Summary: It's another ultimate PC building guide from Alan Dang... only this time his project gets a little too ambitious...
A little over a year ago, we built the "Ultimate Workstation" with a pair of AMD Opteron 252 CPUs, 4GB of RAM, and a beefy 650W power supply. In January, we did a brief refresh article focusing on a "$400/component" system, highlighting Silverstone's flagship TJ-07 and the aluminum monobody construction. We thought these articles would stick around at least until 2007. Sure faster GPUs and CPUs would come out, but the principles behind component selection surely wouldn't change…
Oh, how wrong we were. The state of PC technology has changed so much in the last six months that it's time to write a new system building guide. Forget everything you've learned about system building – it's time to start with a fresh slate, and today we're going to take a look at just how far technology has improved in the last year.
As always, our philosophy behind these "system building" articles has always been to provide a framework and approach to component selection. Don't think of these as a recipe for a system. Instead, focus on our approach to component selection.
For our ninth system building article, we're going with the Intel Core 2 Duo (Conroe).
It's no secret that Pentium M architecture has been the solution to Intel's woes in the enthusiast market. Whereas the Pentium 4 and Pentium D would always lose to the equivalently spec'd AMD Athlon64's, the Pentium M always gave AMD a run for its money. With the new "Conroe" Core 2 Duo, AMD and Intel are now in a very tight race.
As you've seen in our earlier benchmarks, the Core 2 Duo is currently the fastest platform on the market today. Intel has finally stepped up to the challenge of the Athlon64 and hit it head on. The 4MB L2 cache and proven underlying Pentium-M architecture (which in turn is based somewhat on the Pentium III architecture) of the Core 2 Duo gives Intel a potent competitor to the Athlon 64.
We like the E6600 because it offers the larger 4MB of L2 cache and still runs reasonably cool. However, the Core 2 Duo's weakness is in the platform. It's a lot easier to find a cheap dual-GPU compatible Socket 939/AM2 motherboard than it is to find a cheap dual-GPU compatible Socket 775 motherboard. These motherboard may negate some of the Core 2 Duo's price advantages. Indeed, at the time this article is being written, the ASUS P5N32-SLI SE Deluxe ($280) is the only readily available SLI motherboard supporting Core 2 Duo; in comparison the ASUS M2N32 SLI Deluxe WiFi is $200 and an ASUS M2N-SLI is only $140.
Intel Core 2 Duo E6600
For our motherboard chipset, we'll be going with the Intel 965. This decision locks us out from running a full-speed ATI Crossfire, but the P965’s new memory controller should be an interesting proposition. While 975X platforms continue to offer excellent performance, the 965 runs a close race. The other reason I’m going with P965 is that my plan is to go micro-ATX on this machine...
And now, we're introducing our gimmick for this system building article: our stated goal for this system build is to create a micro ATX system that outperforms last year's Dual Opteron Ultimate Workstation for workstation applications, outperforms last year’s Ultimate HTPC for media applications, outperforms last year’s Ultimate Desktop, and even outperforms our original Budget Storage Server… all in a micro-ATX form factor.
[Ed: And now the story begins…]
Our micro-ATX motherboard of choice for the Core 2 Duo will be the Gigabyte GA-965GM-S2. Gigabyte’s standard ATX P965 Express motherboards have been the favored platform for Core 2 Duo enthusiasts. The ATX motherboards offer excellent overclocking performance as well as stability. In the case of the micro-ATX system, we’re giving up solid state capacitors for high-quality Nichicon capacitors and giving up a few PCI and PCI-e slots. The GA-965GM-S2 also features an ALC883 which should be perfect for our S/PDIF only HTPC design.
Historically, micro ATX platforms have been shunned by enthusiasts. If you wanted upgradeability, you'd go with a standard ATX motherboard. If you wanted portability, you'd go with the even smaller SFF.
Running Total: $475
Given that our motherboard is passively cooled, we'd also like to keep the rest of our system as quiet as possible. For years, we've stuck with the Zalman CNPS-7000-AlCu and the B-revision successor. We've also found the Silverstone Nitrogon NT02 to be an excellent choice for tight spaces, low-noise performance, and easier cleaning. This time, we'll be going with an 18 dB Zalman CNPS-9500AT copper cooler.
This one of the largest coolers on the market, and it’ll looks even sillier on a micro-ATX motherboard.
Zalman CNPS-9500 AT
Running Total: $535
In the last few months, there has been renewed interest in thermal interface material. With today's high-performance aftermarket heatsinks, most people are putting on too much thermal grease; a translucent haze of Arctic Silver 5 is sufficient.
Anything better than Arctic Silver 5?
One new product that has rapidly generated buzz in the extreme cooling community is CoolLaboratory's Liquid Pro. This is a gallium-alloy (presumably galistan) that's liquid at room temperatures and has properties similar to mercury (minus the toxicity). The compound is a literally a pure liquid metal alloy. As a thermal interface, this compound is exceptional with 4 to 5 degree improvements over Arctic Silver being very common. The main reason this compound hasn't gained widespread acceptance is that it's difficult to work with, and the material will oxidize aluminum, meaning that only pure copper coolers can be used. Due to the difficulty of the install, we're only recommending Liquid Pro to experienced system builders running a water-cooled rig. The improvement over Arctic Silver 5 on conventional air cooling isn't substantial enough to warrant changing from Arctic Silver 5.
We're going all-in with this system build. That means 4GB of RAM (even though a good 0.5GB of it will be lost in 32-bit operating systems due to reserved addresses). Choosing between low-latency DDR2-800 and high-bandwidth DDR2-1066 is somewhat of a conundrum. DDR2-800 C3 RAM is about as fast as DDR2-1066 C5 RAM in real-world applications (see our article on Core 2’s performance with DDR2-667, 800, and 1066MHz memory. Both DDR2-800C3 and DDR2-1066 RAM are spec'd for higher voltages (2.2V) which adds to system heat (in comparison to the TWIN2X2048-6400C4 which is spec'd for 2.1V operation). Corsair's TWIN2X2048-6400C3 is the flagship product from Corsair and offers the best overclockability as well. The 6400C4 and 6400C4Pro offer the best value though.
A few years back, most of us would have said that the added latency of DDR2 meant it was a poor compromise when compared against conventional DDR. Things have changed and DDR2 is now the standard of desktop and server memory. Right now, ECC memory is still outside the mainstream. This isn't likely to change anytime soon. If I left this PC on 24/7, I'd expect 3 memory bit errors to occur each year. (True for AMD-based non-ECC memory as well). Unless you were doing scientific computing or medical-related data processing, most people are going to accept this margin of error rather than add an extra 12.5% of capacity for ECC memory.
Thermal management will be a critical part of our system design. Therefore, we’ll be going with Corsair DOMINATOR modules.
2x Corsair DOMINATOR TWINX2048-8500C5D
$400 x 2
Running Total: $1351
Even though we've chosen to go with the Micro ATX form factor, there's no excuse for compromising the power supply. As a general rule, power supply manufacturers have not paid as close attention to the power supply in SFF systems as they have with the larger units. With that in mind, our clear choice for the chassis was the SilverStone Temjin TJ-08.
There's no question that SilverStone has quickly become one of our favorite high-end manufacturers. Their system cases have been very well designed, their PSUs are excellent, and even their side projects such as the EB01 external DAC are noteworthy. For this system build, we're going with the TJ-08. This is a micro-ATX chassis with the look as a conventional desktop PC. Your only limitation is that you have two 5.25" drive bays, two 3.5" external drive bays, and two internal 3.5" drives.
The main strength of the TJ-08 is that it fits the cooling design of a high-performance desktop into the smaller case. You have a 120mm fan in the front, a 120mm fan in the rear, and room for a full sized ATX power supply.
Silverstone Temjin SST-TJ08
Running Total: $1451
Nowadays, it's not enough that your power supply is stable. You want your power supply to be efficient. Seasonic was one of the first manufacturers to launch a PSU with >80% efficiency across a wide range of system loads, and since then other manufacturers have joined this group including Silverstone's Strider ST56F. In this case, we've gone with the new Corsair HX620. This is an over-engineered PSU with the distinct advantage of having three 12V rails (CPU, GPU, and motherboard) as opposed to the two +12V rails of the Seasonic and SilverStone. If you happen to be running a dual GPU configuration, the Corsair HX line of power supplies will be a great choice. Our testing with the HX620W has been very impressive. Voltages are exceptionally stable, and the removable cables do not appear to affect system stability.
Corsair HX620W Power Supply
Running Total: $1631
The article title gave this away: we're going with a Blu-Ray burner. These aren't very cheap. There are three Blu-Ray drives that are readily available in the USA:
1) Pioneer's BDR-101A ($1000)
2) Sony BWU-100A ($750)
3) Panasonic SW-5582 ($1000)
The Pioneer will only write single-layer BD-R/BD-RE discs while the Sony and Panasonic both support 50GB BD-R/BD-RE discs. While these drives are expensive, these prices are actually better than early DVD burner prices. While the first DVD burner was available in 1997, the first 4.7GB DVD burner was launched in 1999 at a price of$5,400. By 2001, DVD burners were $1,000. By the following year, burner prices dropped to $500, and by 2003, DVD burners were in the $250 price range…
Currently, blank 25GB Blu-Ray discs are $13 from Internet retailers while 50GB Blu-Ray discs are $40 respectively. In comparison, blank DVD+RL launched 2 years ago at $13/disc retail (now they're $2/disc from Internet retailers). If 25GB discs drop to $4-5/disc in a year, we'd be looking at 16 to 20 cents/MB.
At the moment though, DVD-R makes the most sense for storage and HDDs make the most sense for permanent storage:
1) BD-R 25GB (~52 cents/GB)
2) 500GB external USB 2.0 HDD (~50 cents/GB)
3) 250GB internal SATA-II HDD (~34 cents/GB)
4) 8.5GB Verbatim DVD+R DL (~24 cents/GB)
5) 4.7GB Taiyo Yuden DVD-R blanks (~4 cents/GB)
Sony BWU-100A Specifications
(BD-R 50GB/25GB) 2X CLV max
(BD-RE 50GB/25GB) 2X CLV max
(DVD-R) 4X CLV, 6X - 8X Z-CLV max.
(DVD-R DL) 4X CLV max.
(DVD-RW) 6X CLV max.
(DVD+R) 6X-8X Z-CLV max
(DVD+R DL) 4X CLV max
(DVD+RW) 6X - 8X Z-CLV max
(DVD-RAM) 5x Z-CLV max
(CD-R) 12X - 24X Z-CLV max
(CD-RW) 12X - 16X Z-CLV max.
(BD-ROM) 2X max.
(DVD-ROM) 8X max.
(CD-ROM) 32X max.
Running Total: $2331
First some definitions:
HDCP = High-bandwidth digital content protection. This is an encryption system used to transmit video from a source such as a PC or set-top-player to a display.
HDMI = High-Definition Multimedia Interface. This is a physical and electrical system used to transmit data from a source such as a PC or set-top-player to a display. The data can be transmitted in clear-text or the data can be optionally encrypted with HDCP. Data refers to both audio and video. The video portion of HDMI can be converted to DVI. Due to the way licensing is priced, every HDMI display with a physical HDMI connector and HDMI logo ends up supporting HDCP.
AACS = Advanced Access Content System. This is the software technology used to encrypt the contents of the Blu-Ray or HD-DVD disc. This prevents you from taking a Blu-Ray movie and copying it your hard drive or BD-R. Hollywood movies are all protected by AACS. Home movies will not be.
ICT = Image Constraint Token. This is an optional feature that allows movie studios to dictate whether high-resolution sources can be transmitted over analog connections. It is scheduled to be a mandatory feature in 2009.
Here's what it all means:
This means that if you want to watch Hollywood movies on a digital video connection such as DVI or HDMI, you need HDCP, today and tomorrow.
So, NVIDIA or ATI?
While both NVIDIA and ATI have support for H.264 decoding and Blu-Ray's 1080p support, it was also important for our video card to do content-based 1080p 3:2 inverse telecine (taking the 1080i60 broadcasts on CBS and NBC and converting them to a true 1080p24). Currently, only NVIDIA offers this feature on the PC. In fact, this is a feature missing from most stand-alone HDTV sets, even the flagship 1080p monitors from Sony and Samsung!
Running Total: $2661
Dell 30" 3007WFP.
The Dell 3007WFP is a great monitor although size and resolution is the main strength. Its color accuracy was actually quite poor in comparison to new level of performance set forth by the flagship NEC and Samsung monitors we reviewed in our last Vista-ready LCD monitor round-up.
Although the actual delta E is very high, the grayscale color temperature is actually very good. If you use our colorimetry charts, you'll see that the colors are more intense than they should be. This monitor is superb once it's calibrated.
Dell Ultrasharp 3007WFP
Running Total: $3631
What about USB HDTV tuners?
The Artec T14 ATSC USB Tuner is one of the newest (and smallest) HDTV tuners on the market.
This tiny stick implements a 5th generation LG ATSC decoder and single-chip Microtune ATSC tuner. It's pretty darn good and works superbly with Windows Media Center Edition 2005. Those of you running the regular Windows XP will need something like Yahoo! Go TV (and some modification). Unfortunately, Windows Vista drivers are not available for the Artec T14A at this time.
Moving to HDTV really highlights how important storage capacity really can be. Recording a 2 hour movie can take up over 20GB of space, depending on the bitrate the film is being broadcast with. 3 years ago, we built a "storage server" with a terabyte of storage. We had to go with a Tyan Trinity i875P board, a PCI ATA card to get all the ports we needed, and a PC Power & Cooling Power Supply. There were 5 drives in the machine and it just hit 1.15 TB of storage.
Running Total: $3931
For all the attention that Windows Vista is getting, and MacOSX has been getting, there's no question that the OS engineers and interface artists behind Windows Media Center Edition 2005 have developed one of the best operating systems, ever.
It's easy to talk about the weaknesses of MCE2005. It requires that you buy a whole new Windows XP license. It requires an analog TV tuner before it'll let you use an ATSC HDTV tuner. It also limits your recording formats to WMA (instead of APE or FLAC) and DVR-MS files (instead of .TS MPEG-2). On the other hand, the rest of the operating is so well designed that you're willing to overlook those problems. The system powers on when it's time to record a show, keeps track of recorded films, and it even has a visually appealing interface. With MCE2005, the PC acts and feels like a system that just works. It's so much more intuitive than and more natural to work with than other similar programs whether it be Apple's Front Row or SnapStream's BeyondTV.
Still, our plan is to use Windows Vista on this machine. We’ve got a free license until June 2007 for the release candidates, and we’ll probably have to save some money, right…
Windows Vista Release Candidate 2
Free! (Until June 07)
Running Total: $3931
Like every system build before this one, I’ve always come up with the part list first. Then I work to round-up all the hardware I need. So to summarize, this is our original system spec to date...
Intel Core 2 Duo E6600
XFX GeForce 7950GT
4GB Corsair 8500C5D RAM
3TB Seagate Barracuda 7200.10 (4x 750GB)
Corsair HX620 Power Supply
Silverstone Temjin TJ-08 Chassis
vBox Cat’s Eye PCI-e Dual ATSC/Dual NTSC tuner
Then, as icing on the top, we decided to throw in one more trick into the system: an HD-DVD drive.
Now, we’d have a ridiculously over-the-top system.
We’d have a CPU that’s faster for workstation applications than a Dual Opteron 252.
We’d have a GPU that was ran as fast as GeForce 6800 SLI yet was passively cooled...
… while still giving better video quality for 1080i movies and “scripted” 1080i TV shows when compared to the flagship Sony and Samsung 1080p displays.
We’d have a PC that could play BOTH high-definition disc formats...
… and actually upsampled those Blu-Ray and HD-DVD movies beyond HDTV resolutions.
We’d have a box that could record two HDTV shows at once while watching a third recording, out-doing any other commercially available TIVO…
… and 3 terabytes of storage to keep all those recordings, which would be more capacity than our old Budget Storage Server.
… that would run “virtually” silent thanks to the exclusive use of sub-1000 rpm 120mm fans from Silverstone and Zalman
… all in a micro ATX case.
…and with a 30” 2560x1620 Dell monitor too.
How cool does a system have to be where the 30” Dell monitor ends up being the most boring part of the build?
[Ed. That was the plan…]
You see, Core 2 Duo’s are enthusiast machines for the moment. As a result, no motherboard manufacturer was planning on developing an enthusiast grade micro-ATX Core 2 Duo platform. The Gigabyte motherboards that were showcased in Computex simply were not available outside engineering samples.
Our first thought was to turn to alternatives. We could have gone with an Intel micro-ATX P965, but the lack of overclockability ruled it out immediately. Our micro-ATX board needed to have its PCI-e x1 slot away from the GPU’s x1 slot for optimal cooling. This limited our choices, but our next choice was ASUS P5M-VM. The ASUS board offers a similar layout to Gigabyte.
Of course, it turns out that ASUS also had placed the focus on their standard ATX Core 2 Duo motherboards. They didn’t have a micro-ATX board ready for the public yet either…
We struggled with the decision of whether to scrap the project or continue, but finally, Gigabyte Taiwan had a GA-965GM-S2 board ready for us. Our unit was one of the first retail-boards off the line.
Turns out that this was only a pyrrhic victory.
So, I placed my order for my CPU on Newegg and started putting the motherboard and PSU into the case.
As I began to mount the four 750GB drives into the machine, I realized that the hidden 3.5” bays in the TJ-08 could not be configured as “stealth” internal 3.5” drive bays. Most drive bay covers pop-in or screw-in superficially. The TJ-08 has much deeper drive bay covers. This is awesome when you want drive bay covers that are solid – not so awesome if you’re trying to put 4 HDDs into a microATX case. That’s alright though, we can stagger the HDDs. It’s going to be a tight fit, but it’ll work.
The next problem I discovered is that the MicroATX chassis wasn’t going to have clearance for DOMINATOR or even Corsair XMS2 Pro RAM. This meant going down to standard XMS2 RAM. In a normal standard ATX case, going with XMS2 6400C3 would be fine. In this MicroATX setup with 4 7200RPM drives and a fanless GPU, thermal management is going to be the big challenge.
After mounting everything together, I did a quick double check to make sure the heatsink fit into the chassis. It was at this point I noticed the next problem. While the heatsink fits perfectly into the Micro ATX case, the staggered HDDs and tight space would mean that my SATA and power cables were going to get tangled up into the CPU cooler. There was no way I could go with a smaller cooler. I was depending on the CPU fan to keep the rest of the system cool (HDD and GPU).
The TJ-08 has a removable motherboard tray. Perfect, right? Actually the CNPS-9500 is so big that once you mount the heatsink on the outside, you can’t fit it back into the chassis. You have to mount the motherboard tray first and then mount the heatsink in a traditional fashion. A stupid mistake, but that’s what happens when you get used to extended ATX systems :)
At this point, it seemed like thermal management was going to be the big hurdle. But I was feeling confident that I had gotten it under adequate control. Even without cable management, I was certain that the cooling was adequate for system stability, and I knew I still had plenty of tricks I could use to improve system cooling. I thought my hurdles were complete…
The system POST’d without incident and it was amazing. The low-rpm 120mm fans were incredibly quiet, and in fact, the DVD-ROM was louder than the system. I went into BIOS and we hit our first snag.
Windows Vista RC1 -> Blue Screen of Death at install. Somehow our ACPI BIOS isn’t 100% compliant. Doh. I guess Microsoft software is buggy... We send a quick email to Gigabyte.
My first benchmark was a finite element simulation of whiplash from one of my research projects. These simulations can take a hundred hours to complete and so every last bit of performance counts. To my surprise, the Core 2 Duo at 2.4GHz was about 10% slower than my Dual AMD Opteron 252 at 2.6GHz.
This was certainly a surprising finding considering all the other benchmarks which have showed the Core 2 Duo as being consistently superior to the AMD platform. Both systems were configured for 2GB of RAM, and the Opteron was running slow DDR-333 ECC RAM versus the Core 2 Duo’s DDR2-800C4! Since these simulations require double-precision FP math, it’s very likely that the Opteron’s FPU continues to be a strong performer. I’ll really need to compare 64-bit math to see if these comparison pans out.
The second benchmark I did was to test RAW processing performance using Bibble 4.90. In this case, the Core 2 Duo at 2.4GHz was 50% faster than the Dual Opteron at 2.6GHz. This is huge, since digital photography continues to be one of the most CPU-intensive, non-gaming applications in the mainstream. If the Core 2 Duo is already 50% faster in its stock form, I can only imagine how fast things will get once we start overclocking!
It Finally Ends…
Obviously, we’ll do more benchmarks once we get the BIOS from Gigabyte allowing us to use 4GB of RAM. We haven’t heard back from them yet.
So there you have it, truth in advertising. Our dream HTPC cannot be built. It’s impossible. Maybe in 6 months…
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