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Fun with DIY

August 4th, 2011


The computer is now made and running smoothly. The specs:

  • 3.3 GHz quad-core Core i5 (Sandy bridge) 2500K, with 1MB L2 cache and 6MB L3 cache
  • Cooler Master Hyper 212-Plus heat sink
  • 8 GB 1333GHz DDR3 RAM (decided to go cheap on that)
  • Z68 Chipset on an ASRock Z68 Extreme4 Mobo w/ USB 3, eSATA, IEEE 1394, 4 video ports
  • 1TB 7200rpm SATA3 (6Gbps) WD HDD
  • 64GB SATA3 (6Gbps) Crucial m4 SSD used for caching
  • 750 GB SATAII WD HDD (partitioned so I can install Linux and Hackintosh)
  • 12x Blu-Ray burner
  • USB WiFi link

As you can see, I did not go whole hog. No discrete video card (I don’t do gaming), no high-speed DRAM (I toyed with going for 1600 MHz, but ultimately decided not to). Nevertheless, it is, if I may say, a nice little rig.

I had a scare with the CPU slot. Somehow, one of the pins got bent. I don’t know if this would be enough to make the whole rig not work, but I did not want to gamble. I carefully photographed it and got to understand exactly how it was bent (down and to the left), then used a pin (I know, conductive, but it was the only thing small enough) to caaaarefully coax it back into place. If you know how small and delicate those things are, then you know how nerve-wracking that was. However, I did it, and it worked in the end. (Or else it never mattered.)


So I put the CPU in, and snapped the RAM into the slots. Then came the CPU cooler / heatsink. If you read the blog recently, you’ll know about my little misadventure with Dospara and Cooler Master; when the non-mismade part was delivered, I was able to start working on it. Usually cooler fans use those four damned pins which are hard to snap in. The first two go in OK, but the third is hard and the fourth is damned hard, and sometimes it’s not easy to discern if the pins are in right. The Cooler Master setup I got has a plate you attach to the back first, with bolts on the top of the motherboard making it easy to attach the fan up top; I like that arrangement much better.

I did not use the thermal grease included with the CPU cooler, instead going with some Arctic Silver MX-4, which was recommended. The Cooler Master plate-and-bolt attachment makes it better for applying the thermal grease as well–if you use the pins and have trouble, then there’s more chance you will detach the fan and ruin the grease application.

So the motherboard was then set; installing it in the case was not too hard, but, as usual, they did not give enough of the bolts the motherboard is seated upon. (Why do they always chintz on that?) In this case, a few screw holes were not properly made so that I couldn’t screw the bolts in all the way anyway. However, the board can be secured well enough even with a few points left unsecured.

Then came the drives. The case, a Gigabyte GZ-X5, has the nice locking clamps for the internal drive bays, so you don’t have to use screws. That’s a nice feature; just slide a drive into place, put the clamp on and turn a lever. Cool.

I hate how most cases handle the front panel and bezels, making them very difficult to detach, and having nothing in the instructions on how to do that. It usually involves reaching into inside recesses and tripping things you can’t see or grip very well; if you don’t know how to do it, you likely won’t guess, and most cases have sharp edges inside that make it dangerous even for those who do know how to do it. With the front bezels, it’s usually the case of pushing them outward until it feels like they’ll break. I slashed my pinky finger trying to get one of the 3.5“ bezels out so I could install the USB 3 front panel (with the SSD holder included). The optical drive slid in, no problems, but the hard drive bay walls were a tad too narrow and putting in the HDDs was a little difficult.

With the motherboard and drives in place, next come the cables. The motherboard came with 4 SATA3 cables (which work OK with the SATAII devices as well), so I had just the number I needed. The case has a 500W built-in power supply, and nice cables; hooking up to power was not a problem.

The cables for the case buttons and power were, as usual, tough to get in. The instructions are also, as usual, vague and unhelpful–for example, thinking I was following instructions, I put the case power-button connector switch on backwards. Is ”G“ (”ground,“ I assumed) the same as the minus polarity? So I had thought, but whatever, I switched it and it works.

Then there was the usual cable-securing, making sure the cables would not rest against parts or interfere with the fans, tying them off as best I could to keep them out of the way. I put the sides of the case back on–the side opposite the motherboard just fit, with the prongs from the heat sink actually touching the case, though not exerting any pressure. Could not have fit that any tighter.

So, I plugged in the power, monitor, mouse, and keyboard, and let ‘er rip. Worked perfectly. I installed the OS, still fine, so I went ahead and tried some more software.

Now, at this point, I was curious about the SSD caching–I did not, after all, see the SSD appear in the drive menu. I could see the drive in the Device manager, which reported that it was ”working properly,“ and I found a dialog box that said that disk caching was on, but it turned out that that was not SSD caching. I figured it out when I could not see my second HDD, and discovered that drives had to be initialized before they could be used. I am used to (a) external drives being pre-formatted, and (b) the Mac telling me this when it detects new drives, even when not formatted, and so hadn’t noticed.

This is when I figured out that I had not set things up right for the SSD caching. The BIOS needs to be set up for RAID, which should be done before the OS is installed. Argh. I would have to reinstall everything, starting over again. I tried switching to RAID and restarting, but it didn’t work. Then I found a page that suggested changing the registry–just two small changes from 3s to 0s–would allow RAID to be activated without reinstalling. I tried it, and it worked. After downloading the software from Intel (references to what software was needed were vague, and going through the zoo of versions on Intel’s site was confusing, but I found it), I was able to set up the cache. It works great–it actually worked better than ASRock’s demo, cutting my startup time from about 45 seconds to about half that. Startup is now almost like coming out of sleep mode.

[ Still, why can’t documentation ever be halfway decent? This is a plague in the computing world if you want to do anything more sophisticated than common, everyday use. ]

I also tried overclocking, and am still working it up. I started with nothing, testing the CPU temps and voltage, researching what limits are (most say about 70°C and 1.5V), and then seeing how things ran (in case I did not apply the thermal grease correctly). It stayed under 35°C, so all seemed well. Then I set the overclock for 4 GHz (from the standard 3.3 GHz), where it has been running for a few days; temps not over 40°C; so far, so good. Next step will be 4.2 GHz. I understand that people usually find that 4.4 or 4.6 is a stable limit.

Not that the computer isn’t already fast enough for my current needs. Apps pop open with almost no wait time. However, I plan to do some image & video editing as well as some other CPU-intensive work in the future, so would like to see where I can take it. It will also be nice to have maxing-out capabilities in four years’ time when the hardware is older and a slower setup would be rendered useless.

The Blu-Ray drive works quite well. It takes about 1 minute per gigabyte, or about 24 minutes for a full disc. Considering that one disc holds the same as 6 DVDs (or about 35 CDs), it’s a nice way to back up files.

I have found a few problems with transferring files between the PC and my Macs. As usual, Windows is the problem point, but I was able to set things up anyway. WiFi transfers are too slow for big files, so I have been using USB flash memory or my external hard drives. However, there is a problem with supported file systems. FAT won’t support files over 4GB, but the Mac’s usual file system can’t be read by Windows. I discovered one new to the Mac–ExFAT, which supports files over 4GB and can be read by both OS’s. The Mac can read ExFAT formatted by the PC, but Windows doesn’t seem to see the Mac format (predictably).

So, for the future, Linux and then Hackintosh will get attempted, we’ll see how those work. But for now, I am getting reacquainted with Windows full-time (or mostly full-time), and rediscovering the pains it still presents. For example, why no ability to see folder sizes in list form? You have to hold your cursor over the folder icon, making it extremely difficult to figure out what’s causing the disk to fill up. You can get a utility like Folder Size for that, but seriously, it is such an obvious oversight in Windows, it is staggering that they haven’t addressed that yet. On the other hand, Windows 7 has a halfway-decent magnifying utility, and I must admit that the Aero Flip 3D feature is fun–though not as quick or as functional as the Mac’s Exposé.

Anyway, the whole thing is fun (more than it is frustrating) and educational. Saving a few bucks from what you would pay for a pre-made computer is almost beside the point.

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  1. Troy
    August 5th, 2011 at 03:57 | #1

    pretty sweet!

    this box’ll probably last 10 years or so . . .

    conductive metal actually doesn’t carry static charges — that’s why it’s conductive : )

    I like building a new box when the graphics bus improves, so the next step for me is PCIe3 with x79 / “Waimea Bay”:


    After NCB, 1995-2000 my job in Japan was making 3D games on PC hardware, and next year the tech improvements from 10-15 years ago are just going to be amazing.

    Too bad the games all suck.

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