A R C H I M E D E (Feb 2011)
(click to enlarge the images)
The choice of the motherboard was quite difficult, especially since I've never bought a MB of this brand.
ASRock was originally a spin-off from Asus started in 2002, and was initially known for decent but cheap hardware for the OEM market, but absolutely not in position to compete with the historical names: Asus itself, Gigabyte, MSI, etc..
For some years now they have started to churn out products of much better quality and feature-rich. I have immediately found this motherboard, and its sister Extreme 3, very interesting.
First of all for its connectivity: the MB has six memory slots (dual or triple channel), 6 SATA_2 ports (3Gb) and 6 SATA_3 ports (6Gb), 6 USB 2.0 ports and 6 USB 3.0 ports, one channel for IDE devices (!), one floppy (!), two FireWire 400 ports and even one serial port on-board.
It also proposed for the first time (I believe) a possible standard for USB 3.0 connectors on the motherboard, and it comes with a cable to bring those ports to a front panel (if supported by the case), to a rear slot bracket, or to a 3" 1/2 bay on the front.
Aside from the insane number of connections, what drove me to this MB was its layout.
It has two PCI slots that are actually usable, unlike other MB where they are placed immediately to the left/right of the PCIe slot occupied by video card.
On those MB if you install (as often happens) a video card that takes up two slots, the PCI slot is simply inaccessible.
The SATA ports are all at one end of the MB, easily accessible when you need to connect a peripheral.
There is no trace of conventional electrolytic capacitors (they have a limited lifespan), all capacitors use an electrically conductive polymer as dielectric.
Between the rear connectors there is also a button to clear the CMOS without having to open the case to close a jumper on the MB.
On the MB there is a LED display which shows through an hexadecimal code the various states in which the MB is while powering up, to facilitate troubleshooting.
Last but not least this MB pays particularly attention to energy consumption. In standby, with the computer turned off but connected to the mains, the consumption is less than one watt.
For comparison, the consumption of GALILEO (my previous PC) )was 3 watts in standby.
Not only that, in the bios there is an entry called "Intelligent Energy Saver". If enabled, depending on the CPU load, it reduces the number of phases used by the power circuitry from 8 to 2.
This allows considerable energy saving every time you use your computer for light work, such as surfing the Internet, listening to an MP3, writing a document, etc.
The energy consumption was a parameter that I kept in mind when selecting all the parts that make up the new PC.
The result is a computer that is about three times more powerful than the previous one, but with lower consumption at idle (!), whilst under load (typically games) it's only a 20% higher in the worst case.
Considering the time I spend using the computer to play (or other similar activities demaning an high CPU load) can be estimated in a 10% of the total, I would say the result in terms of energy consumption is noteworthy.
BTW: I have verified all of values above with actual measurements performed with appropriate equipment, it's not only unverified theoretical stuff !
The only thing that betrays the fact that this MB is not in the same league as "raw power" as some Gigabyte or Asusis is that with some of those (the models at the top of the range) you can achieve a more extreme overclock.
That additional 5% you can squeeze out here is probably out of reach.
But considering the level of performance of the current hardware I'm no longer interested in overclocking as I was in the past, and I prefer to have all the things mentioned above (connectivity, layout, power saving features) I didn't find (all at the same time) in other products.
After having an AMD dual core (Athlon X2 64 @ 2.6 GHz) with GALILEO, for the new PC I went back to Intel.
The Intel Core i7 is indeed remarkable under many aspects.
I chose an i7 950, which has a base frequency of 3 GHz, 4 physical cores and 8 with Hyper Threading, hardware support for virtual machines and a variety of functions to greatly reduce power consumption when possible (if the BIOS and the OS collaborate).
Hyper Threading in these CPUs works really well. It is not like having 8 physical cores of course, you can benefits from HT with threads and not separate processes, but the parallelism achieved by current CPUs is actually tangible.
A considerable caracterisitc of this series, and especially of many i7-950 according to many reviews, is the ability to operate at low voltages.
Here is my experience: fiddling with the settings of the bios my CPU went from requiring more than 100W under load at 1.2V, to about 70W with a voltage just higher than 1.0V
This brought the temperature under stress from 80 degrees (Celsius) to 60-61 with an ambient temperature of 24, without impacting performance at all. A great result.
In the image below you can see the CPU under heavy load, with 8 threads running at 3.2 GHz and operating at only 1.06V with 8 phases.
In addition, about 10 of the 12 GB of RAM are in use.
I wanted a spacious case, versatile and well-built, without bizarre shapes similar to spaceships, refrigerators or air conditioners with humps on their top.
I examined around 40 cases (I wasn't in a hurry) and after about two months spent reading reviews I decided for the CoolerMaster HAF-X.
This one is really close to my idea of perfection for a case.
I hate curved or sinuous cases where you can't put anything on it because it start to roll or slip away. For example an external hard drive, a USB device recharging or anything like that.
Cases with a frontal cover to conceal all when closed may be nice, smooth, uniform, graceful and so on, but after the first 5 times spent on open/close it I just feel the urge to rip the door away, unless I forgot to open it already and smashed it with my knee when I walked away to get a glass of water.
Moreover, often those mechanisms are weak and sooner or later the door does not close (or reopen) anymore.
They are not on the top of the case where they collect dust, crumbs, or whatever gravity provides.
In addition to this, two of those connectors are USB 3.0 compatible and thanks to the connection options provided by this MB you can bring to the front the two internals USB 3.0 ports available on the board, leaving the external ones on the back still available.
It does have a LED fan, it is true, but there is a button to turn off the light. On Christmas or some other occasion I can find it entertaining, but every day (and night) with one or more lights always on would be just annoying.
The MB looks small when installed and there are various rubberized openings cut into the plate to route cables so that they can pass on the back of the MB without hindering the access to it or impeding the air circulation.
The adoption of giant fans make possible to move large air volumes without significant noise or turbulence, thanks to the low rotational speed.
The side fan flow invest the motherboard with a light breeze, and joined by the front fan helps to create an influx of air that rises from the bottom upwards and then it is extracted through the two remaining fans.
The four fans are arranged as follows:
The fans are the standard ones that came with the case except the 140 mm which had an air flow a bit too limited.
I replaced it with a 135 mm Scythe Kama FLEX (SA1325FDB12H) which has an air flow rate substantially higher and can operate inside a much wider voltage range (important when you use a fan regulator, see below).
The case has filters made of plastic, such as the ones used in air conditioners, for all the fans except the rear one which is used in extraction.
The top fan is also used in extraction but for obvious reasons when the computer is turned off some dust may also enter, so I am glad that they have also equipped that one with filters.
Last but not least the opening at the base of the case, which allows the power supply to take in some air, it is also equipped with a filter.
This used to be the norm for a big tower case, now not so much.
Well, here are the six slots, two of which can (optionally) be used for SATA hot-swap devices thanks to the included removable tray.
Fortunately this is almost become a standard, but my previous case didn't have it.
The rails used in this case, as in all the latest from Cooler Master, does not require any tool to be assembled and come with little rubber disks against vibrations.
This is the least important thing for me ... but all black, even inside, with a spartan, industrial and solid appearance ... I like :-)
The heat sinks with the highest dissipation power are the so-called "tower".
They usually grow quite a bit over the CPU and their fan blows towards the back of the case, in a direction parallel to the MB.
Sometimes they have not one but two fans located on the two opposed faces of the heat sink, one sucking air towards the heatsink and the other extracting air from it.
Advantages: they can dissipate the heat of a CPU overclocked to 4GHz (also over-volted). Disadvantages: they are very bulky and quite heavy.
In my case I opted for an excellent and more traditional "top-down" heat sink, with a fan on top of it blowing through it and towards the motherboard.
There are a couple of advantages:
The heatsink in question has two "cuts" on the sides, clearly visible in the above picture, to facilitate this.
Granted, that air is normally a bit hotter than the air present in other points of the case, but with the air circulation made possibile in this case the difference is small,
and it should be also noted this is not stagnant air, but air pushed with a certain pressure against the surface of the MB.
This helps the air to remove heat from anything that is at higher temperature, as you would certainly expect in the case of RAM.
So in this particular setup I think this is the best choice and real-life checks seem to confirm it.
12 GB of RAM ! Do I really need so much RAM ? Probably not. But it is better than not having it.
Since I had promised myself to make the move to a 64-bit OS with my next PC, I decided to get more than 4 GB, otherwise the transition would not have made much sense.
The Intel CPU is able to address a maximum of 24 GB, and right now this means installing 6 modules x 4 GB each, with all that follows (heat to be dissipated, stress of the memory controller inside the CPU, less air between modules, etc..).
Above all 24 GB are really a lot. So I opted for 12, which in my case can be very useful when running virtual machines.
The RAM modules in question works in triple-channel at 1600 MHz, well beyond the Intel specifics (1066 MHz) for this CPU.
For this reason they are guaranteed to operate at 1.65V instead of the canonical 1.5V, even if I have verified they woks with no issues at only 1.60V.
In the image below the RAM under test with Memtest86+ ...
For the video card I always buy something from nVidia, mostly because I prefer their drivers and fortunately it was just released a model with the features I was looking for: medium-high performance, low power consumption, reasonable temperatures, support in hardware for the latest versions of OpenGL and DirectX, CUDA, OpenCL, DirectCompute, PhysX.
Since I'm interested in experiment a little in some of those fields it's nice to have a lot of APIs supported ...
The GPU is the GF114, the revised version of the original Fermi.
A remarkable trait of this GPU is it can work at only 50 MHz when at the desktop, reducing power consumption and heat (see the third image above)..
Specifically I bought a Gainward, simply because it's compact, with two fans instead of the single one in the nVidia's reference design, and it's also slightly factory overclocked.
A computer only works well as its power supply.
Seasonic power supplies are really good. In general, all the models are able to operate reliably under the declared conditions and often beyond.
The series 80 PLUS Gold add to all this the highest efficiency levels, even in standby.
Last but not least all cables are detachable, and you can connect only the cables really needed in your particular configuration (again, less clutter).
Here it is the official booklet with the technical specifications in PDF.
And here a third-party certification of the actual adherence to the 80 PLUS Gold standard in PDF.
The first two reviews below are about the model "650", not "660" but the differences are marginal. The third one is about the model "560", identical in construction but with 100W less in power.
Creative, so many good reasons to hate them. Support is horrendous, drivers often stinks, some cards were born with various problems on the PCI bus or a shameful occupation of the CPU.
But they also made some cards with this beautiful front panel, the last of which was used on the X-Fi PCI.
Now with the new X-Fi Titanium PCIe they strayed from the right path to make this thing.
A gigantic, retractable volume knob, two small 3.5 mm jacks instead of the more solid 6.4 mm jacks, and nothing more ? Sorry, maybe you like it, but I feel sick.
So, given that after enormous efforts I was able to get drivers working reliably under Windows 7 x64, that the front panel is the only complete and functional I know of, and that the support for ASIO 2.0 is satisfactory, for now I'm keeping my faithful card I had in GALILEO.
In the future... we'll see.
Side note: the sound card uses a 40-pin flat cable to connect the front panel. The floppy disk drive (yes, I have one) needs one too.
To route cables so wide is a pain because they take lot of space and are deadly to uniform air circulation, so I turned them into "round" cables carefully using a sharp knife (to separate the individual wires) and some black electrical tape.
Below the different stages of the process ...
The final result:
Since I had many unused 5"1/4 slots available in the case, I thought I could try to install a fan controller.
I chose this model from Lamptron, where you can select the color of the LCD screen with a jumper and you can control four 12v fans with up to 20W per channel (really overkill and frankly I doubt it's true).
The fans I used require 1 or 2 watts, so ...
The speed is adjustable through a potentiometer, the display shows the speed of each fan and optionally you can connect up to 4 sensors in strategic places inside the case to monitor temperatures too.
I have connected the fans as follows:
And the four thermistors as follows:
In the picture below you can see the placement of the temperature sensors (click to enlarge).
The main hard disk.
Very fast, with a seek you can hear (something I like) but no other spurious noises.
The Black Series uses what WD calls "dual stage actuator technology". In practice the heads have two levels of movement: the mechanical one typically used by all hard disk which moves the head assembly in position, and the piezoelectric one which permits a further "fine" movement within a group of adjacent tracks near to the current head position.
This leads to a reduced seek time for adjacent tracks, a greater information density due to the higher resolution, and consequently a higher transfer rate.
For now, no SSD for me. I don't care for speed without reliability (just Google about all the ridiculous problem they have).
The hard disk I use primarily to make backups for the main one and for video acquisition/conversion.
Version a bit less perfomant than the Black, and built around a more traditional technology.
The one in the photo above lasted one week (was I talking about reliability a moment ago ?). Then it developed an ever increasing number of "reallocated sectors" and went back to Western Digital.
Anyway this is the first hard disk practically dead on arrival I have encountered after a lot of units I used in the last 25 years.
Also I was forced to replace only two hard disk in my entrire life, and after many years of use. So I would still say it's a very reliable (and finally very cheap) technology.
I installed the replacement WD sent me, and it seems to work well.
On this one I don't have much to say, it seems to work well, the discs spins without vibrations and it does support all the usual formats.
It has also successfully read all my media previously created with other burners.
Anyway there are only so many manufacturers today, and the products are rebranded by the final producer, the real test is how the drive perform over time.
Some last few months, some several years, some work consistently well over time, some gradually decay.
If I think the price I paid for my first CD burner (Kodak PCD 225) ...
Since I had to install the floppy drive I thought I could buy this panel, if nothing else it takes advantage of the extra space that would be wasted hosting a FireWire connector on the front.
Actually the case already have a FireWire connector, and I have connected it to it the port pins available on the motherboard, but since I have an additional FireWire port on the back of the audio card I thought
I could use that too connecting it to the connector on the panel using a cable extender routed inside the case.
So in the end I have two FireWire connectors accessible from the front. Nice.
As you can see from the photographs of the case, I decided to paint the panel black, leaving only the white button untouched, so that it could stand out better.
There, I'm done! Hope you like it.
Anyway all this talk will be more to my benifit than anyone else probably, a sort of "memory" for future reference.