)
  • CPU – AMD Athlon 64 X2 3800+ (2.0GHz)
  • CPU Cooler – Artic Cooling Freezer 64 Pro (92mm Fan)
  • Motherboard – ASUS A8N5X (nVidia nForce 4 Chipset)
  • GPU – nVidia 7900GS (256MB VRAM)
  • RAM – 1GB Kingston Dual Channel DDR 400
  • Hard Drive – 250GB Western Digital Caviar (8MB Cache, IDE)
  • Optical Drive – LG 16x DVD Burner (IDE)
  • Monitor – Princeton Graphics Senergy 714 (17″, 1280×1024)

New PC Specs

  • Case – Cooler Master Sileo 500 (ATX Mid-tower)
  • Power Supply – Corsair CMPSU-450VX (450W)
  • CPU – Intel Core 2 Duo E8400 (3.0GHz)
  • CPU Cooler – Asus V60 (92mm Fan)
  • Motherboard – Gigabyte GA-EP45-UD3L (Intel P45 Chipset)
  • GPU – ATI Radeon 4850 (512MB VRAM)
  • RAM – 4GB G.Skill Dual Channel DDR2 800
  • Hard Drive – 320GB Western Digital Caviar (16MB Cache, SATA)
  • Optical Drive – LG 22x DVD Burner (SATA)
  • Wireless – Edimax EW7727IN 802.11b/g/n (PCI card)
  • Monitor – Samsung 2243BWX (22″, 1680×1050)

PC_inside1My new PC easily bests my previous model not only in performance, but build quality and noise reduction as well. The Cooler Master Sileo 500 case that I used has much better build quality than my old Antec case. It is much stiffer with less vibration and has noise reducing foam applied to the top, bottom and both sides of the case. It also has two 120mm fans that run at a low RPM and are virtually silent. Other nice features include toolless hard drive and optical drive installation.

PC_inside2The Asus V60 CPU cooler is also very quiet and keeps the CPU temperature below what the stock cooler could do. In order to get a quiet graphics card I purchased a dual slot model from MSI which uses a larger heatsink and fan than normal and does a significantly better job of cooling than a typical cooler would do. To keep the noise down when I’m not gaming I adjusted the GPU fan speed in ATI’s Catalyst Control Center to around 45%. This doesn’t impede the card’s ability to cool the GPU, while greatly reducing the noise output of the fan. When I want to play a game I just set the fan back to automatic control and it adjusts the fan speed to keep the GPU from overheating.

My new Samsung monitor is also a significant upgrade over my old unit. Besides the higher resolution, it also has better black levels, higher contrast and a faster response time. It also features a very adjustable stand that allows the screen to be raised and lowered as well as pivoting into a portrait position. This monitor is also much more configurable than my previous model, with several handy brightness/contrast presets.

I am very pleased with my new PC build. This system runs Windows Vista very well and has more than enough power for the games I want to play. I also did some power usage measurements and found that they were similar to my old PC, around 100W during typical usage and close to 200W while gaming, not bad for a significantly more powerful machine.