Thursday, February 11, 2010

Quiet Computer Build: Putting It All Together

Finally, I present the last part in my series of building a quiet computer for audio work and general-purpose computing. Since this consists of 39 photos in sequence, I have decided the best way to do this it to simply send you over to my Flickr site, where I have a dedicated photo set on the subject. The photos are in order from top-left to bottom-right. Once you load the first page you can click through them in sequence using the Set browser, or even load the whole thing as a slide-show if you wish.

If you're just joining me, please refer to the first three articles in the series: Introduction, Components Overview and Component Picks.

The steps are as follows. Numbers refer to the photo where this action is performed. Sorry, but a few are not illustrated.
  • prepare a clean workspace free of cats or youngsters
  • lay out all material and tools (1)
  • replace CPU backing plate on motherboard (2-7)
  • insert CPU (8)
  • attach CPU cooler (9-14)
  • insert RAM into motherboard (15)
  • remove side panels from case
  • put motherboard in case (17-19)
  • attach I/O plate to case (20-21)
  • attach and connect CPU fan (22-23)
  • install power supply into case (24)
  • attach power cables from PSU to motherboard (25-27)
  • attach cable for rear case (system) fan (26)
  • insert graphics card (16)
  • attach front-panel audio connector to motherboard (28)
  • attach front-panel USB connector to motherboard (29)
  • attach front-panel LED connectors to motherboard (29)
  • attach front-panel power connectors to motherboard (29)
  • prepare front-panel drive fascia (30-31)
  • install DVD drive and card reader (32-35)
  • install hard drives (36-37)
  • connect SATA power and data cables for DVD and hard drives to motherboard
  • connect USB cable for card reader to motherboard
  • install eSATA bracket
  • final inspection and cable tidying (38)
  • boot up and see what happens (39)
  • replace side panels

Here are a few concluding notes.

I cannot understand why manufacturer documentation still sucks. The Fractal case comes with only a small flyer advertising the features of the unit -- information I presume anyone would know before buying. The illustration on the box of screws is the only other clue you get. It's not as though everything is obvious, especially to the first-time builder. How does one take off the front panel? What if one wants to replace the fans?

The Scythe cooler has instructions that are so small and confusing as to make the head hurt. It is not obvious which screws go where, how to use the washers, etc. The Gigabyte motherboard has a detailed manual but the terminology is rather thick and some of the pictures are confusing. For example the fan header diagram on page 39 makes no attempt to link the pictures of the headers with the picture of the motherboard on which they are found.

In my walk-through I pointed out some poor design choices. What is the metal bar doing on the underside of the motherboard (7)? Should we worry that it conflicts with the CPU cooler backplate? The cooler itself is heavy and not fixed to the motherboard in any way that inspires confidence (14).

The drive fascia are made of plastic and can be popped out but never re-attached (31). Indeed, the entire front panel is a cheaper build than the rest of the case (30). The cradle for the 3.5" drive fits very loosely (32). If there were two brackets that one could slide together to adjust the width, this would allow mounting drives of different sizes snugly. I also wish the front door could swing open wider than it in fact does.

The motherboard has only two USB sockets, both of which are used in this rather minimal build (29). Might one need a third? Some of the fan headers are only 3-pin, meaning the fan speeds cannot be PWM controlled.

The PSU has some modular cables, so why aren't all of them modular? I had to leave several unused cables inside the case. And they are thick enough to get in the way.

Despite all of this nit-picking, I am impressed with what I got for the money. The case is far from the most expensive and the build quality is suitable for what was paid. The side panels are really solid and I like the seals that block off the extra fan ports. The fact that it is so well made only throws the few limitations into sharper relief.

The motherboard has tons of features and a hibernate mode that really works. A push on the power button and it wakes up in a fraction of a second -- all that RAM must be good for something! I have over-clocked the CPU to 3.2GHz with absolutely no problem. I could reach 4GHz if heat and noise was not a primary concern. The GPU can also be over-clocked, but having seen what it does in STALKER (amazing!) I really have no reason to.

I could test and evaluate the system further, and may do so in the future. But I am more than happy with what my money bought me. And it was a good learning experience too!



robin said...

Inspired by my build, a fellow Pentax Forums member has put together his own system. Michael notes that the Scythe cooler has been improved and offers his own Flickr set to illustrate.

Unknown said...

I am just about to build a new system myself and it is great to see a system spec that lives in the real world and at a sensible price point.

Can you tell me how quiet you finally got the system to be? will it live in studio with live mics?


Jim Wright

robin said...

Jim, I am not sure that I would ever put a computer in the studio space where mics are to be used, if that studio space has been acoustically treated and has a low noise floor. Because any computer is going to add appreciably to that. Rather I would put the machine in an enclosure, after ensuring proper ventilation and so on.

My computer is in my living room and I am happy using mics for voice-over and other non-critical tasks. But generally only at night once traffic noises etc. have calmed.

robin said...

Five years later and I am tearing the system apart for the first time. A quick look online for what is new reveals that processors and chip sets are three generations on... but not appreciably better. Just more expensive. In retrospect I built this system at a good time, and got good value out of it.

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