Saturday, January 09, 2010


New Computer build

I "newegged" my sweeties new computer, planning the build for a few weeks before x-mas. She had her mind set on one of the HP "all-in-one" computers that she first saw at Best Buy. After some research online, she found the machine she wanted upgraded somewhat that cost around $2,050. Definitely rather high for our budget. I suggested offhand "I could build a machine that would be about twice as fast for about half as much as that." She was not too interested, having her heart now set on the machine on the HP site. As x-mas approached and our budget did not expand, I started looking through the Newegg website. Her "All-in-one" had a dual core Intel processor and a 22" touchscreen with upgrades to 6G of RAM and 1TB hard drive along with Win 7 Home Edition and a Blu-Ray player. I quickly found that the Athlon II X4 620 was only $99 at Newegg and after checking out motherboards and other components I was becoming confident that I could assemble an inexpensive better machine - except for the touchscreen. The touchscreens were all expen$ive being $600 to much more than $1K. A day or two before x-mas, I finally found the clincher - HP makes a new 21.5" touchscreen (released suspiciously a day after Windows 7 was released) for only $300! Suddenly my newegg special was looking much better. My sweetie was skeptical of the cheap HP touchscreen at first and started researching and asking for the opinions of some of her tech minded friends and she slowly was won over.

Some parts of the computer were obvious. The Athlon II X4 620 quad core processor, for example, for only $99. I was set on a 1TB hard drive with ideas to upgrade later to something like 2TB RAID1 when the budget allowed and the WD Caviars SATA drives were an obvious choice. I found a Rosewill case for only $39 that looked great and I'd scribbled in an 850W power supply along with an ASUS motherboard with onboard graphics and 1 PCIe 2.0 16x slot. I scribbled Win7 Pro down for the OS and the OEM version runs just $149 at Newegg. Some memory, a Blu-Ray player and my first pass on the machine was coming in at just under $1K without the $300 HP touchscreen. A few days later when it was time to order the hardware, a few things had changed. My nice Rosewill case had jumped back to its pre-sale price, so I looked around at some of the other cases I'd been eyeing and decided to go with the Antec Nine Hundred for $89.99 - $30 more than the pre-sale price of the Rosewell & $50 more than the sale price. I also decided to go with a 750W power supply, a Corsair 750TX at $109.99. I decided to go with G.SKILL 6GP (3x2GB) DDR3 1600 triple channel RAM for $149.99. I also upgraded a few more items, going with the WD Caviar WD1001FALS 1TB drive at $99.99 (on sale, regularly $109.99) instead of the cheaper cousin that would have cost $89.99. I also upgraded to Win7 Ultimate (64bit) for $174.99. For the Blu-ray I chose an LG combo drive that ran 8X BD-ROM, 16X DVD-ROM, 40X CD-ROM with lightscribe and DVD+R for $119.99. I also upgraded my motherboard choice to an ASUS M4A785TD-V EVO socket AM3 board with onboard Radeon HD 4200 graphics as well as 2 PCIe 2.0 16x slots for future graphics upgrades. I threw in a Rosewill RNX-N2X IEEE 802.11b/g/n USB2.0 wireless dongle to hook up to my planned upgraded home wifi network (currently 802.11g but hopefully soon to be 802.11n). Total price including shipping was $1,010.21. The order was placed the night of 12/30/09 and ETA was 1/6/10.

I planned to stay home from work to recieve the packages on the 6th. In the meantime, Newegg shipped two packages. One of Murphy's Laws for shipping is that a watched package never moves, so I tried to ignore the tracking as much as possible. On Monday the 4th, it looked like one of the packages was running a day behind the other, so would one arrive on Thursday the 7th instead? Tuesday mornings check of the lead package found it out for delivery already - a day early - and mid afternoon it was delivered, left at our front door. It was the Antec case all by itself. On Wednesday the 6th, package 2 was listed as out for delivery. I spent the morning first having the oil changed in the car along with some noisy fan belts, then I bought a new Acer X233H 1080P monitor (I plan to buy a 2nd one eventually for a matched pair for my desktop but this will act as a temporary for the new machine until the HP touchscreen arrives and it will replace the monitor my desktop currently has which will go on my sweeties old computer that I will convert over to a Linux server once it officially is retired from service) as well as a Logitech MK700 keyboard & mouse set to replace my old cheapo Logitech keyboard that will go on my sweeties old computer as well eventually. Once I got home, I spent the rest of my time waiting for the shipment by catching up on e-mail and doing some other work on my computer. I also cleared some space on the table and set up the Antec case.

Just after the crack of 2PM, the doorbell rang & the UPS delivery man set the package down and was already heading for his truck, typing on his data pad. Package #2 was actually smaller than the Antec package from the day before (makes sense since everything in package 2 has to fit inside the Antec case....). I unpacked the box and checked off the items to be sure everything was there, then I went looking for my computer tools and my static wristband in particular. Found my toolbox but not the wristband, so off to Radio Shack to buy a new one. Of course they didn't have them. They suggested I go to one of the Radio Shacks halfway across town that had computer specialization. I went to Ace instead and while they didn't have one, they suggested the nearby Best Buy. Ace is always helpful even if they don't have what you came for and this was no exception. Best Buy did not sell just the wristband, but sold a computer kit with one in it for $30, so I bought it and back home I went.

I had found an article online on the Maximum PC website about their building a computer for $647. They chose the same Athlon II X4 620 CPU I did and had a good set of photos showing their build. I kept that webpage open during my build for reference. The article appears in the February 2010 issue which arrived in my mailbox about a day late to be of assistance (but that didn't matter given the web version). Assembly started slowly as I carefully organized my work area and unpacked the individual components. First was installation of the CPU and CPU heatsink and fan. I remember the first time I did that more than 10 years ago - it was intimidating then, but I find it easy now. First attaching my new grounded wrist-strap, I then lifted the AM3 socket lever. I carefully examined the motherboard manual, CPU documentation and Maximum PC website to identify the correct orientation of the CPU and after a moment had the pins aligned and it dropped easily into the socket. Closing the lever, the CPU was locked firmly in place. Next came the CPU fan and heatsink. The motherboard manual and CPU documentation helped identify the orientation I needed to use. There are 2 choices with tabs on the side of the socket that the clips attach to. I chose to put the lever on the heatsink towards the center of the motherboard and attached the clips and locked the lever. I then routed the CPU fan power cable over to the header on the motherboard labeled CPU Fan. I was worried it might get in the way of the RAM install later, so I kept that in mind as I unpackaged the G.Skill RAM. The motherboard manual did not make it obvious how to deploy the 3 sticks of RAM in the 4 RAM sockets available. Out from the middle of the motherboard (away from the CPU towards the front of the motherboard) the slots are labeled A2 B2 A1 B1. 2 of the sticks would go in A1 & B1 but the manual was unclear on if there was a difference between using A2 or B2 for the 3rd stick. I decided to put it in A2 that would separate the first 2 sticks from the third and perhaps help in keeping the 3 sticks cooler. Next it was time to install the motherboard into the case. I had removed the side panels as well as the HD cages from the case and layed the case down on its side for the install and found 6 of the needed 9 standoffs in the case. I confirmed the location of the mounting holes on the motherboard and added the last 3 metal standoffs. I popped out the I/O shield that came with the case and then installed the shield that came with the motherboard. I payed some attention to the metal tabs that help seat the motherboard and I/O sockets as I slid the motherboard into place. It wasn't obvious which of the many screws that came with the case were the ones I needed for the motherboard and I stupidly didn't check the screws with the standoffs before sliding the motherboard in. Of course, I chose the wrong screws and it took me a bit to recognize that they did not fit properly. It was challenging to get the incorrect screws out and as I finished, my sweetie called to ask to pick her up from work. I put a couple of the now identified correct screws in just to hold the motherboard in place and took a short break as I converted to taxi driver.

As play resumed I finished installing the rest of the 9 screws to attach the motherboard. The case only came with 8 screws, BTW, so I had to come up with a 9th screw from my vast collection of computer hardware. Next I needed to install the case front USB port cables as well as the power and reset button connections. Each of these was obvious with the case connector and the header on the motherboard being well labeled. The Antec Nine Hundred does not come with any power LED since the case fans come with blue LEDs that make it obvious when the power is on. The last connection was for the top panel audio and I chose to attach the case cable to the HD-audio compliant connector instead of the Legacy AC'97 connector. That was apparently the wrong choice as the top panel audio does not work yet (I'll switch those connectors next time I need to open up the case).

The Corsair power supply has a Medusa head of power cables and it took a bit to sort out who was who and what was what. It has 8 PCI-E cables, 8 SATA connectors on 2 cables, 8 IDE (peripheral) connectors on 2 cables and a 24 pin (20 + 4 pin) cable/connector and a 12V (4/8pin) cable/connector. And they are all tangled up when you remove the power supply from its packaging. I needed to stand the case upright in order to seat the power supply and screw it into place with the 4 supplied screws.

Before attaching the power connectors, I installed the Blu-Ray drive and the hard drive. The Blu-Ray went into the top 5.25 inch slot. I removed the cover with 2 screws and slid the drive in easily, locking it in place with 4 small screws. The WD hard drive slid into the top slot of one of the cages that I had removed from the case earlier. It locks in place with 4 long screws that pass through the removable cage. I first removed the large 200mm empty fan mount from the back of the top cage as it was not needed and got in the way of the hard drive installation. I then re-installed the two cages (one empty) with the HD in the top cage. The cages have fans mounted on the front of them. I wrapped up the un-needed power cables and stowed them in the empty bottom cage. I used one of the SATA power cables to attach to both the SATA Blu-Ray drive and the HD. The peripheral cable was only needed for the fans and I attached all 4 case fans on one of the 2 peripheral cables. Last was plugging in the 2 SATA data cables. I used the first 2 of 5 onboard SATA ports (there is a 6th on the back as an eSATA port).

A few cable ties later to tidy up the mess of cables, I double checked all the internal connections and then plugged in my new monitor (which came with 3 data cables, a DVI, a VGA and an HDMI cable) and plugged in my cheapo old keyboard and mouse. I then plugged in the power supply and turned it on. Pressing the power switch on top, I was greeted with the blue case lights and spinning fans and very shortly, the screen came to life as it went through its first POST. As expected, it failed when it went to look for a bootable OS. I powered down and inserted the Windows install disk before turning the power back on.

Windows 7 install went flawlessly. Well almost. I followed onscreen directions for entering my location and time zone and so on. Finally, it was time to enter the license key which comes on a sticker on the DVD case that the OEM package came in. The key is written in what looks to be microfiche sized text and I typed in the 5 sets of 5 digits of numbers and letters. When I hit return, it complained about a bad product key! I re-checked the key and retyped it 3 times. Still no joy. I logged onto microsoft webpages starting to look for a number to call (couldn't find one!). In the meantime, I looked at the product key again and as I looked at what I thought was an "8", I realized it looked like it might be a "B". Editing that character and sure enough, it took the key and continued the rest of the install.

When all was said and done, I have to say that this build was probably about the smoothest I've ever experienced (I've built about 4 or 5 other PCs before). The build went well and was quite easy. The first power up went flawlessly and the Windows 7 install was probably the fastest I've experienced even with the 10 minute speed bump I experienced with the micro-font used in the product key.

It occured to me that the Maximum PC $647 PC could have been built cheaper if they had foregone the graphics card. The motherboard I chose costs about $40 more but without their $166 graphics card, it could have come in at only about $521 using the onboard graphics! Some of the other major differences are: My choice of power supply and case. They also used only 4G of DDR2 RAM and used only a 500G hard drive. While we opted for a more expensive Blu-Ray/DVD-R/RW drive, they saved $90 by using only a DVD-R/RW drive. I haven't run any benchmarks on the machine, but I bet it will be a little faster than the Maximum PC machine if for no other reason than I used DDR3 1600 memory. Though they may make up the difference with their external graphics card. I anticipate upgrading both the HD capacity and the graphics card(s) eventually. And the HP touchscreen monitor should arrive on Monday. Cross your fingers!


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