Friday, December 14, 2007

AverMedia AVerTV Combo PCI-E Media Center Upgrade Kit

Recording TV Programs:

Our ancient VCR (tape recorder) in the TV room is starting to act up and we are looking around for a replacement. Of course VCR is the technology of the previous century - we should probably get a DVD recorder or, better yet by far, a DVR (digital video recorder).

Enter the brand new computer. It turns out that a computer with a TV tuner card can make a dandy DVR, and this new one with lots of power, high-quality graphics, and Windows Vista Ultimate with Media Center is a perfect candidate.

TV Tuner Card:

I have Windows Vista 64 with Media Center, so I ordered the AverMedia Media Center Upgrade Kit from, a PCI-E tuner card. I chose that product for its features but even more because of the good recommendations from purchasers on The card includes two tuners, one for analog channels (broadcast or cable) and the other for digital (broadcast or cable).


I installed it in a PCI-E slot, rebooted, and Windows automatically installed the drivers. There was no need to use the drivers on the included CD-ROM; I'm confident that Windows used appropriate drivers. With the kit also came a remote control and remote receiver, for which Windows also found and installed a driver.

I connected the cable TV signal to the analog tuner, and the included "test" antenna to the digital tuner, and immediately tuned in all of the analog cable channels and eight digital broadcast channels.

I'm not an HDTV enthusiast, at least not yet. I know almost nothing about home-theater PC (HTPC). But this was trivially simple. What we have here is a card that is designed to work specifically with Windows Media Center (MC), a Microsoft software package found on some XP and Vista machines. The card came with no other software except drivers - it would be useless without MC, and MC cannot play or record TV signals without a TV tuner card. They go together hand in glove, and they worked together right out of the box with no coaxing at all.

  • The quality of the analog cable programs is better than my desktop TV, and they have equal signals off the same splitter.
  • The quality of the digital programs is stunning.
  • MC and the tuner immediately detected and cataloged every useful analog cable channel.
  • Using a tiny "test" antenna supplied with the kit, the system detected all of the major local broadcast stations. That test antenna is all I need.
  • MC can play one program from one tuner while recording another program from the other tuner.
  • With MC not running, the computer's CPU usage is 1% to 2%. With MC playing a program it is about 20%, and with MC both playing and recording it is about 25%.
  • The card's tuner chips felt warm to the touch, but not hot.
  • I ran a CPU exercise program called HeavyLoad while MC was playing and recording, and the program played without a hitch with CPU usage bumping up between 90% and 100%. Nothing overheated.
Features I'd like to have:
  • The documentation was nonexistent. I have no idea how some of the included parts are even supposed to be used.
  • It has no FM tuner, which would be very nice with MC.
  • Though there are two tuners on the card, MC will not show picture-in-picture.
  • The tuner is capable of playing QAM (unencrypted digital cable signals) but MC will not take advantage that capability.
Bottom Line:

It works exactly as advertised and I'm glad to have it. I wonder if we should just build another, cheaper computer and dedicate it to DVR as a replacement for the VCR. Still expensive I guess.

An alternative is to rent the DVR from our cable provider Comcast, which would require us to upgrade the cable from Standard to Digital, and the rental plus the upgrade would cost us $16.00/month or about $200.00/year. At that rate we coud pay for an $800 computer in four years ... hmmm.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

TrueCrypt Is Cool

My business requires me to safeguard the security of certain files. For years I have used Encrypted Magic Folders (EMF) from PC-Magic to encrypt those files, and to hide them from the view of an interloper. I loved it, because files were always encrypted on disk and yet were fully accessible to applications. However, when I upgraded to Vista 64, the new EMF crashed my system so completely that it was unbootable even in safe mode. I tried it twice, recovered twice with some difficulty, and gave up on EMF.

In the meantime I had heard about TrueCrypt, an open-source disk encryption package for Windows and Linux. It's free! I must admit that after I downloaded it, I needed some time to get my mind around it.

Here are the basics:
  • Using the TrueCrypt application you create a large "container" file on your system, larger than you will need to hold your encrypted files. It can be on any read/write disk, even a memory stick, and is initially filled with random data.
  • The container file can be copied, moved, deleted, or renamed just like any other file. It's not fragile. It can have any name and any file extension. You can have more than one.
  • With the TrueCrypt application, you mount that container file as a disk volume with its own drive letter. You choose the letter.
  • The TrueCrypt application runs in the background and manages TrueCrypt volumes.
  • Within the TrueCrypt volume you create folders, or copy them in, and create or copy in any files that ought to be encrypted. A TrueCrypt volume behaves exactly like any other disk, even though it's really just a file on your hard drive or mem stick. Every file within it is totally encrypted, including file names and even its file system.
  • Unused space in the TrueCrypt container file is filled with random data which cannot be distinguished from actual encrypted files.
  • When you open an encrypted file in an application, such as a wordprocessor or graphic editor, the file is decrypted on the fly so that the application sees it decrypted.
  • The file is never decrypted on disk, however, unless the application keeps temporary backup copies, and of course you should tell your applications to keep those in an encrypted volume too.
  • Backup of encrypted data is easy: Just dismount the encrypted volume and copy its container file, still encrypted, to the backup medium.
  • If the backup medium is another disk, mem stick, DVD, or CD-ROM, you can actually mount that backup container file whenever you want without ever copying it back to the original hard disk.
TrueCrypt Application Window
That's the simple view of TrueCrypt. There is lots more. For example:
  • Anyone examining your system or your disk can tell that you use TrueCrypt, and can probably even identify the container files.
  • However, you can host a TrueCrypt volume within another truecrypt volume in a manner that makes the internal volume both hidden and undectable even if the outer volume is mounted and visible. Really cool. The TrueCrypt people call this "plausible deniability," and consider it quite important.
  • Example: An adversary points a gun at you and demands to see your encrypted files. You can give them the password to the outer encrypted volume without ever revealing that an inner, hidden volume even exists. It's invisible. I don't actually see the need for a hidden volume in my business, but evidently some folks do.
  • You can host a truecrypt volume on a public computer, or another person's computer, without installing any software on that computer, so your encrypted files are portable.
  • You can tell TrueCrypt to mount certain TrueCrypt volumes automatically at bootup, though you will be required to enter a password to complete the mounting process.
  • TrueCrypt allows you to use any of eight different encryption algorithms and three different hash algorithms, making decryption by an adversary even more difficult.
I love it, and in fact am using it for my encrypted files on my new computer. It works very well indeed, even on Vista 64. It is certainly no more trouble than EMF was, and backup is much simpler. It is far better than Windows Encrypted File System (EFS) because: (1) EFS files are always available when you log on, whereas TrueCrypt files require you to enter another password; and (2) EFS files cannot easily be backed up in their encrypted form. TrueCrypt is also much simpler than Windows BitLocker encryption, which requires you to partition your drive and poses some risk of losing the entire drive if something goes wrong.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

RAID Backup

Working perfectly!

Usually, a person needs a backup when their disk drive fails. All disk drives fail sometime - there is no escape from that truth. But there are other reasons for keeping good backups:
  • Total disaster, such as a fire or flood that destroys the whole computer and all nearby backups.
  • Deliberate mischief, such as a virus that deletes important files.
  • Accidental deletion or modification of one or more files.
I'm sure there are more reasons, but if we cover these we'll probably have the rest covered.

Drive Failure:

Disk drive failure can mostly be avoided by using two mirrored drives in a configuration known as RAID 1. RAID means Redundant Array of Independent Drives, and has several well-defined levels. RAID 1 is a simple comfiguration with two drives which always contain exactly the same information, hence the term "mirrored." If either drive fails, the other simply becomes the system's sole drive and takes over without a hitch. Since the probability of two drives failing at once is very small, RAID 1 pretty well covers that problem. The new computer here employs RAID 1.

Total Disaster:

If the building burns down or floods, the only solution is to have a separate backup stored offsite. This can be on the internet, another building some distance away, or perhaps in a fire- and water-proof safe. At this office a flood is highly unlikely, so we store encrypted DVD backups of most user files in a fire-resistant safe in the basement, and we occasionally put a DVD in a safe deposit box at the bank. I have just set up an upload account and I may stop putting DVDs in the safe deposit box. We'll see.

Deliberate Mischief, or Accidental Deletion or Modification:

RAID disks don't help here, because the RAID disk controller keeps the two mirrored disks identical even when the files themselves are deleted or corrupted. This is where Windows System Restore can be very handy indeed. I have several times seen a serious problem solved by restoring a system to a previous date and time. System Restore works, though it has the disadvantage that the whole drive reverts to a selected time in the past, even if you only need to recover one file.

Intel Storage Console rebuilding a RAID volume But if System Restore isn't the solution, then backups are the answer. DVD and internet backups can be used to restore user data, but what about all of the rest of the system? I started a full backup once, but quit when the backup wizard pointed out that I would need 19 DVDs. Enter "RAID Backup" with a third identical disk drive. At some reasonable interval (every day, every week, every month) I can disconnect the power to one of the two mirrored disks and connect the third disk. The disconnected disk is instantly a complete backup of everything, and the newly-connected disk will soon be overwritten and re-mirrored to the remaining good disk in the RAID 1 pair. Voila - complete backup in about five minutes for a one-time cost of about $80. It does actually take about 2 hours and 15 minutes to re-mirror, but the system is usable, if slower, while that takes place. And the third disk, with no power, is safe from any mischief.

Intel Storage Console showing the RAID volume rebuilt It Works!:

I wasn't entirely sure that the Intel software would be totally cool with what I wanted to do, but I tried it last night and today. The system has three identical 320 Mb Western Digital hard disk. Steps in the experiment:
  • Disk Drives A and B were mirrored, drive C was powered up as a spare but had never been used.
  • I shut down the computer, disconnected power on B, rebooted the computer. The Bios complained that the RAID 1 pair was "degraded" and gave me a chance to deal with it in the Bios, but I declined and let the bootup proceed.
  • The computer booted normally, and the Intel monitor software presented a pop-up balloon that said the RAID 1 disk was degraded but could be repaired.
  • I clicked on the balloon and followed the instructions to restore disk C to mirror the good disk in the RAID pair, disk A. Two and a quarter hours later, A & C were a mirrored RAID pair and B was a complete backup. Job done.
  • As an experiment, however, I shut down again and disconnected all EXCEPT disk B, then rebooted. Again the Bios complained and the on-line software did too, but the system functioned normally on just the "backup" disk. As far as I could tell, all files were accessible. The RAID software, apparently confused, also created a second RAID array at this point, consisting of Disk B and a "missing" disk. Duh.
  • I rebooted with only A & C connected, and everything worked once again, no complaints.
  • Then I connected B as well, rebooted, and got some complaints about a degraded pair in the second RAID array (disk B), but the system ran normally and all files on all disks seemed to be accessible, including the files on disk B.
  • Finally, I disconnected disk C, leaving A & B connected, and rebooted once again. The Bios and the Intel application software both complained about degraded RAID arrays. But it allowed me to delete the second RAID array, consisting of only disk B. That done, it allowed me to re-mirror B to the good disk in the original RAID pair, disk A, even though disk B contained lots of valid data. I was concerned that it might not let me destroy data, and I think there were at least four warnings that data would be destroyed on disk B if I proceeded, but it finally let me do it. Now disk C is again the full backup and the system is back to a RAID array of disks A & B.
From now on the procedure will be much simpler: Shut down, disconnect B or C (whichever was connected), reconnect the disk that was disconnected, reboot, and tell the Intel application to restore the RAID array. The biggest hassle is moving the computer to a position where I can open the side panel and disconnect / reconnect drives. I can handle it.

Windows Experience Index:

Before these little experiments, the system's Windows Experience Index was 5.4, limited by the disk subscore of 5.4. I ran the tests several times. Since the experiments, the Windows Experience Index is 5.5, limited by both the processor and gaming graphics, with the disk subscore improving to 5.7. Why did the disk subscore go up from 5.4 to 5.7, using exactly the same disks? Only Microsoft knows.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Heat, Speed, & Sound


Mr. Tobias Schonherr pointed out an error in my assembly of this new computer. Thank you Mr. Schonherr! I had misinterpreted the Intel manual on the DP35DP motherboard, and unwittingly installed the two memory modules in single-channel mode rather than dual-channel mode.

As I understand it, dual-channel mode enables the CPUs to make two requests on memory at one time, increasing overall memory throughput. See below. First the memory modules before and after, then the resulting Windows Experience Index before and after. The computer recognized 4 Gb of memory in each case, but you will notice that the memory sub-index jumped from 5.6 to 5.9, now as high as any other element of the system and higher than the dual-processor CPU.
Before After
Memory as originally installed Memory correctly installed
Original Windows Experience Index New Windows Experience Index


Modern computers contain a host of self-monitoring devices, temperature monitors in particular. I installed the Intel Desktop Utilities, which takes advantage of those devices to provide readouts and to raise an alarm if some device goes outside its limit.

A few days back I returned to my computer to find an alarm on the screen. The CPU had exceeded its temperature limit of 68 degrees C for several minutes, going as high as 69 C (156 F). I downloaded a system-exerciser program called HeavyLoad and ran the CPU test, which is a repetitive graphics application, and the CPU temperature jumped right up to 70 C, CPU fan becoming very audible. Oops - problem.

I wondered if the thermal transfer between the CPU and its heatsink was OK. I had removed the heatsink once to re-check that the CPU was correctly loaded in its socket, thus disturbing the termal transfer compound. Also I had never felt good about the seating of the clips that hold the heatsink to the motherboard.

So I removed the heatsink once again, removed the old thermal transfer compound, and applied Arctic Silver compound in its place, evening it out with a credit card. Replacing the heatsink atop the CPU cover, I tried very carefully this time to apply equal pressure on all of the mounting clips, hearing a satisfying little click at each corner, an assurance that the heatsink is held down squarely. I also disconnected the internal case fan from motherboard control and connected it to full voltage so that it will always run full speed. It's noiseless anyway.

Good results! The following measurements were made with HeavyLoad executing its graphic application (about 60% CPU utilization), and the hole pattern in the back of the case blocked, thus forcing air to come all the way through from the front). In each case, temperatures were allowed to settle for at least a quarter of an hour. The CPU fan is automatically controlled from the motherboard:

  C C C C C Fan
Max allowed 68 85 119 109   RPM
Exhaust fan LOW (silent) 60 48 62 66 53 1467
Exhaust fan MED (audible) 60 49 62 66 50 1345
Exhaust fan HI (whoosh) 59 47 62 66 50 1348
Fan LOW, no HeavyLoad 40 41 63 66 53 927

I wish it were cooler still, but the CPU is now well within specifications. Further, the speed of the rear exhaust fan doesn't seem to make much difference in the temperatures, though it makes a lot of difference in noise. So I'm leaving the fan on low until there is a problem.


I admit that my hearing isn't what it once was, but this system is so quiet that I can't always be sure I'm hearing it. A very low rumble from the disk drives is about all there is, and only when they are busy. But when the forced-air-furnace comes on I just can't hear it at all. I LOVE that! Now about that furnace ...

Sunday, November 4, 2007

The Computer Is Built!

And I'm pleased with it.


Windows Experience Index screen in Vista, click to enlargeThe overall Windows Experience Index is 5.4, which I believe is pretty good. The limiting subscore (5.4) is the disks, actually, and they are very high-speed SATA II 7200-RPM drives, though you can get 10,000 RPM drives which should be faster yet. The highest subscore is the Windows Aero graphics, 5.9. Everything else falls between, so the system is reasonably well balanced.


When there is nothing else going on in the room, TV and the old computer turned off, sitting at my desk, I can hear a faint, low-pitched roar similar to the sound you hear by holding a large seashell up to your ear, but certainly not that loud. It has a resonance to it, despite my efforts to dampen sounds inside the box. I think that the rear fan is the origin of most of the noise. It's not objectionable, because it's faint, but I will probably try to do more to limit the sound, such as: This is the computer (black), in service, next to the older and larger Gateway 600 (grey) that it will eventually replace.  Click to enlarge
  • Add more sound-deadening material inside the box; there is room on the side cover for more;
  • Play with fan speeds. The computer reports its own temperatures at several places including the CPU, graphics card, and motherboard, and those are quite comfortably within spec right now, so I could choose a lower speed for the rear fan;
  • Cover the strange hole pattern on the back of the case, for which there seems no purpose; and
  • Replace or rewire the rear fan. The motherboard came with a fan-control connection for that fan, but oddly, that fan did not come with a connector for the fan control. It may be easier for me to order a fan with the right connector rather than a conversion cable.
Bottom Line:

It's a good computer. Luckily there were no DOA (dead-on-arrival) parts, and it came right up and ran. The only problems were software ones, after Vista was installed and not to be discussed here (though I may yet post a rant about Vista. It is SO awkward and obtuse). I think that once a person has the proper parts on hand, one could put a computer like this together in an hour or two, including the initial Vista installation.

Below is a pictorial of the build process, in reverse order. Click on the Materials List on the side panel to see what went into the computer.

Initial RAID Screen in Intel Bios
After powering up the disks, this screen in the BIOS allowed the association of drives A and B as a single fault-tolerant 320 Gb RAID disk before anything was ever written to the disks.

Screen shows that no bootable devices are connected.  More importantly, it shows that the computer WORKS!
When first powering up the system, I had disconnected all of the disk drives and some other stuff to see if the CPU and motherboard would POST (power-on self test). THEY DID! This screen proves that a lot of stuff was working:
  • Power supply;
  • Motherboard;
  • CPU;
  • Graphics card, at least sufficient to display to the generic screen; and
  • USB ports and keyboard-handling firmware on the motherboard;
  • Fans (I could see them turn).
Ready to run
The box is fully wired and ready to test.

Motherboard and most other parts are in place
The motherboard is installed and screwed in place.

Hard disks are installed
The three 320 Gb hard drives are in place and wired up. Two drives are for the fault-tolerant RAID disk, and a third will be used as a backup.

One 320 Gb drive
It's still hard for me to reconcile this palm-sized, silent, extremely fast 320 Gb drive with the washing-machine-sized sub-Gb drives I cut my computer teeth on years ago. And in just a few years, even these will be replaced with much faster flash drives having no moving parts at all.

Sound deadening material applied
Sound-deadening material stuck to the back side of the hard-drive cage. A similar piece is attached to the side door covering the drives on this side, and on the bottom and top of the cage. I attached this material on all interior surfaces wherever it could be attached without getting in the way or interfering with the passage of cooling air.

Sound-deadening felt
Sound-deadeing felt. Found in the local Menards hardware store, not for the purpose of deadening sound, but I think it should work. I liked the black better, but the store didn't have much so I bought some of both.

Front fan is installed
Front fan installed inside of the hard drive cage, to pull air across the drives and blow it toward the graphics card and CPU. See earlier posts for other views of the entire case.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Everything is Here

The Intel E6750 Boxed CPU and three Western Digital 320-Gb SATA hard drives arrived today, and now all of the parts are here. I set everything except the case out on the picnic table for a photo. Out of several photos, my sweetie liked this one with fall color in the background :-)

All of the stuff Then I downloaded an Intel video that demonstrates how to install the processor and "thermal solution" (fan + heat sink) on the Intel DP35DP motherboard. After playing the video once, I played it again and did the installation while watching the video. What makes it tricky is that dozens upon dozens of tiny pins on the motherboard socket must match up with a similar number of contact lands on the CPU wafer, without bending any of the pins.

And the CPU is just a wafer at this point, not fragile exactly but the motherboard pins are. You are supposed to set the square wafer straight down on the pins without sliding it at all, but I must admit that when I set it down it wasn't perfectly aligned and it did slide slightly. I hope those pins handled it - I didn't look.

Motherboard with CPU and memory After inserting the wafer you close a little door and then a little spring handle to press the door and wafer down tightly against the socket pins. Then you put the heatsink on top of it all and fasten it down with its own little plastic clips, plug the heatsink fan into the appropriate connector, tie off any spare wire, and job done. I hope. I'll feel a little better when I power it up and get a BIOS screen.

By comparison, the 4 Gb of G.Skill RAM seemed quite easy to install. Just push it carefully into the socket.

On another note: My first experience with computers was in 1962, 45 years ago, when disk drives were barely on the horizon. We used a magnetic tape operating system, and wrote programs on punched cards or paper tape. Later, about 28 years ago, I bought my first computer while working at 3M, with 64 Kb of RAM (yes RAM, not core), and a 5-Mb disk drive which was too heavy for one person to manage alone. These palm-sized disks each have 64,000 (sixty-four thousand) times as much disk capacity, and the CPU will enjoy 62,500 times as much RAM. Oh, and the RAM is about 800 times faster, while the CPU is easly 2500 times faster and there are two in the chip. Isn't technology stunning?

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Antec Sonata III 500 Review

Noise Reduction:

The Sonata III 500 is supposed to be one of the quietest computer cases on the planet, advertised by Sonata as "whisper quiet when it comes to system noise." Front of case with top front cover removed, three large bays and two small ones This is why I bought it, but frankly, I don't see what all the fuss is about. Here is what the Sonata III 500 does have for noise reduction:
  • An efficient 500-watt power supply with its own "low noise" cooling fan. I haven't powered it up yet, so I can't yet testify to the lack of noise but I expect it to be quiet,
  • A normal-looking three-speed 120 mm rear exhaust fan. I was unable to find noise ratings published by Antec, but I expect it to be quiet at the lower speeds and noisy at the top speed,
  • Silicone grommets for mounting the hard drives, to absorb noise and vibrations, and
  • Rubber feet.
Nice clean inside showing space for up to four hard drives but no obvious sound-deadening features On the flip side, though, here is what the Sonata does not have:
  • Sound-deadening panels or foam of any kind to absorb sound or prevent conduction through the hard steel panels,
  • Baffling to prevent sound generated inside from coming out either the front or back air ports,
  • Gaskets or sealant to prevent sound from coming through the various cracks, such as around the side and front doors,
  • or
  • Joint treatment to prevent the doors from rattling.
I have a lot of experience in older computers, the kind that were once called minicomputers, but I am certainly not an expert in modern PC's - this is my first build. So maybe none of those things are important or should be expected, although Sonata does indeed provide sound-deadening panels on some of their other cases so I guess that one matters. I may add my own panels where there is space to do so, especially around the hard disks.

This is the air filter Air Cooling:

The air filter is built-in, removable, and washable, but dubiously effective at filtering air and obviously no good at baffling noise. It is simply a very thin plastic piece with lots of little holes in it, as shown in the photo, in fact so flimsy that I broke one of the latch handles the first time I tried to remove the filter. It should be provided with some kind of filter medium, and the accompanying manual appears to show such a piece, but none came with the case. Perhaps I'll add one myself and punch out the lattice of holes, which will just plug up anyway and cause the fan to speed up and make more noise.

Back of case.  Note the hole pattern on the top right of the picture, bottom of case when it is standing upright.  What on earth could this be for? Is my ignorance showing? Furthermore, there is a big pattern of holes in the back cover which appears to be positioned to provide air to the PCI devices, but which has no filter at all and which looks like it would admit air which would circulate directly up to the rear exhaust fan without doing much good. There are brackets inside which could be used to hold a filter, or even an air-blocking cover, but no documentation about such an accessory was provided. Maybe this is standard, and I ought to know about it, but I don't, and I don't find it on my older PCs. I may try to block it myself, or cover it with a filter medium, after I see exactly how all of the components fit inside the case.

The rear exhaust fan is a three-speed, automatically controlled by the motherboard, which I believe is normal these days. There are screw holes for another fan inside the case between the hard disks and the motherboard, but no fan is provided because, according to Antec, this will add noise. I have ordered a very-low-noise fan for this location, to help cool the disk drives as well as the graphics card attached to the motherboard. It looks as though it will fit with very little room to spare.

Before fastening the feet to the case Feet:

Other reviewers of this case have complained that the rubber feet are attached only with adhesive and tend to come off. I judged that my box would have that problem too, and fixed it right away by screwing the same feet securely to the case through 1/8-inch by 3/4-inch fender washers. See the photos. I can't imagine why Antec doesn't do this themselves, especially when all objective reviewers mention it.

Power Connections:

I am impressed by the sheer number of power connectors available out of this supply. With no experience in such things, sixteen connections seems like a lot to me, a good thing. After fastening the feet to the case It has four SATA connections, which might seem like a lot, but I may still need to add one additional SATA power output if I install three hard disks and two DVD drives. Nevermind, there are inexpensive "Y" cables for this very purpose.

Case Size:

I thought that this was a "full-size" ATX case, or I would have ordered a different one. It is not, but this is MY FAULT because Antec's literature clearly describes it as a "super mini tower." Regardless, the case is large enough to accommodate a "full" ATX motherboard, and I think it will hold the other stuff I've ordered with some space for expansion. Therefore, even though I am currently somewhat underwhelmed by the quality of the Sonata III 500, I do like the specifications on the power supply, I find the box attractive, and I will build my new computer in it.

I ordered all of the other components for the computer yesterday, mostly from, but the motherboard from because NewEgg didn't have it at the time. They do now, for less money. Tsk. I bought SATA data cables and one power "Y" cable from Here is the materials list. I may post about the Sonata case again after I have it filled and powered up, when we'll know how quiet it is.

Your comments, objections, and suggestions are invited.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Choice of Motherboard

This computer (which I call Stirling) will require a motherboard, like any other computer, which will be host to the CPU, memory, graphics, audio, disk controller, and much more. There are many motherboards, by several manufacturers, which support the E6750 CPU that I have selected, and which will fit perfectly in the full-size ATX cabinet that I have ordered. For better or for worse, however, I have not made a search for the "perfect" motherboard and have decided to just order one by Intel, for these reasons:
  • I like Intel,
  • They are an Amercan company (at least headquartered here), and
  • They make the CPU as well, so I expect to get support, if needed, without finger pointing.
Boxed Intel DP35DPM Motherboard Do let me know if I am dreaming.

From what I have read about the Intel motherboards, they are reliable, utilitarian, and straightforward. They are not for gamers and other overclockers, because they do not allow most of the voltage and clock adjustments that those folks seek. The Intel boards are not simple, however. They all include such features as:
  • Slots for 8 Gb of 800 MHz main memory,
  • Lots of serial ATA (SATA) disk interfaces,
  • One back-compatible Parallel IDE interface,
  • Audio system,
  • LAN 10/100/1000,
  • Legacy I/O including a serial port, consumer infrared, PS/2 mouse & keyboard,
Some include a diskette controller, and some contain an internal graphics controller. All support Windows Vista, 1333 Mz FSB, 12 USB ports, and more. Here is a table comparing the four Intel motherboards that support the E6750 and similar CPUs.

I've chosen the Intel DP35DP motherboard, distinguished from the others by the following set of features:
  • Full ATX form factor, for maximum on-board real estate,
  • Six SATA interfaces, as much as any board
  • Three standard PCI slots,
  • Three PCI 1 slots,
  • RAID support, but
  • No graphics accelerator, and
  • No legacy diskette I/O.
Those last two are a trade-off so that the card can have the maximum number of SATA interfaces and PCI slots, as well as the maximum real estate for cooling and component fit. Graphics will be provided by a separate graphics accelerator card, and diskette support will be provided through an internal USB connection.

If it sounds like I know what I'm doing here, don't be fooled. These are the musings of a complete novice, and any comments will be appreciated and valued.

CPU Cooling

The Intel Core 2 Duo 6750 processor comes in a retail box from NewEgg and others, complete with a processor cooling solution consisting of a small fan and cooling fins. Concerned about noise, I searched for a passive design, without a fan, to replace the Intel cooler, and came across the web site, where CPU heatsinks of many types are compared. One of the evaluated heatsinks is the "stock" fan/fin cooler provided by Intel with the boxed processor.

Intel stock cooler According to FrostyTech, the Intel cooler is very quiet, one of the quietest coolers evaluated. The article includes a large table of coolers, with the stock Intel 35 db quieter than the noisiest cooler and about 20 db quieter than the median. The description was also very favorable, it "operates very quietly at its default speed."

However the fan was not tested in the mode in which it will actually be used. FrostyTech used a 3-pin connector, which causes the fan to adjust its speed according to ambient air temperature. In the Intel boxed solution a 4-pin connector is used, permitting the fan speed to be programmed according to the actual CPU temperature, in which case it might run faster and make more noise. Nevertheless, it's my guess that the Intel fan will be quiet enough, probably much quieter than the two mirrored 320 Gb disk drives that will be running in the same cabinet, and probably also quieter than the cabinet fan.
Intel stock cooler
FrostyTech also evaluated the cooler's actual cooling ability, applying an 85-watt heat load, which is slightly higher than the 65 watts dissipated by the E6750 at maximum current. Here the Intel cooler did not fare as well, ending up near the top of the list with the highest CPU temperature (least cooling), some 20 degrees C higher than the best cooler. Again, though, the fan was not operated in the mode in which it will be used in my computer. I suspect that Intel knows what it is doing, and the cooling will be adequate for my relatively tame application.

Intel stock cooler I did find two heatsinks by Spire, both of which include a noisy fan, but which (according to Spire) can be used without the fan if the heat load is not excessive. One of these was also evaluated by FrostyTech, who downrated it for its bulkiness and thought it was difficult to install and remove. They did not test it without the fan, but considering the tests they did perform I doubt that it would perform very well without the fan unless there was a gale wind flowing through the cabinet. In my modest search I did not find any other passive CPU heatsinks. These are available on some graphic accelerator cards (which are CPUs in their own right) but apparently not for CPUs. If you know different, please let me know.

Bottom line: I'm going with the stock Intel cooler unless the noise is a big surprise. If so, then I'll look at other coolers.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Windows Vista Ultimate

I'm not yet a big fan of Windows Vista, but unless I go to some form of Unix it is in my future whether I like it or not. The machine I am building will support the fanciest operating system that Microsoft makes, which is 64-bit Windows Vista Ultimate.

It would certainly also support Windows Vista Business, which is about $50 cheaper than Ultimate, but Ultimate has two things I might want that are not in Business:
  • Media Center stuff - I could become interested in this, and
  • Windows BitLocker, drive encryption.
So I ordered Windows Vista Ultimate, full, not upgrade or OEM, from VioSoftware for $253.22. Note: VioSoftware has two prices for this software package, one if you go to PriceGrabber first and a higher one if you go directly to VioSoftware. There is a $27 difference.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Here We Go ...

Since I don't really know how to build a computer, the first item to order would seem to be the case. Then I can visualize how everything will fit. I've chosen the full-size Sonata III 500 case, billed as the quietest case in captivity. We'll see. Corner view, side panel on

It's glossy black, because (I think) most of the people who build their own PC's are "gamers" who want the fastest computer on the block, or at least the fastest that they can afford, for running their graphics-intensive computer games. For some reason, gamers seem to like black, shiny things, or very colorful things: computers, web sites, graphics cards, on and on. It's OK with me - black is a fine color for computers, and most accessories like DVD drives can be ordered in black.

The complaint from people who have ordered the Sonata III 500 is that the glossy black finish is easily marked. If that happens it'll be too bad, but I don't really care that much. If it's not quiet, I'll care a lot more.

Side view, panel off It is now on order for $117.00 from, shipping included, the lowest-cost source I could find at the moment I ordered it. Not bad, really, since it includes the power supply. Another company, TigerDirect, had it for less, but as I shopped around the price there suddenly jumped up. That might have been a coincidence, but I suspect that their computer thought I was getting serious and bumped up the price. They lost the sale.

More Specifications:
  • Full-size ATX for lots of space, whether I need it or not. It sits beside the desk anyway, so there is plenty of room for it.
  • Included 500-watt super-quiet high-efficiency power supply.
  • CPU-controllable cooling fan speed.
  • Nine drive bays of various sizes, mounted on sound-absorbing silicone grommets.
  • Front ports for USB, audio, and more.
When I receive it, I'll see whether it comes with anything else, such as power supply cables, screws, and other necessary parts. Then the next step is to order the motherboard, CPU, memory, graphics card, Vista, DVD drive, and at least one hard drive. When those arrive I'll try to start it up and install Vista. Some of these parts have a limited return period, so I will wait until I need them and order them all at once. Learning experiences will follow!

At this moment my intention is to install the 64-bit version of Vista, 4 Gb memory, and Raid 1 disks (2 disks, mirrored). The materials list looks like this. If you have any suggestions I'm all ears (eyes).

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Choosing a Hard Disk

How does one choose the hard disk drive (HDD) from all of the available vendors and capacities? First, it's important to recognize that it's not a highly critical decision; I'm not likely to choose a vendor or capacity that is unsuitable, and drives are not a huge expense any more, so I can add or replace drives later (or sooner) if necessary.

My existing system has 23 Gb available out of 100 Gb total capacity, so I'm using about 77 Gb. Disk usage has grown from about 15 Gb in 1999 to 77 this year, which means that it grew by a factor of five in the intervening eight years. That suggests I should buy five times the amount of disk that I am now using, or about 400 Gb, to last the next eight years. Maybe so.
Hard Drive
But maybe not. New technology is on the horizon. It is already possible to buy a 64 Gb flash drive with no moving parts for about $900. How soon will the price/performance curve of flash or some even-better technology approach that of moving-head disk drives? Probably sooner than later.

For now I'm going with 320 Gb drives, a relatively mature technology, available from several manufacturers, with modest power and heat dissipation needs. That's a safe choice.

So whose drives? To simplify things I've narrowed the field to three manufacturers: (1) Samsung, (2) Seagate, and (3) Western Digital, in alphabetical order. Hitachi and Maxtor make appropriate drives too, as do other manufacturers, but I've seen nothing to indicate that any of those would be a better choice than the best of the first three. If you have other information, please comment. The drives will all have:
  • 320 Gb capacity.
  • SATA 3.0 Gb/s interface.
  • 7200 RPM and attending latency.
  • Average seek time less than 10 ms.
  • 16 Mb cache.
The following table shows some additional information about each drive. Prices are all from NewEgg, as is the user comment information. Other data comes from the manufacturers' specification sheets:

Brand Model# Price Warranty Five* Comments
Samsung HD321KJ $74.99 1 yr 80% 20
Seagate ST3320620AS $79.99 5 yr 76% 1887
Western Digital WD3200AAKS $74.99 3 yr 80% 144

The Five* column is the percentage of reviewers who gave the drive five stars out of five, i.e. the best possible rating. I realize that some people rarely give the highest rating to anything, so the system may be biased, but I also saw a comment from a reviewer who gave four stars for a drive which was dandy until it failed after one day's use. So it balances out.

In any case the reviewers' ratings don't give much guidance, all between 76% and 80%. The Seagate drive is by far the most popular, but comments indicate that it has been received dead on arrival in many recent cases. One commenter said that it is made in China. Further, and significantly, many reviewers comment that the Seagate drive is noisy. I don't like that, and I'm leaning a bit toward WD. I wonder where theirs are made?

Suppliers like NewEgg have a 30-day return policy on drives (probably on everything), so I suppose I won't be buying any drives until the rest of the system is nearly assembled and ready to test. By then things may have changed. Perhaps Seagate will correct their quality problem, or prices will change enough to make one drive more attractive on that basis.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Gateway Performance 600

I'm struggling with the original precept of this blog: building a new computer, because my Gateway Performance 600 is working so well now. It's almost eight years old, but it runs a Pentium III processor at 600 MHz and has been upgraded significantly:
    System Properties show 768 Mb
  1. Added another hard disk to increase total disk capacity from 20 Gb to about 100 Gb.
  2. Replaced the original CD RW drive (failed) with a new and better Sony drive.
  3. Upgraded from Windows 98 to Windows XP Professional, now SP2 and fully current.
  4. Maxed out the memory to 768 Mbytes, comparable to brand-new low-end computers.
C drive is pretty fullG drive is more than half fullIt's not a bad computer, and I'm wavering on the decision to replace it. Money ($1000+) and time are the reasons NOT to replace it. Here are some reasons why I might:

  • Quieter. The Performance 600, though not loud, is the loudest thing in the room.
  • Faster. I wonder how much. The processors will be ten or twenty times as fast and the disk(s) at least twice as fast. I'm sure the difference will be noticeable!
  • Upgradable. In theory at least, the memory will be upgradable to 8 Gb.
  • Bigger disk. At least three times as much, upgradable to much more.
  • Windows Vista or Vista compatible. The Gateway 600 is not even slightly compatible with Vista, needing more speed, disk, a DVD drive, and more.
  • More reliable? Only the CD RW drive in the 600 has ever failed, but I've been lucky because hard disks certainly do fail too. I'm thinking about paired disks in the new computer for improved data security, and a better backup system than the zipped CD ROMs I use now.
  • Experience. Mine. I will enjoy the experience and learn a LOT! I've been involved in computers almost all of my adult life (45+ years) and it's time to add some current technology to that knowledge.
I'm almost convinced, but then again the 600 is really working pretty well. I have plenty of time to think about it.

Friday, August 24, 2007


RAID is a computer acronym meaning "Redundant Array of Independent Disks." Wikipedia. In this case we're talking about "mirrored" disks, one of the simplest RAID configurations, where two identical disks contain identical data so that one can continue operating if the other fails. Since they contain the same data the second disk doesn't add any disk capacity, but it does add reliability. Pros:
  • The hard disk is MUCH less apt to crash. Only people who have experienced a crash can fully appreciate this.
  • Perhaps I can get away with less backup, e.g. only back up the most sensitive data.
  • Or, I can buy a THIRD drive and hot-swap it, so the swapped-out drive is the backup.
  • I'd enjoy the experience of setting it up and using it.
  • It's more expensive: I need two drives, not one, and the motherboard (which manages the drives) costs a little more.
  • The drives will make twice as much noise. Hmmm.
  • It doesn't solve ALL backup problems: If I accidentally permanently delete a file, it will be gone on BOTH drives; if lightning hits the computer it could easily take out both drives.
I'm leaning toward RAID, as you may have guessed. But haven't decided yet for sure. Seems like overkill for a simple office computer. But then again there's the experience of it ...

Here are some other features of the computer that's starting to come together:
  • Sonata III 500 case, with 500 W power supply. This is the outer box for the whole thing, and this box is quiet with plenty of power available.
  • Intel E6750 dual-core processor, 2.66 GHz, 1333 front-side bus, with Intel motherboard to match. This is two very fast processors in one. By the time I get going on this, the E6850 may come down in price, even faster.
  • 2 Gb of 2-channel DDR2 memory, 800 MHz. Expandable to 8 Gb they say, but the chips for that don't exist yet; 4 Gb is the max.
  • Seagate 320 Gb SATA-300 drive(s). Big enough for me.
  • Sony AWG170S-B2 18x DVD read/write.
But everything is still in pencil. Absolutely everything. Meantime, though, I did a little pricing of the materials lists for WITH RAID and withOUT RAID. Here are very preliminary materials lists: I'm totally new at this, a complete novice. If there is anyone out there reading this blog with an idea or a word of caution, I'd love to hear from you.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

I think I'll Build My Own Computer

I do need a new computer in the office; mine is a slow eight-year-old Gateway 600 MHz, with upgraded memory, disk, and operating system. It's time for a new one that can grow with the times. Here are some specifications:
  • Quieter than my old Gateway tower, which itself really isn't too bad but is the noisiest thing in the room when the TV is off.
  • Speedy (modern) but not "extreme". The idea is to have a computer that will last a while and be upgradable for a while. We're talking dual processor for sure, but maybe not quad.
  • It doesn't have to be small - it sits on the floor next to the desk.
  • At least 2 Gb RAM, 800 MHz or more.
  • At least 250 Gb hard disk, 3 Gb/sec.
  • Windows XP Professional (preferred), Windows Vista Business otherwise.
  • Vista Business compatible for sure. I don't even know what that means yet.
  • CD/DVD read and write dual layer.
  • Floppy (yes, I really do want a floppy, even if I never use it).
  • PS/2 mouse and keyboard ports (I like my existing keyboard & mouse).
  • Vanilla audio and graphics. This machine means business, not games or entertainment.
  • Modem. Occasionally we need dialup when DSL fails.
  • Serial port.
  • Lifetime warranty. By me.
There are plenty of companies offering to build computers to specification, so why would a person build a more-or-less-ordinary computer himself?
  • Price: Probably not a good reason. I've done some internet pricing of parts already, and I doubt there will be much of a cost saving.
  • Quality: Might be a reason. For example, I'm thinking of the Antec Sonata III case, because it is supposed to be very quiet. It's a little expensive, but certainly worth the difference if it really is quieter.
  • Experience: I've been putting together computers for over 30 years now, but not modern ones. The experience will be invaluable.
  • Serviceability: If I build it, I can fix it!
  • Entertainment: It's fun to learn and do.
  • Bragging rights.
More later. I hope.