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To x64 or not to x64?
One of my big goals at the outset of this project was to install and run Windows XP Pro x64 Edition as the OS on this new PC. To that end, I checked around to make sure that my components were WinXP x64 compatible. Sure enough, pretty much all of 'em had 64-bit drivers by now, at least in beta form, so I ordered up an OEM copy of the operating system. After it arrived, I realized that I hadn't checked on drivers for my HP all-in-one printer/copier/fax/scanner/toaster oven. Turns out that HP doesn't yet have 64-bit drivers available for this printer, and the OS doesn't ship with even basic drivers for it. It's currently not possible to print to this printer from a WinXP x64 machine, even when printing over a network through a print server.

I like the idea of going to Windows XP x64 Edition. I think 64-bit computing is a good and useful thing, and I like that the Windows Explorer interface is more multithreaded in x64. It feels faster. Also, WinXP x64 has better scheduling for multi-core processors.

But I darn well need to print from my computer, and I wasn't going to give that up. So back to the 32-bit version of Windows XP it was, and the x64 Edition sits on the shelf, waiting for a better day. I'd bet that lots of folks have had similar experiences with this OS, and it's a shame that 64-bit stuff hasn't gotten more traction in desktop computing. I'm afraid that it won't until Windows Vista arrives.

Paging Oskar Wu!
I chose the DFI LANParty NF4 SLI-DR motherboard because it had been a model citizen for me when I'd used it in past testing for reviews, but when it came time to build my own system around it, things changed. Seems like they always do when I'm working on my own, personal PC. I can pick my way around problems with finicky pre-production hardware everyday while working on a review, but when I start working on a PC for myself, the wheels come off. Previously stable hardware develops a serious need for counseling, and my IQ drops 60 points, making troubleshooting nearly impossible.

Foolishly confident in the DFI board and in my ability to build a system, I installed pretty much all of the core hardware for this system into the case, attached everything, and then fired it up. No go. Thus began a long troubleshooting process in which I disconnected absolutely everything unessential from the DFI board, removed it from the case, and was still unable to get it to POST. Power would come on, the screen would remain blank, and three of the board's four boot-time troubleshooting LEDs would light up. Then nothing. I spent what must've been hours working through the problem, swapping out different configurations of video cards, memory, and processors.

After some work, I was able to get the system to POST, but only intermittently. The problem seemed to be related to several things, including:

  • The number and positions of the DIMMs in the memory slots
  • The PCI Express slot used for graphics and possibly the type of card
  • The type of memory used
I found that when I varied these things, the system seemed more likely to POST. With lots of different types of cards, CPUs, and DIMMs on hand, I was able to rule out any one component as the sole source of problem. Of course, I tried flashing it to the latest BIOS rev, and I attempted various BIOS tweaks, like very conservative memory timings and higher DIMM voltages. Nothing I did would make the thing POST reliably from a cold boot.

I googled around and found that lots of other folks had run into similar problems with this board, but I didn't find any definitive solutions. Then I got lucky, I suppose, and discovered something about this problem, at least in my case, that was something of a fix. Turns out that if you leave the board on for a while after powering it up, like two to five minutes, it will pretty much always go ahead and POST eventually. You've just got to be patient.

In the end, I basically tweaked the board for stability and performance, using the built-in Metest86+ bootable option in its BIOS to test, and left it at that. I don't reboot all that often, and so long as I know that the thing is going to come back out of its momentary coma and POST, I can live with the intermittent boot-time delay. Perhaps a newer BIOS or some magic memory timings tweak will fix the problem once and for all, but until then, I'll live with it.

Installing Windows and.. installing Windows again
My next challenge was installing Windows XP, a straightforward task I've done tens, if not hundreds, of times. To make things even easier on myself, I decided to use an old trick that would let me avoid having to make a floppy disk with the NVIDIA RAID drivers on it: install the OS on a single drive, then install the RAID drivers, and then use Ghost to copy an image of the boot drive to the RAID 1 array. I'd done it multiple times in the past, and it seemed like the right way to go.

So I installed the OS from an installation CD, immediately installed Service Pack 2, and then installed the NVIDIA chipset drivers, because those include the basic level drivers necessary for things like Ethernet networking. Upon rebooting, though, the system wouldn't boot into the OS properly. After several failed boot attempts, I decided that the NVIDIA IDE drivers must have been causing a problem, so I told WinXP to boot from the Last Known Good Configuration. Doing so allowed the OS to boot, but it also made this Windows install into a total head case. I uninstalled and reinstalled the NVIDIA drivers multiple times, but every time the NVIDIA storage drivers were installed, they rendered the system unable to boot. (Yes, I know I could have simply used the Microsoft drivers for storage, but that won't work for RAID, and it robs you of NCQ.)

Believe it or not, I had to start over again—wipe the drive and reinstall Windows. Hard to believe that one would run into such basic problems with the nForce4 at this late stage in its lifespan.

The second install went more smoothly, even though I followed the exact same procedure as before: install the OS on a single drive, install SP2, and then install the NVIDIA chipset drivers, including the IDE drivers. This time, the OS would boot just fine with the NVIDIA storage drivers installed. However, I didn't yet have the NVIDIA RAID drivers installed, because the BIOS wasn't set to RAID mode and I didn't have any arrays defined. I was stuck in a catch-22: turning on RAID mode would render the system unbootable, but I couldn't install the NVIDIA RAID drivers without having RAID enabled.

I deftly stepped around this problem by installing drivers for the auxiliary Promise SATA controller on the DFI board and booting from that. Then I was able to boot the system into Windows with NVIDIA RAID enabled and install the NVIDIA MediaShield storage drivers. Smart, eh? So I thought.

My next step was to create a RAID 1 array and copy an image of my Windows boot drive on to the array. Then I'd be up and running, with all of the proper storage drivers installed. I created an array in the RAID BIOS, imaged the drive's contents to the array with Ghost, and attempted to boot.

No go. Operating system not found. The system would not boot from the RAID 1 array, even with the MediaShield drivers installed.

After pulling out several clumps of hair, I went and created a floppy disk with the NVIDIA RAID drivers on it. I used the F6 trick to specify additional storage devices during the Windows install routine, and all was well. I brought some of this on myself, I guess, but I still can't believe it took three attempts just to install Windows. Building a PC isn't always easy, even though we've made big steps in the past five to ten years.