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 NewEgg.com, but the motherboard from ZipZoomFly.com 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 SataCables.com. 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 FrostyTech.com, 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 ZipZoomFly.com, 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).