I haven't written about this yet, but I probably should before too much time passes. A couple of months ago, I finally decided that the last iteration of the Damagebox, based on an Athlon 64 X2 3800 overclocked to 2.4GHz, had served me well long enough. It was time to upgrade my main PC.
Now, mind you, this system isn't exactly the typical enthusiast desktop, since it sits in my office and serves as my main work PC. My willingness to tinker with it is limited by my fear of unproductive downtime. On top of that, I've migrated almost all of my gaming activities over to my GPU test rigs, since they're attached to the gorgeous 30" LCD that I, ahem, must have for graphics testing. (These things happen, and we must learn to accept them.)
My main PC's workload became even lighter when I built a storage server that sits in the corner of my office handling file, print and other various services for my network. In the past, my own system served as Damage Labs' main file and print server, which could become inconvenient when my wife wanted to print a document while I was halfway into installing new video drivers or otherwise tinkering.
So really, my Athlon 64 X2-based system wasn't terribly burdened or slow at what I was asking it to do—mostly a mix of web surfing, email, IMs, Skype conferencing, MP3 playback, file downloads, web editing, spreadsheets, and image processing, sprawled across dual displays—but it was a little bit on the noisy side. When I built it, I put it into a CoolerMaster WaveMaster-style case that I happened to have on hand, and I told myself I'd move in into a quieter case soon. Well, time passed, and that never happened, even though I've had a Sonata II sitting in a box in the corner for most of the life of this system.
Plumber, leaky sink, you know the drill.
In fact, I'd been planning this upgrade long enough to watch some of the hardware I had set aside for the project go out of date. But the fan noise of the old system was grating, and I kind of figured I ought to be using Windows Vista on my main PC just to make myself more familiar with it.
So after rummaging around in Damage Labs for the appropriate parts, deciding which ones I didn't need for test rigs any longer, I put together a system based on the following components.
I briefly considered using an XFX nForce 680i SLI mobo instead, but I was concerned about its relatively high power consumption (which turns into heat and thus noise) and support for 45nm processors. The Gigabyte P35 seemed like a better choice overall.
However, a thought struck me, and the logic of it was inescapable. Based on my own testing, the Radeon HD 3850 512MB offered nearly equivalent 3D performance with markedly lower power consumption, especially at idle, where this card would spend most of its time. I had on hand a Visiontek HD 3850 512MB card I'd ordered for use in a review and never actually needed, complete with a higher-than-stock clock and a very nice dual-slot cooler that ejects hot air from the enclosure. The HD 3850 GPU has HD video decode assist capabilities that the GeForce lacks, and on the P35 chipset, it can run in a dual-card config, which Nvidia prevents GeForces from doing. In what way was the HD 3850 not a better choice?
Also, I have to confess to having a soft spot for the Radeon HD 3850 512MB. AMD produced one of the best video card values in years, yet it was largely overshadowed by the GeForce 9600 GT. In any other year, a card like the 3850 512MB would have been the hottest thing going.
However, my storage setup is the source of one of my biggest complaints about this build: Raptors are frickin' loud on seek, and Vista keeps the hard drive busy almost constantly, for reasons I mostly understand but still can't quite accept. The acoustic problem is multiplied by the fact that the two Raptors seek together in RAID 1. It's pretty bad—especially, heh, with almost no fan noise to drown it out. I've told myself I'll buy a pair of newer, relatively quick 7200-RPM drives to replace the Raptors eventually.
Initially, I installed another PSU with a big fan, an OCZ GameXStream 700W. I've used these in my test systems for ages, and they've quieted down the confines of Damage Labs considerably. However, I was surprised to learn that once it was installed in this case and powering everything, the GameXStream tended to crank up its fan speed quite a bit—even at idle. That simply wouldn't do, and swapping it out in favor of the CoolerMaster bought me a nice reduction in overall fan noise.
Turns out, based on my casual evaluation, that shroud is pretty much no help, either with system temperatures or acoustics. I soon gave up on it, and it's no surprise Antec left it out of the Sonata III.
The stock Intel cooler wasn't horrible, but it was loud enough to bug me once I had the PSU fan under control. The QX6800 is a 130W processor, and I considered dropping down to a Q6600. However, my major concern was idle noise, and SpeedStep would remove any difference between the QX6800 and Q6600 at idle. So I decided to try the Zalman.
This meant tearing the motherboard out of the now the fully built system. The Zalman's mounting bracket must be installed on the underside of the board, so there was no way around it. On top of that, Gigabyte mounts a big hunk of copper below the CPU socket on some of its DQ6 boards, and that gets in the way of the Zalman's bracket. I had to remove it, which is possible, but still a pain.
Gigabyte made it up to me by providing near-perfect automatic speed control for my older Zalman 9500's three-pin fan. I test cooling and acoustics on most new builds using the combination of a multithreaded Prime95 torture test, a windowed 3D graphics demo, and whatever temperature monitoring software works with the mobo. Happily, Gigabyte's smart fan control kept the Zalman spinning at very low RPMs at idle and only ramped up incrementally as needed under load, with no obvious transitions from one speed to the next and—blessedly—no tendency to flail back and forth between speed levels.
Not that I could really hear the Zalman's fan, anyhow. The thing just wasn't working very hard. With the stock cooler, CPU temps were flirting with 80°C with all four cores fully loaded, nearly into thermal throttling territory. With the Zalman, temps dropped to between 60 and 65° max, even with relatively low fan speeds. At idle, it was less than a whisper. This was a nice reminder about the worth of a good aftermarket CPU cooler, both for temperatures and for acoustics.
And that's about it. I installed some model of dual-layer SATA DVD writer, of course, and a 273-in-1 flash reader. The system is attached to the same keyboard, mouse, dual 20" Dell LCDs, and APC UPS that I've had forever. I may add a TV tuner card and a remote for use with Vista Media Center, but I haven't done that yet.
The end result brought a huge reduction in fan noise, but the constant seeking of the Raptors kind of spoils the effect. There's more work to be done, I suppose. Overall, though, I'm still fairly pleased with the results.
I guess I should say something about the performance gains, but honestly, they're not blowing me away. Yes, this system is snappier than my Athlon 64 X2, but as I said, I didn't have many complaints about performance before. The X2-based system rarely seemed slow, except when booting, paging from disk when memory got full, or launching a new application. Occasionally, rarely, both CPUs would get occupied when multitasking or when a program went sideways. The new PC seems quicker in all of those cases.
As I've mentioned before, though, I've run into serious problems with Vista network file sharing performance. This is far from ideal, since most of my data resides on a separate box. I've spent quite a bit of time looking into the issue since my last blog post on the subject, and I still haven't found a fix. I'm not sure whether to blame Realtek's drivers, Microsoft's Vista SP1 update, or a combination of the two for the problems, but I'm currently leaning toward Realtek. Some of their more recent driver drops have had changelogs that mention fixes for some scary problems. Unfortunately, they haven't resolved the problem causing my PC to drop connectivity to the file server yet. In all likelihood, my next step will be moving to a discrete NIC to see if that helps.
Beyond that, well, I've had almost no problems with application compatibility or system stability in Vista x64. Of course, I did some planning ahead of time to make sure that my hardware was compatible, including replacing the Revo 7.1 sound card and moving my HP DeskJet all-in-one over to a WinXP-based print server to ensure full support for all of its capabilities. These were reasonable accommodations to make for older hardware, though, and I had planned to make those changes during my next upgrade, regardless.
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