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.

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.

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.

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.