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The making of Damagebox 2011

Scott Wasson
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I’ll admit to being like the proverbial plumber with a leaky sink. When it comes to my own primary personal computer, I’ve been borderline neglectful for a little while now. The problem isn’t really the hardware, exactly. You see, way back before Windows 7 came out, I ordered an upgrade version of Win7 Pro for 50 bucks. Seemed like a deal, and Vista wasn’t exactly thrilling me. My plan was to build a new system and install Win7 on it, for a total hardware and software upgrade. Doing just an OS upgrade alone seemed like a lot of work, and I’m not one to pass up the opportunity for a quick hardware upgrade.

And then, I dunno, stuff happened.

Owning and writing for TR is, well, awesome, but it’s not the most relaxing of occupations. At certain times of the year, my existence is almost entirely consumed by being continuously on deadline. The four-month blur at the end of 2010 didn’t really ease up until after CES this year, for instance. Finding the time to build a new personal system, troubleshoot it, and re-install all of the applications, at the loss of other forms of productivity, isn’t a simple matter.

Somehow, a succession of these blurry, on-deadline blocks passed, and before I knew it, it was 2011, and I was still running Windows Vista on my main PC. Windows 7 runs on every other Windows-based computer I use, including multiple laptops, my HTPC, and all of my test rigs. The dissonance with my main PC was, to my amusement, something I barely noticed 98% of the time. All of the apps worked the same, after all. The other 2%? Flashes of pure, incandescent rage at ridiculous interface choices and inexplicably still-broken features. After years of updates and multiple service packs, Vista still couldn’t remember my default printer correctly, couldn’t copy a file of any respectable size across my network, and so on.

Eventually, I couldn’t stand it anymore. That sentiment converged with another powerful emotion, too.

You see, at CES this past year, I had an unusual experience while visiting one of the booths. Now, I’ve been to an awful lot of these trade shows over the years, and I’ve become horribly jaded. Looking at PC hardware components on display under harsh lighting lost any visceral appeal it may once have had long ago. Besides, I tend to geek out more over Sandy Bridge benchmark results or the latest GPU architecture than over a PC case or cooler.

Yet at the Corsair booth, as a rep was explaining something about a new product to the other guys, I gazed up at a demo system sitting alone on a pedestal with its side open. I forget if the case was a 600T or a 650D, but the build inside of it was incredibly clean, with impeccable cable routing, vast amounts of room to work, and a single, unified design theme executed in Cash-meets-Vader black on black.

And lo, I did lusteth after it in mine heart.

My rising desire for a total OS and hardware upgrade eventually poked through a small hole in my schedule, and last week, I set out at long last to build myself a new box.

The components
I wanted my component selection to mirror some of what we’ve put in our recent system guides, but my system builds are usually strongly influenced by whatever spare parts I can cull from the storage shelves in Damage Labs. That factor influenced some of my choices, although the overall build still looks quite a bit like the Sweeter Spot in many respects. Here are the components I chose.

Case, PSU, and CPU cooler – First of all, inquiries were made with Corsair, to see if indulging my CES-inspired urges might be possible. Heck, really, the integration between this chassis and the other components was the key to the build, as I envisioned it. The folks at Corsair were happy to oblige. One thing led to another, and eventually I found myself humming the Imperial March while slicing open the box for this bad boy:

600t-purty.jpg, 129kB

Yep, it’s the white-and-black edition of the 600T, affectionately nicknamed the Stormtrooper edition. Personally, I think its lines make it look more like a Scout Trooper, but I realize that simply having written those words consigns me to the seventh circle of nerd-dom. Whether you like it or not, the white 600T is striking, different, and a refreshing change from the sheer ubiquity of black computer components these days. I happen to think it looks quite nice in person. The bright white LEDs on the power button and case fans give it a certain purity, and the the white plastic really does fit with this enclosure’s the bulbous exterior lines. This puppy is also way more of a conversation piece than even the most gorgeously understated black enclosures, like Corsair’s 650D or Silverstone’s many handsome efforts.

To go with it, I chose a Corsair AX750 PSU and an H60 self-enclosed CPU water cooler. Crucially, the AX750 has modular connections, so there won’t be any extra power leads polluting the inside of my case. Sizing it was a matter of finding a PSU with enough power connections to support a possible SLI or CrossFire config in the future. Given how PSUs are sold these days, peak wattage is rarely a problem, especially in a single-rail design like Corsair’s AX series. I didn’t want to push into really high wattages where I’d potentially sacrifice efficiency and acoustics unnecessarily.

We’ll talk more about the H60 shortly, and I’m sure you’ll see its appeal.

CPU – You’d think I’d want a Sandy Bridge processor to drop into a new system build like this one, and you’d be correct. However, the Damage Labs parts shelf doesn’t have a spare Sandy Bridge CPU sitting around on it, I can assure you. We need ’em all for testing, and probably any extras we can scrounge, too. The parts shelf did have another willing candidate, though: the six-core, 32nm, Gulftown-based Core i7-980X, recently surpassed as the fastest desktop processor on the planet by the Core i7-990X. With the 990X having taken over the top spot, the 980X was available. At a 3.33GHz base clock with a Turbo peak of 3.6GHz, the 980X doesn’t exactly suck, either. I’d almost prefer the higher single-threaded performance of a fast Sandy Bridge chip, truth be told, but somehow I think I can live with this one.

Motherboard – Ok, honestly, I needed a mobo to support the Core i7-980X, and the obvious candidate was an Intel DX58SO2 that we’d retired after the Core i7-990X review because it gave us problems with overclocking. I’m not shy about saying that I’d much rather prefer a board from Asus, MSI, or Gigabyte; recent Intel desktop boards have been relatively feature rich (compared to past Intel boards) but frustratingly troublesome, as well. I’ve had much better luck with boards from the big three. Still, the DX58SO2 met all of my requirements, including Gulftown support, a nice mix of DIMM and PCIe slots, USB 3.0, and SATA 6Gbps. I figured even if it did have some quirks, I had the smarts and resources to work through them. I was right, in the end, but next time, I’ll order an Asus or something. More about why coming up.

Graphics card – Since I do most of my gaming on the GPU test rigs instead of this system, a near-silent solution was more important to me than raw performance. Nevertheless, I had ambitious plans here involving a Zotac GTX 580 3GB card with an excellent triple-slot Zalman cooler. That cooler was a wonder of quiet effectiveness in our recent testing, but those tests were conducted without a sound card nestled right up against its two fans. Yeah, that doesn’t work so well, thermally speaking, as I soon found out. My fall-back plan was MSI’s excellent “Twin Frozr II” edition of the GeForce GTX 560 Ti. MSI’s 560 Ti was quiet enough to reach the noise floor for our GPU test system in our acoustic measurements, and it’s fast enough to make the Damagebox a competent participant in any LAN gaming sessions, despite my use of a 30″, four-megapixel monster display.

Memory – Some amount of DDR3 memory was going into the box, either 6GB or 12GB, depending on what I could swing. This simple choice became complicated, for reasons I’ll explain.

Storage – No question I was going to use an SSD as my primary boot drive, with large mechanical drives holding the the bulk of my personal data. I’d been saving the SSD for a Win7 upgrade for some time now; it’s a 128GB OCZ Vertex with a firmware upgrade to support TRIM. Although newer SSDs can achieve higher sustained transfer rates, their near-instant access times aren’t substantially quicker than an older SSD’s near-instant access times, in the grand scheme. The Vertex gives me all of the major SSD benefits one would appreciate, including short boot times, quick program start-ups, and sheer silent operation. 128GB is large enough not to feel cramped, which is a nice change from the old 80GB Intel X25-M I’d been using before, where I had to manage storage space carefully.

I’ve used a pair of WD Caviar Green 1TB drives in a mirror as my primary storage array for a while. For this build, I simply broke the mirror and brought one the drives over to my new box, migrating all of my data while keeping my old PC fully operational during the transition. I’ve been tempted by cheap prices on 2TB drives lately, but I think 1TB will still suffice, in part because of the LG Blu-ray burner I’ve also carried over from my old system. The LG drive lets me archive things to optical disks in large chunks—TR server backups, family photos and videos, Steam game cache files—which is helpful.

Sound card – If you’re a long-time TR reader, you know what the editors here think about the quality of discrete audio versus your typical, Realtek-driven integrated sound. You may also know that sound cards haven’t progressed tremendously in the past, oh, five years or so (with the exception that Asus’ excellent Xonar DG has pushed the price of entry for quality sound cards down to 30 bucks.) I wasn’t shy about transporting my Auzentech X-Meridian over to my new PC and completely disabling the motherboard’s built-in audio.

I believe that’s about it for the core components. It’s a bit of a Frankenbuild since I looted the parts shelf and carried over a few bits from my older PC, but as I said, the basic outlines turned out to be pretty similar to our Sweeter Spot spec in the guide—similar case, PSU, and Blu-ray drive, similar use of a ~128GB SSD backed by a 1TB hard disk, same basic class of graphics card, a 32nm Intel CPU, and a discrete sound card.

The next step, of course, was putting it all together.

The build
Happily, the hardware build portion of the process was ridiculously easy. I like to think I’ve gotten better at this over the years, but after this experience, I have to admit that the actual hardware involved has improved quite a bit more than anything else. Modern cases have accumulated a whole host of smart features over time: tool-less access, “upside-down” layouts with the PSU at the bottom, removable drive trays, generous cable-routing holes ringing the motherboard, and blessedly large cutouts in the tray beneath the CPU socket for access to cooler mounting mechanisms. The 600T participates in them all, whereas the Sonata that housed my old system had precious few such amenities. The 600T is also part of an emerging class of plus-sized mid-tower cases that grant lots of room to access each component.

Add in the improved standards for things like I/O cables (ah, stringy SATA, how we do not miss your ribbon cable forebears), and you have a potent set of tools at your disposal. Not only is it easier to build a computer than in the past, but it’s also easier to do it well. I’ve never been much for spending extra hours arranging pristine cable routing and locking everything down with zip ties, but everything about this build made clean routing feel like the default and easiest choice, not some neat-freak’s extra burden.

bd-drive-install.jpg, 61kB

bd-connections.jpg, 116kB

Take the task of installing the Blu-ray burner, for instance. To do so, you just reach inside of the case, squeeze a couple of plastic tabs, and pop out the mesh-finished drive-bay cover. Then, slide the optical drive into the bay until it clicks into place. That’s it; no further adjustment is required.

With both of sides off of the case, routing cables to the drive is also a snap. You just push the SATA cable and power lead up through the routing hole and plug them into the drive. At the other end, the SATA cable pops up through a hole right next to one of the mobo’s SATA ports, while the power lead pokes through near one of the sockets on the modular PSU. All of the criss-crossing cable mess runs behind the motherboard tray, where it it will be obscured once the side panel is installed.

ssd-tray.jpg, 128kB

The 600T’s flexy plastic drive trays have four posts pre-installed, so they’re ready to grip a 3.5″ drive with no tools needed. They’ll also accept a 2.5″ drive like my boot SSD, but you have to remove one of the posts and fasten the 2.5″ drive via the four screw holes included for that purpose.

drives.jpg, 96kB

drives-plugs.jpg, 90kB

Here are a couple of shots of the two drives installed in my system. The thumb tabs on the drive cages protrude into the, er, “top” side of the case, where the motherboard’s slots and socket are accessible. Around the other side, where the cable mess is hidden, the SATA power and data ports are exposed.

The 600T has two of the three-bay drive cages like you see above, but I removed the upper one to allow for better airflow from the large fan in the front of the case.

psu-cables.jpg, 92kB

psu-modular.jpg, 114kB

The Corsair AX750 PSU comes out of the box with zero leads attached and a bag full of modular cabling. As you can see, I wound up attaching most of the leads and feeding them down through the routing hole right next to the PSU. Gloriously, no extra, bulky cables were left wadded up next to the PSU.

cpu-area.jpg, 124kB

Here’s a look at the H60 cooler installed. As you can see, not having a giant tower cooler in place really opens up the space around the CPU socket, allowing that big fan at the top of the case to pull air across the DIMMs and the VRM heatsinks.

Because the H60 is self-enclosed, I didn’t have to worry about getting the right level of coolant into it, checking for leaks, or any of that hassle. All you do is install a bracket on the back side of the socket, secure the four screws for the copper water block, and attach power leads for the pump and fan. The fan is a 120-mm unit that exactly matches the size of the fan behind the CPU socket in the 600T and many other cases.

I replaced the existing fan with the one that came with the H60 because, happily, the H60’s fan has a four-pin power lead. That’s important in this build for a simple reason: Intel invented the four-pin PWM fan-control method, and it apparently won’t stoop to supporting three-pin DC fan control for CPU coolers on its flagship motherboard—even though a great many very good coolers don’t have four-pin fan connectors. The board’s other fan headers support three-pin DC control just fine, but if you want fan speed control for the CPU, you’ve gotta have four pins.

On the flip side, I plugged the three-pin header for the H60’s pump into the fan controller built into the 600T. That was the only header I connected to the 600T’s fan controller, and I did it to avoid fan speed control. I don’t want the pump voltage wavering. The 600T’s other fans are all connected to mobo headers, so there’s no need for me to play with the fan speed dial.

Obviously, the H60’s radiator mounts atop the 120-mm fan, so you get additional CPU cooling whenever that fan ramps up. I know we’ve found in the past that good air cooling can be just as effective as a cheap water cooler, but I really like the fact that installing the H60 doesn’t add to the total number of fans in the case. Besides, routing the CPU’s heat directly to a radiator placed over an exhaust port makes a tremendous amount of sense. For what it’s worth, I started this build before the H60 arrived and was using a high-end tower cooler during the initial build. Swapping in the H60 produced lower CPU temperatures and a subjectively quieter system. This sort of cooler may be a bit of a luxury at around 73 bucks, but I consider it a true upgrade over most air coolers.

rear-ports.jpg, 72kB

Here’s an interesting touch that shows you how up-to-the-minute the 600T happens to be right now. There’s a USB 3.0 port on the front of the case, but most motherboards with USB 3.0 don’t seem to have headers available for internal connections. Corsair has recognized that fact and included a cable that routes through a pre-cut hole in the nearest expansion slot cover and plugs into a USB 3.0 port in the rear cluster. Yeah, it’s not exactly perfectly seamless, but it was the best possible solution for the motherboard we used.

final-guts2.jpg, 153kB

Without further ado, here’s the payoff: the guts of the fully assembled system, with everything connected and operational. This is what blew me away on the show floor in Vegas and what I had hoped to duplicate in my own build. Making it happen was simply a matter of being deliberate about each connection and using the provisions built into the case and other hardware. Compared to the messy jumble of my prior builds, this thing is a minor miracle—and a major upgrade.

While I’m heaping praise on modern PC hardware and standards for making such a wondrous thing possible, I should pause to consider one mistake I didn’t make: plugging a USB port into a Firewire header on the motherboard and vice-versa. Such mix-ups used to be way too easy to make, but most standards now have unique pinouts to prevent calamities. USB and Firewire, however, still share the exact same header layout. I did not make this mistake because, well, I’d already made it this past Christmas, when I sacrificed a perfectly good motherboard (and a USB flash drive) to my own education in this matter. Sparks were involved.

One anomaly you might be wondering about in the picture above is the black cable jutting into the lowest 5.25″ drive bay. The DX58SO2 comes with a rectangular plastic doodad that provides Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity, complete with double-sided tape for mounting in an empty drive bay. The cable is a USB lead running up to that doodad. I have no need for Wi-Fi in this system, but I use Bluetooth for headsets for Skype calls, so in it went.

The cooling situation is worth discussing a bit from this view, too. There are two intake fans and two exhaust fans. The intakes are the massive 200-mm fan at the front of the case, by the drive bays, and the 120-mm fan in the PSU, which pulls air in through a cutout (and an air filter) in the bottom of the case. The exhaust fans include the 120-mm fan behind the H60’s radiator and the 200-mm giant at the top of the case. Three of the four are connected to the mobo’s headers, with the exception being the PSU fan.

Whatever its other flaws, the Intel board offers excellent fan speed control via the Extreme Tuning Utility for Windows, which allows precise manipulation of temperature-based speed targets. With this tool, I was able to create a profile that allows my system to operate as quietly as possible most of the time while dynamically ramping up fan speeds as needed to keep temperatures in check.

Working out the kinks
I’d like to tell you that once I’d finished my basic hardware build, the rest was rainbows and unicorns and that you should really run off right now and build you own PC, because it’s a wonderful experience. I do believe it can be a wonderful experience, but I ran into problems for some very specific reasons, most of them involving a certain, ahem, motherboard.

Once I’ve built a new system and installed the OS and drivers, my next step is to conduct some burn-in testing, putting various components under load and watching for temperature and stability problems. When I did that with this system, mayhem ensued in various forms.

zotac-clearance.jpg, 136kB

The first problem was one I’d anticipated that was pretty much my fault. The picture above shows the positioning of my sound card right next to the twin fans on the Zotac GTX 580’s triple-slot cooler. The clearance between the sound card and fans… ain’t much. I knew this arrangement was really tight but was hoping for a miracle in which the cooler somehow remained effective. A quick test showed the GPU temperature rising quickly under load, to 90° C and beyond, well above the levels we saw in our review of the card when the fans were unobstructed. Since this motherboard has only one PCI slot and it’s located where it is, leaving the Zotac GTX 580 installed wasn’t an option. My fix was to swap in the MSI GTX 560, as I’ve noted. Watch your clearances when installing graphics cards, kids, especially with coolers based on fans instead of blowers.

Beyond that, I encountered two apparently related issues with my new build: temperatures on the IOH chip were rising to over 80° C under load, and the system was locking up intermittently

Now, on the DX58SO2, the IOH chip has its own passive heatsink, but that heatsink is connected to the two VRM heatsinks surrounding the CPU socket via a heat pipe. I’m not a fan of such designs, because it seems like sometimes the interconnection just ends up moving heat around to other components sharing the pipe, creating problems where none would exist otherwise.

I tried tackling this problem by adjusting the fan control policies on the motherboard to be extremely aggressive. I fretted about a lack of active cooling directly around the CPU socket due to my use of the H60, so I tried throwing in some additional cooling in the general area by mounting one of Corsair’s twin-fan coolers above the DIMMs, too. Nothing really seemed to help. Temperatures still rose beyond 80° C under load, throwing alerts in Intel’s monitoring software, and the IOH would idle at 77° C or thereabouts, not really cooling down much after my stress tests subsided. I can’t tell you how high the peak temperatures might have gotten during stress testing, because I was afraid to let it push beyond 82° C. That is a wimpy passive heatsink on the IOH, no doubt, but those temperatures were scary—and the system was locking up. Surely something wasn’t right.

Stymied, I knew what my next step had to be, but I really didn’t like it. I needed to check the integrity of the thermal connection between the heatsink and the IOH chip, which meant removing the entire heatpipe complex ringing the CPU socket on three sides. On my completed build. What were the chance the cutout beneath the CPU socket would allow access to all of the screws holding it in?

Six out of eight ain’t bad, but I still had to remove the motherboard completely from the case in order to get at those last two screws. Ugh.

When I popped off the cooler, here’s what I found.

ioh-tim-fabric.jpg, 40kB

I’m not sure whether you can see it, but the thermal interface material (TIM) on the heatsink had some fabric embedded in it. Pulling it off the chip loosened up the fabric. Fabric is usually not a good conductor of heat, and TIMs with it embedded generally tend to be used on components that don’t require a tremendous amount of cooling. This mobo’s IOH clearly didn’t belong in that category.

ioh-tim-gunk.jpg, 87kB

You can see the fabric pattern in the TIM on the IOH chip, too. This is the sort of TIM that’s very hard and gummy, making it frustratingly difficult to remove. After a lot of failed scraping and scrubbing, I wound up using a little bit of engine cleaner in order to remove the rest of the gooey TIM.

ioh-paste.jpg, 120kB

The next step was to apply some proper thermal paste. I was worried that the stand-off screws for the cooler wouldn’t allow the heatsink to make solid, uniform contact with the surface of the IOH, so I grabbed an old tube of Arctic Silver Ceramique, a thicker thermal paste than most, and applied a fairly robust layer. Perhaps that was overkill, but I didn’t want to take any chances.

Once the system was reassembled, I fired up the Intel monitoring software and kicked off a load test, once again consisting of Prime95 and a graphics demo, as before. Together, those two programs heat up both the CPU VRMs and the IOH’s PCIe blocks. This time, the IOH’s temperature topped out at 69° C under load and dropped down to about 62° C at idle. Most importantly, using the thermal paste allowed the heatsink to be effective enough to keep temperatures from rising continuously into dangerous territory.

For a victory lap, I kicked off an overnight Prime95 stress test, something I was afraid to do before. The next morning, the new box was chuffing along happily, with decent temperatures and exemplary stability. I figured my build was complete, so I swapped out my old computer for my new one. My “production” data, programs, sessions, and such were shifted to the new box.

Then, that evening, while doing nothing but idling, the system locked up. This happened again several more times over the course of the next few days, causing my stomach to churn and knot. I wasn’t sure what to do. Since all of the temperatures looked good and the thing was quite happy running Prime95 stress tests, there wasn’t an obvious answer. Fortunately, I’ve learned two things over time that helped me troubleshoot. One, if you’re seeing random stability problems that don’t make sense, you probably have a memory-related issue. Two, consult the Google. When my Google searches came back with multiple forum threads where people were complaining about memory compatibility issues with the DX58SO2, I figured I was on to something.

Now, having a lab full of computer parts at your disposal can sometimes come in handy when troubleshooting hardware problems, and this was clearly one of those times. Damage Labs has a pretty extensive collection of DDR3 DIMMs. If there was a bad DIMM or an incompatibility, I could easily swap in another set of modules.

The thing is, testing for a very random, very intermittent problem isn’t easy.

Frankly, the exact shape of the subsequent troubleshooting process is tough to recollect precisely. I know there were a number of days involved, my now-primary PC wasn’t working right, and I was both desperate and attempting to be methodical at the same time. I already had the latest mobo BIOS flashed, so there wasn’t much else to do there. I tried a range of increasingly less aggressive memory clock speeds and timings, though these were Corsair DIMMs rated for 1600MHz operation at 1.65V. I tried dropping back from six modules to three. I tried a number of different sets of DIMMs of the exact same type, thinking perhaps it was a faulty module. I tried a set of OCZ DIMMs of similar vintage rated for 2133MHz, with perhaps worst results. I remember thinking I’d fixed it and then seeing the system lock up after hours of perfect operation. I remember thinking I’d established a known-bad configuration with the Corsair DIMMs (which is at least something) only to realize that the Intel mobo and software had decided, since there was a crash before, to drop the memory voltage back to 1.5V—the JEDEC default, but not the most stable setting.

Gee, thanks, guys.

This happened multiple times, and between the BIOS and Intel’s tweaking utility, I felt like I couldn’t trust the mobo to maintain the proper settings as I was troubleshooting.

Ultimately, after waking up yet another morning to a computer that had locked overnight, I had a bit of an epiphany. Rather than using the slightly older DDR3 DIMMs I’d intended, I thought, perhaps I should swap in some newer modules that are about six months old. Seems strange, sure, since none of the other modules I’d tried had worked, but they were all maybe 18-24 months of age.

And that did the trick. That was at least five or six days ago, and the system hasn’t locked once since.

Turns out the Intel DX58SO2 must have some basic incompatibility with slightly older DIMMs, even though both the X58 chipset and the Gulftown memory controller have quite a few miles on them by now themselves. Who knew? All I know is, next time I’d rather pay full price for an Asus, Gigabyte, or MSI board. What a sorry waste of time.

Conclusions
At the end of the day, I think the moral of the story is that building a PC—and doing it really well—is easier than ever, but you still need to be very careful about your component selection.

I’m a little bit discouraged about how vexing the end of this build turned out to be, because my aim was, in part, to demonstrate how putting together a system with the latest components can be a much better experience than one might have had several years ago. Were it not for my choice of an Intel motherboard, I think the process would have gone pretty smoothly. Here’s hoping the discerning reader can see that.

In spite of some bumps in the road, I’m thrilled with the final result. Now that it’s stable, I’ve reverted to a very aggressive quiet fan profile, and in typical use, this system is incredibly quiet—inaudible unless Damage Labs has nothing else running, the A/C isn’t on, and the kids aren’t making any noise upstairs. When it is audible, the fan noise is smooth and subdued, offering little hint of the powerful hardware lurking within the case. Boot times are down, productivity is up, and at long last, Windows Vista has been banished to the ash heap of history, where it belongs.

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