Mark Gilbert's Blog

Science and technology, served light and fluffy.

Rise of the New Machine

This is the first blog post in a while, and I decided to make it from the comfort of my new machine.

Finished Machine

I decided for this computer that I didn’t need a laptop as much as I wanted a powerful machine, so the hardware options available to my budget were greater.  One of those options was building my own machine, a feat I had still not yet undertaken.  After doing some initial pricing, I found that I could build a very nice machine for much less than I could buy from a commercial vendor such as Dell or Sony.

What were my goals?

  • First and foremost I wanted to be able to prove to myself that I could spec out and build a machine from the ground up.  As middle-schoolish as this sounds, I felt it was a rite of passage as a professional developer that I had not yet passed.  I have historically shied away from the hardware side of computers; I wanted to put an end to that hesitation.
  • I wanted a 64-bit machine.  The last three computers that I’ve owned or used on a daily basis have run on Windows XP 32-bit.  The 32-bit processor meant that I was limited to about 3 1/3 GB of RAM.  I wanted something powerful enough that I could run a couple of virtual machines at the same time.
  • Finally, I also wanted a machine that would last me for at least 3-5 years without a major hardware upgrade.

Of course, DECIDING to build my own machine was one thing.  Actually putting together a computer that functioned was quite another.  I started by browsing through the TigerDirect.com catalog, a site that I knew at least a couple of my coworkers recommended for electronics.  After a day and a half (a full 12 hours when all was said and done) of reading, research, and comparison shopping, I managed to put together the following list of parts:

  1. CPU: Intel Core i7 920 (with heat sink included).  $309.99, TigerDirect.com
  2. Motherboard: Asus P6T-Deluxe.  $309.99, NewEgg.com
  3. Memory: OCZ PC3-10666 Platinum, 6GB.  $245.99, NewEgg.com
  4. Case: ATX Mid-Tower, $69.99 (local vendor)
  5. Hard Drive: Western Digital Caviar SE16 500GB.  $64.99, TigerDirect.com
  6. Video Card: Visiontek Radeon HD 3650.  $59.99, TigerDirect.com
  7. Optical Drive: Sony DRU-V200S/BR.  $29.99, TigerDirect.com
  8. Power Supply: OCZ / StealthXStream / 600-Watt: $59.99, NewEgg.com
  9. Linksys Wireless NIC: $42.39, Circuit City
  10. Battery Backup: APC Back-Ups RS 1500.  $199.99, Amazon
  11. Monitor: Dell UltraSharp 2208FP, Wide Panel.  $229.76, Dell.com
  12. Logitech MX310 Optical Mouse, $29.24, Amazon

Core Computer Components (not including Mouse, Monitor, or Battery): $1,193.31

Total Cost: $1,652.30

My biggest concern was that I would buy components that weren’t compatible with each other.  In one case that fear came to fruition.  I originally purchased the AeroCool M40 MATX Cube Case, but I missed the significance of the “M” in “MATX”.  The Asus motherboard was an ATX style board, whereas the case was designed for “micro-ATX” boards.  I didn’t realize the issue until it came time to mount the board into the case.  There was much gnashing of teeth that evening, let me tell you.  I returned it, and purchased a mid-tower ATX case from a local computer shop, and it has worked out well.

My second concern was that I would fry out a component, or start getting strange errors when I hooked things together.  Luckily for me, hardware component design and documentation has come a VERY long way since I tried putting components together.  For the most part, the cables and the motherboard were exceptionally well labeled, and everything went together in about 6 hours.  I’ve had many situations with past machines where I would plug in a new drive, or an extra stick of RAM, and fight with the BIOS for hours to get it to be recognized.  With this machine, everything went together very smoothly, and appeared to work on the first try.

I did, however, have one place where panic set in for a good 5 minutes before I realized what was happening.  I assembled the machine and installed the operating system on my workbench (where I could actually ground myself).  Once I had the OS installed I felt the machine was stabile enough to move to my desk.  During the 40 feet distance between the two, I heard something go “thump” inside the case.  I initially dismissed it as simply the extra power supply cables shifting inside (I ended up using less than half of the ends that the power supply had on it, so the wad that was left got stuffed into an unused drive bay).  When I powered the machine up, it didn’t even make it to the Vista startup screen when it shut itself back down.

Huh?  Let’s try that again.  Same thing – 15 seconds or so in and it just dies.

Oh crap.

I tried it a few more times, each time trying to watch the messages on the screen for clues as to what was happening.  Each time getting more scared that I fried out a $300 component somewhere (if I had spares of everything I wouldn’t have been AS concerned; I could just swap out components until I found the bad one; as it was, I had no idea what was happening).

I unplugged it, and carried it back to the workbench.  I plugged it back into the CRT that I had it in before, and this time I was able to see a glimpse of a message just before it shut itself down.  The message was something to the effect of “CPU temperature too high; shutting down”.

Oh.

CRAP.

I pulled the cover off, and found that the CPU heat sink had broken away from three of its four moorings, and was literally dangling off of the motherboard.  With the fins not making contact with the CPU, the heat sink wasn’t really doing any good.

The good news was that I now knew what had happened, what that thump was, and how to fix it.  I was scared that the bad news would be that the CPU had melted itself down in my half dozen or so attempts to boot it up.  I cleaned off the thermal paste from both the heat sink and the CPU (it came pre-pasted), applied some of my own, and reattached the heat sink to the motherboard/CPU.  I gave it a good jiggle when I was done to make sure it would stay put.  I booted the machine back up, and it seemed to come up just fine.  As I was working on it, I started to entertain the hope that the CPU’s heat sensor would shut it down before any real damage took place, and so far it appears that that is the case.  I’ve had the machine up and running continuously now for days, and it hasn’t given me any troubles since.

Overall, I am extremely pleased with the outcome.  The new machine screams, having a Vista rating of 5.2 (the Gaming Graphics metric is dragging it down; all of the other indicators are 5.7 or higher, out of a possible 5.9), and has a LOT of room for growth.  Not bad when you consider the core hardware ran me less than $1,200.

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December 29, 2008 - Posted by | General

2 Comments

  1. […] nine months, my wife and I have been working on getting ready for a new arrival, and no, it was not my new computer.  We found out in April that she was pregnant with our second daughter.  We were […]

    Pingback by Lucy, she’s home! (Part 1 of 2) « Mark Gilbert’s Blog | January 19, 2009

  2. […] nine months, my wife and I have been working on getting ready for a new arrival, and no, it was not my new computer.  We found out in April that she was pregnant with our second daughter.  We were […]

    Pingback by Lucy, she’s home! (Part 1 of 2) « | January 19, 2009


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