The quad-core project - Building the PC walkthrough

The quad-core project - Building the PC walkthrough

Summary: Last weekend we built two new quad-core PCs over at the PC Doc HQ. I promised that you'd be first to see the results of our hard work - well, here you go.

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TOPICS: Processors, CXO, Hardware
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Last weekend we built two new quad-core PCs over at the PC Doc HQ.  I promised that you'd be first to see the results of our hard work (buildig these PCs is easy, the hard part is the photography ... hot lights, having to keep your arms out of the shot, reducing reflections ... ) - well, here you go.

The Parts

Check out the quad-core project gallery here! 

I've posted the parts list for this project earlier, but lets take a closer look at the components.

000_kit_sm.jpg

  • Intel Core 2 Quad Q6600 Four cores, each running at 2.4GHz, 8MB of L2 cache, blistering speed ... what more is there to say?!  Sure, I could have spent more money and got a faster processor, but it wouldn't have been all that cost effective. 001_processor1box_sm.jpg The only downside to the Q6600 is the same downside that applies to every other processor - the stock cooler is noisy and not all that effective if you plan on overclocking.  But this is not a problem since I plan on replacing it.
  • ASUS Striker Extreme motherboard I wanted a motherboard that would give me a lot of scope for tweaking with settings (for experimental purposes more than anything) and my interest was instantly drawn to the ASUS Striker Extreme.  But once I started reading reviews of this board, I came across a lot of people having a lot of problems with this board.  Crashes, lockups, DOAs, BIOS problems and dozens of other random issues.  Hmmm.  These reviews put me off the board.  006_motherboardbox1_sm.jpg However, after looking at other quad-core boards, I came back to the Striker Extreme and decided to give it a go.  Either it would work or it wouldn't, and if it gave me too much grief, I'd send it back to the store in a heartbeat.  011_board4quadandfan_sm.jpg As you'll see later, the board performed flawlessly and I'm thrilled with the purchase.  In fact, not only does it look amazing (the heatsinks are a very beautiful piece of engineering) but it comes equipped with some really nice features such as an electro-luminescent panel on the IO plate on the rear and on-board on/off, reset and CMOS reset buttons.
  • SAPPHIRE Radeon HD 2600XT 256MB 128-bit GDDR4 We wanted a decent graphics card but didn't want to spend crazy money on it.  Since there was no way we were going with NVIDIA given how poor the current drivers are, it didn't take us long to pick the HD 2600XT.  It's relatively cheap, powerful, DirectX 10 compatible, HD compatible.  014_graphicscard3_sm.jpg Again, we could have spent more money to get more power, but the return on investment is hard to justify unless you really need that power.  The HD 2600XTs should do just fine for us (for now!).

Continued on page 2 -->

  • 2 x CORSAIR XMS2 2GB (2 x 1GB) 240-Pin DDR2 SDRAM PC2 6400 My guess is that a lot of the problems people are having with the ASUS Striker Extreme motherboard comes down to combining it with shoddy parts, in particular poor quality RAM and PSUs.  To avoid such problems we went for good quality memory. 015_ram1packs_sm.jpg
  • Western Digital Raptor X 150GB 10,000 RPM This drive really was an impulse buy since I could have saved some money by going with a different drive, but I've always wanted a Raptor X.  At almost $190 for 150GB it's far from cheap, but from a performance perspective it's well worth it.  I could improve performance even more by adding another Raptor X to each system and setting up a RAID 0 array, but I don't think I need to do that - yet! 016_raptorx1_sm.jpg The Raptor X is amazing.  It's noisier than a normal drive but the performance (combined with the hypnotic effect of watching the heads move) more than makes up for the noise - and the cost!
  • Corsair HX520 PSU I had several requirements for a PSU - +500W output, modular cabling system, support for ATX12V v2.2 and EPS12V 2.91, +80% efficiency, industrial grade capacitors, and a quiet fan.  The Corsair fits the bill on all points.  In fact, looking at the PSU I'm convinced that Corsair has underrated a 600W PSU down to 520W.  This PSU represents $130 well spent. 018_powersupply2_sm.jpg
  • ARCTIC COOLING Freezer 7 Pro 92mm CPU cooler I wanted to get one of the biggest, meanest looking coolers that I could fit on the board, and the Arctic Cooler Freezer 7 Pro fits the bill perfectly.  In fact, it's so big that it barely fits on the motherboard because of the copper heatsinks for cooling the chipset - if the cooler hadn't fitted we'd have either had to cut the heatsink or fitted the stock coolers while waiting for a replacement. 019_fanbox_sm.jpg Fortunately, it fitted – just – and it's a beautiful piece of Swiss engineering that's capable of moving 200W of heat away from the CPU.
  • iCute S901 case Not much more to say about this case than it was cheap, well made and looks pretty good.  I’ve built a lot of PCs in iCute cases over the years. 020_icute_sm.jpg

Continued on page 3 -->

The Build

OK, we have all the parts, now lets start building!

I'm not going to bore readers here with all the minutiae of the build - I'm pretty sure that most ZDNet readers are familiar with how a PC goes together.  What I will do is give you an overview and highlight some interesting aspects of the build.

Because all the reviews I'd read had led me to expect problem with the motherboard I decided to test build the PC out of the case prior to building (I don't usually do this because as a rule things work just fine).  This meant getting the motherboard ready, fitting the CPU, heatsink, RAM, graphics card, hard drive and hooking it up to a PSU which took just a couple of minutes. 

One item of note when setting up the motherboard was what a close call the CPU heatsink was - it fitted, but only just.  The clearance between the CPU heatsink and the copper heatsinks on the board was about about .04 inch (1 mm).  Had the heatsink been fractionally bigger we would have had to fit the stock cooler (or give the Arctic Cooler some unscheduled surgery).

021_heatsinkclearance_sm.jpg

Because the Striker Extreme comes with an on/off switch built directly onto the board, it's easy to jumpstart the board into life.  Amazingly, as soon as the power switch was pressed the board sparked into life and the system started working.  All our fears of BIOS issues, cryptic error messages, DOA boards and all the other issues evaporated at this point.  With any worries that the motherboard might be a dead stick out of the way, it was time to put the parts into the case.

One of the things I really love about the Striker Extreme is the attention to detail.  For example, the Q-Connector that makes connecting and disconnecting the front panel cabling easy because they're combined into a single module.  While I don't expect to have to remove the motherboard from the system any time soon, I still think that this is a really sweet feature.

The board has some other sweet features, in particular I like the electro-luminescent panel on the IO plate which makes hooking up peripherals a lot easier, the onboard LEDs that light up the interior of the PC, the on-board on/off, reset and CMOS reset buttons and the LCD poster panel on the back which replaces POST error messages and makes troubleshooting problems quicker and easier. 

022_interiorled1_sm.jpg

025_lcdposter_sm.jpg

I'm also thrilled with the Corsair PSU.  The modular design helps to keep the inside of the case tidier which in turn improves airflow, helping to keep the components cool.  The PSU is also really quiet during operation, helping to keep the noise level to a minimum.

When assembling the PC I made a mistake and installed all 4GB of RAM, forgetting that there's a bug in Windows Vista that can prevent the operating system being installed where there's more than 3GB of RAM installed.  When I tried installing Vista I got the following error message on a BSOD:

STOP 0×0000000A (somenumber, somenumber, somenumber, somenumber) IRQL_NOT_LESS_OR_EQUAL

Removing 2GB of RAM allowed the installation to continue.

Closing Thoughts

With the build completed and Windows going onto the system, it quickly became clear that this system packed a real punch.  Windows install was done in under 20 minutes and once finished the system was blazingly fast, and after installing the latest ATI drivers the system scored a very robust Windows Experience Index score of 5.3 (the top score possible is 5.9).  The processor, graphics and hard disk all got a top score.  Pretty impressive.

Building this PC was a lot of fun, and to end up with such a powerful PC for the price certainly made it a worthwhile experience and the quality of the parts made it an easy and satisfying build process.  Each part was chosen to provide the maximum power and pereformance for the price, and the final Windows Experience Index score, combined with the benchmark results we got (which I'll post later) confirm this.

Many thanks to Kathie for sharing her photos of the build process.  If you feel like building your own PC and you'd like to learn how she will be running an online course based around this PC specification in the next few weeks over on the PC Doctor website.

Topics: Processors, CXO, Hardware

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  • The quad-core project - Building the PC

    So you scored a 5.3 on a Quad Core??? Whooppee doo! I scored that on my 2.4GHZ Core 2 Duo, 2GB RAM, an 160Gb SATA HDD and an Nvidia 7950GT.
    victorfrazee@...
    • I think his choice of Video cards had more to do with ...

      his 5.3 rating than did his processor choice.
      mrlinux
      • It was the memory that led to the 5.3 score.

        In an earlier blog posting he showed the memory led to the 5.3 score. He also said, in this blog, the following:

        "The processor, graphics and hard disk all got a top score."
        ye
      • I agree, it was the memory... BUT...

        .. I have the same memory in the Intel Dual 2 Core system I built, and it registered 5.5 on the memory.

        Here is the link to Adrian's Experience:

        http://blogs.zdnet.com/hardware/images/quad-core_windows_experience_index.jpg

        On the AMD 6000+ PC I built for my wife, I used OCZ 2P800R22GK memory, and it scored a 5.9 on the memory. Its timings must be just right for her setup. Her overall is 5.4 which is held back by the processor and the slow "perpendicular" drive that only scored a 5.4 (compared to the Raptor's 5.9 in both Adrian's and my PCs).
        Fyrewerx
      • Adrian's WEI scores

        mrlinux:

        Ah, if you refer back to one of Adrian's earlier blog entries concerning this system, you will discover that you are quite incorrect.

        http://blogs.zdnet.com/hardware/?p=739

        The video card (Sapphier Radeon X2600XT) scored 5.8 for Gaming graphics and 5.9 for Business and Aero.

        For some reason, the Corsair PC6400 SDRAM scored 5.3. It's very similar to the Kingston ValueRAM sticks in my Vista box, and which scored 5.4 for me.

        I've discussed this with Adrian and suggested that perhaps the Intel P965 chipset on my system board (MSI Platinum Plus) allows a wee bit faster throughput than the AMD 680i chipset does on his Asus Striker board.
        M.R. Kennedy
  • 2 suggestions...

    First, if you research you'll find that the larger perpendicular storage hard drives are as fast as the 10K drive you purchased. And cheaper. You should have gone for more storage and less cost for same performance.

    Second, I'd chosen the Antec 900 case. Much more friendly to build and much cooler for a very good price.

    And just as a note: article stated this project was a "lot of hard work". You guys are kidding right? Building a PC is a piece of cake. Unless you're a newbie at computers, and if that's the case what are you doing at a major computer magazine publisher?
    Narg
    • The hard work ...

      ... is the photography part - I could have had this system up and running in about 15 minutes otherwise (and the second in 10!).
      Adrian Kingsley-Hughes
    • Larger Perpendicular Storage?

      As I'm about to build a new computer, I've been debating whether to get a raptor for OS and apps. But, I really don't need a noisy drive, if I can get same performance, and especially be cheaper at the same time, I'm all for it. But, are you referring to a specific drive and manufacturer or a class of drives? References?
      Thanks
      sfriedman@...
      • Standard Raptors more quiet

        I use a pair of Raptors in RAID-0 for OS and apps and a .75 TB perpendicular WD drive for storage Etc. The non windowed Raptors are much quiter than the RAptor-X, They are the exact same drive without the window. Raptor-X was not a good choice for this rig, standard Raptor would have made more sense.
        I also would not have chosed that GPU. All DX-10 drivers can have conflicts ATi OR NV.
        Baer
      • Want a Really Quiet Drive?

        I recently purchased and installed a new Seagate Barracuda 7200.10 (Model ST3250410AS) 250GB 7200 RPM 16MB Cache SATA 3.0Gb/s Hard Drive - OEM from newegg.com. This hard drive model is by far the quietest HDD I've come across. It scored an amazing 5.9 on Vista's 'Windows Experience Index' for disk data transfer rate.
        cnfrisch
  • And the application software for this...?

    And which quad-core software will you be running? Um, ah, er... none?
    Vesicant
    • And the application software for this...?

      ...And which quad-core software will you be running?...

      Not much with Vista true enough. 'Nix has had 64bit SMP distros for several years now.
      joe6pack_z
    • Command and Conquer 3, of course

      Oh, and maybe he'll finally get to run the Sims 2 at 1680x1050 without the jerky motion when scrolling or rotating the images.
      Timpraetor
    • Not the point, anyway

      The point was to build the beast and see where it would lead. If you're satisfied with a 500MHz PIII, then the entire purpose of this project is lost on you.
      Timpraetor
  • RE: The quad-core project - Building the PC walkthrough

    3GB Limit -- all this power and your running a 32 bit version of Vista? huh?
    BobFrankston
    • 32 vs 64 bit Vista

      I am in the process of building a similar workstation system for GIS. I looked at the ASUS P5K 64 WS but was concerned about software compatibility, drivers, etc. Any thoughts? Also, what are the performance gains with 64 vs 32 bit Vista?
      jim@...
      • I have not seem much gain

        I am running a QX6700 OCed, Raptors, 8800GTX OC, Crosair Dominator Etc Etc. I have messed with both 32 bit and 64 bit and I see very little if any difference in performance with all the Apps I use (Office 07, PhotoShop, lots of GAmes Etc). The only advantage is that the 64 bit version sees all of my 4 Gb of RAM. On the other hand there are far more driver and hardware incompatabilities with the 64. I went back to 32 bit for now and I have much less Agro.
        Baer
        • Is this 32/64 hardware?

          Is the hardware Adrian spec'ed compatible with both 32 bit and 64 bit operating systems?

          And does anyone know if the MB he spec'ed will be compatible with the new CPUs Intel will bring to market later this year?
          Hallowed are the Ori
          • the hardware is 32/64 bit compatible.

            The 965 chipset will be compatible with the next generation of Intel processor. It is not compatible with the extreme series however.
            ShadeTree
    • XP Professional memory usage

      I wonder if XP will use all 4 GB of RAM as I have read it can?
      Anyone? I am not a fan of jumping right in with Microcoft OSs.
      t.guyette@...