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The making of the new Damagebox


Building a new dual-core system
— 12:00 AM on November 2, 2005

EVEN THOUGH I run a computer hardware website and spend my days playing with all of the latest goodies, I don't actually upgrade my own PC all that often. I learned long ago not to stick review hardware into my own PC, for fear of messing up the main system on which I do my work. Swapping cutting-edge hardware in and out of your computer constantly is like doing cartwheels on a high wire—you're seriously asking for trouble. Besides, moving all of your stuff from one PC to the next is a trying process, and I'd rather avoid it whenever possible.

My last PC upgrade was just over two years ago, though, and I recently decided that it was time for me to upgrade again. My old system wasn't horrible; it was based on an Asus SK8N motherboard with a single Socket 940 and 2GB of registered DDR333 memory. However, the SK8N wasn't exactly a stellar board, based as it was on the iffy first-gen nForce3 chipset. This particular mobo was a pre-production job that I'd used for an early preview article and then snagged for my own use. On top of that, the thing was progressively dying. The NIC never did work right, and a few months ago, the secondary IDE controller (based on a Promise chip) gave up the ghost, robbing me of some storage capacity. (I lost access to my 40GB MP3 drive!) Then the system started locking up at random for no apparent reason—the kind of hard lock-ups that suggest hardware problems more than software, at least at first glance. I wasn't about to spend hours trying to troubleshoot an intermittent problem of that sort.

That was the final straw. It was time to build a new PC.

Of course, it didn't hurt that PCs have gained a broad range of nifty new features over the past couple of years. The combination of dual-core processors and Native Command Queuing for SATA hard drives promises new heights of multitasking bliss in desktop PCs, and I can't very well prattle on about the creamy smoothness of SMP without partaking of its delights myself. The transition to PCI Express has also limited the upgrade options for older AGP-based systems, especially when it comes to cutting-edge graphics cards, and that's no fun at all. Having a second PCI Express slot for some dual-graphics action might be nice, at some point, and you don't get that with AGP. I also like a quiet computer, and the SK8N doesn't support AMD's Cool'n'Quiet dynamic clock speed and voltage throttling capability. All of this new stuff would certainly be nice to have.

Plus, I had some additional objectives that I wanted to accomplish with a new PC build. Because my PC is my main work system, our always-on local file and print server, and holds gobs of precious testing data, I needed a better storage solution—namely, a large RAID 1 mirror. I also wanted the system to look nice and have a few new bells and whistles that my last box didn't have.

The parts
So I gathered together whatever hardware I could manage, and I built a new system. Here's a quick look at the components, with my justification for each choice. Note that my hardware choices weren't intended to be the most EXTREME possible, as if my PC were auditioning for some Mountain Dew commercial. I was aiming for a good price-performance ratio, and I wasn't shy about using perfectly good components from my parts shelf or my old PC.

  • AMD Athlon 64 X2 3800+ processor — The Athlon 64 X2 is undoubtedly the processor of choice these days, and the 3800+ is the most affordable model. Given its likely overclockability, I don't see much reason to pay more for a higher model. As I said in my review of the X2 3800+, taking this chip to 2.4GHz makes for a very livable overclock:
    Now, that's a sweet overclock all by itself, but hitting 2.4GHz has the added benefit of bringing everything into line. When the memory clock is set to the proper divider for DDR333 operation and the HyperTransport clock is raised to 240MHz, the memory actually runs at 400MHz even. Lock down the PCI and PCI-E bus speeds using the motherboard's BIOS, and you're running virtually everything but the CPU and HyperTransport link at stock speeds. I was able to leave the RAM timings at 2-2-2-5, nice and tight. This is the sort of overclock I could live with for everyday use.
    Having a pair of K8 cores running at 2.4GHz should make for decent performance, too.

  • DFI LANParty UT nF4 SLI-DR motherboard — I'd used this motherboard for quite a bit of CPU testing, and it had been solid and trouble-free for me. Not only that, but the tweaking options that DFI has built into this board are extensive, and the mag-lev chipset cooling fan is reasonably quiet for an nForce4 mobo without a fancy heatpipe like the Asus A8N-SLI Premium.

    Also, this board happens to look totally pimp under black light—not that a mature, responsible individual like me would care about such things. But I did use the included bright-yellow I/O cables to connect all of the drives, and there are a couple of cold cathodes in the case. Fo shizzle.

  • Four Corsair XMS3200XL 512MB DIMMs — I've had 2GB of memory in my Pee Cee for years now, and no way was I going to settle for less. Corsair is a great brand, but frankly, I wouldn't hesitate to choose any of the major enthusiast brands of memory these days, including Kingston, OCZ, Mushkin, and Crucial, to name a few. All feature lifetime warranties with no-hassle replacements, and with the exception of Crucial, they all use the same pool of chips to make their products. (Crucial is an arm of Micron and doesn't tend to shop around like the others.)

    As for whether or not it's really worth paying a premium for fancy low-latency or high-clock-speed DIMMs, well, we just published an article examining that very issue. The bottom line: value-wise, you're probably better off going with cheaper RAM that runs at slower timings. Nevertheless, I went with some fancy DIMMs that could give me very low latencies through tight 2-2-2 timings, because I had them on hand.

  • XFX GeForce 7800 GTX 256MB graphics card — This card was the Editor's Choice winner in our 7800 GTX round-up, so I definitely liked it. I have to admit, though, that I picked this card mostly because I already had it on hand and available. If I were buying a new card for myself, I'd probably be choosing between a GeForce 7800 GT and a Radeon X1800 XL. The 7800 GT would most likely get the nod on the basis of broader availability, current street prices, and its ability to run in SLI mode on my nForce4 motherboard.

  • M-Audio Revolution 7.1 sound card — This one is a transplant from my previous system. The Revo initially captured our hearts a couple of years ago when it did what few other cards at the time could do: reproduce audio streams with clarity and 24 bits of precision using decent quality DACs for under $100. Since then, the perennially retarded sound card market has made little progress, with the notable and happy exception of Creative's Sound Blaster X-Fi audio processor. M-Audio has done almost nothing to improve the Revo's drivers, which have never been all that great for gaming. I still enjoy the Revo's crisp sound, but I may pony up for an X-Fi card soon and relegate the M-Audio card to service in a home theater PC.

    This motherboard also has relatively decent built-in audio thanks to DFI's Karajan audio module, which situates the Realtek audio codec on a separate riser card. Rather than disable this second sound subsystem, I connected some external audio ports on the top of the case to the integrated audio module so that I can use a headset for voice-enabled apps without having to disconnect the speakers from the Revo's outputs around back.

  • Two Maxtor MaXLine III 250GB hard drives in RAID 1 — The MaXLine III is a 7200-RPM drive with SATA, Native Command Queuing, and a 16MB onboard cache—not a bad drive. It's very similar to the DiamondMax Plus 10, which we liked pretty well when we reviewed it. Even more importantly, Maxtor's NCQ implementation performs well in multitasking scenarios, which is important given the way I use my PC. Also, I had two of these, pre-production eval units, on hand. I wouldn't trust a single pre-production drive with my data, but two of 'em in a mirror is OK, I suppose.

    I seriously considered dropping the cash on a pair of 400GB WD Caviar RE2 drives instead, because I think they're the best all-around 7200-RPM drives available.

  • WD Raptor WD740GD 74GB hard drive — Even without NCQ, the Raptor is still the fastest SATA drive around, thanks to its 10K-RPM spindle speeds. Unfortunately, the Raptor's usefulness is seriously hampered by its relatively small 74GB capacity. I had one Raptor on hand that I considered making my Windows boot volume, perhaps as part of a RAID 0 array with a second one, but I didn't want a single drive's failure to force me to reinstall the OS. In the end, I decided put the Raptor's 10K-RPM speeds to use conquering a pet peeve of mine: slow level load times in games. The Raptor now serves as my game install volume. If I lose the data on that drive due to a drive failure, it might crimp my leisure time, but it won't knock me totally out of commission. I've also configured Windows to use the Raptor for its page file, giving me an additional, speedy physical volume for paging.

  • Sony DVD-U10A DVD RW combo drive — Transplanted from my old computer. No, it's not dual-layer, but it writes DVDs on either media type (plus or dash), and it hasn't given me much trouble. Also, it has a black front face, so it matches the scheme. I couldn't be bothered to look for a faster drive at this point. I also threw in a Sony DVD drive to make disc-to-disc copies easier and to give me another slot for game "play" CDs.

  • Mitsumi combo floppy/6-in-1 flash card reader — Also with a black front face. This gives me the ability to read a floppy disk in case I really must, but it also enables the computer to read virtually all of the popular flash card formats, including CompactFlash, SD, SmartMedia, and Memory Sticks—all in one 3.5" external drive slot. These things rule.

  • Generic 56K modem — This allows me to record phone interviews, and I could use it to dial up and get online in the event of a broadband outage. Otherwise, I hate modems.

  • Enermax 565W power supply — From the parts shelf. It's nothing too special, but it's from a decent brand and has a nice, big rating. Should allow me to run SLI if I want.

  • CoolerMaster WaveMaster ATX case — This enclosure has a swanky brushed-aluminum look, a built-in case window, and doesn't run too terribly loud. I really liked the Antec Sonata that housed my old PC, but its PSU and cooling were iffy for newer hardware. The Sonata was quieter than the WaveMaster, though, even with an auxiliary fan installed. I'm seriously considering moving this new system into a Sonata II soon. The WaveMaster looks great and will serve for now, but its drive cage placement makes for cramped quarters and messy cable routing.
Those are the basic components. I don't think I've missed anything too important. I didn't have the production budget or aesthetic aspirations of a Superbowl halftime show, but I did want a nice, fast, solid PC.