An upgrade tale

— 8:27 PM on November 5, 2006

I've put together a few PCs for friends and family over the years, but I've generally chosen to upgrade my own system bit by bit. My previous Athlon 64 3200+ machine progressively evolved from an old 1GHz Athlon PC I purchased in 2001, although eventually none of the original parts remained. Still, this machine was beginning to fall apart, so I decided I wanted a fresh start. Late last month, I got hold of my credit card and ordered the following parts from French online retailers LDLC and
  • Processor: Intel Core 2 Duo E6400
  • Processor cooler: Zalman CNPS9500 LED
  • Motherboard: MSI P965 Platinum
  • Memory: 2*1GB Corsair ValueSelect DDR2-667
  • Graphics card: MSI GeForce 7900 GTO
  • Hard drives: 2*320GB Western Digital Caviar SE16
  • DVD drive: Samsung SH-W163A
  • Sound card: M-Audio Revolution 5.1 (taken from my old system)
  • Case: Antec P180
  • Power Supply: Seasonic S12 430W
The picks
My part choices were a customized blend of selections from the Grand Experiment and Sweet Spot systems in our October system guide with some changes made to accommodate local availability/pricing as well as my taste for quietness. In particular, I opted for Western Digital Caviar SE16 hard drives in spite of their three-year warranties because of their low noise levels. I also selected MSI's newly-released P965 Platinum, which was at the time unavailable in the U.S., because of its lower price and more or less similar feature set compared to the Abit AB9 Pro.

The GeForce 7900 GTO was more of an impulse buy I made before purchasing the rest of the system. After having spent more time looking at benchmarks, though, I now think the Radeon X1900 XT 256MB offers slightly better value. This is assuming one can actually find either card, since they both seem to be in very tight supply at the moment.

Another odd choice was the Samsung SH-W163A DVD burner. I picked this drive over the NEC model we normally recommend for two reasons: one, its price was roughly the same, and two, it uses Serial ATA connectivity. This feature allowed me to build a system 100% free of IDE cables, and I didn't want to pass up that chance. Sadly, the Samsung SH-W163A doesn't seem to be available in the U.S. right now. Nevertheless, I plan to write another blog post with a more thorough evaluation of this drive once I find some decent recordable DVDs to test its writing quality, so stay tuned.

The assembly
Getting all the parts into the case was pretty painless thanks to the Antec P180's drive rails, pre-mounted motherboard standoffs, and spacious design. However, getting power cables connected and organized properly was a nightmare. The P180 has a "flipped" design that places the power supply at the bottom of the case, and while this is a splendid idea from a cooling perspective, I think the folks at Antec forgot that power supplies generally have cables poking out that users might occasionally want to plug into things to make their computer go. After a long while spent struggling and doing my best not to block airflow or have cables obstructing blades from the fan in the bottom compartment, this is about the neatest cable arrangement I could come up with:

That's with the hard drives safely tucked away in the bottom compartment, by the way. Putting them next to the graphics card in those little trays would probably result in an even bigger mess, especially considering the GeForce 7900 GTO's length.

As annoying as working in the P180 may be, though, this case is otherwise superb. The side panels and front door are made of three composite layers (two aluminum and one plastic,) so they pretty much don't resonate or vibrate as steel panels tend to do. Tap your finger on the side of the case and you'll hear a dull thump, pretty much like tapping on a wooden beam. Do the same thing on a steel case and you'll probably hear a much louder metallic clang. The end result of those fancy, space-age panels is a case that pretty much doesn't amplify the sound of hard drives or fans. With the three bundled speed-adjustable fans at their lowest setting, I honestly have a hard time telling whether my system's on or off if I'm a couple of meters away from my desk. Considering my previous case was an Antec Sonata, the fact that the P180 is that much quieter with more or less similar processor and graphics card cooling is quite impressive indeed.

Still, if I had it my way, the P180 would have one Molex connector near each fan with cables running along the sides of the case and all leading to a single, easily-accessible Molex plug near the hard drive compartments. That way, you could at least power all the fans without having PSU cables running all over the place. Putting a grill against the bottom fan would be good, too—it just wasn't any fun listening in horror and scrambling to hit the power button as my newly-built system emitted a horrible grinding sound because the bottom fan blades were rubbing against an SATA cable.

The completed system
All in all, I'm pretty pleased with this machine. Performance is high, noise levels are low, and the thing feels about as smooth to work with as a sled constructed entirely of butter that's sliding down a perfectly smooth glacier, with a frightened homeless man at the helm tragically unable to stop gravity's cruel design. I haven't really had a proper go at overclocking yet—nothing I do really justifies the extra horsepower, and my RAM isn't particularly suited to it anyway—but I'll relate my experiences with that once I've had more time.

If I had to do this all again (the computer building part, not the pushing a homeless man down a glacier part,) I'd probably grab a Radeon X1900 XT 256MB graphics card with a Zalman VF900-Cu for cooling instead of the GeForce 7900 GTO, mainly because of the ATI card's better AA/AF image quality. I'd also probably pick a Thermalright SI-128 heatsink with a low-speed 120mm fan to cool my processor. To be honest, the Zalman CNPS9500 is a splendid piece of work, but I think Zalman could really have picked a quieter fan. Even at its lowest setting, the CNPS9500's 92mm fan is definitely the loudest thing in my system, and it made an annoying high-pitched whine for the first few days after I built this machine. Considering how well everything is behaving overall, though, it's hard to complain.

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