This Part 1 of a 3 part series on My Dream Machine (Part 2)
I am a software guy. Install software, tune the bits, configure the system. Find the limits. Show others how to use it. Software has been the central theme of my geek journey. A Hardware Guy? Well, not so much.
Traditionally, Dell and Apple have made my software-centric life a breeze. After finding some money resting in my account (or someone else's budget), I would wander to an online store and build a machine. After two weeks of impatience, the computer arrives and off I go into software installation heaven.
Challenging your limitations is a natural part of human existence. For me, I had conquer my own personal everest. Time to build something that will go fast, just like the car tweakers from The Fast and the Furious.
Building your own computer is at the core of PC freedom. Picking and choosing the components, plugging it all in. Installing the software. Ensuring that the devices all work. Knowing that your tool-of-trade is constructed by your own hands. Adding more bits later. Finding more money. Adding blinkenlights. All a part of the experience.
Time to build my own dream machine. So started the General Melchett project.
Apart from building my own machine, I wanted to make a fast-yet-upgradeable computer. Defining fast as a 5.9 score for all components of the Windows Experience Index in Windows Vista's Performance and Tools
What do I want to do with my self-created frankenstein-ian machine?
- Anything better than my Toshiba M400 for editing videos. In fact, anything is better than the old Toshiba.
- Able to run multiple virtual machines under Virtual PC to test out software, special new things from Microsoft and others without breaking my main workstations
- Dual screen to have TV/video/Podcasts running on one side, whilst working on the other. Or at least attempting to work
So the simple goal is a reliable performance machine that have fun driving to and from work everyday. Maybe pop out onto the racing track on weekends.
First: Vista x64. what is 64-bit?
The first consideration was a desire to run Vista x64. I needed to the full value of the 64bits that Microsoft have engineered into the operating system. As x64 is a long topic, I've a separate post on the matter.
Second: The Processor
Windows Vista has support for multiple processors. Multiple cores are really handy with heavy number crunching tasks, such as video encode/decode/transcode.
Research lead me to Quad-core processors - and specifically, the Intel Q6600 processor. As AMD had yet to release the Phenom in retail, and Intel their 45nm range of processors - this particular beastie fit the bill. And the budget.
Another core reason for choosing the Q6600 was the freedom to overclock. (For the balance record: my Windows Media Center PC runs on AMD Athlon 6400+)
A big question: DDR2 or DDR3 memory? DDR3 memory, whilst faster to read/write - is way expensive at the present time. The speed of the FSB. I have decided to wait for DDR3 to reduce in price, or the smart scientists do wonderous things with DDR2.
As you will see, my initial choice of brand of DDR2 memory set me up with 4Gb but didn't perform to my 5.9 expectations.
One of the beauties of choosing a motherboard and processor combination is the upgradability of either, and the "chipset" on the motherboard.
A chipset defines the range of processors that can be supported, memory speeds, 'system bus speeds', audio and other hardware enhancements.
As the next processor I will upgrade to on this particular PC will be a reasonably priced 45nm processor with a greater cache and more performance, thinking of the future is extremely important.
In this configration, I have chosen a Gigabyte motherboard due to their x64 drivers, choice and the value of the features; many SATA connections (eight!), ability to RAID up on the motherboard and overclockability.
Another feature, which came in handy when later tuning, is the removable motherboard cooling heatsink on rear of motherboard.
The case I chose had two additional physical constraints: width and height. As this workstation was destined for my GeekSpace at home, the desk my wife kindly let me purchase had certain constrains.
Sixth: The bits that are needed to make it work
The power supply is an important choice. I chose a 620W power supply which has enough head-room for additional pieces to be added. A key feature of the Corsair powersupply chosen was its use of modular power cables. Many power supplies provide rats-nest of cables to wire into hard disks, motherboards, fans and the like. There is invariably cables left over, or you run out of SATA power for instance. Modular installations provide a connector on the powersupply and a collection of cables to suit your installation. Highly recommended.
Disk drives: 10,000 RPM 'boot' drive and 2 x 500Gb (mirrored) 7200 PRM data drives. RPM is a measure of the revolutions-per-minute of the hard disk. The higher the RPM, the quicker the data is found, and the quicker the hard drive. As I was going for 5.9s, I chose a Western Digital 10000 RPM drive.
Second choice of memory: Geil 8Gb of RAM (note: originally purchased older RAM that wasn't fast or big enough. this now sits in my self-built Media Center)
Video card: NVidia 8800GT. The first card I purchased was permanently borrowed by my son to play Crysis. Had to purchase a second 8800GT. All the rage at the time of purchase, there was a waiting list for these beasties.
Monitors: In a similar vein as the case, the hutch in the GeekSpace had limited height; and I wanted two monitors exactly the same. Time to go to Dell and check the specifications of their LCD displays. I chose two Dell E228WFP displays.
Keyboard: Microsoft Wireless Entertainment 8000. Highly recommended. As I also use the PC as a Windows Media Center, the keyboard is just brilliant at 4 metres.
Like all geek houses, there are bits of hardware of unknown vintage lazing around the house. Included in this list is an old DVICO USB digital TV receiver. Also on the new shopping list included an internal USB module for SD/CF media read/write, DVD/CD R/W drive, desk speakers.
Chosen an Australian online vendor that ships within Sydney on the same day. Clear the credit card! Off we go purchasing the bits and pieces.
Total bill: AU$4,351.79
Next episode: the building