The making of the Damagebox Quad

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In fact, I’d been planning this upgrade long enough to watch some of the hardware I had set aside for the project go out of date.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.

  • Intel Core 2 Extreme QX6800 — Hey, there are benefits to being able to raid the parts bin in Damage Labs every so often. The QX6800 has been superceded by 65nm chips with faster bus speeds and by 45nm chips with faster, well, everything. Still, my testing showed that this 2.93GHz quad Core 2 processor isn’t limited by its 1066MHz bus in the vast majority of apps, and, heh, it’s a 2.93GHz quad Core 2 processor. This puppy does have an unlocked multiplier, but I haven’t taken advantage of it yet—and I may not. Acoustics are my big concern, and higher-bin CPUs typically don’t overclock especially well.
  • Gigabyte P35-DQ6 — After using the DDR3 version of this board on my CPU test bench, I went out of my way to have Geoff ship me this board from Canada. The P35 chipset doesn’t have PCIe 2.0, but it’s otherwise current. And really I like what Gigabyte has done with its newer motherboards. The BIOS tweaking page is full-featured and (relatively speaking, at least) easy to understand, and the board gets by with only passive cooling, which was a big plus for this build.
    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.

  • Visiontek Radeon HD 3850 512MB — This one may surprise those of you expecting to read about, in the Damagebox, a killer new PC. But hear me out. I had originally set aside for use in this system a GeForce 8800 GTS 640MB graphics card, with the expectation that I’d have a more-than-adequate video solution for occasional gaming (when I host small LAN parties for the guys in Damage Labs) that would also be nice and quiet most of the time. I even installed a GTS 640MB card in the box during the initial build.
    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.

  • Dual WD Raptor 150GB drives — The new Raptors weren’t out yet when I built this system, so these drives were the fastest SATA hard drives on the market than to their 10K-RPM rotational speed. Performance is definitely snappy. Their relatively low 150GB capacity wasn’t a big concern because my storage server holds most of my data, anyhow. I went with RAID 1 for the obvious reason: if one of the drives fails, I’m not out of commission. Not only that, but RAID 1 is simple; the recovery process isn’t dependent on a RAID controller understanding much of anything about the array in order to rebuild it. I don’t really trust motherboard-class RAID 5 or the like not to botch everything if I happen to mix up the SATA plugs after working inside the PC, let alone in the event of a drive failure.
    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.

  • Antec Sonata II — Yep, it was time to pull the Sonata II out of the corner. My first act, after unboxing it, was to remove the power supply, since it was old enough not to have the requisite complement of power connectors for my mobo and only a single PCIe six-pin aux lead. After that, the build was a snap, since the Sonata is simply a well-designed case with a smart layout. Of course, it’s also pretty darned quiet, with its single, 120mm exhaust fan. Without using the default Antec power supply, I couldn’t get PSU-based speed control for that fan, but the big fan comes with a three-way manual speed switch. I was able to leave it on its lowest setting at the end of the day, which is slow and stealthy.
  • CoolerMaster 850W PSU — Ok, so I’m writing this on an airplane, and I don’t recall the exact model PSU I used. It’s an 850 CoolerMaster with something like a 130mm single fan in it and enough power connectors and capacity to support a quad-core CPU, dual graphics cards, and a full complement of drives in the Sonata’s bays. Perhaps it’s overkill, but I had it on hand and wasn’t using it otherwise. And it’s blessedly quiet.
    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.

  • Zalman CNPS-9500 LED — If you’re getting the idea that achieving the best acoustics in this box was an iterative process, good for you. The Zalman was perhaps the biggest surprise of this whole build, even though I’ve known for ages that these CPU coolers are excellent. Initially, I decided to go with a stock Intel cooler, for several reasons: because I thought it would be sufficiently quiet at idle, because it had a four-pin connector for linear fan speed control, and because it would fit inside of the Sonata II’s funky cooling shroud thingamajig.
    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.

  • 4GB of Crucial DDR2-800 memory — With a 64-bit OS, I can actually use all of this memory, and I do need it for editing multiple eight-mega pixel images alongside all of the other multitasking I do—especially, heh, with Vista’s memory footprint. The RAM itself is decent memory from a quality vendor, but nothing particularly special. I don’t see the point in paying extra for slightly lower latencies or higher clock speeds.
  • Auzentech X-Meridian — I had to replace my trusty Revolution 7.1 sound card because it didn’t have drivers for 64-bit Vista, and frankly, I was ready to be free of M-Audio’s lousy driver support, anyhow. Before this C-Media-based replacement arrived, I used the DQ6’s onboard audio for a while, and the sound card was a noticeable improvement. This card produces clear, crisp audio with no annoying overemphasis on highs, lows, or mids. If anything, it’s an improvement over the Revo, although I’d have to do a back-to-back comparison to say how much. The drivers are fairly lightweight, unobtrusive, and seem to work fine.

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.

Comments closed
    • mattthemuppet
    • 11 years ago

    have you done any power consumption tests? Might be worth considering undervolting, especially if you’re not planning on overclocking for the time being, as it can make a considerable difference.

    If you really want to quiet those raptors, stick em inside a scythe drive box (I think voldenuit suggested the same) then suspend the drive box with knicker elastic (Ms Damage permitting). That should take them below the noise level of your system, which should then be pretty quiet, though with room for improvement 🙂

    • Prototyped
    • 11 years ago

    Is the problem that you have a GigE LAN and get 100 Mbit/s-esque performance with music playing? If so, see [1] — Vista throttles the interrupt rate, thereby crippling network performance, in order to allow stutter-less audio playback (owing to the design of its new audio stack, which, frankly, stinks).

    [1] /[<]§

    • ghstbstr65
    • 11 years ago

    What an amazing job. To just be able to go grab a quad core off the shelf…WOW

    • thefrog
    • 11 years ago

    What are the specs and the build for the storage server? Did I miss a posting on that?

      • Damage
      • 11 years ago

      I think the beef should weigh about 640GB. 😉

        • axeman
        • 11 years ago

        Yeah, the relative performance of high-density 7200 rpm drives versus the Raptor makes it pretty hard to justify the tradeoff of high cost per megabyte and increased sound levels, given the ever-smaller performance delta between the best 7200rpm units and the Raptor, especially in a desktop machine. Did that make sense? Terrible sentence, I know.

    • Voldenuit
    • 11 years ago

    Scott, don’t tell me you’ve fallen for the “Big PSU” scam? First, you tell us you selected the 3850 for power efficiency at idle, and then you pick a 850W PSU (and a Coolermaster at that)?

    The PSU will probably spend most of its time at 15-20% capacity, which is typically very low efficiency for most PSUs. You would have been better off with a good 500 or 600W PSU.

    Also, the 9500 is not the best heatsink for low-noise cooling, as shown by SPCR. A TRUE or Xigmatek 1283 with a Noctua NF-S12 would be much better, or a new Scythe Ninja with the bundled Slipstream for true quiet.

    I’m not nitpicking to be harsh here, but as the head of a leading tech site, you are in a position to be very influential with your build, and I just want to point out to others that there are alternatives to some of your choices, even if they might not suit you specifically.

    • oldDummy
    • 11 years ago

    I have dual 3850’s enroute right now….using the same [~] logic.

    My concern is with cooling in this SFF system…but that’s another story.

    Good Luck with your new build.

    • Flying Fox
    • 11 years ago

    This goes to show that the trend towards quieter computing is well on its way. Performance has reached a level (or people just use other means to play their games, consoles or not) that users don’t care too much anymore. They are now more concerned with noises and energy consumption.

      • Meadows
      • 11 years ago

      I’m starting to be concerned about energy consumption, but as a gamer I don’t give a rat’s ass about noise. Performance first. I got a sufficiently good 5.1 set for gaming and Sennheisers for gaming at night (I prefer sparing the neighbours). I’d be surprised if the noise of my 6 fans (louder when I kick in the high GPU preset from RivaTuner) would be noticeable, let alone distracting. Sure, you hear it when things go idle. But I personally enjoy the hum, I can sleep to it too, pretty well.

      That’s just my 2 to 5 cents on the subject.

    • fpsduck
    • 11 years ago

    Try to find the spinning Quake logo
    and you’ll get … Quad Damage. 😉

    (Anyone still remember the original Quake ?)

      • ludi
      • 11 years ago

      Quake, and the school residence LAN, were both only a year old when I started college. Also, I entered college with a Cyrix 5×86-100. Consequently, for mixed reasons, I very much remember Quake 😉

      I think QuakeWorld TF shaved at least 0.3 GPA off both semesters of my freshman year and the first semester of my sophmore year.

    • charlieWorton
    • 11 years ago

    The Sonata II is an excellent case, I use it a lot. Check your drive temps; the HD cage design encourages drive overheating, particularly with multiple drives. The cage has 4 holes that are pre-threaded for a 120 mm fan, and this provides an effective cooling solution. Without a fan the drives can become too hot to touch, which will cause failure within a few months.

    I build all of my machines with ICH9R raid 5, and it works quite well. With 4 drives I get data throughput rates around 110 MB/sec, which is about 50% faster than a single raptor and roughly double a normal 7200 rpm sata II drive. I’ve experienced a failed drive in an ICH9R Raid 5 array, and the system recovered flawlessly. I’ve also swapped cables into different drives, and found it made no difference.

    If the MB fails, in order to recover data it is necessary to use another ICH9R equipped MB. This can be problematic, especially if it occurs a few years down the road. For this reason, data backups on a separate external drive make good sense.

    However, the combination of extremely high data throughput speeds and protection against data loss in the event of 1 drive failure, make Raid 5 a valid choice for hardware enthusiasts.

    I do also like the concept of dual raptors in a raid 1 array. This provides good data throughput rates, excellent data redundancy, and no hassles when it comes time to migrate data to another system. Just pull one drive and go. Dual raptors in a Raid 1 is an expensive data storage solution – but if the drives are just sitting around, it makes good sense.

      • TravelMug
      • 11 years ago

      How come you only get 110MB/s with 4 drives? Is it through the gigabit LAN or local? Because I have a file server with 4 WD Caviar SE16 750GB drives and it gives me sustained transfer rates of 220-250MB/s local and I can max out the onboard gigabit LAN with 5 simultanious client downloads which would give the 100+ MB/s.

        • charlieWorton
        • 11 years ago

        Hi, Travelmug – local connection, through the SATA ports on the MB, using the P35 ICH9R northbridge chip in Raid 5 mode. The numbers I posted are higher than any number ever recorded for data transfer coming directly off a single HDD and into a MB, according to the hdtach community driven historical database.

        I haven’t done a lot of network measurement, so I cannot comment on your numbers. I just don’t know enough to make useful noises on the topic. Sorry bout that.

        But I’m puzzled. If the data lives on the hard drive and you’re pulling it off the network up to 5 times faster than a common garden variety drive can get it into the computer… well, there’s something wrong with this picture.

        Just asking a question, here… are you transferring 220 – 250 megaBITS per second, or megaBYTES per second? There being 8 bits to a byte, and after parity and stuff it winds up around 10:1.

        Might be worth transferring a large file – several gigabytes – and timing how long it takes to move across the network with a stopwatch. That ought to provide some clarity. At least, for me. Thanks – Charlie

          • TravelMug
          • 11 years ago

          Hi charlie,
          I think you misread what I wrote 🙂 The server gives 220-250MB/s (megaBYTES) read speed local when running disk benchmarks (for example ATTO or Everest). The 100+ MB/s is what I get when I stress it through 5 different clients pulling 5 different files from the RAID array. I can`t really get any higher speed there because I can`t push more then that through the gigabit LAN. So the target drives don`t write with 100MB/s but there`s 5 streams and the aggregate speed is 100MB/s (each HDD/client writes 20MB/s. The clients have simple 80GB Seagate drives in them so write speed would not be steallar anyway, I can get 40-50MB/s max on them. So in theory I can max out the gigabit connection from the server with only 3 streams, but I tried with 5 just to be sure.

            • MadManOriginal
            • 11 years ago

            He specified he’s using onboard ICH9R RAID5, you never specified what your RAID controller or RAID level is. That information would help figure out the difference, or perhaps the measurements being compared just aren’t the same.

            • TravelMug
            • 11 years ago

            I didn`t specify because I`m using the same controller with the same RAID level (RAID5) he does. I would have pointed out if there would be a difference as I did with the HDDs 🙂

    • Jigar
    • 11 years ago

    Damage, please update the Picture galary so that we can see your new rocket’s pics.. 😉

    • droopy1592
    • 11 years ago

    I was hoping I wasn’t the only one still running a 3800×2

      • Fighterpilot
      • 11 years ago

      “You don’t know the power of the Dark(Conroe)side”

      • paulWTAMU
      • 11 years ago

      I am too! and it still works fine so I’m hoping to get another year or two out of it.

        • BoBzeBuilder
        • 11 years ago

        I am too 🙂 but I’ll be making the transition to the quad-core camp once 45nm Phenoms hit the street.

      • Krazeee
      • 11 years ago

      A64 X2 4200+ Socket 939 OC’d to 2.64ghz here. As much as I’d love to get a new wolfdale based system going, the budget wont allow (aka my wife), but it’s nice to see I’m not alone. Prolly wait for Intel’s new socket before I build again.

        • paulWTAMU
        • 11 years ago

        same. and my next PC is going to be an HTPC–so I’m waiting for a GPU that can push my 1080 50″ plasma pretty well on games 😀 Age of Conan on a 50″ screen…oh god yes!

    • d0g_p00p
    • 11 years ago

    It’s always good to hear about (building) a new rig. I too went the route of NAS storage for my bulk stuff. It make builds much better and my other machines have access to the data as well.

    • moshpit
    • 11 years ago

    Realtek NIC FTL!

    Get a good Intel NIC and drop it in a slot, all problems go away under Vista 64 bit with Intel networking. Runs like a champ.

    • ssidbroadcast
    • 11 years ago

    Dibs on the old parts.

    • Jon
    • 11 years ago

    I would love to see pictures of your office and the Damage labs.

      • grantmeaname
      • 11 years ago

      every CPU review they do has a few, because one of the benchmarks is the Panorama factory.

    • Smurfer2
    • 11 years ago

    yea, put a Zalman 9500 cooler in my recent build a week or two ago. Great stuff!! Solid build Damage.

    Villain, I could go for some pictures too.

    • VILLAIN_xx
    • 11 years ago

    No pictures?!

    oh please put some up! :o(

    I cant be the only one..

    • DrDillyBar
    • 11 years ago

    Your computer is like a Quad version of mine! très cool …
    I must say I totally agree with the choices you made…

    • scpulp
    • 11 years ago

    You guys were the ones that published the review of the WD 640GB that made me buy it. I’d think you’d jump aboard that ship in a heartbeat. Nearly as fast as a Raptor, with substantially lower power draw and whisper silent acoustics.

      • Convert
      • 11 years ago

      He has been setting aside parts for a while now so that is what he had waiting. He also mentions that he plans on switching to two 7200 drives in the future.

    • tsoulier
    • 11 years ago

    OMG Damage went to the dark side ……………. Kidding
    Looks like a solid system , I too don’t care for the Zalman
    but hey , it’s just a cooler
    I really would have thought you would go AMD

    • flip-mode
    • 11 years ago

    I’d never go with one of those Zalmans simply because I like to be able to swap fans should it ever be necessary. And last time I looked they were a lot more expensive that comparable performers.

    I’m surprised by the HD3850. I had you pegged for a 9600GT all the way.

    And, I’ve also got a Coolermaster PSU that has treated my much less macho build very well and done so at near silence.

    Thanks for sharing, enjoy the new machine!

    • MadManOriginal
    • 11 years ago

    Does the Sonata have soft-mounts for the hard drives? The Raptors I had in a P180 drive cage soft-mount were audible but not in a bad way. It was a little noice from the drives themselves which didn’t get amplified by the rest of the case.

      • NeXus 6
      • 11 years ago

      Yes. They help a little if you have a noisy drive like a Raptor. The key to keep them more quiet is not to over tighten the screws. Leave them slightly loose.

    • Convert
    • 11 years ago

    I have a 9700 cooler and it is obnoxious, I guess I should have bought a 9500 instead. Kinda surprised by the CPU though, seems like a low end one would be better for power/noise not to mention you won’t need the horsepower, yet.

      • Anomymous Gerbil
      • 11 years ago

      “Hey, there are benefits to being able to raid the parts bin in Damage Labs every so often. “

        • Convert
        • 11 years ago

        Right but he has the option to go with other stuff from the labs. Considering the reasoning he used for the graphics card I would have expected that to carry over the processor.

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